John Keats: Meditations on the Madness of Fame

John Keats was a wonderful poet, who had a vast and creative understanding of the world around him, and although many of his poems are quite famous, I haven’t heard many people talk about his two small sonnets about Fame. 

 Fame, like a wayward girl, will still be coy
To those who woo her with too slavish knees,
But makes surrender to some thoughtless boy,
And dotes the more upon a heart at ease;
She is a Gypsy, will not speak to those
Who have not learnt to be content without her;
A Jilt, whose ear was never whisper’d close,
Who thinks they scandal her who talk about her;
A very Gypsy is she, Nilus-born,
Sister-in-law to jealous Potiphar;
Ye love-sick Bards! repay her scorn for scorn;
Ye Artists lovelorn! madmen that ye are!
Make your best bow to her and bid adieu,

Then, if she likes it, she will follow you.

The first sonnet opens up with bold words; even for the admirers of Fame, it will prove ever elusive to its most desperate seekers, and yet for the ‘thoughtless boy’ who’s obviously not pursuing fame – it may surrender and give way.  The most important thing Keats is pointing out here is this: In many cases, Fame comes randomly.

The only people, Keats notes, who will be able to speak to fame are those “who have not learnt to be content without her.”  This is a very striking observation which flies in the face of most people who wish to be famous.  But think about it, really.  Hollywood actors, for instance, live in the spotlight all the time – and yet they go about their daily business despite the excessive attention they’re given on a daily basis.  The same goes for many sports professionals. 

People often consider all the perks about something without realizing the consequences, and fame isn’t excluded from this.  Famous people tend to be wealthy, and seem to have all the comforts anyone could ever want.  Yet, they live their lives under a constant spotlight – even their most intimate moments with their friends and family are published in the latest gossip magazines. 

How many of us wish for just a moment in this spotlight, and that moment finally comes – and we freeze up!  The fact we finally have attention in many cases makes us scared and paranoid, we try so hard not to mess up and can’t remain calm.  No wonder so many of us actually couldn’t handle being famous – we can’t handle being scrutinized for ten seconds, let alone the rest of our lives. 

Not only that, but living under the spotlight also leaves you very little room for mistakes.  In today’s world, we’ve seen this manifest in the form of “cancel culture,” where someone who possesses some degree of fame (or even people who don’t) suffer the consequences of mistakes or misguided opinions they once had on social media – which could have been from twenty years ago!  But under the nose of fame, with one mistake, all the benefits of being famous can be taken away.  When not-as-famous people make mistakes, rectification is usually possible, and there’s a chance you can recover from your mistake.  It’s amazing to see how Keats, in these short sonnets, manages to capture very sublime thoughts such as this one. 

Somewhat randomly, Keats now brings up artists and their “artistic madness.”  It’s very interesting to note that he seems to think that a great artist has no desire to pursue fame for the sake of being famous, as he could care less about that by making his bow and walking away.  He only approaches Fame to present his art to the world – Fame will follow and pursue the artist if it is truly worthy of her presence!  This seems like a big contrast to the man mentioned earlier – a good artist is content without Fame; he is simply content to work on his art, whereas the man who’s only concerned with Fame is not content and satisfied at all with anything he achieves. 

   “You cannot eat your cake and have it too.”

    – Proverb.

 How fever’d is the man, who cannot look
Upon his mortal days with temperate blood,
Who vexes all the leaves of his life’s book,
And robs his fair name of its maidenhood;
It is as if the rose should pluck herself,
On the ripe plum finger its misty bloom,
As if a Naiad, like a meddling elf,
Should darken her pure grot with muddy gloom:
But the rose leaves herself upon the briar,
For winds to kiss and grateful bees to feed,
And the ripe plum still wears its dim attire,
The undisturbed lake has crystal space;
Why then should man, teasing the world for grace,
Spoil his salvation for a fierce miscreed?

The second sonnet opens with a brilliantly written stanza, directed at the man who can’t be content with his mortal life and who seeks immortality through Fame.  This character is expanded through the introduction of the Naiad – who willingly allows its pure grotto (that’s what grot stands for) to be overcome with gloom.  This is a thoughtful remark, as the comparison with the Naiad and gloom makes perfect sense when you compare them with Hollywood actors and actresses. 

In Greek Mythology, the Naiad represents a river-spirit, they are some of the most beautiful and fair creatures and are a representation of purity.  But their grotto is overcome with gloom at their own behest; muddling their own purity and beauty in a mire. 

Following Keats’ thought, how many Hollywood actors or sports stars actually have a stable life, despite their fame, beauty, and wealth?  Despite the fact they possess a great gift of speaking directly into the camera and living under the scope of millions, they still can’t seem to handle the normal things in life very well, despite having the wealth and knowledge to be able to have some sort of security compared with most.  Many sports stars often squander the fortunes they are blessed to attain.  Not only that, but it’s pretty obvious to a Catholic that many of these stars don’t lead the most moral lives – morality goes out the door the moment they achieve the spotlight, and they’re willing to throw each other under the bus at any given moment to keep their own fame. 

This begs the last question: Why should a man spoil his salvation for a ‘fierce miscreed’; that is, a false and passionate creed?  The man who runs as fast as he can towards fame, towards the power that comes with it, is not a tranquil person.  He has no appreciation for the ordinary, and for the grace of God – as the grace of God is given to us every day and in everyday life.  He’s only centered on one person: himself, and he lives his life pursuing the lie that he’s important because he’s famous. 

By these two small sonnets, John Keats shows he has a deep understanding of Fame, and of the foolishness and pride of those who pursue it above any other pursuit.  In fact, Keats himself is a good contrast to this foolish man – he became a famous poet not by pursuing it ardently, but by writing beautiful poetry such as these small sonnets; and after all that time Fame chose to pursue him. 

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Joshua Nelson attended Franciscan University of Steubenville to earn a BA in Philosophy and a Minor in Finance, along with attending the University of Michigan for a Masters in Accounting. He has a deep love and passion for the philosophy of Stoicism, and believes it applicable to many aspects of our modern Catholic life, especially when it comes to bringing the supernatural into our ordinary routines. Having worked in the public sector, and currently working for a Public Accounting firm, he works to integrate his unique Catholic perspective through all aspects of life.

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