Today marks the birthday of the poet John Keats. He was born on 31st October (the day is not absolutely established, but most likely) 1795 in Moorgate, London and he died just 25 years later, in Rome. During that period he developed with astonishing speed, as a poet, letter-writer and as a man and he has written some of the very best poetry (and the most wonderful letters) in the English language.
Today on social media there is much celebration of this day – not least because Keats remains one of the most relevant and admired poets of the 19th century. He speaks to us across the centuries, of matters close to our hearts in this fast-paced and often difficult world. It is a subject I have written about for The Wordsworth Trust Romanticism blog in ‘Moods of my own Mind: Keats, melancholy and mental health’.
However, instead of his most famous lines, I thought I would share a poem that was written very early in his career as a poet and at the end of his time as a medical student at Guy’s Hospital. It is an early poem to George and Tom, his brothers with whom he had recently set up home. It is to mark Tom’s 17th birthday in 1816 and celebrates their time together, as brothers and housemates, and the joy they can share in this simple, companionable existence. For those that know of Keats’s life, and that of his siblings, it is hard not to feel a sense of sadness – the brothers were close, not least because they had lost their parents at an early age. The poem foreshadows the death of Tom, of tuberculosis, just two years later, and the loss of his brother George to a new life in America in the same year. Those losses were traumatic, but shaped his development as a poet, and although he was beset by constant money troubles and the knowledge that the woman he loved could never be his, he was determined to ‘be among the English poets’ after his death.
To my brothers…
Small, busy flames play through the fresh laid coals,
And their faint cracklings o’er our silence creep
Like whispers of the household gods that keep
A gentle empire o’er fraternal souls.
And while, for rhymes, I search around the poles,
Your eyes are fix d, as in poetic sleep,
Upon the lore so voluble and deep,
That aye at fall of night our care condoles.
This is your birth-day Tom, and I rejoice
That thus it passes smoothly, quietly.
Many such eves of gently whisp’ring noise
May we together pass, and calmly try
What are this world s true joys, ere the great voice,
From its fair face, shall bid our spirits fly.
Clearly, Keats was not a great one for birthday parties, or nights out to mark the passing of another year. This quiet companionship on an early winter evening is all he wants and hopes for before their life together ends. It is about fragility, about familial love and support and the knowledge that this happy peace cannot last forever. He is still finding his way with words – searching ‘around the poles’ for rhymes – but he succeeds in bringing that crackling fire to life, as if it is a character in the room with them, whispering them into drowsiness and sleep.
So happy birthday my friend (and he has been that to me, in difficult times.) There are many of us who would benefit from the quieter existence described in this sonnet.