The first time I looked up John Keats was after watching part of the movie Bright Star . The 2009 movie, which lost me when Fanny Brawne filled her room with butterflies and then let them die, had left behind the desire to understand exactly what and who I was supposed to be watching. After I had finished my research, I came to the conclusion that the real-life Fanny Brawne had fallen for a sickly man who had presented her with a recycled love poem and that the poet himself, Keats, was a little bit of a jerk.
Fast forward a few years. I have spent most of my time researching prose authors, but feel I have to study poets if I want to improve my own poetry. I had been at it for a few days when I ran into this:
“I have been astonished that Men could die Martyrs for religion – I have shudder’d at it – I shudder no more – I could be martyr’d for my Religion – Love is my religion – I could die for that – I could die for you.” -Keats to Fanny Brawne, 13 October 1819
Sure you could, Mr. Keats. Sure you could.
His name brought a bad taste to my mouth and I was dubious of his sentiment. But, I’m studying poets and he qualifies. Why not find out what all the hubbub is about?
After reading up on Keats, it didn’t take very long before I thought I was finished with him again. I had come no closer to connecting with his life or with his work. I decided that he was young and idealistic and therefore wrote poetry and love-letters with the dramatic flair of the young and idealistic. I felt that his writing was, for the most part, lip service with lace on it.
With that, I put Keats down once more. But Keats’ work wasn’t done with me. In less than 24 hours after abandoning him again, I ran across this:
“This living hand, now warm and capable
Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold
And in the icy silence of the tomb,
So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights
That thou would wish thine own heart dry of blood
So in my veins red life might stream again,
And thou be conscience-calm’d–see here it is–
I hold it towards you.” -Keats
How had I missed this?
Research told me that this poem had been scribbled in the margins of an unfinished manuscript called “The Cap and Bells; or, The Jealousies” while he was on his deathbed and that it had gone unpublished until 1889.
I looked into his work for a third time, deciding to put aside my prejudice and find whatever it had caused me to miss before. That last time is when I learned a thing or two about Mr. Keats.
Firstly, I found that when Keats was less concerned with the beauty of the words and more interested in the emotions he was trying to express, his work was more poignant (“This living hand, now warm and capable”). Secondly, despite his desire to be remembered as a great poet, he detested the laws that bound his poetry (“If By Dull Rhymes Our English Must Be Chain’d”). This was work I could sympathize with.
At the finish of the Keats adventure, I found my own appreciation for him. His most touching works are reflections on mortality, not romance. It is when he ceased trying to please the critics, ceased following the rules of poetry, ignored the accepted beauty and forewent the rules of the time that he created true beauty and poetry. It is his struggle against what was celebrated in poetry and his abandonment of the common form that speaks to me as well as what was truly in his beating heart: fear and the struggle to accept a death he knew was coming.