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Happy Halloween, Happy Birthday, John Keats
Keats owns autumn, as this post by Ange reminds us.
Every Halloween I think also of Keats since this is his birthday. His last poem, which breaks off rather than ends, is appropriately “haunting”:
This living hand, now warm and capable
Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold
And in the icy silence of the tomb,
So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights
That thou wouldst wish thine own heart dry of blood
So in my veins red life might stream again,
And thou be conscience-calm’d–see here it is–
I hold it towards you.
. . .
Then there is “Lamia,” a horror story in verse.
I vividly remember that my reaction, as a poet, to turning 26 was that I was older than Keats would ever be, and what had I accomplished? Our feelings as poets for Keats are complex. There is admiration for his tremendous output of great poems at such a young age, affectionate companionability in his letters, and sadness for a flowering of talent blasted by an untimely frost. (Steve has an interesting post about Keats’ collected sonnets, including the less-than-great ones.) Our love for him has something to do, I think, with our affection and nostalgia for our younger poet selves–for the promise, the talent, the eagerness for mastery, the giddiness of ambition, being drunk on the possibilities of poetry itself. And our sorrow for him is likewise also a mourning for our own wasted potential, the closing off of “negative capability”. I can think of no poet besides, say, Shakespeare who elicits so many other poems to or about him. There could be a whole anthology of them–indeed a whole chapter of sonnets alone. Here is one of my favorites, a perfectly-turned sonnet by Thom Gunn (from The Passages of Joy):
Keats at Highgate
A cheerful youth joined Coleridge on his walk
(‘Loose,’ noted Coleridge, ‘slack, and not well-dressed’)
Listening respectfully to the talk talk talk
Of First and Second Conciousness, then pressed
The famous hand with warmth and sauntered back
Homeward in his own state of less dispersed
More passive consciousness–passive, not slack,
Whether of Secondary type or First.
He made his way toward Hampstead so alert
He hardly passed the small grey ponds below
Or watched a sparrow pecking in the dirt
Without some insight swelling the mind’s flow
That banks made swift. Everything put to use.
Perhaps not well-dressed but oh no not loose.