What a 19th century poet taught me about novel writing

I’ve been studying a collection of poems by Keats recently. I was initially uncertain about whether I would enjoy them, though my enthusiasm has grown to the point where he and his Romantic friends inspired me to write a Contemporary YA book related to their lives.

Related Post: I wrote a book over lockdown: here’s my takeaways

The Romantic poets have become a real source of interest for me. Their friendships were strong, their lifestyles often strange if not completely wacky– anybody who assumes canonical authors had dull lives may need to do some further reasearch– and they often stood up for what they believed in, whether that was vegetarianism or abolition. 

For me, however, I also found myself drawn to Keats for other reasons. As a poet, he’s taught me a lot about my own writing both due to how he lived his life and how his work was received by others. 

I believe that these lessons could help you as a writer too. 

So, without further ado, here are four things that John Keats has taught me about writing.

  1. Writing is for everyone: there shouldn’t be a glass ceiling

Keats shouldn’t have been a poet. He wasn’t a member of the aristocracy like his contemporaries, or even rich. In reality, he was trained in medicine and was, to all extensive purposes, meant to follow in this career path. Due to his low station, he was known as one of the ‘cockney school’ of poetry, removed from the Lake poets, such as Wordsworth who were revered by critics. Solely due to his class, he wasn’t taken seriously. But still, Keats, like many other poets from poorer backgrounds was determined: he didn’t let this stand in his way.

Writing is for everyone: there shouldn’t be a glass ceiling.

‘Of all the manias of this mad age, the most incurable, as well as the most common, seems to be no other than the metromanie. The just celebrity of Robert Burns and Miss Baillie has had the melancholy effect of turning the heads of we know not how many farm-servants and unmarried ladies; our very footmen compose tragedies, and there is scarcely a superannuated governess in the island who does not leave a roll of lyrics behind her in her bandbox.’

John Gibson Lockhart writing as ‘Z’ in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine (August 1818)

Surely, if anything, this can teach us that writing shouldn’t rule out anybody. If you are interested in writing, shaping stories, putting together stanzas, etc. then there shouldn’t be an obstacle too insurmountable to stop you.

  1. You will receive criticism, but that’s okay

When Keats died at the young age of 25, there were many (mostly Percy Bysshe Shelley) who believed that his death wasn’t as a result of his tuberculosis but because he had been so mortally wounded by the onslaught of criticism he received about his work. It is true that he was treated badly. Coupled with his lack of the right social background to be a poet, some felt his writing was supposedly too ‘effeminate’, or lacking the necessary skill. Byron, in particular, was disdainful of his work: it was ‘trash’ and he should have been ‘flay[ed] alive’ for it, according to his uncharitable letters to John Murray. 

Keats easily could have given up with such criticism and yet, nowadays people revere his work and he has surpassed many of the poets that then were lauded. As a result, his work is studied today and unlike what he thought in his grave’s inscription, his name was not ‘writ in water.’ 

Criticism is important for us to hone our work but it shouldn’t stop us from doing what we love. Keats’ life is very much a testament for this. 

  1. You will doubt yourself but that doesn’t discredit you 

Many authors very much doubt their abilities. Is their writing good enough? Are their characters well-rounded enough? Keats must have felt the same. With such criticism as he received from the newspapers and the impact of this, some of his poetry does bear the marks of a man who wasn’t sure about his writing. In his Isabella; or the Pot of Basil, Keats apologises to the author of the original story that it was based on, Boccaccio, for the way he has turned it into verse. Whilst this may have been out of poetic respect for an ancient writer not genuine insecurity, Keats also complained about his poems to friends, showing markers of uncertainty. So, it is normal, Keats proves, to doubt yourself when you’re writing.

That’s why it’s important to have a fresh lens to see you work from. Don’t see it through your own clouded perception that may be affected by insecurity: simple joy can still be found in your writing.  

That’s why it’s important to have a fresh lens to see you work from. Don’t see it through your own clouded perception that may be affected by insecurity: simple joy can still be found in your writing.  

  1. Often, we can benefit from letting our readers work things out for themselves

A lot of Keats’ poems, like much verse, really, are ambiguous. What happens at the end of The Eve of St Agnes? Who is the lady in La Belle Dame sans Merci? We never learn. Keats relies very much on us thinking about what he is writing and he suspends our disbelief at the strange plot twists that he brings us through his use of medieval, fairy like settings. In some of his poems, there is no definite location to them. We are given vague indications of where the narrations are set but no formality. And so, as readers, we are forced to think.

Perhaps, this is something that we can build into our writing: do we need to spell everything out? Maybe, just maybe, it is okay to let our readers think for themselves. 

In summary then, the writing process is difficult. We may be challenged by our own backgrounds, our relative obscurity and how people receive our work but that does not mean that there is no merit to it. Like Keats, perhaps to move forward and to progress in our writing, we need to keep on trying, to not give up. 

Like Keats, we need to just get pen to paper.

Have you read any Keats? What are the biggest obstacles you face in your writing? Do you think that we should spell things out for readers or that we should explore them in detail?

7 thoughts on “What a 19th century poet taught me about novel writing

    1. Yes, I do recommend reading some Keats. He can be a little difficult to understand at times but if his poems are read slowly, they can be really enjoyable 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  1. I have not read any of Keat’s writing, but I am now quite interested in doing so.

    I loved hearing your thoughts in this post, thank you for the encouragement!

    One thing that I have struggled with in fiction writing is simply putting my stories on to paper. I can basically write a story in my head, but putting it on paper seems impossible at times. 😀

    Also, I must say, I love when stories are complex and not exactly fully explainable, you truly do have to think so much harder and engage with the story on a deeper level.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks, I’m glad you enjoyed it! I think putting a story to paper is hard to and it’s always a challenge to make it seem exactly like you imagine it. Good luck with your writing!

      Liked by 2 people

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