What 19th Century Poet John Keats Can Teach Us About Our Digital Age

A 19th century romanticist painting of natural landscape

By Victoria Bond

Take a moment and think about your friends. Obscure ones, less obscure ones, and the famous ones, if you have any of those. Would you choose to be buried beside any of them? What if the stone marking your death also commemorated your friendship to a person that history decided was more important than you?

On February 23, 1821, John Keats died at twenty-five in Rome of tuberculosis. Fifty-eight years later, the man who had dutifully seen to the dying Keats, a painter called Joseph Severn, chose to be buried beside the poet in the Protestant Cemetery where “dedicated friend and death-bed companion of John Keats” was inscribed on his headstone.

During the summer of 2016, I erected a social media tombstone of my own. I quit Facebook. The presidential election campaign was the final straw, but my reading of Keats’s poems and letters pushed the point. It never failed to make me feel crazy when I went from Keats’s letters in my Kindle app to the Facebook app on my phone. The distinction between the kind of communication that can feed a soul and the kind of communication that threatens to starve it was blinding. The richness of Keats’s letters addressed to actual friends placed in sharp relief how insipid posts intended for a general audience can be. Keats’s declaration that the “only means of strengthening one’s intellect is to make up one’s mind about nothing,” showed up the righteous certainty that imbued many of my network’s posts and comments as evidence not of how much they knew, or how well they comprehended, but how little, actually, they understood.

The graves of John Keats and Joseph Severn in a cemetery in Rome.

In a March 1818 letter to a one-time roommate, Keats, meditating on the power of one’s thoughts to create respective realities says, “We take but three steps from feathers to iron” and that he “shall never be a Reasoner because I care not to be in the right.” Poignantly, the letter ends with a hello from Keats’s younger brother Tom who “has just this moment had a spitting of blood, poor fellow.” Keats nursed his brother who had tuberculosis and held the seventeen-year-old in his arms as he died on a December morning later that same year. Keats, in all probability, contracted the disease from him.

On my morning commute I often observe my fellow straphangers stalk Instagram, Facebook, or play games, and I think of Keats’s line, “The feel of not to feel it,” from the 1817 poem “In drear nighted December.” Because Keats was a trained apothecary-surgeon and dressed wounds in a busy London hospital before the dawn of painkillers, the line has the pulse of corporeal necessity. Like so much of Keats’s most memorable work and ideas, the line also is about negation. No one wants to be anxious or bored. But how we flee from that undesirable state feeds an addiction to voyeurism and vanity. This vanity not only anesthetizes, I think, but it’s making us dumber and meaner, too. Keats helped me to see that social media has trolled all of us by eroding traditional ideas about friendship, independent thinking, and the intellectual fabric of the country at large.

In light of how platforms such as Twitter and Reddit have given bigots and hatemongers large, deep wells with which to refresh their messages for a new, digital day; in light of how the alt-right movement has adapted and perverted the language of identity politics to serve its agenda; and in light of how social media platforms have created individualized information environments that have proved incredibly permeable to propaganda, as a teacher, citizen, and friend of Keats in my head, I feel trapped in a vacuum social media created.

Unlike the ubiquitous crowing and personal propagandists that have come to typify social media, Keats requested that his tombstone only say “Here lies one whose name was writ in water” and nothing else. Not even his name. Very few of us may want to be buried beside one of our friends, especially one who claims at the end that they want to be forgotten. Yet, the phrase Keats requested speaks to the fact that our identities, in the end, are transient and fleeting in the context of a larger, more powerful, life sustaining force.

At this moment, the recent massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida has put death and friendship on all of our minds. What the courageous classmates of the murdered are demonstrating for the nation is how the death of our friends can transform us from “feathers to iron” and animate more meaningful lives for the mourners and survivors, and perhaps, safer lives for us all.

Keats called his time as a terminally ill patient his “posthumous life.” What I fear is that social media is making all of our lives feel posthumous, after the fact, in the here and now. Many of us are so busy writing one epitaph after another on social media that it’s hard to remember that we joined these networks in the first place to connect with friends. Keats was a good friend not because he was always right, but because he was empathetic and open minded, the very qualities that social media forecloses upon. Reading his work over the past few years has made me feel more connected and informed than I ever could have plugged into social media.

Victoria Bond teaches English at John Jay College, and is the co-author of Zora and Me.

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