Intimations of Mortality: Keats revisited

75px-JohnKeats1819_hiresI have always been fond of the poet, John Keats.  Maybe it’s because he seems to have been down on his luck so early in life and I just happen to be drawn to underdogs.  When he was just eight, he lost his father, who died falling from a horse.  At fourteen, his mother succumbed to TB, a disease that would prey upon the family, taking his brother, Tom, at nineteen and himself at barely twenty-five.  Meanwhile, lawyers consumed the family inheritance.

Keats always had a premonition of an early death, not surprising given the family history, but he didn’t know he was already ailing with TB when he became engaged to the girl next door, the coquettish Fanny Brawne in the fall of 1818.

The following year saw Keats penning in a six week period  the masterpieces for which he is now famous, poems like “Ode to a Nightingale,” “Ode to Melancholy,” “Ode to a Grecian Urn,” “Ode to Psyche,” and “La Belle Dame Sans Merci.”

On February 3, 1820, he coughed up blood in his bedroom and with his typical courage, exclaimed:  “I cannot be deceived in that color; that drop of blood is my death warrant. I must die.”

He would travel to Italy in a last desperate attempt to recover his health, only to die a few weeks later, attended by a lone friend.  Today he lies in Rome’s Protestant Cemetery.  Engraved on his tombstone is Keats’ chosen epitaph:  “Here lies one whose name was writ in water.”

I have always been attentive to Keats, visiting his last London Home, Wentworth Place,  in lovely Hampton Heath, and his last abode abroad, a small apartment in Rome adjacent to the Spanish Steps, Rome’s gathering place for throngs of young people from across the globe, presumably oblivious in the “mackerel crowded seas” (Yeats) to the drama enacted next door eclipsed by time.  I have also been to the cemetery, moved and reflecting on what might have been a different outcome with a better shuffling of the cards of fate.

He had aimed to write the best poetry of which he was capable and though dying so young, achieved a poetry the world still marvels at.   No poet, not even Shakespeare, Milton, or Wordsworth achieved such mastery at so young an age, laboring against illness, family misfortune, financial duress, rejection by the critics, and the anguish of loving a flirtatious Fanny, who often provoked his jealousy.

Of all the Romantics, he strikes me as the most poignant, ever aware of life’s brevity, or how temporality colors all, testing the significance of human assertion itself.  Paradox always characterizes his poetry and centers in the conflict of dream vs. reality.  Unlike many Romantics, Keats ultimately opts for truth in the interplay of mind and feeling.

I have been thinking a lot about him lately in conjunction with the cancer hoops I’ve had to jump through these pastt several months.  I had gone to an osteopath seeking relief for my back pain only to be told xrays showed a lump adjacent to the left clavicle, which might be cancerous.  A subsequent CT scan, though it showed no malignancy, revealed a large thyroid nodule, and I was again cautioned it might be cancer.  They found me a surgeon and in the meantime I had an ultrasound guided fine needle aspiration biopsy, which indicated another, smaller nodule on the left side of the thyroid.  The pathology report came back negative.

By then I met with my surgeon, who surprised me in light of the biopsy:  “I can’t guarantee you don’t have cancer.  FNAs have false negatives up to 20% of the time.”

While waiting for surgery five days away, I visited my dermatologist to check on a knee sore, which turned out inconsequential,  Alas, however, she found a black mole that might be melanoma, the most aggressive of cancers.  And so I had to go into surgery facing the double whammy of two cancers at separate sites, metastasis a distinct possibility.

The surgery went well.  The surgeon didn’t find cancer, so only a partial thyroidectomy was done, allowing me to perhaps avoid medication.  But I still hadn’t gotten the lab results on that black mole.  I had to actually call to get the report.  It was a precursor dysplasia nevus, which can turn into melanoma if not removed.  Even though benign, having dysplasia nevi increases your chances of getting melanoma, so it means constant vigil to catch early changes.

And so now you know why my thoughts have been so filled with Keats, though in this medically sophisticated age I’ve come upon some luck this dear poet was denied.  Living with premonition of his own demise, Keats wrote what may be my favorite poem, and I mean of any poet,

When I have fears that I may ease to be
Before my pen has gleaned my teeming brain,
Before high-pilèd books, in charactery,
Hold like rich garners the full ripened grain;
When I behold, upon the night’s starred face,
Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,
And think that I may never live to trace
Their shadows with the magic hand of chance;
And when I feel, fair creature of an hour,
That I shall never look upon thee more,
Never have relish in the faery power
Of unreflecting love—then on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone, and think
Till love and fame to nothingness do sink.

If you look at this poem carefully, you’ll find it fascinating in its astute organization; for example, the poem actually consists of one sentence, or subordinate clauses coalescing into a main clause at poem end.  In turn, this lends an accumulative buttressing of the persona’s earlier mention of his “piled up hopes.”.So many hopes, teeming high, but cut off by mortality.

The poem’s structure also features an antithesis between thinking and feeling in its three quatrains prior to the closing couplet in this Shakespearian sonnet.

Strikingly in consort with its theme, each quatrain moves us closer to the reality of death, with a progressive abstraction in the imagery with each succeeding quatrain:

Increasing abstraction:

rich garners

cloudy symbols

faery power


These quatrains also unleash inexorable transitory strictures of foreclosure, feeding into the “nothingness” of the closing couplet in which death renders all human dreams, whether of love or fame, insignificant.

Increasing transitoriness:


one night

one hour

The poem’s imagery is likewise supportive of the theme, with an imagery cluster featuring darkness, shadows and clouds,

For the poet, death represents closure on love and artistry and fame.  I remember reading one of Keats’s letters in which he called death “the great divorcer.”

The truth is that ultimately we all get our ticket punched; but for Keats, he was so young,  talented, and in love.  Sometimes life can be cruelly unfair.  Nonetheless, with the quiet courage that always characterized him, he accepted his fate.

There are lessons here for all of us: to pile up the nows, knowing the temporality that governs us all; to live quietly and simply, centered in the right values; to discern those issues that matter;  above all, to love amply those around us.


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