The John Keats I love is not a “dainty sprite.” As poet and man, even after hours of violent hemoptyses, he is made of sturdier stuff. In 1816, Keats completed medical studies and acquired his Licentiate of the Society of Apothecaries. By the standards of his time and place, he was a family practitioner. Soon after his twenty-first birthday, Keats’ guardian, Richard Abbey, enquired after his professional intentions. “I mean to rely on my abilities as a poet,” he replied. “You are either mad or a fool to talk in so absurd a manner,” Abbey said. “My mind is made up,” Keats said, and he never practiced medicine. (John Keats, Robert Gittings, 1969).
No, the Keats I love is resolute, a magician with language, and a devoted brother. His finest work is in his letters. With his friend Charles Brown he left for a walking tour of the Lake District, Ireland and Scotland in June 1818, a journey that would last through August. On the way, Keats’ brother and his wife, George and Georgina, left them at Lancaster, headed for Liverpool, where they boarded a ship for America. The poet never saw them again. On the Isle of Mull, Keats caught a cold and concluded he was “too thin and fevered to proceed on the journey.” He returned home on Aug. 8 and resumed nursing his brother Tom, who died of tuberculosis on Dec. 1. John had already contracted the disease that would kill him in 1821 at age twenty-five.
With his sister Frances Mary, always known in the family as “Fanny” (1803-89), eight years his junior, Keats is always solicitous and amusing, the big-brother clown. On this date, July 2, in 1818, while in Dumfries, Scotland, he writes to her: “We are employed in going up Mountains, looking at strange towns, prying into old ruins and eating very hearty breakfasts.” No hint of illness or distress. This is no shrinking violet: “Mr. Abbey says we are Don Quixotes—tell him we are more generally taken for Pedlars. All I hope is that we may not be taken for excisemen in this whisky country. We are generally up about 5 walking before breakfast and we complete our 20 miles before dinner.” That evening, Keats writes his sister a singable sequence of nonsense verses, “a song about myself”:
“There was a naughty Boy,
A naughty boy was he,
He would not stop at home,
He could not quiet be—
In his Knapsack
Full of vowels
And a shirt
With some towels—
A slight cap
For night cap—”
Keats, no doubt, was amusing himself, but think of Fanny. Imagine getting such a letter from your brother, who is tramping somewhere in the pre-telephone North. Your parents are dead. One brother has left for America, another is dying of consumption. You don’t yet know that you will outlive all of them. For now, you know John is well enough to take the time to make you laugh. After the nonsense rhymes, your big brother adds:
“I am ashamed of writing you such stuff, nor would I if it were not for being tired after my day’s walking, and ready to tumble into bed so fatigued that when I am asleep you might sew my nose to my great toe and trundle me round the town, like a Hoop, without waking me. Then I get so hungry a Ham goes but a very little way and fowls are like Larks to me—A Batch of Bread I make no more ado with than a sheet of parliament; and I can eat a Bull’s head as easily as I used to do Bull’s eyes. I take a whole string of Pork Sausages down as easily as a Pen’orth of Lady’s fingers. Ah dear I must soon be contented with an acre or two of oaten cake a hogshead of Milk and a Clothes-basket of Eggs morning noon and night when I get among the Highlanders.”
What a shame Keats was never a father.