The Magazine

Poet of Loss

Dead at 25, Keats is forever the passionate voice.

Apr 22, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 30 • By MICHAEL DIRDA
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Something of a scrapper and hardly a model student, young Keats nonetheless fell in love with that key to all mythology, Lemprière’s Classical Dictionary. Using it as a source book, the teenage boy began work on a (now lost) prose translation of the Aeneid, possibly as a distraction from grief at his mother’s death. About the same time, he discovered Spenser’s Faerie Queene and went through it, in his own words, “as a young horse would through a spring meadow—ramping!” A similar passion for Shakespeare and Milton soon followed.

Im his middle teens, Keats enrolled as a surgeon’s pupil at Guy’s Hospital, taking classes in chemistry in the mornings and dissecting corpses in the afternoons. In May 1816, his first poem, “To Solitude,” appeared in Leigh Hunt’s magazine, the Examiner. Through Hunt—who sometimes called the poet “Junkets”—Keats gradually came to know the history painter Benjamin Robert Haydon, the essayists William Hazlitt and Charles Lamb, the poet Shelley (and his two wives, the second being Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein), and, most memorably, the god of the day, William Wordsworth. 

On Saturday, May 26, 1816—not long before his 21st birthday—Keats set down the lines of his first great poem, “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer”: Much have I travelled in the realms of gold, / And many goodly states and kingdoms seen .  .  . 

One evening about this same time, Hunt playfully proposed to “Junkets” that they each compose a sonnet in 15 minutes. Nobody remembers Hunt’s; Keats’s strikingly begins: The poetry of earth is never dead. In March 1817, Poems appeared, the first of three volumes that Keats would publish in his lifetime. Not long after, in the wake of complaints and negative reviews, the book’s publisher sent a truly nasty letter to Keats in which they expressed regret for having issued a work that was “no better than a take in.”  

Keats shrugged it off, in part because he was caught up in writing  Endymion. This diffuse “poetic romance”—about the love between a shepherd and the moon goddess Cynthia—was begun during a trip to the Isle of Wight; its third book was composed in Oxford while visiting a friend, and the fourth was written in Hampstead. I remember first reading its famous opening lines, in Oscar Williams’s Immortal Poems of the English Language, when I was only a few years younger than their author:

A thing of beauty is a joy forever:

Its loveliness increases; it will never

Pass into nothingness, but still will keep

A bower quiet for us, and a sleep

Full of sweet dreams, and health, and
     quiet breathing.

Endymion appeared as a book in 1818, about the same time that Keats started taking mercury for his likely venereal disease. (As he writes in a contemporary poem: There’s a blush for won’t and a blush for shan’t— / And a blush for having done it.) Roe speculates that this treatment may have weakened his immune system and thus made him more susceptible to the chest infections, sore throats, and tuberculosis that ultimately killed him. Whatever the case, that same year he produced the great sonnet, full of foreboding, which opens: When I have fears that I may cease to be / Before my pen has gleaned my teeming brain .  .  .  

Later in 1818, he and Charles Armitage Brown were able to embark on a walking tour of the Lake District in northern England, and the Scotland of Robert Burns. Together the pair hiked “over 640 miles, averaging around fifteen miles for each of the forty-three days they were on foot.” Eventually, having come down with a sore throat and fever, Keats took ship back to London, where he discovered that his brother Tom had entered the final stages of his long illness. At the same time, Keats found his poetry viciously attacked as “driveling idiocy” in Blackwood’s Magazine

While caring for Tom—when youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies— Keats did, however, meet 18-year-old Fanny Brawne (whom he would soon yearningly imagine “moistened and bedewed with Pleasures”), and shortly thereafter started work on his sexiest and most gorgeous poem, The Eve of St. Agnes. Roe speculates that it, too, bears the impress of Keats’s parents: “The themes of secret passion, a bold lover, a maiden whose dreams prove far from chaste, their love-making and elopement fit the outlines of what little we know about the personalities and relationship of Thomas and Frances.”