John Keats, the great Romantic poet, died in Rome on February 23, 1821 at the age of only 25. There appear to be many causes for his untimely death (including mercury poisoning) but tuberculosis, or consummation as it was then called, seems to be the proximate cause.
Keats’s poetry was not well received during his brief lifetime. In fact his long poem Endymion had received a scathing review in the Quarterly Review at the same time as his final illness began, leading his rival Lord Byron to joke on hearing of his death that Keats had died from a bad review.
After Keats’s death his friend Percy Bysshe Shelley published an elegy, Adonaïs, which paved the way for the Romantic notion of the poet as a tragic artist:
“The loveliest and the last,
The bloom, whose petals nipped before they blew
Died on the promise of the fruit.”
Keats himself took a pessimistic view of his own work’s posterity, writing, when he was aware of his imminent death, that “I have left no immortal work behind me – nothing to make my friends proud of my memory – but I have lov’d the principle of beauty in all things, and if I had had time I would have made myself remember’d. ”
After his death Keats’s poetry gained popularity at a steady rate. Today he is one of the most highly regarded poets in the English literary tradition. He only wrote 55 poems in his life but many of them are well-loved today: “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” “The Eve of St. Agnes,” “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer,” “Ode to a Nightingale,” “To Autumn,” and many others.
Keats himself came from a middle-class Cockney family and was orphaned while young, but he did manage to train for a medical career at Guy’s Hospital in London and to qualify as a “surgeon,” or what we would now call a general practitioner.
Keats often called himself a “physician-poet” and was by all accounts a talented doctor. That makes his own badly bungled treatment by his own doctor, James Clark, which included bleeding and doses of mercury, all the more surprising. In fact some recent biographers have claimed that Clark’s barbaric and unscientific treatments did more to prolong Keats’s agonizing death than to do him any good at all.
Despite what the Romantic figure of the suffering artist may have become, there was nothing at all romantic about the horrific final years of Keats’s short life.