Dear Mr. Keats,
There is much you do not know about yourself. That is true of many living people, but you in particular left this world with a skewed vision of yourself. You never knew the impact of your art, and for one so devoted to it, that is a true shame. One of my favourite sonnets is yours, and I am fascinated by your letters, but it isn’t so much your work that has always struck and inspired me. It is you, your life.
Maybe it is your struggle that moved me. You are considered one on the great Romantic poets, one of the greatest poets of all time, perhaps. I knew that you were brilliant, famous, vital before I had read any of your Odes, considered by some to be your greatest hits. It was the Jane Campion film ‘Bright Star’ that put you on my radar. It is a beautiful film, real and lovely and passionate, and yet, watching it, I found myself stopping many times throughout, pulling books from my shelf, discovering that in my book hoarding madness I had your selected letters, several volumes of your poetry. It took me four hours to get through the movie because a door had opened up. A fever was renewed in me.
You died an utter failure. That’s what you believed, anyways. You felt this so strongly that you had your grave inscribed ‘Here lies whose name was writ in water’. You felt that you had made no mark. Writing was all you had spent your life on – not money, not fame, not even really love. You wrote, you were unappreciated, and you died in a small room, far from home, with nothing to your name. It was small, but had a lovely view.
After you slipped across the bar your friend, the artist Joseph Severn who had accompanied you to nurse you, sat in vigil and sketched your face in candlelight, damp hair melting on your face, a strange expression of pain and release, as though you had at last exhaled yourself out of this world, into the next one.
I have been to that room. I sat there and summoned you. I came to Rome with my uncle and cousin at the very height of a broken heart. My uncle planned a beautiful trip for us – cathedrals and galleries and piazzas, and the thing I wanted most to see was a small museum devoted to an English romantic poet at the bottom of the Spanish Steps.
It felt holier to me than any cathedral. I so hoped that your spirit still pulsed there, waiting to flood the veins of a sad young Canadian girl. Maybe there was something to glean from that room, a shred of the fever that took you. Really, if you lingered in Rome at all you would more likely be out on the steps in the sunshine, watching tourists, maybe nursing a pistachio gelato. But I sat in your room and imagined you there with me, nudging me.
I had lost myself, a little bit. I had come from four years of unlimited, uninhibited creative luxury in university to a sudden shift – teacher’s college, then the job hunt, and then the job, all rich and new but draining. I had been living in the suburbs for a teaching gig, and they sucked my soul. And, I had just been left by a boy who was good and kind and who was utterly wrong for me. All of this, the jarring shift into a new job, new town, a misguided meander down a romantic path had left me spent, unsure of what I was doing, and creatively starved. I blamed the job. I blamed the sub-division. I blamed the boy. And then, the contract ended, the lease ended, the love ended, and I was back in the city, looking for a new job, heart aching despite the new freedom. I felt that I had been given a second chance, an opportunity to re-focus, and yet, I couldn’t write.
So, I found myself with a few minutes alone in your room. I felt that there must be some magic there. I thought of you there, gasping out the last of your life, only 25, a year younger than I was, having devoted it all to writing, and I made a promise to us, myself and you, that I would write. I would write as long as I was well and able. I would write if I was rejected, if I was unnoticed, if I was a failure. You were a failure again and again, and you left certain that your work had been for nothing. But you had fought fiercely for your failure. There is such dignity in that.
I bought a notebook of fine Italian paper, covered in a print of the ceiling tiles you must have stared at on your deathbed. The next morning I slipped out of my room at 6 am and onto the hotel rooftop where I could see the whole city. I wrote and I wrote and I wrote. (I also managed to get myself locked out up there, and had to wait until an obliging valet passed by to let me back in). I came home from Italy awakened, and that summer words came so quickly that sometimes I woke in the middle of the night just to get them down.
I made that promise to you, that I would write, with a very heightened heart, in a far away city, in another time. I have not always upheld it. Sometimes my heart is too full or too still. Sometimes my life is vibrant and stable or unstable and I am living well or too hard. Sometimes there is only a thin stream of words bubbling in me, and it is a huge struggle to gather them up before they pass by. Often, they pass by. Lately, though, I have been fighting harder for them. I need to.
Life wasn’t very fair to you. You had lost both of your parents by 14, and the keepers of your inheritance ‘forgot’ to inform you of it. You had a lifelong struggle for finances. Your youngest brother contracted tuberculosis, and you were left to nurse him, care for him until his death. You were going to be a doctor, you could have had a placid, stable life, but your need to write was too strong. You left medicine. I sometimes wonder if I would ever have the courage to leave teaching – I love it, but it is not enough to sustain me.
You likely contracted tuberculosis from your brother. We know a lot more about it nowadays, and it is much less common, but in the early 1800s, it was very commonly stigmatized. It was associated with weakness, repressed sexual passion, even. In your case, the doctor also cited mental exertion. Your desire to write was so strong, and your need to succeed so desperate – founded not in your ego, but in your dire finances – that perhaps the pressure got to you.
And yet, you were always aware of your mortality, even before you were ill. It was almost as if you knew your time would be brief. You knew the work needed to be done and you approached the work with feverish commitment. You were consumed by it.
In one of your final letters to your friend Charles Brown, you say ‘I have a habitual feeling of my real life having past, and that I am leading a posthumous existence’, as though you were already dead. True, you were leaving England, leaving your love, Fanny Brawne, leaving everything you were attached to. You knew you wouldn’t return.
I wish that you could have witnessed your real posthumous existence. I wish you could have seen how you thrived, how you lasted, how your love of beauty and nature and life itself has lived on in your work.
A week after I wrote to you, I found a beautiful tree outside of my yoga studio with dozens of quotes attached. I reached for the first one I saw, and there you were:
You see? You name was not writ in water. It is bound to the very trees.
Take a walk through Keats’ house here: