Early in the winter of 1818, in December, John Keats wrote to his brother George about their younger brother, who had died two weeks before. “The last days of poor Tom were of the most distressing nature”—Tom, the boy whom Keats had nursed through his tuberculosis in Hampstead after George had left with his wife for Kentucky. John and Tom had kept to the house that fall while John worked on his second epic poem and read Shakespeare, writing “Sunday evening, Oct. 4, 1818” next to the phrase “poor Tom” in his folio edition of King Lear. He himself would live just two more years .
“I have scarce a doubt of immortality of some nature o[r] other,” wrote Keats in his letter to George. “[N]either had Tom.” Keats imagined an afterlife with “direct communication of spirit” like that which he felt as he wrote to George and felt he could begin to approach by their reading “a passage of Shakespeare every Sunday at ten o’clock” on either side of the Atlantic. “And we shall be as near each other as blind bodies can be in the same room.” Sundays, not for church, were for Shakespeare.
He wrote a 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.” As Lionel Trilling points out, this is also the story of King Lear, “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.” And as it happens, 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.
There are any number of ways to take this unfolding of genius. The stories of Keats’s life all burn brightest as they try to make sense of how his years of studying and suffering and hope found form that spring and summer and fall in the poems by which he is remembered for greatness, the best of the odes and “The Fall of Hyperion.” If the tropes that his story gets told with—tragic suffering, artistic immortality—seem to fit the material without letting it calcify into pious cliché, it’s because Keats thought in these terms with a perfect earnestness that let them shape his world. When he wrote, “Give me new Phoenix wings to fly at my desire” at the end of his “prologue” of a sonnet on King Lear, it was less as a rhetorical device than as a prayer, inseparable from his faith in the “gradual ripening of the intellectual powers … for the purposes of great productions,” with which he prefaced the poem in a letter to his brothers in January 1818.
The rub is that other cliché, inspiration. How much can we hope to explain it, how much to trace the lines of influence onto his work, before we end up drawing all over the poems that we tried to explain? I always want to know where impressions end and genius begins, which is hard to see for Keats because his mind transformed so much matter so fully and quickly. But we can get some sense of his creative flame by tracing the thread of King Lear into the tapestry of his genius and specifically into the poems in which the play asserts itself most vigorously, “Ode to a Nightingale” and its double, “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” written later that May.
The second poem’s debt to the first is well known, as is that of the poems to the play and even the play’s to that other tragedy of the potential for salvation, the Book of Job. But if the fact of influence is clear, its texture and shape are obscure. The problem, I think, is that scholars and critics have tended to look for allusions that fit with the play as we know it, with the order and literalness of detached understanding, instead of trying to see the play as Keats saw it. He didn’t study Shakespeare: he lived it. Shakespeare was scripture for him, and the scriptures were not; Keats knew them but didn’t revere them. He cited Shakespeare as his highest authority all the time, with the remarkable depth and flagrant inaccuracy of associative and not literal memory. He recalled lines not by and for themselves but as they embodied perspectives, scenes, and whole plots, and recalled all of that as something like revealed truth as spoken by Shakespeare the “Presider,” whom he imagined hovering over him, as he wrote in his letters. I have found dozens of echoes of lines from the play in the poems, from which we can make out a pattern.
The poems are Keats’s version of Tragedy and, taken together, are a version of Shakespeare’s Tragedy. They form a version of the play’s doubled plot, with lines that trace the arc of one half of the plot, the story of Lear and Cordelia, in “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” and the other half, that of Edgar and Gloucester, in “Ode to a Nightingale.” The odes transfigure the characters’ conflicts into the inner conflicts of lyric poetry. They take on the drama’s problems in the abstract. As Lear, the fallen king, despairs over a world “unaccommodated” to him, and Gloucester, fallen gentry, despairs of accommodating himself to the world, “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is about the ways that the world will never accommodate us and “Ode to a Nightingale” about the ways that we try to escape the world and fail, the drugs and arts and other enchantments that leave mortality as it was and always will be. They take us through Keats’s vision of tragic salvation. “Examine King Lear,” he wrote to his brothers a couple of weeks before he sent them his sonnet, pointing out the play’s “Beauty & Truth.”
Adapted from https://www.poetryfoundation.org/features/articles/detail/70201