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 small room overlooking one of Rome’s busiest squares. He had travelled to the city with his friend Joseph Severn, hoping that the warm climate might cure him – but in vain. “Severn,” he gasped just before he lost consciousness, “lift me up – I am dying. I shall die easy – don’t be frightened – be firm, and thank God it has come!”

Keats’s funeral was attended by only a dozen mourners. Because Rome was the centre of Catholicism and some citizens were deeply hostile to Protestants, his coffin had to be taken to its resting place before dawn. He 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, honouring something Keats had said to Severn:

“Thank God for the quiet grave – O! I can feel the cold earth upon me – the daisies growing over me – O for this quiet – it shall be my first.”

Convinced that he had failed to make his mark on the world, Keats asked that his headstone should simply bear the words “Here lies one whose name was writ in water.” But in the two centuries since, the cemetery – like the house on Piazza di Spagna where he died – has become a place of pilgrimage. Oscar Wilde went so far as to call it “the holiest place in Rome”.

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

It began with another English poet, Thomas Chatterton. Rejected by the literary establishment, he committed suicide in 1770 aged just 17. But his poems proved hugely influential, and he became a hero to Keats and his fellow Romantics.

Keats’s work had received such damning reviews that some admirers believed the criticism had hastened his death. A reference to “the malicious power of his enemies” was even added controversially to his gravestone.

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

But some people believe that we should pay less attention to those whose talents emerge at an early age, and more to those who are late bloomers. In a recent article for The Common Reader, Henry Oliver argues that: “It is not always rational to expect great things exclusively from the young… people’s best work can be done at any stage of their lives.”

A prime example of an opsimath is Alexander Fleming, who discovered penicillin at 47. Thomas Bayes developed a theory of probability which is the basis of many algorithms in his fifties. The bestselling novelist Mary Wesley published her first book aged 70.

Are we too obsessed with youthful genius?

Prizing precocity

Some say, yes. If somebody produces brilliant work, it really does not matter how old they are. Those who are hugely successful early on often lack the motivation to keep going and burn out prematurely or lose their way in life. Amy Winehouse and Michael Jackson are examples. It would be much better to keep our enthusiasm for mature people who can handle fame.

Others argue that brilliance in early life has a special quality and energy which cannot be replicated later on. Young people are willing to take enormous risks and produce experimental work because they do not recognise boundaries. Older people are much more likely to be held back by worries about what will be commercially successful or acceptable to critics.

You Decide

  1. Would you rather be famous for a short time now, or enjoy longer-lasting fame when you are 40?
  2. Is the old-fashioned language in Keats and Chatterton’s poems a reason not to read them now?

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.
  2. The Keats-Shelley Memorial Association runs an annual Young Romantics poetry and essay prize for those aged 16 to 18. Read the rules in the expert links and then choose one of the subjects to write about.

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.
Busiest squares
The window of his bedroom opened onto the Spanish Steps, which are still visited by huge numbers of tourists.
Joseph Severn
An accomplished painter, he remained in Rome, and is buried beside Keats in the city’s Non-Catholic Cemetery.
Deeply hostile
The city authorities were so worried about Protestant funeral processions being attacked that they sometimes sent soldiers to guard them.
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.
Opsimath
Late developer. It derives from two Greek words meaning “late” and “learn”.
Thomas Bayes
A Presbyterian minister whose work was only discovered after his death in 1761.

Subjects

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