‘On Fame’ by John Keats is a Shakespearean Sonnet which is also known as English Sonnet. This poem of Keats is not popular like his other works. His artistic excellence and masterful versification however do not reflect in this work yet the poem has an innovative definition of fame. Keats exemplifies the nature of fame by investing it with human qualities. There are certain areas in the poem which make us think about fame in a unique way. The poet provides us his experience through his poem and suggests being content without “fame”. At a certain point in time, his guidance may sound like moral preaching but it helps us to redefine our understanding of being popular.
Summary of On Fame
‘On Fame’ by John Keats contains an innovative representation of the abstract idea called “fame”. The poet introduces brand new ideas in each section of the sonnet. Let’s get into the poet’s shoes and observe what he is trying to mean.
At the beginning of the poem, Keats sees it as a “wayward girl”. This girl reacts with shyness only to those who propose to her with a “slavish” attitude. Her attitude is different whenever she finds an unmindful boy simply passing by. She opens her heart only to them.
In the next section, she is no longer a casual girl playing with boy’s hearts. She has become a “Gypsey” or a gypsy girl now. The woman does not prefer to speak to those who have not learned the art of being content without her. She is also a “jilt” who capriciously rejects her lovers. Around her, there is none to whisper close to the ear and express their desires about the lady. The mad ones who try to talk about her all the time dishonor her dignity and self-respect.
In line number nine Keats again refers to her as a gypsy woman and presents her ancestry to the readers. She is one of the children of the river god Nilus. Somehow she manages to find a place in a Biblical story too. According to the poet, she is the sister-in-law of the biblical character Potiphar.
In the last four lines of this sonnet, there is a request from the poet to his peers. He suggests them to repay that wayward lady with scorn. The madmen who have fallen in love with the lady called “fame”, should bid adieu to her and leave. It is up to the lady. If she likes anyone among the “fools in love”, she will open her heart to him.
You can read the full poem On Fame here.
Analysis of On Fame
Fame, like a wayward girl, will still be coy
To those who woo her with too slavish knees,
But makes surrender to some thoughtless boy,
And dotes the more upon a heart at ease;
In the first quatrain of ‘On Fame’ by John Keats, the poet gives fame a bodily manifestation. He sees it as a wayward girl who is neither serious nor focused on a particular man. She prefers a thoughtless boy like her. Those who try to impress her with a slavish mindset, get a clear rejection from her. This representation of fame defines what it is to the readers. Fame is not that kind of a thing which needs attention and care. It is neither a thing to cherish and preserve. A person who does his part to the fullest gets popular in the eyes of people. Fame loves to be the crown of the person who knows how to handle it with ease.
In this way, the poet presents how to treat fame and the way to get it by using the metaphor of a wayward girl in the first stanza of the sonnet.
She is a Gipsey, – will not speak to those
Who have not learnt to be content without her;
A Jilt, whose ear was never whisper’d close,
Who thinks they scandal her who talk about her;
In the second quatrain, Keats visualizes fame as a gypsy. In the Nomadic people, a woman always prefers a man who is adventurous and fearless of the unknown. He should not be content with staying with his better half in one place. The art of survival has taught them the meaning of true love. There is no need to stay in physical proximity to prove it to each other. Hence the poet presents the idea of a gypsy woman to illustrate the nature of fame to the readers. According to him, to be a man of prominence, he should be fulfilled without having the need for popularity.
Now fame has turned to a jilt. It is now having a different quality. The poet actually suggests here that fame is an illusion. Like a capricious lady, it deceives a person. When a man becomes famous, he starts to see himself as the lord of it. At the end of the day, he understands that the mischievous lady called fame has turned him into a fool in reality.
A very Gipsey is she, Nilus-born,
Sister-in-law to jealous Potiphar;
In these lines, the poet emphasizes the transience of fame by using the word “Gipsey” again. He is of the view that fame might be the child of the river god Nilus. The river Nile is a blessing to the lives dwelling near it. At the same time, it floods the area and affects the local people. In the same manner, fame brings social recognition and other facilities. But when it leaves, the lashes of criticism hurt a person deeply.
There is an allusion to Potiphar in the poem. The poet thinks that fame might be the sister of Potiphar’s wife. In Potiphar’s story, Joseph was a victim of his jealousy. He knew his wife was the culprit still he imprisoned Joseph. The poet refers here that Potiphar might also be jealous of his sister-in-law as he had not her as his wife. When we see a popular person and his followers applauding him, somehow we feel the same as Potiphar felt in his case.
Ye love-sick Bards! repay her scorn for scorn;
Ye Artists lovelorn! madmen that ye are!
Make your best bow to her and bid adieu,
Then, if she likes it, she will follow you.
In this section the poet urges his fellow poets who are infatuated with fame, to be strict at their hearts. They should treat fame, in the same manner, it treats others. The poet instructs them to bid adieu to the lady.
Here the poet in the manner of moral instruction guides us to be detached from worldly fame. If a person really wants to be renowned, he should at first control his desires. Fame is like a chimera. Blindly chasing it will lead one to nowhere. It is a trap in itself. Hence the poet instructs us how to stay out of the trap. Doing our work with due diligence is enough for being recognized in society. If it does not happen, there is no pain in that. There will be a satisfaction of doing our part better than those who wasted their lives chasing after the illusion.
Glossary of On Fame
‘On Fame’ by John Keats introduces a variety of concepts to the readers by using allusions. There is no way out without understanding the meaning of those words. Let us make out the meanings and the ideas presented by the poet.
- Slavish: Slavish means the slave-like attitude of a person. In other words, it is the submissive behavior of a person. The poet might have also meant the uninspired or imitative poets by this word.
- Dote: Dote means to love or to adore a person. In the poem, the wayward girl called “fame” dotes or loves those who do not even care about her.
- Gipsey: “Gipsey’ is the archaic form the word gypsy with which we are generally familiar. Gypsy refers to a nomadic and free-spirited person who does not prefer a specific place to settle in. The poet connects the meaning with the nature of fame which does not prefer a person for a lifetime.
- Jilt: Jilt means a capricious lady who plays with the heart of a true lover and in the end rejects him. A jilt shows the rays of hope and never minds to put it out.
- Nilus-born: In Greek mythology, the god of the river Nile is “Nilus”. According to the poet “fame” is one of the offspring of Nilus.
- Potiphar: Potiphar has a place in both the Quran and the Hebrew Bible. In the mythological story of Potiphar, once he purchased an intelligent slave named Joseph to look after his household. One day Potiphar’s wife felt attracted to Joseph and tried to seduce her. When Joseph rejected her proposal, she mischievously accused him of trying to rape her. When Potiphar came to know about the incident, he imprisoned Joseph.
Structure and Form
‘On Fame’ by John Keats is a specimen of an English sonnet or Shakespearean sonnet. Being a sonnet it has a conventional structure. There are a total of 14 lines in the poem. The rhyme scheme of the poem is ABAB CDCD EFEF GG. Readers know this rhyming pattern well. It is the Elizabethan rhyme scheme popularly used by the sonneteers. There are three quatrains followed by a couplet at last. Each quatrain introduces a new idea about fame to the readers. The couplet constitutes the poet’s advice to his contemporary artists and poets. The advice is for us too.
There are certain Keatsean touches in the sonnet’s form and structure. The first quatrain introduces only an idea like any conventional English sonnets. The twist comes from the second quatrain. In this stanza, Keats refers to two ideas regarding fame. There is another variation in the sonnet. The conviction and suggestion of the poet should be there in the couplet only. But it starts with the third quatrain and concludes in the last two lines.
Sound and Meter
Like any other sonnets, ‘On Fame’ by John Keats is in iambic pentameter. Iambic pentameter consists of five feet with a rising rhythm. It means that the stress falls on the second syllable of each foot. Apart from having a conventional structure, there are few variations in the poem. The variations are somehow important in regards to the idea presented in the lines. For example in the first line, the first foot is trochaic. It means that the stress falls on the main idea of the poem “fame”. The same variation goes with the last line too for the placement of the comma after “then”. It is definitely for the sake of emphasis.
Other variations are in the second quatrain of the poem. The second and fourth lines of this stanza are hypermetrical. There are two reasons for not giving the stress on the word “her” in both of the lines. One reason for making the syllable unstressed is due to the symmetry in the metrical composition of the poem. The other reason is simple. The poet might have wanted to give little focus on “her” or “fame”. It is also a suggestion to the readers for not giving much importance to it.
‘On Fame’ by John Keats is rhetorical in its composition. This sonnet has a variety of literary devices which makes the poet’s idea clear to the readers. Let us have a look at each of these poetic devices used in each of the lines of the poem.
In the first line, there is a simile. The poet compares “fame” to a “wayward girl” here. The poet also uses personification to enliven the abstract idea. In the second line “slavish knees” is the use of synecdoche. It is also a metaphor of the submissive behavior of a person. In the fourth line of this section, the poet uses “heart” to refer to the easygoing men. It is also a reference to synecdoche. The variety used here is “part for the whole”.
In the first line of this section, the poet makes use of the metaphor of a “Gypsey”. According to Keats, the characteristic of a gypsy resembles the fleeting nature of fame. There is enjambment in this line and the line following it. Whatsoever these two lines sound like an epigram too. There is another metaphor of “Jilt” in this section. Here the fickle nature of a jilt is similar to the presence of fame in a person’s life.
Keats metaphorically compares fame to an offspring of the river god Nilus in the ninth line of the poem. In the next line, there is an allusion to the biblical story of Potiphar. Here the poet compares fame to the sister of Potiphar’s wife. At the beginning of lines numbers 11 and 12, the poet uses apostrophe. In these lines, the poet rhetorically refers to the contemporary “bards” and “artists”. Readers can also find the use of anaphora in these lines.
In the last line of this section, there are two instances where readers can find an alliteration. These are “lovelorn” and “madmen”. The consonant sound gets repeated in these two words. Hence it also comes under the variety called consonance. However, there is another literary device called exclamation in the last line too.
The poet makes use of alliteration in the phrase “best bow”. Here the “b” sound gets repeated in the consecutive words. There is an irony in the last line. The tone of the poet makes this line sound ironic to the readers.
‘On Fame’ by John Keats first appeared in the poetry collection, “The Poetical Works of John Keats” in 1884. Keats belongs to the second generation romantic poets along with Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron. The qualities of romanticism are there in his poem. His vibrant use of imagery and brilliant poetic diction made him famous after his premature death. Only a few works got published while he was alive. His popularity came when his works found a place in print and his words reached the hearts of the reading public. Though he had a short life of only 25 years, he gifted a great number of odes and sonnets to us. ‘On Fame’ was one of them.
Many poets have written on the nature of fame. In their works, this abstract idea gets various forms and meanings. Every artist sees it in his/her own unique way. Let us have a look at a few of them which resemble the subject matter of ‘On Fame’ by John Keats.
- Fame is a bee by Emily Dickinson – In this poem, Dickinson looks “fame” as a “bee”. The inherent idea is similar to that of Keats.
- Famous by Naomi Shihab Nye – In this poem Naomi defines “fame” and “being famous”. Readers can find similarities in the ideas provided by the poets in their works.
- Ode to a Nightingale by John Keats – In this poem, Keats exemplifies the theme of transience in a better way. To understand the nature of fame, this poem can be of great help.
- A Bird came down the Walk by Emily Dickinson – Dickinson makes use of the theme of impermanence in this poem like Keats incorporates it in his poem ‘On Fame’.
You can read about 10 of the Best John Keats Poems here.