Tuesday, February 23, 2021

This Day in Literary History (Death of John Keats, Romantic Poet Who Influenced Fitzgerald)

Feb. 23, 1821—John Keats, an apothecary student who, in just a few years, switched to writing some of the most heavily anthologized verses of any poet, died at age 25 in Rome, where he had come for relief that winter from the tuberculosis ravaging his lungs.

Keats’ truncated life and his requested epitaph on the tombstone he asked not to bear his name (“Here lies one whose name was writ in water”) fostered a posthumous image of an essential sickly, solitary, and melancholy spirit. That image only hardened with the dissemination of the more famous of his 54 poems, which emphasize deep self-consciousness, as well as the publication of the great elegy by friend Percy Bysshe Shelley, “Adonais.”

To a large extent, that image was at variance with the facts. The 240 letters of his to family and friends that survive reveal a livelier, more antic—and, I would argue, more attractive—spirit.

Touched by the deaths of, in turn, his father, mother, and younger brother, Keats was all too familiar with the concept of living on borrowed time, and he emerged from these traumatic experiences not just uncoiled but unleashed on the world, with a demonic energy that led him to master, in turn, his literary studies at the boys’ academy at Enfield, medical studies at Guy’s Hospital, and in-depth reading of the likes of Spenser, Drayton, Milton, Wordsworth, Shakespeare, and his friend Leigh Hunt that led him to create what recent biographer Lucaster Miller calls his “vertiginous originality.”

His correspondence also demonstrates that, far from being the sensitive “Adonais” envisioned by Shelley, Keats rebounded nicely from negative reviews of his “Hyperion” (1818).

Besides his undoubted wizardry with words, there is another reason why Keats fascinates me: this most intensely lyrical of English poets influenced the most intensely lyrical of American novelists, my literary hero, F. Scott Fitzgerald. In fact, the title of his second-best novel, Tender is the Night, is drawn from Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale.”

(This YouTube clip has the novelist reading the poem, with considerable feeling.)

In addition to the poet’s lush, sensuous imagery, Fitzgerald may have felt an affinity with his life. As outlined in Jonathan Bate’s braided biography of the two, Bright Star, Green Light, the resemblances include the following:

*Young manhoods reached in convulsive wars: the tail-end of the Napoleonic conflict in Keats’ case, World War I in Fitzgerald’s;

*Youthful exclusion from the privileged classes: for Keats, as a Cockney orphan; for Fitzgerald, as a Roman Catholic son of a father who could not bring his wife the financial security brought by his father, a rich grocer;

*Muses both bewitching and torturing: for Keats, Fanny Brawne, the young woman next door, whom he wanted desperately to wed but couldn’t do so without the money; for Fitzgerald, not one but two: Ginevra King, a pretty socialite believed to be the model for the elusive Daisy Buchanan of The Great Gatsby, then Zelda Sayre, whom he did marry, only to become entwined in their mutual tragedy;

* Obsessions with beauty, loss and the evanescent moment: For Keats, brought on by intimations of the mortality of family members and himself; for Fitzgerald, by the striving for wealth and tragic sense that its attainment brought not so much happiness but instead waste and corruption.

(On the Web site “Interesting Literature,” guest blogger Laura Inman offers an unusual take on Keats as a Stoic philosopher who came to believe that this program would, in Inman’s words, offer “a program for achieving a tranquil life that finds value in adversity.”)

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