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When literary types talk about the poets of the British Romantic movement, they usually start with the Big Six. William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and William Blake were the oldest of the six and got the literary movement going, while Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and John Keats, the younger generation of Romantic poets, picked up where the old guys left off.
All six of them were interested in tossing out poetic conventions and traditions and rebelling against the kinds of fancy pants poetry that had become popular in the 18th century. These Romantics thought that poetry shouldn't be so structured and formal; it should be about emotion and what it means to be human and all that ooey gooey stuff. John Keats was especially good at this—even though he often wrote in traditional forms (like the ode and sonnet), he wrote his poems about deeply felt passions and emotions, not about historical events or the wealthy upper crust of society.
John Keats was the youngest of the six, but he was the first to die: he died of tuberculosis in 1821 when he was only 25. The poor guy contracted the disease from taking care of his beloved brother, Tom, who died a few years earlier. When he found out that he'd gotten tuberculosis, too, he was heartbroken. He felt like he hadn't had a fair shot at life or at poetry.
See, he had just made a huge breakthrough in his writing, and he wasn't going to have a chance to see what he was capable of. Bummer, right? So he fell into a deep depression and said that he wanted his gravestone to read, "Here lies one whose name was writ in water," because he thought that he, and his poetry, would be forgotten (yeah, the guy was a bit emo). Well, he didn't live to know it, but he is now remembered as one of the most important poets in British history. How's that for a story?
Given what we know about Keats's personal and emotional life, it seems appropriate that he wrote one of his most famous poems, "Ode on Melancholy," about, well, melancholy—that deliciously bittersweet emotion that can be described as sadness that you can really wallow in. So read on, if you want to know what a guy like Keats—someone who had real cause for sorrow—had to say about melancholy.
Ever had a day (or a week, or a month) when you just couldn't shake a bad mood? When you just listen to the same sad songs over and over and over again while watching the rain outside? Shmooper, that's a bad case of the melancholy—and Keats is humming your tune.
In his "Ode on Melancholy," Keats advises us on how best to deal with melancholy. Don't just look out at the rain or other obvious symbols of depression (like the "death-moth," for instance). Why not really pay attention to your melancholy and experience the true range and breadth of human emotions by thinking about joyful and beautiful things, and how they won't last forever? In other words: think big.
No, Keats isn't telling us how to get over ourselves or our bad mood. He's telling us how to make the most of the experience of it, since, after all, melancholy is part of being human, and you can't experience true joy without also experiencing pain and sorrow. So go ahead, Shmooper, wallow away. Just make sure you cheer yourself up afterwards. May we suggest a cronut? Those always do the trick for us.
The Victorian Web
This is a resource that focuses mainly on the Victorian period (1837-1901), but they also have pages on important pre-Victorians, like our man John Keats.
The British Library's Online Gallery
The British Library in London is one of the largest, most important collections in the world. Even if you can't visit in person, their website provides some useful information about the writers whose manuscripts are kept there, like ol' Keats.
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Cupid and Psyche
Shmoop's got your back.
We'll never let you down.
For everything you ever wanted to learn about this ancient poetic form, check out the poets.org website.
Not to weird you out or anything, but here's an animated version of Keats reading you the poem (hint: it's not actually Keats's voice).
"Ode on Melancholy" Out Loud
Listen to the poem with some handy text and images to enhance the experience.
This simple sketch of the poet is housed at the British Library in London.
You can visit and pay your respects.
Charles Armitage Brown's The Life of John Keats
Charles Brown was one of John Keats's closest friends, and he wrote an early biography of Keats (it was completed twenty years after Keats's death). This website describes the biography and has some excerpts, or you can check a copy out of your local library for the whole thing.
Sidney Colvin's Bio of John
This is a link to the complete text of Sidney Colvin's 1917 biography of John Keats.
Excerpts from Some of John Keats's letters
John Keats wrote some sweet love letters to his fiancée, Fanny Brawne, as well as some regular, newsy letters to his friends and family. Click here to see excerpts from some of his letters.
Collection of John Keats's Letters
This is an edited collection of John Keats's letters, so if the excerpts aren't enough for you, you can check this book out of your library.
Bright Star (2009)
This flick stars British actor Ben Whishaw as John Keats, and centers on the relationship between the poet and his main squeeze Fanny Brawne.