I was 17 when I finished reading the letters of John Keats for the first time. It was a warm summer evening and I was lying in bed with the volume I’d chosen, rather at random, for my school’s Soulsby Prize in English 1967–8 – as the bookplate tells me today.
Tears poured down my face. I ran to my mother’s bedroom. ‘Mum, Mum, Keats is dead! He’s dead.’ I sat on her bed. She looked up from her thriller. ‘Well darling, it was a long time ago,’ she said mildly. My father had died the year before. I daresay that may have muted the impact of Keats’s demise for her. But for me, who had steadfastly refused to think about my father’s death, preferring to concentrate on English literature and a possible escape route to Oxford, it was overwhelming. He was so young, he was so loveable, his poetry was so full of life. Above all, he was so real. How could he be dead?
Tears still come to my eyes as I read the final letters in Frederick Page’s 1954 selection for Oxford University Press. In 1821 Keats, not yet 26, was dying and far from home, having just produced some stunning poetry yet never having made love to his sweetheart, Fanny Brawne. He writes, wrenchingly, to his friend Brown, ‘I should have had her when I was in health and I should have remained well. I can bear to die – I cannot bear to leave her.’
Of course, I now know that there are other letters which Page did not select, showing Keats in an altogether more lusty light; that Keats had probably had sexual relations at least once, even if not with his true love; that the world is monstrously unfair in more ways than the deaths of youthful poets. But I still weep for Keats, even though I have now seen two of my sons pass the age at which he died.
The story of the letters opens in 1816 when Keats, nearly 21 and living with his two brothers in rented rooms in London, writes to Charles Cowden Clarke, son of the headmaster of Clarke’s School, where Keats had had a happy e
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