By David Binns
Two hundred years ago today, John Keats passed away of tuberculosis at the age of twenty-five. The story of his painfully short life is well-known: dropping a career as an apothecary, spending four short years producing some of the finest poetry the English language has known, seeing the death of his brother to tuberculosis only to die of the same not three years later. Many articles will be popping up about him and I encourage you to read them – his life is as encouraging as it is sad – but for my part I cannot bring myself to brood over the tragedy of his life, or even muster up a reason why he is ‘relevant,’ ‘important’ or ‘challenging’ as no doubt many will be doing. I can only celebrate the work of a poet who has been, to me, a constant companion, providing an unstifled wellspring of inspiration, joy and consolation – and, secretly, I suspect this is what he would have wanted.
Keats was a poet of different voices. He was, by turns, the tracer of epic tales, employing verse of a breath-taking Miltonic grandeur when the task called for it (Hyperion). At other times he is as light and airy as a Viennese swirl (A Party of Lovers), a skilled and graceful sonneteer (To One Who Has Been Long in City Pent) – frothy and playful, penning silly songs for his sister (Meg Merrilies) and at other times shining a light on parts of the human condition with verse of heart-aching beauty and delicacy (the spring Odes of 1819). What can be heard in every voice is a peerless mastery of the English language; he had a fantastic ear for a fine phrase.
Keats’s poetry is the antithesis of dull. Each poem is a new discovery, a cherishable object, a powerful incantation to breathe experience straight into the senses. Take his opening lines to The Eve of St Agnes.
St. Agnes’ Eve—Ah, bitter chill it was!
The owl, for all his feathers, was a-cold;
The hare limp’d trembling through the frozen grass,
And silent was the flock in woolly fold:
Numb were the Beadsman’s fingers, while he told
His rosary, and while his frosted breath,
Like pious incense from a censer old,
Seem’d taking flight for heaven
Who has summoned up the cold better than Keats? It’s enough to evoke chills in mid-May.
Keats is as old a figure now as Shakespeare, whom he worshipped with an almost religious ardour, was in Keats’. He held him above all others, rapturously read and re-read all his plays, sonnets and poetry, and enthusiastically quoted him in letters to his friends. As he wrote to Haydon in May 1817, ‘I am very near agreeing with Hazlitt, that Shakespeare is enough for us.’ It is a perennially enlightening game to play, to catch faint echoes of Shakespeare in Keats’s verse.
What is missing from Keats’s poetry is any signs of the ailing, weak and woe-begone figure we seem to have come to expect. It is true he is ever aware that all beauty must fade, and often broaches the bigger questions, but whenever he turns despondent, in the next stanza he is writing himself out of it. It would not have occurred to Keats to use his poems to evoke the sufferings of his own life. To him, poetry’s true and natural aim was to ‘be a friend / To sooth the cares, and lift the thoughts of man.’ Above all else, he is uplifting. The Keats that comes through from his letters is as effervescent and fun as he is dedicated to composition, mixing up serious discussions on poetic creation with jokes, amusing anecdotes, and light-hearted ‘nonsense’. He was defiantly funny even to his last days, writing to Brown in late 1820, ‘in Quarantine, [I] summoned up more puns, in a sort of desperation, in one week than in any year of my life.’
Today, Keats is familiar to us as a household name, itself evoking cooling brooks, sailing cloudlets, nightingale song and winding mossy ways. His portrait is hung aloft for admiration in the libraries and writing rooms of the wide world – one of which peers curiously at me as I pen this. However, such a legacy would have been inconceivable for the dying Keats. His books had achieved meagre sales, and the caustic and prejudiced criticism of his day had hurt deeply. One of his last requests was that his gravestone bear no name, rather a simple line of trochaic pentameter – ‘Here lies one whose name was writ in water’. Only gradually has he found a niche in that temple where the names of Shakespeare and Milton are consecrated. In recent years, countless biographies have sought to do him justice, many of which provide fascinating windows into his truncated life. All I can do, if you are still here, is encourage you to read him. Perhaps in time you will find you agree with Shelley when he said of his departed friend:
“He is made one with Nature: there is heard
His voice in all her music, from the moan
Of thunder, to the song of night’s sweet bird;
He is a presence to be felt and known”
Percy Bysshe Shelley in Adonais: An Elegy on the Death of John Keats, 1821
Image: Books18 via Flickr