December 1819 was an unhappy month for the poet John Keats. His beloved younger brother, Tom, had died of tuberculosis on 1 December, while Keats nursed him in their dank, two-bed apartment on Well Walk in Hampstead. Keats himself had a persistent sore throat, itself a symptom of the tuberculosis that he had caught while nursing his brother, that would eventually prove to be his own ‘death warrant’, as he called it. He had little money, and only a single collection of poetry to his name. Worse still, in amidst all this pain and confusion, he’d fallen hopelessly in love with the neighbour of his best friend, but he knew that her mother would never approve of the match. Who, after all, could approve of such a flaky career choice as a poet?
I go back to Keats often whenever life gets, or seems to get, tough. Because the next year of Keats’ life was not one of despair or depression, though he had moments of both. It was a year in which he took all the forces that life was subjecting him to – the hopelessness of his love and the certainty of his pain – and forged from it something wonderful, and ground-breaking. Beset by troubles, with only his love for Fanny Brawne to cling onto, he wrote some of his best work. Keats used what he called Negative Capability – the ability to hold two continuous states of emotion without judging between them or favouring one over the other – accepting that love and pain were, for him, intertwined and inextricable. It was this complexity of emotion, and the technical craft that allowed him to do it, that you can still feel nearly two hundred years later, whenever you read his poetry. And it was the acceptance of suffering as an equal part of life as love or joy that left Keats able to write it.
What Keats’ poetry shows, I think, is that poetry is the most effective means of communicating emotion through time. Other art does this too of course. Mark Rothko’s paintings- sometimes luminously beautiful, sometimes melancholy or even menacing – are an example of how well visual art can do this. But what poetry can do that no other art form can do is combine the immediacy of , say, a Rothko painting with the contextual background of why it is so, why that emotion, be it joy or heartbreak, is what the poet is feeling. It’s this sense of location within a given emotion, of empathy if you like, that makes poetry work so well in helping us feel, rather than merely understand. Good poetry is therefore a immediate shortcut into the soul, into the truth of what it is to be alive, no matter whether the poem is written yesterday, or two hundred years ago. And what Keats – like Rothko – does is give us a sense of that in all its human complexity: love, fear, hope and pain can all exist, can all co-exist, within the moment of feeling the poet is describing. They are different shades in the palette of the artist.
Fast forward nineteen months, and we find Keats sitting cross-legged on the bow of a twin-masted brigantine, the Maria Crowther, off the coast of Teignmouth in Devon. Keats knows he is dying of tuberculosis. It’s a warm clear night, and he can almost certainly see the stars, and hear the water lapping around the hull of the boat. It’s been two weeks since leaving his lover – now his fiancee – in Hampstead. Now he is leaving England, bound for Naples on doctor’s orders, to escape the damp English air. He knows it is the last time he will ever see England, or his lover. He will be dead within months.
His friend, Joseph Severn, finds Keats writing out a sonnet, ‘Bright Star’. It is a howl of rage, a poem of unbearable, shattering sadness, of longing and profound love. Keats makes no attempt to hide anything or to soften any of it. He knows, as he listens to the sound of the water lapping against the boat, that time has undone him. And so he cheats time, by writing something that is as raw and moving now, as it must have been when Fanny Brawne received a copy in the mail from Naples, several weeks later. It says more than Keats ever could in a letter, or more than most poetry ever has managed since, of the unspeakable pain of love and loss, and how both fused in Keats at that moment. It’s not his greatest poem – it’s too raw for that – but it is perhaps his most effective in doing what he set out to do: to defy time, and so appear to his lover as real as if he had been there himself.
Perhaps above all, Keats knew that – in order to carry itself through time – that what he wrote had to be as authentic as what he felt. Poetry, particularly poetry about love or loss, doesn’t come to order. Thomas Hardy, another great poet of love and loss, also understood this, producing his greatest work for the woman he loved only after she had died, and, ironically, he had remarried. Keats wrote only for one woman, Fanny Brawne. So did Hardy. Perhaps once you have given that gift, you can’t give it again. I think so. I also think Keats knew this when he wrote ‘Bright Star’. He had nothing to lose but hope itself. And for that reason, he kept fighting.
I think that’s what I most admire about Keats. He took risks in taking his writing as close as he could to pure feeling, in order to escape the constant tragedy of his own life. In doing so, he forged great beauty out of great pain, but in a way that was cathartic and uplifting, rather than dark or depressing. To the end he believed that art had the power to heal, and inspire, that a poem was a kind of secular prayer. Whether it does or not, there’s something very beautiful, and very noble about that. Merry Christmas.