Great effort has been expended trying to unravel the mysteries of who Shakespeare was, yet there is another great English writer who is equally mysterious. We all have questions about John Keats. Why does he use so many strange allusions to Greek mythology? Why is “Ode on a Grecian Urn” so famous? Why does he seem constantly depressed and whining? Why did he die so young? What on Earth is going on at the end of “On Seeing the Elgin Marbles?” What we have failed to realize is that there is a simple explanation for all of this, an explanation that we have for too long sought to ignore. It is time at last to embrace the simple truth: Keats was in IB.
The evidence has been staring us in the face all along. First of all, consider his strong desire for sleep, shown in “Ode to Indolence.” Angrily, he asks, “Was it a silent deep-disguised plot / To steal away, and leave without a task / My idle days?” and echoes exactly the sentiment of all IB students. Yet, despite his insistence that he has seen through the plot and his refusal to do accept the ridiculous workload (“So, ye three ghosts, adieu! Ye cannot raise / My head cool-bedded in the flowery grass”) he has gone on to write the poem and four more afterwards. Evidently he is suffering from the usual IB work habits; his guilt won’t permit him to sleep, but his procrastination instinct causes him to do almost anything other than the real assignment. Thus, he wrote a series of poems instead.
The psychological effects of IB are clearly visible as well. We see the characteristic struggle with depression in “Ode on Melancholy.” We see the inevitable love-hate relationship with English literature in “Indolence,” as Keats describes poetry as “The last, whom I love more, the more of blame.” We see the hopelessness of being confronted with an impossible workload in “Elgin Marbles,” where he states that “each imagined pinnacle and steep / Of godlike hardship tells me I must die,” no doubt as he seeks to complete his Extended Essay on ancient Greek artwork. Unsurprisingly, at the end of this same poem, we see the typical reaction of an IB student who finishes his EE, goes outside, and sees the sun for the first time in weeks or months: degeneration into a profoundly amazed but grammatically confused state. (“So do these wonders a most dizzy pain, / That mingles Grecian grandeur with the rude / Wasting of old time—with a billowy main— / A sun—a shadow of a magnitude.”)
And, of course, Keats recognizes the most horrifying truths about IB. For example, he realizes that though two years sounds like a long time, it is in fact very short. Thus he is horrified to realize he has been slacking off and enjoying himself, asking “Why did I laugh tonight?” He has realized also that the Programme has been engineered so that to score maximum points requires an effort greater than that which will result in death, and, typical of an IB student’s twisted sense of priorities, his great fear is that his death will occur before he has time to finish his exams, describing “fears that I may cease to be / Before my pen has glean’d my teeming brain.”
Now, there may be those who will object to this interpretation. Among the facts that may be brought up is that the IBO wasn’t founded until the late 1960s, a number of years after Keats’ death. In response to this, I should like to point out that nitpicking over chronology has never been the role of the studier of literature. We would never allow the detail that the atomic bomb was invented after the story “By the Waters of Babylon” was written to affect the fact that the story clearly deals with the results of a nuclear holocaust, or the detail that The Lord of the Rings was planned before World War II to keep us from recognizing Tolkien’s work as an allegory of this real-world war. We have never hesitated to find Freudian and feminist messages in texts predating both Freud and feminism. Likewise, the proof that Keats was in IB is in the texts; the details of how this could have occurred should be left to the historians.