Two hundred years ago today, one of the great poets in the English language died of tuberculosis at the age of 25. One hundred years ago, this loss was reflected upon in The Nation magazine by Mark Van Doren, in his essay “John Keats: 1821–1921.” Van Doren had become a professor of English at Columbia University the previous year, and was just 26 when he penned his essay. He later became a legendary teacher for whom an award at Columbia is named, and a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet. He was a public intellectual in an era when that role was prized for its salutary effect on the nation as well as The Nation.
I don’t have much hope that anyone of similar stature will mark this sad anniversary. So it may be up to me to pay respect to Keats, via Van Doren.
I’ve written previously of Keats’s miracle year. He was just 23 during that period of unmatched concentrated poetic brilliance. Then the tuberculosis that had felled his brother Tom consumed him. Joseph Severn, who nursed Keats in Rome during his illness, reported that Keats’s lungs were “completely gone” according to a cursory autopsy. As a culture we tend to forget just how horrific the scourges of the past were, until faced with our own.
Van Doren honored Keats’s memory in his opening words:
Keats was so full of poetry, body and soul, that beginning poets in times like these or any other rightly return to him for color and momentum, furniture and fire.
One enduringly remarkable aspect of Keats’s work, and life, is how he disappeared into his work. By which I mean, not that he was consumed by it, but rather that his evolving theory of poetry as explicated in his famous letters called for the poet to vanish. Van Doren states,
A reader, [Keats] thought, should see all he saw, but should not see him… there is his increasing conviction that his poetry existed, that poetry in general existed, but that he did not. With this increased his lucidity, with lucidity his power, and with his power his peace.
I have contended elsewhere that Keats’s self-abnegating philosophy is the antidote to Romanticism’s slippery slope toward solipsism.
Van Doren completes his essay by addressing Keats’s unsurpassed use of language, his favorite word “tone,” and close attention to consonants and vowels, and cadence. He closes simply by quoting some of Keats’s immortal lines, calling them “few, but… beyond the business of enumeration.” I think Van Doren’s math is off here; the concentrated beauty of Keats’s odes is such that line after line jumps off the page and into the ear and mind forevermore. Van Doren was, later, the Pulitzer-winning poet; but I was a math major, in the business of enumeration.
The loss of a great person, so young, brings with it a crushing case of the what-ifs. We won’t ever know where Keats was headed as a poet. Perhaps the Victorians who were so inspired by him give us a sense of the possibilities, especially Hopkins — but with the dark night of the soul replaced with a superhuman sense of peace.
In this time of disease and death, injustice and inequity, we should reflect on the losses, the missed chances, the unrealized potential once in our midst. For every Keats who escaped debts and death long enough to contribute his verse, how many are silenced or never find voice? Van Doren, who rose from a small-town Illinois farm to the Ivy League following behind his brother Carl, takes no such glance back at those lost or left behind in his essay. Perhaps in 2021 we can do better in this respect.