John Keats and the importance of finding happiness in miserable times

Volume 17

Updated 15 February 2022

By Lewis O’Brien

“Yet did I never breathe its pure serene/ Till I heard chapman speak out loud and bold:/ Then felt I like some watcher of the skies/ When a new planet swims into his ken”

On first looking into Chapman’s Homer

Never has John Keats’ optimism been more relevant than over the course of the pandemic. With the combination of restrictions on meeting the people that matter the most to us, unemployment and general stress on all walks of life, it’s fair to say it’s a period of our lives we can’t wait to leave behind. However, I think appreciating the stark contrast between the tragedy of Keats’ life and the beauty of his poetry can teach us not just how to cope with our current situation, but also for future similar stressful times that we may encounter. A type of self-help literature to drag us back up.

John Keats lived a relatively short life, despite producing the most innovative poetry of his era. With his expression of love, melancholy and sheer awe at the beauty of nature, it is hard to imagine how anyone could go through such personal tragedy and live in such a hostile world, yet still produce such hopeful literature. Unfortunately, it was only after he died that his work became as well loved as it is today and the pain which he must have felt was second to none.

Initially, his life started off well. Born in 1795 to a caring family, Keats’ family lived a comfortable lifestyle on a modest income. Although, it didn’t take long for tragedy to strike as by 1804, when Keats was only eight, his father died after falling from his horse. After the death of his father, his mother remarried but within months she had left him for another man, meaning that Keats and his three siblings had to live with their grandmother. This also saw the family’s financial situation in tatters with the loss of their fathers’ income, placing extra hardships on them.

It would be reasonable to assume from this point in the article and the fact that this is the tame part of his tragic backstory, that Keats fell into a slump from which he never truly recovered and would go onto write poems about death and the futility of life, correct?

On the contrary, these bleak events would only strengthen his passion for studying classics and draw him closer to the people he cherished most. He vented his loneliness by tenaciously studying at school and turned to literature to spiritually enrich himself and provide a healthy escape from the overwhelming stress in his life. Most evidently of course in Chapmans’ Homer, a poem emphasising the joy of finding literature that makes you just stop in sheer awe of it.

“Silent, upon a peak in Darien”

On first looking into Chapman’s Homer

In 1810, Keats’ mother died of tuberculosis (TB), the first of many in the family to do so. Aged 14, Keats left school to train to become a surgeon and moved into the attic above the surgery. However, the more he trained, the more financially and mentally draining the endeavour became and he decided to pursue his lifelong passion of poetry.

Moreover, the spark that lit the catalyst for change came in 1816, when Keats’ old teacher, John Clarke, introduced him to Leigh Hunt. This would prove to be a double-edged sword though. Whilst Hunt certainly set him on the right path, it was Keats’ association with him that tainted his professional image for the rest of his life.

Whereas Keats may be well known today as one of the best Romantic poets to have ever lived, at the time he was writing his best works, Conservative critics mocked his work due to his support of democratic reforms and progressive causes as well as his association with the politically radical Leigh Hunt. In addition, critics also lashed out against his lack of a prestigious education, as if it were an obvious indicator to the quality of his poetry.

In the latter years of his life, his situation gradually deteriorated. His brother caught TB and upon treating him, caught this fatal disease himself. Eventually, his brother died and as his health got worse, he had to separate himself from the people he cared about most, including the love of his life, Fanny Brawne (to which Bright star is dedicated to), whom he was prevented from marrying. He died in Rome in 1821, aged 25. Unsuccessfully critically and financially and faced with an early death for a simple show of compassion towards his family.

Within that context, he used his passion for literature not only to escape, but also to grow as a person and deal with an unimaginable level of anxiety running through his veins. Chapman’s Homer, Ode on melancholy, Bright star and sitting down to read King Lear are all poems full of hope in moments of emotional torture. Therefore, I believe Keats’ way of dealing with personal crises is something we can all learn from and adapt into our own lives. That it’s worthwhile to find the positive no matter how hopeless of a situation you are in.

Personally, reading has kept me sane throughout the pressures of the outside world and I feel the escapism which Keats describes in his poems. Furthermore, I think it’s essential to remind ourselves how important it is to just stop and indulge in this escapism and take better care of ourselves mentally. Appreciate the small accomplishment we make instead of getting bogged down in dread because we can’t achieve the impossible standards we set or feel like we need to live up to.

“When the melancholy fit shall fall/ Sudden from heaven like a weeping cloud, / … fosters the droop-headed flowers”

Ode on Melancholy

Further reading


John Keats - Poetry Foundation

Interesting facts - John Keats

Portrait of John Keats - National Portrait Gallery

Category: Modern