Poets Halloween! Remembering the Romantics on Keats's birthday

31st October 2016
The birthday of the English poet John Keats (October 31st) coincides with Halloween. So perhaps this is a good moment to remember some of our best, but also fatally doomed Romantic poets.
portrait of young Regency man, the poet John Keats, with hand to chin
From a portrait of John Keats by William Hilton.

Halloween origins

Halloween is a modern adaptation of the ancient Celtic religious festival of Samhain. This was adapted in Christian times to become All-Hallows (or All-Saints) Eve, when the spirits of the dead were said to be able to communicate with the living. From its spiritual origins, the festival has now become a cause for all kinds of jolly celebration. Umm …
halloween pumpkin, illuminated from within
Oh, all right. If you must.
I suppose the subject of death and spooky things in general are all well and good providing one has not been visited too intimately with such misfortunes in real life. Perhaps that is why Halloween has been so successfully appropriated by the young. But what about when the young themselves die before their time? Three of England’s most gifted poets of the early 19th century – that period of such great flowering of English Romantic verse – died young. In fact very young indeed.

Keats and Shelley connection

John Keats himself passed at the age of just 25, succumbing – like others in his family – to the dreadful disease of tuberculosis. He had gone to Rome in 1820 in a vain attempt to find a more favourable climate to strengthen his health, but it was too late. His brilliant contemporary Percy Bysshe Shelley was drowned in a storm at sea a year later, just a few weeks before his 30th birthday. He too had gone to Italy – having already, travelled widely for some years (along with his second wife, Mary, author of the Gothic novel Frankenstein).
young poet, Shelley, with quill, white shirt
Percy Bysshe Shelley by Alfred Clint, 1819.


Not long after Shelley’s demise, in 1824, his friend Byron died of a fever at the age of just 36 – so the real ‘old timer’ of the bunch. He had gone to Greece – where, in homage to a culture that had vanished two thousand years earlier, he was preparing troops to join the fight against Ottoman rule. So all three of our greatest Romantic poets perished overseas within a few years of one another, and all three in unfortunate and dramatic circumstances.
young man from Regency period, the poet Byron, in profile
Lord Byron by Richard Westall, 1813.
banner image of queen victoria face with red text, black background
The Real Deal

Though their works were prized highly in Victorian England, being a great source of inspiration for the Pre-Raphaelites, for example, John Keats and his contemporaries are no longer so popular today. But in an age when we celebrate our Gothic horrors once a year in plastic and lycra, it’s worth remembering that theirs was the ‘real deal.’

These were all men who, beside being intelligent and gifted, also lived passionately for their art. Keats abandoned a lucrative career in medicine in order to devote his time to writing. He, just like the others, courted romance and adventure at every turn. They wore their hearts very much on their sleeves. And their verse is full of vivid imagery; of desolate landscapes; of the sea; the night sky, the stars and the moon – their guiding lights.
old book cover, Keats's Endymion, green and gold
With all their dreamy, poetic melodrama, our Romantic-era poets might not seem by today’s dubious standards ideal representatives of how a man should be. But they did show us how a man can be. And for that, I shall raise a glass on Halloween and celebrate that amazing trio of brilliant souls that burst so briefly on the firmament two centuries ago – like great comets of the past that no longer come to visit. In the short time they lived, they left us much to ponder and admire and, occasionally, to smile about too. Here are some glimpses …

Lines Inscribed Upon a Cup Formed from a Skull by Lord Byron, 1808

old silver cup in form of skull
A cup made from a human skull, once owned by Lord Byron.
Start not—nor deem my spirit fled:
In me behold the only skull
From which, unlike a living head,
Whatever flows is never dull.

I lived, I loved, I quaff’d, like thee:
I died: let earth my bones resign;
Fill up—thou canst not injure me;
The worm hath fouler lips than thine.

Better to hold the sparkling grape,
Than nurse the earth-worm’s slimy brood;
And circle in the goblet’s shape
The drink of Gods, than reptiles’ food.

Where once my wit, perchance, hath shone,
In aid of others’ let me shine;
And when, alas! our brains are gone,
What nobler substitute than wine?

Quaff while thou canst—another race,
When thou and thine like me are sped,
May rescue thee from earth’s embrace,
And rhyme and revel with the dead.

Why not? since through life’s little day
Our heads such sad effects produce;
Redeem’d from worms and wasting clay,
This chance is theirs, to be of use.

Love’s Philosophy, by Shelley, 1820

The fountains mingle with the river,
And the rivers with the ocean;
The winds of heaven mix forever
With a sweet emotion;
Nothing in the world is single;
All things by a law divine
In another’s being mingle–
Why not I with thine?

See, the mountains kiss high heaven,
And the waves clasp one another;
No sister flower could be forgiven
If it disdained its brother;
And the sunlight clasps the earth,
And the moonbeams kiss the sea;–
What are all these kissings worth,
If thou kiss not me?
painting of couple, he offering he a small trinket, olden times
An Offering, by Sir Frank Dicksee, 1898.
small image of 3 classic English poets- 2 men, one woman. Dark background

On the Sea, by John Keats, 1817

young woman by seashore, red hair, waves in background
On the Seashore, George Elgar Hicks,1879.
It keeps eternal whisperings around
Desolate shores, and with its mighty swell
Gluts twice ten thousand caverns, till the spell
Of Hecate leaves them their old shadowy sound.

Often ’tis in such gentle temper found,
That scarcely will the very smallest shell
Be moved for days from whence it sometime fell,
When last the winds of heaven were unbound.

Oh ye! who have your eye-balls vexed and tired,
Feast them upon the wideness of the Sea;
Oh ye! whose ears are dinned with uproar rude,
Or fed too much with cloying melody,—
Sit ye near some old cavern’s mouth, and brood
Until ye start, as if the sea-nymphs choired!

To a Lady seen for a few Moments at Vauxhall, by John Keats, 1818

old illustration of bandstand in Vauxhall Gardens in Regency times
Vauxhall Gardens, by Thomas Rolandson.
Time’s sea hath been five years at its slow ebb,
Long hours have to and fro let creep the sand,
Since I was tangled in thy beauty’s web,
And snared by the ungloving of thine hand.
And yet I never look on midnight sky,
But I behold thine eyes’ well-memory’d light;
I cannot look upon the rose’s dye,
But to thy cheek my soul doth take its flight.
I cannot look on any budding flower,
But my fond ear, in fancy at thy lips
And hearkening for a love-sound, doth devour
Its sweets in the wrong sense. Thou dost eclipse
Every delight with sweet remembering,
And grief unto my darling joys dost bring.
Poem by Keats - 'To a Lady seen for a Few Moments at Vauxhall'
Authored by Robert Stephen Parry

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