Politics Magazine

Keats Toward the End

Posted on the 17 October 2011 by Erictheblue

I'm working my way toward the end of Walter Jackson Bate's biography of Keats.  Such a short life, such a long book:  at 700+ pages, it works out to almost 30 pages per year.  I'd hate to have to read 30 pages about what I did between my most recent birthdays.

I'm far enough along so that Keats is now, by his own description, living a posthumous existence.  He's coughing up blood.  He's stopped writing  poetry.  Periods where he appears to grasp at hope alternate with those in which he knows he's dying and begins withdrawing from life.  He's broke and relies on friends for lodging.  A note of bitterness sometimes creeps into his letters, especially those to Fanny Brawne, his fiancee.  He does not know it but he will one day be regarded as one of the greatest English poets.  He's 25.

At the end of the last chapter I've finished, Bate describes an event that partakes of something almost like comedy.  Keats was living at the home of Leigh Hunt.  Fanny Brawne sent a letter, and when it arrived Mrs. Hunt, being busy with a child, asked the maid to bring it to Keats.  The maid, however, was discontented--among other things, she resented the extra burden imposed upon her by such a sick man living in the house.  She did not immediately deliver the letter, which fell into the hands of the Hunts' 10-year-old son, and, by the time Keats finally got it, the seal had been broken.  In health he might have relished a story concerning how the complaints of house servants exert their influence on the lives of "the great."  He was, however, sufficiently distraught by the broken seal to determine to move from the Hunts' house.  It was over a letter as prosaic as the events leading to the delayed delivery. 

I say the event partakes of something almost like comedy, but it also has the effect of highlighting the misery Keats endured at the end.  His life got off to a bad start--his father died when he was 8, his mother when he was 14--and the story of his last year makes difficult reading. 

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