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"Half In Love With Easeful Death"

by J.H. Hacsi


John Keats, today celebrated as one of the world’s greatest romantic poets, lived under constant stress and died when he was twenty-five.

He was born on October 31, 1795, the oldest of four children. His father was killed in a riding accident when John was seven and his mother Frances died of tuberculosis when he was thirteen. The four young orphans lived with their maternal grandmother. At school John was not known for being scholarly but as a brawler, even though he was barely five feet tall.

In 1817 he published his first book of poetry, Poems. The critics disliked the book, which sold poorly, and a series of personal attacks against Keats followed.

When his grandmother died, Keats became the overseer for his younger brother Tom, who had TB. After he’d finished his first long poem, Endymion, he developed a persistent cough, the first sign that he too might have TB.

When Endymion was published, it was critically attacked. John became his brother’s caretaker until Tom died in December 1818, when John was twenty-three.

Keats then became a paying lodger with his good friend Charles Brown. There he lived next door to a young woman named Frances (Fanny) Brawne, who lived with her mother. Keats became obsessed with the flirtatious Fanny, which kept him in a constant state of frustration and vexation. When he received word that his beloved Fanny had attended a party and dance without a chaperone, he was beside himself with rage and jealousy. His friends uniformly disapproved of Fanny and hoped that Keats would break from her. Instead the two became engaged.

Keats was beset with endless financial worries. When his grandmother’s estate was settled, most of the money went to his younger brother George, who was married and lived in America.

The following January George visited from America and asked his older brother for a loan. Keats made the loan and then complained bitterly to his good friend Charles that his brother ought not to have asked.

Keats knew that he had to succeed in his literary career to have any hope of marrying Fanny, but after the way the critics had savaged his work, what chance was there of that?

On February 3, 1820, Keats experienced his first lung hemorrhage. He calmly reported to his friend Charles that this meant he had tuberculosis and would soon die. Later that night Keats suffered a second, far more serious hemorrhage and Brown summoned a surgeon, Dr. Rodd, who bled his patient and prescribed a near starvation diet for him, the standard medical treatment at that time.

A new book of poems was printed. To Keats’ surprise and delight it was met with positive critical reviews and sold well. Despite this, he wrote Fanny, “Indeed I should like to give up the matter at once – I should like to die. I am sickened at the brute world which you are smiling with.”

Keats was being advised by his doctor and by numerous friends to travel to Italy for a cure. He was reluctant to leave his beloved Fanny, yet knew this might be his only hope. Joseph Severn, a man of instinctive kindness, accompanied Keats. Traveling with Keats, Severn soon felt distressed by the intensity of Keats’ feelings. He came to believe that Keats’ health problems were caused by his unhappy love affair with Fanny as much as by a physical disease.

Arrangements had been made for Keats to be cared for by a Scottish doctor who practiced in Rome. Dr. James Clark was a kindly man but a wretchedly incompetent doctor. After examining his weak, coughing, feverish, emaciated patient, he proclaimed that the problem seemed to be in his stomach or possibly in his heart but not in his lungs.

He prescribed exercise, in particular horseback riding. Keats tried but, so weak he could barely stand up, sat in the saddle for only a few minutes. That night he hemorrhaged so Dr. Clark was called and bled him. The following day Keats suffered another hemorrhage so Dr. Clark bled him again. Clark was opposed to the use of painkillers and ordered Severn not to give Keats any.

More than once Keats expressed the wish to die. On February 23, 1821, he breathed his last.

In his poem Ode To a Nightingale written in 1819, before Keats had spit up his first drop of blood, he had penned the lines:

Darkling, I listen; and for many a time

I have been half in love with easeful death.

Keats was only one of many Romantics “half in love with easeful death.” The Romantic Age began as a rebellion against the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment, in rebelling against the church, had exalted reason. The Romantics rejected this glorification of reason, claiming that the philosophers of the Enlightenment were blocking emotion and creativity, turning man into an unfeeling robot, denying the importance of imagination, intuition, spontaneity and feelings. Keats cried out, “Oh, for a life of sensations rather than of thoughts.”

But a life of sensation had its limits too and all too quickly melancholy and a fascination with death became the order of the day. Youth was transient. Beauty fades. Everyone was doomed. Young men of fashion idealized pale young women who looked as though they were ill. Robust was out; frail was in. In response, young women stayed indoors, starved themselves and learned to faint. In the United States, Edgar Allen Poe wrote of “the terrible beauty of consumption.” His child bride Virginia had a complexion so pale it was described as “pure white,” or of “pearly whiteness,” which in her husband’s eyes made her look angelic. In literature, opera and paintings, an early death from consumption was romanticized.

And medical professionals helped their young patients toward their “easeful death” by bleeding them profusely and ordering them to starve themselves.

How many medical procedures that are prescribed for patients today will, in the future, be looked back upon as wrong-headed and harmful?

­­­_____

Excerpted from Plagues Past and Present, A Mind/Body/Approach by J. H. Hacsi. Paper, $14.

Available at Baker and Taylor, www.Amazon.com or on order from any bookstore.

J. H. graduated from the University of California at Berkeley, is a member of Phi Beta Kappa, and earlier in her life wrote short stories (over 200 published) and romance novels (eight published). Throughout her life she has been greatly interested in history and science, also the role of the mind and mysticism and has read widely in these fields. She is a widow with five sons and five grandchildren and lives in Claremont, CA.


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