A Thing of Beauty is a Joy For Ever: Keats 200

At the bicentenary of his death, John Keats remains an iconic figure in the literary world. Keats died believing himself a failure, but his work is more admired than he ever knew – and in the midst of a global pandemic, his life story is especially poignant.

By Serena Ypelaar

23rd of February, 1821 – Rome. The English poet John Keats dies, aged just 25 and convinced he had never amounted to anything.

Today, 200 years later, that couldn’t be further from the truth.

While he went largely unrecognized during his lifetime, Keats’ posthumous rise to distinction and his perception as a tragic hero have enshrined him in literary history, never to be removed. This week, the #Keats200 campaign commemorates the bicentenary of the famed Romantic poet’s death.

Portrait of John Keats (detail) c. 1822 by painter William Hilton, who had been acquainted with the poet. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Clever, sensitive, thoughtful, eloquent – these words are often used to describe Keats, yet during his own time he was relatively unappreciated but for the loyalty of his friends and family. His talent has since immortalized him within the English literary canon as a key figure of the second generation of Romantic poets. Keats’ 1819 Odes, as well as “Bright Star”, “To Autumn”, “La Belle Dame Sans Merci”, “Lamia”, and “Endymion” are among the most studied and admired poems today. His personal letters have been lauded as literary gems in themselves, bringing us closer to Keats the man – and to that morbidly compelling picture of untimely suffering – to which Keats’ current renown is something of an antidote.

The Keats Foundation, Keats House (which I wrote about in 2018), and the Keats-Shelley Memorial Association are leading the worldwide event which culminates today, on the 200th anniversary itself. To fully appreciate Keats’ journey from relative unknown to legendary poet, it’s best if we wind the clock back two centuries: back to 1818.

Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
       Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on …

John Keats, “Ode on a Grecian Urn” (1819), lines 11-12
Copy of Keats’ life mask at Keats House; one of many made for Keats’ friends to remember him by. Photo: Serena Ypelaar

Believe it or not, Keats trained as a surgeon in London before quitting his studies to focus on his writing. In June of 1818 he and his close friend Charles Armitage Brown went on a tour of Scotland, Ireland, and the Lake District – and Keats returned with a bad cold. Nursing his younger brother Tom, who had consumption (now known as tuberculosis), Keats was thus exposed to infection.

Although Tom died that December, the following year (1819) was the most fruitful for Keats’ work. His most famous poems were written during that time, but their merits went mostly unrecognized – Keats was still in debt and unable to marry his sweetheart Fanny Brawne as a result.

One day, in early 1820, he coughed up blood.

He realized immediately that he must have consumption. After struggling with mounting symptoms over the following months, Keats agreed to relocate to Rome in the hope that its warmer climate would improve his condition. His friends paid for his passage, with painter Joseph Severn accompanying him. He would never return to England.

I know the colour of that blood! It is arterial blood. I cannot be deceived in that colour. That drop of blood is my death warrant.

Keats to his friend Charles Brown, upon coughing up blood in early 1820

Keats was fairly well-connected, having met and formed friendships with Percy Bysshe Shelley, Lord Byron, William Wordsworth (my thoughts on him here), Leigh Hunt, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and others. Despite the pedigree of many of his peers, however, it was difficult for Keats to establish footholds beyond his circle – he was middle-class, a would-be surgeon without noble birth. His background was fodder for snobbish critics such as Blackwood’s Magazine, who wrote that he was not well-educated enough to be a proper poet or write about classical subject matter. These reviews vexed Keats, putting a pressure on his work (alongside the need to earn a living) that aristocratic poets simply didn’t face.

By the time Keats arrived in Rome in November 1820, it may have been too late. In his final days before succumbing to his illness the following February, he requested that his tombstone bear the following inscription in place of his name: “Here lies one whose name was writ in water.” Keats thought he’d made no mark on the world. He didn’t know his poems would be considered among the best in the English language. He died at the same age as I am now – it’s humbling to think of all he accomplished in his short life.

Keats’ gravestone in the Cimitero Acattolico di Roma (the Protestant cemetery). Photo: Giovanni Dall’orto

And now we’re commemorating the bicentenary of his death. Not just a century later – two centuries later. I’ve always felt it’s important to mark these anniversaries. It makes us reflect on the lives of those before us. And this really is the perfect time to understand Keats’ circumstances. He contracted a widespread disease which ended his life far too soon, robbing him of the opportunity to write more, to enjoy critical acclaim, and to find happiness.

His tragedy resonates during our current pandemic. Lives are being lost in a similar fashion. Keats’ ship was even quarantined before he could disembark in Italy – his letters to Charles Brown during quarantine describe a restlessness that is all too relatable today.

I cannot answer anything in your letter, which followed me from Naples to Rome, because I am afraid to look it over again. I am so weak (in mind) that I cannot bear the sight of any handwriting of a friend I love so much as I do you. Yet I ride the little horse, and at my worst even in quarantine, summoned up more puns, in a sort of desperation, in one week than in any year of my life.

Excerpt from Keats’ final letter to Charles Brown (30th November 1820), in which he describes his restlessness in quarantine

We don’t necessarily need to relate to Keats to empathize with his hardships. But it certainly helps.

Portrait of Keats in Hampstead c. 1821-1823. Painted from memory by Joseph Severn, who was with him at his death in Rome. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

A prolific Romantic poet, Keats captures the timelessness of nature, emotion, and beauty. His abstract explorations and emphasis on sensory stimulation transcend any one time or place. From exaltation to lamentation, Keats felt deeply. Those who knew him remarked on his distinctive intensity; and the sensitive among us can take solace in his musings. His writing exemplifies the great care and consideration with which he engaged with his surroundings, documenting his understanding of the world; validating the complexity of our own emotions.

Keats’ works were published and circulated during his lifetime, but he received as many negative reviews as he did positive ones, if not more. It was only posthumously, during the 19th century that his works gradually became more well-known and highly venerated by Victorians (Tennyson chief among them). Today, people love Keats’ poems – and they’re attracted to the story of the emotional young poet whose tragic end came too soon. It goes to show how we can form strong personal attachments to an artist – a collective appreciation that continues to grow over two centuries.

Keats may have thought his name was writ in water – easily washed away and forgotten – but the joy he brings, the sense of feeling he encapsulates in his works – outlive any concept of self-perceived failure. Loved in life by his friends and family, in death Keats has achieved mythical status. I wish I knew how Keats would feel if he learned how successful his work is now, but one thing is for sure – some things will always move us.

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.

John Keats, “Endymion” (1818), lines 1-5
You can read more about Keats and the significance of his life and death masks here.

A Life and Death Matter

Historically, death masks were used to remember those who had passed away, or to create likenesses in portraits. Life masks are their slightly less macabre twin, and they both close an interpretive gap in physical memory.

By Serena Ypelaar

When I first set foot in Keats House in Hampstead, London almost exactly a year ago, I had long been fascinated by death masks – but life masks would prove to bring a whole other thrill.

Posthumous portrait of the poet John Keats by William Hilton. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

You might wonder why the distinction between the two holds any significance. One type of mask is taken from a deceased subject’s face, while the other involves the face of a living individual. What’s the big difference?

From an interpretive standpoint, the fact that historical figures posed for life masks while living and breathing – that they perhaps might have made a remark or laughed just before the cast was taken – is staggering. The result, while it may seem trifling at the time, is an unrivaled connection to the subject – it outlives them. A life mask of a historical figure preserves their face in its tangible and living form beyond a photograph or painting, allowing us to interact with it.

Let’s give these abstract notions some context. I first came across the poet John Keats (1795-1821) and his work while studying British literature in undergrad. I quickly came to love Romantic poetry, in which nature, emotion, and the metaphysical take centre stage. Keats’ 1820 Ode on a Grecian Urn (in which the speaker marvels at the beauty of an artifact in the British Museum) captures everything I love about museums and literature.

Keats House in Hampstead Heath, London, where the poet lived from 1818-1820. Photo: Serena Ypelaar

So there I stood in Keats House, ready to connect with my favourite poet in a long-awaited moment of fulfillment. I couldn’t have hoped for a better outcome. For one thing, the house’s interpretation was excellent – I had expected a rather dated presentation of the Romantic poet’s life, but the displays are new, appealing, and most importantly, emotionally evocative. Sensory elements are manifold as we’re given opportunities to visualize Keats’ presence and listen to audio of a first-person interpreter reading his poems and personal writings. And most strikingly, there are masks.

On the ground floor is Keats’ life mask. As a forever fangirl of the poet who lived there from 1818 to 1820, I was instantly drawn to it. (I can’t believe I’m telling you this, because it sounds irredeemably creepy.) My strange urge to reach out for the mask was validated (thank God, I’m not crazy after all!) when I read the label next to it: please touch.

John Keats’ life mask on display at Keats House, next to a label encouraging visitors to touch.
Photo: Serena Ypelaar

And that was how I ended up in Keats’ house touching his face. To further justify my museum nerdiness + mild infatuation, I can only describe the experience as unique and surreal.

With a life mask, you can engage with those who’ve predeceased you, whether you feel the contours of their face or just look. It’s so rare to find this kind of connection with individuals who died before photography gathered steam. Maybe Keats House really knew their audience, but the experience far surpassed trying to picture someone’s face based on portraits: here was the unembellished truth of what Keats really looked like. Since no photographs of him exist, the mask is an invaluable instrument of truth.

Keats’ death mask as reflected in my (perhaps appropriately black) dress. It’s a jarring contrast to the life mask. Photo: Serena Ypelaar

Upstairs was a much more sobering reality, but affecting all the same. The lighthearted yet poignant discovery of the life mask was now replaced by a sombre shift: here, behind glass, was Keats’ death mask. Keats died of tuberculosis aged 25. The difference in his face was noticeable. His once robust features were gaunt and thinner, a mark of the illness that claimed his life; and like the life mask, coming face to face with Keats (now in death) was jarring. It’s appropriate that this iteration was inaccessible by touch, for obvious ethical (and perhaps even spiritual) reasons. No one needs to touch a death mask, unless they’re a collections manager! Regardless, I was glad to have the rare privilege of seeing both a life and death mask of the same person, however grim the comparison.

Life and death masks offer an indisputable connection to the subject(s) of both. The concept is a goldmine as far as historical and biographical interpretation goes. In front of us is the near-objective image of a person’s likeness, almost as if they were before our eyes. One thing’s for sure: when looking at Keats’ life mask, I felt as mesmerized as the speaker looking at the Grecian urn in the British Museum – viewing a moment in time. I hope to see more life (and death) masks of public figures in the future, because their immersive value is priceless.

When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty — that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

John Keats, from “Ode on a Grecian Urn” (1820)