The Use of Private and Public Personae in the Poetry of Keats and Shelley

In defining the public and private personae of the two poets Keats and Shelley, it is helpful to compare their poetry with that of more recent poets. As an example to start with, the lines from Keats’ La Belle Dame sans Merci will be used.

I met a lady in the meads,

Full beautiful – a faery’s child,

Her hair was long, her foot was light,

And her eyes were wild.(3)

Although Keats is using the first person in starting, the meads or meadows he is writing about are ones of imagination. This is obvious from the first line of the poem starting as it does with the words “O what can ail thee, knight at arms”. The scene is therefore one of medieval times, and the woman one of myth or fancy. The personae who is the ‘I’ in these lines is the knight at arms who is being questioned in the first line, a knight who falls in love with the lady in the meads. Comparing this with a more modern poet, Eva Dobell, we have these lines:

Crippled for life at seventeen,

His great eyes seem to question why:

With both legs smashed it might have been

Better in that grim trench to die

Than drag maimed years out helplessly.(4)

This is not a mythical or imaginative scene, but a description of something Dobell has witnessed during the First World War, with personal responses added. So in La Belle Dame sans Merci, Keats is expressing through a personae of poesy, of myth and imagination. If Keats is expressing any private feelings, if he is giving any clue of personal relations or pains, then we must look for these in the tale of La Belle Dame sans Merci itself. At the end of the poem the knight’s dream reveals that “La Belle Dame sans Merci / Thee hath in thrall!”(5) The suggestion might therefore be that Keats felt at the mercy of his desires for women.

Looking at another poem by Keats, it includes the lines:

As Hermes once took to his feathers light,

When lulled Argus, baffled, swooned and slept,

So in Delphic reed, my idle spright

So played, so charmed, so conquered, so bereft(6)

This is described as a dream Keats experienced after reading Dante’s Episode of Paolo and Francesca. Like La Belle Dame sans Merci it is also expressed in imagery and language of mythology and imagination. Keats is thus placing himself, his personae, in a position akin to the Greek gods. He is saying, “As Hermes” once took to his feathers” so did I. Instead of a heaven however, he visits the “second circle of sad hell”.(7) That the sad hell includes the description of “Pale were the lips I kissed, and fair the form”, once more brings us to pain, or hell, in connection with a woman.

Many of Keats’ poems mention the lips and hair of women he has met, and sometimes their feet (there is apparently nothing in-between). Kissing is a frequent theme. So Keats’ public persona is at times one of poesy and imagination, far from any direct connection with everyday life. His private personae, assumed from the little read, has some aspects of being pained in relationships with women.

Shelley too has a very marked tendency to express within symbolic or mythic language, though perhaps not so markedly as Keats. In The Mask of Anarchy, a description and condemnation of the massacre of Peterloo, we have examples of this.

I met murder on the way –

He had a mask like Castlereagh –

Very smooth he looked, yet grim;

Seven blood-hounds followed him:(8)

By giving murder a gender – ‘He’ – Shelley, despite giving names and details, such as Castlereagh,(9) makes a symbol of the act instead of giving a straight description. For instance, what is Shelley referring to in these lines?

I bind the Sun’s throne with a burning zone,

And the Moon’s with a girdle of pearl;

The volcanoes are dim, and the stars reel and swim,

When the whirlwind my banners unfurl.(10)

The title of the poem is The Cloud, but once more Shelley has given the cloud an anthropomorphic identity. He is also ascribing to the cloud – I bind the Sun’s throne – a power of will and effectiveness. In the lines given, and in the other lines of the poem, he does not appear to be using the cloud as a symbol, simile or metaphor. If one were to write descriptive lines such as –

My thoughts arise like doves each day,

On Mercurial purpose bent they fly away,

Touching each corner of the world,

Arrows from my bow of mind are hurled.(11)

they could be seen as an uneconomic way of saying that publishing ones ideas allows them to reach other people the world over. Therefore, although this is obviously a generalisation, Shelley and Keats appear to have a public personae which poses as an identity with great learning and wide ranging mind. The pose is dressed in massive reference to simile and metaphor, and the wrapping of ideas in long and complex chains of words. Instead of “poetry” lifting “the veil from the hidden beauty of the world” – instead of the poet being the “heirophant of an unapprehended inspiration” as Shelley has suggested, it seems this personae may often be an obscuring force to what is plainly seen by many, but perhaps not put into words by them.

As for their private personae, the many poems of Keats on red and ‘pulp’ lips suggest hidden feelings.

Tis young Leander toiling to his death.

Nigh swooning, he doth purse his weary lips

For Hero’s cheek, and smiles against her smile.

O horrid dream! See how his body dips

Dead heavy; arms and shoulders gleam awhile:

He’s gone: up bubbles all his amorous breath!(12)

Considering that Leander swam treacherous sea to make love with Hero, today we might simply say, I am dying to have sex with you. In fact this poem is a very powerful statement to be made publicly. If we take Leander and the Hellespont to be symbols of what Keats feels, and what Keats is addressing to Miss Reynolds who is the object of the poem, then Keats is struggling almost to the death with turbulent forces in order to arrive at love making with Miss Reynolds. The turbulence may be emotional, or it may be the social forces or attitudes against which Keats must swim in order to arrive at the delight of sex. In the end lines though he is suggesting he cannot make the journey to the island of her sex. He drowns, he dies under the massive currents and energy against which he pits himself, or against which his natural urgent desires press him.

Therefore, in ascertaining the personae of these two poets from today’s viewpoint, it appeared very necessary for them to publicly dress themselves in cloaks of learning and poesy. I mean by the latter word an expression in action and words of living in a mental emotional world more beautiful and tragic than ‘normal’ humans, a world of vision and unusual inspiration. I am not saying they did live in this world, only that they wanted to, and wanted to appear to do so.

Their private persona seems tied to this. What they did outwardly was an expression of their own personal ambitions and uncertainties. If their outer expression was less passionate and direct than their feelings, then we must assume they hid personal pain. The social attitudes in which they lived, and that were alive in them, were forces against which they both fought. Clues to the private world underlying their social personae, may only be arrived at by a close reading of a wider sample than I have managed. However, the few poems mentioned do throw some light on this.


John Keats – The Complete Poems. Edited by John Barnard. Published by Penguin Books, 1973, UK. ISBN: 0-14-042210-2.

Reilly, Catherine – editor. Scars Upon My Heart. Published by Virago. 1981. ISBN 0-86068-226-9.

Shelley – Poetical Works. Edited by Thomas Hutchinson. Published by Oxford University Press. 1970. UK. ISBN: 0-19-281069-3.



John Keats – The Complete Poems.


Shelley – Poetical Works.


John Keats – The Complete Poems. Page 335. Fourth verse.


Scars Upon My Heart. Eva Dobell. Pluck. Page 31.


John Keats – The Complete Poems. Page 334.


John Keats – The Complete Poems. A Dream, after reading Dante’s Episode of Paolo and Francesca. Page 334.


John Keats – The Complete Poems. A Dream, after reading Dante’s Episode of Paolo and Francesca. Page 334.


Shelley – Poetical Works. Mask of Anarchy. Page 338.


Robert Stewart Castlereagh was foreign secretary from 1812, when he devoted himself to the overthrow of Napoleon and subsequently to the Congress of Vienna and the congress system. Abroad his policy favoured the development of material liberalism, but at home he repressed the Reform movement, and popular opinion held him responsible for the Peterloo massacre of peaceful demonstrators 1819.


Shelley – Poetical Works. The Cloud. Page 601.


My own fancy free.


John Keats – The Complete Poems. On a Leander Gem which Miss Reynolds, my kind Friend, Gave Me. Page 101.

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