John Keats died tragically young of a common disease of the past, tuberculosis. He was born in 1795, and his father died when he was only eight; his mother remarried very quickly but then left her new husband, taking her children with her, but she also died, when Keats was fourteen. He became a medical student, but his writing became more and more important to him and in 1817, Poems, the first volume of Keats’s verse was published. It wasn’t a great success and he turned to a different publishing house, Taylor and Hessey of Fleet Street, who also published Coleridge, Hazlitt, Clare, Hogg, Carlyle and Lamb. His success, however, was cut short when he died a painful death in 1821, in Rome at the very young age of twenty-five; who knows what he may have written if he had survived.
This poem was written in 1817, in January of that year, looking ahead perhaps to the warmer months to come – I don’t which exact date, but here is a rather gloomy and prophetic January sonnet:
After dark vapours have oppress’d our plains
For a long dreary season, comes a day
Born of the gentle South, and clears away
From the sick heavens all unseemly stains.
The anxious month, relieved of its pains,
Takes as a long-lost right the feel of May;
The eyelids with the passing coolness play
Like rose leaves with the drip of Summer rains.
The calmest thoughts came round us; as of leaves
Budding — fruit ripening in stillness — Autumn suns
Smiling at eve upon the quiet sheaves —
Sweet Sappho’s cheek — a smiling infant’s breath —
The gradual sand that through an hour-glass runs —
A woodland rivulet — a Poet’s death.