John Keats: Love, Life, and Death
After his brother's death, Keats moved in with Charles Brown in the Hampstead area of London. It was the beginning of 1819, a year that proved to be one of dazzling highs and crushing lows for Keats. The reviews for Endymion were out, and they were not nice at all. Critics accused Keats of childish, self-indulgent writing hardly fit for an amateur. "It is a better and wiser thing to be a starved apothecary than a starved poet. So back to the shop, Mr. John,"8 wrote Blackwood's Magazine. Ouch. Keats was depressed, and experienced frequent sore throats that troubled him in light of his recent exposure to his brother's tuberculosis.
Shortly after Keats settled in Hampstead, the Brawne family moved in next door. Among them was Fanny Brawne, a lovely woman five years Keats' junior. Though he resisted his feelings at first, Keats soon fell passionately in love with Fanny. By the end of the year, they were formally engaged. Love turned out to be a great inspiring force for Keats. He composed some of his most famous poems during his engagement to Fanny, including his "Ode to a Grecian Urn" and "Ode on a Nightingale." The young poet also wrote exquisite love letters, pouring out his heart in epistles as beautiful as his poetry. "I have had a thousand kisses, for which with my whole soul I thank love," he wrote in one, "but if you should deny me the thousand and first - 't would put me to the proof how great a misery I could live through."9
Then in February 1820, the ominous first symptoms of tuberculosis appeared. Having trained as a doctor, Keats knew he was in trouble the first time he coughed up blood. "I know the colour of that blood," he told Charles Armitage Brown. "I cannot be deceived in that colour; - that drop of blood is my death warrant; - I must die."10 A few months later a second, more serious hemorrhage occurred, and Keats moved into Leigh Hunt's house. Fanny nursed him as Keats struggled through his illness to finish his last poems. "I can bear to die," Keats wrote to a friend. "I cannot bear to leave her."11
In July 1820, Keats' final volume of poetry, Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St Agnes and Other Poems, was published. After years of harsh criticism he finally got good reviews, which he received as bittersweet news. As the summer waned, his doctor warned him that his lungs would not survive another English winter. Keats and his friend Joseph Severn made plans to sail to Italy. Heartbroken, he and Fanny Brawne bid a final farewell, each knowing they'd never see each other again.
Severn and Keats sailed to Italy on 17 September 1820. Keats had given up writing poetry. He was angry, bitter and depressed, and felt that life was already over. "I have an habitual feeling of my real life having past, and that I am leading a posthumous existence,"12 he said. Just as he had found love, just as he had begun to write the poetry he wanted, it was all coming to an end. He requested that his tombstone bear no name but the epitaph: "Here lies one whose name was writ in water."13
John Keats died of tuberculosis on 23 February 1821 in Rome. He was twenty-five years old. He was buried at the Protestant Cemetery in Rome. Since his death, Keats' reputation has grown far beyond anything the poet experienced in his lifetime. The few poems he composed in his short life are recognized as masterpieces of English Romanticism. In a moment of clairvoyance, John Keats once said, "I think I shall be among the English Poets after my death."14 How right he was.