John Keats, one of the greatest poets of all time and one of the fondest remembered romantic poets, is known for his hopeful, joyful, ideal, and yet melancholic look on the world and its inhabitants. In his poetry and letters it is easy to find his strongest themes, which were perhaps what he struggled with the most but what also brought him the greatest happiness in life. The themes of love, beauty, imagination, truth and nature all flow through his words and weave great webs of intricacy and passion. In each aspect of his life, Keats felt and thought with his heart, he strove to find the truth of love and the beauty of the world by experiences that made him feel something so powerful it was almost tangible. In a sense Keats was always a child, although he wrote and thought of concepts years ahead of his time, he lived his life as a child does: seeing, feeling, tasting, hearing and experiencing all things as if they were brand new and wonderfully important. One of Keats’ greatest themes and one of his ideas that he internally struggled with, was love.
John Keats was born in October of 1795 in London to two loving parents. As a young boy John and his two younger brothers and sister were orphaned and left with relatives. Although they were cared for it was expected that John, as the oldest, would take charge of his siblings as soon as possible. He studied and trained to become a doctor so that he could make enough money to sustain his family. Early on it was apparent to Keats that a medical profession would not satisfy his ever evolving imagination that only seemed to be supported by writing. At first it was just letters, but as he grew his pen began to scribble lines, stanzas, then full poems containing his fascination with the world. With the realization of his love of writing came the realization of the difficulty of a life lived by his pen. He made the decision to quit his medical studies and in doing so he knew he eliminated most of the money provided for his siblings. Each of these hardships led to a dark, and sometimes cynical barrier between him and many of the fancies of the world. Early pieces such as “Modern Love” reflect his mocking view of what he believed to be silly feeling. In this poem Keats writes “And what is love? It is a doll dress’d up for idleness to cosset, nurse, and dandle...Fools! if some passions high have warm’d the world, if Queens and Soldiers have play’d deep for hearts, it is no reason why such agonies should be more common than the growth of weeds.” (Keats 232). It is easy to see how Keats thought of love as a thing felt only by children or the weak minded, a thing of no concrete worth, something which only brought misery. This poem shows how the responsibility and the loneliness of being parentless left Keats with no love filled childhood, something that would have cultivated the importance of love in life instead of repressed it.
It wasn't until John Keats met Fanny Brawne that this mocking view changed. In the Autumn of 1818, 23 year old Keats met an intense woman named Fanny Brawne, who was just 18. Both Keats and Brawne were immediately attracted to each other and their companions could see how the five foot Fanny presented Keats with a puzzle. In a letter written to his brother after just meeting Fanny, Keats jokingly portrays the young woman “...but she is ignorant-monstrous in her behaviour, flying out in all directions...I was forced lately to make use of the term Minx...” (Keats 1). Pretending to find her intolerable Keats concealed his fascination with this woman for only a short time, for he quickly fell in love with Fanny, his equal not only in height, but in intensity, strength and enthusiasm. The change in his opinion of love was almost immediate. Although she was more interested in fashion and politics than poetry, Keats strove to teach her the complexity of things which seemed so normal to her, like the way a bird flies, a leaf turns in the wind and even what love means.
Their budding love was nurtured in the spring of 1819 when they roomed in the same house, Keats with a friend of his and Fanny with her mother and siblings. During this short span of time John Keats wrote some of his greatest poems, including “The eve of St. Agnes”, “La Belle Dame Sans Merci”, and “Ode to a Nightingale”. His whole world had turned upside down yet he was somehow able to channel his fresh feelings of love and his grief over the death of his brother Tom into his words. Not only are Keats’s poems remembered, but also his letters. From short inquiries into a friends health to pages full of his musings on life, his letters show his wonderfully easeful talent of creating whole ideas in just a few lines. His letters written to Fanny paint a picture of young love so vividly that even today readers can feel his heartache. These letters, written during the times he traveled away from her, are full of playful tenderness and ease yet they also show his troubled side, his anxiety, his passion and even his jealousy. His poems parallel these feelings, telling us not only of the wonderful pieces of love but also its destructive force of entrapment, heartache and the intensity of passion. But throughout his letters Keats strove for one thing above all else, no matter the boundaries of society or his financial situation John Keats wished Fanny to know just what he felt for her, both the bad and good. Keats wrote to Fanny in July of 1819: “Ask yourself my love whether you are not very cruel to have so entrammelled me, so destroyed my freedom.” (Keats 4) this passage shows his frustration with love, yet just a few mere lines later Keats writes “ 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” (Keats 4). He jumps from dark despair to almost a naive voice of childlike fancy, being truthful to himself and his struggles.
Time spent away from Fanny was filled with yearning for her, jealousy of men he did not even know existed, and frustration over his inability to sell enough poetry to ask for her hand in marriage. When he was with her she seemed to open up a passage for him: everything turned sharper and the beauties of nature which he had previously only glimpsed seemed strikingly real. In a sense she was his life's muse. All of this: his poetry, his letters, each aspect of his life at this time was yes, very complicated, but also very bright. It would have all been different however if he had had enough money to officially be engaged to Fanny. Her family was of a slightly higher class and even their affair was a scandal. Societies’ constraints overwhelmed him with anger and sadness but Fanny did not break their bond. In “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” Keats writes of the madness of love. He was sick with passion, he believed it was almost a divine madness of men whose souls had been captured by the mysterious women of the world.
This almost mystical side of love came across in another of his famous poems, titled “The Eve of St. Agnes”. Above even the story itself, this poem drips with the richest imagery that almost seems to leap off the pages. His words strike emotions within readers that parallel the passion, romance, sensuality, and darkness of the story. The poem follows two characters, a young and beautiful woman named Madeline, and a young man from a warring family named Porphyro. The Eve of St. Agnes is a legend which states that on the certain eve a woman who has followed the right ritual may see her future husband or lover in a dream. Madeline hopes to have a telling dream, but, unbeknownst to her, Porphyro has followed her to her bedchambers, hoping to woo her. A particular scene in this poem comes straight from Keats’s real life, ringing with the earnest of his longing for Fanny, “She seem’d a splendid angel, newly drest, save wings, for heaven:-Porphyro grew faint: she knelt, so pure a thing, so free from mortal taint...Unclasps her warmed jewels one by one; loosens her fragrant boddice; by degrees her rich attire creeps rusting to her knees: half-hidden, like a mermaid in sea-weed...” (Keats 91). Madeline awakens to find Porphyro in her chamber and she lets him into her bed, but this is only because she believes she is dreaming. Once she awakens and realizes her true mistake, Keats is able to turn the wonder she felt for her “dream” lover into despair, not only for her wrong, but also for Porphyro, who now appears to be but a man with human flaws.
Madeline, like many of the maidens in his poetry, seems to have hints of Fanny in her. She represents the very height of beauty and loveliness coupled with the danger of entrapment and heartache. Along with love, Keats was also able to write of beauty and mortality. For him love and beauty were often the same thing, yet the beauty in nature was pure, whereas the beauty of a woman could be tainted. The harshness of reality, of awakening, of mortality, was just another building block of the madness of love for Keats. John Keats felt that humans immortal passions and imaginations could only be entered through an intense experience on earth, which was what Fanny brought to him. She represented the ideal experience to reach something heavenly along with the darkness of the world he lived in and the constraints of his life. As the months passed, Keats continued to write and toil over his work, yet in most things there was a sense of his conflicting ideas: his passion and sexual desire for Fanny, and also his almost otherworldly love of her and appreciation of her beauty.
Along with these darker poems, Keats wrote “Brightstar” and an “Ode to Fanny” on love. In an “Ode to Fanny” many of his internal conflicts are brought to light: “Ah! dearest love, sweet home of all my fears, and hopes, and joys, and panting miseries,- to-night, if I may guess, thy beauty wears a smile of such delight, as brilliant and as bright, as when with ravished, aching, vassal eyes, lost in soft amaze, I gaze, I gaze!” (Keats 268). In a later stanza he writes of his love: “Love, love alone, his pains severe and many. Then, loveliest! keep me free, from torturing jealousy.” (Keats 269).
It is in these poems, and his ensuing letters, that Keats writes as if his love were his religion. Something so powerful that he would become a martyr in his devotion. Almost prophetically this became a reality. In 1820, Keats caught a chill and soon fell into a time of serious illness. Fanny was despaired until it was believed that he would make a full recovery. During his months of confinement the two would slip each other secret notes of endearment and commitment, yet Keats knew, somewhere deep within himself, that his life was fading. His tuberculosis worsened and the decision was made by his friends to send him to Italy, in hopes that the clear air would help him. In the last weeks before his departure Fanny’s mother finally consented, and the two were publicly engaged. This brought little comfort to Keats, who grew worse daily, as the date of his departure from Fanny loomed. The two parted, both with the heaviness of despair and sadness laid down upon them.
Fanny continued to write to Keats, yet she never received a letter in return, for he never opened any of hers. He could not bear it, and in a letter written to one of his friends Keats wrote of his death, he was ready for it he reassured, but he was not ready to lose Fanny. John Keats died in February of 1821, and he is buried with the unopened letters of his fiance. In hearing the news of his death Fanny Brawne fell into a deep depression that lasted for years. It wasn't until she published the letters he had written her that the world, who had begun to take notice of Keats's poetry, fully understood the extent of their love. In fact, there was much outrage over his letters, for many believed they were inappropriate for a man not publicly engaged. No matter the anger at the time, his letters have served as a reminder to his principle of truth and his honest and pure love for Fanny Brawne.
In his poetry and letters readers are able to see the arc of John Keats and his musings on love. From mocking, to tender, to desperate feelings, Keats wrote with truth and an earnesty not commonly found when it comes to love. He was able, in the upheaval of first love and the naivety of youth to write things men and women today are affected by. His words, his readiness to open his mind, and his willingness to write without boundaries have changed the course of history, and not just poetics, but the history of anyone who was ever troubled by the madness of love.
Keats, John, and K. E. Sullivan. Keats, Truth & Imagination. London: Brockhampton, 1996.
Keats, John. The Complete Poems of John Keats. New York: Modern Library, 1994.
Keats, John, and Jane Campion. Bright Star: Love Letters and Poems of John Keats to Fanny Brawne. New York: Penguin, 2009.
Wasserman, Earl R., and John Keats. The Finer Tone: Keats' Major Poems. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1953.
Roe, Nicholas. John Keats. New Haven and London: Yale UP, 2012.