Very early in school, my first English teacher, Mrs Beatrice Hawkins introduced me to John Keats, as she taught me cursive writing, by making me repeatedly write “A thing of beauty is joy forever” in my four-lined notebook. Somewhere around tenth grade, my last English teacher, the formidable Mrs Krishnamurthy, taught us Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Ozymandias. It is a sonnet which is stuck in my head for its powerful message about the ravages of time and the impermanent nature of legacies. To these two teachers should go the credit of introducing me to Romanticism in English poetry.
The first era of romantic poets included: William Blake, William Wordsworth, Samuel Coleridge and George Gordon. The second era poets include contemporaries: John Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Leigh Hunt and Lord Byron. My trip to Rome was incomplete last time. This time I had to go and visit the house where Keats died.
Now called the Keats-Shelley Memorial House, this pink building is located at the base of Spanish steps on its right. It houses memorabilia including letters and manuscripts from Keats, Shelley, Mary Shelley and Byron.
It was really interesting to learn that John Keats started off as a medical student at Guy’s hospital in London. He had reached almost the training stage of becoming a house surgeon, when the encouragement from his poet friends, Shelley and Byron, led him to abandon medicine and shift to writing poetry. At almost at the same time, his health took a beating with pulmonary tuberculosis.
His first publication, ‘Endymion’, received savage reviews. He shifted to Rome and rented this house with his friend. He had terrible bouts of coughing up blood. What made matters worse was the standard treatment then offered for tuberculosis. He was put on a starvation diet and then given several sessions of ‘blood letting’. Unfortunately Keats died young- at the age of 25. When he died, he believed he was a complete failure- and that his poems had never been accepted. All the accolades came posthumously.
Shelley, who was in Pisa, when he heard of Keats’ demise, wrote ‘Adonais’ lamenting the loss of this young life. Shelley always believed that the failure of his books caused Keats’ death, rather than tuberculosis. Strangely Shelley died early too in a ship wreck and his decomposed body was discovered days after. The only way he was recognized was because of a copy of Keats’ book in his pocket.
As I sat in that chair in that massive library, breathing in the air that Keats would have breathed, I really wished some blessing from this sensitive poet would touch me, and I could escape medicine to start writing full time. But then, I saw a small sign which said that due to public health reasons then, all the furniture from Keats room was burned down after his death. And the doctor in me took over the writer!