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Mental HealthArts

The Melancholic Poet: A Review of John Keats’ Poetry

As a writer, I’ve noticed that my writing is always influenced by my life experiences, even though I deliberately try to avoid that influence at times. Like many other writers, even those who aspire for objectivity, it’s impossible to avoid including some trace of my values or my biases. These seep into my writing subconsciously, whether I am crafting a fictional world or writing an essay on my political views. 

When it comes to writing poetry, mental trauma thus also has a way of manifesting itself in a writer’s poems. Literature classes often provide some background on the lives of certain authors so that you can make connections between their biographical information and the work they produced. For example, the tragic events in the life of John Keats (1795-1821) help explain some of the somber, often morbid, descriptions in his poetry. 

The Melancholic Poet: A Review of John Keats' Poetry

A portrait of John Keats, who was described as having auburn hair and large, expressive eyes. (Image Source: Wikimedia Commons).

Like many students, I learned about John Keats and other Romantic Era poets in high school. The Romantic Era was an artistic and philosophical movement in Europe that lasted approximately from 1800-1890 and that emphasized the importance of human emotions. There are a lot of common themes that you can observe in Romantic Era literature; and the glorification of nature and the past, especially medieval times, was a signature part of Romanticism. This was because the Industrial Revolution was happening at the same time in England, and the Romantic poets were concerned about the destruction of nature that would come as a result of scientific and technological advancement. They preferred an idealized version of the past, which they often depicted in their work. Their poetry also invoked dramatic emotions, such as love and melancholy. It spoke of drug use, especially opioids. 

The Melancholic Poet: A Review of John Keats' Poetry

Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog by Romantic Era Painter Caspar David Friedrich (1818). This painting demonstrates the power of nature, a topic of fascination for all kinds of Romantic Era artists. (Image Source: Wikimedia Commons).

And it often exotified and romanticized Asian cultures without understanding them, something which has been very heavily criticized by intellectuals, such as Edward W. Said in his book Orientalism. The Romantics often did not understand the diversity of eastern cultures and tended to homogenize them. They also did not view the Middle East or Far East as dynamic and ever-changing just like Europe, and instead clung to a fixed and antiquated view of what it was like in the past. 

The Melancholic Poet: A Review of John Keats' Poetry

The Snake Charmer by French Romantic Era painter Jean-Léon Gérôme (1879) Romantic Era paintings often exotified eastern cultures without understanding them and are now controversial for being inaccurate depictions. (Image Source: Wikimedia Commons).

Many of the signature hallmarks of Romanticism are found in the work of Keats, who I consider to be my favourite Romantic Era poet.  

Keats’ short life was full of tragedy. By the time the poet was fifteen, his mother and his brother Tom had died of tuberculosis, which would later claim Keats’s own life as well. This thoroughly disturbed him, and he became a hypochondriac mired in anxiety as a result. In a letter from March 1820 addressed to his lover, Fanny Brawne, Keats writes, “My Mind has been the most discontented and restless one that ever was put into a body too small for it.” This was most likely a result of the trauma he faced, having witnessed death so many times. 

Keats never married Fanny Brawne, as her family did not approve of him. He was financially unstable, and becoming a poet didn’t help his prospects. As we all know, being a writer is not the most lucrative career. After nursing his dying mother, he decided he wanted to study under the apprenticeship of a surgeon-apothecary and enter a medical career. But he eventually found his work as a surgeon to be emotionally unbearable and decided he could do the world more good as a poet. 

Many people still turn to his poetry centuries later to be consoled by his words. As I am bored and lonely right now during the COVID-19 lockdown, I decided to revisit my copy of the Complete Poems and Selected Letters of John Keats. These poems sparked my interest in poetry in Grade 10, when I first read them. Many of them, miserable and depressing, have helped me through times when I struggled with my mental health and I enjoyed returning to them during this difficult time. 

The Melancholic Poet: A Review of John Keats' Poetry

A book that I highly recommend for quarantine reading. (Image Source: goodreads.com)

Ode on Melancholy was a poem that I found particularly moving. Its title contains one of my favourite words — “melancholy,” an old-fashioned term for depression. Even though it means something so sad, the word sounds beautiful in its own way. The poem is lyrical, and there are plenty of allusions to classical mythology, but I still find that the language is accessible. The great thing about poetry is that it is not necessary to understand every single word in a poem to feel the mood that is being communicated. 

I love how a depressive episode is described so accurately in the lines “But when the melancholy fit shall fall/ Sudden from heaven like a weeping cloud.” These lines are two hundred years old, yet they are still relatable to me today. Keats then goes on to suggest that nature has healing powers that can help one cope with melancholy. He writes “Then glut thy sorrow on a morning rose.” I know, as someone who has struggled with depression and with self-esteem issues, that it can be really frustrating when someone tells you to go out in nature as if it’s a cure when what you probably need is a combination of medication and therapy. But in the time period in which Keats lived, there weren’t many alternatives to using nature to calm your mind.

The Melancholic Poet: A Review of John Keats' Poetry

“Glut thy sorrow on a morning rose.”

In the poem, melancholy is personified as a goddess. This suggests that the state of melancholy is worthy of praise in some way. I found myself trying to visualize what she must look like in the lines “Ay, in the very temple of Delight/Veil’d Melancholy has her sovran shrine.” The part that immediately follows reveals the theme of the poem: “Though seen of none save him whose strenuous tongue/Can burst Joy’s grape against his palate fine.” This suggests that beauty can be found even in the most miserable times. Joy and melancholy are not opposing forces, but rather inextricably linked so that you can not understand one without knowing the other. A poet, or some other kind of artist, can find inspiration from melancholy so that something beautiful can even come out of sadness.

Perhaps you may criticize Keats, or Romanticism in general, for glamorizing mental health issues. After all, didn’t he personify depression as a goddess? Yet to his contemporaries who were also suffering emotionally, Keats demonstrated the healing power of the arts. Even today, not everyone has access to mental health resources, counselling, or medication. Reading poetry written in an accessible language that speaks of similar situations as the ones they are going through makes people feel less alone, which can be an empowering feeling. Some poets whose work I read makes me feel understood. It may not be the cure for mental health issues, but I believe that it can be a start on the journey to healing and recovery. 

The Melancholic Poet: A Review of John Keats' Poetry

John Keats’s grave in Rome, Italy, where he went to before he died hoping that the warm weather may prolong his life. (Image Source: The Paris Review).

John Keats died of tuberculosis at the age of 26 in 1821. His simple grave bears the epitaph “Here lies one whose name was writ in water.” This represents a fear that many artists have. It’s not just the fear of death, but the fear of dying without accomplishing their creative goals. Yet, instead of having anxiety about the uncertain future, it may be better to try appreciating the present moment, as Romantic era poets did in their poetry about nature. And if you have a cloud of melancholy looming over your head, take things one day at a time.

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The Melancholic Poet: A Review of John Keats' Poetry
she/her| UofT linguistics/literature student | lifelong learner