The Inevitability of Death
Even before his diagnosis of terminal tuberculosis, Keats focused on death and its inevitability in his work. For Keats, small, slow acts of death occurred every day, and he chronicled these small mortal occurrences. The end of a lover’s embrace, the images on an ancient urn, the reaping of grain in autumn—all of these are not only symbols of death, but instances of it. Examples of great beauty and art also caused Keats to ponder mortality, as in “On Seeing the Elgin Marbles” (1817). As a writer, Keats hoped he would live long enough to achieve his poetic dream of becoming as great as Shakespeare or John Milton: in “Sleep and Poetry” (1817), Keats outlined a plan of poetic achievement that required him to read poetry for a decade in order to understand—and surpass—the work of his predecessors. Hovering near this dream, however, was a morbid sense that death might intervene and terminate his projects; he expresses these concerns in the mournful 1818sonnet “When I have fears that I may cease to be.”
The Contemplation of Beauty
In his poetry, Keats proposed the contemplation of beauty as a way of delaying the inevitability of death. Although we must die eventually, we can choose to spend our time alive in aesthetic revelry, looking at beautiful objects and landscapes. Keats’s speakers contemplate urns (“Ode on a Grecian Urn”), books (“On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer” , “On Sitting Down to Read King Lear Once Again” ), birds (“Ode to a Nightingale”), and stars (“Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art” ). Unlike mortal beings, beautiful things will never die but will keep demonstrating their beauty for all time. Keats explores this idea in the first book of Endymion (1818). The speaker in “Ode on a Grecian Urn” envies the immortality of the lute players and trees inscribed on the ancient vessel because they shall never cease playing their songs, nor will they ever shed their leaves. He reassures young lovers by telling them that even though they shall never catch their mistresses, these women shall always stay beautiful. The people on the urn, unlike the speaker, shall never stop having experiences. They shall remain permanently depicted while the speaker changes, grows old, and eventually dies.