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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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