To One Who Has Been Long in City Pent Summary and Analysis

One of the greatest English poets, John Keats (1795–1821) created an astonishing body of work before his early death from tuberculosis at the age of 26. Much of his poetry consists of deeply felt lyrical meditations on a variety of themes — love, death, the transience of joy, the impermanence of youth and beauty, the immortality of art, and other topics — expressed in verse of exquisite delicacy, originality, and sensuous richness.

Poem: Keith D. White says of this poem, that it was “written while Keats was a wound dresser at Guy’s hospital, an institution located in one of the dirtiest and most depressing areas of London.”

To One Who Has Been Long in City Pent

By: John Keats

To one who has been long in city pent,
‘Tis very sweet to look into the fair
And open face of heaven,—to breathe a prayer
Full in the smile of the blue firmament.
Who is more happy, when, with heart’s content,
Fatigued he sinks into some pleasant lair
Of wavy grass, and reads a debonair
And gentle tale of love and languishment?
Returning home at evening, with an ear
Catching the notes of Philomel,—an eye
Watching the sailing cloudlet’s bright career,
He mourns that day so soon has glided by:
E’en like the passage of an angel’s tear
That falls through the clear ether silently.


The poem is a sonnet where the narrator, here Keats himself, glories nature and the open landscape. City life is claustrophobic with its filth and gloom. In contrast the poet finds the country-side a breath of fresh air, an escape from the suffocating and cheerless atmosphere of industrial London.

He extols the pleasure of looking up into the sky after being pent up in the city for so long. It is a celebration of natural existence, a solemn rite almost, to look into the open face of “Heaven” and “breathe a prayer”;

“Full in the smile of the blue firmament.”

The poet makes sacrosanct, the act of looking up at the vast, expanse of the blue sky which is like Heaven. Out of the stifling confines of his home, the poet’s breath becomes a prayer offered up to the entire blue smiling “firmament”.

The word “firmament” elevates the line and transforms the beautiful outdoors into a place of consecrated worship. We the audience, feel with the poet, the rejuvenating power of nature and her inherent divinity. The contrast between the confines of the city and the life-affirming quality of nature is vividly and strategically done.  The secular tone gives way to a reverent one as the poet escapes into nature’s lovely openness.

In the next lines, the poet amplifies the redemptive virtues of nature and affirms positively, “who is more happy?” than he himself with heart’s content, when weary and tired, he drops down onto the wavy grass (a pleasant lair), with a book that tells of “love and languishment”.

The lines speak of the freeing power, the natural surroundings have on the poet, leading to a progression of happy contentment; a cosy grassy place to lie down in under a blue sky, and enjoy a sophisticated book of love and longing.

Evening comes and with it the end of the day’s whimsical reprieve.

“Returning home at evening, with an ear

Catching the notes of Philomel,—an eye
Watching the sailing cloudlet’s bright career,
He mourns that day so soon has glided by:
E’en like the passage of an angel’s tear
That falls through the clear ether silently. “

The poet returns home with nonetheless an ear for the notes of Philomel (a reference to the song of the nightingale in Ovid’s Metamorphoses) and an eye for the “sailing cloudlet” whose path streaks across the coloured sky as the sun sets. An elevated reference to Philomel is in line with the earlier personification of the open sky as heavenly and a blue smiling firmament.

Now the poet mourns that the day, seemingly passed away too soon. It is described just like an angel’s tear moving past, falling silently through empty space. Here as well, the elevated status of nature is continued and preserved with the metaphor of an angel’s tear dropping from heaven as the day is over all too quickly for the poet.

Language and Poetic Devices:

In order to communicate that message of affinity for nature to his intended audience, the poet used a number of specific strategies throughout the body of the poem.

The poem as a whole is in the form of a Petrarchan sonnet, in which the rhyme scheme is as follows: abbaabba for the first eight lines, and cdcdcd for the last six. This specific rhyme scheme is accompanied by the use of iambic pentameter throughout the poem’s entirety, excepting the third line which contains eleven syllables. This line marks a shift in the poem’s theme as it moves from purely secular descriptions of being in “city pent” and finding joy in looking at nature to such religious references as heaven and prayer.

Indeed, it is the two syllables of the word “prayer” which end the third line and push the syllable count to eleven; this leads the reader to especially note the speaker’s worshipful tone while out in nature.

As the speaker continues to enlarge upon nature’s virtues in such lines as the fifth and sixth in which he questions “who is more happy, when, with hearts content, fatigued he sinks into some pleasant lair,” he also utilizes alternation between end-stopped and enjambed lines to highlight the lines which bring with them a sense of completion and peace.

For example, the seventh line continues the above description of the “pleasant lair” as grassy and introduces a “debonair tale” with an enjambed line, while the eighth completes the four-line question (from line five to line eight) with a specific description of the book. This technique lends the poem a balance in which the reader tranquilly follows the progression of the speaker’s mind toward peace as he relates the pleasures of the natural world.

The language of the poem also lends itself to a balanced tone as it consists of both simple and elevated diction. For example, the only word which stands out as particularly elevated in the first four lines is the reference to the “firmament” in the fourth, which is in place mostly to ground the comparison of nature with a place of worship.

Later, the speaker describes the tale as “debonair” and makes an elevated reference to “Philomel” or the nightingale from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, but those is the only notable uses of exalted or exclusive language. Overall, the poet’s mixture of common and elevated words strikes the perfect balance of approachability and exclusivity which is likely to appeal to the widest ranging audience.

The balanced word choice is offset by the deft use of metaphor and personification which lends itself to the peaceful flow of the poem from start to finish. For example, in the first four lines heaven is personified as having a “fair and open face” and a “smile” as well; this figure of speech is followed very fluidly by the simile in the last three lines comparing the quickness of the day to “the passage of an angel’s tear.”

This very fluidity results from the poet’s adherence to the overall theme of comparing nature to religious concepts; thus, the different figures of speech are not jarring in their presentation but flow smoothly from the concept of heaven to the related description of the angel. This results in a cohesive poem whose deft use of figurative language borders on the utilization of an extended metaphor throughout the whole text.

Overall, all of the above referenced strategies result in a poem whose message as to the peaceful joys to be found in nature is supported by a structure with just the sort of balance and serenity that the theme espouses. The speaker’s journey from confinement in the city, to contentment in the meadows, and finally to nostalgia in the wake of a beautiful day is echoed by every poetic device and resounds all the more fully as a result.
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