Just over two centuries ago John Keats was summoned to the eternal auditorium. Though he died at the age of only 25 he is among the most jubilated poets of all time. He was and is the superlative syllable stringer. What is it about Keats’ oeuvre that accounts for the remarkable durability of his verses? I was introduced to his astounding oeuvre as a schoolboy. My admiration and adulation for this spectacular poet has never left me.
Keats’ verse is a palimpsest of classical education overlaid with the tropes of the Romantic Movement. An almost childlike sincerity shines through his masterful verses. The lucidity and originality of his work has few peers.
John Keats was born at London in 1795. His father ran a livery stables and inn. John was one of four children When John was small his father perished. The family was middle class but in straitened circumstances. An education was knocked into him. He was quick at his books and soon had the better of Latin and Ancient Greek accidence. Back then pupils were taught the art of scansion. He honed the craft of word weaving.
By his mid-teens Keats was composing sublime and elegant poesy. Few pieces of this juvenilia have survived. As an adolescent he was afflicted by more and deeper anxieties than usual. The financial situation was insecure. His mother rewed but her second marriage was cataclysmic. Within weeks she and John’s stepfather separated though they never divorced. Divorced as a very lengthy, expensive and ignominious process back then. John was also decidedly lacking in stature. In an age when most men were 5’6’’ or so he was 5’2’’. He felt his smallness made most girls unapproachable.
In his late teens Keats was apprenticed to an apothecary (pharmacist) after a few years he qualified in that profession. He considered upgrading his qualifications to become a physician. In the end he decided against it. He wanted to through all his endeavour into his first love: poesy.
At the age of 18 a volume entitled ‘Poems by John Keats’ was published. It sold a respectable few hundred copies. That was very creditable for a first publication especially as he had no connections.
Around this age John was smitten by his neighbour, Fanny Brawne. But her family disapproved of him. He was not affluent and they thought he had few prospects. They did not want their daughter marrying beneath her.
As a member of the Romantic movement, Keats rejoiced in ordinary things: in plants, in trees, valleys, the wind and wine. Others would pass these things by without a second glance. Keats took more than solace from the natural world and quotidian occurrences. He gleaned gladness and inspiration from the seemingly unremarkable.
The world was in turmoil as Keats rose to manhood. The Napoleonic Wars were fought all across Europe and back again. From New Orleans to Nepal, the British were fighting. The Royal Navy battled the French upon the seas and oceans. Battles, sieges, spoliations and revolutions raged. In the British Isles there was radicalism in the air. Some preached revolution. The reaction was hellbent on crushing the life out of radicals. Some were vindicators of abolition. Britain was ruled by a lunatic monarch and his comically corpulent son. All this seems to have passed Keats’ by. When it came to politics he glazed over.
By the age of 20 Keats was making waves in literary London. He moved in the same circles as Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Robert Southey and Leigh Hunt. However, he was not as wealthy as them. He was not afflicted with the same guilt that they were. He was also indifferent to their political opinions.
Some of Keats’ work is about classical themes. Endymion is a reworking of an Ancient Greek work about a shepherd who has had a spell cast on him causing him to sleep for centuries. ‘A thing of beauty is a joy forever/ It will never pass away into nothingness…’ is it overture.
Some of Keats’s verse delight in simplicity. For instance, Faery song is a charmingly spare and almost infantile ditty:
Shed no tear. Oh shed no tear!/ The flower will bloom another year/ Overheard/ Look overhead!/ Amongst the flowers/ White and red./ Weep no more/ Oh weep no more/ The young bud sleeps in the root’s white core/ Dry your eyes/ Oh dry your eyes!/ For I was taught in paradise/ to ease the breast of melodies.
The poem goes on to be a valediction. Perhaps it was prospective of his own impending demise. ‘Adieu, adieu/ I fly adieu/ I vanish in the heaven’s blue/ Adieu. Adieu.’
Keats composed some magnificent and challenging pieces. His reputation is built largely on his resplendent odes. Many consider ‘Ode on a Grecian urn’ to be his masterwork. He addresses this praise poem to an ancient artefact and lauds it as being more expressive of past glories than anything a poet could write:
Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness,
Thou foster-child of silence and slow time,
Sylvan historian, who canst thus express
A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme:
What leaf-fring’d legend haunts about thy shape
Of deities or mortals, or of both,
In Tempe or the dales of Arcady?
Bear in mind that Keats was writing in an epoch when ’ye’, ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ were still in common usage. His verses were flawlessly constructed in terms of meter and rhyme scheme. Yet there was never any strained wording.
For my money ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ is his most stupendous accomplishment: In the first stanza he writes
…light-wingèd Dryad of the trees, In some melodious plot Of beechen green, and shadows numberless, Singest of summer in full-throated ease.
The reversal of the adjective noun order gets the attention of readers though this was not unusual at the time. He accented the ‘e’ of winged for the sake of meter. A dryad is a living spirt of the trees in Ancient Greek theogony.
The second verse of the poem is surely the most splendidly evocative description of wine of all time:
O for a draught of vintage! that hath been Cool’d a long age in the deep-delvèd earth, Tasting of Flora and the country-green, Dance, and Provençal song, and sunburnt mirth! O for a beaker full of the warm South!
Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene, With beaded bubbles winking at the brim, And purple-stainèd mouth; That I might drink, and leave the world unseen, And with thee fade away into the forest dim:
Though the work is packed with classical allusions he bears his erudition lightly. These were widely recognised at the time. In fact, his references to mythology were relatively few and not abstruse for the era. He succeeded in putting into verse the seemingly inexpressible mental sensation of imbibing alcohol.
It was an inestimable privilege for me to stand under a tree outside the house in Hampstead where he wrote this poem. The tree that stands now is probably a descendant of the original.
In Ode to a Nightingale, Keats wrote ‘tender is the night.’ This gave F Scott FitzGerald the title of his novel.
Later in Ode to a Nightingale, Keats writes of how it is not worth living to a sorrowful and troubled old age:
the weariness, the fever, and the fret Here, where men sit and hear each other groan; Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last grey hairs,
Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies; Where but to think is to be full of sorrow And leaden-eyed despairs;
He composed this in May 1819. He was 23 and already had tuberculosis. He was growing ever more cognizant of mortality. That is why it was worth persuading himself that living long was not to be sought after. As he sputtered up blood, he was redoubled in his conviction that he would not become a doctor. He must through all his passion and his little remaining life into his poetical works. It would take another three years to become a doctor. As we now know he had only two years left to live.
Towards the end of ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ he wrote ‘adieu, adieu!’ He was preparing to take leave of this mortal coil.
In his ‘Ode to sleep’ Keats encapsulates the wonderment of slumber in lines which must be susurrated; ‘Oh soft embalmer of the midnight still!’
There is a freshness and a vitality to Keats’ work that is seldom surpassed. Though he addressed some well-worn themes he did so with exceptional insight and was never hackneyed.
John Keats composed some light-hearted verses. Perhaps his most unserious is a playful poem entitled ‘A song about myself.’
There was a naughty boy,
A naughty boy was he,
He would not stop at home,
He could not quiet be-
In his knapsack
Full of vowels
And a shirt …
So he followed his nose
To the north
To the north…
The cheeky little poem showed he was capable of writing for children. Plain though this poem is there is a sparkle to it. He never married and had no children.
Keats composed many more awestriking lines. They are too numerous to cite then all here. I can offer but a small sample of his splendid work. He was incapable of mediocrity. He addressed himself to common themes but always found an original angle. John studied famous poets closely but did not imitate them. He had found his own voice as a schoolboy.
The complete works of John Keats consists of a couple of hundred poems. By the standards of the day none of his poems were unusually long. Endymion is a couple of thousand lines but many poets composed poems of several thousand lines back then. He did not write prose. However, there are many letters by him that are extant.
As his medical condition disimproved he decided to take ship to Italy. There was no hope of beating consumption. However, in a more clement climate his life might at least be extended, with luck, for a couple of years. In September 1820 Keats took ship for the Mediterranean. It was his only ever trip out of England. As the ship rolled and pitched upon the foaming deep it was torment for John in his condition. He wrote, ‘Now more than ever seems it rich to die/ To cease upon a midnight without pain.’ Accompanied by a doctor friend he landed in Italy a few weeks later.
There they travelled overland to Rome. Because of Keats increasing frailty they had to travel gingerly. Why did he choose to go to the Eternal City? Further south the warmer and even drier climate would have agreed more with his far from robust constitution. Perhaps John elected to go to Rome as he had spent his childhood days reading Latin and learning of the city’s former glories.
Not being a religious man, John did not have the consolations of faith. He does not seem to have believed that he was going to an afterlife. He fantasised in a last letter, ‘I think I shall be remembered among the English poets after my death.’ However, he gave strict instructions on what to inscribe on his headstone. His name was not to appear. His gravestone reads:
‘This grave /contains /all that was mortal of a /young English poet /who on his deathbed/ in the bitterness of his heart/ at the maliciousness of his enemies /desired these words to be engraven on his tombstone:/ ‘’Here lies one whose name was writ in water.’’/ 24 February 1821.
The headstone was to be adorned with the image of lyre. That is because in Greece poems were declaimed the to accompaniment of a lyre. Keats’ works were lyrical.
John and his friend took a house by the Spanish Steps. His condition worsened drastically. Sooner than anyone had foreseen the angel of death hovered over him. Such was his agony that he welcomed death as a blissful deliverance. His last utterance was ‘Thank God it has come!’
On 24 February 1821 John Keats drew his last breath. His death mask was made. This is now in the possession of Eton. A small funeral cortege bore his body to Il Cimiterio Acattolica just inside the southern walls of Rome. There he has lain ever since.
News travelled slowly in those days. It took a few weeks before Shelley, who was also in Italy, was informed of his friend’s death. P B Shelley found it a very bitter blow. Shelley mourned his friend by composing the most stupendous elegy of all time: Adonais. It opens ‘I weep for Adonais; he is dead.’ He was calling his friend an Adonis but for the sake of scansion added a vowel.
John Keats’ speaks to every succeeding generation. His message of the joy of the natural world is universal. His vivacity and mind-boggling verbal intelligence shall always be appreciated. Though he was diminutive he is a colossus.
I planned to visit his grave again this year on the bicentenary of his death. I wished to declaim his verses to him. As though he could reach out to me from centuries ago and commune with me. His short and magnific life was tragically short. He accomplished more in his lease of years than a million men do in an ordinary lifespan.
John Keats has achieved literary apotheosis. His place in literature is assured. The glee he has brought to untold millions of many generations has won him a seat on Mount Olympus.
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Duran.