John Keats and La Belle Dame : A literary rendition of a romantic disease

Posted on March 11th, 2020 , by Sreyashi Basu

During the eighteenth and nineteenth century, pulmonary tuberculosis (TB) evolved to become a major public health concern throughout Europe due to increasing urbanization. It was also during this era, that TB, which went by the name « Consumption » at the time, became a romantic cause of death for many well-known protagonists in medieval literature and operatic theatre.

Symptoms of Consumption associated with pale and slender features, rosy cheeks were viewed as highly desirable and often linked to poetic and aesthetic qualities. This reverence of the outward manifestations, meant that consumption was portrayed as very romantic rather than fearful. This perception, however, was diminished when scientists identified the causative agent – bacteria, and severity of TB became better understood in a social context.

The fact that many artists and intellectuals were seen to, in particular, contract TB influenced the public view that consumption was a romantic disease. John Keats – an English doctor turn Poet was one of the most common of the consumptive artists to be associated with TB. Surrounded by his maternal kin from an early age, he saw his uncle waste away due to TB at the age of 12, and lost his mother to the same two years after.  

In 1817, The family curse struck again when Keat’s beloved brother was seen to contract TB, evident from his bouts of fever and spitting blood. It was not long before Keats himself succumbed to the disease aged 25.

John Keats despite being surrounded by death and experiencing TB first hand aesthetized consumption in his works. His poems reflect his life through depictions of the beauty in early deaths and careful juxtaposition of contrasting imagery – such as melancholy and delight, and pleasure and pain.  These metaphors were frequently used by English Romantics, to Shape the literature and poetry of the time.

One famous poem which is most frequently analysed in the context of consumption is “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” . This poem was written in the spring of 1819 – a time when Keats began to embody his artistic vision of capturing meaningful experiences and began to hone his full literary potential spurring from his lifetime grievance of poverty, rejection and loss. During this period of extraordinary introspection, Keats started to exhibit the first signs of TB which eventually led him to  moving into the newly built Wentworth Place, where he devoted himself entirely to poetry—La Belle Dame being one of the first works he produced there.

La Belle Dame is extraordinary for both its rich sensual allegory and prescient insight. This poem narrates an encounter between a fair maiden and a dying knight on the banks of a secluded lake.A whirlwind relationship develops and soon the knight becomes infatuated with the maiden to the extent that he becomes colourless, feverish, and starts to hallucinate – meeting the same consumptive fate as those who have also crossed paths with this woman in the past. Robert Graves, in his erudite monograph on poetic inspiration The White Goddess (1948), claims that La Belle Dame was herself “consumption; whose victims warned him [the knight/wight] that he was now of their number.”In fact, thecentral protagonist – the knight at arms has many at times been associated with Keats himself who seems to have metamorphosed from a confident poet into a “blood- coughing wreck”.Keats’ desire for a companion, his fear of neglection, and awareness of his eventual death are all symbolised through the knight’s struggle with solitude and mortality.

The beginning of the ballad renders a detailed sketch of the knight’s ailment which carries a close resemblance to the illness of TB. His uneasy appearance described by a cold pale forehead (“a lily on thy brow”) and colourless cheeks (“on thy cheeks a fading rose”), fever, reckless fatigue (“haggard”) and Night sweats (“anguish moist and fever dew”) – all reflect the symptoms and effects of TB. 

Like his forlorn knight, pale yet flushed with fever – Keats died virtually unknown in 1821, at the age of twenty-five. Evident in his letter to Richard woodhouse, Keats upheld the notion that poets were the most “unpoetical” of all God’s Creatures as theysought to separate their personal identities from their written pieces.  La Belle Dame shows us, however, that the complete detachment of an artist from his art is near impossible – Keats failed to conceal his own ordeals in the labyrinth  of complex verse…

 

One winter evening in 1818 when Keats was returning to his home in Hampstead Heath, he fell sick and decided to go to bed. Whilst doing so, he suddenly coughed blood onto his pillow and turned to his friend John Arbuthnot Brown, “I know the colour of that blood. It is arterial blood, I cannot be deceived by its colour. It is my death warrant. I must die. “

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