In the late 1970s, in my mid-teens and already enjoying the poetry of John Keats (albeit without really understanding all of it) I read a book by one of the great twentieth century writers on Keats and his work – Robert Gittings. Published before his wonderful biography of the poet, written in 1967, it is entitled John Keats: The Living Year and it had a profound effect on the way I thought about Keats and his work.
I started, in my slightly infatuated teenage way, to understand how ‘experience’ was translated into a poetic philosophy and expressed in some of the greatest poetry in the English language. Studying poetry at ‘O’ level I already had some experience of poetic ‘thought’; but expressed as it was by Tennyson, or Wordsworth through the textbooks and attitudes of the rather old-fashioned girls school I attended it had failed to come alive for me. Keats and Gittings changed everything. In just over a year of his life Keats condensed experience and thought into some of the greatest poetry in written in English. I read his letters and began to see how the ideas he was working through from 1817 and in 1818 began, towards the end of 1818, to crystallise, combining with intense experiences – of loss (the death of his brother Tom) love (meeting Fanny Brawne) and illness (the early signs of TB) – to produce the great work of late 1818 and 1819 for which he is largely remembered.
In September 1818 , having experienced attacks from the critics in response to his publication of his first long poem Endymion, he began another epic – Hyperion – which gave the first indications of how rapidly he was maturing as a poet.
The later months of this year were spent nursing his brother Tom, who was to die of tuberculosis in December.
In January 1819 he stayed with friends in West Sussex and in Hampshire and it is here he writes a masterpiece: The Eve of St Agnes, based on the superstition that a girl could see her future husband in a dream if she performed certain rites on St. Agnes’ Eve, 20th January.
In February, he wrote (the less successful poem) The Eve of St Mark, which remained unfinished.
In March and April, Keats gave up writing Hyperion, which he had started in late 1818 as he was so rapidly finding his own ‘voice’ that he recognised that there were ‘too many Miltonic inversions in it’.
It is in the Spring of this year that the Brawne family (including Fanny) moved into one part of Wentworth Place, the home Keats shared with Charles Brown.
In April and May, he wrote the great ballad, La Belle Dame Sans Merci. Meaning, in French ‘The Beautiful Lady Without Pity’ it is a deceptively complex poem in a simple form and has been the subject of many different interpretations. The story of a knight encountering a mysterious and beautiful woman who seemingly beguiles unsuspecting men into an eternal, helpless captivity on a ‘cold hillside’ has been seen by many as Keats expressing his fears that his love for Fanny Brawne fatally weakens his poetic powers.
It is between April and July that he is believed to have written most of his ‘Great Odes’ – To Psyche, On Indolence, On Melancholy, On a Grecian Urnand To a Nightingale. The last two of these are regularly chosen as amongst the greatest poetry in the English language.
It is also at this time that he and Fanny Brawne came to an ‘understanding’, although they were not officially engaged.
In July and August, Keats stayed in Shanklin on the Isle of Wight and here he writes Lamia Part 1 and the play Otho the Great with Charles Brown. Lamia, the story of a serpent in female form is one of Keats’ great philosophical works, suggesting that to attempt to separate the sensuous and emotional life from the life of reason can only end in tragedy.
Between August and October, Keats moves to Winchester, where he would write Lamia Part II and the last of his famous odes, To Autumn. He revised The Eve of St Agnes and began and then abandoned The Fall of Hyperion.
In October he returned to Hampstead, once again made unhappy by both his incipient tuberculosis and his seemingly impossible (for lack of money and prospects) love for Fanny Brawne. All of his greatest, and best known work has now been written.
The winter of 1819 saw tuberculosis take full hold of Keats’ health and on February 3rd 1820 he has his first hemorrhage. Just over a year later he was dead.
There are very few poets in the English language who left such a body of near perfect work behind them and surely none who produced so much of it in just twelve or thirteen months of a short life. In late 1818 Keats was just 23 years of age. The intensity of his experience and his rapidly developing genius must be one of the great miracles of literature.