Monday, May 04, 2015

Fame Written on Water and Engraved in Stone: John Keats by Karen Alkalay-Gut

Photo by  Ezra Gut

**** My friend Professor Emerita  Karen Alkalay -Gut (Tel Aviv University) has kindly sent me a series of articles about poets and their graves that she recently completed. She has accompanied each article with photos--I hope to add more--as I have time. I became acquainted with her work when I was a guest and judge for Voices Israel. I had the pleasure to lecture and run workshops in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and elsewhere.

Fame Written on Water and Engraved in Stone: John Keats

By  Karen Alkalay -Gut

John Keats is most probably the most popular poet in the English language, and for almost 200 years his grave has been the most visited of any English poet.  However, his life and death were far from poetic and his grave, perhaps the first to become a site for pilgrims, was designed by him to be totally anonymous. 

When Keats was 21, in 1817, when his poetic career was beginning to bloom, Keats was full of promise and optimism.  He had decided to give up his very successful medical studies for a career of poetry. Even the negative criticism he received for being one of the first of the English poets to be lacking a traditional education in the classics at an appropriate university did not seem to deter him.  He was reaching far beyond the contemporary concept of poetry, and his irregular background and his original imagination in conceiving the definition of poetry, allowed him to imagine a different future for poetry – his own as well as that of poetry in general.  His poems showed the promise of something eternal.

From this first optimism, the way to his sad grave in the non-Catholic cemetery in Rome was swift and direct.  At the age of twenty-five, impoverished, far from home and far from his beloved Fanny Brawne, Keats died in terrible and extended agonies in his exiled flat on the Plaza de Espagna.
Perhaps some of his agonies might have been postponed, alleviated, and redirected had he chosen a different path, a different friend or different doctors, or at least different legal counsel.

But he was ultimately alone and powerless in his decisions.  Orphaned at an early age, first by his father when he was nine and then by his mother when he was fourteen, Keats seemed on the way to recovering from his misfortunes when he  successfully completed his license in Apothecary and was on his way to becoming a surgeon.  The poetic muse that overtook him might have also found a niche in his life had he known there were two accounts held for him until his 21st birthday totaling almost 9 thousand pounds (now worth almost 400,000 pounds today).  He could have easily sustained himself as a full-time poet, instead of struggling to stay out of debt.  (But neither his guardian nor his mother’s lawyer mentioned the money to him). Keats’ final will to his friends contained instructions to pay back his debts to them, and if there was money left over, to pay his tailor.  Except for books, there were no worldly goods.  So his choice to completely abandon his medical career for a life of poetry was one of conscious  (and unnecessary) poverty.  Yet poverty and consumption suited the image of the poet.  Shelly wrote to Keats the year before, “This consumption is a disease particularly fond of people who write such good verses as you have done…”

Perhaps had he been more of a doctor and less of a poet, he might have been more active in seeking remission.  One wonders whether the best doctors or the best sanitariums might have prolonged his life, or at least eased his descent into an agonized death.  But when he coughed his first blood in London he recognized the fate of his mother and his brother, and did not seek a more innovative cure.
Had he not listened to his physicians and left England for Rome for what he knew was a futile attempt at improving his health, it may be he would not have died as quickly and as painfully  as he did.  His doctor and his friend in Rome, Joseph Severn, seemed to love him to death.  At first Dr. James Clark, his Roman-British physician, diagnosed him with "mental exertion."  Later Clark understood it was tuberculosis and prescribed a daily diet of one anchovy and a piece of bread, accompanied by frequent bleedings. 

Had Keats been accompanied by a more experienced nurse, and not just his friend, Joseph Severn, who happened to be available and willing, but extremely uninformed about nursing, he may have had an easier time of it.  Severn, a successful painter with a sunny and optimistic personality, followed the Doctor’s instructions carefully, but seems to have been at a loss as to how to take care of him.  Although he washed him, read to him, changed his clothes, and painted and wrote about Keats, he refused to hand over the laudanum Keats had purchased before he left England, fearing Keats would use it to commit suicide. Had Severn followed Keats’ instructions, the laudanum may have eased the cough and slowed down the destruction of his lungs.  It certainly would have eased his way into death.

Perhaps Keats’ worst mistake was in relinquishing his love.  In romantic fiction the boy gets the girl; in the real-life story of John Keats and Fanny Brawne there was no such happy ending. Although they were secretly engaged, Keats' inability to support Brawne and his ill health meant the relationship was doomed. By the time the poet arrived in Rome Keats was filled with regrets at their parting. "I should have had her when I was in health," he wrote in one letter to a friend, "and I should have remained well." Too weak to read her letters in Rome, he asked that they be placed in his shroud near his heart.

Fortunately, what Keats called his “posthumous existence” lasted only a few months after his arrival, John Keats died in Rome on the night of February 23 of 1821. The funeral procession of half a dozen friends bearing his wasted body left from his apartment in the Piazza di Spagna, and arrived at dawn where he was buried in the corner of the pastoral non-catholic cemetery. 

But the true romance in the story was not that he would die, but that he would leave nothing physical behind him, and, in this manner would ascend into eternity.  He would become ‘pure’ art.  Perhaps he had in mind his Grecian urn in which the lovers are forever in the perfect moment when they are about to kiss.  Perhaps he had in mind the ending of his poem, “The Eve of St. Agnes” where love cannot be fulfilled in life, but the lovers themselves manage to escape the real world of pain and hatred, and rise beyond the world of transience.  In so many of his poems he was separating from life even before he knew he was dying, and in Rome, when it was clear he would not recover, wrote,  I have an habitual feeling of my real life having past, and that I am leading a posthumous existence"
Because the desire to transcend life, to transform the self into pure art seems to be the goal of many of Keats’ final poems, it is not surprising that Keats asked that his grave would carry the inscription, “Here lies one whose name was writ on water." 

This inscription is not modesty but a kind of perfection.  In February of 1818 Keats had written about the aims of poetry to John Reynolds, “How beautiful are the retired flowers! how would they lose their beauty were they to throng into the highway crying out, ‘admire me I am a violet! dote upon me I am a primrose! “  Perfect beauty is distilled into its pure form, Keats thought.  This concept is explained further in a letter to Richard Woodhouse on October 27, of the same year.  He speaks about what he calls, “the poetical Character”  it is not itself - it has no self - it is every thing and nothing - It has no character…A Poet is the most unpoetical of any thing in existence; because he has no Identity - he is continually in for - and filling some other Body - The Sun, the Moon, the Sea and Men and Women who are creatures of impulse are poetical and have about them an unchangeable attribute - the poet has none; no identity - he is certainly the most unpoetical of all God's Creatures.”
Percy Bysche Shelley understood this.  In the elegy he wrote only seven weeks after Keats’ death, “Adonais,” Shelley wrote:

       Peace, peace! he is not dead, he doth not sleep,
       He hath awaken'd from the dream of life;
       'Tis we, who lost in stormy visions, keep
       With phantoms an unprofitable strife,
       And in mad trance, strike with our spirit's knife
       Invulnerable nothings. We decay
       Like corpses in a charnel; fear and grief
       Convulse us and consume us day by day,
And cold hopes swarm like worms within our living clay.

Although Shelley had not been to Keats’ grave, he had been at the cemetery months before, when his own infant son was laid there to rest, a few feet away from where Keats would be buried. But the instructions of Shelley to go to the cemetery at Rome helped to begin a pilgrimage that hasn’t ended.
Joseph Severn knew there would be visitors at the grave and struggled with the instructions Keats had given him to leave his name off the tombstone.  Severn had visited the cemetery before Keats died and pleased the poet with the report that it was a beautiful spot, covered with violets and visited by sheep and shepherds, a perfect poetic place to disappear.  But Severn was an artist who believed in success, and had himself just won a great prize before he took on the role of nurse to Keats, and was hoping on this trip to win a Royal Academy traveling fellowship. (He succeeded in this, and other awards, including the British Consulship to Rome). After Keats’ death it was impossible for Severn to release his charge to such anonymity.  Having raised the funds for Keats’ monument, in the winter of 1823, Severn and Keats’ friend Charles Brown placed their addition that would mediate the devastating lines. "This Grave / contains all that was Mortal / of a / YOUNG ENGLISH POET / Who / on his Death Bed,/ in the Bitterness of his Heart / at the Malicious Power of his Enemies / Desired / these Words to be / engraven on his Tomb Stone: / Here lies One / Whose Name was writ in Water./ 24 February 1821." The date is accurate by Roman standards, who would count the days from evening to evening, but the rest was Brown’s idea, and seemed not only to mediate Keats’ longed-for lines but to minimize the poet’s personality.  Lord Byron noted that discrepancy between the great poet and the petty epitaph:

'Tis strange the mind, that very fiery particle
Should let itself be snuffed out by an article.
(canto 2, stanza 60)

The reason for Severn and Brown’s intervention was the universal disdain of Keats and his work, and Severn soon began hearing that his critics were adding to “here lies one whose name was write in water” the phrase “and his works in milk and water…”  The result of this intervention, however, was to help transform Keats from a relatively unknown poet to the emblematic Romantic Poet.  Severn’s numerous paintings, books and letters concerning Keats’ dying, including one painted in the year of Severn’s death, 1879, helped to keep Keats’ legend alive. 

Shelley’s “Adonais” may have initiated the concept of pilgrimage to the graves with the lines
       Or go to Rome, which is the sepulchre,
       Oh, not of him, but of our joy: 'tis nought
       That ages, empires and religions there
       Lie buried in the ravage they have wrought;
       For such as he can lend—they borrow not
       Glory from those who made the world their prey;
       And he is gather'd to the kings of thought
       Who wag'd contention with their time's decay,
And of the past are all that cannot pass away.

       Go thou to Rome—at once the Paradise,
       The grave, the city, and the wilderness;
       And where its wrecks like shatter'd mountains rise,
       And flowering weeds, and fragrant copses dress
       The bones of Desolation's nakedness
       Pass, till the spirit of the spot shall lead
       Thy footsteps to a slope of green access
       Where, like an infant's smile, over the dead
A light of laughing flowers along the grass is spread;

But it was Severn who made the grave one not of transcendence but of tragedy, a tragedy that later poets identified with. 

Any visitor to Keats’ grave cannot help but note the fact that Joseph Severn also makes his own presence known.  Like a fan who becomes famous by being photographed with a star, Severn seems to be everywhere in the picture.  The tiny grave of Severn’s son, placed strategically next to Keats’ notes: Here Also Are Interred/the remains of/Arthur Severn/the infant son of/Joseph Severn who was born 22, Nov 1836 and accidentally killed /13 July 1837. The poet Wordsworth was present at his baptism in Rome.”  The well-loved eight-month old infant had died in his crib in a terrible accident that shattered the family, but his grave highlights the important christening guest.  Moreover, the grave is placed in a perfect position just behind and between the matching graves of Keats and Severn, who died 58 years after Keats.  The appearance is of a family, even though Severn was a happy husband and father with many children. Severn’s grave, which matches that of Keats’ poetic lyre (apparently requested by Keats) with the emblem of an artist, is careful to add the details necessary to promote the grave of Keats as well as himself.  It reads: To the memory of Joseph Severn/Devoted friend and deathbed companion /of/John Keats/Whom he lived to see/Numbered among/The immortal poets of England//And artist eminent for his representations /Of Italian life and literature/British Counsel at Rome from 1861-1872/And officer of the Crown of Italy/In recognition of his services/To freedom and Humanity/Died 3 August 1879, age 8.

 On the back of Severn’s grave is the list of distinguished sponsors for the gravesite.   Severn was to remain in Rome for twenty years, become the center of the English community and a well-connected man in his own right.  His friends included John Ruskin, Walter Scott, William Wordsworth, John Turner, Samuel Palmer, Leigh Hunt, Mary Shelley, and he also enjoyed a rich family life. Nevertheless Severn always acknowledged, “I owe almost everything to him, my best friends as well as my artistic prosperity, my general happiness as well as my best inspirations.”  Keats’ career owes a great deal to Severn as well.

"A Man's Life of any worth is a continual allegory--and very few eyes can see the Mystery of his life," wrote Keats to his brother George in the spring of 1819, as if forseeing the ways in which the understanding of his life and death would change according to the viewer. 

Resting near the very visible pyramid of Caius Cestius, Keats’ grave is easily found, and a plaster plaque on the wall as well as a bench with lines of Keats’ poem makes this place a quiet and meditative sanctuary for tourists.  In the coming years almost every significant poet would visit his grave and write a poem about it.  Keats’ grave has become the place to identify the anonymity of a poet’s life, the fears of being forgotten as a poet, as well as mortality.
It was Severn who enabled Keats to fulfill the destiny he had asked for in his sonnet, “On Sitting Down to Read King Lear Once Again,” “But when I am consumed in the fire,/  give me new phoenix wings to fly to my desire.”

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