Anyone for Tennyson?

The Glorious Romantics. Part Two: John Keats . . . “Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water”

Except for Shakespeare, no English poet is more beloved than John Keats, but we might have been deprived of some wondrous writing if Keats had followed through on his original choice of professions.

Editor’s Note: This column is the second of a trilogy celebrating three great English poets of the Regency period: Lord Byron, John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley. Shelley had a friendship with both Byron and Keats, but Keats and Byron never met. All of them died away from England and within three years of each other. 

These three columns were originally published in August, 2020.  Because “Anyone for Tennyson” has gained so many new followers in the last year, we wanted to share these wonderful poets with you again. Click here for the first installment, about Lord Byron.

With the exception of Shakespeare, no English poet is more beloved than John Keats (1795-1821). His poetry is rich in imagery and sensuous appeal, highly quotable, and is marked by an extended use of classical themes. In comparing himself to Lord Byron, Keats said: “Byron describes what he sees; I describe what I imagine. Mine is the hardest task.”

And yet, we might have been deprived of some wondrous writing if Keats had followed through on his original choice of professions. He apprenticed for five years as a medical student and then joined Guy’s Hospital in London where he qualified as a physician and surgeon. In 1818, he decided to concentrate on poetry, but he retained enough of his medical skills to be able to diagnose his own fatal illness.

John Keats. Portrait by William Hilton.

Keats’ first major poem was called “Endymion,” based on a Greek myth. It received scathing reviews from the critics although its opening lines are now among the most famous of his writings:

A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.

His break-through poem, however, a work that exhibits complete mastery of concept and imagery, was a sonnet called “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer.” George Chapman was the author of a memorable translation of the “Iliad” and the “Odyssey.”

Much have I travell’d in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-brow’d Homer ruled as his demesne;
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star’d at the Pacific — and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise —
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

As we progress through the beauty and delight of Keats’ poetry, I would like to set one record straight. The Victorians were fond of picturing him as delicate, frail, sickly and sensitive. True, he was short in stature (5 foot 1 inch; Shelley stood at almost 6 feet), and he did die of tuberculosis as did his brother. But Junkets (his nickname) was tough, a fighter at school, taking on the bullies. On one occasion as a young teenager he tangled with a butcher . . . not a great idea . . . but using prize-fighting tactics, Keats sent him home bloodied.

As for physical stamina, he and his friend, Charles Brown, made a 600 mile walking tour through northern England and Scotland. He climbed Ben Nevis, the highest peak in the British Isles, and hiked purposefully to reach a 15th century bridge made famous by Robert Burns. It’s called Brig o’ Doon (and it inspired the name for Lerner and Loewe’s Broadway musical).

Scotland. Brig o’Doon. A special stop for Keats on his walking tour.

In a short life, Keats was a prolific poet. He wrote 64 sonnets and in a longer form, a number of remarkable odes. Here is the closing stanza of “Ode on a Grecian Urn:”

O Attic shape! Fair attitude! with brede
Of marble men and maidens overwrought,
With forest branches and the trodden weed;
Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity: Cold pastoral!
When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty”—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

No study of John Keats can even get started without including Fanny Brawne, his love, his muse and his fiancée. When he moved to Wentworth Place, Hampstead, she was literally the girl next door, if you remember the song. In the early days, Keats described their relationship as “every now and then a chat and a tiff.” But when things blossomed, it was more like this:

Ah! dearest love, sweet home of all my fears,
And hopes, and joys, and panting miseries, —
To-night, if I may guess, thy beauty wears
A smile of such delight,
As brilliant and as bright,
As when with ravished, aching, vassal eyes,
Lost in soft amaze,
I gaze, I gaze!

A less exuberant poem but of much greater skill and imagination is one of Keats’ masterpieces, the sonnet “Bright Star.” In addition to its poetic glory, you may want to note that the entire fourteen lines constitute just one single sentence.

Bright star! would I were stedfast 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 fall and swell,
Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,
Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
And so live ever—or else swoon to death.

There is a Latin phrase, Annus Mirabilis, which means Miraculous Year, and it can certainly be applied to John Keats, who in a twelve month period from September, 1818 to September 1819 wrote virtually all of the poems that have placed him among the greatest poets. No reason to list them here, but the only writer to surpass this achievement is a chap named Shakespeare, who in one year, 1599, wrote “Henry the Fifth,” “Julius Caesar,” “As You Like It” and    . . . oh, yes . . .“Hamlet.”

Apart from the inspiration of Fanny Brawne, Keats’ miracle year found him in robust health. Thereafter, as the tuberculosis took hold and his health declined, his poetic output did as well. Ultimately as the video below will show, he was advised to leave England and so moved to an apartment in Rome, dying there in 1821, two hundred years ago this year.

He was buried in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome, and as he had requested, his gravestone does not carry his name but reads “Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water.“ Many theories have been advanced about what Keats actually meant. Was he responding to the sounds of the Barcaccia Fountain at the foot of the Spanish Steps outside his window? Was he lamenting an impermanence of his life and poetry? Was he remembering a speech, which he would have known, from the Elizabethan playwrights, Beaumont and Fletcher: “All your better deeds shall be in water writ?”

Likely we will never know. But the impact of the burial place was very real. Oscar Wilde visited the site in 1877, prostrated himself upon Keats’ grave and then wrote:

Thy name was writ in water – it shall stand:
And tears like mine will keep thy memory green.

Rome. The Barcaccia Fountain and Spanish Steps. Keats’ House is on the Right

Three Scenes and an Elegy

In our video, we will show you three scenes from Keats’ life in Hampstead with Fanny Brawne, her mother and his housemate , Charles Brown. We’ll close with an Elegy written by Shelley.

Our Cast:

John Keats                                 Nicholas Woodeson

Fanny Brawne                           Ginni Ness

Mrs. Brawne                              Jill Tanner

Charles Armitage Brown           Robin Chadwick

Percy Bysshe Shelley               Stephen Lang

Leigh Hunt (Narrator)               John Neville-Andrews