Source : HBL-BLink – ADITYA MANI JHA
This is the 200th anniversary of John Keats’s annus mirabilis, a year when he published his most significant works, fell deeply in love, and cemented his literary legacy
“When I was your age,” my mother tells me — and I tune out mid-sentence. The endings, down the years, have varied in dozens of ways, segues that have told me things about my parents. Clearly, their early-twenties were a lot more fun than mine — not surprising, considering they were newlyweds living it up in ’80s Delhi, whereas I, a born loner, was negotiating ennui and chhaayavaadi kavitaa (neo-Romantic poetry) in college, bang in the middle of the Lehmann Brothers recession.
When you’re in your twenties, everything is a life-changing event because there isn’t an awful lot to change. Genuinely life-altering changes come later. That is, of course, assuming you live to 60 or 70, a luxury poet John Keats never had.
And yet, in 1818, Keats, then 22, had a year of miracles, his annus mirabilis. It was a year of love, loss, ridicule, redemption and, above all, several incandescent strings of words that would outlive him by centuries.
n April 1818, Keats published a long poem called ‘Endymion’ in four parts, in a monthly cycle, forwarding each part to his publishers at the full moon. The poem was based on (and named after) the shepherd lover of the Greek moon goddess Selene. It was composed in rhyming couplets in iambic pentameter, a form popularised by Chaucer and perfected by Alexander Pope (and, much later, Vladimir Nabokov). Keats had no way of knowing this then, of course, but the opening lines of ‘Endymion’ would become one of the most-quoted sections of poetry in the English language:
“A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams …”
The opening line would later be referenced by Willy Wonka, Mary Poppins and even Charlie Chaplin (ironically, in one of his darkest films, Monsieur Verdoux). All of this, however, would come much later. For the 22-year-old medical student-turned-poet John Keats, 1818 would begin with his first taste of widespread critical contempt.
‘Back to the shop, Mr John!’
From April to June 1818, there were a number of critical reviews of ‘Endymion’, including those published in the Quarterly Review and The British Critic, both literary publications of note with decent circulation figures. The latter described ‘Endymion’ as a “monstrously droll poem”; the critic clearly preferred the scalpel over the hammer. The hammer would well and truly fall in August, after John Gibson Lockhart eviscerated the poem in a damning review signed ‘Z’, in an issue of Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine. RS White chronicled the episode in John Keats: A Literary Life (2010), emphasising how Lockhart’s was an ad hominem review that ridiculed Keats for giving up medicine to pursue poetry.
“Politics is hardly central to ‘Endymion’, so Lockhart uses class grounds to ridicule instead Keats’s pretensions to knowing classical mythology (‘His Endymion is not a Greek shepherd, loved by a Grecian goddess; he is merely a young Cockney rhymester, dreaming a phantastic dream at the full of the moon’),” he wrote.
“His viciously personal attack has become notorious in Keats criticism: ‘We venture to make one small prophecy, that his bookseller will not a second time venture £50 upon any thing he can write. It is a better and a wiser thing to be a starved apothecary than a starved poet; so back to the shop Mr John, back to ‘plasters, pills, and ointment boxes,’ &c. But, for Heaven’s sake, young Sangrado, be a little more sparing of extenuatives and soporifics in your practice than you have been in your poetry.’”
Keats biographers such as Andrew Motion and Denise Gigante agree, for the most part, that after an initial disconsolate period, Keats developed a measured response to these reviews. He had, he declared, made his peace with them and would rather focus on the new directions his poems would take.
A walk in the woods
In March 1818, shortly before this deluge of scathing reviews, Keats began work on ‘Isabella, or the Pot of Basil’, a long poem inspired by the 14th-century Italian writer Boccacio’s simple, fable-like stories. The poet’s choice of source text was also not without precedent: after all, Keats’s beloved Shakespeare, whom he preferred over popular contemporaries such as Wordsworth, regularly borrowed from Italian folktales.
By then, Keats, along with his brothers Tom and George, had moved into the village of Hampstead. Tom suffered from tuberculosis, and, during the caregiving process, Keats was to gain no small measure of insight into the disease that would claim his own life one day.
In April, Keats wrote to George, informing him that the veteran poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge had visited him at Hampstead, and the two of them enjoyed a long walk at Hampstead Heath. In Motion’s biography of Keats, the author cites from this letter.
“After enquiring by a look whether it would be agreeable, I walked with him at his alderman-after-dinner pace for nearly two miles, I suppose. In those two miles he broached 1,000 things — let me see if I can give you a list — Nightingales, poetry, on poetic sensation, Metaphysics, Different genera and species of Dreams … The difference between Will and Volition… I heard his voice as he came towards me. I heard it as he moved away. I heard it all the interval if it may be called so.”
Some Keats scholars think that an early draft of ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ was written and discarded in the immediate aftermath of this encounter — Keats signed the final draft ‘May 1819’ (as many as four of his long poems were signed ‘May 1819’, leading to this suspicion). Today, it is remembered as one of his finest works.
“Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!
No hungry generations tread thee down;
The voice I hear this passing night was heard
In ancient days by emperor and clown…”
First meetings between iconic writers are the stuff of legend — Edgar Allan Poe meeting Charles Dickens (and Dickens’s pet raven Grip), Neil Gaiman meeting Stephen King, or, closer home, Amitav Ghosh meeting Vikram Seth at Doon School. Sometimes there is abrasiveness or muted praise. But, more often than not, this is the moment that launches a lifelong friendship between kindred souls — a small miracle in itself.
Not in lone splendour
By June 1818, Keats had moved to Hampstead Heath, at Wentworth Place (now the Keats House Museum), the newly built house of his friend Charles Armitage Brown. It was here that in November Keats met the 18-year-old Frances ‘Fanny’ Brawne, the love of his life and the inspiration behind the incredibly popular love sonnet ‘Bright Star’. Things got off to a rocky start, Keats not exactly approving of Brawne’s vivacious, flirty, outspoken ways.
In a letter to his brother George from late November, Keats says: “She is not seventeen — but she is ignorant — monstrous in her behavior flying out in all directions, calling people such names that I was forced lately to make use of the term Minx — this I think not from any innate vice but from a penchant she has for acting stylishly. I am however tired of such style and shall decline any more of it.”
The two soon became constant companions, eventually falling in love. On Christmas, the two became secretly engaged — throughout all of this, Keats’s brother Tom continued to suffer because of his tuberculosis. In December, he breathed his last.
The 2009 Jane Campion film Bright Star (based heavily on Motion’s biography of Keats) tells the story of the courtship memorably. Keats (Ben Whishaw) and Brawne (Abbie Cornish) realise soon that while the bond between them is strong, Keats didn’t nearly have enough money or societal standing to ask for Brawne’s hand in marriage. It’s remarkable how many moments of startling poignancy Campion coaxes out of this basic, even banal, obstacle-in-love. Cornish, who put in a remarkable performance as Brawne, is inch-perfect, whether she’s playing the silver-tongued provocateur or the heavy-lidded, pining lover.
Through 1819 and 1820, Keats and Brawne remained in touch through letters, several of which became prized items of research among Keats scholars, and some of the most famous love letters of all time. Bright Star uses these letters really well, too, especially Whishaw’s lilting voiceover rendition of these evergreen lines: “I almost wish we were butterflies and liv’d but three summer days. Three such days with you I could fill with more delight than fifty common years could ever contain.”
By the end of 1820, Keats left the Brawne residence in tears, and with a promise to Fanny (and her mother) that he’d come back from a trip to Italy and marry her. By then, Keats had earned a small but not insignificant amount of money from his last publication. But his health was deteriorating with every passing year and, by the time he reached Italy, it became clear that he might never see the English shores again. On February 23, 1821, John Keats died due to complications from tuberculosis.
A few months before his death, however, Keats was in possession of a copy of The Poetical Works of William Shakespeare. Opposite the page where ‘A Lover’s Complaint’ was printed, Keats had begun transcribing one final poem, a parting gift, it is now believed, dedicated to Brawne.
The spectre of Death, it has to be said, brings remarkable clarity to life — and in Keats’s case, to love.
“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 only serious relationship I’ve been in started after a woman wrote to me following a poetry club get-together — she’d seen me reading some of my poems and did I want to hang out over coffee sometime? I remember thinking at first, “It’s 2013, and nobody falls for anybody because of their poems.”
It just seemed too big a cliché, but Keats’s life reminds us that clichés are nothing but truths that have become boring. Illness and death are awful and inevitable — but poetry can save our souls, and to hell with the cynics.
Aditya Mani Jha is a commissioning editor with Penguin Random House