200 years ago the celebrated Romantic poet John Keats died. He was just twenty-five but the scope of his poetic vision and his wisdom belied his youth. In his lifetime his work was overshadowed by his contemporaries Byron and Shelley.
Byron dismissed him rather snootily as a “Cockney poet” owing to his humble roots, and said that his poetry was “a Bedlam of vision produced by raw pork and Opium”. It has to be said that nineteenth century Britain had a strong thread of philistinism running through it, much like today. Byron and Shelley were at the forefront owing to the various scandals that were attributed to them, and as a consequence Keats` literary reputation was diminished in the public`s imagination.
Keats` tremendous contribution to the English literary Canon was only recognised after his death. Byron`s critique was meant as an insult, but though crudely evinced, it reveals the essence of his continuing appeal. Keats numerous struggles in life and love allowed him to develop a poetic insight that arguably remains unrivalled. His exploration of darker mental states were profoundly beautiful “Bedlam visions”. His “Ode on Melancholy” is written with great sensitivity and maturity.
Very few poets would have the inclination or proficiency to deal with difficult subjects. Depression and suicide are taboo in our society and Keats was both fearless and brave to write about these disturbing issues. He was moved by the story of the poet and young prodigy Thomas Chatterton, who took his own life at the age of 17.
In 1815 he composed a sonnet called “To Chatterton” in which he mourned the loss of “a dear child of sorrow, son of misery”. Then three years later he dedicated his poem “Endymion” to his memory. At first the legacy of Chatterton was that he was an archetypal “tortured poet” who invented a persona “Rowley” to acquire a specific readership.
It was some time before his poetry was acknowledged as his reputation as a faker lingered in the memory before his work was even recognised. The notoriety continued to overshadow the luminosity of his literary portraits, especially the ones about his native Bristol as a city of “smoking streams”. Instead many simply recall the final portrait of him in a painting by Henry Wallis.
Conclusively it is important that we should remember the work of the great poets. On the 200th anniversary of Keats` untimely death his poems have become an immortal memory.