At this time of year – that rather doleful time between the Christmas festivities and the beginning of a new year – it is natural to look back at our achievements over the past twelve months and assess the success or otherwise of the grand plans we put in motion in the previous January. Hopefully, there are aspects of our lives that have surpassed our expectations. It is likely, however, that other schemes and dreams will have fallen flat; failure, loss, a lack of time or commitment perhaps has seen plans delayed, discarded or faced as failures. It is often hard, in this annual ‘review’ to maintain our hopes of success. Even if things have gone relatively well, there is always that creeping doubt that besets the imagination. It can undermine almost everything you have worked to achieve.
So turn to John Keats…..
When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has glean’d my teeming brain,
Before high piled books, in charact’ry,
Hold like rich garners the full-ripen’d grain;
When I behold, upon the night’s starr’d face,
Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,
And think that I may never live to trace
Their shadows, with the magic hand of chance;
And when I feel, fair creature of an hour,
That I shall never look upon thee more,
Never have relish in the faery power
Of unreflecting love!—then on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone, and think
Till Love and Fame to Nothingness do sink.
In 1818, John Keats was just beginning to mature as a poet, leaving behind early friendships that limited his work or took it in directions that ill-suited him. By the autumn of that year he would be starting the fourteen or so months of startling creativity that produced much of the work for which he is best known today – the ‘Great Odes’, The Eve of St Agnes, La Belle Dame Sans Merci, Lamia - his poetic development happened with astonishing speed. In the earlier months of 1818 though (this sonnet was sent in a letter to his friend John Hamilton Reynolds in the January) he was still finding his original ‘voice’ and working through his poetic philosophy.
Full of this demon self-doubt, fearing failure, recognising that even given his talent he would have to work hard to achieve ‘greatness’ he seems almost desperate and full of anxiety in the sonnet: will I be given enough time to achieve success, to say everything I want to say? Will I find that ‘real’ love? (At this point he not yet met Fanny Brawne).
But I think it is more complex than that. I have always thought it spoke to me as an aspiring writer in a way few poems can by expressing the fear and doubt whilst using language that hints at success and completion – the ripening of the grain and the ‘fullness’ suggesting a successful harvest of a fertile imagination. It inspires with the image of the nourishing nature of art itself as books are filled with words as the ‘garners’ (the granaries) are filled with grain. Whatever his concerns for the future Keats has an essential belief in the possibility of his genius.
Of course you can just read this as a beautiful, if melancholy, poem that presages rather spookily Keats’ early death. It is the first poem I learned off by heart, aged just twelve, and it has stayed with me ever since; its regular metre suiting the rhythm of my stride as I recite it to myself, walking quickly to keep up with our dog on a long walk.
Not everyone wants to be a writer, but we all have doubts about the future, especially at the moment. Yes, you can read the poem as one of potential disappointment, fear of failure and anxiety at a lack of success. But the last lines seem to me to look out over the edge of our world, casting old thoughts aside and offering us a chance to put things into perspective.
We write from what we know, but that does not mean we must hold on to past failure and unhappiness. I will read this poem often over the coming months to remind myself that with luck and hard work I can achieve better things.