O Solitude! – Remembering John Keats




O Solitude! if I must with thee dwell,
Let it not be among the jumbled heap
Of murky buildings; climb with me the steep,—
Nature’s observatory—whence the dell,
Its flowery slopes, its river’s crystal swell,
May seem a span; let me thy vigils keep
’Mongst boughs pavillion’d, where the deer’s swift leap
Startles the wild bee from the fox-glove bell.
But though I’ll gladly trace these scenes with thee,
Yet the sweet converse of an innocent mind,
Whose words are images of thoughts refin’d,
Is my soul’s pleasure; and it sure must be
Almost the highest bliss of human-kind,
When to thy haunts two kindred spirits flee


– ‘O Solitude!’, By John Keats, 1795-1821


Trying to juggle the poet/writer/artist within you along with the draining routine of a physician/future physician? Caught yourself looking for a pen and paper to immortalise the inspiration that struck you after witnessing a complicated surgical procedure? Stuck between the jargon defining the life of a medical student and that of an avid reader? Or fighting off the urge to gulp down another novel when there are pathologies to be studied for? John Keats, the famous poet, went through a similar anguish, we assure you.


A doctor-in-training who chose poetry over medicine, John Keats is celebrated as one of the main figures of the second generation of Romantic poets, along with Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley.


“Do you not see how necessary a world of pains and troubles is to school an intelligence and make it a soul?”
The above quotation, written by John Keats in a letter to his siblings, seems to serve as an accurate metaphor for his life. Facing many trials and tribulations during his childhood and his adult life, Keats used his experiences and knowledge to draft some of the most celebrated collections of poetry from the romantic period.
The eldest of three children, Keats was born in a relatively middle-class family, with his parents earning a living by managing a livery business. Having lost his father at the mere age of five, he lived with his maternal grandparents for some time as his mother nursed a period of depression after the failure of her second marriage. The death of his maternal grandfather, soon thereafter, triggered the start to much of the financial turmoil that haunted his life. A period of dark uncertainty followed due to the ambiguity in his grandfather’s will, and a long lasting fight took place over the shares of his estate; a battle that went on till after Keats’ own death. The children subsequently moved with their grandmother to a smaller house in Enfield, where Keats received most of his primary education. During this time, Keats suffered from major emotional turmoil due to the sad demise of both his mother and grandmother. Primary care of the children was then transferred to Richard Abbey, his grandmother’s estate executor, who was also currently in charge of the family finances. Abbey withdrew Keats out of school and placed him into an apprenticeship at an apothecary’s where he trained to become a surgeon, but before the year had ended, he announced to his guardian that he was resolved to be a poet and not a surgeon.


“Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter; therefore ye soft pipes play on; not to the sensual ear but more endear’d pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone.” – John Keats


It was then that he began writing at the age of nineteen. Despite the poor response received by his first published poem, ‘The Examiner’, Keats decided to leave medicine and pursue poetry; the support and belief of his few close friends encouraging him to take this life-changing decision. His first book, ‘Poems’, was published in 1817 while he lived with his brothers, but this too received little to no acclaim. Even when presenting it to Richard Abbey, Keats received mocking comments and no encouragement, yet he stuck to his path, not to back down. Shortly after publishing his first book, Keats began traveling;  a hobby that inspired much of his most celebrated writing. He began work on his four thousand line epic poem ‘Endymion’ while on his first tour across England. It was on this trip that Keats also met a number of people who would later become his good friends and play very important roles in his life, including Charles Brown, with whom he would live later, and Joseph Severn, who accompanied him on his last trip before his death. But in the final months of 1817, Keats had to return home to his brothers, to tend to his youngest brother Tom who was diagnosed with tuberculosis – the same disease that killed their mother and would subsequently kill Tom as well. Just as he had done with his mother, Keats spent days at his brother’s side, caring for the sick man until his last breath. It was during this time that Keats completed work on and published ‘Endymion.’ After Tom’s death, Keats moved in with his friend Charles Brown in Hampstead, where he met and fell in love with his neighbour, Fanny Brawne. This was the period that inspired perhaps Keats’ most creative work, including classics like ‘The Eve of St Agnes’, ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’, ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ and ‘To Autumn’. The group of five odes, which include ‘Ode to a Nightingale’, are ranked among the greatest short poems in the English language. However, in the following year, his creativity went down as his own problems increased. He and Fanny though engaged, never married, due to his own financial turmoils that persisted. It was in early to mid-1820 that Keats himself began to show the symptoms of tuberculosis, and was advised to travel to Rome as perhaps the warmer weather would help nurse him back to health. Leaving Fanny and the rest of his friends behind, Keats traveled with his friend Joseph Severn, but remained bed-ridden for most of the trip and subsequently died in Rome.


Having died a sad died, Keats, did indeed, leave behind a rich legacy for all future aspiring poets. Like all writers and poets, his greatest works too were the children of overwhelming loss, despair, and love.


About the authors:
An avid avoider of social interaction and the spectrum of human emotions, Maryam enjoys working out in her free time, a hobby that only comes second to her love of eating.
Our current Editor-in-Chief, Arfa, lives by the mantra: Robbins for breakfast, Rumi for lunch, ArfaMasihuddin.WordPress.com for dinner.





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