by Wanda Luce
I must confess I don’t have time to wade through a perusal of every article ever posted on our blog to see if someone already talked of John Keats (1795-1821), so my apologies to those of you who are knowledgeable fans, acknowledged critics, or formerly be-knowledged blog readers. He seems to be in my mind today.
A few years ago as I cruised past the maze of dumb, dumber, and dumbest movies at our local movie rental store hoping—no, dreaming (hoping implies that there is hope, dreaming implies that one wishes for something that is rarely possible)—of finding a romantic chick flick akin to the excellent productions based on the works of Jane Austen, I spied a movie titled “Bright Star.” I was ecstatic when I read the back and discovered it to be about the life of John Keats. Of course, being a Friday night, I took it home, popped up a large, buttery bowl of popcorn, and, with husband and sons running for cover, took possession of the couch. All were invited. None accepted. So…I snuggled into a pile of pillows and enjoyed every minute (except the cry at the end).
A contemporary of Lord Byron and Percy Shelley, his poems were generally not well-received during his short life, but by the end of the 19th century, he became one of
’s most beloved poets. England
Although Keats’s parents did not possess the financial resources to educate him at
Eton or Harrow, he was sent to board at John Clarke’s school in near the home of his grandparents. Here he developed an interest in classics and history. Some described Keats as “always in extremes," given to indolence and fighting (Gittings 1987, 1-3). By the age of 13, however, he began to focus on reading and study, and in 1809 he won his first academic prize. Enfield
Some of you may be surprised to know that his first career pursuits were not in poetry but in medicine. In 1816 he received his apothecary’s license and became eligible to practice as an apothecary, physician, and surgeon (Kelvin Everest, “Keats, John”,
Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford Press). Struggling beneath the weight of his family’s financial crises yet full of a great desire to be a poet, he suffered bouts of depression. Keats became more and more involved in his writing and in friendships with other poets and at last gave up medicine to pursue his poetry. Sadly, he owed a great deal in loans for his education. Oxford University
If suffering and tragedy are the foods of creativity--at least of certain types of it-- then Keats received more than an ample portion of both. In 1804 his father died of a concussion. His mother remarried two months later but left her second husband soon after. Tuberculosis took his mother in 1810, his brother Tom in 1818, and him in 1821. He fought vigorously over the four years before his death to distinguish himself, but, in spite of some success, felt himself largely a failure.
One of the greatest blows to his career came after the release of Endymion. It was damned by the critics and described by John Lockhart in the 1818 edition of The Quarterly Review as “imperturbable driveling idiocy.” Lockhart also furthered his jab at Keats by saying, “It is a better and a wiser thing to be a starved apothecary than a starved poet; so back to the shop Mr. John (Keats), back to plaster, pills, and ointment boxes.” Oh how critics like to puff out their feathers and with a self-congratulatory pat on their own backs shred the work of those who dare to bare their souls and try to create. Any author who is reading this understands what it is to have their hundreds of hours of heart-wrenching toil dismissed with a cold, thoughtless, and often arrogant wave of the hand by those who erect a mental monument to themselves in a cruel act they name honesty. Is it really so easy to see so little good in so much work? Now that I write, I understand a man like Keats in a whole new way.
By September of 1819, Keats was very short of money and in a state of despair. He wrote to Fanny Brawne, his great love, in February 1820 when he knew he was dying, “I have left no immortal work behind me—nothing to make my friends proud of my memory—but I have lov’d the principle of beauty in all things, and if I had had time, I would have made myself remember’d.” To Fanny he also wrote, “My love has made me selfish. I cannot exist without you. I am forgetful of every thing but seeing you again. My life seems to stop there.”
This is but the merest, bare-bones sketch written not by an academician but by someone who stopped to imagine what he went through and to enjoy what beauty he left behind. He died of tuberculosis after months of extreme suffering from pain, being starved and bled, and vomiting blood. But Joseph Severn, who nursed him during those last months in Rome, wrote, “Keats raves till I am in a complete tremble for him…about four, the approaches of death came on…I lifted him up into my arms…(at) eleven…he gradually sank into death, so quiet, that I still thought he slept.”
In closing, I would like to quote his poem after which the film was named.
Bright star, would I were steadfast as thou art—
Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night
And watching, with eternal lids apart,
Like Nature’s patient, sleepless Eremite,
The moving waters at their priestlike task
Of pure ablution round earth’s human shores,
Or grazing on the new soft-fallen mask
Of snow upon the mountains and the moors—
No—yet still steadfast, still unchangeable,
Pillow’d upon my fair love’s ripening breast,
To feel for ever its soft swell and fall,
Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,
Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
And so live ever—or else swoon to death.