Hellenism in John Keats’s poetry

Keats, in the words of Shelley, “was a Greek.” Indeed, Wordsworth, Coleridge, and even Shelley could not claim to be Greek thinkers in the same way that Keats could. Keats was introduced to the Greek spirit through literature, sculpture, and an intrinsic tendency. Keats often performs at his best while under the influence of Greek culture.

The Temperamental “Greekness” of Keats

Keats’s appreciation of beauty is indicative of his “Greekness,” or temperamental “Greekness,” inborn in his thinking. The ideal of all art, according to him and the Greeks, is the representation of beauty. And for him, just as for them, beauty isn’t just something that’s physical, spiritual, or intellectual; it’s the culmination of everything that makes a person beautiful.

The Natural Forces Were Personified in Him

In the way that Keats personifies the powers of nature, he is also a Greek. His Autumn is a deity in human form; she oversees all harvest-related activities and does all manner of labor. This is a typical Greek mentality. Greek mythology’s Pan was more than half human. Anyone who ventured into the woods alone could anticipate hearing him smoke a pipe or possibly catching a sight of his hairy hands and wrinkled face. The Pan from Keats’ ode is also half-human, as he lounges by the river or ambles through the meadows at night.

His primary themes are inspired by Greek literature, art, and mythology

He draws heavily on Greek mythology and, to a lesser extent, Greek art and literature for his principal themes and countless references. Keats’ youthful enthusiasm had been fed by Wordsworth, Leigh Hunt, the Elgin Marbles, and his reading of Elizabethan literature. Keats’ admiration for Wordsworth’s The Excursion may have been influenced by the fourth book’s description of the Greek worship of Nature and its imaginative manifestation in myth. From Spenser to Milton, classical myth had been a highly rich component of Renaissance poetry, but Augustan rationalism had tarnished it. With the romantic religion of nature and the imagination, it came back to life. The sonnet “The World Is Too Much With Us” by Wordsworth demonstrates his love of classical myth. Wordsworth makes the argument that the Greeks, who witnessed Proteus emerging from the water and heard old Triton blow his horn, were closer to religion than Christian Englishmen who were just concerned with their financial well-being and had little regard for the natural world. Wordsworth’s sonnet may be heard in echoes in Keats’ poem “Sleep and Poetry”

No direct experience with Greek literature

Keats was unaware of Greek literature from personal experience. He learned about the Greek classics via reference books and translations like Lempriere’s Classical Dictionary and Chapman’s translation of Homer. His sonnet on viewing the Elgin Marbles illustrates the significant effect Greek sculpture had on him. Hyperion is to poetry what the Elgin Marbles are to art, according to one critic. Through his familiarity with these marbles, Keats was introduced to the serene greatness of Greek art, as well as its grandeur, harmony, and beauty, as well as its economy of adornment and subordination of parts to the whole. The two odes, “On Indolence” and “On a Grecian Urn”, are the clearest examples of this influence.

Limitations of His “Greekness”

However, Keats’ shortcomings as a Greek are clear. He doesn’t describe Greek things in a Greek way. Hyperion did undoubtedly borrow some of Milton’s Paradise Lost and the Greeks’ great reserve and serenity, at least in the first two volumes. However, his palace of Hyperion, with its hazy, distantly glittering pomps and phantom-terrors of impending doom, demonstrates how far off he is in terms of craftsmanship from the Greek purity and accuracy of shape, as well as strong delineation of individual pictures. Similar to this, one of this poem’s most iconic depictions of nature displays the complexity of modern nature, with its assemblage of metaphors and epithets, as opposed to the Greek tradition’s simplicity. The preeminence of the oaks amid the other trees, their look of human venerability, their verdure unseen in the darkness, the sensation of their stillness and suspended vitality, etc. are only a few of the effects Keats creates here that a woodland landscape by starlight may have on the imagination.

Some Greek Elements Are Missing from His Poetry

The character and temperament of Keats were devoid of the deeply embedded aesthetic sensibilities of the Greeks. He lacked the Greek impulse for selection and simplicity, or for rejecting all beauty to save basic and fundamental. He lacked the ability to handle his material in a way that would allow the primary masses to stand out clearly, in just proportions, and with recognizable patterns. He was mostly romantic, Gothic, and English in his craftsmanship, just like his ideals and abilities. “Endymion” was written at a time when Keats felt poetry should startle readers by a magnificent excess. As a result, the way Keats approaches the Greek myth of “Endymion” is as far from a Greek or classical method as is practically imaginable.


Keats observes the Greek world from a distance, yet he does so honestly. The Greek influence is not his, but he writes in his own rich and ornamented English style with a firm understanding of the crucial significance of Greek concepts. The only knowledge he had regarding the tale of the Titans vs. Olympians conflict was what he learned from classical dictionaries. However, there is no other way that Keats’ speech of Oceanus in the Second Book could possibly capture the essence of that conflict and its outcome more beautifully and powerfully.

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