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Posts Tagged ‘John Keats’

Writ in Water

February 23, 2016 | by

The enduring mystery of Keats’s last words.

Keats’s grave at the Protestant Cemetery in Rome.

Yet do I sometimes feel a languishment
For skies Italian ...

—John Keats, “Happy is England! I Could Be Content,” 1817

Among the dozens of fountains in Rome, the Trevi may be the most famous, but the Barcaccia in the Piazza di Spagna arguably has a lock on the most poignant. Commissioned in 1629, it sits at the foot of the Scalinata, or Spanish Steps, swarmed by hordes of tourists in high season. Boat shaped to commemorate the spot where, in the historic flood of 1598, the Tiber River reached its highest level and improbably deposited a river barque in the square, the Barcaccia now seems a light-hearted way station, an oasis on a hot Latin day.

But nearly two centuries ago, the fountain played a far different role for one particular admirer, a transplant from England who roomed in an apartment above the steps and listened incessantly to the murmurings of its waters. To this visitor, the Barcaccia was a temporary lifeline during a few dark winter months at the turn of 1821, as he coughed and spluttered his way to a tragically early death. That doomed young man, as devotees of English Romantic poetry know, was John Keats, and the apartment where the poet, barely twenty-five, breathed his last from tuberculosis, on February 23, 1821, is now the Keats-Shelley House, a meticulously kept museum and scholarly library founded in 1909. It’s there, in the room where Keats died, that you will find the key to a misapprehension—one could almost say a lie—about his life and death that has been promulgated, literally written in stone, since 1823. Read More »

Staff Picks: Dissent, Deprogrammers, Dogs

January 22, 2016 | by

Raymond Pettibon.

“This isn’t so much bad literature as boring literature. After all, what’s more exhausting than reading, time and again, experimentation you’ve come to expect?” This is Maggie Doherty in the latest issue of Dissent opining the commercialization and political equivocation of much contemporary literature. Her complaint stems from the gutting, over the past four decades, of federal arts agencies, namely the NEA and the NEH; as a result, artists and writers now must rely for their livelihoods on stultifying, increasingly corporatized universities and must heed the demand for marketable works of art. That the U.S. government doesn’t prioritize its citizens’ cultural life is hardly new information. But Doherty makes the significant argument that the contraction of patronage limits both the possibility for avant-garde work and the diversity—“racially, politically, and aesthetically”—of the artistic world. —Nicole Rudick

Raymond Pettibon is a longtime favorite here at the Review; his studio occupied the loft directly beside us at our old office on White Street, and a portfolio of his dog-themed art, “Real Dogs in Space,” was featured in (and on the cover of) issue 209. After attending the opening of his recent show at David Zwirner Gallery, I was intrigued, and very much surprised, to find a video of Pettibon discussing and reacting to the work of J. M. W. Turner, my all-time-favorite visual artist. In the video, part of the Met’s Artist Project series, Pettibon is measured, articulate, and engaging—which sits in stark contrast to his famously absurd social-media persona. —Stephen Andrew Hiltner Read More »

Ignorance Studies, and Other News

August 27, 2015 | by

An illustration of ignorance personified from an 1890 edition of Pilgrim’s Progress.

  • Literary fame has been a thorny thing more or less forever—according to Suetonius, Virgil sometimes ducked into buildings to flee his fans and the adulating masses. But what accounts for this celebrity, and what stokes its flames once a writer has died? Being struck down in your prime helps: that’s why we read Keats, who died at twenty-five, and not Barry Cornwall, who lived to eighty-six. All told, “an appetite for literary immortality, like the desire to read one’s obituary, poses sufficient challenge that a writer should concentrate on other goals.”
  • Today in etymology and the patriarchy: misogyny is a very old word, and sexism a fairly new one—in 1933, the Oxford English Dictionary defined it as “a sequence of six cards”—but despite their nuances, the two are coming to be used interchangeably: “Imputing hatred, which is what misogynist does, is an unnecessary step in a different direction … Misogyny isn’t merely a strong version of sexism. Some men go past stereotyping to contempt. Those calling out ‘misogyny’ everywhere do so with the aim of helping women, but overuse of a word weakens it. If speakers keep misogyny to its original and more powerful meaning, it will pack a greater punch, hopefully to land all the harder on the misogynists of the world.”
  • If we want to dispel ignorance, there’s one tactic we haven’t really tried yet: teaching it. Ignorance Studies could impart valuable lessons about human folly, in its many guises. “The study of ignorance—or agnotology, a term popularized by Robert N. Proctor, a historian of science at Stanford—is in its infancy … But giving due emphasis to unknowns, highlighting case studies that illustrate the fertile interplay between questions and answers, and exploring the psychology of ambiguity are essential. Educators should also devote time to the relationship between ignorance and creativity and the strategic manufacturing of uncertainty.”
  • Since The Corrections, published fourteen years ago, Franzen has assumed a role as our preeminent public moralist, following in the footsteps of Roth and Mailer where once he admired more fringe figures like DeLillo and Gaddis. “His new phase is marked by his conviction that novels be animated by causes … Franzen has always conceived of writing as a competition, with all writers everywhere, living or dead, aligned either with him or against him, or both at once. His critical writings often read like peace treaties or declarations of war, or like the posturings of a permanent undergraduate at pains to take a side. They frequently contain eccentric statements about what it means to read a novel.”
  • Charles Simic has been reading Charles Reznikoff’s long poem Testimony: The United States (1885–1915): Recitative, culled from thousands of pages of court records spanning three decades around the turn of the twentieth century: “I know of nothing like it in literature … what we have here is the first found epic poem. It certainly reads like one, with its huge cast of evildoers and victims, vast setting, and profusion of breathtaking stories. Murder, treachery, injustice, greed, foolishness, jealousy, rape, anger, revenge, marital squabbles, cruelty to children and animals, bad luck, and many other miseries human beings bring upon themselves and on their fellow men are all here to behold … It should not be surprising that Testimony is rarely assigned at our colleges and universities these days; it causes too much discomfort to those who prefer to know nothing about what goes on in the world. This may be precisely what Reznikoff intended with a book like this. Let whoever reads it be upset.”

Letters of Note

August 13, 2015 | by


Thomas Rowlandson, A Book Auction, 1810-15.

In his late twenties, my father was a habitué of the Charles Hamilton Autograph Auctions at New York’s Waldorf Astoria, where he would snap up anything that went unsold at the end of the day; in this way he earned the nickname The Vulture. Charles Hamilton himself was a noted signatures expert who had given testimony in a number of prominent forgery cases. His auctions were known for their quality and their miscellany, and for the personality of their proprietor. ‘‘Unless you have a soul made of solid lead,’’ he purportedly said, ‘‘your pulse quickens and your eyes brighten when you look upon something that a great man actually held and into which he put his personal thoughts.’’

My father, due to his own somewhat indiscriminate buying practices, ended up with a somewhat unfocused collection of bargains. He had some good pieces of ephemera—two tickets to Andrew Johnson’s impeachment, a dinner invitation from Thomas Jefferson—but he also had a single strand of John Keats’s hair. And then there were the ones that got away. There was that time Hamilton auctioned off Harry Truman’s World War I diaries, and the asking price was a bit high, and no one was allowed to inspect them before bidding, “and they might have been incredibly boring,” but still … Read More »

Hang Your Quiver on Your Wagon, and Other News

October 20, 2014 | by

An illustration of the Amazons from the Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493.

  • In 1882, Walt Whitman and Oscar Wilde spent an afternoon together. They had some homemade elderberry wine and talked about how to be famous.
  • And in 1817, Keats, Wordsworth, and Charles Lamb had dinner. Lamb said repeatedly, “Diddle idle don / My son John / Went to bed with his breeches on.”
  • Winning the Nobel Prize causes an intense, nearly insurmountable euphoria. But according to Patrick Modiano, there is one way to magnify this sensation: by having a family member who hails from the same country that gives the prize. “It gave me even greater pleasure because I have a Swedish grandson … It’s to him I dedicate this Prize. It is, after all, from his country.”
  • Historically, fiction has afforded writers the chance to break taboos—under the guise of the fictive, one can “talk about potentially embarrassing or even criminal personal experiences without bringing society’s censure on oneself.” So what happens when taboos fall away? “It could be we are moving towards a period where, as the writer ‘gets older’ … he or she finds it increasingly irrelevant to embark on another long work of fiction that elaborately reformulates conflicts and concerns that the reader anyway assumes are autobiographical. Far more interesting and exciting to confront the whole conundrum of living and telling head on, in the very different world we find ourselves in now, where more or less anything can be told without shame.”
  • The sexual congress of the Amazons “was robust, promiscuous. It took place outdoors, outside of marriage, in the summer season, with any man an Amazon cared to mate with … The sign for sex in progress was a quiver hung outside a woman’s wagon.”


The Vale of Soul-Making

July 25, 2014 | by

How Keats coped with fever.


Tuberculosis seemed to pursue Keats his whole life.

In 1821, three months after he learned of Keats’s death, Percy Shelley wrote Adonaïs: An Elegy on the Death of John Keats, in which he described the poet as a delicate, fragile young flower of a man:

Oh gentle child, beautiful as thou wert,
Why didst thou leave the trodden paths of men
Too soon, and with weak hands though mighty heart
Dare the unpastured dragon in his den?

That dragon was a cruel critic who had mocked Keats’s literary ambitions—John Gibson Lockhart, who, writing under the pseudonym Z, had scolded Keats as if he were a child, insisting in a review of Endymion that “it is a better and a wiser thing to be a starved apothecary than a starved poet; so back to the shop, Mr John, back to the ‘plasters, pills, and ointment boxes.’ ” Lockhart had classed Keats among the Cockney School of politics, versification, and morality, known—at least by readers of Blackwood’s Magazine—for its “exquisitely bad taste” and “vulgar modes of thinking.” In Shelley’s formulation, it was this bad review that sent Keats to an early grave, and gazing back through history, one begins to accept this two-part narrative of Keats’s legacy. The fallen poet had lived a life of abstractions—he was not only an aesthete, but the aesthete—and he had been, as Byron quipped, “snuffed out by an article,” too beautiful and frail for this harsh world.

But Keats was immersed in the realities of life; his poetry and letters reveal an allegiance to radical politics as well as a concern with economic and scientific issues. Far from childlike and apolitical, he’s now thought of as having been “dangerous … a poet who embodied and gave voice to the anxieties and insecurities of his times … a poet whom the establishment would be obliged to silence,” as the scholar Nicholas Roe puts it. We often overlook, for instance, that Keats spent six years studying medicine, successfully earning a license to practice in London from the Society of Apothecaries—hence Lockhart’s insult about the “plasters, pills, and ointment boxes.” To think that he was “snuffed out by an article” trivializes the intense pain he experienced as his lungs were slowly consumed by tuberculosis, robbing him of his work, his love, and his life at the age of twenty-five.

The myth of the frail genius is attractive, even to contemporary readers, because of its quintessential Romanticism. But the truth is that Keats’s writings—especially when they seem fanciful or escapist—are grounded in real-world concerns. And nowhere is this more evident than in the letters and poems of his that deal with feverish suffering. Read More »