The Book of Sonnet Sequences

By Houston Peterson | Go to book overview

V -- JOHN KEATS
[1795-1821]

IN HIS poetic career of five brief years Keats wrote sixty-four sonnets, many more than is ordinarily realized and, aside from Wordsworth, he was the one distinguished sonneteer of the romantic movement. He experimented with the form continually, to express not only his lighter fancies but his deepest, most characteristic emotions. His first published verse was a sonnet, as were his first great poem and his swan-song. It is true that Keats made no effort to group his sonnets (aside from a very juvenile series of three), but they were written over such a comparatively short period and usually at such significant moments that they form a natural sequence, the concentrated autobiography of a youth who passed from petty rhyming to kinship with Shakespeare in a single lustrum. Swept away by the luscious beauties of Spenser, Keats began to compose at seventeen or eighteen, and the callow "Imitation of Spenser" was probably his earliest effort. But before long he was writing two fairly workmanlike sonnets on Byron and Chatterton and two very ordinary ones "On Peace" and "On the Day Mr. Leigh Hunt Left Prison." It was with the latter, however, that Keats timidly confessed his poetic ambitions to his friend and confidant, Charles Cowden Clark, in the spring of 1815. The following autumn he settled in London to begin his medical studies and, while living alone, oppressed by the black November weather, wrote the quaint, wistful "Sonnet to Solitude." This was shown to Leigh Hunt by Clark and published in The Examiner of May 5, 1816, to the immense delight of Keats who had never before seen himself in print. A much more critical date was that in October 1816 when he spent the night with Clark reading

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