The ‘vital’ death of John Keats: ending the myth of weakness

John Keats on his death bed

John Keats on his death bed – a sketch by Joseph Severn

Today is the anniversary of the death of the poet John Keats, in Rome, on the 23rd February 1821. He was just 25, and suffered from tuberculosis (or consumption as it was then known). His friend, Joseph Severn, who nursed him during his months in Rome, where he had sought relief in the warmer climate, wrote in a letter ‘He is gone–he died with the most perfect ease–he seemed to go to sleep.’  However, he had actually endured weeks of agony whilst doctors misdiagnosed and mistreated his condition, and the end was a blessed relief to Keats, and to Severn.

Why is Keats’s death so particularly moving? Shelley and Byron and a myriad other well-known poets have died young, or relatively so. Descriptions of and reactions to the deaths of Shelley and Byron, for example,  seem almost theatrical in comparison. Perhaps the way in which Wilfred Owen, himself influenced by the work of Keats, died, just before the Armistice was signed at the end of the Great War, touches us in a similar way. But Keats’s death haunts me, has haunted me for years, and his loss remains, I believe, one of the greatest in British literary history.

I have written many times on this blog of my enduring love for the poetry and letters of Keats. I first read his work after watching a ‘Blue Peter Special Assignment’ about him in the mid-1970s. I was just 12 years old, already a deep-thinking and rather anxious child, and I took Keats, literally, to heart. I read and memorised the poetry, I bought a book of his letters, and struggled, then, with the language and philosophy that make him such a relevant poet today. At 14 I read Robert Gitting’s biography, still one of the best, and over the years since then I have widened and deepened my reading of his life and work. I am not an academic, but an enthusiastic, and I hope knowledgeable, devotee of the man.  His poetry has taken me through some dark times, and his letters,  full of profound wisdom and knowledge of the ways of human hearts, resonate with me in the 21st century as much as they ever did, more so perhaps in these deeply troubled times.

Over the decades, ‘my Keats’ has developed as my understanding has also grown and deepened. Reading about his life, particularly older biographies of him, I began to feel that something was failing to ‘fit’. His letters were full of a vitality at odds with some of the early descriptions, and the sensuality in his poems was suggestive of a strength of character in the face of possible criticism that belied the old belief that critics themselves were so important to his view of himself.

So if it is not his youth, I wonder why his death touches so many? Perhaps it is because of the tragedy of his love for Fanny Brawne, left back in England. He knew as he sailed to Italy that he would never see her again, and could not bear to look at her letters in his final months. Is it because he had spent months nursing his mother and then his younger brother through the final stages of what was a ‘family disease’, only to succumb to it himself?

Is it with knowledge of the moving way he had written of death in his poetry? For example, the sixth stanza of Ode to a Nightingale:

Darkling I listen; and, for many a time
  I have been half in love with easeful Death,
Call’d him soft names in many a musèd rhyme,
  To take into the air my quiet breath;
Now more than ever seems it rich to die, 
  To cease upon the midnight with no pain,
    While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad
          In such an ecstasy!
   Still wouldst thou sing, and I have ears in vain—
     To thy high requiem become a sod.

Or in the sonnet  ‘When I have fears..’ which begins, prophetically, with the words:

When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has glean’d my teeming brain,

Then in his letter to Fanny Brawne, written in July 1819, less than two years before his death:

I have two luxuries to brood over in my walks, your Loveliness and the hour of my death. O that I could have possession of them both in the same minute.

Or is it, perhaps, the epitaph he wrote for himself – ‘Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water’? Those enigmatic words – are they hinting at either a bitterness at the lack of time to make a permanent mark on the literary world, or at a belief that all life lacks permanence, that we are all but brief impressions, impermanent in the face of the overwhelming beauty of life? Or something else?

Keats death mask

Keats – death mask, showing the ravages of his final days

For me, the real poignancy of his death is in the legacy his friends sought for his ‘posthumous life’, adding to and turning that brief and unexplained epitaph into something expressing real bitterness at his lot; the idea that he died in a fury, a sensitive young man railing at his critics, unforgiving in the face of a fate he didn’t think he deserved. It feels SO WRONG, I think, when the wonderful poetry and letters he left behind suggest something quite different. As Michelle Stacey wrote in her terrific tribute to Keats written for The Paris Review on this date last year:

Aside from requesting the “writ in water” epitaph, Keats did not lament his coming end or curse his enemies on his deathbed. If anything, he lamented his continued life. He wrote to a friend of “leading a posthumous existence,” and complained in the same terms to Severn, who wrote that Keats would sometimes weep when he awoke and found himself still living.

There were, of course, moments of deep despair, of disappointment and of loss. Joseph Severn had nursed him, terrified that Keats would attempt suicide when in his darkest moods. But there was calm too. As Stacey points out, Severn reports quieter moment, when Keats looked forward to the ‘quiet grave’ and like Stacey I was struck by the daisies, still there on the ceiling of the room in which he died in Rome. Severn reported that the poet could almost feel them growing over him as he lay there. It was an image to comfort friends, but also one that suggests acceptance and reflection.

The grave of John KeatsIn adding to the tombstone words suggesting that it was, to all intents and purposes, the ‘Malicious Power of his Enemies’ (the critics) that hastened Keats’s death, and then promulgating the myth of the over-sensitive, weakling poet in work such as Adonais by Shelley, the friends who loved the man and admired what we know now to be some of the greatest poetry ever written did him a gross disservice. Before his final months he was physically strong, short and stocky and people were forcibly struck by the energy and yes, the vitality of the man. By changing the epitaph I think that vital spark was diminished, and it took decades for a truer picture to become established. Even now, many think of him as the archetypal ‘Romantic’ poet, laying in a faint over the back of a chaise longue…

The myth endured, and only in the last fifty years have we properly understood the strength of Keats, from his work on the wards of Guy’s Hospital during his medical training, to his political beliefs, the support he gave friends and family, and in the courage he showed in the face of death. Now we can acknowledge the fiery temper, the jealousy exhibited in his love for Fanny, the possible over-reliance on laudanum, alongside the generosity of spirit, loyalty and wisdom beyond his years. The latest biography of Keats, by Nicholas Roe, offers a particularly comprehensive and complex analysis of the man and his influences. He was so much more than the innocent young poet abroad, and I think only now does his biography sit comfortably with his poetry and letters.

I have written for a long time of the relevance of Keats’s poetry to life in the 21st century – his philosophy is timeless; always energetic and fresh with passages that still make one cry out ‘Yes! That’s it!’. And the manner of his death, so young, allows him to remain timeless as a physical figure in our minds. His death deserves to be a moment treasured, not simply as that of a talented man dying tragically young, but as one which brings us to his life, and the stunning vitality of it.

 

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In trying times: Heberto Padilla on continuing to speak out…

Heberto Padilla

Heberto Padilla

I read this poem today, for the first time. As you may guess from the title, I was looking for poetry to support me through a period when world events seem to be spiralling out of control, when real news is more shocking than any ‘fake news’ the government is trying to counter.

It is a poem about revolution, specifically the revolution in Cuba. I think it is about the suppression of poetry, literature and the curtailment of freedoms. It resonated with me today when a terribly dangerous, but apparently charismatic world leader is ‘revolutionising’ US politics, when our own government are once again appeasing a fascist, even at a time when we commemorate the Holocaust, and when those that would challenge or speak out against the President are derided and persecuted, silenced and expelled. They are called liars – and eventually who will be left knowing the truth?

Sign petitions, march in protest, write and read poetry, show random acts of kindness in a world that has, hopefully temporarily, become much less kind.

In Trying Times

by Heberto Padilla

They asked that man for his time
so that he could link it to History.
They asked him for his hands,
because for trying times
nothing is better than a good pair of hands.
They asked him for his eyes
that once had tears
so that he should see the bright side
(the bright side of life, especially)
because to see horror one startled eye is enough.
They asked him for his lips,
parched and split, to affirm,
to belch up, with each affirmation, a dream
(the great dream)
they asked him for his legs
hard and knotted
(his wandering legs)
because in trying times
is there anything better than a pair of legs
for building or digging ditches?
They asked him for the grove that fed him as a child,
with it’s obedient tree.
They asked him for his breast, heart, his shoulders.
They told him
that that was absolutely necessary.
they explained to him later
that all this gift would be useless
unless he turned his tongue over to them,
because in trying times
nothing is so useful in checking hatred or lies.
and finally they begged him,
please, to go take a walk.
Because in trying times
that is, without a doubt, the decisive test.

What do you think? Does it feel relevant to you too? I would love to know what you think, and in the meantime I am going to read this a few more times and explore the world of Heberto Padillo in more detail.

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Christmas Greetings 2016 – making the best of a bad year…

christmas

Rushing headlong into what, this Christmas?

Well what a year it has been. This Christmas card seems quite apt, as the world seems to be rushing headlong into disaster, for everyone, not just the turkeys. Politically, I have considered 2016 heartbreaking – but then, it seems, I am one of those ‘bad losers’ who voted to stay in the EU and can’t accept a result that has promoted hate and division and encouraged, in the US, the election of a man who has done little but espouse policies that are against many of the principles I hold dear. But then I am part of some kind of soppy liberal gang who haven’t listened to the ‘voice of the people’. I am part of the problem. And there was me thinking I just wanted to be part of a world that looked at humanity first and nationalism, hatred and greed second. Silly me.

This is, however, supposed to be a Christmas message of love and hope, and it is certainly not a time to give up on one’s wishes for a peaceful world, where we are all, genuinely, born equal. Whatever faith you follow (and even if you have no religious belief, you probably have some overarching view, or sense of your place in the world) this is a time of year when we should extend a warm hand to everyone we meet. Hypocrite you shout!! (well perhaps a few people I know will shout) ‘what about Nigel Farage? Donald Trump?’ My answers to that would be 1) I am unlikely ever to meet them , mercifully 2) you are right, I’m a hypocrite, I would no more shake their hand than rub my own in horse poo and then eat a mince pie with it. It is a prejudice I can live with.

So I am spending the next few days with family I love, watching The Muppet Christmas Carol, opening pressies and eating too much. The time will fly by and I will desperately try to hold on to the warm glow for as long as I can. We have too few reasons to celebrate  – let this be a time when we really appreciate all we have got, whilst thinking, in quiet moments, of those with so much less than us.

Despite the seismic political shocks that have hit the world in 2016, the loss of cultural icons and people we considered immortal, and our rather unrealistic expectations that as soon as we enter the first minute of 2017 things will improve, I want to take a moment to thank you all for being here through the tough times. One thing 2016 did illustrate to me is how lucky I am to know so many people with the same hopes and ambitions for the world we live in, and our own small corners of it. Thank you all for sharing it with me. For a moment, I genuinely wish everybody a ‘Happy Christmas’ and a healthy new year.

But Farage and Trump et al? A plague (of gastroenteritis perhaps?) on all your houses. In the new year the gloves  are off…

 

 

Posted in Christmas, love the universe and everything, New Year, Random musings on family life, love the universe and everything, Writing | 2 Comments

Poetry for Christmas #4 – Christmas Sparrow by Billy Collins

Christmas sparrowI don’t mind if you have not read my Christmas poetry posts. I would rather you had, of course, as it keeps the stats looking healthy, and I honestly think you might have missed the opportunity to escape for a moment. Poetry offers an alternative vision to a consumer society seemingly possessed by some December demon requiring the emptying of bank accounts and the bringing on of breakdowns. So many seem to be going down with one ‘lurgy’ or another, forced as we are into crowds of the germ-ridden desperate to get the last of one toy or the first of some new gadget…

Billy Collins

Billy Collins

So I persist in forcing these moments of respite into your inbox, or onto your social media streams and just hope that perhaps this is THE moment you get a quiet time to sit and reflect on the shortness of the days, the sentiment of the season and the world outside the scramble of the queues and the swiping of the bank cards. Today’s poem (#4) is by one of my favourite contemporary poets – American, Billy Collins –  who has featured on this blog before. His writing seems so natural and effortless, and although he himself apparently dislikes the word ‘accessible’ he is for me one of the poets I would recommend to those who call themselves confirmed poetry-haters, in an effort to convince them that they simply haven’t found the right poet for them.

This poem is called Christmas Sparrow and I think I love it most because it reminds me of a Ladybird book I read to my children when they were small, called The Christmas Robin. It is that interaction of the animal and the human that affects us as little else can – a genuinely natural response to counteract all the unnatural goings-on of the festive season. The line ‘I could feel its wild thrumming/against my palms…’ as a contrast to the stark artificiality of the  ‘decorated tree’ where the  sparrow is ‘breathing there/ among metallic angels, ceramic apples, stars of yarn…’ creates a vivid image of a terrified little bird, caught among the branches of something that should be its natural habitat. Anyway, I love it, and hope you enjoy it too..

Christmas Sparrow

The first thing I heard this morning
was a soft, insistent rustle,
the rapid flapping of wings
against glass as it turned out,

a small bird rioting
in the frame of a high window,
trying to hurl itself through
the enigma of transparency into the spacious light.

A noise in the throat of the cat
hunkered on the rug
told me how the bird had gotten inside,
carried in the cold night
through the flap in a basement door,
and later released from the soft clench of teeth.

Up on a chair, I trapped its pulsations
in a small towel and carried it to the door,
so weightless it seemed
to have vanished into the nest of cloth.

But outside, it burst
from my uncupped hands into its element,
dipping over the dormant garden
in a spasm of wingbeats
and disappearing over a tall row of hemlocks.

Still, for the rest of the day,
I could feel its wild thrumming
against my palms whenever I thought
about the hours the bird must have spent
pent in the shadows of that room,
hidden in the spiky branches
of our decorated tree, breathing there
among metallic angels, ceramic apples, stars of yarn,

its eyes open, like mine as I lie here tonight
picturing this rare, lucky sparrow
tucked into a holly bush now,
a light snow tumbling through the windless dark.

Billy Collins

Do let me know what you think, and share here any of your own festive favourites.

 

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Poetry for Christmas #3 – Ogden Nash -The boy who laughed at Santa Claus…

Father ChristmasMy illustrations for this, the third in my series of ‘Poetry for Christmas’ posts (see the previous two posts for #1 and #2) are deliberately used to pose a question that confuses many of us. Is it Santa Claus, closer in name to the model for the great man, St Nicholas, or Father Christmas?  Does the name affect the image, or are they all inter-changeable? I have been told that Father Christmas wears a long red robe belted in the middle, rather than the jacket and trousers favoured by coca cola, and indeed Raymond Briggs. But then of course we go back to the ‘did he wear red, or should he be in green?’. We in Britain associate him with red apparel, and in the end, does it really matter? One day, he might decide on an anorak and jeans, after all, he is real, isn’t he…?

Jabez Dawes, in this fabulous cautionary tale by Ogden Nash is keen to spoil the magic andSanta Claus poke fun at the great man, and even suggest that he may not exist! Quite rightly, he get his come-uppance and Santa gets his revenge. It clearly isn’t all about the festive season – Jabez is a beastly child, even before the obvious trauma of losing his parents, but for some reason, all is always forgiven or excused until he messes with Santa…

Ogden Nash was an American poet who, with his light verse, has left some witty and memorable lines to posterity. To find out more, take a look at the poets.org page, or find a book of comic verse and you are sure to find at least one of  his gems.

The Boy Who Laughed at Santa Claus
by Ogden Nash

In Baltimore there lived a boy.
He wasn’t anybody’s joy.
Although his name was Jabez Dawes,
His character was full of flaws.
In school he never led his classes,
He hid old ladies’ reading glasses,
His mouth was open when he chewed,
And elbows to the table glued.
He stole the milk of hungry kittens,
And walked through doors marked NO ADMITTANCE.
He said he acted thus because
There wasn’t any Santa Claus.

Another trick that tickled Jabez
Was crying ‘Boo’ at little babies.
He brushed his teeth, they said in town,
Sideways instead of up and down.
Yet people pardoned every sin,
And viewed his antics with a grin,
Till they were told by Jabez Dawes,
‘There isn’t any Santa Claus!’

Deploring how he did behave,
His parents swiftly sought their grave.
They hurried through the portals pearly,
And Jabez left the funeral early.

Like whooping cough, from child to child,
He sped to spread the rumor wild:
‘Sure as my name is Jabez Dawes
There isn’t any Santa Claus!’
Slunk like a weasel of a marten
Through nursery and kindergarten,
Whispering low to every tot,
‘There isn’t any, no there’s not!’

The children wept all Christmas eve
And Jabez chortled up his sleeve.
No infant dared hang up his stocking
For fear of Jabez’ ribald mocking.
He sprawled on his untidy bed,
Fresh malice dancing in his head,
When presently with scalp-a-tingling,
Jabez heard a distant jingling;
He heard the crunch of sleigh and hoof
Crisply alighting on the roof.
What good to rise and bar the door?
A shower of soot was on the floor.

What was beheld by Jabez Dawes?
The fireplace full of Santa Claus!
Then Jabez fell upon his knees
With cries of ‘Don’t,’ and ‘Pretty Please.’
He howled, ‘I don’t know where you read it,
But anyhow, I never said it!’
‘Jabez’ replied the angry saint,
‘It isn’t I, it’s you that ain’t.
Although there is a Santa Claus,
There isn’t any Jabez Dawes!’

Said Jabez then with impudent vim,
‘Oh, yes there is, and I am him!
Your magic don’t scare me, it doesn’t’
And suddenly he found he wasn’t!
From grimy feet to grimy locks,
Jabez became a Jack-in-the-box,
An ugly toy with springs unsprung,
Forever sticking out his tongue.

The neighbors heard his mournful squeal;
They searched for him, but not with zeal.
No trace was found of Jabez Dawes,
Which led to thunderous applause,
And people drank a loving cup
And went and hung their stockings up.

All you who sneer at Santa Claus,
Beware the fate of Jabez Dawes,
The saucy boy who mocked the saint.
Donner and Blitzen licked off his paint.

father-c1Take heed all ye who scoff. or perhaps you feel the boy hard done by? I know for many the ‘joys’ of Christmas are a myth, and I accept there is far too much pressure on us to be happy on this one day a year, above all others. But I do think that sometimes the only way to get through this time of year is to believe that if we hold on tight, the days will get lighter, both in reality and metaphorically. And for me, the magic of the Christmas saint is one I cling to…

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Poetry for Christmas #2 – e.e. cummings – little tree

christmas treeWe have just spent a happy  weekend decorating the house for the festive season, so it seemed appropriate that the second in my ‘Poetry for Christmas‘ series is the lovely ‘little tree‘ by the innovative poet e.e. cummings, first published in 1920. Written in a child’s voice, it is a tender poem, expressing the love of children for everything relating to the festive season. The poet seeks to reassure the tree that although it has lost its forest companions, it will still be surrounded by love and warmth, and will be decorated when that magical box, coming out of the loft for just a short period each year, is opened. ‘every finger shall have its ring/and there won’t be a single place dark and unhappy’. Isn’t that an expression of love and hope for all of humanity? I would like to think so.

little tree by e.e.cummings

little tree
little silent Christmas tree
you are so little
you are more like a flower

who found you in the green forest
and were you very sorry to come away?
see i will comfort you
because you smell so sweetly

i will kiss your cool bark
and hug you safe and tight
just as your mother would,
only don’t be afraid

look the spangles
that sleep all the year in a dark box
dreaming of being taken out and allowed to shine,
the balls the chains red and gold the fluffy threads,

put up your little arms
and i’ll give them all to you to hold
every finger shall have its ring
and there won’t be a single place dark or unhappy

then when you’re quite dressed
you’ll stand in the window for everyone to see
and how they’ll stare!
oh but you’ll be very proud

and my little sister and i will take hands
and looking up at our beautiful tree
we’ll dance and sing
“Noel Noel”

e e cummings

e e cummings

What do you think? I think there is a touch of sentimentality about it in the last two verses, but the simplicity of the language Cummings (should it be a capital? I am never sure…) uses gives it a sense of reality to compensate. The voice is authentically childlike in its expression of the magic and beauty the tree represents.

As always, I would love to know your favourite poems, in this case the seasonal ones that stay with you, perhaps all year round…

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Poetry for Christmas #1 Mistletoe by Walter de la Mare

mistletoe2016 has flown by. It has been a strange, and horrible, twelve months in many ways and I feel barely ready for winter. However, the Advent calendar is up, and nine doors are opened already, so in order to make sure December does not fly past in a haze I have determined to do something Christmassy every day. I can’t control what is going on in a world which seems ever more determined to implode, consumed by hate and denying our humanity, and I am well aware that there is an unhappy side to the festive period based on a different kind of consumption. But there is magic too, and poetry can express some of that feeling of love, anticipation, joy and sparkle that is the best of the season.

So I thought I would share some of my Christmas favourites on my blog. I love talking and writing about poetry and I hope , even if you don’t consider yourself a poetry lover, you can find some lines that resonate with you.

So the first poem is Mistletoe by Walter de la Mare (1873-1956).

Sitting under the mistletoe
(Pale-green, fairy mistletoe),
One last candle burning low,
All the sleepy dancers gone,
Just one candle burning on,
Shadows lurking everywhere:
Some one came, and kissed me there.Tired I was; my head would go
Nodding under the mistletoe
(Pale-green, fairy mistletoe),
No footsteps came, no voice, but only,
Just as I sat there, sleepy, lonely,
Stooped in the still and shadowy air
Lips unseen—and kissed me there.

I suppose one could think this poem a little sinister – the author has no idea who has kissed him, and there is no confirmation that the ghostly kiss is welcomed. de la Mare is well-known for his ghost stories, some of them horror-filled.

Walter-de la Mare

Walter de la Mare

However, loneliness is expressed; the poet is on his own, the party-goers have left and he is under the mistletoe in that misty place between sleep and wakefulness, nodding off as the candle burns low. The colour of the mistletoe is still fresh, however, and it has that fairy quality that suggests the seasonal magic is at work. Walter de la Mare expressed his view that there are two types of imagination; one childlike and visionary, and the other (present when the childlike quality is lost) more intellectual. At Christmas I feel I return to childhood, with perhaps unrealistic hopes for the perfect holiday.

So I am with the magic, and the romance and the gentle, sleepy love that this poem expresses. What do you think? What are your favourite Christmas poems?

Posted in Christmas, Literature, Poetry, Reading, Walter de la Mare, Writing | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment