John Keats immortalized many of his experiences in poems; when he saw the Elgin marbles, he wrote sonnets commemorating the moment, and his explorations of favorite fiction usually led to Keats reflecting upon his reading, and finding a way to apply it, then, to his life, his views his way of looking upon the world. There are some scholars, for example, who find myriad similarities between Keats’ Odes and ‘King Lear’, a play that featured heavily in Keats’ life. ‘On Sitting down to Read King Lear Once Again’ was written in 1816.
In the poem, 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. ‘King Lear’ is a play about family and misery, duty and birthright, and about how one’s opinion can lead to tragedy. It is one of Shakespeare’s most revered plays, played constantly over the years to crowds of packed audiences; and it is no secret why the play itself is one of Keat’s favourites. ‘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.
O golden-tongued Romance with serene lute!
Fair plumed Syren! Queen of far away!
Leave melodizing on this wintry day,
Shut up thine olden pages, and be mute:
Characteristic of Keats’ work, the poem opens by referencing his own work: he calls it a ‘golden-tongued romance with serene lute’, thereby referencing his own classical leanings, knowing full well that the poem. He references the ‘syren’, which were Greek creatures, sea nymphs that played tunes to lure sailors into the water and to their death; they are usually conflated with beauty, and so their 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. He references, of course, the ‘queen of far away’, which might talk about Keats’ own difficulties composing, but without further reference, this would be impossible to verify. Largely, the opening stanza is effusive enough to set the scene of what will be a short and brief introduction into Keats’ romantical leanings.
He bids, then, for his muse to be still and quiet – ‘shut up thine olden pages, and be mute’ – and begs her to go away. Note the expansive way that he sends his muse away, and the referencing to ‘wintry’, which brings up an image of loneliness.
Adieu! for once again the fierce dispute,
Betwixt damnation and impassion’d clay
Must I burn through; once more humbly assay
The bitter-sweet of this Shakespearian fruit.
In the second part of ‘On Sitting Down to Read King Lear Once Again’, he talks about what he will do instead of creating poetry: he is going to read ‘the bitter-sweet of this Shakespearian fruit’. It is worth noting the way that he says ‘must I burn through’, placing the 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. His feelings for the play are so strong that he is setting aside what John Keats believed to be his calling in order that he could read it.
‘Bittersweet’ fully 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,
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.
Shakespeare is the ‘Chief Poet’; it is no secret that Keats greatly admired the great masters of English literature, which included, Milton and Shakespeare, and that there was a resurgence of their work during the Romantic era which 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, and it is thought that Keats certainly aspired to write some way similar to Shakespeare, but this would, again, be difficult to corroborate. ‘Albion’ references to the United Kingdom, the country where Keats and Shakespeare wrote.
Keats finishes the poem with this musing: he does not want to wander ‘in a barren dream’, which 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 written, but that he wants to be ‘consumed in the fire’. It could be taken that Keats himself, although lauding his muse earlier, has no inspiration left to write something that would consume him, and is instead of putting it off so that he could read through King Lear, one of his greatest inspirations. The supposition follows on with the final line – ‘give me new phoenix wings to fly at my desire’, thereby showing that 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.
IT is not one of Keats’ most infamous poems, but ‘On Sitting Down to Read King Lear Once Again’ provides a rarely-seen side of Keats. The reader is used to Keats the effusive poet, the Keatsian dialogue between tragedy and happiness, and the reflection upon beauty, but this poem is almost simplistic compared to the rest of Keats’ work. It does not sink into the dreams that Keats has so often written about, or focus on the beauty that has taken place in all of his work, but instead provides a view of the author that somehow humanizes him far more than anything else he has written. In the poem, Keats’ insistence that he does nothing but reading allows the reader to witness him in a less than a thrilling state, and while it does not dissolve any of his mastery and mystery, it deepens Keats as a character.
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.
– Comparisons between Keats and King Lear, by Adam Plunkett.