Countee Cullen’s poem, “To John Keats, Poet, at Spring Time,” illustrates Cullen’s desire to be thought of as a poet, not a “Negro poet,” and to “succeed as a poet not by innovation, but by a strict adherence to the traditional standards and practices of English verse.” (Norton 1339) Cullen's pastoral imagery, rhyme schemes, and use of classical mythology are highly reminiscent of John Keats (1795–1821).
The first two lines of Cullen’s poem present a bold, restless declaration:
“I cannot hold my peace, John Keats;
There never was a spring like this;”
Cullen states directly and clearly that he has a voice, that he must speak and be heard; and with these opening lines, he initiates a sort of conversation with Keats.
“There never was a spring like this,” may likely be a reference to Keats’ 1884 poem, “The Human Seasons,” in which he writes:
“There are four seasons in the mind of man:
He has his lusty Spring, when fancy clear
Takes in all beauty with an easy span”
Cullen was in the “Spring” of his life, just 22 years old when he wrote this poem. With the opening stanza of “To John Keats…,” he seems to be announcing that he is coming into his own, finding his voice and his inspiration in the form of traditional English verse. This is further established in the next four lines, in which Cullen acknowledges several sources of inspiration: his own youth and poetic voice, the Beauty of nature and the traditional verse, of which Keats was a master. The final four lines of the first verse contrast Keats’ death with Cullen’s life. He refers to Keats as a “Poor, troubled, lyric ghost,” one who seems to be haunting Cullen and acting as his muse.
Cullen then repeats the opening line again, “I cannot hold my peace, John Keats,” and with the second verse of his lyrical poem, he immerses the reader in the in a pastoral springtime scene of lambs and dogwood petals, the last remaining snow, birds and lilacs. He describes springtime as a sensual woman, referring to her breasts, shoulders and cheek, her color and odor. He ends the stanza with the line, “All things that slept are now awake,” which acts as a transition to the next verse, in which Cullen nearly raises Keats from the dead.
Cullen equates Keats with the earth under which he is now buried, suggesting that Keats’ spirit lives on in nature; that his voice is in the trees and the buds and the blossoms, and that his fingers, although they can no longer write words on a page, “work as grass in the hush of the night on the broad sweet page of the earth.”
The verse ends with the phrase “And while my head is earthward bowed, To read new life sprung from your shroud.” Cullen’s use of this phrase is brilliant. It not only refers to the posture of one reading, but also calls forth a familiar black colloquialism about mortality, and draws another parallel between himself and Keats, noting that while he is alive, he will someday die also. Cullen, like Keats, recognizes life's fragility and limitations, and its natural cycle of life and death. Both poets address the beauty of nature and this natural cycle, and both men died at a very early age.
The last four lines of the poem exemplify the affinity that Cullen feels for Keats, and solidify the bond that Cullen feels, while simultaneously separating himself from his contemporaries.
“Folks seeing me must think it strange
That merely spring should so derange
My mind. They do not know that you,
John Keats, keep revel with me, too.”
His use of the word “Folks” suggests that he is looking down on those who do not understand his passion for Keats’ classic verse. Cullen defends his choice to find his artistic voice, and kinship with a dead, poet from more than a century ago.
Cullen paid homage to John Keats in several poems, including "To Endymion," "To John Keats, Poet" and "For John Keats, Apostle of Beauty." With this poem, Cullen establishes himself on even footing with Keats, as a colleague. In form, theme and verse he aligns himself with this well-known and respected classic 18th-century English poet.