On A Lock of Milton's Hair: Summary & Analysis

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Introduction

      Keats in his letter to Bailey written on 23rd January 1818, mentions how the ode was written when he saw a real authenticated lock of Milton’s hair at Hunt’s home. In the ode Keats takes a vow to write something worth-while on Milton’s life and poetry in later years, when his poetic faculty would be mature enough to write on such a great poet. At the moment, even if he had made an attempt to pay a tribute to his poetry, it would have been a vain and presumptuous-task. In fact, this pledge was not fulfilled because Keats died young. The poet died in almost three years after the writing of this poem.

Summary

      Keats pays a tribute to the harmony of Milton’s poetry. He was indeed a great poet who wrote about the fall of man in Paradise Lost. He had a great sense of melody and he produced harmonies out of discordant notes. In fact, he was an embodiment of sweet voice and melodious rhythms. It would be a useful effort on the part of Keats to pay homage to such a great poem in adequate words. Only a poet, as great as Keats could write adequately on Milton’s greatness. However, Keats takes a vow that as soon as his poetic powers mature and he has made a deep study of philosophy, he would in later years write on the life and poetry of Milton. At that time, he would mention how in his early years, he had seen a lock of Milton’s hair in Hunt’s house and how greatly he was thrilled thereby. His excitement at this unexpected discovery would be amply mentioned in the tribute he would then pay to the greatness of Milton as a poet. Keats looks forward to the development of his intellect and a ripening of his poetic faculties when he would be fit enough to write on Milton’s poetry.

Critical Analysis

      The poem shows Keats’s feeling of modesty and a consciousness of his own inferiority as a poet. Keats had a great respect for Milton’s poetry. Though Keats was a romantic poet and differed from Milton’s school, he recognized the great qualities of Milton’s poetry—its music and sublimity. Like Milton, he would like to “grow high-life with old philosophy and mad with glimpses of futurity” before he took up his pen to pay an adequate tribute to Milton’s poetry. A.R. Weeks remarks in this connection:

      “The chief interest of this Ode lies in the glimpse which gives us into Keats’s mind at this time. He regards his work and life as altogether immature, and looks forward to the calming influence of years, and to training of the intellect through a study of philosophy, to fit him for his career. The combination of humility with conscious power is remarkable, and the whole tone accords with Keats’s own saying, ‘The road lies through application, study, and thought. I will pursue it.’ Keats must have been greatly influenced by Milton because we find in his Hyperion ample influence of Milton’s Paradise Lost.”
The poem indicates Keats’s modesty and his realization of the gulf between his poetic power and Milton’s achievement. Unfortunately, the opportune time for writing on Milton did not come in Keats’s life—“It was not to be.”

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