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  • Richard Farr

Feb. 23, 1821. Definitely not writ in water.

John Keats died of tuberculosis in Rome, aged 25, two hundred years ago today. Requiescat in pace.

Whenever I think of famous dead writers, I'm always drawn to the lines or phrases that make me seethe with the emotion peculiar to all lesser writers - that familiar mix of admiration, gratitude, and stark envy:

O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms / Alone and palely loitering? / The sedge has withered from the lake, / And no birds sing.
My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains / My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk, / Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains / One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk.
Save me from curious Conscience, that still lords / Its strength for darkness, burrowing like a mole; / Turn the key deftly in the oiled wards, / And seal the hushed Casket of my Soul.
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies / When a new planet swims into his ken; / Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes / He star'd at the Pacific—and all his men / Look'd at each other with a wild surmise— / Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

Some of the poems, especially Ode on a Grecian Urn, remind you of Hamlet - ever darned line's a butter-fat quotation:

Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness! / Thou foster-child of Silence and slow Time
What men or gods are these? what maidens loath? / What mad pursuit?
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss, / Forever wilt thou love, and she be fair!
Cold Pastoral! / When old age shall this generation waste, / Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe / Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st, / “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

I can never think of him without remembering my father, who loved and often repeated the following class-in-the-British-Army joke:

Colonel to Sergeant-Major: "One of my old friends is coming down from Oxford, and he's offered to give the chaps a talk on Keats."
Sergeant-Major to the ranks: "Right, you 'orrible lot. The Colonel's got a friend coming to give us a talk, so I want you all there on time, smart as a button and boots polished. He's going to talk about keats. I bet none of you ignorant buggers even knows what a keat is.

Keats was so sure he would amount to nothing - an impression sedulously rubbed in by long-forgotten critics of the time - that his gravestone in the Protestant cemetery reads "Here lies one whose name was writ in water." What an irony that it's they who have been forgotten.

Palely loitering... foster child of Silence and slow Time... the hushed Casket of my soul. Oooh he was good. (And I really must get around to writing a novel with the title What Mad Pursuit?) Whatever he may have thought about his fame, or lack of it, for some of us the name is still plenty legible.

He died at a house next to the Spanish Steps. You can take a tour here:


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