200 years ago on February 23, 1821, the Romantic poet John Keats died of tuberculosis in Rome at the age of 25. Here’s how to celebrate his bicentenary …
Instagram and inaugural ceremonies have ignited our interest in young poets. Amanda Gorman, Rupi Kaur, Nikita Gill and rising stars such as Kara Jackson, Magnus Dixon, Alexa Stevens and Cia Mangat are all young hearts whose words inspire and metaphors explore everything from inequality to womanhood.
Yet the words of the original young poet, John Keats, who died 200 years ago today, continue to move and motivate. He’s most famous for his five Odes – To the Nightingale, On Melancholy, To Sleep, On a Grecian Urn and of course To Autumn. The latter is arguably his finest poem, an elegy for passing seasons, studied first under duress at school, appreciated for its beauty in later life.
Most literature students have a passable knowledge of his backstory – handsome and oversensitive, Keats was prone to depression. He fell in love with the girl next door (Fanny Brawne), who became a muse, and on contracting tuberculosis, he travelled to Rome to recuperate. The journey was a disaster – it included a ten-day quarantine period offshore in Naples – meaning that by the time he reached his destination, Keats was dying. Having trained as a doctor Keats was all too aware of his mortality. He died in the arms of his friend, Joseph Severn, requesting his tombstone be inscribed with the words, “Here lies one whose words were writ in water.”
The connection between Keats’s lung disease, the pandemic and the quarantines we are experiencing cannot be ignored. Our renewed interest in nature writing and environmentalism has also put Keats back in the centre of the frame. Add, too, Keats’ short axiomatic statements summarising life – “truth is beauty, beauty is truth” – and his words are especially appealing in the age of Instagram.
Someone who is a fan is Irish rock star and philanthropist Bob Geldof. He narrates a video story The Death of Keats for the Keats-Shelley Museum in Rome (which can be viewed today) and he has also been named as the museum’s ambassador. Located at 26 Piazza di Spagna, Rome, the museum is the house in which Keats died. Says Geldof, “Keats and the house in Rome mean a lot to me, and it was a pleasure to work on these projects for the bicentenary of his death.” Geldof reads from letters, while a panoramic tour of the house can also be taken online. It’s a small part of a whole day celebrating Keats’ legacy. This morning visitors to Rome’s Protestant cemetery will find fresh flowers on Keats’ tomb, where a poetry reading will also be held.
This evening a virtual “Keats”, created by the Institute for Digital Archaeology in Oxford, will recite his poem Bright Star. Later, the poet Pele Cox’s play Lift Me Up for I Am Dying will be performed on FaceTime by actors in lockdown in different locations, and broadcast on at 10pm – the hour Keats died. (All events can be accessed on www.keats-shelley.org).
While this may sound morbid to some, it’s important to remember not the tragedy of Keats’ death, but the vitality of his life, especially his joyful, exuberant mind and the elegance of his language. As Keats’ wrote in Endymion:
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.
How to celebrate Keats’ bicentenary:
Listen: Tune into BBC Radio 4 today, for playwright Angus Graham-Campbell’s play Writ in Water, inspired by Keats’ life story. Or listen to actor Julian Sands reading poems by Keats and his contemporaries Shelley and Byron on www.keats-shelley.org.
Compose: The Poetry Society’s Young Poets Network has devised a project for young poets. “Write a poem inspired by John Keats, illness and the pandemic” is the instruction. Go to ypn.poetrysociety.org.uk for details and tips.
Visit: The Keats-Shelley House museum in Rome virtually. You’ll find the museum’s exhibition “Gusto” by artist Nancy Cadogan, inspired by the poet’s last year. Cadogan depicts “Lanterns and window, wine, letters and books” that may have surrounded Keats at the time of his death; www.ksh.roma.it.
Watch: Try to track down Bright Star – a biographical romantic drama based on the life of John Keats and his relationship with Fanny Brawne. Directed by Jane Campion, it stars Ben Whishaw as Keats and Abbie Cornish as Fanny. The film’s title is a reference to a sonnet by Keats titled “Bright star, would I were steadfast as thou art” which he wrote while he was with Brawne.
Read: some of his poetry. Try “Ode To Melancholy”, essentially a poem about how to deal – and how not to deal – with deep sadness. Or “Isabella” – which always makes me see a pot of basil in a completely different light, once you know the full story!
Main featured image: Ben Whishaw as John Keats in Bright Star 2009
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