John Keats

The short life of Keats is an extraordinary tragic poem in itself.
Unlike Arthur Rimbaud, whose explosion of surreal genius burst forth during his teens and seemed to naturally et voluntarily burn itself out even before his twentieth birthday, John Keats anticipated that his life would be short, and made up for it as best he could by the great works he spurred himself to produced in the creative span of only five years.
Some admirers have compared him to Shakespeare, reasoning that had he lived longer he might well have surpassed the greatest of writers.

Keat's father was a supervising stableman of livery stables in London. As he married the daughter of the proprietor, they inherited the business. They had five children of whom John was the firstborn. He was a spirited boy often engaged in brawls despite his small size. As an adult he was hardly more than five feet tall.

When Keats was only eight years old his father died from injuries incurred from falling from a horse. Six years later his mother died from tuberculosis.
In principle the children should have inherited all the proceeds of the prospering business. The sum of £8,000 had been left for the children in the trust of their grandmother, but the estate was never settled through the law courts during the poet's life time.

At school he benefitted from the example and tutoring of Charles Cowden Clarke, the headmaster's son who was to become an eminent man of letters. He was a constant source of encouragement for Keats, especially in reading which was Keat's passion. Clarke guided Keats and introduced him to the cultural world of music and theatre. He was also able to introduce him to poets such as Spencer.

The children's unimaginative guardian pulled Keats out of school when he was 15. He thought it fit that Keats become an apprentice to the surgeon and apothecary, Thomas Hammond. This led to Keats studying medicine at Guy's Hospital in London (1815). Only one year later he was fully qualified to practice, but contrary to his guardian's wishes, he dropped medicine entirely to resume his poetry.
His decision was influenced by Leigh Hunt, poet, political radical, writer of essays and critic who encouraged Keats's poetical efforts and introduced him to great writers of that time such as Lamb and Shelley, and painters such as Benjamin R. Haydon. Amongst others, John Hamilton Reynolds and Charles Wentworth Dilke became part of Keats's circle of intimate friends and were the appreciative stimulus he needed.

As from the age of 18, Keats development as a poet was prodigious. But his best work started to manifest itself as from 1816 when he produced his grand sonnet 'On First Looking into Chapman's Homer', then 'Sleep and Poetry' that same year.

So certain that his life would be short, Keats immersed himself entirely and passionately in his poetry. He composed 'Endymion', an allegory of over 4,000 lines some of which reveals the confidence and maturity of style that had begun to flourish. He was however most critical of his efforts and pushed aside ambitious projects such as the epic 'Hyperion' fearing that Milton's influence would be a threat to his individual poetical development.

In fact he tried to free himself from all literary and poetical influences in order to fully dedicate himself to his own ideas and approach. In 1818, however, he suffered from harsh, anonymous criticism including an attack on him as being a member of the "Cockney School" (Leigh Hunt's radical literary circle in London) and a brutal criticism of 'Endymion' in a review. Even Shelley and Byron had nothing better to do than to follow this with mean and lofty remarks. Could it be that they were jealous? Although Keats put it down to Tory prejudice and snobbery, and considered himself the best and most severe critic of his own work, the attacks had a very negative effect on his health.

During the summer of 1818, Keats felt the need to get away from it all by way of a solitary, arduous walking tour. He walked miles in the Lake District and Scotland. It was wet, cold and exhausting, and although it should have been exhilarating, he returned in August with a severe throat infection.

During the autumn Keats fell in love with Fanny Brawne. She loved Keats equally but his devotion to poetry, his continual state of poverty, and his illness made matrimony impossible despite their engagement.

The year was made worse by the news of his brother George who, with his young wife, had emigrated to Kentucky where they lost all their money on an bad investment. John Keats had to take on journalist work to procure financial means for the family.
Then his younger brother Tom fell ill with tuberculosis. Throughout the final months of that fateful year, the poet helplessly devoted his attention to his brother who finally died in December.

In spite of- or more likely because of- all the pain and emotional anguish, between January and September of 1819 Keats accomplished, one after the other, perhaps his finest works: 'La Belle Dame sans Merci', 'The Eve of St. Agnes', 'Lamia', superb sonnets and all the "great odes".
His letters too are held to be fine prose.
Later in 1819 he reworked 'Hyperion' into a dream which he titled 'The Fall of Hyperion'. The introduction seems to reinforce this when Moneta the prophetess informs the poet:

The poet and the dreamer are distinct,
Diverse, sheer opposite, antipodes,  
and that the height of poetry can be reached
only by those to whom the miseries of the world
Are misery, and will not let them rest.

On February 3rd, 1820, he knew his time had come and refused to delude himself. His coughing had emitted blood. 'I cannot be deceived in that colour; that drop of blood is my death warrant. I must die.' From then on he regarded his life as "a posthumous existence".
By the autumn of that year he was finally persuaded to go to Italy to benefit, in principle, from the warmer climate. He travelled with his friend, Joseph Severn, a young painter. Although he made finishing touches to 'Bright Star', the voyage from Gravesend to Naples aboard the "Maria Crowther" was bound to make things worse for Keats. It begun with violent storms followed by a dead calm which delayed the arrival considerably. When the ship finally docked, a quarantine for a further ten days was ordered due to rumours of an outbreak of cholera in England. Keats finally arrived in Rome as late as November.
On the 23rd February, 1821, he died in Rome. He was buried in the Protestant Cemetery.

One of his last requests was that he be buried under an unnamed and undated tombstone. Simply the words: 'Here lies One whose Name was writ in Water', should be engraved.
This was arranged by Severn and Brown. An epitaph and the date (24th February, 1821) were also included however.

Although during his last days John Keats was often in agony and angrily resented everyone's refusing to give him laudanum to ease his pain, his last letter to Charles Brown ended with great stature and grace: 'I can scarcely bid you good bye even in a letter. I always made an awkward bow. God bless you ! John Keats.'

His poetical work spans only five years. To cite from The Norton Anthology of English Literature:
'No one can read Keats's poems and letters without an under-sense of the tragic waste of so extraordinary an intellect and genius cut off so early. What he might have accomplished is beyond conjecture; what we do know is that his achievement, when he stopped writing at the age of twenty-four, greatly exceeds that at the same age of Chaucer, Shakespeare, or Milton.'

This is a noble statement, but then can one or should one reason in such a way? If Keats had never had any such premonition of limited time and a premature death, and had he lived a relatively long life, would that have determined greater works? Perhaps one could argue on the contrary. In only twenty-four years he had lived and suffered more than most people could possibly do in the span of a normal lifetime. Wouldn't this be an intrinsic, essential part in determining his fabulous, creative achievement?

Keats, like other poets and writers on whom life has hardly smiled, was nevertheless convinced that 'Beauty is truth, truth beauty- that is all ye know on earth and all ye need to know'. From 'Ode on a Grecian Urn'.
But who knows? Had he lived much longer, perhaps he would have acknowledged that All is truth, so All is terribly beautiful.

From Endymion: A Poetic Romance, Book 1

A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
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.
Therefore, on every morrow, are we wreathing
A flowery band to bind us to the earth,
Spite of despondence, of the inhuman dearth
Of noble natures, of the gloomy days,
Of all the unhealthy and o'er-darkened ways
Made for our searching: yes, in spite of all,
Some shape of beauty moves away the pall
From our dark spirits. Such the sun, the moon,
Trees old, and young, sprouting a shady boon
For simple sheep; and such are daffodils
With the green world they live in; and clear rills
That for themselves a cooling covert make
'Gainst the hot season; the mid-forest brake°,
Rich with a sprinkling of fair musk-rose blooms:
And such too is the grandeur of the dooms¹
We have imagined for the mighty dead;
All lovely tales that we have heard or read:
An endless fountain of immortal drink,
Pouring unto us from the heaven's brink.²

Nor do we merely feel these essences
For one short hour; no, even as the trees
That whisper round a temple become soon
Dear as the temple's self, so does the moon,
The passion poesy, glories infinite,
Haunt us till they become a cheering light
Unto our souls, and bound to us so fast
That, whether there be shine or gloom o'ercast,
They always must be with us, or we die.

Therefore, 'tis with full happiness that I
Will trace the story of Endymion.
The very music of the name has gone
Into my being, and each pleasant scene
Is growing fresh before me as the green
Of our own valleys: so I will begin
Now while I cannot hear the city's din;
Now while the early budders are just new,
And run in mazes of the youngest hue
About old forests; while the willow trails
Its delicate amber; and the dairy pails
Bring home increase of milk. And, as the year
Grows lush in juicy stalks, I'll smoothly steer
My little boat, for many quiet hours,
With streams that deepen freshly into bowers.
Many and many a verse I hope to write,
Before the daisies, vermeil rimmed and white,
Hide in deep herbage; and ere yet the bees
Hum about globes of clover and sweet peas,
I must be near the middle of my story.
O may no wintry season, bare and hoary,
See it half finished: but let Autumn bold,
With universal tinge of sober gold,
Be all about me when I make an end!
And now at once, adventuresome, I send
My herald thought into a wilderness:
There let its trumpet blow, and quickly dress
My uncertain path with green, that I may speed
Easily onward, thorough flowers and weed.

° Thicket
¹ Judgement
² Opposition between mortal pleasures and the possible concept of immortal delight ('essences').
Text © Mirino. Sources include The Norton Anthology of English Literature, volume 2. Top portrait of John Keats, by William Hilton (died- 1839) National Portrait Gallery, London. Ambrotype of Fanny Brawne  (photograph on glass c. 1850). Results slightly tinted by M. 
John Keats' tombstone, Protestant cemetery Rome.
'This Grave contains all that was Mortal, of a Young English Poet, Who, on his Death Bed, in the Bitterness of his Heart, at the Malicious Power of his Enemies, Desired these Words to be engraven on his Tomb Stone: Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water. ~24 February 1821' (photograph Piero Montesacro) with thanks, also to Wikipedia.

No comments: