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John Keats (31 October 1795 – 23 February 1821) and his search for beauty

I am certain of nothing but the holiness of the heart's affections and the truth of imagination — what the imagination seizes as beauty must be truth — whether it existed before or not.

John Keats, letter to Benjamin Bailey, 22 November 1817

While many later poets acknowledged a debt to his poetic themes and form, and his reflections on the relationship between the real and ideal, his narrative poems – akin to Tennyson's later medieval poems – fuelled the imagination of a whole generation of artists.

From ‘John Keats and the Pre-Raphaelites’ article in Art UK


Keats honoured by fellow poets and artists

Following his early death at the age of only 25, John Keats became one of the most influential poets of the 19th century, both for fellow poets and for artists. His quest for the ideal of poetic beauty led him to forge an original and powerful voice full of melancholy and a constant longing, which won him the adoration of his peers and of successive generations.

He has been variously called by fellow poets ‘our English nightingale’ (Rossetti), ‘Adonais’ (Shelley) and ‘Endymion’ (Oscar Wilde) and tribute has been paid to him through direct references to his work and indirect intellectual debts both in poetry and painting.

His own heartbreaking epitaph ‘Here lies One whose Name was writ in Water’ (which refers to several possible literary sources among which the line: ‘As you are living; all your better deeds shall be in water writ, but this in marble’ in Beaumont and Fletcher, Philaster, or Love Lies a-Bleeding (c. 1609; printed 1629), Act V, scene 3)has trigged numerous literary tributes from fellow poets. These include Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Christina Rossetti, who penned these beautiful lines:

What was his record of himself, ere he Went from us? Here lies one whose name was writ In water: while the chilly shadows flit Of sweet Saint Agnes' Eve; while basil springs, His name, in every humble heart that sings, Shall be a fountain of love, verily.

From the poem On Keats, by Christina Georgina Rossetti. Here Rossetti refers both to The Eve of St Agnes and Isabella; or The Pot of Basil, two celebrated narrative poems by Keats. These two poems were amongst a handful of very influential ones on the work of many painters and critics, including Christina’s brothers, Dante Gabriel and Michael.

Keats and the Pre-Raphaelites

In 1848, a year defined by international political upheaval, a group of radical young artists found common cause in their rejection of what they perceived to be the complacency of the academic artistic establishment and formed the Pre-Raphaelire Brotherhood. The defining moment had come when the twenty-year old Dante Gabriel Rossetti saw William Holman Hunt’s painting The Flight of Madeleine and Porphyro during the Drunkenness attending the Revelry Eve of Saint Agnes in the Royal Academy exhibition of 1848. The subject of the painting – the narrative poem The Eve of St Agnes – suggested that they shared a common feeling for the work of Keats, who at that time was not widely known. Rossetti was both a painter and a poet, and according to his brother William Michael, he had first come across the poetry of Keats in 1844. The Rossetti brothers idolised Raphael alongside Homer, Dante and Boccaccio and they created a list of ‘immortals’ with Holman Hunt for the use of the Brotherhood, which included the above alongside contemporaries such as Keats, Shelley, Tennyson and Longfellow. Although the Brother­hood only lasted five years before its members split and went their separate ways its influence proved to be profound.

The common search for beauty between them and Keats is evident in their writings, letters and paintings. Here is a passage from The Eve of St Agnes, a fine narrative poem by Keats using Spenserian stanzas, supplied together with a corresponding painting by John Everett Millais, a founding member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. As well as Holman Hunt (see above), Millais found inspiration in Keats’ words:


Full on this casement shone the wintry moon,

And threw warm gules on Madeline's fair breast,

As down she knelt for heaven's grace and boon;

Rose-bloom fell on her hands, together prest,

And on her silver cross soft amethyst,

And on her hair a glory, like a saint:

She seem'd a splendid angel, newly drest,

Save wings, for heaven:—Porphyro grew faint:

She knelt, so pure a thing, so free from mortal taint.

Eve of St Agnes by John Everett Millais, c. 1863. Oil on canvas, Royal Collection.

Keats’ poems covered by the Pre-Raphaelites

At least fifteen different Pre-Raphaelite artists and their successors studied the works of Keats and were inspired to produce works of art that illustrate them. As well as The Eve of St Agnes (1819) and Isabella; or The Pot of Basil (1818) which were mentioned earlier, the Pre-Raphaelites painted scenes from Endymion: a Poetic Romance (1818), La Belle Dame sans Merci (1819), Lamia (1819), and some of the Odes and other shorter poems. Their love for Keats lives on in their work and continues to give us contentment.


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