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John Keats' "O Solitude! if I must with thee dwell"
Introduction and Text of "O Solitude! if I must with thee dwell"
John Keats' poem, "O Solitude! if I must with thee dwell" is a Petrarchan sonnet with the rime scheme ABBAABBACDDCDC; it dramatizes a basic tenet of the Romantic Movement, the desire to live a bucolic life and to commune with nature.
(Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")
O Solitude! if I must with thee dwell
O Solitude! if I must with thee dwell,
Let it not be among the jumbled heap
Of murky buildings; climb with me the steep,—
Nature’s observatory—whence the dell,
Its flowery slopes, its river’s crystal swell,
May seem a span; let me thy vigils keep
’Mongst boughs pavillion’d, where the deer’s swift leap
Startles the wild bee from the fox-glove bell.
But though I’ll gladly trace these scenes with thee,
Yet the sweet converse of an innocent mind,
Whose words are images of thoughts refin’d,
Is my soul’s pleasure; and it sure must be
Almost the highest bliss of human-kind,
When to thy haunts two kindred spirits flee.
Reading of "O Solitude! if I must with thee dwell"
The speaker in Keats' "O Solitude!" claims that he would be content to live a rural life alone but then decides he might prefer the company of a kindred spirit.
Octave: Choosing a Rustic Life
In the octave, the speaker declares that if he must live alone or in "Solitude," he would choose to live in a rural setting. He particularly scorns the city and demonstrates that feeling by asking of "Solitude" not to require him to live "among the jumbled heap / Of murky buildings." The speaker clearly disdains humankind's clumping together in edifices in the city. He invites Solitude to "climb with me the steep." He wants to roam in the hills in the open air, and remain nencumbered by streets, signs, and crowds of people. He desires the green grass and the sounds of rivers moving naturally through the rural landscape.
The speaker issues forth the Romantic sensibility of yearning for "Nature's observatory," from which "the dell, / Its flowery slopes, its river's crystal swell." He craves to reside among the flowers and clear river on a hillside, instead of living in a shabby city apartment. He adds that he would prefer to "[keep his vigils] / 'Mongst boughs pavillion'd, where the deer's swift leap / Startles the wild bee from the fox-glove bell." His lovely pastoral descriptions are the stuff that made the hearts of the Romantics flutter with ecstasy, as they conveniently omitted from their country-life fantasies the inconveniences that had originally motivated human beings to construct and collect in cities.
Sestet: A Shared Experience in Bucolia
In the sestet, the speaker adds a proviso to his notion of a perfect solitary life lived out in the country. He reveals that even though he would happily live alone as described in the octave, he would prefer to be accompanied by someone who is capable of offering "the sweet converse of an innocent mind." His "soul's pleasure" is to be able to have conversations with someone who is like minded, someone "[w]hose words are images of thoughts refin'd." He wants to share his bucolic existence with someone who thinks as poetically as he does.
What he ultimately discloses is that he would like to live in the country with solitude, but not total solitude, because he has decided that the height of "bliss of human-kind" is when two like-minded people--"two kindred spirits"— can escape from the city and fly to the rustic locale together.
Tribute to Nature
The Romantic Movement saw many such tributes to nature, singing the praises of a "river's crystal swell" or "the deer's swift leap" where it "startles the wild bee from the fox-glove bell." But Keats adds a clever dimension to his Petrarchan sonnet. He would be sublimely happy to live in solitude in a pastoral setting, but he would find it even more blissful to have a companion who loves nature and poetry as much as he does. The two could then split from the city and flit off to the "haunts" of country life and live their bucolic existence in "the highest bliss."
Life Sketch of John Keats
John Keats' name is one of the most recognizable in the world of letters. As one the most accomplished and widely anthologized poets of the British Romantic Movement, the poet remains a marvel, having died at the early age of 25 and leaving a relatively scant body of work. That his reputation has grown more stellar through the centuries attests to the high value placed on his poetry. Readers have come to recognize that Keats works are always enjoyable, insightful, and pleasantly entertaining.
John Keats was born in London, October 31, 1795. Keats' father was a livery-stable owner. His parents both died while Keats was still a child, his father when Keats was eight years old, and his mother when he was only fourteen. Two
London merchants took up the responsibility of raising the young Keats, after being assigned to the task by Keats' maternal grandmother. Thus Richard Abbey and John Rowland Sandell became the boy's principal guardians.
Abbey was a wealthy merchant dealing in tea and took on the main responsibility for Keats' rearing, while Sandell's presence was fairly minor. Keats attended the Clarke School at Enfield until he was fifteen years old. Then guardian Abbey ended the boy's attendance at that school so that Abbey could enroll Keats in medical study to become a licensed apothecary. Keats, however, decided to forgo that profession in favor of writing poetry.
Lucky for Keats, he became acquainted with Leigh Hunt, an editor of influence at the Examiner. Hunt published Keats' two most widely anthologized sonnets, "On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer" and "O Solitude." As Keats' mentor, Hunt also became the medium through which the Romantic poet gained acquaintance with the two most important literary figures of that period, William Wordsworth and Percy Bysshe Shelley. Through the influence of that literary royalty, Keats was able to publish his first collection of poems in 1817, at the young age of 22.
Shelley recommended to Keats, likely because his young age, that the young poet should hold off on publishing until after he had amassed a more sizable collection of works. But Keats did not take that advice, perhaps out of the very fear that he would not live long enough to amass such a collection. He seemed sense that his life would be short.
Facing the Critics
Keats then published his 4000-line poem, Endymion, only a year after his first poems at been brought out. It appeared the Shelley's advice has been spot on when critics from the two most influential literary magazines of the period, The Quarterly Review and Blackwood’s Magazine, immediately attacked the young poet's herculean effort. Although Shelley agreed with the critics, he felt obliged to make it known that Keats was a talented poet despite that work. Shelley likely went too far and blamed Keats' worsening health issues of the critical attacks.
In the summer of 1818, Keats engaged in a walking tour in the north of England and into Scotland. His brother Tom was suffering from tuberculosis, so Keats retuned home to care for his ailing sibling. It was around his time that Keats met Fanny Brawne. The two fell in love, and the romance influenced some of Keats' best poems from 1818 to 1819. Also during this time, he was composing his piece titled "Hyperion," which is a Milton influenced Greek creation story. After his brother died, Keats ceased working on this creation myth. Later the next year, he took up the piece again, revising it as "The Fall of Hyperion." The piece remained unpublished until 1856, some 35 years after the poet's death.
One of Most Famous British Romantics
Keats published a further collection of poem in 1820, titled Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St. Agnes, and Other Poems. In addition to the three poems that make up the title of the collection, this volume includes his incomplete "Hyperion," "Ode on a Grecian Urn," "Ode on Melancholy," and "Ode to a Nightingale," three of his most widely anthologized poems. This collection received great praise from such literary giants as Charles Lamb, and others, in addition to Hunt and Shelley—all wrote enthusiastic reviews of the collection. Even the incompleted "Hyperion" was eagerly accepted as one of the finest poetic achievements of British poetry.
Keats was now very ill with tuberculosis in its advanced stages. He and Fanny Brawne had continued to correspond, but because of Keats' ill health as well as the considerable time it took for him to engage his poetic muse, the two has long considered marriage an impossibility. Keats physician recommended that the poet seek a warm climate to alleviate suffering from his lung disease, so Keats relocated from cold, wet London to the warmth of Rome, Italy. The painter, Joseph Severn accompanied Keats to Rome.
Keats is one of the most famous names in the British Romantic Movement, along with, William Blake, Anna Laetitia Barbauld, George Gordon, Lord Byron, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Felicia Dorothea Hemans, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Charlotte Turner Smith, and William Wordsworth, despite Keats' dying at the young age of 25 years. The young poet succumbed to tuberculosis, the disease that had plagued him for several years, in Rome on February 23, 1821. He is buried in Campo Cestio, or the Protestant Cemetery or the Cemetery for Non-Catholic Foreigners.
© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes