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small, busy flames
John Keats wrote 64 sonnets, some very famous and rightly admired all over the wide world, and some that wouldn’t get, nor deserve, much attention, had their author not been Keats.
And some fall in between: there are good lines in bad poems, startling stanzas next to dully conventional ones, and effects in unfamiliar poems which remember, or echo, the same effects in later, more durable verse.
You might not know that Keats wrote 64 sonnets, and you probably wouldn’t pause and notice some of the in-between, exciting-but-unfinished, or uneven, sonnets, if you simply read all of Keats straight through: there’s not so much Keats that you wouldn’t want to read him straight through, and in fact I recommend it, but there’s enough to conceal the lesser sonnets behind the larger forms of verse-letters, epyllions, and odes.
That’s why a neat book I found in Chicago, John Keats: The 64 Sonnets, has held my attention today: it’s just what it says it is, Keats’ 64 sonnets, with some annotations and an intro by Ed Hirsch, and it’s a way that a reader who already knows “Bright Star” and “When I Have Fears” and “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer” (“Much have I travelled in the realms of gold”) can briefly explore some less-familiar realms.
This little book will demonstrate, fast and conclusively, the best reason to read all of a poet you like: even if you don’t find many more whole poems as powerful, perfect and moving as the ones you already know, you will almost certainly find remarkable parts of poems– if not whole figures, then perfectly-made heads or limbs. Some anthologies– not many– include the early sonnet to his brothers, whose hushed first quatrain is a paragon of detail-work and scene-setting:
Small, busy flames play through the fresh laid coals,
And their faint cracklings o’er our silence creep
Like whispers of the household gods that keep
A gentle empire o’er fraternal souls.
Besides the euphonies, the s’s and r’s that suggest the quiet fire, you might notice how the adjectives keep the peace, how they take away what would otherwise be inapposite nouns about power: empire, gods. That’s a sonnet that begins perfectly and ends, to my taste, with Keats at less than his best.
If you read the second (surviving) sonnet he wrote, a reaction to the death of his grandmother, you will see the opposite: at the beginning, a dull parade of (mere) conventions about the bliss the dead encounter in Heaven, and then a stunning and really Keatsian ending. After describing, unconvincingly, the angels and the afterlife, the teenaged Keats asks “What pleasures higher?/ Wherefore does any grief our joy impair?” Uncareful readers may think the final question, like the penultimate one, rhetorical, since to a committed Christian there should not be any grief left when a good person dies, only joy; but Keats is not a committed Christian, is in fact on his way to rejecting Christianity altogether, and the final line is to my (perhaps anachronistic) ear a depth charge that blows up the rest of the poem, since the persistence of grief amid even the most fulsomely confident rituals and recitations of Christian consolation suggests that we don’t really believe the dead are in Heaven, nor can we believe fully, in this world where our friends all eventually die, in the justice of the Christian God.
If you read “Written In Disgust of Vulgar Superstition” you can see Keats in full-blown, antireligious unbelief. It could be Richard Dawkins’ favorite Keats, and it contains some memorable lines: hearing “the church bells toll a melancholy sound,/ Calling the people” from secular delights of a Sunday morning to “the sermon’s horrid sound,” Keats has trouble believing that anyone in his supposedly enlightened age would put down a great book, end a meal, or terminate a conversation in order to go to that gloomy, unrewarding place, a house of worship. Here are lines 4-11:
Surely the mind of man is closely bound
In some black spell: seeing that each one tears
Himself from fireside joys, and Lydian airs,
And converse high of those with glory crowned.
Still, still they toll, and I should feel a damp,
A chill as from a tomb, did I not know
That they are dying like an outburnt lamp…
That is, Keats consoles himself, after the “turn” in the sonnet (after line 8, where many sonnets change gear), with his near certainty that religion, or anyway Christianity, church bells, will soon no longer disturb conversation, music, or reading, since it will be a merely historical thing. Alas, the good things its passage into history will bring are things Keats can’t imagine convincingly: “fresh flowers,” “many glories,” unspecified good (secular) pleasure and art: that’s why you haven’t seen this sonnet in anthologies (that, and the blasphemy).
If you read through Keats’ 64 sonnets, you’ll likely see other neat bits in poems you won’t already know: I recommend, for example, the last five lines of “To the Nile” (which is a multiculturalist poem too, if you like to think in those terms), and the last six of “O thou whose face hath felt the winter’s wind,” and the entirety of “Four seasons fill the measure of the year.” That wonderful last sonnet does get into some anthologies– in fact, it’s available right here on this site, though with a title Keats never used.
Finally: if you read the annotations (either those in The 64 Sonnets or those in a good big edition of Keats like this one) you may learn– you may already know– just how fast Keats wrote some of his short poems: you won’t learn from The 64 Sonnets, though, how Keats prepared himself to write short poems so fast by writing so often, by laboring over other, often longer ones, and by translating Virgil in his teens. Poetic inspiration, like the chance that leads to scientific discovery, favors the prepared mind.