Irritable Reachings: On John Keats

John Keats was born in 1795. Orphaned at the age of 14, he was apprenticed by a manipulative guardian to an apothecary, a kind of general medical practitioner. “Always writing poetry,” recalled a fellow apprentice. Though formal training as a surgeon’s assistant followed at Guy’s Hospital—this in the harrowing days before anesthesia—Keats was immersed in London’s literary society by the time he received his medical license. In 1817, at the age of 21, he published his first book, called simply Poems; a second book, Endymion, appeared the following year. Reviews were savage, but Keats dismissed them in a letter to his brother George as “a mere matter of the moment,” adding that “I think I shall be among the English Poets after my death.”

Death would come three years later. Having nursed his brother Tom through tuberculosis, the same disease that had killed his mother, Keats diagnosed his own symptoms, and by the end of 1819 he had produced in quick succession some of the greatest poems in the English language: “The Eve of St. Agnes,” “Ode to a Nightingale,” “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” He had fallen in love with Fanny Brawne, the girl who lived next door. Before Keats died in a room overlooking the Spanish Steps in Rome, where his doctor had sent him for the climate, he requested that his gravestone bear only the phrase “here lies one whose name was writ in water.”

Keats’s enduring place among the English poets is due to his poems, but the story of his life is uncommonly compelling, begging to be told. To become acquainted with Keats is to discover an impossible person—someone who is undeniably young, but who seems at the same time preternaturally wise, capable of a timeless eloquence that feels paradoxically of his years, not beyond them. Keats makes the discoveries of youth feel worthy of the most dignified attention—not steppingstones to something more refined but, as they had to be for Keats, ends in themselves. “Do you not see,” he asked his brother George, “how necessary a World of Pains and troubles is to school an Intelligence and make it a soul?” Had Chaucer died not long after his twenty-fifth birthday, he would have been the author of nothing; Shakespeare might be remembered for a couple of charming plays.

About Shakespeare’s life we know almost nothing, and what little we do know comes from anywhere but Shakespeare, who left behind no letters or manuscripts. In contrast, the story of Keats’s life begins with Keats himself. The unself-conscious immediacy of his letters is unmatched even by writers who might seem, at first glance, more confessional, less poised. Written on his deathbed in Rome, his last letter asks his friend Charles Brown to contact his remaining brother and sister, and it manages in the process to feel heartbroken, efficient, winsome—as if the whole person, in all his complexity, were speaking from the page:
‘Tis the most difficult thing in the world [for] me to write a letter. My stomach continues so bad, that I feel it worse on opening any book…. Write to George as soon as you receive this, and tell him how I am, as far as you can guess;—and also a note to my sister—who walks about my imagination like a ghost—she is so like Tom. I can scarcely bid you good bye even in a letter. I always made an awkward bow.
Three months later, Keats was dead, and Joseph Severn, the friend who had accompanied him to Rome, described the final moments:
The poor fellow bade me lift him up in bed—he breathed with great difficulty—and seemed to lose the power of coughing up the phlegm—and immense sweat came over him so that my breath felt cold to him—“dont breath on me—it comes like Ice”—he clasped my hand very fast as I held him in my arms—the mucus was boiling within him—it gurgled in his throat—this increased—but yet he seem’d without pain—his eyes look’d upon me with extrem[e] sensibility but without pain—at 11 he died in my arms.
The memories of Keats’s friends are often as moving, as three-dimensional, as Keats’s own letters. He provoked in other people a generous sensitivity similar to his own, and it’s difficult not to feel that there’s something fundamentally Keatsian about the now almost 200-year-old effort to write Keats’s life. The story of that life is uncommonly compelling, to be sure, but Keats’s sensibility is even more uncommonly alluring. “Of course/ you’ll die in a week, suppurating on a camphor-/ soaked sheet,” writes the contemporary poet Dean Young of a young man about to have his arm amputated in a nineteenth-century surgical theater, but above you, the assistant holding you down,
trying to fix you with sad, electric eyes
is John Keats.

A lot of great books have been written about Keats: critical books by some of the sharpest readers of our time (Christopher Ricks, Helen Vendler), and also biographies sustaining the highest levels of stylishness and insight. There’s no English-language poet whose life has provoked more distinguished attention, not even Shakespeare; and while several large-scale biographies of Keats have appeared in recent years, the twin achievements of Aileen Ward (whose John Keats: The Making of a Poet won the National Book Award in 1964) and Walter Jackson Bate (whose John Keats won the Pulitzer Prize the same year) still tower over the field: Ward’s for her psychological acuity, Bate’s for his nuanced account of the way poems get made, and both for the quietly seductive grace of their sentences. New information will come to light, new interpretations of old information will become necessary, but these books are permanent achievements: they gather up all prior thinking about Keats’s life and work, and all subsequent thinking has depended on them.

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