Welcome back to Douglas Murray’s Sunday column, Things Worth Remembering, where he presents passages from great poets he has committed to memory—and explains why you should, too. To listen to Douglas read part of John Keats’ indelible poem “Ode to a Nightingale,” click below:
Not all poets have the Icarus-like reputation of Lord Byron and his contemporaries. The Romantic poet William Wordsworth, for instance, lived a long and successful life until dying at age 80 in the picturesque Lake District of England. But for most of the great English poets of the early nineteenth century it was the case that they shone bright, aimed high, and burned up.
They also understood all the trials and tribulations of the human experience. This is especially true of John Keats. Just one example is Keats’ ode “To Autumn,” which is practically a transmutation of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 97. As the great Shakespeare scholar Helen Vendler has noted, it is as though Keats breathed in the Bard, and then breathed him out again.
Born in 1795, Keats did not have the social and financial advantages of Byron. Nor did he have his toughness of spirit. Keats was the most delicate of souls.
At the age of 14, he was apprenticed to a family doctor. Soon, he was in the center of London, studying at Guy’s Hospital. There, his work included the dissection of corpses often brought to the hospital by grave robbers. The idea of Keats holding the scalpel to a corpse is painful, for everything fell exceptionally hard on him. He was one of those people born with one less layer of skin than everyone else.
This showed most when he turned to literature, in the content of the work and his reaction to its reception.