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A Brighter Word Than Bright

Keats at Work

Dan Beachy-Quick

Publication Year: 2013

The Romantic poet John Keats, considered by many as one of the greatest poets in the English language, has long been the subject of attention from scholars who seek to understand him and poets who seek to emulate him. Bridging these impulses, A Brighter Word Than Bright is neither historical biography nor scholarly study, but instead a biography of Keats’s poetic imagination. Here the noted poet Dan Beachy-Quick enters into Keats’s writing—both his letters and his poems—not to critique or judge, not to claim or argue, but to embrace the passion and quickness of his poetry and engage the aesthetic difficulties with which Keats grappled.
Combining a set of biographical portraits that place symbolic pressure on key moments in Keats’s life with a chronological examination of the development of Keats-as-poet through his poems and letters, Beachy-Quick explores the growth of the young man’s poetic imagination during the years of his writing life, from 1816 to 1820. A Brighter Word Than Bright aims to enter the poems and the mind that wrote them, to explore and mine Keats’s poetic concerns and ambitions. It is a mimetic tribute to the poet’s life and work, a brilliant enactment that is also a thoughtful consideration.

Published by: University of Iowa Press

Series: Muse Books


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p. 1-1

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. i-vi

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pp. vii-viii

...I owe many people a debt of thanks in the writing of this book; without them it wouldn’t have been written. Joseph Parsons first approached me to ask if I’d be interested in working on the Muse Series, and when I answered “Yes, if Keats,” he was all encouragement. I am very lucky to find myself surrounded by colleagues who both support and...


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pp. ix-xii

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pp. xiii-xvi

...In December 1817, the painter B. R. Haydon makes a life-mask of Keats’s face—one of the few accurate likenesses in posterity’s hands.1 Haydon will use the likeness to add Keats’s profile into his painting “Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem,” a fact over which Keats, typically (but eerily prescient), jokes: “I have conned over every head...

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A Note on the Book

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pp. xvii-xviii

...The biographer’s art takes a face we thought we clearly knew and, in adjusting the reader’s focal distance, reveals to us the blurriness we mistook for fact. Book after book adds to this sum of knowledge, an indelible gift that etches the poet’s portrait into ever-firmer lines. But with John Keats, a poet reticent to tell his own friends the facts of his history...

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First Portrait: Young Keats, Weeping Beneath the Desk

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pp. 1-2

...Keats’s prodigal mother returned to the family when he was an adolescent; his father had died in a riding accident when he was eight. His mother returned, but returned consumptive. Keats took it upon himself to nurse her, this mother whose impulsiveness, whose enthusiasm, he himself so deeply shared and was shaped by. He would hardly let...


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pp. 5-7

...The Muses sing, each day they sing, the story of the creation of the world entire, and sing of those gods whose powers riddle and haunt the world still. The Muses teach the poet his song as he tends his sheep. Perhaps he overhears what is not his to hear, and his own song seeks forgiveness for that...

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pp. 8-9

...Almost all of the poems of the time are addressed to a Muse, only some of them Helicon’s immortal goddesses. He writes sonnets in honor of those whose company he soon will keep: Hunt, Haydon, Clarke, and his brothers Tom and George. He writes sonnets to those poets he most admires: Wordsworth...

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pp. 10-11

...To imagine fully the world of Keats’s poem, a reader must hear the steady drone of the bee’s wings in flight. That hum hums beneath many of the poems, predicts the later gnats and their “mournful wail,” creates a drone so steady it ceases to be heard even as it is ever present, so ever present it seems almost like silence—a silence one hears...

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Sacred & Profane

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pp. 12-14

...Sometimes I think a poetic presses down upon the poet’s mind as does a seal upon the soft wax that closes a letter. Sometimes I think it takes a lifetime for the seal to press down, and with every poem, year after year, the impression presses deeper. The early poems in a poet’s life...

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pp. 15-17

...Rumor is a gossipy wind. It pushes the sail in the mind toward an island charted on every map but sighted by none. Reading is an intrepid, leaky craft, seeking among the depthless wilds those “western islands” poets form. Journey breathes differently than arrival. Keats finds in Chapman’s Homer, read out loud through the night with...

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pp. 18-20

...The air carries on it the scent of flowers, as if the inspiring breeze is inspired itself. Keats, throughout his poetry, is aware of such burdens, if perfume can be a burden to what carries it. Air also carries the bee’s hum, the bird’s music. “What is more tranquil than a musk-rose blowing / In a green island, far from all men’s knowing...

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pp. 21-24

...Imagination spells the world; the world spells imagination. World also dispels imagination; and by imagination, world is dispelled. At times, in the poems of 1816, imagination shepherds the poet away from the busy world’s “little cares,” and we encounter early and often those...

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pp. 25-26

...Words are substance strange. Speak one and the air ripples into another’s ears. Write one and the eye laps it up. But the sense transmutes, and the spoken word winds through the ear’s labyrinth into a sense that is no longer the nerve’s realm. The written word unfolds behind the eye into...

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pp. 27-28

...Beauty’s curious principle winds intricately between world and mind, stitching the opposites together, thrilling thought with the nervy points that pierce meditation into thralldom. Keats is an apprentice to such beauty. That beauty...

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pp. 29-30

...An erotic poetics finds itself in continual crisis, demands of the poet strange necessities relieved only in the writing of the poem itself. Erotic crisis not only speaks of the moment, etymologically, when a woman goes into labor, but in stranger ways, speaks of the poet’s own labor—not...

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Second Portrait: Apprenticeship

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pp. 31-34

...Keats began his medical training at the young age of fourteen, apprenticed to a surgeon in Edmonton, a Mr. Thomas Hammond. He lived in the same house with his mentor, took meals with him, and began his study of anatomy among other, often menial chores. The secret benefit to the placement had little to do with Mr. Hammond...


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The Burden of a Shepherd Song

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pp. 37-53

...It may prove no more than a curious overlap, no doubt an accidental one, to note that one of the typical initiatory rites in archaic cultures was the knocking out of a novice’s tooth to mark the transition from childhood to adulthood. Accident aside, it seems fair to say that Hunt was initiated into poetic work, and the epic was what...

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Third Portrait: Ascent & Descent

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pp. 54-56

...In the summer of 1818 Keats joined Charles Brown on a northern tour through Scotland. His younger brother Tom already showed signs of the consumption that would kill him, but Keats trusted he would fare well in the season’s fair weather until his return. Keats himself felt in his constitution that which could not bear to be constantly...


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pp. 59-62

...Keats reacts to the violent criticism of Endymion not as any wilting flower too delicate to bear the world’s buffeting, but with a resolve whose strength borders on pride. He tells one of his publishers, Hessey, that “praise or blame” can have “but a momentary effect on the man whose love of beauty in the abstract makes him a severe critic of his own...

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pp. 63-67

...The erotic mind is apprentice to contrary educations: pursuit and passivity. In some under-grove of ardor’s epistemology, Apollo forever chases Daphne; in some under-arbor, a poet falls asleep to wake and find a laurel crown circling his head, a remnant vision in his eye...

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pp. 68-73

...Knowledge vexes Keats’s poetic, ceasing to be reason’s certain end, and becoming instead the threshing ground in which thought and consideration, sensation and beauty, beat one against another, chaff carried away by the inspiring wind, the known seeds carried away by those reapers who know in advance what is good from what is bad...

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pp. 74-78

...Keats walked to Scotland with a purpose in mind: “I shall learn poetry here and shall henceforth write, more than ever, for the abstract endeavour of being able to add a mite to that mass of beauty which is harvested from these grand materials, by the finest spirits, and put into etherial existence for the delight of one’s fellows...

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pp. 79-83

...Somewhere in our human depths, in the iron diffuse in the blood, or in the heart’s hysterical wandering, is a magnet called desire. One who desires doesn’t step toward what is wanted, but is pulled toward it. Eros’s string is an invisible cord that quickens the heart as it impels the body...

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Fourth Portrait: Of Thrushes & Sparrows (A Palimpsest, 1817–1820)

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pp. 84-88

...So easy to forget how accuracy is a form of strangeness. In the early depths of his poetic life, Keats is most himself when least himself—less a thought, more a sensation. Where thought seeks truth beyond fact, sensation denies the same. Sensation is the border guard that laughs as trespass occurs. Self leaves self and enters the world,...


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Of the Odes: A Speculative Context

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pp. 91-95

...between the old gods, when the Titans fell to the strength and beauty of the Olympians. The drama of the two poems occurs a fathom deeper than the grand action of immortals at war; Keats finds himself concerned with a moment in which one order of power subsides to another power (concerned enough that he returns to the same material twice). Beauty here is not an aesthetic quality, but a phenomenological...

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Indolence; or, The First Seen Shades Return

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pp. 96-101

...In spring, the loamy earth loosening from winter’s grip, all quickening, Keats struggles with his most common complaint again: “I have written nothing, and almost read nothing, but I must turn over a new leaf.” That new leaf hearkens back to the “sensitive leaf on the hot hand of thought.” Linking them together not only...

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Psyche; or, The Wreath’d Trellis of a Working Brain

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pp. 102-108

...The ode is addressed to Psyche, the goddess Keats would honor. He sings back to her immortal ear her own story, reveals back to her her own secrets. This redundancy contains a threat. He knows that such reverence risks blaspheming the very figure of his devotion, for in speaking to the goddess Keats also speaks to us. He has come to a...

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Melancholy; or, The Rainbow of the Salt Sand-Wave

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pp. 109-113

...As the highly stressed charge of “No, no, go not” relents into a lyric dominated by sounds of ritual mourning—the almost sobbing long “oo,” cut by the tongue hitting the back of the teeth to make the “t,” and the plosive expulsion of “b” and “p”—Keats creates within a soundscape of sorrow and sorrow’s rage a poem that returns to the dominating...

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Nightingale; or, Fled Is That Music

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pp. 114-123

...Keats feels in himself some death-like stealing away of sensation. “Hemlock” not only implies that this “drowsy numbness” results from his own self-destructive hand, but links the opening crisis of the poem with Socrates’s death. That link bears importance in framing the Nightingale’s peculiar agony. Socrates drinks hemlock not only because he has been sentenced to die, but because death...

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Urn; or, To What Green Altar

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pp. 124-129

...To write the line “Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness” ravishes the quiet bride. Keats opens “Ode on a Grecian Urn” in a dilemma similar to singing Psyche’s secrets back into her own “soft-conched ear.” Immediately, we find ourselves confronted with possibilities that undermine our assumptions of a poem’s relationship to its subject...

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Autumn; or, Careless on a Granary Floor

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pp. 130-135

...Keats walks within an atmosphere divine. He treads on the mortal world, evidence of hunger and appetite present in the stubble fields. But he breathes in the immortal world. He inspires the chaste sky. For a poet who now for many years has referred to his condition as being “in a Mist,” we find him suddenly in that astonishing moment when...

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Fifth Portrait: Envelopes (Opened & Unopened) & Aeolian Harps

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pp. 136-138

...look at him one might not know it. He might seem only fevered, mind strung at too high a pitch. But invisible to the eye, inwardly, within the body, the lungs become—day by day—their brittle parchment. He is staying at Leigh Hunt’s, in the chaotic whirl of the house on Mortimer Terrace. Keats has been waiting for a reply from a letter...


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The Many Last Months: Imagination’s Ambivalence

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pp. 141-146

...What he does not say is that, after riding home on the outside of a carriage through weather quite suddenly turned awful—thaw returning to the season’s freeze—he walked into the quarters he shared with Charles Brown and hemorrhaged blood from his mouth. So began many months of convalescence, set back always by another spitting of blood, often occurring...

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Sixth Portrait: The Late Flowers

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pp. 147-148

...Keats and Severn sailed to Naples, but Keats wanted to die in Rome. Severn hired them a carriage, and they rode through the still blossoming fields. They left on 31 October 1820, and the flowers to Keats must have seemed living past their rightful bounds. Severn was so deeply struck by the beauty of the wildflowers that he couldn’t stay cooped up in the...

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Last Portrait: Of His Hand

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pp. 149-152

...Soon after his death, many of Keats’s dearest friends attempted to write down his life. All of them failed in completing their projects, as if the fragmentary nature of Keats’s history refused completion even when transferred to another’s still living hands. Severn, Keats’s friend and nurse and confidant through his last, wasting days, didn’t put...


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pp. 153-162


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pp. 163-165

Further Reading

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p. 166-166

E-ISBN-13: 9781609382049
E-ISBN-10: 1609382048
Print-ISBN-13: 9781609381844
Print-ISBN-10: 160938184X

Page Count: 184
Publication Year: 2013

Edition: cloth
Series Title: Muse Books