200 Years Later: John Keats Writes Two Poems

Hi, friends. 200 years ago today on January 30, 1818, John Keats wrote the poem “When I Have Fears.” About a week earlier, he wrote “Lines on Seeing a Lock of Milton’s Hair.”

Background

johnkeats

English Romantic poet John Keats lived 1795-1821. He’s associated with figures like Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron. He died at the young age of 25 with tuberculosis, publishing 54 poems before his passing in a few magazines and three poetry collections. In his short life, he experimented with many poetic forms from sonnets to epics. His energy, power, and passion tempered by rich, precise language ranks him as one of the greatest poets in history. Supposedly, reading Fairie Queene by Edmund Spenser awakened Keats’ poetic notions. A thorough biography can be found here.

The Two Poems

Keats wrote “Lines on Seeing a Lock of Milton’s Hair” in a head-to-head competition with fellow writer Leigh Hunt. Romantic poets often engaged in unofficial battles of the wits where they wrote about the same subject, which resulted in works like “Ozymandias” and Frankenstein. He wrote “When I Have Fears” the next week, but it wasn’t published until 1848. According to this, he originally included the poem with a letter to a friend. I can’t find where “Lines on Seeing a Lock of Milton’s Hair” was first published, but the available info says Hunt possessed a lock of John Milton’s hair and wrote poems about it, prompting Keats to write one. According to this, a lock of hair used to be equivalent to an autograph. Neither of these works is considered one of his best or most famous.

“When I Have Fears”

When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has gleaned my teeming brain,
Before high-piled books, in charactery,
Hold like rich garners the full ripened grain;
When I behold, upon the night’s starred face,
Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,
And think that I may never live to trace
Their shadows with the magic hand of chance;
And when I feel, fair creature of an hour,
That I shall never look upon thee more,
Never have relish in the faery power
Of unreflecting love—then on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone, and think
Till love and fame to nothingness do sink.

“Lines on Seeing a Lock of Milton’s Hair”

John_Milton_-_Project_Gutenberg_eText_13619
John Milton, who published the final version of Paradise Lost in 1674.

CHIEF of organic Numbers!
Old Scholar of the Spheres!
Thy spirit never slumbers,
But rolls about our ears
For ever and for ever.
O, what a mad endeavour
Worketh he
Who, to thy sacred and ennobled hearse,
Would offer a burnt sacrifice of verse
And Melody!

How heavenward thou soundedst
Live Temple of sweet noise;
And discord unconfoundedst:
Giving delight new joys,
And Pleasure nobler pinions –
O where are thy Dominions!
Lend thine ear
To a young delian oath – aye, by thy soul,
By all that from thy mortal Lips did roll;
And by the Kernel of thine earthly Love,
Beauty, in things on earth and things above,
When every childish fashion
Has vanish’d from my rhyme
Will I grey-gone in passion
Give to an after-time
Hymning and harmony
Of thee, and of thy Words and of thy Life:
But vain is now the burning and the strife –
Pangs are in vain – until I grow high-rife
With Old Philosophy
And mad with glimpses at futurity!

For many years my offerings must be hush’d:
When I do speak I’ll think upon this hour,
Because I feel my forehead hot and flush’d,
Even at the simplest vassal of thy Power, –
A Lock of thy bright hair!
Sudden it came,
And I was startled when I heard thy name
Coupled so unaware –
Yet, at the moment, temperate was my blood:
Methought I had beheld it from the flood.

Thanks for reading!

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