‘I think I shall be among the English Poets after my death,’ those were the words voiced by John Keats to his critics, opponents, and his brother George in an 1818 letter, he proved true through his assured determination and persistence.
Although John Keats didn’t live a very long life, he still left a rich legacy of literature for readers to cherish. Sometimes, the only thought that intrigues many scholars is to wonder what he could have possibly accomplished had he not died at such a young age and been able to contribute to poetry.
Though he didn’t live a long life he had seen the phases of life and encountered emotional love-pain that bleed his heart to ink poetry so touching…so soothing. There’s something so enriching in devoting one’s entire life to art and sacrificing every pleasure to be with art – be it Michelangelo, or Leonardo da Vinci or our Keats. The routines of common life, family and stereotypes, are just not for artists, they have to thrive on powerful emotions, create bold ideologies, suffer in the clutches of an oppressive society, and still stand with head high to transform the world into a better living place.
“I want a brighter word than bright, a fairer word than fair. I almost wish we were butterflies and liv’d but three summer days — three such days with you I could fill with more delight than fifty common years could ever contain.“
John Keats was one of the few poets whose poems echoed the sentiments of the reader’s heart. His genre of romantic poems immortalized him. In each of his verses, there is an eternal romance – the longing for love, the sadness of separation, the desire to be loved, the delight in nature. Poetry was a tool for Keats to explore and reflect upon life through a deeper lens. Upon reading a few of his poems, – ‘When I have fears I May Cease to be’, I analyzed that he expressed his fears, tribulations, and how he can lose the chance of leveraging his full poetic potential.
Keats discovered that imagination is the sanctuary where he can escape the reality of life and run in the open fields with complete freedom behind imagery butterfly. But when the hypnotizing music fades, grass disappears, he feels the pain that the time has come to return to his original world – full of political turmoil, creative chaos, and unstoppable pain.
John Keats was born on 31 October 1795 in Moorgate, England. The oldest of four children, he lost his parents at a very young age and this marked the beginning of an emotional upsurge. Raised by the guardians appointed by his maternal grandfather, at the age of 15 years, he became an apprentice to the surgeon Thomas Hammond, who had a practice in Edmonton. Hammond taught Keats bloodletting, bone setting, and some simple surgical procedures. However, he broke off the apprenticeship in 1814 and went to London, where he worked as a junior house surgeon, at Guy’s and St. Thomas’ hospitals. Even during his work as a surgeon, he pursued literary endeavors in his spare time.
The first poem was written by John Keats, ‘The sonnet O Solitude’, which appeared in the Examiner in May 1816 triggered his artistic ambitions. As his literary interests had crystallized by this time after 1817 Keats gave up the practice of medicine to become a full-time poet.
An Imitation of Spenser was composed by Keats at the age of 19 years. The poem was structured on an ABABBCBCC rhyme scheme consisting of four stanzas. There are few alliterations in the poems that don’t create a mind-blowing impact like his other compositions. The main theme of this poem was nature, and each line in the poem opens up in the embrace of Mother Earth with an underlying political message – I am going to come back later.
His first book of poetry appeared in 1817, but the book didn’t sell much. But Keats kept on writing in those short-troubled years of his life. He composed poems until 1821. Many of his writings came to light post his death.
As Eliot wrote of Keats’s conclusions: “There is hardly one statement of Keats’ about poetry which will not be found to be true, and what is more, true for greater and more mature poetry than anything Keats ever wrote.”
Keats coined the term ‘Negative Capability‘ in a letter he wrote to his brothers George and Tom in 1817. He believed in the principle of Negative Capability and the belief that mystery exists, it was rooted in his writings and thoughts. Not every event or happening can have a rational explanation and the ability to live within the dimensions of the mystery or deal with unanswered questions is the power of Negative Capability.
“Exploring the temporary beauty of a passing moment is more important than figuring out why or how that moment exists.”
Keats believed that human beings should experience pain and suffering for personality development and morale building. His ideas, beliefs, are highlighted in his poetic composition.
The financial woes and health constraints stood as a barrier to his marriage with his love, Fanny Brawne. The suppressed emotions spilled his poetry making his composition the greatest romantic works in the literary world. The largest collection of the letters (love letters written to his love), manuscripts, and other papers of Keats lie in the Houghton Library at Harvard University.
Keats had died in 1821, just 25 years old and largely unknown for his poems, the upcoming years had witnessed a belated recognition of his genius works. He was now considered among the greatest English poets. His works sold briskly and, in 1848, the first biography of Keats was published. The dream he truly strived to be remembered as one of the notable English poets. He was buried in the Protestant cemetery, Italy.
After the death of Keats, Fanny had witnessed the growth of Keats’s reputation. She had read the numerous books which eulogized him. Fanny never revealed herself, nor took a noteworthy interest in his life. Her husband knew only that she and Keats had met as neighbors in Hampstead unaware of the mysterious romance spilling between them for all these years. Fanny never told him otherwise.
Here’s a sneak peek of one of his intimate desire written to Fanny, “I could be martyr’d for my Religion—Love is my religion—I could die for that—I could die for you.”
And despite the gossip surrounding Keats’s mysterious romance, which grew along with his reputation? Fanny did occasionally come close to revealing her secret but didn’t dare to open up.
She responded angrily to a published account of Keats’s illness which claimed the poet had become insane and violent. She denied the irrelevant claims of Keats’s insanity and defended his character. Though they were never physically close, she had kept his love letters to her, over three dozen of them; many were mere notes, others lengthy chronicles. Fanny’s children (led primarily by Herbert) were finally able to profit from their mother’s story by selling them and earning profit from her long-ago romance.
She also took offense at the ‘memoirs’ of various people who had barely known the poet but sought to profit from his increasing fame. These immortal works remain the ultimate expression of Keats’s genius literary marks that engrossed his reputation as a great poet and also, paved a new insight into his love life.
In 1821, a disease related to consumption killed one in three Londoners. Keats foresaw his death with brutal clarity and was heartbroken, frightened, and frustrated about departing. His younger brother, Tom, died of consumption disease, and from him, Keats almost surely caught the disease that would kill him as well. It was also something of a family curse. Over some time, Keats’s face had narrowed down by coughing blood, his cheeks sunk; he had withered away as his lungs corroded.
His friends and a few scholars had documented his final days on the deathbed as a gruesome, cruel trick played by destiny. However, the poet had a long-time affair with death. It was a romantic experience for him bestowed upon him Zen-like enlightenment. In the final moments, on his death bed, he declared to his friend and caretaker, Joseph Severn, his dying wish. He asked his friends to have carved into his gravestone —only these words that reflect impermanence, his name not to appear on the gravestone; and the sole inscription to read:
“HERE LIES ONE WHOSE NAME WAS WRIT IN WATER”
However, the poet’s friends, Charles Brown and Percy Shelley carved a starkly angry and impassioned inscription of their own composition above Keats’s chosen words. To this day, the actual texts of the gravestone read as:
“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 tombstone,
“HERE LIES ONE WHOSE NAME WAS WRIT IN WATER.”’
There is not a slight doubt, that Keats is a brilliant poet and readers admire his poetry that explores life and eternity. The poet has an excellent knack for tossing innumerable questions in the mind of readers, allowing them to discover their answers and believing in the power of self. The poems of John Keats have engrossed infinite insights in my mind allowing me to get closer to my reality.