"I hope," he declared once, "I shall never marry. . . . The mighty abstract idea of beauty in all things I have stifles the more divided and minute domestic happiness." And even so late as September, 1819, he wrote: "Nothing strikes me so forcibly with a sense of the ridiculous as love. A man in love, I do think, cuts the sorriest figure in the world. Even when I know a poor fool to be in pain about it, I could burst out laughing in his face; his pathetic visage becomes irresistible."
And these views were sincere views; they remained with him till death. Although he fell in love himself, he was never proud of his devotion; he did not parade it before the world. He resisted love, but love mastered him. Then he yielded to it, but only as a man yields to a superior power. In theory love was to him a thing ridiculous; in practice he found it to be very wonderful, idealic. This is a fact which perhaps helps also to explain his reticence. Love for Fanny Brawne was the most precious gift the world had offered him. It was much too precious to be exposed to the public gaze. He but rarely mentioned its existence, therefore, even to his closest friends.
And Keats' devotion was not unreciprocated. Fanny Brawne, according to her own standard, loved him truly. But she was not a grande amoureuse, and she understood neither her poet lover nor his love. Of his greatness and his genius she, even she, was sublimely ignorant. She was merely a normal, healthy-minded girl. Her thoughts but rarely soared above her clothes and the pleasures of the moment, and she loved Keats, not because he was a poet, but simply because he was himself. Perhaps this was why he idolised her.
He was not a good-looking man, and was small of stature, but a charm of manner compensated for his physical defects. He was quite different from the other men with whom Fanny Brawne had come in contact. Frail, sensitive, and witty, he possessed a personality; it filled her with wonderment. The man interested her. She loved him.
And because she loved him., he deliberately blinded himself to all her faults. He set her on a pedestal before him, and there he crowned her as the epitome of female grace. "All I can bring you," he declared in one of his early letters. "is a swooning admiration of your beauty."
It was in the early part of the year 1819 that the lovers were definitely betrothed. It is impossible to fix the date exactly, for Keats strove hard to preserve his passion as a secret. This was in accordance with his principles. But there were other reasons. Mrs. Brawne did her utmost to discourage the attachment; she neither liked Keats, nor regarded him as eligible. The poet's own friends also disapproved. They were not aware of the halo of perfection which he had placed around his idol's head, and regarded Fanny merely as a shallow, empty-minded child. "God help them !" said one of his friends when he heard of the engagement. "It is a bad thing for them both."
That his love, the most sacred and precious of his treasures, should thus be ridiculed, was more than Keats could tolerate. He concealed it, therefore, carefully in the recesses of his heart. It may have been artificial, but it was a great love, and he sincerely believed it to be what he imagined it. To him Fanny meant more than fame or life. The evidence of his letters is conclusive. The following was written a few months after his betrothal. It is a beautiful letter:
This moment I have set myself to copy out some verses fair. I cannot proceed with any degree of content. I must write a line or two, and see if it will assist in dismissing you from my mind for ever so short a time. Upon my soul, I can think of nothing else. . . . My love has made me selfish. I cannot live without you; I am forgetful o f everything but seeing you again; my life seems to stop there-i see no further. You have absorbed me; I have a sensation at the present moment as though I was dissolving. ... I have been astonished that men could die martyrs for religion-i have shuddered at it. I shudder no more; I could be martyred for my religion. I could die for that; I could die for you. My creed is love, and you are its only tenet. I cannot breathe without you."
This was his trouble. Fanny Brawne had become indispensable to him, and he allowed his soul to be tortured by its longing for her. He could not reconcile himself to a long
John Keats, the poet, the last few years of whose short life were saddened but made beautiful by a hopeless love From a painting by Holton in the National Portrait Gallery engagement. He wanted to marry her immediately, and then to set out on a tour round Europe, so that he could bask simultaneously in the sunshine of her love and the glories of the world.
But, for the present, Mrs. Brawne firmly refused to consent to the idea of marriage; it was ridiculous. Owing to misfortune and mistakes, the poet's slender resources had dwindled almost to vanishing point. He had no profession, and now indeed no occupation save that of writing verses. And at his verses the world mocked openly. They were left for posterity to honour. It was very cruel. Love and his art were the sole purposes which he had in life, but he was unable to achieve either of them. Both as a poet and as a lover he was deemed a failure. But for fame, qud fame, he did not care a straw. He cared for it only because it would bring success, and success was essential t o him, essential to his love. And so his two aims intermingled.
But as the months rolled by, instead of coming nearer to him, success slipped further from his grasp, further and further. His heart was filled with bitterness, and his body began to re-flect the anguish of his mind. Disease fastened a hold upon his weakened frame. Death called to him. He saw that "he was doomed. He then had recourse to drugs, hoping thereby to alleviate his sufferings or to make himself forgetful of them. But laudanum served only to stimulate morbid views and to intensify his depression.