In John Keats’s poems, loss of life crops up 100 instances greater than the long run, a phrase that seems simply as soon as within the entirety of his work. This may appear acceptable on the two hundredth anniversary of the loss of life of Keats, who was popularly considered because the younger Romantic poet “half in love with easeful death.”
Dying actually touched Keats and his household. On the age of 14, he misplaced his mom to tuberculosis. In 1818, he nursed his youthful brother Tom as he lay dying of the identical illness.
After such experiences, when Ludolph, the hero of Keats’s tragedy, “Otho the Nice,” imagines succumbing to “a bitter loss of life, a suffocating loss of life,” Keats knew what he was writing about. After which, aged simply 25, on Feb. 23, 1821, Keats himself died of tuberculosis in Rome.
Life Sliding By
His preoccupation with loss of life doesn’t inform the entire story, nonetheless. In life, Keats was vivacious, humorous, bawdy, pugnacious, poetically experimental, politically energetic, and above all forward-looking.
He was a younger man in a rush, desperate to make a mark on the literary world, even when—as a skilled physician—he was all too aware of the physique’s vulnerability to mortal shocks. These two very totally different energies coalesce in certainly one of his best-loved poems, written in January 1818 when the poet was within the bloom of well being.
“After I Have Fears That I Might Stop to Be” is a poem of private fear, in line with biographer Nicholas Roe. In it, Keats is anxious that he gained’t have time to attain poetic fame or fall in “unreflecting love,” and these fears and self-doubts take him to the brink.
However as brinks go, this one doesn’t appear all that unhealthy. The poem is romantic with a small “r”—wide-eyed, dramatic, sentimental—its imaginative and prescient of finality, of nothingness, beautiful in its desolation, and all-importantly painless. Who can learn the poem’s last traces with out themselves feeling a pull to swooning loss of life, half in love with it, as Keats professed to be?
When I’ve fears that I could stop to be
Earlier than my pen has gleaned my teeming mind,
Earlier than high-pilèd books, in charactery,
Maintain like wealthy garners the complete ripened grain;
After I behold, upon the evening’s starred face,
Enormous cloudy symbols of a excessive romance,
And assume that I could by no means dwell to hint
Their shadows with the magic hand of likelihood;
And after I really feel, truthful creature of an hour,
That I shall by no means look upon thee extra,
By no means have relish within the faery energy
Of unreflecting love—then on the shore
Of the extensive world I stand alone, and assume
Until love and fame to nothingness do sink.
That’s what I used to assume, at any fee. Recently, within the pandemic, I’ve begun to learn this poem reasonably in a different way. Lensed by lengthy months of lockdown, the sonnet’s existential anxieties appear much less summary, grand, and performative, and extra, effectively, human.
It’s a poem that can resonate with the youth who’re cooped up indoors, physically isolated, unable to satisfy and mingle, agonizingly conscious of weeks slipping by, alternatives missed, disappointments mounting. This poem has made me nearly painfully empathetic towards their plight.
The sonnet’s fears of a future laid to waste are shared by complete generations whose collective mental health is beneath siege. In his final surviving letter, written two years after the sonnet whereas dying in Rome, Keats information a “feeling of my actual life having previous,” a conviction that he was “main a posthumous existence.” How many people are experiencing related ideas for the time being?
Sickness and Isolation
Of all of the Romantics, Keats maybe knew most about psychological struggling. He grew up in Moorgate, simply throughout from Bethlem Hospital, which was recognized to London and the world as Bedlam. Earlier than he turned to poetry, Keats trained at Man’s Hospital, London, the place he not solely witnessed firsthand the horrors of surgical procedure in a preanesthetic age but additionally tended to sufferers in what was referred to as the lunatic ward.
It was all an excessive amount of for him. Traumatized by the distress and ache he felt he may do little to alleviate, in 1816 he threw medication in for the pen. His experiences at Man’s, although, and the empathy he developed there, discovered their means into his writing. As an example, in “Hyperion,” his medical data helps him to inhabit the catatonic state of “gray-hair’d Saturn,” who sits in solitude, “deep within the shady unhappiness of a vale,” despairing after being deposed by the Olympian gods. The vignette is a shifting picture of isolation and enervation that speaks to us right now.
As for lockdown, Keats was no stranger to its pressures and deprivations. In periods of sickness in Hampstead in 1819—precursor signs of tuberculosis—he was reluctant to enterprise out, isolating himself. In October 1820, he set sail for Italy within the hope that hotter climes would save his lungs. On arrival, his ship was put into strict quarantine for ten days. In letters to his buddies, Keats described being “in a form of desperation,” including, “we can’t be created for this form of struggling.”
Keats was a poet of his age, his personal social, cultural, and medical milieu. And but, on the bicentenary of his loss of life, he’s additionally—greater than ever, maybe—a poet of ours. A poet of lockdown, frustration, disappointment, fears … and even hope.
As a result of even in these final, scarcely conceivable weeks in Rome, 200 years in the past, holed up in a bit condo on the foot of the Spanish Steps, he by no means fairly gave up on the long run, by no means relinquished his desires of affection and fame.