Keats’ Consumption and the Poetry Produced
La Belle Dame Sans Mercy is a poem wrapped around the concept of a luring death, a coming death. This is, along with much of Keats poetry, due to the outbreak of Consumption within his family, even within himself. In this poem in particular, the concept of love being taken by death, and how something so beautiful will be quickly and inevitably revoked, is painfully present. Keats had these thoughts but it seemed that the poems which he wrote were his one outlet for the internal misery consuming him.
It can be seen in his poetry that he was absolutely plagued by the thought of death, such as in the lines from La Belle Dame Sans Mercy: “I saw pale kings, and princess too,/ Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;/ Who cried ‘La belle Dame sans mercy/ Hath thee in thrall” (Keats)! But, when looking upon the letters he wrote to his friends and family, it is seen that, while he was continually harassed by the plagues of death, he only allowed himself to be positive towards those around him. Biographer Sidney Colvin wrote that “He lets her [Fanny Keats] perceive nothing of his anxieties, and is full of brotherly tenderness and careful advice” (Colvin). Keats wrote to his sister long after he was on the downward slope of the disease, and yet his letters were continually optimistic, even if transparent in their presentation. “My dear Fanny – I have been slowly improving since I wrote last. The Doctor assures me that there is nothing the matter with me except nervous irritability and a general weakness of the whole system” (Keats). At the point which he wrote this letter, there was much more wrong with him, and everyone would have known it, but he refused to show, or at least his letters indicated such, that he was anything other than curable.
He only confided his deepest issues and fears with a select few, one of those being Joseph Severn, the man who cared for him on his death bed and who was with him at the end. He confided his fears in him, and Keats even gave Severn a bottle of hemlock and asked him to feed it to him when the pain started to come so that he would not have to live through death the way he saw his other family members suffer. Severn does not do this, but it is worth noting since it is one of the few things that Keats admits to another person not without the use of poetry. The hemlock he gave Severn was also used in his poetry; it was mentioned in his Ode to a Nightingale.
That bottled emotion was probably a fuel for such poems like his Odes and the final few poems such as La Belle Dame Sans Mercy. The love and the internal struggle which dealt with more than just physical death that shines through in La Belle comes from his meeting of a lady named Fanny Brawne. She would be his final love; that one emotion he carries into death. He writes to her on October the 13th of 1819, “My love has made me selfish. I cannot exist without you” (Hirsh). It is ironic, and he probably knew it, that he thought this way, because the issue was that he in fact could not live with her, for he would be dead within a few years. That is where La Belle Dame Sans Mercy is so potent. After he has realized that hope is all but extinguished, there is nothing left for him to do but wait.
But as he live in waiting for death, he wrote of it and of the pain leaving love brought upon his being. “I see a lily on thy brow,/ With anguish moist and fever dew;/ And on thy cheek a fading rose/ Fast withereth too” (Keats). The title means “The beautiful lady without mercy,” and so he is talking to death, and to life, for they are taking away the lady that he does find beautiful. It is the same loss that he mentions in his On Seeing the Elgin Marbles: “My spirit is too weak – mortality/ Weighs heavily on me like unwilling sleep,/ And each imagined pinnacle and steep/ Of godlike hardship tells me I must die/ Like a sick eagle looking at the sky” (Keats). In all of these poems he screams that he is not ready to leave behind such beauty, that he has so much more to live although he knows it is not his lot in life to do so.
And though he wrote these in life looking onto death with a sense of loathing and fear, he did die, and it was not a welcoming death. Severn wrote of Keats final moments: “The phlegm seem’d boiling in his throat, and increased until eleven, when he gradually sand into death, so quiet, that I still thought he slept” (Colvin). His death is just a part of what can make his poetry that much more meaningful, though. His poetry fights what he didn’t want to fight, but he ended up fighting it to his death. He died at the age of 25 in Rome, away from all of those he loved, and he left all those he loved.
- Hirsch, Edward (Ed.) Complete Poems and Selected Letters of John Keats. Random House Publishing. 2001.
- Colvin, Sidney. John Keats: His Life and Poetry, His Friends Critics and After-Fame. London: Macmillan. 1917
- Keats, John. Letters of John Keats to his Family and Friends. Sidney Colvin. Gutenberg EBook. 2011.
- Rossetti, William Michael. Life of John Keats. Gutenberg EBook. 2010.
- Dettmar, Kevin; Damrosch, David; Manning, Peter; Wolfson, Susan. The Longman Anthology of British Literature. Fifth Edition. The Romantics and Their Contemporaries 2A. Pearson Education, Inc. 2012.
- Global Photography. Sherry Ott. http://www.ottsworld.com