John Keats: a short life that was long on accomplishments

March 7, 2021 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: journalism, writers, writing.

John Keats lived for only about a quarter of a century, but his effect on English literature is nothing less than astonishing.

Keats is currently being celebrated by the world of English letters because we have just passed the 200th anniversary of his death. This mini-revival of interest in Keats is a good one because his poetry is well worth paying attention to.

For instance, here is his poem “To Autumn,” which he wrote sometime during 1819 and 1820.

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
   Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
   With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
   And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
      To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
   With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
      For summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
   Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
   Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep,
   Drows’d with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
      Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
   Steady thy laden head across a brook;
   Or by a cyder-press, with patient look,
      Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.

Where are the songs of spring? Ay, Where are they?
   Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,—
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
   And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
   Among the river sallows, borne aloft
      Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
   Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
   The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
      And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

Keats was born in London in 1795 to a family that was financially well-to-do. The death of his father at the age of 8 and his mother, who died of tuberculosis, six years later ultimately put some family members at odds with each other. Keats was unable to obtain the inheritance that was due to him for quite some time. He was apprenticed to a doctor, a friend of the family, and studied medicine with an eye toward practicing it as a profession.

But poetry intervened and became the love of his life.

Keats’s first volume of poetry was published in 1817. He had become part of a circle of new poets who had not yet gained a wide audience or the favor of critics. This first volume was ignored or dismissed, but he kept on writing.

His next effort, Endymion (1818), was also dismissed by most critics, but a few people such as William Hazlitt and Benjamin Hayden put him on a level with Percy Bysshe Shelley as one of English literature’s rising stars.

Keats found out in 1820 that, like his mother, he had tuberculosis. He went to Italy in hopes that the climate would give him some relief, but that hope did not materialize. He died in 1821 about three months after his 25th birthday.

His death at such a young age focused attention on the poetry that he had created in such a short time. He had finally gained the favor of critics, and he has been high on the list of poetry readers and poets themselves ever since.

Further information about the life of John Keats can be found via the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

And there is this from The Guardian:

The Keats-Shelley Memorial House in Rome, where Keats died, has launched an immersive video tour of the house, led by rock star and philanthropist Bob Geldof, to mark the anniversary. Geldof, who is the Keats-Shelley200 ambassador, is also narrating a video story for the museum, The Death of Keats, in which he will read from letters that tell the story of Keats’s time in the house and his death. “Keats and the house in Rome mean a lot to me, and it was a pleasure to work on these projects for the bicentenary of his death,” said Geldof. Geldof’s tour can be watched with a VR headset or on a regular screen, while a panoramic tour of the house with a live guide will also be available on 23 February. Source: A joy forever: poetry world prepares to mark bicentenary of John Keats | John Keats | The Guardian


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