By Laura Inman
John Keats lived for twenty-five years, from 1795 to 1821. He is considered one of the great Romantic poets, along with Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron and Shelley. Unlike those other poets of his era, most notably in contrast with Byron and Shelly, Keats was a middle-class commoner, whose parents were inn keepers, a factor that affected his outlook and reception as a poet. Keats and his two brothers attended a progressively-minded school and received an education that included Latin, but not Greek, a language taught at upper-class schools.
Keats’s life was marred by a succession of sad events, thus he wrote that he had hardly known any days of ‘unalloyed happiness’. His father died while Keats was a child, after which his mother fell into various forms of degradation and finally succumbed to tuberculosis. Keats nursed her through the final stages, as he would also do for his youngest brother, Tom, years later.
Still in his teens, Keats apprenticed to become a surgeon, made his gruesome rounds as an assistant at Guys Hospital in London, passed his exams, and then quit the profession to devote himself to writing poetry. His small inheritance allowed him the attempt, but kept him on the verge of destitution.
Keats had encouragement in his poetic endeavors from literary friends and from publication in periodicals published by acquaintances. His own incredible belief in himself as a poet, which he held despite negative critics, served as his greatest encouragement; even at his nadir he thought he would be among the great English poets. He was able to secure a publisher for his work, Endymion, which turned out to be a commercial and critical failure. His second volume promised a better reception, but he died before he knew any success. Like his mother and brother Tom, Keats contracted tuberculosis. He made the extremely arduous journey by ship to Rome for a better climate, accompanied by a friend, Joseph Severn, died there in a small apartment at the base of the Spanish Steps and was laid to rest in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome.
Keats is best known for his Odes and the opening stanzas of Endymion. He also composed, in his rather prolific oeuvre, several sonnets, some richly visual and wildly imaginative longer poems, such as Lamia, and an epic poem Hyperion. In addition to writing poetry, Keats wrote letters that cannot be overlooked by anyone interested in his work, life, or milieu. (These are particularly interesting because they showcase Keats’s remarkable ability to coin new nonce words, among them ‘delightcious’, ‘cheery-brandy’, ‘jeapardy’ (jealousy and jeopardy?), some fifty years before Lewis Carroll. For more on this, see Christopher Ricks, Keats and Embarrassment.) In 2009, the Jane Campion film Bright Star, detailing the last three years of Keats’s life and his ‘relationship’ with Fanny Brawne, appeared.
My research, described below, took as its point of departure a particularly arresting statement in his letters. The words to his dear friend, Charles Brown, in his valedictory letter about the use of his philosophy compelled me to investigate exactly what he meant—what was his philosophy, how did he come across it, and how did it affect his poetry. My research into his biography, letters, and poetry culminated in the article ‘The Stoic Philosophy of John Keats’ and in the greatest reverence and affection for not only a literary genius but also for a genuinely good and likeable human being.
Three months before John Keats died in Rome, he wrote his valedictory letter. He addressed his closest friend, Charles Brown, describing the toll consumption had taken and preparing Brown for news of his death: ‘There, you rogue, I put you to the torture; but you must bring your philosophy to bear . . .’ (John Keats, The Letters of John Keats, ed. H. Buxton Forman (London: Reeves & Turner, 1895; repr., Ellibron Classics, 2005), 519.) Taken alone, this advice might appear an off-hand comment; however, it was the last of many statements that Keats made about philosophy in his letters. In his final days, as through his life, Keats did not believe that religion offered the way to reconcile oneself to adversity or that it revealed the mysteries for which the tangible world was the allegorical representation; for him, philosophy provided guidance for living and, if not an answer to the eternal questions, at least clues. Keats was interested in and valued philosophy second only to poetry and, well into his career as a poet, he even stated in a letter that ‘the human friend philosopher’ was more ‘genuine’ than a ‘fine writer’. Keats’s philosophy takes shape in his letters and surfaces at times in his poetry, and it is a philosophy that is at one with Roman Stoicism.
I have identified Stoic ideas in his letters, in a number of his poems, and in his approach to life primarily to view Keats and his work from the new perspective that a comparative study affords. I have incidentally endorsed Stoicism: that Keats, one of the greatest and most revered English poets, suffered a life of hardship, pondered philosophical matters, and arrived at essentially a Stoic philosophy serves as a strong recommendation for that system–a philosophical approach to life that is viable for the present day. (For an example of one of many presentations of Stoicism for the present day, see William B. Irvine, A Guide to the Good Life (Oxford University Press, 2009).) Stoicism can be briefly defined as a program for achieving a tranquil life that finds value in adversity, promotes the use of reason to overcome emotion (because reason is the attribute particular to man), teaches the unimportance of external events, advocates moderation in all things, and views death as a solution, transition or end, since life after death is unknowable.
Laura Inman is a Bronte scholar, former lawyer, writer, and aspiring Stoic. Her blog is thelivingphilosopher.wordpress.com, which features Stoic and literary ideas as a guide to living.