A Warning Note: The Danger of Reading Back into History:
Keats we certainly can read existential or existentialist themes in his Letters and to call him an existentialist is, of course, in no little sense true. I remember writing an article entitled Leabhar Iób agus Litríocht na Díchéile for Iris Leabhar Mhá Nuad way back in 1986 or so. That article emanated from a series of lectures I gave in Gaelic on the subject of The Book of Job and the Literature of the Absurd. The Professor who gave me the theme to explore, Rev. Professor Máritín Mac Con Mara, M.S.C., M.R.I.A, a scholar who possessed two Doctorates. had then enlightened me to the fact that the Old Testament, while being religiously inspired literature, was also full of human longings, sufferings and passions and that it thereby contained both existential and absurdist themes. He asked me to pursue these ideas for my lectures. Since then I have learnt to spot such themes in ancient, medieval and pre-modern literature. However, as a good philosopher and, I hope, a fairly rigorous thinker, I am wary of ascribing more modern motivations to these early writers. Yet, human yearnings and themes are both universal and boundless with respect to time, though the insights of various sciences both pure, social and psychological have added a much deeper understanding to the human quest since these authors first wrote their thoughts down on paper.
Emigration to America:
In a letter to Benjamin Bailey, dated 21, 25 May, 1818, Keats writes that his brother George had been "out of employ," which is a lovely phrase for the sad reality of what we now term "unemployed" or "jobless." This letter reads like a letter or e-mail anyone of us would write to a friend in these harsh economic times. Let us listen now to the poet's words:
...it [being unemployed] has weighed very much upon him, and driven him to scheme and turn things over in his Mind. the (sic) result has been to emigrate to the back settlements of America, become farmer (sic) and work with his own hands after purchacing (sic) 1400 Acres of (sic) the American Government. (Letters of John Keats, Gittings, p. 97)Depression mixed with Anxiety or Angst:
In this same letter he talks about being quite depressed, and to be suffering from what he terms "the pain of existence" (Ibid., p. 97) Could one pick a more existential phrase? Let's listen to the young poet once again:
However I am now so depressed that I have not an Idea to put to paper - my hand feels like lead - and yet is is and (sic) unpleasant numbness it does not take away the pain of existence. (Ibid., p. 97)The only comfort the poet sees now is that of "throwing oneself on the charity of one's friends." (ibid., p. 98) That Keats had a great number of friends and that he had a great capacity for establishing friendships goes almost without saying. I have always marvelled at the levels of intimacy reached in the letters of the 17th, 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, especially between men who seemed to have done most of the writing. Of course, society had not deemed it fit during those centuries to educate the fairer sex to the standards that it educated its male counterpart.
Suffering and Loss and Love of Family:
I have two Brothers one is driven by the "burden of society" to America the other (sic), with an exquisite love of Life, is in a lingering state - my love for my Brothers from the early loss of our parents and even for earlier Misfortunes has grown into an affection "passing the Love of Women"... Life must be undergone and I certainly derive a consolation from the thought of writing one or two more Poems before it ceases...(Letter to Benjamin Bailey, 25-27 June 1818, ibid., p. 99-100)In this letter one can feel his heartfelt love for his family, and he does also mention his love for his sister Fanny to whom he also wrote many letters. However, one can feel his deep existential angst at the pain of life in the words and phrases: "Misfortunes," "Life must be undergone" and how one brother is "in a lingering state" of health while the other is "driven" to America.
Keats the Walker/Hiker:
|Robbie Burns 1759 – 1796|
THE TOMB OF BURNS
The town, the churchyard, and the setting sun,
The clouds, the trees, the rounded hills all seem,
Though beautiful, cold - strange - as in a dream
I dreamed long ago, now new begun.
The short-liv’d, paly summer is but won
From winter’s ague for one hour’s gleam;
Through sapphire warm their stars do never beam:
All is cold Beauty; pain is never done.
For who has mind to relish, Minos-wise,
The real of Beauty, free from that dead hue
Sickly imagination and sick pride
Cast wan upon it? Burns! with honour due
I oft have honour’d thee. Great shadow, hide
Thy face; I sin against thy native skies.
This poem appears in a letter he wrote to Tom Keats, the brother whom he nursed on his deathbed and from whom he caught TB also, dated 29 June, 1,2 July, 1818. The line "all is cold Beauty; pain is never done" is exceedingly stark and moving. John Keats knew that his young life would be snuffed out early enough. After all he had trained as an apprentice Doctor and was a fully qualified apothecary. Once, like Tom before him, he had begun to spit up blood, to knew all too well that his days were numbered.
John Keats died when he was only twenty-five, an age at which Wordsworth had still not begun to write the poems for which he is known today. The brevity and intensity of Keats's career are unmatched in English poetry. He achieved so much at such a young age that readers have always speculated about his potential had he lived to reach artistic maturity. That his letters are filled with such profundities and rich insights into all facets of human life as I have outlined in this and previous posts is a fact that also beggars credulity. That such a young man could have achieved such depth of character, insight and skill is surprising. Yet how much of his profundity was deepened and sharpened by the shadow of his own imminent death which hung over him like a shadow? Some insights into to his life can be accessed here: JK.