On July 13th, 1819, the impossible had happened: John Keats was madly in love, and suddenly the length of his life seemed insignificant.
The medical student-turned poet had proudly declared to friends and family that he would spend his life happily married to poetry–and had no need for the partial heaven offered by devotion to one individual human being. Only the previous autumn he had declared:
“The roaring of the wind is my wife, and the stars through the window-pane are my children. The mighty abstract Idea of Beauty stifles the more divided and minute domestic happiness.”
Young Mr. Keats–only 23 in 1818–had discovered the joy of the solitude so often necessary for the cultivation of one’s unique, unadulterated creativity and genius. Life is a distraction from the dedication necessary to write about it–and “domestic happiness” even more so. When one enters marriage, one makes a contract with life: one can no longer be a nomad of what it means to be human, flitting from one experience to another in an attempt to sample every morsel available. Domestic life demands that one devote him or herself to a single cause; many doors are closed; there is knowledge of the world which will be forever withheld. For the poet, particularly one as philosophical as Keats, one cause seemed a waste of his energy. Why settle for experiencing only one aspect of life when the greater world was waiting to be discovered and transformed into poetry, its eternal form?
Within a few months, this conviction had evaporated. The young lady next door–the spirited and intelligent Fanny Brawne–had enchanted Keats, and he himself remarked that his letters to her must have sounded like those of a madman. His poetic nature, and his ability to express it with the perfect words, only intensified his love. After all, Keats was the one who wrote, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,– that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” Despite his earlier renunciation of marriage, Keats’s personality was ideal for the definitive statements and vows required of it.
But what Keats had discovered when captured by love is that there is not one, but two aims which make life worth living. The first is the purpose which he had already embraced when quitting a promising medical profession to live off of a small inheritance so that he could write: the call of the soul, that sense of some greater spiritual need, which, in his case, manifested itself in the choice of his career. For Keats, blessed by poetic talent, the need to grasp “truth” and “beauty” through poetry was the fire in his soul, that which gave him the conviction to live throughout a series of family tragedies.
The second is the ability to love another.
One morning in July, sitting by a window overlooking the sea, Keats wrote to Fanny,
“I almost wish we were butterflies and liv’d but three summer days—three such days with you I could fill with more delight than fifty common years could ever contain.”
The experience of love immerses one in life, unveiling truth with a sudden stroke in a way that reason and words never can. Love makes us fully human, rendering meaningless the false fears, divisions, and borders constructed in lonelier periods of our lives. Keats had believed that poetry was the summit of his life–but so too was love, so that even during his short courtship with Fanny, he felt that he had arrived at the purpose he had been seeking. Three days of a life lived in true love was enough. Anything more felt almost excessive, overstaying one’s earned arrival at the summit.
However, if fate has an ear, his wish to live three days did not go unheard. In 1821, he died in Rome of tuberculosis, the same illness that took his brother–leaving his fiance to grieve, and future readers to wonder what else he would have contributed to the canon of English literature. At 26, he had already written works that earned him recognition as a genius akin to that of Shakespeare. But he would not know it in his lifetime, believing he was “one whose name was writ in water.”
It would be naive to say that Keats left this world as peacefully and cheerfully as Socrates taking his cup of hemlock. No, the sick Keats was not a good sport, and did not want to go–until his prolonged, agonizing illness made him resent those who kept him alive. I do not hold that against Keats, nor do I think it tarnishes the message that became prevalent in his poems: a celebration of life and its beauty in the face of its horrors.
The miracle of the life of Keats is that his life and poetry endures despite the fact that he seemingly failed at every endeavor he set for himself. Keats and Fanny never married. He would never see his poetry bring him the fame and recognition he deserved. The love of his life–and that which made him love life–were storylines tragically unfinished.
And yet, Keats defied death–because he chose to live sincerely and without fear. His dedication to his poetry left behind texts studied in every high school and college English class, poems that have inspired other great poets, from Mathew Arnold to T.S. Eliot.
What he wrote made him immortal–and the woman he loved made him feel that immortality was unnecessary, for he had captured it in the present. It is a sentiment echoed by poets, philosophers, and thinkers throughout time. It is not the length of life that matters, but whether or not we live purposefully, honestly, and devote ourselves to love.
To conclude with a quote by the philosopher Wittgenstein,
“Death is not an event in life: we do not live to experience death. If we take eternity to mean not infinite temporal duration but timelessness, then eternal life belongs to those who live in the present.”