Nationwide Portrait Gallery
In John Keats’ poems, loss of life crops up 100 instances greater than the longer term, a phrase that seems simply as soon as within the entirety of his work. This might sound applicable on the 2 hundredth anniversary of the loss of life of Keats, who was popularly considered because the younger Romantic poet “half in love with easeful loss of life”.
Loss of life 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’ 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 February 23 1821, Keats himself died of tuberculosis in Rome.
Life sliding by
His preoccupation with loss of life doesn’t inform the entire story, nevertheless. 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 educated physician – he was all too acutely aware of the physique’s vulnerability to mortal shocks. These two very completely different energies coalesce in one among his finest cherished 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 keeping with biographer Nicholas Roe. In it, Keats is anxious that he received’t have time to realize 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, attractive in its desolation, and all-importantly painless. Who can learn these remaining strains with out themselves feeling a pull to swooning loss of life, half in love with it, as Keats professed to be?
That’s what I used to assume, at any fee. These days, within the pandemic, I’ve begun to learn this poem slightly in another way. Lensed via lengthy months of lockdown, the sonnet’s existential anxieties appear much less summary, grand and performative, and extra, properly, human.
It’s a poem that can resonate with the youth who’re cooped up indoors, bodily remoted, unable to satisfy and mingle, agonisingly conscious of weeks slipping by, alternatives missed, disappointments mounting. This poem has made me virtually painfully empathetic in the direction of their plight.
Nationwide Portrait Gallery, London
The sonnet’s fears of a future laid to waste are shared by complete generations whose collective psychological well being is underneath siege. In his final surviving letter, written two years after the sonnet whereas dying in Rome, Keats data a “feeling of my actual life having previous”, a conviction that he was “main a posthumous existence”. How many people are experiencing related ideas in the meanwhile?
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 identified to London and the world as Bedlam. Earlier than he turned to poetry, Keats educated at Man’s hospital, London, the place he not solely witnessed first-hand the horrors of surgical procedure in a pre-anaesthetic age but additionally tended to sufferers on what was known as the lunatic ward.
It was all an excessive amount of for him. Traumatised 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 approach into his writing. As an illustration, in Hyperion, his medical information 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 transferring picture of isolation and enervation that speaks to us right now:
As for lockdown, Keats was no stranger to its pressures and deprivations. During times 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 hotter climes would save his lungs. On arrival, his ship was put into strict quarantine for ten days. In letters to his mates, Keats described being “in a type of desperation”, including, “we can’t be created for this type 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 longer term, by no means relinquished his goals of affection and fame.
Richard Marggraf-Turley doesn’t work for, seek the advice of, personal shares in or obtain funding from any firm or organisation that may profit from this text, and has disclosed no related affiliations past their tutorial appointment.