This Day In Literary History
On August 8th, 1818, the legendary English poet John Keats returned home from a strenuous walking tour of the United Kingdom. The tour would take him through Scotland, Ireland, and the Lake District of Northwestern England.
Keats was accompanied by his friend, Charles Armitage Brown. Keats' brother George and his sister-in-law Georgina accompanied them as far as Lancaster. The couple then went to Liverpool. From there, they emigrated to America.
In July of 1818, while on the Scottish Isle of Mull, John Keats caught a bad cold. He continued on the walking tour and his cold worsened. He began showing the early signs of tuberculosis. Soon, he became too ill to remain on the tour.
Back home by August, Keats set about nursing his brother Tom, who was dying of tuberculosis, exposing himself to more infection. Tom died a few months later.
At that time, tuberculosis, then known as consumption, had not yet been identified as a bacterial infection of the lungs. It was seen as a weak person's illness, contracted by the physically or spiritually weak, in the latter case a symptom of either severely repressed or unbridled lust.
Since tuberculosis was believed to be caused by engaging in sexual practices considered sinful, (or the desire to engage in such practices) the disease carried with it a huge social stigma. Contracting tuberculosis was as humiliating as contracting a venereal disease.
John Keats would die of tuberculosis at the age of 25, three years after returning home from his walking tour. As his health deteriorated, he established himself as one of the greatest English Romantic poets of all time.
Ironically, during his short life, Keats' works were savaged by critics to the point that he was driven to despair by the bad reviews. His close friend and fellow poet Lord Byron urged him to buck up and not let the critics get to him.
Byron, recalling his own reaction to negative reviews, quipped, "Instead of bursting a blood-vessel, I drank three bottles of claret and began an answer." In his classic poem Don Juan, Byron described Keats' fate this way:
'Tis strange the mind, that very fiery particle,
Should let itself be snuffed out by an Article.
When John Keats died in 1821, tuberculosis had finally been identified as a bacterial infection. Though he was no longer shamed by the disease, a new myth began that dragged his name through the mud.
It was said - and even his friend Percy Shelley believed - that John Keats had been killed by bad reviews, too weak to withstand the critics' onslaught. In Adonais, Shelley's classic poem eulogizing Keats, he depicted the poet's critics as loathsome creatures like worms and reptiles.
Although Keats' girlfriend Fanny Brawne blamed Shelley's poem for exacerbating the myth of Keats' fragility, the real culprits were Keats's executors. He had wanted his epitaph to read, "Here lies one whose name was writ in water," but this is how his executors engraved his headstone:
This Grave contains all that was Mortal, of a YOUNG ENGLISH POET Who, on his Death Bed, in the Bitterness of his Heart at the Malicious Power of his Enemies, Desired these Words to be engraven on his Tomb Stone.
Quote Of The Day
"I have been astonished that men could die martyrs for religion - I have shuddered at it. I shudder no more - I could be martyred for my religion. Love is my religion - I could die for that." - John Keats
Today's video features a reading of John Keats' classic poem, Ode on a Grecian Urn. Enjoy!