In 1821, the death of the Romantic English poet John Keats from tuberculosis elicited almost no response from the general public. Barely 25 years old, Keats’s poetry had been savaged by the reviewers of his day; literary historians suggest that Keats only sold around 200 copies of his books during his lifetime.
It is little wonder why: Leading critics of the time like John Gibson Lockhart excoriated Keats as a “Cockney” upstart in a literary world populated by aristocrats and the wealthy-but-untitled elite. Lockhart’s message was clear: Literature was a gentlemen’s club; for all intents and purposes, the low-born Keats was not invited to be a member.
A Misplaced Start
Now one of the most famous poems in the English language, Keats’s “On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer” was derided by such critics because its author admitted to reading Homer in translation rather than in the original Greek. In the early 19th Century, this was a sure sign that Keats had not been educated in one of England’s prestigious boarding schools or in an ancient university such as Oxford or Cambridge.
Prior to pursuing his calling as an author, Keats had trained as a doctor at Guy’s Hospital in London. He later used this training to nurse his brother Tom through a fatal case of tuberculosis. Keats probably contracted the disease through his brother; at any rate, tuberculosis was also to be John’s cause of death.
A Voyage to Italy
At the time, warm and dry weather was thought to help tuberculosis patients in managing their symptoms. Accordingly, Keats embarked for a journey to Italy. It was to be his last; he is now buried in the city’s old Protestant cemetery. Rumor has it that all of Keats’s furniture was burned after his death in order to ward off transmissions of tuberculosis to others.
Keats’s final hours in Italy strangely paralleled the work of a Romantic poet who drew much inspiration from the classical world of the Ancient Romans and Ancient Greeks. Throughout his “Great Odes,” for example, Keats summoned up a world of ancient Grecian groves and impenetrable forests that had long since disappeared.
A Dream of Another World
Keats’s obsession with this forgotten world put him at odds with most of the poets of his time. No stranger to Hellenistic imagery in his own work, Keats’s contemporary Lord Byron was dismissive of Keats’s obsession with Greek myths. Like Lockhart, the aristocratic Byron felt that Keats was attempting to rise too far above his station.
In his own day, Keats regarded himself as something of a failure. He told confidants that he had not written a body of work that would be celebrated by posterity. He ordered a friend to have the motto “Here Lies One Whose Name Was Writ In Water” inscribed on his tombstone. Tellingly, Keats did not even have his own name engraved on the same monument. He viewed obscurity as his lot.
A Reputation Forged
Of course, Keats was far too modest about his own work; critics like Lockhart have since faded into obscurity while Keats himself is now regarded as the finest lyric poet England ever produced.
Accordingly, many of Keats’s most dedicated fans have chosen to observe the 200th anniversary of the poet’s death with much reverence and regard for the man Keats was in life. Celebrations took place across the globe; readings of Keats’s work took place everywhere from Indiana to India. Their affection for the great writer is a testament to his astonishing achievement as a poet and as a human being.