14 of the Best John Keats Quotations (2022)

John Keats (1795-1821) is one of the greatest poets in the English language, and one of the most famous Romantic poets. In just a few years prior to his untimely death from tuberculosis, aged just 25, in 1821, Keats wrote some of the most memorable poems about everything from art to autumn to melancholy to sleep and much else in between.

Keats is also one of the most quotable Romantic poets. Below, we select and introduce some of his best lines and most memorable quotations.

‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty’.

‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty’ is perhaps the most famous statement John Keats ever wrote. But what do these words mean? They form part of the concluding couplet to his poem ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’, perhaps the most famous of his five Odes which he composed in 1819, which was something of an annus mirabilis for Keats’s creativity:

Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

In other words, beauty is all we need in order to discover truth, and truth is itself beautiful. This is all we, are mere mortals, know, but it’s all we need to know: we shouldn’t impatiently go in pursuit of answers which we don’t need to have. Implied in these last lines of Keats’s poem is the suggestion that we shouldn’t attempt to find concrete answers to everything; sometimes the mystery is enough.

‘Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter’.

Also from ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’, this quotation shows Keats arguing for the power of the imagination: hearing a beautiful tune is pleasant, but the sweetest sounds of all are the ones we hear in our imaginations.

‘A thing of beauty is a joy forever’.

This is the opening line from Keats’s epic 1818 poem Endymion, inspired by the Greek myth of Endymion, the shepherd who was beloved of the moon goddess Selene (whom Keats renames Cynthia):

A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing …

‘Now more than ever seems it rich to die,
To cease upon the midnight with no pain’.

John Keats reportedly took just two or three hours to write ‘Ode to a Nightingale’, which is remarkable.

Keats tells us, as he listens in this darkness to the song of the nightingale, that he has often been half in love with the idea of death. And now, as he listens to the nightingale, it seems fitting to slip into death while the nightingale provides the poet’s ‘requiem’ or funeral song as he returns to the earth (‘become a sod’).

‘Bright star, would I were steadfast as thou art’.

This is the opening line of what is perhaps Keats’s best-known sonnet, written in 1819 and then revised the following year. The first two words of the quotation gave their name to the 2009 film, Bright Star, about Keats and his relationship with Fanny Brawne, his chief muse:

Bright star, would I were steadfast as thou art—
Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night
And watching, with eternal lids apart,
Like nature’s patient, sleepless Eremite …

‘When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has glean’d my teeming brain’.

Here’s another famous sonnet from Keats, or rather the first two lines of it. The poem anticipates Keats’s own untimely death in 1821, although when he died he had already produced a body of work most poets could only dream of.

‘Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’.

John Keats wrote many a memorable and arresting opening line in his short life, but his opening to his great poem ‘To Autumn’, one of his finest odes, is perhaps his most resonant of all.

Images of abundance abound in the first stanza of ‘To Autumn’: ripeness, swell, plump, budding. This opening stanza, in summary, underscores the idea that autumn is indeed a season of ‘mellow fruitfulness’, a time of year when the natural world swells pregnantly with life:

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run …

‘The poetry of Earth is never dead’.

This quotation is another opening line, also from a sonnet. The sonnet is famous because Keats reportedly wrote it in one sitting, as part of a contest with fellow poet Leigh Hunt:

The Poetry of earth is never dead:
When all the birds are faint with the hot sun,
And hide in cooling trees, a voice will run
From hedge to hedge about the new-mown mead;
That is the Grasshopper’s—he takes the lead
In summer luxury,—he has never done
With his delights; for when tired out with fun
He rests at ease beneath some pleasant weed …

‘Philosophy will clip an Angel’s wings,
Conquer all mysteries by rule and line,
Empty the haunted air, and gnomèd mine—
Unweave a rainbow, as it erewhile made
The tender-person’d Lamia melt into a shade’.

These lines are taken from Keats’s long narrative poem ‘Lamia’, in which a man falls in love with a beautiful nymph who is trapped in the form of a serpent.

In these lines, Keats alludes to Isaac Newton’s experiment with the prism, which showed that white light comprised all of the constituent colours of the spectrum (the colours of the rainbow). Newton had unwoven the rainbow and, for Keats, destroyed some of the wonder and mystery of it.

‘I am certain of nothing but the holiness of the Heart’s affections and the truth of the Imagination.’

Keats wrote these famous words in a letter of 22 November 1817, sent to Benjamin Bailey. In some ways, this quotation distils the essence of Romanticism – and much of Keats’s poetic ‘philosophy’ – into one line.

‘I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.’

In December 1817, Keats was walking home from the Christmas pantomime with two of his friends, Charles Wentworth Dilke and Charles Brown. According to Keats’s subsequent account, in a letter to his brothers George and Tom, he had a wide-ranging discussion with Dilke during the walk home.

The letter goes on to outline Keats’s ‘theory’ of Negative Capability, which might be viewed (like the quotation from ‘Lamia’ above) as a riposte to the Enlightenment concern with empiricism, knowledge, and reason at all costs. Keats, by contrast, is happy to dwell in ignorance and just admire the mystery of things.

‘We hate poetry that has a palpable design upon us’.

Another great line from Keats’s letters, this time from February 1818. This one should be borne in mind by every poet: poetry should go to work on us in ways we’re barely aware of, and if we can sense the poet ‘pulling the strings’, as it were, and we’re aware we’re being manipulated into having a certain response, the poetry loses its charm:

We hate poetry that has a palpable design upon us—and if we do not agree, seems to put its hand in its breeches pocket. Poetry should be great & unobtrusive, a thing which enters into one’s soul, and does not startle it or amaze it with itself but with its subject.

‘I find I cannot exist without Poetry’.

This Keats quotation comes from a letter of April 1817, written to J. H. Reynolds. The full quotation makes it clear that Keats is thinking about writing poetry as much as reading it, and that he needs to keep writing poetry if he is to exist fully:

I find that I cannot exist without poetry – without eternal poetry – half the day will not do – the whole of it – I began with a little, but habit has made me a Leviathan – I had become all in a Tremble from not having written any thing of late –

‘Here lies one whose name was writ in water’.

This was Keats’s self-composed epitaph for his tomb, and sure enough, the words were inscribed on his gravestone, erected in 1823 at the Cemitero Acattolico in Italy. Keats’s words were no false modesty: he truly believed his poetry would fall into oblivion and be forgotten. Two centuries after his death, his reputation, and popularity, remain assured.

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