Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Death of John Keats

Tuesday, February 23, 2016
John Keats
Loretta reports:

William Hone, the author of Hone’s Every-Day Book (which I frequently cite) wasn’t shy about giving his opinions, a trait that landed him in court more than once.

I was aware of Byron’s having joked that a bad review finished Keats off. This entry in the Every-Day Book, though, was rather more touching, and very much in Hone’s plain-spoken, pugnacious spirit. Any writer  who’s suffered a nasty review can testify to the unpleasantness of the experience. It has certainly aided and abetted writer’s block in some cases; aroused defiance in others. Has it ever hastened an author’s death? I don’t know. But I promise you that it has led to some writers' fantasizing about hastening the critic’s demise.

In fact, though it’s generally agreed that Keats died of consumption (tuberculosis), there is debate about the role mercury played in shortening his life. He has written that he took it, so that’s not disputed. But why is another question. Some believe he took it to treat a venereal infection; others point out that mercury was used to treat other ailments, and Mr. Keats's health issues were complex.

February 23.
1821. John Keats, the poet, died. Virulent and unmerited attacks upon his literary ability, by an unprincipled and malignant reviewer, injured his rising reputation, overwhelmed his spirits, and he sunk into consumption. In that state he fled for refuge to the climate of Italy, caught cold on the voyage, and perished in Rome, at the early age of 25. Specimens of his talents are in the former volume of this work. One of his last poems was in prospect of departure from his native shores. It is an

Ode to a Nightingale.
My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains 
My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk, 
Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains 
One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk; 
Tis not through envy of thy happy lot, 
But being too happy in thine happiness,— 
That thou, light-winged Dryad of the trees, 
In some melodious plot 
Of beechen green, and shadows numberless, 
Singest of summer in full-throated ease. 
 ... *

This ode was included with "Lamia, Isabella, the Eve of St. Agnes, and other Poems,” by John Keats, published by Messrs. Taylor and Hessey, who, in an advertisement at the beginning of the book, allude to the critical ferocity which hastened the poet's death. —Hone’s Every-Day Book Vol II (originally published 1827)

*Please click on above the link to the Every-Day Book for the full poem.

Image: Cover of May Clarissa Gillington Byron's A Day with Keats (1913) courtesy Project Gutenberg.


Hels said...

Have nasty reviews ever hastened an author’s or artist's death? Certainly. I will mention just two.

Georges Bizet's most famous work was publicly condemned for its obscene libretto; the music was criticised as unFrench and unromantic. He didn't suicide but he died soon after in his mid 30s, from abscesses and depression.

Vincent Van Gogh died at the same age from suicide, after a history of nasty reviews and a dismal social life.

Mary Beth Bass said...

At the risk of going all-Hermione Granger here, after Keats died the surgeon who performed the autopsy said he'd never seen lungs as damaged and wondered how Keats lived as long as he did. His lungs were almost entirely destroyed.

Keats was a sensitive man to be sure, but he was not fearful or timid. At school he was famous for his pugnacity and his "terrier courage."

I'm sure the nasty reviews upset him but they didn't kill him. He had so much more poetry in him that he wanted to write. He wanted to change English poetry. Those critics weren't capable of seeing that.

Two Nerdy History Girls is my favorite history blog. Always interesting. Always fun. Breakfast Links is awesome-saucy like hot scones and butter and coffee with a splash of whisky.

Karen Anne said...

I think if I were a writer, I would not read reviews. I will modify a saying to: Those who can, do, those who can't, criticize.

My mother and aunts used to slather Mercurochrome over scrapes when we were kids. We kids all survived :-)

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