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On This Date: The Death of John Keats

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February 23, 2017


On this date in 1821 John Keats died in Rome. Here are some notes I made for a draft entry on Keats’s death in my Historical Dictionary of Romanticism in Literature:

By the end of the year 1820 Keats’s declining health rapidly accelerated. After February he never wrote another poem. His temper darkened and he began his short life as a recluse. Some of his bitterness began to be directed toward Fanny Brawne. As a desperate measure Keats accepted the Shelleys’ invitation to travel to Italy and share their residence in Pisa. So in September 1820, accompanied by his friend Joseph Severn, Keats moved to Italy. But his health was such that the move either did not help at all or it hastened the end. His close association with the Shelleys and with the Byron circle was brief. On 10 December he suffered a major hemorrhage followed in January with another severe attack. John Keats died in Rome near midnight on 23 February 1821. He is buried in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome near the tomb of Caius Cestius close to Percy Bysshe Shelley’s burial place. Keats’s tombstone epitaph reads, “Here lies One/ Whose Name was writ in Water.”

John Keats seemed to have a premonition of an early death for most of his brief adult life. Take a look at one of his most familiar sonnets, “When I Have Fears.”

When I have fears that I may cease to be

Before my pen has gleaned my teeming brain,

Before high-pilèd books, in charactery,

Hold like rich garners the full ripened grain;

When I behold, upon the night’s starred face,

Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,

And think that I may never live to trace

Their shadows with the magic hand of chance;

And when I feel, fair creature of an hour,

That I shall never look upon thee more,

Never have relish in the faery power

Of unreflecting love—then on the shore

Of the wide world I stand alone, and think

Till love and fame to nothingness do sink.

John Keats wrote this sonnet at the same time as he wrote “On Sitting Down to Read King Lear Once Again,” in January 1818. Lord Houghton published both poems posthumously in 1848. “When I Have Fears” is one of Keats’s few Shakespearean sonnets. When the poet realizes that death may prevent him from achieving poetic fame and enjoying passionate love, he understands that love and fame are of no consequence ultimately. They sink to nothingness before the threat of oblivion

A tidbit: Notice the two dominant metaphors of the first and second quatrains respectively: that of the harvest and that of a cloudy night. The imagery of the first two quatrains seems to relate to the nature of the imagination, involving work and maturity in the first while the imagery of the second involves chance and inspiration.

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Paul Varner


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