The link below is to an article that takes a look at 5 of the best poems of John Keats.
When John Keats died 200 years ago, on Feb. 23, 1821, he was just 25 years old. Despite his short life, he’s still considered one of the finest poets in the English language.
The idea – which centers on suspending judgment about something in order to learn more about it – remains as vital today as when he first wrote about it.
Keats lost most of his family members to an infectious disease, tuberculosis, that would take his own life. In the same way the COVID-19 pandemic turned the worlds of many people upside down, the poet had developed a deep sense of life’s uncertainties.
Keats was born in London in 1795. His father died in a horse-riding accident when Keats was eight years old, and his mother died of tuberculosis when he was 14. As a teenager, he commenced medical studies, first as an apprentice to a local surgeon and later as a medical student at Guy’s Hospital, where he assisted with surgeries and cared for all kinds of people.
After completing his studies, however, Keats decided to pursue poetry. In 1819, he composed many of his greatest poems, though they didn’t receive widespread acclaim during his lifetime. By 1820, he had contracted tuberculosis and relocated to Rome, where he hoped the warmer climate would help him recover. He ended up dying a year later.
Keats coined the term negative capability in a letter he wrote to his brothers George and Tom in 1817. Inspired by Shakespeare’s work, he describes it as “being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”
Negative here is not pejorative. Instead, it implies the ability to resist explaining away what we do not understand.
Rather than coming to an immediate conclusion about an event, idea or person, Keats advises resting in doubt and continuing to pay attention and probe in order to understand it more completely. In this, he anticipates the work of Nobel laureate economist Daniel Kahneman, who cautions against the naïve view that “What you see is all there is.”
It is also a good idea to take the time to look at matters from multiple perspectives. Shakespeare’s comedies are full of mistaken identities and misconceptions, including mixed-up genders. Keats reminds us that we are most likely to gain new insights if we can stop assuming that we know everything we need to know about people by neatly shoehorning them into preconceived boxes.
Negative capability also testifies to the importance of humility, which Keats described as a “capability of submission.” As Socrates indicates in Plato’s “Apology,” the people least likely to learn anything new are the ones who think they already know it all. By contrast, those who are willing to question their own assumptions and adopt new perspectives are in the best position to arrive at new insights.
Keats believed that the world could never be fully understood, let alone controlled. In his view, pride and arrogance must be avoided at all costs, an especially apt warning as the world confronts challenges such as climate change and COVID-19.
At the same time, information technology seems to give everyone instant access to all human knowledge. To be sure, the internet is one gateway to knowledge. But it also indiscriminately spreads misinformation and propaganda, often fueled by algorithms that profit off division.
This, it goes without saying, can cloud understanding with false certainty.
And so our age is often described as polarized: women versus men, Blacks versus whites, liberals versus conservatives, religion versus science – and it’s easy to automatically lapse into the facile assumption that all human beings can be divided into two camps. The underlying view seems to be that if only it can be determined which side of an issue a person lines up on, there’s no need to look any further.
Against this tendency, Keats suggests that human beings are always more complex than any demographic category or party affiliation. He anticipates another Nobel laureate, writer and philosopher Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who wrote that instead of good guys and bad guys, the world is made up of wonderfully complex and sometimes even self-contradictory people, each capable of both good and bad:
If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?
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Uncertainty can be uncomfortable. It is often quite tempting to stop pondering complex questions and jump to conclusions. But Keats counsels otherwise. By resisting the temptation to dismiss and despise others, it’s possible to open the door to discovering traits in people that are worthy of sympathy or admiration.
They may, with time, even come to be regarded as friends.
In John Keats’ poems, death crops up 100 times more than the future, a word that appears just once in the entirety of his work. This might seem appropriate on the 200th anniversary of the death of Keats, who was popularly viewed as the young Romantic poet “half in love with easeful death”.
Death certainly touched Keats and his family. At the age of 14, he lost his mother to tuberculosis. In 1818, he nursed his younger brother Tom as he lay dying of the same disease.
After such experiences, when Ludolph, the hero of Keats’ tragedy, Otho the Great, imagines succumbing to “a bitter death, a suffocating death”, Keats knew what he was writing about. And then, aged just 25, on February 23 1821, Keats himself died of tuberculosis in Rome.
Life sliding by
His preoccupation with death doesn’t tell the whole story, however. In life, Keats was vivacious, funny, bawdy, pugnacious, poetically experimental, politically active, and above all forward-looking.
He was a young man in a hurry, eager to make a mark on the literary world; even if – as a trained doctor – he was all too conscious of the body’s vulnerability to mortal shocks. These two very different energies coalesce in one of his best loved poems, written in January 1818 when the poet was in the bloom of health:
When I Have Fears That I May Cease to Be is a poem of personal worry, according to biographer Nicholas Roe. In it, Keats is anxious that he won’t have time to achieve poetic fame or fall in “unreflecting love”, and these fears and self-doubts take him to the brink.
But as brinks go, this one doesn’t seem all that bad. The poem is romantic with a small “r” – wide-eyed, dramatic, sentimental – its vision of finality, of nothingness, gorgeous in its desolation, and all-importantly painless. Who can read those final lines without themselves feeling a pull to swooning death, half in love with it, as Keats professed to be?
That’s what I used to think, at any rate. Lately, in the pandemic, I’ve begun to read this poem rather differently. Lensed through long months of lockdown, the sonnet’s existential anxieties seem less abstract, grand and performative, and more, well, human.
It’s a poem that will resonate with the youth who are cooped up indoors, physically isolated, unable to meet and mingle, agonisingly aware of weeks slipping by, opportunities missed, disappointments mounting. This poem has made me almost painfully empathetic towards their plight.
The sonnet’s fears of a future laid to waste are shared by whole generations whose collective mental health is under siege. In his last surviving letter, written two years after the sonnet while dying in Rome, Keats records a “feeling of my real life having past”, a conviction that he was “leading a posthumous existence”. How many of us are experiencing similar thoughts at the moment?
Illness and isolation
Of all the Romantics, Keats perhaps knew most about mental suffering. He grew up in Moorgate, just across from Bethlem Hospital, which was known to London and the world as Bedlam. Before he turned to poetry, Keats trained at Guy’s hospital, London, where he not only witnessed first-hand the horrors of surgery in a pre-anaesthetic age but also tended to patients on what was called the lunatic ward.
It was all too much for him. Traumatised by the misery and pain he felt he could do little to alleviate, in 1816 he threw medicine in for the pen. His experiences at Guy’s, though, and the empathy he developed there, found their way into his writing. For instance, in Hyperion, his medical knowledge helps him to inhabit the catatonic state of “gray-hair’d Saturn”, who sits in solitude, “deep in the shady sadness of a vale”, despairing after being deposed by the Olympian gods. The vignette is a moving image of isolation and enervation that speaks to us today:
As for lockdown, Keats was no stranger to its pressures and deprivations. During periods of illness in Hampstead in 1819 – precursor symptoms of tuberculosis – he was reluctant to venture out, isolating himself. In October 1820, he set sail for Italy in the hope warmer climes would save his lungs. On arrival, his ship was put into strict quarantine for ten days. In letters to his friends, Keats described being “in a sort of desperation”, adding, “we cannot be created for this sort of suffering”.
Keats was a poet of his age, his own social, cultural and medical milieu. And yet, on the bicentenary of his death, he’s also – more than ever, perhaps – a poet of ours. A poet of lockdown, frustration, disappointment, fears … and even hope.
Because even in those last, scarcely imaginable weeks in Rome, 200 years ago, holed up in a little apartment at the foot of the Spanish Steps, he never quite gave up on the future, never relinquished his dreams of love and fame.
Any prize for the most enigmatic character in English poetry would probably go to the truant knight in John Keats’s much-loved 1819 ballad La Belle Dame Sans Merci. All the desolate knight is able to tell us with any clarity is that a beautiful lady whom he met “in the meads” stole his heart before cruelly abandoning him. Even that account is open to interpretation, since we never hear La Belle Dame’s own version of events.
200 years on, we’re no closer to agreeing what the highly symbolic poem might mean, let alone to tracing the knight back to an actual historical figure. But a new discovery from the archives of the British Museum might be about to change that.
At some level, the ballad probably registers Keats’s own sense of doom over his relationship with fiancée Fanny Brawne. Illness and financial uncertainty were proving barriers to consummation and marriage. Beyond that lies only guesswork. Many have grown used to thinking about the famous romantic poem as the purest example of spontaneous inspiration. It even appears without preamble in one of Keats’s letters, increasing the impression that it arrived out of nowhere, dictated by the muse.
But that’s not how Keats usually worked. Many of his best-known poems take vital cues from the physical objects he saw around him. Think of the “heifer lowing at the skies” in Ode on a Grecian Urn. The mooing cameo owes its existence to a sculpted cow on the Parthenon frieze that Keats saw in the British Museum. Similarly, the anguished Titans in The Fall of Hyperion were likely inspired by the grimacing statues depicting manic and melancholic madness that adorned the gateposts of Bethlem Hospital (known to London and the world as Bedlam). Keats knew them only too well as a young boy growing up in Moorfields.
In the run-up to the ballad’s composition Keats was in Chichester to finish his medieval romance The Eve of St Agnes. During his stay he visited Chichester Cathedral, where a very striking knight-at-arms was housed. Millions of readers know it today from the perennial favourite Philip Larkin poem, An Arundel Tomb. Larkin visited in 1956, when the brawny alabaster effigy of a chain-mailed Richard FitzAlan, tenth Earl of Arundel, lying hand-in-hand beside his own Belle Dame, Eleanor of Lancaster, inspired one of the poet’s most quoted lines: “What will survive of us is love”.
It’s never occurred to anyone that Keats’s imagination might also have been set racing by the stone avatars of the Arundels, because the serene gleaming effigies don’t seem to have much in common with Keats’s haggard knight. However, intriguing visual evidence in the form of two little-known sketches in the British Museum may hold the key to the mystery.
Larkin viewed the alabaster effigies after their Victorian restoration. In 1843, the extensively damaged statues of Richard and Eleanor, which had been torn apart to save space, were reunited, presenting the sentimental tableau of conjugal affection that moved Larkin to an uncharacteristic moment of (albeit cagey) optimism about love.
When Keats visited the cathedral in January 1819, things were very different. The recumbent knight was grimy and badly weathered from having lain for a century outside in the elements (“sadly mutilated”, in the words of the 1844 Antiquarian and Architectural Yearbook). He was heavily graffiti-ed with “dates and initials of the mischievous and ignorant”, the earliest from 1604 – and he was missing an arm. His lady lay not beside him but stowed a few metres away at his feet, separated by a pillar. He was the very model of woe-begone.
The effigies also retained faint traces of medieval paint, including “small quantities of crimson”, which perhaps throw light on the “fading rose” of the feverish knight’s complexion in Keats’s ballad.
After visiting Chichester, Keats moved on to nearby Bedhampton, where he stayed with prosperous millers John and Letitia Snook. When illness allowed him to venture beyond the garden gate, he would have found a granary, a sedgy lake, and in the centre of the village Bidbury Mead. All feature in La Belle Dame Sans Merci, from the withered vegetation around the lake, and the meads where the knight encounters the lady, to the “squirrel’s granary”.
Visions of love
Could Chichester Cathedral’s famous effigies have inspired not just one but two well-known – though very different – visions of love? Larkin’s holds out the possibility that love conquers all. Keats’s looks towards the abyss. It’s even possible that Keats wasn’t above a dark pun at the effigy’s expense. Could it really be a coincidence that Keats came up with the idea of a “knight-at-arms” after seeing the cathedral’s wounded knight-without-arms? Whatever the case, the emasculated effigy of Richard FitzAlan would have resonated with Keats’s own precarious sense of virility.
Even the ballad’s birds who do not sing may have their origins in a real absence. The damp, wetland habitat around Bedhampton’s lakes made a perfect home for sedge warblers. These chattery passerines would have been wintering in sub-Saharan Africa when Keats arrived in the village. In other words, we may now know the sound of one of the most famous of literary silences.
Poems can rarely be chased back to a single source of inspiration. Even ekphrastic poems, which deliberately set out to describe physical objects, are hardly ever one-to-one engagements with their subjects. The poetic imagination simply doesn’t work like that. That’s especially true of La Belle Dame Sans Merci, a particularly rich example of writing that resists explanation. Nevertheless, Chichester Cathedral’s armless knight, usually associated with Larkin’s An Arundel Tomb, deserves to be recognised as part of the heady mix that produced a lover’s complaint which has haunted generations of readers.