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Terrific - but without the whole of Endymion
on 17 February 2014
So... Keats. An absolutely indispensable poet, but what's the best Keats to have on your shelf? There's no single answer to that one.
The problem with the various Collected Poems is that they contain so much ephemera, parodies, written-on-napkin nonsense and dullish collaborations with Charles Brown that the real central essential Keats gets a bit swamped.
So you want a Selected. You want an uncluttered book like this, where you've got Sleep and Poetry, The Odes, Hyperion, The Eve of St Agnes, La Belle Dame sans Merci .... you know, all the stuff that Matters. Those scents and tastes and the feel of things - I truly believe Keats is the only poet who wrote with all his baby-senses intact. And those electric visionary lines that (as the narrator says in the Kipling story "Wireless") look out on a region of the imagination that no-one else has ever been permitted to visit.
Down the wide stairs a darkling way they found.-
In all the house was heard no human sound.
A chain-droop'd lamp was flickering by each door;
The arras, rich with horseman, hawk, and hound,
Flutter'd in the besieging wind's uproar;
And the long carpets rose along the gusty floor.
This selection by John Barnard is really good, it is a very nice book to carry around and read deeply in. But it does have one big downside: it does not contain the whole of Endymion, only selections. We really do need to have the whole of Endymion, which remains one of Keats' most important poems, for all of Keat's own apologies about it.
The other alternative is Elizabeth Cook's Oxford selection, which does contain the whole of Endymion, but because she also includes so much prose it ends up (at 650 pages) just as bulky as Barnard's Complete Poems, and accordingly is an unpleasant book to read deeply in. Reading poetry is such a strenuous business, you need all the help you can get, so a poetry book should be light and portable, something you can pick up and throw down and bend the pages of.
The best selection, if you can only have one, is Paul de Man's Signet Selected from forty years ago. (He makes room for Endymion by binning Isabella and a few others.) Great introductory essay, too. But, anyway, that's out of print and is not easy to find any more.
The other book to get hold of, if you're really mad about Keats, is the Penguin First Editions reprint of Keat's final collection "Lamia, Isabella, the Eve of St.Agnes and Other Poems", exactly as it appeared in 1820. - Really eye-opening to see THE collection, with all those immortal poems, (and a few rubbish ones), just as it first came out.