Engraved on a grey tombstone in a quiet, high fenced cemetery in Rome is an epitaph which at once foments a wave of pain in the heart of even the most insouciant onlookers. It reads:`Here lies one whose name was writ in water.`
The sheer blatancy of the words is almost startling.
But the inscription was the last wish of the young 19th century poet by the name of John Keats, who lies there peacefully, away from erudite crowd of Westminster Abbey, the official resting place of most great and famous poets.
His name sounds familiar and often rings bells even in the ears of those who had no rendezvous with English Literature beyond higher secondary, for his Odes have been parts of almost everybody’s curriculum at one point or the other.
For those who have no taste for poetry, Keats was a complex poet who used words whose meaning even Webster and Oxford could not explain convincingly and who for his sheer love for romance, imported them from lost, dead and forgotten mythologies.
John Keats is a difficult poet for most. But those who love and know him, he is a compulsive charmer whose words enslave the soul, transport one to an age of forgetfulness, forcing to give away those incased feelings so tightly held by the sinews of the heart, that their realization is almost a revelation of self!
John Keats whose ruthless life was little more than an agonizing malady, suffered sometimes from the unsparing castigations of merciless journals that reviled his works inexorably and sometimes from the cruel machinations of an unsparing fate that gradually took away all that was close and dear to him.
Keats who found a loyal supporter in PB Shelley, another great romantic, was after his death to acquire a fan following that included some of the giants of English Literature like Tennyson and Owen. We also hear his echoes in the works of Toru Dutt who had a similarly tragic life.
Born in the last decade of 18th century, the first seven years of his life were happy and peaceful, till his father died in an accident and his mother, after a failed second marriage, moved with her four children to the house of his grandmother, only to die shortly of tuberculosis.
Death of his grandmother, unsympathetic guardians who after removing him from school forced him to work as a surgeon’s apprentice, the death of his brother Tom from consumption, with whom he was closely attached and his failed relationship with Fanny Browne were the other tragedies that followed.
The best thing that happened in Keats’ sad life was his friendship with two contemporary writers, Charles Brown and Shelley. Keats spent the last years of his life with Brown and Severn, who tended him with care till death claimed him.
Shelley, who is buried next to Keats in Rome, died of drowning and is said to have possessed a copy of Keats’ poetry when his body was found on the shore. Poverty, ignorance of proper treatment of the disease and personal tragedies gradually drifted Keats towards death. His love for Fanny Browne though spiritually uplifting was mortally painful for his ailing soul. He was penniless and unsuitable for marriage to his beloved. Besides, the disease that came upon him in full blow only months after Tom’s death shatterd the remaining hopes of this unfulfilled love.
Having seen, while working in St Guy’s Hospital, the plight of the sick and dying and the death of his mother and brother, he soon knew he was suffering from an incurable affliction.
His biographies are contentious on the dedication of Fanny Browne towards Keats and accuse her of abandoning the young poet when he was detected with tuberculosis. But others commend her dedication and say, though physically apart, she remained dedicated to Keats till the end of his life.
Shelley accused the contemporary journals of hastening his death as they embittered his sordid life by perpetually castigating his works, making fun of his ornate style and elaborate imagery.
He was the Adonais of Shelley who wrote bitterly referring to him…Forget the past his fate and fame shall be
An echo and a light into eternity
His brilliant odes, Endymion, Lamia, Isabella, Hyperion the marvels of poetry that have held critics is awe since centuries, were rejected and scoffed at when Keats was alive.
But Keats, the poet we all love wanted to become a dramatist! “One of my ambitions is to make a great revolution in modern dramatic writing”, he wrote to a friend. Perhaps this explains the dramatization that pervades in his works.
Critics consider him to be the greatest poet of English Literature. He would have comfortably dethroned Shakespeare had he lived for a couple of years more…
A life so full of agony produced the most precious nuggets in shape of his brilliant works…perhaps this was the reward life had for him, even though in death. These are the living pleasures of the bard
But richer far posterity’s award
What shall he murmur with his latest breadth
When his proud eye looks through the film of death?
First Published: 10/31/2009 8:59:24 PM