Remembering John Keats
When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has gleaned my teeming brain,
Before high-piled books, in charactery,
Hold like rich garners the full ripened grain;
When I behold, upon the night’s starred face,
Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,
And think that I may never live to trace
Their shadows with the magic hand of chance;
And when I feel, fair creature of an hour,
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.
— John Keats
Back when I was a child (no, really — I was still in my teens), I took a course on the English Romantic poets. The first semester was all about William Blake and the Lake Poets (Coleridge and Wordsworth, among others). The poets known as the Late Romantics— Byron, Shelley, and Keats — took up the second semester.
It was a challenging course; in her feedback to a paper I wrote on Keats, my professor gently suggested I was perhaps more inclined towards studying history than literature. (She was right.)
But those young poets never left me, in their way, and so, less than a year later, I found myself wandering through a Roman cemetery looking for John Keats’ headstone. He died of consumption — what we now know as tuberculosis — on February 23, 1821. Like so many ex-pats in Rome, he was buried in the Protestant Cemetery. Unlike most people, he insisted his headstone not bear his name, but rather “Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water.”
On that same visit to Rome, I also visited the Keats–Shelley Memorial House beside the Spanish Steps. It’s the house on the far right in the next photo. It was sobering to see where Keats died, but also thrilling to see the incarnation of my entire Romantic poetry course in three rooms.
I stopped by the Keats House in Hampstead, in the north part of London, on my next trip overseas. Hampstead Heath, a marvelous open space of almost 800 acres that beckons when you are museumed out, lies just behind the house.
Since I keep bumping into Keats on my travels, I thought it only right that I acknowledge the 200th anniversary of his death.
But back to the Romantic poetry course that started it all for me. One morning, my prof began class by asking who among us had life insurance. Her point was how unusual it was for someone as young as Keats to be so aware of his own mortality.
Unusual, but understandable. Keats lost both parents before he was grown and then watched his younger brother die of tuberculosis. He had also trained as a doctor. By his early twenties, Keats had seen far more death and dying than most of us will see in a lifetime. His sense of how fleeting life is inspired him to write poems like the sonnet I started this post with, which he wrote a month after his brother died.
More death and dying than most of us will see in a lifetime — that, of course, refers to those of us who will live through this pandemic more or less unscathed. And those of us who do, have far more privilege than most.