Saturday, January 24, 2009

A Thing of Beauty

"A thing of beauty is a joy forever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing."

John Keats

This morning, I've been thinking about one of the great poets of the early 19th century, John Keats.

His life was brief, only 25 years, and it was taken by tuberculosis, the same disease that took his mother when he was a teenager, then claimed the lives of his grandmother (who took custody of him and his siblings after his mother's death) and his brother.

Nevertheless, he was a prolific writer whose works influenced many of the great poets who followed in his footsteps, among them Alfred Lord Tennyson.

He was responsible for coining the phrase "A thing of beauty is a joy forever" in his poem "Endymion," a phrase that is often used by people who don't seem to know its origin or the story behind the man who wrote it.

Like many great writers, Keats' work was not appreciated during his life — the periodicals of his day frequently doled out harsh criticism for the words he chose or the often erotic imagery he employed.

One of Keats' contemporaries, Percy Bysshe Shelley, who also died before reaching the age of 30, believed Keats' death was brought about by blistering criticism of "Endymion" in an article that appeared in a journal of the day. Shelley's theory was mentioned indirectly in a poem by another contemporary, Lord Byron, who suggested that Keats had been "snuffed out by an article."

For his part, Keats' final request was to be buried beneath a grave marker that said only, "Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water."

He did not want his name to appear on his gravestone, but that wish was not entirely granted. In addition to what he requested, the marker also included the following as an explanation: "This Grave contains all that was mortal, of a YOUNG ENGLISH POET, who on his Death Bed, in the Bitterness of his heart, at the Malicious Power of his enemies, desired these words to be Engraven on his Tomb Stone."

His continuing influence on writers, from Tennyson to Kipling to Salinger to F. Scott Fitzgerald to Robert Frost, is a testament to what he wrote nearly two centuries ago. A thing of beauty truly is a joy forever.