John Keats: The Apothecary Poet, Page 8
by Sir William Osler (1908).
To the worries of uncertain health and greatly embarrassed affairs there were added, in the summer of 1819, the pangs, one can hardly say of disprized, but certainly of hopeless love. Writing to his friend Reynolds, May 3, 1818, in comparing life to a large mansion of many apartments, he says pathetically that he could only describe two; the first, the Infant or Thoughtless Chamber, in which we remain as long as we do not think; and the second, the Chamber of Maiden-Thought, in which at first we become intoxicated with the light and atmosphere, until it gradually darkens and we see not well the exit and feel the 'burden of the mystery'. For his friends he hopes the third Chamber of Life may be filled with the wine of love and the bread of friendship. Poor fellow! Within a year the younger Aphrodite, in the shape of Fanny Brawne, beckoned to him from the door of his third chamber. Through her came no peace to his soul, and the Muses' inspiration was displaced by a passion which rocked him as the 'winds rock the ravens on high'—by Plato's fourth variety of madness, which brought him sorrow and 'leaden-eyed despair'. The publication of Keats's letters to Fanny Brawne can be justified; it must also be regretted. While there are some letters which we should be loath to miss, there are others the publication of which has wronged his memory. Whether of a young poet as Keats, or of an old philosopher as Swift, such maudlin cooings and despairing wails should be ruled out of the court with the writings of paranoiacs.
Keats's mother died of consumption in 1810. In the winter of 1817-1818 he nursed his brother Tom through the same disease. In the spring they spent several months together in Devonshire, which Keats compares to Lydia Languish, 'very entertaining when it smiles, but cursedly subject to sympathetic moisture.' In the summer he took a trip through Scotland, and in the Island of Mull caught a cold, which settled in his throat. In a letter dated Inverness, August 6, he speaks of his throat as in 'a fair way of getting quite well'. On his return to Hampstead we hear of it again; and in September he writes 'I am confused by Sawrey's mandate in the house now, and have as yet only gone out in fear of the damp night'. During the last three months of the year he again nursed his brother Tom, who died in December. From this time the continual references to the sore throat are ominous. On December 31 he complains to Fanny Keats that a sore throat keeps him in the house, and he speaks of it again in January letters. In a February letter to his sister he says that the sore throat has haunted him at intervals for nearly a twelvemonth. In June and July he speaks of it again, but the summer spent in the Isle of Wight and at Winchester did him good, and in September he writes to one of his friends that he had got rid of his 'haunting sore throat'. I have laid stress upon this particular feature, as there can be but little question that the tuberculosis of which he died began, as is common enough, with this localization. For more than a year there had been constant exposure while nursing his brother, and under conditions, in Devonshire at least, most favourable to infection. The depression of the Review attacks in the autumn of 1818 must also be taken into account. Through the summer of 1818 there are occasional references to an irritable state of health apart from the throat trouble—unfitting him for mental exertion. 'I think if I had a free and healthy and lasting organization of heart and lungs as strong as an ox's, so as to bear unhurt the shock of an extreme thought and sensation without weariness, I could pass my life very nearly alone, though it should last eighty years. But I feel my body too weak to support me to the height, I am obliged continually to check myself and be nothing.' If we may judge by the absence of any references in the letters, the autumn of the year was passed in good health, but on December 20 he wrote that he was 'fearful lest the weather should affect my throat, which on exertion or cold continually threatens me'.
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