Despite Dying at 25, Here’s How This Poet Wrote Some of the Best Poems in History
The importance of moving towards resistance, a lesson from the life of John Keats.
He was just 8 years old when he lost his father to a skull fracture in 1804.
Though his mother remarried almost immediately, she never quite got over the death of her husband. Her new marriage didn’t go so well and she died of tuberculosis seven years later.
This left John Keats the eldest child with his sister Fanny and his two brothers, George and Tom. Now responsible for his three siblings, Keats had to look for a way to make a living. He was taken out of school and apprenticed to a surgeon by his guardian, Richard Abbey. A career in medicine was a good way of assuring financial security, but at this point, Keats already developed a love for literature in school that would last throughout his 25 years of existence.
Though Keats took his medical training seriously, he dedicated his off hours to literature. Whenever he was free, he would return to his school library and read as many books as he could on poetry.
But at some point, he felt that he faced a stark choice — his medical training took up increasing amounts of his writing time, and he was increasingly ambivalent about his medical career. After 1817, he made a choice to devote himself entirely to poetry.
With more time on his hands, he became more focused and studious than ever before. And the more he read, the more his love for poetry grew.
After some time, Keats had a desire to try his hand on poetry. But when he started writing, he discovered a huge setback in his learning process — he had no instructor or group he could exchange ideas with and get feedback from.
To overcome this setback, he would have to read as many great poets as possible. He began to structure his writing to mimic the style of the writers he wanted to be like. Soon, he was creating verses in dozens, slowly but steadily getting better and discovering his own voice through the works of the writers he modeled himself after.
As his love for poetry grew, he needed to find better and harder challenges to help him master this skill that he loved so much. Next, he set out on a rigorous task to write a long poem of precisely 4000 lines. This poem, which revolved around the ancient Greek myth of Endymion, he decided, would be a test to his imaginative and inventive power.
For Keats, it was all about the tension and difficulty. To make this task even more rigorous, he set his deadline at an impossible seven months period, during which he would write fifty lines per day.
This task wasn’t just difficult, it made Keats hate his own writing. Just a few lines into writing the poem, he discovered another flaw in his prose — it contained too many unnecessary words (and clichés). Though it frustrated him that he wasn’t half as good as he’d fancied himself to be, he found solace in the fact that this exercise was helping him discover his flaws.
Despite the setback, he finished the poem. Though he considered Endymion to be a mediocre piece, the lessons he learned from the rigorous exercise will change his writing forever.
He had learned to never depend on how he felt to write. He now knew that no matter the mood he was in, what mattered was to get himself to start and continue writing. That the best ideas came when he was writing the poem itself. Not when he was sitting, ruminating over his inadequacies.
He had acquired the habit of writing quickly with intensity and focus. He’d learned to write through drudgery, fishing out his own faults. Armed with these lessons from years practice and self-criticism Keats would go on to produce some of the most memorable poems and odes that would be talked about long after he was gone.
The years between 1818 and 1819, before Keats became gravely ill, became perhaps the most productive two years in the history of Western literature.
Though he died in Rome from a tuberculosis infection in 1821 (at an early age of 25), his reputation grew rapidly because of the magnificence of his writings.
As remarkable and outstanding as it is for John Keats to leave a mark in the history of English literature despite been alive for just 25 years, his story isn’t one of a “genius child” destined for greatness. In fact, in his school days, he was referred to as “a pugnacious lad” and was “decidedly” non-literary because of his low performance.
It wasn’t until 1809 that he actually made a decision to read voraciously, transforming himself through rigorous self apprenticeship.
His transformation came more from determination and a willingness to endure drudgery, than, say, because he just loved it all the way. In fact, the best lesson we can take from the life of Keats is to always move towards the path of resistance in whatever we are trying to learn.
If you spot a weakness in whatever you’re doing, develop an exercise to counter that weakness. Maybe you’re used to writing only listicles, you can try your hand on longer form contents. Try reading philosophical books or something on biography, instead of studying the same subjects with the same ideas you are used to.
Maybe you’re like me, used to just staying quiet in meetings, not just because you love to listen, but because you are afraid of getting challenged. You can gradually learn to say what's on your mind as well.
It can be tempting to stick to what’s easy. I can attest that it’s very comforting to keep going over the same practices and ideas. We all have the urge to settle for what’s comfortable and familiar. But the tension from discomfort is precisely what’s responsible for progress and, consequently, greatness.
“If architects want to strengthen a decrepit arch, they increase the load which is laid upon it, for thereby the parts are joined more firmly together.” — Viktor Frankl
Source/further reading: John, Archibald. 1973. John Keats: Life and Death