Poet of Pain: Reliving John Keats' saga of pain and pathos

Shakespeare compares life with a drama in his romantic comedy As You Like It and segments it into seven major episodes. Most of the episodes that  our life has are largely occupied by painful and distraught moments.

Therefore, pain can be well defined as one of the chief ingredients of the popular literary recipes because literature mirrors life with utmost honesty.

The renowned Victorian novelist and poet Thomas Hardy is quite right when, in his famed novel The Mayor of Casterbridge, he says that happiness is but an occasional episode in a painful drama of life.

Thus, the element of pain permeates in literature particularly in the poetry of all ages and the poets have voiced this poignant emotion with their heightened  aesthetic and artistic sensibilities.

Freud opines that man’s mind is a poetry making machine. But all men are not gifted with the know-how to operate this machine. They are only a chosen few, divinely blessed with the imaginative faculty to express their pent-up agonising emotions in a poetic pattern.

When it comes to the expression of pain and agony in poetry, our thought is spontaneously directed to John Keats whom most literary critics acknowledge as a poet of sensuous beauty and negative capability.

But such critics proffer merely the lopsided estimation of the body of Keats’ work. His poetry is not only rich in the delights of senses and pictorial imagery but it also abounds in deep gnawing pain. It is an indisputable fact that no writer can be absolutely objective while crafting his pieces.

The traces and tinges of his personal life and personal suffering colour his perspective which willy-nilly find their overt or covert manifestation in his literary outpourings. Since his very childhood Keats had seen disease and death from very close quarters.

The crippling disease of consumption (TB) had taken his mother and brother in its deadly claws. After the heart-rending deaths of his family members, Keats himself fell prey to this demonic disease.

The love of his life Fanny too turned out to be a La Belle Dame sans Merci and left the poet to languish and die in isolation. Thus pathos is quite conspicuous in most of the prominent poems of John Keats.

Wren Tidmeyer, a professor of English at New Castle University, UK, is of the view that to fathom the persona of Keats, one must study his innumerable letters along with his famous poems. Keats was very perceptive letter-writer in addition to being a great poet, who died so young.

His letters are chock-a-block with pain, pathos and poignancy. Here is an example from his letter that he wrote to his coeval P B Shelly: “Often I feel that pain is my shadow and it casts its spell all the time and in every clime.”

The same thing he wrote poetically in one of his lesser known poems (many were incomplete as well): ‘Penumbra of death’ — Let the shadow of pain live with me/ And one day like a dry leaf I'll fall from the tree.

Keats’ constant death wish is now viewed as a facet of pain’s romanticism: I’m often half in love with death. This poetic line has the juxtaposition of pain and pathos, employed as a transferred epithet. It is worthwhile to mention that Keats was in love with this specific figure of speech, known as Transferred Epithet.

Even when Keats was in love with a jilt, Fanny Browne, he was aware that she would leave him alone. So as a predictive poetic measure (PPM), Keats prophetically wrote to her: “Leave behind the pain for me to wallow in...”

Keatsean idea of pain was complementary. Complementary in the sense that pleasure is experienced only when juxtaposed with pain. Keats, like all great poets, was a very sensitive person and all sensitive souls suffer silently and experience pain profoundly.

It is said that Fanny Browne’s jilting made Keats ‘a poet of pain and pathos’. Elsewhere he wrote, “I yearn for happiness but got pain and accepted that as an extension of joy.”

A complex character and a hopeless lover, Keats toyed with pain as if he was frolicking with mirth. Though his epitaph reads “Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water,” the poetic rendition of pain by this gigantic genius has immortalised him and his name can never be wiped off like water from our collect consciousness.

By the way, the Victorian poet and critic, Dr Matthew Arnold opined, “Nay, your name will be inscribed on granite.” The devotees of Muse and the aficionados of literature pay their reverence to this Shiv Kumar Bitalvi of India (Keats is compared with the Shiv kumar Batalvi of India due to many striking similarities between the lives and works of both the poets) on this upcoming birth anniversary on October 31.

Lastly, both the lives sum up the immortal lines: Our laughter with some pain is fraught/Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought. Indian readers can empathise with it in a musical way, humming with Talat Mahmood: ‘Hain sabse madhur woh geet jinhein hum dard ke sur mein gaate hain...’ or with Rafi, ‘Gham ko saraha masarrat ki tarah...’

(October 31 is the birth anniversary of John Keats)

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