John Keats: A Literary Biography, Page 36|
by Albert Elmer Hancock (1908).
THE REVELATION OF CHARACTER
I must think that difficulties nerve the spirit of a man—they make his Prime Objects a Refuge as well as a Passion."
Keats wrote these words—they should be printed in gold—in the days of his first high hopes. After the return from Scotland he had the opportunity of putting them into practice. He was in financial straits. The tour left him physically exhausted and ill. In this frail condition he nursed his dying brother, night and day; watched the life slowly fade until the end came in December. All the while his imagination was haunted by the phantom of "Johnny Keats" and his ambition bore the load of a blasted reputation and a blasted hope of recognition. Five forces were thus operating during that autumn to break him down: finances, ill-health, the loss of a brother, an obsession of ridicule, foiled ambition. Now let us see how rumor, aided by Keats' reticence, added high colors to the tragedy of his death.
During that autumn Severn saw him occasionally and noted his strained eyes, his face haggard with apathy and despair. Haydon wrote in his journal that Keats would come to his studio, sit for hours without saying a word, and that he finally took to prolonged dissipation for relief. This last is strange. It is supported by no one else. Keats is always spoken of as a man of very temperate habits. It is surely incredible that he could have been, as Haydon says, "for six weeks scarcely sober," when he was assiduously nursing his brother during the autumn, and when, during the following winter, he was in the first transports of his love for Fanny Brawne. But whether dissipated or not, from a combination of causes he was noticeably despondent. The moods of depression gave rise to rumors; he threatened suicide; his mental suffering caused a rupture of blood-vessels in the lungs; the ridicule of the reviewers had driven him insane. After his death these rumors passed to Shelley in Italy. With Hotspur indignation, he passed them on to Byron. Byron's doggerel and satiric stanza in "Don Juan" gave a quotable form and wide circulation to the fiction that Keats was killed by abusive criticism. The poet's closest friends confirmed it for posterity. For when they set the headpiece for his tomb, ignoring or misconceiving his last request, they put on the stone:—
CONTAINS ALL THAT WAS MORTAL
YOUNG ENGLISH POET
ON HIS DEATH BED
IN THE BITTERNESS OF HIS HEART
AT THE MALICIOUS POWER OF HIS ENEMIES
THIS PHRASE TO BE ENGRAVED ON HIS TOMBSTONE
HERE LIES ONE
WHOSE NAME WAS WRIT IN WATE
There the legend continues to this day, in letters of marble, misrepresenting the fate of the man beneath. Brown is chiefly responsible. He repented before he died, but did not repair the mistake.
PAGE 36 OF 81.
Such in brief is the history of the apochryphal tragedy of Keats' assassination by the reviews. We shall not here anticipate the last moments of Keats or interpret properly his dying request. But let us look squarely at the facts contemporary with this year as sufficient for the present.
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