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Analysis of ‘On Fame’ by John Keats

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On Fame

John Keats was an English romantic lyric poet whose poetry was marked by vivid imagery; it had a philosophy and was perfect poetry.  He was born in London on October 31, 1795. He lived only for 25 years but created some brilliant poems in that short span of life. In 1818 he went on a walking tour in the Lake District. This exertion and exposure on that trip brought about the first signs of tuberculosis which eventually took his life on February 23rd 1821. Many of Keats works were criticised; Keats must have taken the criticism positively because by the end of 1817 he was re-examining the role of poetry in the society. He wanted his poetry to be drawn out of real world human experiences instead of mythical grandeur.

‘On Fame’ is a poem which personifies ‘fame’ and likens it to a lover. He starts off by saying that fame is like a ‘wayward’ girl but who is ‘coy’ to those who try to win her by going down on their ‘slavish knees’. Someone who is ignoring her like a ‘thoughtless boy’, she surrenders to him. She loves those who are easy going. He then addresses fame as a gypsy. A gypsy is one who will not stay in one place, so too fame keeps moving from one person to another.  He quickly adds that she will not even speak to those who are not ‘content without her’.  She is also one who has jilted her lover, meaning put down someone who she had taken to the top of fame. She feels that those who talk about her ‘scandal her’. She is a gypsy born to the mythological Greek god of rivers. Fame is also sister-in-law to ‘jealous Potiphar’.  Then comes an advice for the ‘love-sick’ poets; he asks them to treat fame with ‘scorn’. He addresses the artists by calling them ’mad-men’ and asks them to bid her adieu and keep going  and then when she likes their work, she will follow them.

‘On Fame’ is a sonnet, a fourteen line poem with the rhyme scheme ABABCDCDEFEFGG. These fourteen lines are of iambic pentameter. Iamb is a meter which has a stressed followed by an unstressed syllable. When there are five such sets, it is called pentameter. Some analysts feel that ‘On Fame’ is not just a poem on fame but it is also about love. The point they want to make is that love also moves away as we try to impress her. If we pretend to ignore or scorn a girl then she comes behind the man. Keats has given the same logic to fame. Personification which is a poetic device is the main device used by Keats in this poem. Assonance is used in the line, ‘To those who woo her with too slavish knees’; woo, who and too are the vowels sounds repeated in the same line and this is assonance. The line ‘Make your best bow to her and bid adieu’, is an example for alliteration with the words ‘best, bow and bid’ in the same line. Anaphora is the repetition of a word and the words repeated in this poem are ‘gypsy, scorn, ye’.  Keats liked to bring in the Greek gods and goddesses and in this poem he compares fame with Nilus and brings in the name of Potiphar. Many critics do rate this poem ‘On Fame’ as amongst his best poems, nevertheless it is poem with a different thought. This poem is a comment on gender, power and identity.