When the Bright Star Faded: The Short Life of John Keats

John KeatsToday is the birthday of John Keats (1795-1821), free spirit, lover, and beloved poet of the English Romantic period.

Standing at a mere five feet in height, Keats was shy and unsure of himself. When he was able to overcome that, he was apparently considered attractive and charming.

Keats’s short life was as riddled with gossip-worthy tidbits as any modern-day celebrity. His father’s death (and possible murder) when Keats was just 8 left his family struggling to get by. While still in his teens Keats began studying medicine (which included dissecting rotting, maggot-infested corpses). However his real passion was for poetry and he began writing and publishing in 1817. Though his initial efforts were ignored or criticized, he continued to write despite unfulfilled love and financial strife. He wrote through bouts of mercury poisoning (probably taken to treat venereal disease), opium use (then as prevalent as taking ibuprofen), and tuberculosis.

A contemporary of Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelly and Byron, Keats helped shape the Romantic era – a reaction against rational thought that idealized the sensuality and revelry of bygone paganism. His was a world fresh from the War of 1812 and the Napoleonic wars. It was bristling with the Industrial Revolution, child labor, and worldwide slave-trading. It was also lacking in indoor plumbing, electricity, antibiotics and anesthesia.

Keats seems to have been a puzzle of contradictory traits. He was at times both robust and weak, both ambitious and sickly. He harbored sentiments about politics, religion and sexuality that were considered radical for his time. Keats was only 25 when he died. His short life is a testament to his passion, his restless spirit, his genius, and his endurance.

Bright Star by John Keats

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 moving waters at their priestlike task
Of pure ablution round earth’s human shores,
Or gazing on the new soft-fallen mask
Of snow upon the mountains and the moors —
No — yet still stedfast, still unchangeable,
Pillow’d upon my fair love’s ripening breast,
To feel for ever its soft swell and fall,
Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,
Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
And so live ever — or else swoon to death.

Sources

Gigante, Denise. The Keats Brothers: The Life of John and George.
Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011.

Roe, Nicholas. John Keats: A New Life.
New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012.

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One Response to When the Bright Star Faded: The Short Life of John Keats

  1. Pingback: Poet Party! | Seven Word Itch

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