by Sam Buntz
I have been both reading and thinking a great deal about John Keats, lately. If I were Keats, at this point in my life – at the close of 23 and on the cusp of 24– I would be entering into my great period, lasting but one year. I would’ve kissed off grad school and somehow attempted to lead a life devoted entirely to poetry without any bar or defense. I would, in the next year, compose what will arguably become the greatest poems in English since Blake – including two unfinished Miltonic epics, five unimpeachably great odes, and an assortment of long and short poems, sonnets, and fragments, all deathless classics. I would fall in love with Fanny Brawne, and towards the end of the next twelve months, be drawing up plans to revolutionize the English theater and try to match Shakespeare (whom I, as John Keats, would consider to be my guiding spirit). And, at the end of that year, after what was intended to be a pleasant walking tour of Scotland, I would come down with tuberculosis, realize that all of my desires will remain unfulfilled, despair, cease writing anything except letters, sail to Rome, lose my much-needed and medically sanctioned pain-killing bottle of laudanum (which my friend had thrown over the edge of the ship, worried that I was planning to intentionally take an over-dose), and die an agonizing death at age 25. My grave (in Italy) would bear the epitaph “Hear lies one whose name was writ in water” – wrongly prophesying my memory’s loss to the ravages of time. In the coming decades and centuries, I would find myself deprecated by Matthew Arnold, T.S. Eliot, and other “neo-classicists,” and hailed by the illustrious likes of Alfred Tennyson, Robert Frost, William Carlos Williams, Wilfred Owen, and others.
But, as it is, I’m fairly certain such a great and terrible fate is not preparing itself for me in the next year. The fact that such a fate prepared itself for Keats provides an excellent argument for the existence of capricious gods who “murder us for their sport” but still appreciate a good story. A “good story” is pretty much the only thing you can, with bitter irony, hurl back at cosmic destiny for having slain the man who may have been the most prodigiously gifted writer since Shakespeare, before he had achieved all that he could achieve. If Whitman, Wallace Stevens, Robert Frost, or T.S. Eliot (for example) had died at the same age, they would have left nothing… or a few interesting fragments. And Shakespeare might’ve had time to get off one or two early plays (but there would undoubtedly be no Hamlet, no Macbeth, no Lear, no Prospero, no Falstaff…) Even the pre-Great-Year Keats is an interesting and precocious adolescent in his poems and an intensely absorbing writer in his letters – which even so unyielding a critic as T.S. Eliot admitted contained nothing but the truth.
But, to consider the actual poetry (with necessarily unpardonable brevity):
The young Keats (though, of course, being dead at 25, he is, as they say, “forever young”), made, in his early work, some philosophical reflections about the nature of poetry, which would apply equally well to his later poetic self – there was continuity between the “younger” and “older” selves, a well-woven braid of intellect, knitting itself toward a definite end. In the early “Endymion,” he writes, “Wherein lies happiness? In that which becks / Our ready minds to fellowship divine, / A fellowship with essence; till we shine, / Full alchemiz’d and free of space.” Keats means that any “thing of beauty” that absorbs our attention – any privileged moment – causes us to forget our own identity and become absorbed in a larger unity (a sort of Buddhist/Hindu dissolution of the distinction between subject and object or between self and other.) We are transformed (“alchemiz’d”) and escape from our imprisonment in what Blake called “the ocean of space and time.” Keats becomes, as in Emerson’s crazy metaphor, “a transparent eyeball” – his individual identity melts away, and in the poetic fury of the moment, he becomes the beauty that he looks upon.
Now, the “young” Keats’ speculations on poetry gradually developed into artistic realization – he could articulate very well what he wanted to do before he could actually do it. But when he finally does achieve this power, its quality is revelatory – it is a voice that speaks from everywhere and nowhere, like Shakespeare’s – the voice of the unearthed Grecian urn (in “Ode on a Grecian Urn”), which Keats sees and hears as speaking in soundless song: “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard / Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes play on: / Not to the sensual ear, but, more endeared / Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone…” The message the Grecian urn brings him is consonant with that delivered earlier in “Endymion.” Keats famously addresses the Grecian urn before channeling its message: “When old age shall this generation waste, / Thou shalt remain in midst of other woe / Than ours, a friend to man to whom thou say’st, / ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty, – that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’”
In a letter, Keats wrote, “As to the poetical Character itself… it is not itself – it has no self – it is every thing and nothing – It has no character – it enjoys light and shade; it lives in gusto, be it foul or fair, high or low, rich or poor, mean or elevated… A Poet is the most unpoetical of any thing in existence; because he has no Identity – he is continually in for – and filling some other Body – The Sun, the Moon, the Sea and Men and Women – are creatures of impulse are poetical and have about them an unchangeable attribute – the poet has none; no identity – he is certainly the most unpoetical of all God’s Creatures.” Keats attains this state of perfect identification with the entirety of Nature, leaving behind his own selfhood, in the final masterpiece, “To Autumn.” The personal identity of the poet seems to have completely dropped out, leaving Autumn to express itself, using the poet’s mind as a source of illumination whereby the season can write its own poem: “Then in a willful choir the small gnats mourn / Among the river sallows, borne aloft / Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies…” (The poem needs to be read as a whole to get the full effect.)
One aspect I haven’t addressed in Keats’ poetry is his “tragic acceptance of limits” – which is perhaps indicated by the fact that the autumnal gnats are so “mournful.” It is something he has in common with Shakespeare’s tragedies, but not, for instance, with a more forthrightly affirmative poet like Blake or Whitman. Keats could write poignantly of our inevitable defeat at the hands of time: “She dwells with Beauty—Beauty that must die, / And Joy whose hands is ever at his lips, / Bidding adieu; and aching Pleasure nigh, / Turning to poison as the bee mouth sips.” (I don’t think any poet before Keats would’ve imagined the bee’s mouth sipping at a flower — zoomed into the particular instance so casually.) His final letter to Fanny Brawne—whom Keats, nearing the very end, has bitterly realized will never marry him or otherwise consummate their relationship—spells out his acceptance of tragedy: “I hate men, and women more. I see nothing but thorns for the future – wherever I may be next winter, in Italy or nowhere…” After lamenting how another suitor will be living near Fanny “with his indecencies,” he says “the world is too brutal for me – I am glad there is such a thing as the grave – I am sure I shall never have any rest till I get there…I wish I was either in your arms full of faith or that a Thunder bolt would strike me. God bless you. J.K.” This is, of course, heartbreaking – but I also find that no matter how severely one has lost at love, it is somehow heartening to read about how much more finely and supremely Keats suffered the same defeat, and managed to still conduct himself (in his letters, at least) with some of the old fire, despite his considerable despair.
I think Keats – along with Wordsworth – was the best poet after Blake, all the way up to and probably beyond the present moment (though I would say Whitman and Dickinson equal him). When you consider that his memorable poems were pretty much all written in one year, this judgment becomes even greater than it apparently seems. Yet it is instructive to consider how Keats’ acceptance of limits and of death jars with Blake’s own deathbed experience. Of course, a dying young person is far more likely to die as Keats did (I think I probably would), angrily renouncing his/her unfulfilled desires and wishing (sort of half-heartedly) for the peace of the grave. Yet Blake’s visionary art enabled a death in which he died joyously singing of the things he saw as the Gates of Paradise opened. In a late letter, the now elderly Blake writes, “I have been very near the Gates of Death & have returned very weak & an Old Man feeble and tottering, but not in Spirit & Life not in The Real Man The Imagination which Liveth for Ever. In that I am stronger and stronger as this Foolish Body decays.” I highlight these differences not to use Blake as a stick to beat Keats, since I love both – but simply to show how Blake’s more spiritual worldview has certain elements in it that are not present in Keats and Shakespeare – though those two poets perhaps have qualities that Blake didn’t have, or didn’t wish to have because they were secondary to his mission. Yet John Keats is a poet who speaks to us startlingly well at the present moment – as a poet with no dogma or creed, he sang “by [his] own eyes inspired,” which is what many of us find ourselves compelled to do. He realized, like his disciple Wallace Stevens (who wrote the following lines), the tragic origins of art: “From this the poem springs: that we live in a place / That is not our own and, much more, not ourselves / And hard it is, in spite of blazoned days.”