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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Oh, for ten years, that I may overwhelm / Myself in poesy.

Portrait of John Keats by William Hilton

Portrait of John Keats by William Hilton

National Portrait Gallery, London

So wrote the author of  “Sleep and Poetry,” composed in late 1816. Alas, John Keats was allowed only half that time, dying at the age of 25 in 1821.

Is there any more affecting story than his in the annals of English literature? Orphaned at a young age, barely five feet tall (and sensitive about it), and raggedly educated, Keats was nonetheless naturally gregarious and fond of “women, wine, and snuff.” A Londoner through and through, he loved the theater, enjoyed watching boxing matches, and once spent an evening cutting cards for half guineas. This sometimes overidealized poet—so sensitive! so ethereal!—even seems to have been treated for a venereal disease, possibly syphilis. He fell in love at least twice before he met Fanny Brawne, to whom he became engaged. When they were apart or quarrelling, he suffered horribly from jealousy. 

For a couple of years, the young Keats was also absorbed with medical studies and nearly became what we might call a physician’s assistant. Admirably dedicated to his siblings, he wrote regularly to his sister Fanny and his brother George (who emigrated to the United States and was cheated out of his savings by John James Audubon, no less). When his other brother, Tom, fell mortally ill of consumption, i.e., tuberculosis, the poet devotedly nursed him—to the detriment of his own health. When, shortly after Tom’s death, Keats himself spat up a bit of deep red, he recognized it as arterial blood, and knew that he, too, was doomed. He traveled to Italy, hoping for a reprieve, but ultimately died, after great suffering, in Rome. On his tombstone, he requested that these words be inscribed: “Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water.”  

The dying Keats was, however, quite wrong about being forgotten. Percy Bysshe Shelley almost immediately composed one of his greatest works, “Adonaïs,” as a memorial to him. Charles Armitage Brown brought out a brief biography, in which he accused the literary critics who had scathingly attacked Keats and “the Cockney School of Poetry” of having hastened his beloved friend’s death. Substantial lives and studies gradually appeared, including a two-volume biography by Amy Lowell early in the 20th century and, in the 1960s, substantial volumes by Walter Jackson Bate, Aileen Kelly, and Robert Gittings. Nearly all of these books are first-rate in their differing ways, for Keats seems to bring out the best in his admirers. In 2008, for instance, Stanley Plumly’s “personal biography,” Posthumous Keats, garnered tremendous reviews and well-deserved praise. To scholar and fellow poet David Baker, it was nothing less than  “the greatest book ever written about the greatest lyric poet of our language.”

Even with such competition, John Keats: A New Life has much to recommend it. Nicholas Roe, professor of English at the University of St Andrews, comes to his mighty task with superb credentials: two previous scholarly studies of the poet, a biography of the fiery controversialist Leigh Hunt (whom the young Keats revered), and the chairmanship of the Keats Foundation. Roe writes, moreover, with reportorial crispness (though he does overuse phrases like “as we shall see”) and, at times, tracks his subject’s brief life almost by the hour. 

“Like Wordsworth in ‘Tintern Abbey’ and The Prelude,” underscores Roe, “as a poet Keats depended on memories laid down in very early childhood.” Roe stresses, in particular, the emotional turmoil resulting from the death, while riding, of Keats’s 31-year-old father, Thomas, when John was just 8 years old. This was followed by the sudden remarriage of Keats’s mother, Frances, two months later to a man “aged twenty, with no income of his own.” Roe even raises the possibility that Frances, known to be lively and “passionately fond of amusement,” may have been carrying on a clandestine affair before her first husband’s death. When she died at just 35 from tuberculosis, her children—John, George, Tom, and Fanny—found themselves thrust upon various relatives, or sent away to school. Financial wrangling within the extended family dragged on for years.

Roe sees aspects of these family tragedies, and possible suspicions about his mother, reemerging throughout Keats’s poetry—as well as being a possible cause of his self-confessed “morbidity” and Hamlet-like melancholy. Death haunted the poet’s early life, and part of his childhood was spent literally next door to Bethlem Royal Hospital, aka Bedlam, the asylum for the insane.

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.”  

Perhaps. Roe does seem to ride that familial hobbyhorse pretty hard. More persuasive is his observation that the poem’s allusion to jellies smoother than the creamy curd / And lucent syrops, tinct with cinnamon points to Keats’s need to soothe his ravaged throat.

Quite possibly it was during his brother’s illness, and certainly during his own, that Keats began to take laudanum, the only reliable painkiller at the time. Thus, in the “Ode on Indolence,” he speaks of poetry as being sweet as drowsy noons / And evenings steep’d in honied indolence, while his “Ode to a Nightingale” opens by evoking a drowsy numbness .  .  . as though of hemlock I had drunk / Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains.

And yet Keats was no drug-addled slacker. Consider the series of masterpieces produced during what has been called “the living year”—September 1818 to September 1819: At an age when many college students would be just graduating, Keats composed not only the “Ode to a Nightingale,” but also the Miltonic mini-epic Hyperion, The Eve of St. Agnes, “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” (Her hair was long, her foot was light / And her eyes were wild), the “Ode on a Grecian Urn” (For ever wilt thou love and she be fair!), the “Ode to Melancholy,” Lamia (Do not all charms fly / At the mere touch of cold philosophy?), and “To Autumn.” This last, sometimes called the finest lyric poem in the English language, opens by invoking the Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, and gradually builds to its great apostrophe: Where are the songs of spring? Ay, where are they? The poet then quickly answers: Think not of them, thou hast thy music too.

Even while juggling illness, poetry, letter-writing, and a growing love for Fanny Brawne, Keats was continually plagued by money troubles and, at one time, thought of joining Simón Bolívar’s insurgents in South America. Eventually, he decided that the way to a fast buck was to write for the theater, and so he produced, with the help of his friend Charles Brown, Otho the Great. As with Lamia or “La Belle Dame Sans Merci,” its story turns on that favorite Keatsian theme of a lover ensnared and betrayed by a woman. But it was too late.

By the end of 1819, there could be no doubt that Keats himself was succumbing to tuberculosis. In the remaining year and a half of his life, he would alternate between hopefulness—during periods of remission—and anguished growing despair, as his once-sharp mind came to feel “like a pack of scattered cards.” Seeking a more salubrious climate, he and the painter Joseph Severn traveled to Rome, where, coughing blood and half-starved by a foolish medical regimen, Keats gradually wasted away. Death came on Friday, February 23, 1821, just before midnight.

Before his end, though, Keats wrote to Charles Armitage Brown, speaking of his love for Fanny and “the sense of darkness coming over me.” He asks, “Is there another Life? Shall I awake and find all this is a dream?” before adding, “we cannot be created for this sort of suffering.” In his last, pain-wracked communication with Brown, Keats asks him to bid farewell to all his friends and family, then closes, for the last time, with heartbreaking pathos: “I can scarcely bid you good-bye even in a letter. I always made an awkward bow.”

Only a few newspapers and periodicals noted Keats’s passing. The best instance appeared in the Liverpool Mercury: “At Rome, aged 25, Mr. John Keats, author of a volume of beautiful poetry.” Understatement indeed.

And yet, if Keats had lived, would he have continued to write poetry? Roe wonders if he might not have eventually gravitated toward prose, might even have become a novelist. His letters certainly reveal Dickens-like powers of observation and expression. He can be slyly funny: “It seems that the only end to be gained in acquiring French is the immense accomplishment of speaking it.” Or as cynical as Chamfort: “A man should have the fine point of his soul taken off to become fit for this world.” To Fanny Brawne he confesses, “I wish you could invent some means to make me at all happy without you. Every hour I am more and more concentrated in you; every thing tastes like chaff in my mouth.” And he can even be amusingly irreligious: “In the name of Shakespeare, Raphael, and all our saints, I commend you to the care of heaven!”

Of course, those same letters are packed with stunning observations about art, the imagination, and creativity: “Poetry should surprise by a fine excess, and not by singularity—it should strike the reader as a wording of his own highest thoughts, and appear almost a remembrance”; “I am certain of nothing but of the holiness of the Heart’s affections and the truth of imagination”; “The excellence of every Art is its intensity”; “If a Sparrow come before my Window, I take part in its existence and pick about the Gravel”; “Scenery is fine, but human nature is finer.” 

And on and on.

To read anything by Keats—or simply to read about Keats—is always a chastening experience. When Isaac Babel was taken away by the Soviet secret police, he was heard to cry out, “I was not given time to finish.” John Keats was hardly given time to start.

Michael Dirda is the author, most recently, of On Conan Doyle: Or, The Whole Art of Storytelling