When Winter Comes…: The Death of John Keats, February 23, 1821

The house Keats died in, 194 years ago today.

I love to read the Romantic poets in the springtime. For all their faults (and the prejudices of those who boosted their work after their deaths), these six guys really knew how to convey the fleshy, hopeful energy of the growth season. My absolute favorite of the bunch, at least from a biographical perspective, is Keats, a working-class genius who died in Italy at the age of 25. He’d been suffering from TB for three years, and he’d made the trip to Rome because he and his friends didn’t think he’d make it through the winter in England. Keats died far from home in a tiny, melancholy room near the Spanish Steps. It’s a beautiful place, although I’m not sure he had any windows from which he could appreciate the view.

I think I’m drawn so much to Keats’s work in part because he lived with illness (rather than just dying from it) and because he always expresses an overwhelming sensitivity to how little time we truly have on this earth. Here’s the first stanza from one of his longer works, Endymion. Most have never read it in its entirety (not even me), but you’ve got to admit, with a first stanza like this you don’t really need any more poem afterward.

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.
Therefore, on every morrow, are we wreathing
A flowery band to bind us to the earth,
Spite of despondence, of the inhuman dearth
Of noble natures, of the gloomy days,
Of all the unhealthy and o’er-darkened ways
Made for our searching: yes, in spite of all,
Some shape of beauty moves away the pall
From our dark spirits. Such the sun, the moon,
Trees old, and young, sprouting a shady boon
For simple sheep; and such are daffodils
With the green world they live in; and clear rills
That for themselves a cooling covert make
‘Gainst the hot season; the mid-forest brake,
Rich with a sprinkling of fair musk-rose blooms:
And such too is the grandeur of the dooms
We have imagined for the mighty dead;
All lovely tales that we have heard or read:
An endless fountain of immortal drink,
Pouring unto us from the heaven’s brink.

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