To Hope by John Keats

‘To Hope’ was written when John Keats was only nineteen years old, in February of 1815. The poem is not as complex or mature as some of his other odes, but it is beautiful nonetheless. Throughout the poem, Keats makes use of literary devices that readers of his work will certainly be familiar with. These include original metaphors and similes as well as examples of personification that help the reader feel more connected to the speaker’s expressed emotions. 

To Hope by John Keats

 

Summary of To Hope

‘To Hope’ by John Keats depicts the power and influence that Hope, as a personified force sent by God, can have on a struggling world.

The speaker goes through the stanzas of this poem expressing the possible ways that Hope can improve his life, and then eventually his country. He knows that there are many times when he is walking in sorrow and he calls on Hope to shine down like a heavenly light from the sky and banish the fiend of despair. At the end of the poem, he transitions into thinking about his country and his hope that it will retain its pride and liberty. He believes that Hope can make this a reality. 

 

Themes in To Hope

As the title suggests, one of the main themes in ‘To Hope’ is hope itself. It is a force that Keats personifies throughout the eight stanzas of the poem and alludes to as something sent from heaven. It carries with it the light of God and the ability to banish the darkness, which clearly comes from the devil. Despair, sorrow, and Despondency are all states of mind that Keats, or at least his speaker, believe can be done away with by the appearance of hope. He uses the image of a bird repetitively in the poem to represent hope, and tangentially, God as well. 

 

Structure and Form of To Hope

‘To Hope’ by John Keats is an eight stanza poem that is divided into sets of six lines, known as sestets. These sestets follow a simple rhyme scheme of ABABCC, changing end sounds from stanza to stanza. The majority of the lines also conform to iambic pentameter, but the stresses sometimes move around. For example, line five of the first stanza begins with a spondee, or two stressed syllables together. 

 

Literary Devices in To Hope

Keats makes use of several literary devices in ‘To Hope’. These include but are not limited to examples of anaphora, personification, and metaphor. The first of these, anaphora, is a formal device that is seen through the repetition of words or phrases at the beginning of multiple lines. For example, in the first stanza, Keats uses “When” and “And” several times. 

Personification is one of the most important techniques in ‘To Hope’. It is seen in every stanza as Keats’ speaker calls upon Hope to dispel other more malevolent emotional states like despondency and despair. 

There are also several metaphors (and similes) in this poem. For example, the comparison between despair and a closed-in, heavy canopied forest and hope and the moon’s light that shines through. 

 

Analysis of To Hope

Stanza One

When by my solitary hearth I sit,

And hateful thoughts enwrap my soul in gloom;

When no fair dreams before my “mind’s eye” flit,

And the bare heath of life presents no bloom;

Sweet Hope, ethereal balm upon me shed,

And wave thy silver pinions o’er my head.

In the first stanza of ‘To Hope,’ the speaker addresses his personal circumstances. He is sorrowful, depressed, and solitary. He recalls how in these moments when he sits wrapped up in his own emotional distress he calls upon “Sweet Hope” to come to hi and improve his mood. This is described as shedding its “ethereal balm” upon the speaker’s head. 

Readers should take note of the fact that “Hope” is capitalized in this stanza. This is a common practice in poetry that is meant to make the reader consider the force as more than something one experiences. It is something personified, something with agency. In this case, it is described as having the ability to come to the speaker and lighten his mood. The speaker describes it as waving its “silver pinions o’er [his] head”. The word “pinion” refers to the outer part of a bird’s wing. Therefore, readers can incision hope as something resembling a bird. This is not unlike Dickinson’s ‘Hope is a thing with feathers’. 

 

Stanza Two 

Whene’er I wander, at the fall of night,

Where woven boughs shut out the moon’s bright ray,

Should sad Despondency my musings fright,

And frown, to drive fair Cheerfulness away,

Peep with the moon-beams through the leafy roof,

And keep that fiend Despondence far aloof.

In the second stanza of ‘To Hope’ the speaker describes how there are many times that he wanders “ at the fall of night,” or in his depression as well as physically at night time. When there, he moves through the “woven boughs” that shut out the “moon’s bright ray”. This is a metaphor that equates a closed-in forest with a heavy canopy to the speaker’s mood. 

By the end of this stanza there two more emotional states that are personified and written with capital letters, Despondency and Cheerfulness. There are these moments in which it seems that despondency and sorrow are going to win out over hope and cheerfulness but by the end of the third stanza it’s clear that hope still has some power in the speaker’s mind. Despondence, the poet says, is a “fiend” that has to be kept far away from one’s mind. It is malevolently personified. 

 

Stanza Three 

Should Disappointment, parent of Despair,

Strive for her son to seize my careless heart;

When, like a cloud, he sits upon the air,

Preparing on his spell-bound prey to dart:

Chace him away, sweet Hope, with visage bright,

And fright him as the morning frightens night!

The third stanza brings in “Despair” as another emotion that disrupts the speaker’s peace. It is the son of “Disappointment”. This whole family of emotions comes one after another, they are all related. Keats uses another metaphor here to describe how the “son,” Despair comes and seizes the speaker’s heart. This is something terrifying, something that “Hope,” the speaker hopes, will banish. He asks “sweet Hope” to come and chase away the darkness of depression just like the “morning frightens night,” a good example of a simile. 

 

Stanza Four 

Whene’er the fate of those I hold most dear

Tells to my fearful breast a tale of sorrow,

O bright-eyed Hope, my morbid fancy cheer;

Let me awhile thy sweetest comforts borrow:

Thy heaven-born radiance around me shed,

And wave thy silver pinions o’er my head!

The pattern of expressing sorrow and then calling on hope to remedy it is continued into the fourth stanza. He describes how he sometimes worries about those he holds most “dear” and then has to call on Hope to improve his mood. He borrows hope’s “comforts” for a time so that he can get through a dark period quickly and without damaging his emotions any further. 

The word “pinions” is repeated in the last line of this stanza. The bird imagery is important to Keats as a clear representation of the freedom and beauty of hope. He also uses the phrase “heaven-born” in these lines as well. Here, he is acknowledging that this hope comes from heaven and from God. It is a higher state of being that the fiend/devilish despair he sometimes experiences. 

 

Stanza Five 

Should e’er unhappy love my bosom pain,

From cruel parents, or relentless fair;

O let me think it is not quite in vain

To sigh out sonnets to the midnight air!

Sweet Hope, ethereal balm upon me shed,

And wave thy silver pinions o’er my head!

The halfway point of the poem includes more repetition and an emphasis on the various scenarios in which Hope can improve the speaker’s life. He might experience “unhappy love” and sorrow from any number of sources. At this point, he introduces the concept of using these emotions to write poetry. It is something that he’s familiar with and he hopes that the terrible emotions he experiences which are transferred into hope are not “quite in vain”. They should, he thinks, allow him to “sigh out sonnets” of some value that have the ability to improve the world around him. The phrase “sigh out sonnets” is a beautiful one that is made more rhythmic due to the use of alliteration. 

At the end of the stanza the line “wave thy silver opinions o’er my head” is repeated once more, solidifying it firmly as a refrain. 

 

Stanza Six 

In the long vista of the years to roll,

Let me not see our country’s honour fade:

O let me see our land retain her soul,

Her pride, her freedom; and not freedom’s shade.

From thy bright eyes unusual brightness shed—

Beneath thy pinions canopy my head!

The speaker expands his concerns for the world beyond his personal experience and into a larger one that acknowledges the troubles of the “country’s honour,” pride, and freedom. He wants to believe that as the years progress that God, Heaven, hope, and cheerfulness with allow his country to remain full and proud. He hopes that freedom lasts and that brightens penetrates all the lands he loves. The speaker is asking that England be perpetually situated beneath the “canopy” of Hope’s wings. 

 

Stanza Seven 

Let me not see the patriot’s high bequest,

Great Liberty! how great in plain attire!

With the base purple of a court oppress’d,

Bowing her head, and ready to expire:

But let me see thee stoop from heaven on wings

That fill the skies with silver glitterings!

The seventh stanza is slightly more complex than the ones which came before it. He asks that the “patriot’s high bequest” or legacy is preserved and that “Great Liberty” is rejuvenated by Hope. He believes that this is possible. Right now “Great Liberty” is bowing her head and is “ready to expire,” or due. But, he asks, Hope can swoop down n its sliver sings and fill the sky with “silver glitterings”. Hope can make everything better or at least bring it back to the way it used to be. 

 

Stanza Eight 

And as, in sparkling majesty, a star

Gilds the bright summit of some gloomy cloud;

Brightening the half veil’d face of heaven afar:

So, when dark thoughts my boding spirit shroud,

Sweet Hope, celestial influence round me shed,

Waving thy silver pinions o’er my head.

Rather than suggesting that Hope can or might do all the things he thinks he can, he states in the last lines that these things are real. Hope truly does have the ability to dispel sorrow and will do so whenever the speaker is feeling down. It will brighten the “half veil’d face of heaven” whenever Keats’ speaker can’t see it. Hope will remind Keats that God is there, looking down always, especially when times are dark. 

 

Similar Poems 

One of the obvious choices readers should consider when looking for more poems about hope is ‘Hope is the thing with Feathers’ by Emily Dickinson. In this poem, readers will find a very similar use of personification. Other possible options are ‘Work without Hopeby Samuel Taylor Coleridge and ‘Hope’ by Emily Brontë. Readers should also look to Keats’ more mature odes, such as Ode to Psycheand Ode to a Nightingale’ for examples of a similar style of poetry. 

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