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No one’s life should be defined by the circumstances of their death. Even John Keats’.

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In his poem “Ode on a Grecian Urn” — which many of us perhaps first encountered in high school English class — John Keats asks readers to contemplate a different conception of time. The speaker is viewing an ancient urn on which there are designs of men and women who are chasing one another in a circle, playing instruments and surrounded by leafy fringes. He wonders about the story behind the designs, asking the urn about the figures. The urn provides no answers to his questions — but contemplating his connection with the ancient figures does provide access to a way of both stretching time out and reaching out across history.

Both the urn and the contemplation of it suggests timelessness, or, as Keats calls it, “slow time.”

Like much about Keats, this poem has a particular resonance today, given our own historical situation. Many of us find ourselves unable to do the things we once took for granted; our lives can seem like they are on pause or caught in a moment of extended suspension. Many of us may feel as though we’re operating in slowed-down time.

Keats, of course, resonates today for other reasons too: He died on Feb. 23, 1821, in Rome of tuberculosis, a respiratory infection that became an epidemic in Europe and the United States in the 19th century. After realizing in 1818 that he had likely contracted the disease, he had traveled to Rome for his health, far away from his loved ones who remained in England. There, he remained in quarantine for a while, as he felt his body getting weaker, before he eventually died.

It is hardly the sad, wilting Keats taught in high school English classes.

Keats still cuts a tragic figure — dying painfully young, at the age of 25, not many months after he had crafted some of the most finely wrought poems written in the English language. Understandably, the story of his early death has dominated his posthumous reputation; he remains for many a slight figure, forever in the grasp of the respiratory disease that killed him. Readers have often speculated that his extraordinary poems, like “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” were made possible by Keats’ confrontation with his own mortality. He was, after all, trained in the medical profession and had nursed his beloved brother as he first suffered and died of tuberculosis. And so, he recognized each of his own coughs as a potential symptom of the fatal disease.

But tempting as it is to believe that Keats’ life and work are defined by his understanding of his own pending mortality, as we approach the 200th anniversary of his death, his own words remind us that rather than the tragedy of Keats’ death, the hope found in his life speaks most powerfully.

For the past six years, I have been involved in a project that has been digitally recirculating Keats’ letters on the anniversaries of the date they were first sent and asking scholars and poets to respond to them. The Keats that emerges from these letters is not a forlorn figure cut off in his prime, but an energetic, vital young man, hungry for the world and capable of imagining new ways to be in it.

The versions of Keats in which his early death retrospectively color the story of his life miss the pure joy of living exhibited in his extraordinary letters.

Many of us find ourselves unable to do the things we once took for granted; our lives can seem like they are on pause or caught in a moment of extended suspension.

They miss, for example, the more earthy and bawdy strain that runs throughout his correspondence; that is particularly vivid in a letter he wrote to his brothers, George and Tom, on Jan. 5, 1818. In it, he tells his brothers of a dance he attended, which involved some heavy drinking and some full-blooded conversation about toilets (as well as the derivation of various terms for genitals).

It is hardly the sad, wilting Keats taught in high school English classes.

That version also misses Keats’ endless punning and wordplay — his sheer sense of silliness and fun. In one letter, Keats writes, “I beg leaf to withdraw all my Puns — they are all wash, and base uns,” (a play on “washing basins,” for those unfamiliar with Victorian vernacular). In another, Keats writes, “I will not deceive myself that Man should be equal with Jove — but think himself very well off as a sort of scullion-Mercury or even a humble Bee,” providing both a word play of “humble” and “bumble bee” and an absurd conflation of the god Mercury with a scullery maid, and suggesting humans might think of themselves as lesser gods assigned menial tasks.

This silliness, though, can at times get serious. In one letter, Keats discusses his idea of “the poetical character.” The poetical character, he says, “is not itself — it has no self — it is everything and nothing — It has no character.” The name he gives to this absence of character is the “chameleon poet,” except he spells it “camelion poet,” meaning part camel, part lion. This is a serious discussion of what makes a good poet, but it’s also a bit of silly wordplay.

The inventiveness of wordplay enables Keats to make connections based on the sonic qualities of words that would not otherwise be visible. Wordplay may be silly, but it’s also important, especially if you’re a poet.

Keats’ constant invention is testimony to a joyful, exuberant mind, always looking for new ways to combine ideas.

To think of Keats as a “serious” poet always conscious of his mortality and always close to the point of death is not only to miss what makes Keats fun, but it’s also to misunderstand what makes him serious. He’s serious not in spite of the silliness, but because of it. His poetry is constantly approaching large philosophical ideas about the nature of beauty of truth, but he gets there through his experiences of being in the world, of tooling around early 19th-century London, living as fully — as funnily and as punnily — as he could.

This is why Keats is the poet we need for today: not because of the tragedy of his death, but because of the vitality of his life. Keats’ constant invention is testimony to a joyful, exuberant mind, always looking for new ways to combine ideas.

In his “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” the poem in which Keats stares most directly into the abyss of eternity, there is an image of two lovers on the side of the urn about to kiss. They are suspended in time; their lips are destined to never touch. Keats sees this, though, not as something to grieve over, but a cause of celebration. While the love will never be consummated, the female figure will always be beautiful, and the male will always be in love.

What matters, then, is not the length of time you have or our ability to suspend it, but how you fill the time you have. And there is ample evidence from Keats’ letters that he would have filled it with life, with energy and with fun — not, as we have often depicted him, with his wrist on his forehead in a sickly swoon.

https://www.nbcnews.com/think/opinion/no-one-s-life-should-be-defined-circumstances-their-death-ncna1258386

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