John Keats was born in London on October 29 or 31, 1795, the son of a well-to do livery stable owner.
He began his studies at a private school at Enfield, and his junior school master, Charles Cowden Clarke, greatly encouraged him in his early years, introducing him to the joys of literature.
By 1810 Keats had lost both his parents and was placed in the care of a strict guardian, who took him out of Enfield school, thus prematurely ending his formal education.
At the age of 15 he was apprenticed to a surgeon and spent the next four years following medical studies, but his inclinations were literary, and when Clarke put The Faerie Queene into his hands his destiny was sealed. He continued to read passionately: Milton, Chapman, Chaucer, and he soon added Wordsworth and Shelley to the list of literary greats whom he knew. In 1816 he abandoned surgery and chose poetry as a profession. Later in the same year the reading of Chapman’s translation of Homer thrilled him and prompted his wonderful early sonnet.
Clarke introduced him to Leigh Hunt, the famous radical journalist and poet, and through Hunt Keats came to know Benjamin Robert Haydon, a painter and art critic who defended the aesthetic value of the Elgin Marbles~, and whose devotion to art influenced the young poet.
In 1817 he published his first volume of verse, simply titled Poems, but it attracted little notice, and except for the sonnet On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer it gave little indication of the brilliance to come.
By this time the family tendency to consumption became manifest in him, and Keats left London for the Isle of Wight and the curative effects of the seashore. It was in this period that he began to work on his first long and serious poem, Endymion, which contains the famous “A thing of beauty is a joy for ever” He was dissatisfied with this poem, insecure in style and weak in narrative as he himself admitted, and before its completion began Isabella, or The Pot of Basil.
Endymion was published in April 1818; in the summer of the same year Keats went with a friend on a waIking tour through the Highlands, but the hardships affected his health. He returned to London to find that his brother was dying of consumption, and assisted him till1 his death. Meanwhile the reviews on Endymion came out. His poem was battered by BIackwood’s Magazine and The Quarterly Review, the two leading journals of the day. These Tory journals brutally assailed the young poet not only for his literary shortcomings, but mainly for his friendship with the radical Leigh Hunt. Keats bore the attack with apparent serenity, but there can be little doubt that his health was affected to some degree.
Around this time he fell passionately in love with Fanny Brawne and they were engaged for a time, but financial difficulties and Keats’s failing health precluded marriage.
Keats continued to write poetry with almost feverish urgency, which indicates that he was well aware that only a very short time was left to him to find a place in English literature. “I think I shall be among the English Poets after my death”, he wrote in a letter to his brother in 1818. Between 1819 and 1820 he produced the best of his poetic creation: Hyperion, an unfinished epic poem retelling the myth of the war between the Greek gods and the Titans; La Belle Dame sans Merci; The Eve of St. Agnes; Lamia; the odes: To Psyche, To a Nightingale, On a Grecian Urn, To Autumn, On Melancholy. Most of his best poems appeared in 1820 in the greatest single volume of poetry which was to be published in the l9th century. But Keats did not write only verse. In the same period 1818-19 he wrote numerous letters, which contain precious information on his development as a poet and the working of his genius, and can be considered a remarkable spiritual autobiography.
Early in 1820 Keats coughed up blood and understood its meaning at once: “that drop of blood is my death warrant”. He travelled to Italy in the hope of some alleviation with a warmer climate; he reached Rome after a rough journey which robbed him of the last of his waning strength, and remained there until his death three months later, on February 23, 1821. His remains were buried in the English cemetery in Rome. On his grave stone is carved the following self-written epitaph: “Here lies one whose name was writ in water”.
Ode on a Grecian Urn
The ode describes an ancient Greek urn decorated with classical motifs: a Dionysian festival with music and ecstatic dances, a piper under the trees in a pastoral setting, a young man in love pursuing a girl and almost reaching her, a procession of townspeople and priest leading a cow to the sacrifice.
Keats is fascinated by the fact that art is able to present an ideal world because it can freeze actions and emotions: the lover depicted on the urn will never actually reach the girl he is following, the pipers will never end their song, the streets of the little town will always be deserted and silent. The beauty of the girl, the ardent passion of her lover, the pleasure of music, the boughs in bloom will never fade.
The greatest achievement of John Keats is represented by his great odes. Their themes are the themes that haunted the poet most: beauty, permanence and transience, art and life, imagination and reality.
The Ode on a Grecian Urn is centred on the relation between art, death and life. The figures on the Greek urn are eternal; human activity has been frozen capturing and immortalizing moments of happiness but at a price: the loss of life itself. The young man will never kiss the maiden; the crown will never return to their little town. They have escaped into the worId of unchanging art and have become pure beauty, but they are ‘cold’, they are ‘marble men and maidens’.
The urn watches the course of human events, generation after generation, and gives a message: beauty is eternal, and truth is eternal, so beauty is truth and truth is beauty. But the message can also be read: beauty is total acceptance of life, and the pursuit and devotion to this beauty gives life its deepest meaning.
In this ode there are the emphasis on the contrast art-life and the relish of sensation.
Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness,
Thou foster-child of silence and slow time,
Sylvan historian, who canst thus express
A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme:
What leaf-fring’d legend haunts about thy shape
Of deities or mortals, or of both,
In Tempe or the dales of Arcady?
What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?
What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?
Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear’d,
Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone:
Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave
Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;
Bold lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal – yet, do not grieve;
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!
Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed
Your leaves, nor ever bid the spring adieu;
And, happy melodist, unwearied,
For ever piping songs for ever new;
More happy love! more happy, happy love!
For ever warm and still to be enjoy’d,
For ever panting, and for ever young;
All breathing human passion far above,
That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloy’d,
A burning forehead, and a parching tongue
Who are these coming to the sacrifice?
To what green altar, O mysterious priest,
Lead’st thou that heifer lowing at the skies,
And all her silken flanks with garlands drest?
What little town by river or sea shore,
Or mountain-built with peaceful citadel,
Is emptied of this folk, this pious morn?
And, little town, thy streets for evermore
Will silent be; and not a soul to tell
Why thou art desolate, can e’er return.
O Attic shape! Fair attitude! with brede
Of marble men and maidens overwrought,
With forest branches and the trodden weed;
Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral!
When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” – that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
TRADUZIONE IN ITALIANO
Tu ancora sposa non sei toccata dal silenzio,
tu figlia adottiva del silenzio e del tempo lento,
terreno boscoso storico, che puoi così esprimere
una storia fiorita più dolcemente della nostra rima:
quale legenda sfogliata copre la tua figura
di divinità o di mortali, odi entrambi
nel Tempio o le valli dell’Arcadia?
Quali uomini o dei sono questi? Quale grande sforzo da evitare?
Quali flauti e tamburelli? quale estasi selvaggia?
Le forti melodie sono dolci, ma quelle che non si ascoltano
sono più dolci; quindi, voi dolci flauti, continuate a suonare;
non all’orecchio corporeo, ma all’orecchio interno,
flauto alle canzoni spirituali senza note:
Bella giovinezza, sotto gli alberi, tu puoi non fermare
la tua canzone, nè mai quegli alberi senza permesso;
un amante appassionato, mai può baciarti
tuttavia vincente vicino alla meta, ancora non soffri
ella non può invecchiare, tuttavia non hai felicità,
per sempre tu l amerai, e lei sarà bella!
Oh felici, felici rami! che non potranno mai
sparpagliarsi, nè diranno addio alla primavera;
E, felice musicista, non stanco,
per sempre suonando col flauto canzoni, per sempre nuove;
Più felice amore! più felice, felice amore!
Per sempre caldo e ancora da godere,
per sempre anelante, e per sempre giovane
tutta la passione umana vivente sopra lontana,
quella lascia un cuore molto triste e nauseato,
una fronte ardente, e una lingua essiccata.
Chi sono questi che giungono al sacrificio?
A quale verde altarer, o prete miksterioso,
tu conduci quella giovenca muggente ai cieli,
e tutta la sua parte morbida adornata con ghirlande?
Quale piccolo paese vicino al fiume o alla costa,
o costruita su una montagna la cittadella pacifica,
è vuotato di questo popolo, questo sacro mattino?
E, piccolo paese, le tue strade per sempre
staranno in silenzio; e non un’anima che parlerà
perchè tu sei vuoto, può sempre ritornare.
O figura Attica! Posa bella con la decorazione
di uomini e di fanciulle nel marmo,
con rami della foresta e le erbe calpestate,
tu forma silenziosa, tormenti la nostra ragione
come fa l’eternità: Freddo Pastorale!
Quando la vecchia età avrà devastato questa
generazione, tu resterai, tra nuovi dolori
non più nostri, amica di uomo, cui dirai
“Bellezza e verità, verità bellezza” – questo è tutto
ciò che tu conosci sulla terra, e tutto ciò che hai bisogno di conoscere.