‘The Grave of Keats’ by Oscar Wilde is composed in the style of a Petrarchan sonnet. It is divided into a set of eight lines, or an octave, and a set of six lines, or sestet. The first eight lines following a rhyming pattern of ABBA ABBA, while the last six rhyme, CDEEDC. The first section follows along exactly with the structure of an Italian or Petrarchan sonnet, while the last six lines are rearranged. This was a common practice in the composition of sonnets as it allowed the poet to stick to a form but still experiment.
John Keats, on whose life and death this poem is based, met death on the heels of overwhelming grief.
In 1818, during the summer, Keats embarked on a walking tour of Northern England and Scotland. Over the following year, Keats’ brother died of tuberculosis and Keats fell in love with a woman named Fanny Brawne who would have a remarkable impact on his work.
In 1819 he contracted tuberculosis and left for Italy where he suffered in agony, partially due to absurd medical treatments, until his death in February of 1821.
Throughout his short life, Keats only published three volumes of poetry and was read by only a very small number of people.
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Summary of The Grave of Keats
The poem begins with the speaker hoping to cheer up his own, and the reader’s mood, by speaking of the new world, alongside God, that Keats is now residing in. He is beyond the problems and discomforts of the world. His death was incredibly important to the speaker, he holds a saint-like stature in the speaker’s mind.
He continues on to say that, while viewing the spot in which Keats is buried, there are no huge trees to block out the sun, only violets that wrap around “his bones,” or more likely, tombstone. Keats is compared to Saint Sebastian, an early Christian who was martyred for his faith. Keats is often thought of as having contracted tuberculosis due to grief.
In the final sestet of the poem, the speaker describes Keats as being the finest English “poet-painter” since the Greek poets of old. He made a monumental impact on the speaker’s life and on his readers. He concludes by quoting the inscription on the tombstone and saying that he will do whatever it takes to keep that land green, even if he has to water it with his own tears.
Analysis of The Grave of Keats
Rid of the world’s injustice, and his pain,
He rests at last beneath God’s veil of blue:
Taken from life when life and love were new
The youngest of the martyrs here is lain,
The speaker begins by saying that now that Keats has passed on his spirit is “Rid” of the “injustices” of the world. He no longer has to deal with the unfair, and constant, problems of life and he is “Rid of…his pain.” The misery that Keats felt throughout his short life, especially the desire for Fanny Brawne and the death of family members, can no longer touch him.
The poet now “rests…beneath God’s veil,” he is gone from life but he has moved on somewhere better. The speaker is hoping to comfort both himself and the reader with these statements.
The speaker says that Keats’ death came too soon, at a time in which “life and love were new.” John Keats was only 25 years old when he died. His position in the speaker’s mind is so important that his death resembles the sacrifice of a saint. He is like a young martyr.
Lines 5- 8
Fair as Sebastian, and as early slain.
No cypress shades his grave, no funeral yew,
But gentle violets weeping with the dew
Weave on his bones an ever-blossoming chain.
When he died, Keats was as “Fair” as Saint Sebastian, and he passed away just as early. According to legend, Saint Sebastian was an early Christian who went to Rome to join up with the army of Carinus. His faith was found out and he was ordered to be killed by arrows. He survived this assault but would later be beaten to death and thrown in a sewer. It is said that Sebastian was only a young man when this happened.
Wilde is comparing the sacrifice of Saint Sebastian to that of the death of Keats. Both were young men, both died before their time. While Keats may not have been actively advocating for a cause, except perhaps that of idealized love, he is revered in the same manner.
The speaker moves on to describe the actual physical appearance of Keats’ grave. There are no “cypress” trees or “funeral yew[s]” that cast shade over his tombstone. There are only the “violets” that appear to be “weeping” as the “dew” drips off of them. These are woven around his grave in what seems to be an “ever-blossoming chain.” The endlessness of this image helps to promote the idea that Keats is living on.
O proudest heart that broke for misery!
O sweetest lips since those of Mitylene!
O poet-painter of our English Land!
Thy name was writ in water—-it shall stand:
And tears like mine will keep thy memory green,
As Isabella did her Basil-tree.
In the final six lines, or sestet, of this sonnet, Wilde describes Keats’ death and how he was the “proudest heart that broke for misery.” Before his death Keats experienced a number of grave losses, see the introduction for more information. These losses are thought of as being a catalyst for his contraction of tuberculosis. The speaker is feeling deeply emotional as he says these lines and through this emotion states that Keats’ lips were the “sweetest” to speak words of poetry since the ancients in the Greek city of “Mitylene.”
Keats was the “poet-painter” of England. His words created such images that they could be considered as both painting and writing. He was able, through his short life, to represent, and emotionally and sensually move the English people.
In the last three lines, the speaker references the inscription on Keats’ grave. While Keats was dying he asked his friend not to engrave his name on his tombstone but instead the words, “Here lies One / Whose Name was writ in Water.” This is an apt choice on the poet’s part as his life was as fleeting and unsteady as water. No matter what happens, the speaker vows that he shall “keep thy memory green,” even if he has to cry over Keats’ grave. He references the story that was originally told by Bocaccio in the Decameron of Isabella and the Basil-tree. In this story, Isabella’s lover, Lorenzo, is murdered and she takes his head and places it in the pot of basil, a plant that represents eternal love. After these events, Isabella goes mad and eventually dies. This poem, “Isabella; or, The Pot of Basil” can be read here.
About Oscar Wilde
Oscar Wilde was born Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde in Dublin, Ireland in October of 1854. As a young child, Wilde attended Portora Royal School where he was first introduced to Greek and Roman studies, a passion which would stay with him his entire life. He was a bright child and often won awards. After graduating, Wilde attended Trinity College in Dublin and while there received the Foundation Scholarship, the highest award given to undergraduate students. He would continue to receive awards during his schooling and upon his graduation. One of which, the Demyship Scholarship, allowed him to study at Magdalen College in Oxford.
After graduating from Magdalen, Wilde moved permanently to London. In 1881 he published his first collection, Poems. The next year Wilde toured America giving a total of 140 lectures in nine months. He met with a number of notable literary figures while traveling, including, Oliver Wendell Holmes and Walt Whitman. After returning home he continued to lecture, traveling through England and Ireland until 1884. It was during this time that Wilde established himself as a leader of the “aesthetic movement,” or the idea that one should live by a set of beliefs advocating beauty as having it’s own worth, rather than as a tool of promotion for other viewpoints.
That same year Wilde married Constance Lloyd with whom he would have two sons.
In 1888 Wilde entered his most creative and productive years. He published The Happy Prince and Other Tales, as well as his only novel The Picture of Dorian Grey. At the time of its publication critics and readers were outraged by its content and apparent homosexual undertones. While his novel was not received well, he was enjoying success from several plays, such as An Ideal Husband and The Importance of Being Earnest.
During this same time period, Wilde was deeply involved in an affair with Lord Alfred Douglas, more commonly known as Bosie. Bosie’s father, outraged by the affair, wrote a note to Wilde addressed, “Oscar Wilde: Posing Somdomite” (an accidental misspelling of “sodomite”). Wilde’s choice to sue Bosie’s father for libel ruined his life.
In 1895, after a trial and conviction for “gross indecency,” Wilde spent two years in prison under forced labor conditions. This sentence took a great toll on the writer and in 1897, after being released, Wilde moved to London. His last great work, “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” was completed in 1898. Oscar Wilde died in 1900 of an ear infection that had been contracted, and untreated, in prison.