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  • Print publication year: 2010
  • Online publication date: July 2011

28 - Second-generation Romantic poetry 2: Shelley and Keats


The two poets treated in this chapter, Percy Bysshe Shelley and John Keats, have entered the cultural imagination as a fused type of the inspired Romantic poet who burns with self-consuming lyric ardour and dies young. Even before Arthur Hallam grouped them together as ‘poets of sensation’ in his review of Tennyson’s 1832 volume, Poems, Chiefly Lyrical, they both enjoyed the editorial championship of Leigh Hunt, who fighted them, with John Hamilton Reynolds, a close friend of Keats, in his ‘Young Poets’ Examiner article of December 1816. Time meant Shelley and Keats to be allied, poetic incarnations of the same second-generation British Romantic Zeitgeist. Born three years apart, Shelley in August 1792, Keats in October 1795, they died in consecutive years, Keats in February 1821 and Shelley in July 1822. And yet the two poets were never exactly friends, and their work is fascinatingly different as well as alike.

Indeed, they can be and have been set against one another in credible if at times too sharply opposed ways: Shelley as a poet of intellectual beauty, Keats of the physical; Shelley of radical aspiration, Keats of liberal realism; Shelley of belief in Godwinian perfectibility, Keats of scepticism about ‘Godwin-methodist’ approaches to life, as demonstrated by his friend Dilke. Shelley may appear more mistrustful of language’s adequacy than Keats, more inclined to use similes that concede their final lack of correspondence with non-verbal reality: ‘What thou art we know not; / What is most like thee?’ – these lines, addressed to the skylark, embody Shelley’s grasp of language’s inability fully to embody and yet point towards its resourcefulness in his hands.