Sunday, October 31, 2010

In Memoriam: John Keats

The poetry of John Keats was the subject of much critical derision over the course of his short life; clearly, this means he must have been on to something... People who are popular in their own day* often tend to be considered old-hat quite quickly after their death - if not long before - and fade inevitably into oblivion. Keats' work, on the other hand, is still finding new ways to inspire more poets and lovers than ever nearly 200 years after he died - no mean feat in an age rife with such defiantly unromantic fare as hardcore porn and gangsta rap!

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketKeats - who was born on this day in 1795 - had bigger things to worry about, though, than the bitterness of the failed poets who typified his critics. His life was afflicted by tuberculosis long before he was; his mother died of the disease in 1810, after which Keats went to live with his grandmother. Within the decade she would also be dead, and he would be in charge of his brother, who was by then sick as well...

Tom Keats succumbed to his tuberculosis in December 1818; afterwards, Keats went to live at the home of his friend Charles Armitage Brown in Hampstead. Over the next 12 months, which Keats scholars refer to as 'The Great Year', the poet would produce much of his most famous work; it's also the year he met the love of his life, next-door neighbour Fanny Brawne.

As is often the case, the poet's passion provided more stress than solace, likely because in this instance it may have been an unrequited love, and was at best very complicated. When, by 1820, Keats was also showing signs that he, too, had contracted TB, he removed himself to Rome with his friend Joseph Severn. Brawne's diary rather brusquely recorded his departure thusly: 'Mr. Keats has left Hampstead.' Nevertheless, their romance is the subject of Jane Campion's 2009 film, Bright Star.

Keats settled into a house at the foot of the Spanish Steps (now a museum to him), but despite a drier clime and attentive medical care didn't last long, dying in February 1821, aged 25; he was buried in Rome's Protestant Cemetery beneath a tombstone bearing a bitter epitaph written by Charles Brown and Joseph Severn:

'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.'

As it states, only the final phrase was requested by Keats himself...

Still, those in Keats' circle insisted (as in the words of Lord Byron) that their friend's life was 'snuffed out by an article' - in this case, a scathing review of his work Endymion (thought to have been written by William Gifford but later proved to be the work of John Wilson Croker) which had appeared in the Quarterly Review shortly before his death; clearly it wasn't as yet well-understood that in order to be an artist one must be sensitive, but to survive as an artist one must be made of cast-iron, a dichotomy easily spoken but not easily lived, and as it turns out well-nigh impossible for John Keats...

*You know the type I mean - the 'flash in the pan'...
share on: facebook

No comments: