On Sitting Down to Read King Lear Once Again by John Keats (English Lit A2)

Summary/Context Keats fights against his ulterior urge to create in order to indulge in one of his greatest passions: that of re-reading the play, King Lear, one of the most influential of all of Shakespeare’s work. Negative capability- the balance between the happy and the tragic In the poem, Keats’ insistence that he do nothing but read allows the reader to witness him in a less than thrilling state, and while it does not dissolve any of his mastery and mystery, it deepens Keats as a character.
King Lear ‘King Lear’- play about family and misery, duty and birthright, and about how one’s opinion can lead to tragedy- one of Shakespeare’s most revered plays, played constantly over the years to crowds of packed audiencesOne of Keat’s favourite- ‘King Lear’ is all about artifice and joy and misery, things that Keats himself saw echoed and repeated in his own life, and tried to echo and repeat in his own work
Keats + Salvation Long letter to George the next spring about his ideas of salvation- “The whole appears to resolve into this; that Man is originally ‘a poor forked creature’ subject to the same mischances as the beasts of the forest.” Man could be saved by forming an identity in the face of hardship, through the world’s “vale of Soul-making” and not through any Christian otherworldly “vale of tears.”
Keats + Poor Tom Keats had introduced his “system of salvation” by slightly misquoting a line of Lear’s in which the king calls Edgar, disguised as poor Tom, a “poor bare, forked animal,” a scene before Edgar says, “The foul fiend haunts poor Tom in the voice of a nightingale.” Keats wrote “Ode to a Nightingale” early that May, shortly after his letter to George.
Style/Form/Structure Elizabethan sonnet composed of fourteen lines which are divided up into three quatrains, that is four-line stanzas, and a final couplet -or two lines of verseRhyming pattern is abba, cddc, efef, gg as, notably “Lute” (l.1) rhymes with “mute” (l.4), “far-away” (l.2) with “day” (l.3) and “dispute” (l.5) with “fruit” (l.8)Sonnet’s thought can be divided into four parts- firstly, chivalric romances are praised and put aside. Secondly, the effects they provoke are contrasted with those engendered by the reading of King Lear. Thirdly, the speaker begs Shakespeare and heaven, his sources of inspiration, to help him. Finally, he compares himself to the Phoenix, which has the power to be immortal.
“O golden-tongued Romance with serene lute!Fair plumed Syren! Queen of far away!” ‘Golden-tongued romance with serene lute’- referencing his own classical leanings The ‘syren’- Greek creatures, sea nymphs that played tunes to lure sailors into the water and to their death; usually conflated with beauty- inclusion in the opening lines is to show the beauty of his own muse, the beauty of writing poetry, that he is putting aside so that he can focus on the play. ‘Queen of far away’- Keats’ own difficulties composing?
“Leave melodizing on this wintry day,Shut up thine olden pages, and be mute” Effusive- sets the scene, short and brief introduction into Keats’ romantical leanings.Bids for his muse to be still and quiet – ‘shut up thine olden pages, and be mute’ – and begs her to go away- expansive way that he sends his muse awayReferencing to ‘wintry’ brings up an image of loneliness
“Adieu! for once again the fierce dispute,Betwixt damnation and impassion’d clayMust I burn through; once more humbly assayThe bitter-sweet of this Shakespearian fruit” What he will do instead of create poetry- going to read ‘the bitter-sweet of this Shakespearian fruit”Must I burn through’- act of reading ‘King Lear’ as an almost-compulsion, as though it is something that he must desperately get through before the day is over- feelings for the play are so strong that he is setting aside what he believed to be his calling (writing poetry) in order that he could read it.’Bittersweet’- references the play, as the penultimate tragedy of King Lear is that when he is reunited with his disgraced daughter, Cordelia, and has attained her forgiveness, Cordelia dies.
“Chief Poet! and ye clouds of Albion,Begetters of our deep eternal theme” Shakespeare is the ‘Chief Poet’- Keats greatly admired the great masters of English literature, which included, Milton and Shakespeare (resurgence of their work during the Romantic era led to a greater revisitation of the themes that they wrote about)For Keats, Shakespeare was the master of tragedy and beauty- his plays, even the tragedies, are a show of mastery in the English language- Keats liked the Shakespearean sonnet ‘Albion’- United Kingdom, the country where Keats and Shakespeare wrote + ‘King Lear’ is set
“When through the old oak forest I am gone,Let me not wander in a barren dream,But when I am consumed in the fire,Give me new Phoenix wings to fly at my desire” Does not want to wander ‘in a barren dream’- could reference a landscape that he himself has created, a landscape that is barren only because he has not yet written the poem that he was to have writtenWants to be ‘consumed in the fire’Keats lauding his muse earlier- maybe he has no inspiration left to write something that would consume him, and is instead putting it off so that he could read through King Lear, one of his greatest inspirations’Give me new phoenix wings to fly at my desire’- Keats would like a new variety of muse, a new way of writing, and a better way of viewing the world, all of which he thinks he can attain through a re-reading of King Lear
Criticism (Lionel Trilling) As Lionel Trilling points out, the story of King Lear is “the history of the definition of a soul by circumstance.” This “tragic salvation” was “the only salvation that Keats found it possible to conceive”: “the soul accepting the fate that defines it.”