December 18, 2009

Was Keats killed by a bad review?


John Keats tombstone

John Keats gravestone

Did a bad review kill John Keats? As a Wikipedia bio of the great poet observes, his friends were so certain of it that they defied his wish for his gravestone to read only “Here lies one whose name was writ in water” by having it actually read,

This Grave
contains all that was mortal,
of a
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
“Here lies One
Whose Name was writ in Water”

But Jessa Crispin at Bookslut points us to an in-depth report on the claim in the TLS by John Barnard. According to Barnard, Keats — who was indeed savaged by several leading critics of the day — “quickly developed a rational and dignified response to his critics” which he presented to friends and family, saying that he was unphased by bad reviews. But his publishers John Taylor and James Hessey worried about him, and a witness who spent time with Keats just before his death suggests that the poet suffered bouts of “sensative-bitterness” over the reviews. “Keats was,” concludes Barnard, “more uncertain, more deeply wounded, and more affected, than his admirers then, or subsequently, have been willing to admit.”

Dennis Johnson is the founder of MobyLives, and the co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House.