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Happy Halloween, Happy Birthday, John Keats

By A.E. Stallings

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.

Comments (4)

  • On October 31, 2007 at 1:48 pm Don Share wrote:

    An entire bibliography of poems about Keats can be found here.
    I wonder if folks remember Countee Cullen’s “To John Keats, Poet, at Spring Time,” which starts off:
    I cannot hold my peace, John Keats;
    There never was a spring like this;
    … well, it’s just Halloween, so I’m jumping the gun here!
    But did you know that Keats, even in poems like “To Autumn,” was a forerunner of open-form poetry? Neither did I, but the argument is made in Jeffrey C. Robinson’s Reception and Poetics in Keats: My Ended Poet

  • On October 31, 2007 at 10:23 pm Alicia (AE) wrote:

    Wow! That is neat about the bibliography–it seems obvious there should be one, somehow, if not an actual anthology.
    The Countee Cullen is a very charming poem. For folks who don’t know it: To John Keats, Poet, at Springtime.
    Keats poems keep coming, of course. There was a lovely one by James Kimbrell some years back in Poetry, “To Keats in October.”

  • On November 1, 2007 at 9:31 am Ange wrote:

    This is gorgeous, Alicia, and it reminds me of the visit I paid to the Keats House in the summer of 1999. Speaking of horror stories! I was inexplicably terrified of the memorabilia there — his comb, for god’s sake. A lock of hair. The handwritten letters in glass cases everywhere, torrid appeals to Fanny Brawne. It was overwhelming. A walk through Hampstead Heath in the light drizzle only deepened my melancholy, and the sight of a swan floating through the desultory mist made me start as if I’d seen a ghost.

  • On November 1, 2007 at 6:34 pm Steve Mackin wrote:

    TO JOHN KEATS, POET, AT SPRING TIME
    (For Carl Van Vechten)
    I cannot hold my peace, John Keats;
    There never was a spring like this;
    It is an echo, that repeats
    My last year’s song and next year’s bliss.
    I know, in spite of all men say
    Of Beauty, you have felt her most.
    Yea, even in your grave her way
    Is laid. Poor, troubled, lyric ghost,
    Spring never was so fair and dear
    As Beauty makes her seem this year.
    I cannot hold my peace, John Keats,
    I am as helpless in the toil
    Of Spring as any lamb that bleats
    To feel the solid earth recoil
    Beneath his puny legs. Spring beats
    her tocsin call to those who love her,
    And lo! the dogwood petals cover
    Her breast with drifts of snow, and sleek
    White gulls fly screaming to her, and hover
    About her shoulders, and kiss her cheek,
    While white and purple lilacs muster
    A strength that bears them to a cluster
    Of color and odor; for her sake
    All things that slept are now awake.
    And you and I, shall we lie still,
    John Keats, while Beauty summons us?
    Somehow I feel your sensitive will
    Is pulsing up some tremulous
    Sap road of a maple tree, whose leaves
    Grow music as they grow, since your
    Wild voice is in them, a harp that grieves
    For life that opens death’s dark door.
    Though dust, your fingers still can push
    The Vision Splendid to a birth,
    Though now they work as grass in the hush
    Of the night on the broad sweet page of the earth.
    “John Keats is dead,” they say, but I
    Who hear your full insistent cry
    In bud and blossom, leaf and tree,
    Know John Keats still writes poetry.
    And while my head is earthward bowed
    To read new life sprung from your shroud,
    Folks seeing me must think it strange
    That merely spring should so derange
    My mind. They do not know that you,
    John Keats, keep revel with me, too.
    From On These I Stand: An Anthology of the Best Poems of Countee Cullen


Posted in Uncategorized on Wednesday, October 31st, 2007 by A.E. Stallings.