In October of 1820, typhus raged in Naples. With his artist friend, Joseph Severn, the British poet John Keats rocked in the city’s harbor for 10 days, not nearly the quaranta giorni — 40 days — that give us our word quarantine.
Before this journey, Keats always felt intense melancholy. In “On Seeing the Elgin Marbles,” he wrote “… mortality / Weighs heavily on me like unwilling sleep.” (And in the smooth pentameter of “Ode to a Nightingale”: “I have been half in love with easeful Death.”) Not a holiday, this voyage out of England was a desperate trip to the sunny climate of Italy. His cough had grown steadily worse. Since the morning he’d seen a splotch of blood on his pillow, he knew he had little chance of surviving the consumption that had invaded his lungs. His last-ditch: Go to Rome. Meanwhile, exile at sea.
In 1818, after the publication of his poem “Endymion” (“A thing of beauty is a joy for ever”), he was derided as a low-class poet who expressed “the most incongruous ideas in the most uncouth language.” He was criticized for his background and his education, and also for his perceived vulgarity and his “Cockney rhymes.” One critic, writing in the influential magazine Blackwood’s, was famously harsh: “It is a better and a wiser thing to be a starved apothecary than a starved poet; so back to the shop Mr. John, back to the ‘plasters, pills, and ointment boxes.’ ” He added, “But, for Heaven’s sake, young Sangrado, be a little more sparing of extenuatives and soporifics in your practice than you have been in your poetry.” Zing!
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.
Therefore, on every morrow, are we wreathing
A flowery band to bind us to the earth,
Spite of despondence, of the inhuman dearth
Of noble natures, of the gloomy days,
Of all the unhealthy and o'er-darkened ways
Made for our searching: yes, in spite of all,
Some shape of beauty moves away the pall
From our dark spirits. Such the sun, the moon,
Trees old and young, sprouting a shady boon
For simple sheep; and such are daffodils
With the green world they live in; and clear rills
That for themselves a cooling covert make
'Gainst the hot season; the mid forest brake,
Rich with a sprinkling of fair musk-rose blooms:
And such too is the grandeur of the dooms
We have imagined for the mighty dead;
All lovely tales that we have heard or read:
An endless fountain of immortal drink,
Pouring unto us from the heaven's brink.
Nor do we merely feel these essences
For one short hour; no, even as the trees
That whisper round a temple become soon
Dear as the temple's self, so does the moon,
The passion poesy, glories infinite,
Haunt us till they become a cheering light
Unto our souls, and bound to us so fast,
That, whether there be shine, or gloom o'ercast;
They always must be with us, or we die.
Therefore, 'tis with full happiness that I
Will trace the story of Endymion.
The very music of the name has gone
Into my being, and each pleasant scene
Is growing fresh before me as the green
Of our own valleys: so I will begin
Now while I cannot hear the city's din;
Now while the early budders are just new,
And run in mazes of the youngest hue
About old forests; while the willow trails
Its delicate amber; and the dairy pails
Bring home increase of milk. And, as the year
Grows lush in juicy stalks, I'll smoothly steer
My little boat, for many quiet hours,
With streams that deepen freshly into bowers.
Many and many a verse I hope to write,
Before the daisies, vermeil rimm'd and white,
Hide in deep herbage; and ere yet the bees
Hum about globes of clover and sweet peas,
I must be near the middle of my story.
O may no wintry season, bare and hoary,
See it half finish'd: but let Autumn bold,
With universal tinge of sober gold,
Be all about me when I make an end.
And now, at once adventuresome, I send
My herald thought into a wilderness:
There let its trumpet blow, and quickly dress
My uncertain path with green, that I may speed
Easily onward, thorough flowers and weed.
No one likes a bad review, but these attacks felt personal. “Cockney” was a moral judgment as well as a literary one, as Keats’s biographer Andrew Motion has pointed out. Keats did his best to pretend that he didn’t care, writing, in a letter to a friend, “Praise or blame has but a momentary effect on the man whose love of beauty in the abstract makes him a severe critic on his own Works.” (One to add to your morning affirmations.) But much of literary society didn’t believe him. After his early death, at twenty-five, many in his circle pointed to the Blackwood’s review as a turning point in his deteriorating health. After the article, “Poor Keats was thrown into a dreadful state,” Shelley wrote. “The agony of his sufferings at length produced the rupture of a blood vessel in the lungs.” Byron wove Keats’s death into his epic, Don Juan. “John Keats, who was kill’d off by one critique,” he wrote. “Poor fellow! His was an untoward fate / ’Tis strange the mind, that very fiery particle, / Should let itself be snuff’d out by an article.”
It wasn’t really the article that killed Keats—he died of tuberculosis, which he probably picked up from nursing his brother Tom—but it didn’t help. Motion describes Keats at the end of his life as increasingly depressed and fixated on his critics. On the advice of his doctors, he had travelled to Italy, by boat, in search of a milder climate. (The journey there was disastrous: an outbreak of typhus in England meant that Keats was forced to quarantine for ten days on a small, crowded vessel.) In Rome, Keats holed up in a rented room at the base of the Spanish Steps. He was put on a starvation diet of bread and anchovies, and told to relax. It upset him to read, or to write a letter. “I have an habitual feeling of my real life having past, and that I am leading a posthumous existence,” he told a friend. When he died, a few months later, he was buried under words meant to excoriate his detractors. “This grave contains all that was mortal, of a young English poet,” his headstone reads, “who, on his death bed, in the bitterness of his heart, at the malicious power of his enemies, desired these words to be engraven on his tomb stone. Here lies one whose name was writ in water.”
The question of how Keats spoke when he was up and about—strolling Hampstead Heath with Coleridge, pestering Wordsworth in the Lake District—was recently raised by the Keats-Shelley Memorial Association, in Rome, which now occupies the house at 26 Piazza di Spagna, where Keats died. The foundation, like other Keats organizations this year, has planned a series of events to commemorate the two-hundredth anniversary of the poet’s death. (Shelley, who drowned, in 1822, with a book of Keats’s poetry in his pocket, will be honored in the coming year.) The association contacted Roger Michel, the head of the Institute for Digital Archeology, who suggested creating a C.G.I. rendering of Keats for the occasion. The digital Keats would recite his poem “Bright Star” against a backdrop of the room where he spent his last days. There was another advantage, as well. The poet’s tombstone has his death date wrong: Keats died on February 23rd, not February 24th, as the grave says. “No one knows why that is,” Michel said. Bringing him back to life digitally, he explained, would “give Keats back his extra day.”
Piecing together Keats’s accent fell to Ranjan Sen, a historical linguist at the University of Sheffield with an expertise in the eighteenth-century pronouncing dictionaries that would have been influential in Keats’s day. “One of the hallmarks of poetry is conveying meaning and beyond through its sounds, the rhythm of the sounds involved, the resonance of the vowels, the sort of puckers and percussive plosives, the lilting liquid,” Sen told me. With Keats, “it’s a matter of following the bread crumbs.” The dictionaries “give us a huge amount of evidence as a starting point,” he said. A further clue, that Keats was denounced as a Cockney poet, “leads us to ask: What was Cockney pronunciation in the eighteen-hundreds? And was Keats really particularly Cockney?”
Keats wouldn’t have been crudely dropping the letter “H” from words like “hello” (“almost certainly not,” Sen said) and T-glottaling, when the “T” is softened in words like “cat” and “mat”—that wasn’t around yet (“much more recent”). But he did have the Cockney habit of not pronouncing “R”s at the end of words. Looking at his poems, Sen found that Keats rhymed words like “fawn” and “thorn,” a faux pas for the upper classes of the time. “He would have known he would have come into a lot of criticism for doing something like this. It is precisely this sort of thing that he got criticized for,” Sen said, admiringly. It suggests that “he’s a poet proud to be of his time, linguistically speaking, not backwards-looking.”
When Keats died, he left behind several plaster masks taken of his face while he was alive, and one gaunt and pointed death mask. Alexy Karenowska, a physicist at the University of Oxford and the Institute’s director of technology, took detailed photographic studies of the masks to create a “digital simulacrum” of the poet’s face. She used portraits made during his lifetime—Keats gazing dreamily out the window, or sighing heavily into his hand—to fill in the missing details. Some parts were more difficult than others: the “fleshy part of the face”; his unruly, “faintly angelic” hair (“quite challenging”). “We know what shape his nose was, but how fleshy was his nose?” Karenowska said. “Was it a sort of boney nose, or a not-so-boney nose?”
On the night of the resuscitation, Karenowska led a discussion about Keats on Zoom. Scarlett Sabet, a London-based poet with long, pre-Raphaelite hair, read from a poem she had written, which ends with a reflection on Keats’s death mask. (“I trace your eyelids’ delicate crease / wondering at the imprint your lips leave.”) Simon Armitage, the U.K.’s poet laureate, read from his own Keats-inspired poem, and Iain Harvie, the Scottish musician, read Keats’s melancholic poem “On Visiting the Tomb of Burns.”
Finally, it was Keats’s turn to speak. The screen filled with footage of the narrow Roman room where he spent his last hours: high ceilings, terra-cotta floors, a wooden display case. Jenny Lister, a fashion and textiles curator from the Victoria and Albert Museum, in London, had advised on his clothing (open-collared white shirt; no-fuss tan trousers), and Sen had worked with an actor to record his voice. Keats was settled on a bed, one arm draped casually over his knee, his hair a little wonky. He paused before starting, as if gathering his thoughts. When he spoke, his vowels were softer and more rounded than I expected. His voice was full of longing. He swayed slightly as he recited the last words of “Bright Star”: “Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath, / And so live ever—or else swoon to death.”
Keats gave instructions for his headstone to be engraved with the words “here lies one whose name was writ in water”, and visitors to Rome’s Protestant cemetery can still make a pilgrimage to see it today. But far from being “writ in water”, Keats’s words continue to echo, with a host of writing and events lined up to mark the 200th anniversary of his death.
“Over the 200 years Keats’s reputation has continued to soar, while that of some of his contemporaries have risen and fallen. His early death, doomed love, appealing personality, handsome looks and approachable and luxuriant poetry have caught the imaginations of generations,” said Angus Graham-Campbell, a playwright and academic whose play Writ in Water, telling the story of Keats’ final weeks, will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on 23 February. “His reputation will continue to rise.”
The Keats-Shelley Memorial House in Rome, where Keats died, has launched an immersive video tour of the house, led by rock star and philanthropist Bob Geldof, to mark the anniversary. Geldof, who is the Keats-Shelley200 ambassador, is also narrating a video story for the museum, The Death of Keats, in which he will read from letters that tell the story of Keats’s time in the house and his death. “Keats and the house in Rome mean a lot to me, and it was a pleasure to work on these projects for the bicentenary of his death,” said Geldof. Geldof’s tour can be watched with a VR headset or on a regular screen, while a panoramic tour of the house with a live guide will also be available on 23 February.
“Keats didn’t consider himself to be a Romantic poet, but I think he knew he was a poet working on the vanguard of language and the imagination, qualities which still hold true,” said Giuseppe Albano, curator of Keats-Shelley House. “And then there’s the irresistibly sad story of his life and death, as well as his letters, which are among the freshest and deftest in the English language. It never ceases to amaze me just how much love he inspires in visitors to the Keats-Shelley House, and how his work has the power to draw people in and connect them. Two hundred years after his death, Keats’s poetry has never been more alive or more loved.”
The Keats-Shelley Memorial Association also commissioned Graham-Campbell’s play, Writ in Water, which will star Billy Howle as Keats and Callum Woodhouse as his companion Joseph Severn. The play was put together during the pandemic, meaning there were restrictions on the production, but Graham-Campbell said it had produced “wonderfully authentic and for me deeply moving results.”