The young poet whose words are a joy for ever

Bright star: Joseph Severn’s portrait of Keats at home in Hampstead, London.

Are we too obsessed with youthful genius? John Keats died 200 years ago today at the age of 25, having written some of the most beautiful and influential poems in the English language.

The young English poet lay racked with disease in a room in Rome. He had travelled with his friend Joseph Severn, hoping the warm climate might cure him – but in vain.

Keats was buried with a lock of his girlfriend Fanny Brawne’s hair and an unopened letter from his sister. Daisy-covered turf was laid over the coffin.

Convinced he failed to leave his mark, Keats asked his headstone bear the words “Here lies one whose name was writ in water.” In the two centuries since, the cemetery – and the house where he died – has become a place of pilgrimage.

Keats’s age and circumstances of his death fed into a cult that took grip in the 19th Century and has remained. It is that of the brilliant young artist who dies before his time, often spurned by the world at large.

It began with another English poet, Thomas Chatterton. Rejected by the establishment, he committed suicide at 17. He became a hero to Keats and other Romantics.

Keats’s death inspired one of Shelley’s greatest poems, Adonais. Shelley, too, moved to Italy after attracting criticism in Britain, and when he died a year after Keats, aged 29, his ashes were buried in the same cemetery.

Some believe we should pay less attention to those whose talents emerge early, and more to late bloomers.

Are we too obsessed with youthful genius?

Prizing precocity

Yes. If somebody produces brilliant work, it does not matter how old they are. Those who are successful early often lack motivation to keep going and burn out. It would be better to keep our enthusiasm for mature people who can handle fame.

No. Brilliance in early life has a special quality which cannot be replicated. Young people are willing to take risks because they do not recognise boundaries. Older people are more likely to be held back by worries about what will be successful.

You Decide

  1. Would you rather be famous for a short time now, or enjoy longer-lasting fame when you are 40?

Activities

  1. The Japanese artist Hokusai produced his most famous work, 36 Views of Mount Fuji, in his seventies. Study it and then paint a picture in the same style.

Some People Say...

“Failure is, in a sense, the highway to success, inasmuch as every discovery of what is false leads us to seek earnestly after what is true.”

John Keats (1795 – 1821), English poet

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that people reach their peak for different abilities at different ages. The brain’s speed in processing information is at its highest when we are 18 or 19, while the ability to recognise faces keeps improving until our early thirties. We become best at arithmetic after our mid-thirties, and at judging other people’s emotional states in our forties or fifties. Our vocabulary can peak in our sixties or seventies.
What do we not know?
One main area of debate is around whether Keats would be equally revered if he had lived longer. He might have gone on to write more great poetry, but he could also have had a career like William Wordsworth, who produced almost all of his best work by his mid-thirties, and then suffered what has been called “the longest, dullest decline in literary history” before his death at 80. By then he was a figure of ridicule to younger poets, who felt that he had betrayed his youthful ideals.

Word Watch

Racked
To be tortured or tormented by something. You can be racked with guilt as well as physical pain.
Disease
Keats suffered from tuberculosis. Because he had been a medical student, and had seen his brother Tom die of the disease, he knew that his chances of recovery were poor.
Joseph Severn
An accomplished painter, he remained in Rome, and is buried beside Keats in the city’s Non-Catholic Cemetery.
Fanny Brawne
Keats met her in Hampstead when she was 18 and he was 23. They agreed that they would marry when he had enough money to support her, but he never did.
House
Now known as the Keats-Shelley House, it is a museum devoted to Keats, Shelley and Byron.
Romantics
Romanticism was an artistic movement which emphasised passion, imagination and humanity’s relationship with the natural world.
Shelley
The poet came from an aristocratic family, but was widely condemned for his atheism and revolutionary politics, and his permissive lifestyle: he eloped with his first wife, Harriet, when she was just 16.

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