It’s a common trope that poets often die young, although for every poet who didn’t live to see their thirtieth year, we could name many more who lived to a ripe old age: William Wordsworth, Alfred Tennyson, Robert Frost. Nevertheless, the idea of the poet is frequently bound up in the popular consciousness with an early death. Below, we introduce ten of the youngest poets to die before their time. All of the following poets died in their twenties or early thirties, and one died even before reaching the age of 18.
Thomas Chatterton. We begin this pick of famous poets who died young with a poet who didn’t even live to see his 18th birthday. Chatterton was born in Bristol in 1752, and was a precocious talent; unfortunately, a good deal of his talent was devoted to literary forgery. Having written a series of poems in fifteenth-century Middle English, Chatterton declared that they were the work of a medieval monk named Thomas Rowley, when in fact he’d penned them himself. When they were exposed as fakes and Chatterton had travelled to London to try to make his name as a poet, he became overcome by depression and poisoned himself. Wordsworth, Keats, and other Romantic poets paid tribute to him, and a celebrated portrait of him (for which the model was none other than the Victorian poet and novelist, George Meredith) helped further to cement the idea of Chatterton as the Romantic poet who died young.
Phillis Wheatley. The African-American poet Phillis Wheatley (c. 1753-84) – arguably the first African-American poet, since she died just eight years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence which made the United States its own nation – died in her early thirties, and although her precise year of birth is not known, she was probably not older than 31 when she died. But Wheatley was the first African-American poet to publish a volume of poetry: Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral appeared in 1773 when she was probably still in her early twenties. Wheatley had been taken from Africa to America as a young girl, but was freed shortly after the publication of her poems; the short poem ‘On Being Brought from Africa to America’ reminds her (white) readers that although she is black, everyone – regardless of skin colour – can be ‘refined’ and join the choirs of the godly.
Percy Bysshe Shelley. Shelley died in 1822 aged just 29, though unlike his friend and fellow second-generation poet Keats (see below), his death was due to ‘misadventure’ rather than illness: he drowned in a storm on the Gulf of La Spezia while returning from Livorno in his sailing boat, the Don Juan (named after the poem by his friend Lord Byron). In his short time on Earth, Shelley had got himself expelled from Oxford for writing a pamphlet in support of atheism, married Mary Shelley (who wrote Frankenstein, whose title character is thought by some to have been partly inspired by Percy), and written some of the most rousingly political poems of the whole Romantic movement.
John Keats. Keats is enshrined in the popular imagination as the archetypal poet who died young: indeed, after he contracted tuberculosis, he died aged just 25 in 1821. His poetry frequently sees him reflecting on the fact that he won’t live to see a ripe old age: see, for instance, his ‘Ode to a Nightingale’, which contains the famous lines: ‘Now more than ever seems it rich to die, / To cease upon the midnight with no pain …’
Emily Brontë. Although she’s best-known for her one novel, Wuthering Heights (1847), Brontë was also a fine poet, as these short poems demonstrate. Like her sisters and brother Branwell, Emily had been writing and inventing her own fictional worlds from an early age. None of the Brontë siblings lived to a ripe old age – their early deaths are thought to have been accelerated by the poor sanitation and water quality at Haworth, where they lived – and Emily died aged just 30 in 1848. It’s said that her dog, Keeper, followed her coffin to the grave when she died and, for weeks after, moaned and howled outside her bedroom door.
Rupert Brooke. Thought by fellow poet W. B. Yeats to be the handsomest young man in England, Brooke (1887-1915) died in April 1915, aged just 27, of sepsis from an infected mosquito bite. He never saw combat in the war he had so patriotically supported since enlisting in August 1914. You can read some of his best poems here.
Guillaume Apollinaire. One of the finest poets of the French avant-garde, Apollinaire died in 1918 during the Spanish Flu pandemic – indeed, he’s probably the most high-profile literary casualty of that pandemic. He was just 28 years old, but had lived to write some truly innovative and visually striking examples of concrete poetry. You can read his ‘Zone’ here.
Wilfred Owen. The greatest English poet of the First World War, and perhaps the greatest war poet in the English language, Owen died aged just 25 – the same age as Keats, whom he greatly admired – on 4 November 1918, just one week before the Armistice. Famously, and heartbreakingly, the telegram informing his mother that her son had been killed arrived at her house on the day that peace was declared, 11 November 1918. Owen’s poetry was a technical achievement many poets can only dream of pulling off, but to write such poetry from the trenches while still in his early to mid-twenties made Owen a rare and peculiar talent. You can read a selection of some of his greatest poems here.
Keith Douglas. The finest English poet of the Second World War, Douglas (1920-44) was just 24 when he died in the invasion of Normandy, three days after D-Day. His poetry, as Douglas himself acknowledged, was ‘only repeating’ what the First World War poet Isaac Rosenberg (who also died young) had said, although Douglas found a new way to say it. You can read his greatest poem here.
Sylvia Plath. As the case of Chatterton shows, poets don’t always die young because they contract consumption or die in wars; sometimes, they die by their own hand. The most famous modern example is Sylvia Plath, who had suffered from depression for many years of her adult life. In February 1963, during the coldest winter ever recorded in England, Plath – having separated from her husband Ted Hughes the previous year – turned on the oven in her London apartment, the place where Yeats had once lived, and committed suicide. She was just 30 years old. She left behind the poems which helped to consolidate her reputation as one of the greatest and most influential post-war poets; we introduce some of her poems here.