Portrait of John Keats, painted by Joseph Severn, who was with Keats when he died in Rome. Severn’s second son Henry Augustus (1833-83) worked in New Zealand as an examiner for the BNZ between 1870-78.
Bahar Parsaei is an aspiring Iranian-New Zealand writer and 13th grade student at Epsom Girls Grammar School, where she heads the writing committee.
17-year-old Auckland student Bahar Parsaei on John Keats, who died in a pandemic 200 years ago today
In the spring of 1819, a man is sitting in a small candlelit Space behind an old wooden desk. He is distraught and pale. He dips his pen in the ink and writes on the paper in front of him.
John Keats’ short life (born 1795, died 1821, exactly 200 years ago today) was full of horror and amazement. But he left such immortal poems as « La Belle Dame sans Merci » (The Beautiful Woman Without Mercy) – composed during a pandemic as widespread and deadly as Covid-19.
Tuberculosis was the cause of one in four Death in 19th century England. Keats’ mother died of tuberculosis in 1810 and eight years later she claimed his beloved brother, 19-year-old Tom. A year after Tom’s death, in 1819, doctors told Keats that he, too, was infected. In that year he composed « La Belle Dame sans Merci ». As academic Martin Earl noted, « Keats’ awareness of imminent death is written like code into the plight of a dying medieval knight, the main character of the poem. »
An examination of the text reveals connections between the knight in the poem and close to the dying Keats. In the first three stanzas of the poem, an anonymous person, the narrator, finds a dying knight in a gloomy meadow. It could be the end of autumn or the beginning of winter – « the harvest is done, » writes Keats, and « the sedge has withered from the lake ». A description of the knight corresponds to Keats’ physical condition. The nameless narrator says:
Symptoms of tuberculosis include fever, which makes the patient sweat profusely and visibly, just like the knight affected. Pale skin with weak red cheeks were also common symptoms. Keats likens the pallor of the skin and the blood flowing from the cheeks to a white lily and a fading red rose. During the 19th century, flower images were often associated with tuberculosis as they symbolized both the beauty and the sharpness of an early death.
The knight recounts his time with the beautiful lady and says he was completely fascinated by her . He says he « made a garland for her head » and that
reads like the knight is with her in spring or summer. Cases of tuberculosis often increased in winter and fall as the cold weather set in – and so did mortality. Spring and summer, along with their usual connotations of life and happiness, were seen as a break with the raging pandemic.
The beautiful woman could be real (the inspiration was Fanny Brawne, the great love of Keats’ life) or maybe a supernatural one Beings just as the knight had imagined. But it can also be argued that « The Beautiful Woman Without Mercy » is tuberculosis personified.
TB was a disease that killed millions of people. As it raged across Europe and England, it claimed the lives of many poets, composers, artists and writers and led to the misconception that the disease was from overwork or too emotional. The belief spread across Europe, even to the point where TB was labeled a « romantic disease », as some believed it only killed people who were overly emotional, such as poets. The physical symptoms of the disease gave patients a look of ethereal beauty, which inspired many works of art and poetry. In « La Belle Dame without Merci », Keats symbolizes TB as a beautiful femme fatale who heartlessly kills her lovers.
At the end of the poem, the knight is abandoned and sick. He has lost his meaning and now, as Martin Earl puts it, lives a « posthumous existence » – something that Keats would share after his death. He died virtually unknown in 1821 at the age of only 25. Now, 200 years after his death, people continue reading his poems and are amazed at his genius.
At least he is no longer « hanging around alone and pale ». The sedge hasn’t withered out of the lake and there are still birds that sing – even in a pandemic.
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