Virtual Romanticism?
It may seem odd to read romantic poetry on a 17-inch Computer-Screen (let it even be a flatscreen). And it will sure take many more years until we can all enjoys Keats's poems online as naturally as men have done for nearly two-hundred years on paper. But let's forget about reading conventions for a moment. Let's consider how we could discover the works of John Keats all anew today.

«Why did I laugh tonight?»

Of course, one can accept this poem without any further word about it. And that may even be the best way to get in contact with any piece of art: solely, leaving behind all prejudice, opinion and theory. However, in reality, we often feel rather helpless confronted with a poem with its mysterious beauty. A book - even one written on elephant-skin - stays silent at our awe.

 Why did I laugh to-night? No voice will tell:
 No God, no Demon of severe response,
 Deigns to reply from heaven or from Hell.
 Then to my human heart I turn at once.
 Heart! Thou and I are here sad and alone;
 I say, why did I laugh! O mortal pain!
 O Darkness! Darkness! ever must I moan,
 To question Heaven and Hell and Heart in vain.
 Why did I laugh? I know this Being's lease,
 My fancy to its utmost blisses spreads;
 Yet would I on this very midnight cease,
 And the world's gaudy ensigns see in shreds;
 Verse, Fame, and Beauty are intense indead,
 But Death intenser - Death is Life's high meed.

The Letters
By contrast, reading the poem on this website, we will find two hyperlinks at the end. The first one leads to the letter in which Keats noted down the lines. It is addressed to his brother George, who had emigrated to the United States with his wife Georgiana. Keats writes:

Excerpt from a letter to George and Georgiana Keats

Reading the poem once more with the letter in mind, one may find it calmer and more confident than on first impression. Despite the "mortal pain" and all the exclamation marks, Keats encounters his existential doubts less in desperation than in an inner peace. The poem is written - as he puts it - "with no agony but that of ignorance; with no thirst of any thing but Knowledge". Keats explains his feelings in the two pages prior to the poem, which are mentioned in the letter. Here you get an excellent idea of the doubtful yet calm state of mind this poem was written in.

«I am ever affraid that your anxiety for me will lead you to fear for the violence of my temperament continually smothered down: for that reason I did not intend to have sent you the following sonnet - but look over the two last pages and ask yourselves whether I have not that in me which will well bear the buffets of the world. It will be the best comment on my sonnet; it will show you that it was written with no Agony but that of ignorance; with no thirst of any thing but Knowledge when pushed to the point though the first steps to it were through my human passions - they went away, and I wrote with my Mind - and perhaps I must confess a little bit of my heart -»hy did I laugh to-night? No voice will tell:

The Biography
Andrew Motion the celebrated biographer of John Keats, wrote on the poem: "[It] is a landmark. It shows him recovering his poetic concentration, and renewing his need to accept 'Darkness' as a part of life." This leads us to the second hyperlink below the poem. It refers to the biographical context of the lines. Since every modern "Life of Keats" is protected by copyright, the only thorough information on his life we can present here is the biography written in 1884 by Sir Sidney Colvin. Old as it is, it may turn out very helpful.

Excerpt from the biography by Sir Sidney Colvin

If nothing else, this passage helps us to spot the poem in the chronology of Keats' life and it gives some friendly hints on related poems and letters. Again, the lonely, personal and unaided approach to a poem is probably the best of all. If you grasp what the poem reveals by itself, than there is no need to let the context speak for it. However before we give up, we can really use a little background information.

« Among all the letters of Keats, this is perhaps the richest and most chracteristic. It is full of the varied matter of his thoughts, excepting always his thoughts of love: these are only to be discerned in one trivial allusion, and more indistinctly in the vaguely passionate tenor of two sonnets which he sends among other specimens of his latest work in verse. One is that beginning 'Why did I laugh to-night?' For the rest he passes disconnectedly as usual - "it being an impossibility in grain," and Keats once wrote to Reynolds, "for my ink to stain otherwise" - from the vein of fun and freakishness to that of poetry and wisdom, with passages now of masterly intuition, and now of wandering and uncertain, almost always beautiful, speculative fancy, interspersed with expressions of the most generous spirit of family affection, or the most searching and unaffected disclosures of self-knowledge.»

A Keats Community is far more than an online volume of Keats' works, life & letters. Reading Keats in a book, you note your ideas and questions on the border of the page. There they will remain until, perhaps, one day some other reader of the book will find them and wonder. Reading Keats on, you can enter your remarks into the forum. There, they may incite a lively discussion among Keats-enthusiasts and -specialists from all over the world.
Does that sound promising to you?
Then do get involved in our virtual Keats-Community!

John Keats

© 2000 Thilo v. Pape