I’m currently doing some research at work, learning about some of the great writers over the years. And the story of John Keats has to be one of the most humbling ones that I’ve yet come across. He once had to decide between being a surgeon or a poet, and being a poet was–and still would be–the less “sensible” option.
Surgeons save lives, and they generally make a good living at it. Poets, on the other hand, don’t always know where their next meal is coming from. And so it was with Keats, who was forever in debt and never made any money at doing what he did. To make matters worse, his health was bad; so much so that he passed away at the age of 25. I can scarcely imagine what two and a half decades–and no more–would be like.
But what struck me, in the Wikipedia entry that taught me more about Keats than all of the formal schooling I ever had, was his near obsession with beauty. “A thing of beauty is a joy forever” may be the most well-known words that he wrote, followed by “Beauty is truth, and truth beauty. That is all you know on this earth, and all ye need to know.”
But it was a letter that Keats wrote to his friend Fanny Brawne, a year before he died, that really caught my eye. He seemed to be remorseful that he hadn’t done more with his life–and who doesn’t feel like that?–when he wrote the following words:
“I have left no immortal work behind me – nothing to make my friends proud of my memory – but I have lov’d the principle of beauty in all things, and if I had had time I would have made myself remember’d.”
Had Keats chosen a surgeon’s life for himself, I never would have heard his name, and I sure wouldn’t be writing about him right now. But since he went with what his heart wanted to do, he produced poetry that will live on for as long as anyone reads English verse. Nearly two centuries later, it’s safe to say that he did, in fact, leave behind some immortal work. Any of us should be so fortunate.