Modern Love by John Keats – 19th or 21st century love?

English Love Poem, Love Poems
Modern Love by John Keats
Oishika Ghoshal

Love! One of the most iconic yet confusing emotions of… well, all eternity! As said by someone, “ Perhaps the oldest and the simplest emotion known to mankind is love”, and we agree! Love has been around since forever, present in the small instances of our daily lives, be it for others or for our own selves. It fills our hearts to completion, makes us happy beyond all measures, and in general is essential for our existence. Because if not love, then what?

modern love

Since we are now at the end of our theme of ‘15 Days of Fantastic Poetry’, we feel it fitting to conclude with a poem that, in essence, is a beautiful piece of poetry and love. Modern Love, by John Keats, is an enchanting piece of poetry that questions the modern description of love, calling out to the new romantics and questioning them if love is truly superficial? Or is it supposed to be deeper than just a short romance? If so, then why is the love that is felt today so frivolous and fleeting? Why do we want a love story like Romeo and Juliet, and not create our own? 

These are questions that, more often than not, all of us have asked at least once in our lifetime. Sometimes it’s when our hearts have been broken, sometimes when we’ve had a fight with our significant other, or sometimes, just when we are feeling alone and want someone to simply be there with us. Whatever the situation, love has always been questioned, even though it is one of the most felt emotions of all time.

modern love

And John Keats is no different! Even though he is renowned for his love poems, this is one is a rare masterpiece. It disputes his regular work and sees modern love not through rose-colored glasses but through skepticism. Regardless, it is a beautiful piece, and we feel overjoyed to bring it to you!

Before we delve into and analyze this poem, we would like to introduce one of the most famous poets of the Romantic era of England alongside Lord Byron and Percy Shelly. The poet is famously known for his odes and sensual style of poetry, John Keats!

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John Keats Biography

John Keats was one of the most famous Romantic poets from the early/mid-19th century. Even though he wasn’t famous during his lifetime, his works were better received after his death and went on to become classics in the field of literature. He is more well known for his odes; however, his romantic poetry is commendable too. Some of his most acclaimed works are ‘Ode to a Nightingale’, ‘Sleep and Poetry’ and one of his most famous sonnets, ‘On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer’. 

modern love

Keats was born in London on the 31st of October, 1795. He was the eldest of four children. He came from a not so well to do family; his father worked as a hostler at the stables of an inn. Since his parents, couldn’t afford a prestigious school, they had to send him to a boarding school. However, to Keats’ luck, the school has a very modern and progressive outlook on education and this was where he first developed his interests in classics and history which later went on to influence a lot of his writings. 

In 1815, Keats went on to apprentice with Dr. Hammond at his apothecary, and once his apprenticeship ended he joined Guy’s Hospital as a medical student. He was a model student and was very quickly promoted through the ranks to the position of a junior surgeon. It was a prestigious position that led his family to believe that he would pursue a career in medicine. However, that was not to be. He was drawn to poetry through the works of Lord Byron and Leigh Hunt. Inspired by them, Keats wrote his first poem ‘An Imitation of Spenser’ in 1814. Even though he obtained his apothecary license, he decided to leave medicine for good and focus all of his energy on poetry. 

One of his first books to be published as a volume of verse named ‘Poems’. However, the book was not critically well-received and aroused little interest among the public. This did not deter Keats’ spirit though. His new publishers and their lawyer realized his potential very soon and helped him throughout his short career.

In 1819, Keats moved to Wentworth Place (now the Keats House), and it was in this place that he wrote most of his poems like Ode on a Grecian Urn, Ode to Psyche, Ode on Melancholy, The Eve of St. Agnes, Hyperion, La Belle Dame sans Merci, Modern Love, Ode to a Nightingale, etc. A lot of these poems were influenced by the beauty of Wentworth Place.

modern love

In 1820, Keats was diagnosed with tuberculosis, which at that time had no cure. He moved to Rome where his health deteriorated further and in February of 1821, he breathed his last. Even though he didn’t attain fame in his short-lived career, his works went on to become a few of the most well-known pieces of literature. They are definitely a must-read for anyone who is drawn to poetry!

Now that we have read a bit about John Keats, let’s take a look at one of his most realistic poems – Modern Love!

Modern Love by John Keats

And what is love? It is a doll dress’d up

For idleness to cosset, nurse, and dandle;

A thing of soft misnomers, so divine

That silly youth doth think to make itself

Divine by loving, and so goes on

Yawning and doting a whole summer long,

Till Miss’s comb is made a pearl tiara,

And common Wellingtons turn Romeo boots;

Then Cleopatra lives at number seven,

And Antony resides in Brunswick Square.

Fools! if some passions high have warm’d the world,

If Queens and Soldiers have play’d deep for hearts,

It is no reason why such agonies

Should be more common than the growth of weeds.

Fools! make me whole again that weighty pearl

The Queen of Egypt melted, and I’ll say

That ye may love in spite of beaver hats.

modern love

Click here to read Robert Browning’s The Last Ride Together: A soulful encounter

Modern Love Summary

John Keats’s poem “Modern Love” examines how people’s expectations for love are affected by classic representations in literature. It enforces the idea that to expect a reflection of that kind of love in the modern day is unrealistic. He writes about what modern love is and how it is different now than before. In the first half of the poem, he compares love to a doll, who is played with and coddled during idle times and believed to be divine. Why? Only because it is the only thing that made a person happy. 

In the second half of the poem Modern Love, Keats brings in references from presumably Shakespeare’s most famous romantic comedies ‘Romeo and Juliet’ and ‘Anthony and Cleopatra’. He says that if love was a doll, then even common people would become Romeos, Cleopatra and Anthony would have the same standing. There wouldn’t be any question of passion and love would become as common as ‘beaver hats’. 

In the last few lines, Keats bemoans the loss of the classic tragic passionate love that was felt in the times earlier than his own. He says that if love was so common, then the agony that love brings would be as common as weeds in a garden. He calls the modern lovers ‘fools’ and says that if any one of them melts a pearl in vinegar as Queen Cleopatra did, then he would start believing in the concept of modern love again.

modern love

Modern Love Analysis

Modern Love is a poem that, in a subtle, but caustic way, gives a reality check to everyone who believes they are in love. Keats refers to the ‘modern love’ of his time i.e. in the early 1800s; despite this time difference, the message of the poem is still relevant today. John Keats believes that people pursue love and cultivate it even if it isn’t real. He believes that people try to feel the emotion of love because it makes them happy, and honestly who wouldn’t want happiness, even if just for a few seconds?

modern love

At the beginning of the poem Modern Love, he asks the reader what love is and immediately answers himself that it’s a doll to be dressed and coddled and cared for whenever wanted even though it’s not real. Like a doll, love is something people dress up and care for even though it isn’t real. They do this because it makes them feel good. Keats says that love is a thing of ‘soft misnomers’ (tiny deceptions) and that people do get deceived by it because it is divine. Love makes a person feel heavenly and like they are above others. After all, it feels good to have someone love you.

John Keats juxtaposes two romantic tragedies, Romeo and Juliet and Anthony and Cleopatra, and references them as common street names and household items. He intends to drive home the point that modern love in our modern lives does not require the same level of tragicness that is depicted in the two plays. By understanding the context of the references used, one can grasp how ridiculous John Keats feels it is for people to try and live out their own tragic love stories at the time he wrote the poem.

Keats believes that this feeling of love stems from the expectations people have for love. These expectations come from classic literature about love, specifically tragic love stories. We read these stories and we desire that kind of love. The desire for it is so strong that we begin to take upon ourselves the characteristics of these love stories. Keats thinks this is outright ridiculous. The feeling of love, whether it is real or not, changes our perception of the world. We create an illusion surrounding the love and place ourselves on a higher pedestal.

modern love

Keats goes on about how ridiculous it is to base our expectations for modern love on these stories simply because of the characters involved. Cleopatra and Anthony were royalty; one from Egypt, the other from Rome. Their love was extremely unique, not only because of the power the two of them held but also simply because of the distance between the two of them. He says that if Anthony and Cleopatra were people who lived down the street from each other, their modern love story would be something very different. It is unrealistic to try and project the kind of love depicted in the play on a normal relationship taking place in modern London. 

One of the last points that Keats makes in the poem ‘Modern Love’ is simple. First, he calls us fools and rightly so. At the end of both Antony and Cleopatra and Romeo and Juliet, the people who were in love, die. To strive for that kind of love, when there is no reason for it, is foolish. Keats believes that true love doesn’t require tragedy. Love and pain do not have to go hand in hand. Love can still exist despite the fact that we live in the time period that we do.

modern love

People will strive for love no matter what.  Even if they don’t know what love is. When this is the case, they can only strive for the kind of love that they have experienced. During Keats’s time, that experience came from literature. Keats believes that the tragic love that is portrayed in literature, specifically Shakespeare, isn’t relevant for people living in modern society. Modern love is just a way to try to relive the tragic love stories and that’s just not possible. Tragic, classic love stories set the bar of love pretty high, and Keats believes that it is not necessary for a normal person in modern society to reach that bar.

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Modern Love was written by Keats in the 19th century. Yet its message is still applicable today in the 21st century. Even today, we are influenced by unrealistic expectations for love which are brought about by literature and movies and TV series, and we wish our life was a fairytale. However, this kind of thought process is too misleading. Contrary to the much-wished belief, life is not a fairytale. Love doesn’t come as easy as it’s shown in films. People often forget that even in the tragic love stories, the protagonists had to struggle and fight for their love. If the figures who inspire us can fight for love, why can’t we?

At the end of the day, all we need to remember is this: Life is a struggle. Love is a struggle. The only thing that matters is the person who will make the struggle more bearable. This is what Modern Love should be!

modern love

Thus, with this beautiful specimen of poetry, Modern Love by John Keats, we conclude our ’15 Days of Fantastic Poetry’! It was an amazing journey for us to bring these beautiful pieces of poetry to you, and we hope you have had as much fun reading about them as we’ve had writing! Did you like this new concept? If yes, would you like us to introduce more such themes on our site? Please do let us know in the comments below.

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