(A year ago this past February, I wrote the following piece on Anthony Burgess’s novel about John Keats’s last days. Since you’ll find me in Rome this week, sitting no doubt by Keats’s grave, it’s only appriopriate we run this one again.)
Today, the novel ABBA ABBA, by Anthony Burgess.
The occasion is the anniversary of the death of the English poet John Keats, who succumbed to tuberculosis, in Rome, on February 23, 1821. In those days tuberculosis was called consumption, an appropriate name for a disease that would kill John Keats, ever a consumed kind of guy. Consumed by poetry, consumed by love, consumed at random—as if he were just some ordinary man—by the indifferent germs in his lungs. He was 25.
Encounter Keats at the right moment—that is, when you’re young—and he will be a song that plays in your head your whole life. His apprehension of the world is two things at once. It is as alert and delighted as a baby’s. And it is infused with a wisdom rare in anyone—let alone a young man—that all joy is intertwined with grief, all love with despair, all life with death. His greatest poems—in particular, “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” “Ode to a Nightingale,” “Ode on Melancholy,” and “To Autumn”—remind those of us lucky enough to be alive of what a sweet gift we’ve been given, and how fleeting it is.
Keats loved Fanny Brawne, literally the girl next-door. And yes, that muse effect kicked in again. While loving and despairing over Fanny, Keats did his finest work. Every boy should read the sonnet “Bright Star” to his girl. Every girl should have it read to her.
Keats had no prospects. Outside his circle of friends, his poems were generally ignored or scorned. He had no paying job. And as was clear by the fall of 1820, he was going to die.
Certain that another English winter would kill him, Keats’s friends sent him off to Italy. They arranged for a casual acquaintance—the young painter Joseph Severn—to accompany him. Severn proved a good man. The two took rooms at the bottom of the sprawling steps in the Piazza di Spagna in Rome. But it hardly mattered. In a few months, Keats was dead.
Last year, Jane Campion made a lovely little movie about Keats and Fanny called, appropriately, Bright Star. But when Keats departs for Italy, he leaves the screen. That’s just about the point at which the novel, ABBA ABBA, begins.
Anthony Burgess, a genius with a novelist’s tools at hand, gives us a portrait of Keats as a keen, wide-ranging thinker for whom each conscious moment is a wonder, but who nonetheless is racked by the deep ironies of his condition. It is precisely because Keats can see so clearly that he suffers so much.
ABBA ABBA suffers a little from Burgess’s usual weakness for showing off his smarts. But the novel is short enough not to exhaust us. By page 95 poor Keats is dead, and what comes after is dispensable. The power of the book lies in its ability to get inside Keats’s head while he’s living, and in that respect it feels true.
Here is the death scene:
St. Valentine’s Day came . . . Then a week passed and two more days, and John knew his dying day had come, yet to achieve death might be a day’s hard labour. Severn held him, as it were carrying him to the gate, but he could not bear Severn’s laboured breathing, for it struck like ice. To put off the world outside—the children’s cries, snatches of song, a cheeping sparrow, the walls and the wallpaper and the chairs that thought they would outlast him but would not, the sunlight streaking the door—was not over-difficult. A bigger problem was to separate himself from his body—the hand worn to nothing, the lock of hair that fell into his eye, even the brain that scurried with thoughts and words and images. It took long hours to die.
“I’m sorry. Severn. My weight.”
“Nothing, it’s nothing. Rest now.”
He tried to give up breathing, to yield to the breathless gods, but his body, worn out as it was, would not have that. It pumped in its feeble spoonfuls of Roman air, motes in the sun and all, but there seemed to be nothing in his body to engage the air. The afternoon wore on to evening and his brain was fuddled and he groped for the essence he had called I. It fell through his fingers.
The portraits: Keats alive and Keats on his death bed, both by Joseph Severn. Their apartment is in the lower right-hand corner of the photo of the Spanish Steps.
Many sonorous recordings are available of Keats’s poetry. Here’s the late English actor Robert Donat making “Ode to a Nightingale” sound the way you would expect it to. But I prefer this reading by a coed in her room. It reminds me of the tender age at which I first read Keats, and at which he is best encountered.