John Keats’ life, death and poetry 200 years on

"So, on the 23 February 2021, consider Keats — a man who expected his name to be “writ in water”, yet ended up posthumously immortalised in ink and history." Josh Smith urges us to think of Keats' life and works, 200 years on from his death.

Josh Smith
23rd February 2021
Credit: edited from Wikipedia

23 February 2021 marks the bicentenary of John Keats’ death. Let us reflect upon his life, death and poetry.

Born 31 October 1795, he was the antithesis of his fellow Romantic poet Lord Byron. Stocky and athletic, neither rich nor poor, social in school, Keats’ childhood was unpoetically normal. Nonetheless, it was tragic; at 8, his father died and, at 14, his mother followed, leaving him orphaned. This was sad, yet not debilitating, with Keats still succeeding in schoolwork and following a medical route upon graduation. In 1816, he went on to work as a wound dresser at Guy’s Hospital, a gruesome yet respectable occupation.

Behind this career, the occupation which Keats is remembered for began — poetry. His colleagues and classmates recall his interest in surgery ebbing within the first year and, by 3 March 1817, his first major publication, uncreatively titled Poetry, was released. It flopped, yet he was not discouraged. The following year Endymion was published. Once again, it flopped. Numerous reviews criticised it and very few praised it, leading to a period of depression.

Thankfully, Keats had another attempt at a career in poetry, with even more determination than before. Around January 1818, he wrote a On Sitting Down to Read King Lear Once Again, ending with the lines:

“But, when I am consumed in the fire, / Give me new Phœnix wings to fly at my desire.”

These words proved prophetic.

1819 is one of the most productive years for English poetry, the year Keats wrote his famous Odes. These poems are best enjoyed rather than paraphrased, so my exegesis will be kept at a minimum. Ode to a Grecian Urn, arguably the most well-known, contains the epigrammatic lines:

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty, — that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

To Autumn is a beautiful poem about dealing with change, with such lines as:

“Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they? / Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,”.

If only we could end here. However, life is often brutal, as Keats’ following years show. Himself and Tom, his brother, fell ill shortly before these Odes were written; Keats recovered but his brother died. A year later, Keats once again fell ill, this time worse — tuberculosis. In February 1820, his friend Charles Brown heard him say, following a cough, “That is blood… I know the colour of that blood; it is arterial blood. I cannot be deceived in that colour; that drop of blood is my death warrant and I must die”. Lines from When I Have Fears best capture Keats’ mind in these final years:

When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has glean'd my teeming brain, / (…) / That I shall never look upon thee more, / Never have relish in the faery power / Of unreflecting love!—then on the shore / Of the wide world I stand alone, and think, / Till Love and Fame to nothingness do sink.”

His final words, spoken on 23 February 1821, aged 25, were “Severn—lift me up—I am dying—I shall die easy—don’t be frightened—be firm, and thank God it has come!”. By his request, he was buried with the following inscription:

“Here lies one whose name was writ in water.”

So, on the 23 February 2021, consider Keats — a man who expected his name to be “writ in water”, yet ended up posthumously immortalised in ink and history.

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