John Keats was someone for whom, and around whom, my life revolved for a certain period of time in my early twenties. And because we don’t often acknowledge who we were or have been enough when we think of who we are, I want to tell our story.
By our story, I mean both I and Keats story and I and poetry’s story, for they intersect quite a bit.
I think we often live in worlds where we forget or obscure the past as a form of embarrassment that seeks to be a willful erasure of memory. As someone who is a poet now, I always forget that I hated Keats when I first read him in HS. After reading “Ode on a Grecian Urn“ my sophomore year, I remember thinking, irritably, “We just wasted an hour reading a poem about a glorified flowerpot.”
This was not an unusual response as I was really irritated by all poetry in HS except this one Wordsworth snippet from the end of “Ode on Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood“ (or OOIOIFROEC for short, which is not better):
Thanks to the human heart by which we live,
Thanks to its tenderness, its joys, its fears,
To me the meanest flower that blows can give
Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.
I think this shows the low level of aesthetic taste I had for poetry at that age.
Then, at 20, I was in a British and American Literature class, and the professor read “Ode to a Nightingale“ aloud to the class. And when he got to this part . . .
That thou, light-winged Dryad of the trees
In some melodious plot
Of beechen green, and shadows numberless,
Singest of summer in full-throated ease.
. . . this language crawled inside me, and I could not extricate it.
From that point, I loved not just poetry — but the language of poetry — and what it could do.
Everyone knows that there is a difference between an amateur — someone that enjoys something for what it is — and those who want to know and understand how something works in order to be an expert in it.
With my reintroduction to Keats, my poetic desires, which had been indifferently the former, turned moodily to the latter.
This was the thing I was doing forever unless someone stopped me. This reminds me of something Shelley once said. When he was asked why he kept writing, he said, “I always go on until I am stopped. And I am never stopped.”
I got into the practice of staying up all night reading all of Keats’ greatest hits and skipping class the next morning because I was so tired out from so much Keats reading.
I sometimes did this with other poets too. The first time I read Paradise Lost — got me complained on by my neighbors to the landlord. Apparently old ladies don’t like to hear “BETTER TO REIGN IN HELL THAN SERVE IN HEAVEN!” being yelled all night above them.
“Ode to a Nightingale” especially entranced me, this stanza in particular:
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 mused 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.
I would recite it in my head over and over. Keats was the first person I read who talked about death that way — both passionately and honestly — and as someone who was and is unusually morbid — that moved me.
He soon attained a level of worship that no one else has attained in my life. Not that there are not others I have loved as well — but there is a level of absolute worship we engage in when we are young that is so unlike the steady admiration of others we engage in when we are older.
It is so all-encompassing — so vast to be in love with the mind of another so fully — if only intellectually.
Though I still cannot get a sense of who Keats was as a person when he lived. Whether he was grave or lighthearted or whimsical or funny. Or what he would have spoken like.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge I get. There is this great letter (by Keats!) about meeting Coleridge — that details what they talked about:
I walked with him a[t] his alderman-after dinner pace for near two miles I suppose. In those two Miles he broached a thousand things—let me see if I can give you a list—Nightingales, Poetry—on Poetical sensation—Metaphysics—Different genera and species of Dreams—Nightmare—a dream accompanied by a sense of touch—single and double touch—A dream related—First and second consciousness—the difference explained between will and Volition—so m[an]y metaphysicans from a want of smoking the second consciousness—Monsters—the Kraken—Mermaids—southey believes in them—southey’s belief too much diluted—A Ghost story—Good morning—I heard his voice as he came towards me—I heard it as he moved away—I had heard it all the interval—if it may be called so.
First off — everyone bask in the awesomeness for a moment that was Coleridge’s completely hilarious conversational skills.
Coleridge and I are like weird conversational twins in this regard — in the weird, random conversations that jump around a lot. And if he were still around, we would go get a beer together (a laudanum?) while shooting the weird conversation shit all night.
But Keats? I have no idea how to approach him personally except through his poetry — which is insular in that it is not personal (“Ode on a Grecian Urn” is fairly abstract) — or his death — which I can understand very easily as I understand sickness and suffering very well.
Perhaps that is why Keats is so readable or re-readable even now to me. I never quite grasp the mind that is speaking — not in the way that I want. And so I keep returning to it as if next time all will be laid bare to me.
As it was the death I best grasped, it became the death that best fascinated me.
No one died so well — or so poorly — as Keats.
His father died of a stable accident when he was 9. His mother died of a long struggle with TB when he was 15 (Keats having nursed her for months beforehand). She was followed by his grandmother and then his brother Tom (who also died of TB, and who Keats also nursed). Keats himself started showing definitive symptoms of TB at around 24. It was a year later that he died. (You can find more basic Keats facts here.)
Towards the end, he was recommended to go to Rome for the milder climate. On the boat over, Keats confided in a letter that he felt he was living a “posthumous existence.” When the doctor did an autopsy on his body after his death, he found two-thirds of Keats’ lung tissue gone, and he did not understand how Keats had lived that long, that he should have died weeks ago.
So Keats was right, he had lived a “posthumous existence.”
At his request, he was buried with “Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water” on his tombstone.All this about him haunted me.
At 21, on my bucket list — I have this as one of the entries:
Go to Rome, visit John Keats’ grave and weep violently as I mourn the passing of one of the truest human beings this civilization has ever produced.
I had a framed picture of the painting that Joseph Severn, who accompanied Keats to Rome as his nurse, did of Keats on his deathbed.
I hung it up in my bedroom so I could see it all the time.
There was also a smaller framed portrait of Keats I carried with me always.
It was not long before this obsession began to make its into my poetry, like this excerpt from a really ugly poem I wrote about his death in college:
Now lifelessly perched in quiet unrest
Waiting as slow-timed angles
As this sickness-fevered consumed him,
It’s pushing divorce of flesh,
And eating away in those last days,
Fueling the urgent need of
His half-whispered pleadings
TB clearly infected my imagination because I also wrote this fairly unkind haiku about Chopin, another TB sufferer:
Chopin wrote music
Spitting out etudes and such
Between chunks of lung.
One of the details that fascinated me was that Keats was constantly begging Severn for food, for more than bread softened in milk that was the only thing he could keep down at that point. Something about that seemed so heart-rendering pitiful. He was dying. Why not let him have whatever he wanted?
I wrote a pretty terrible poem about it, of which this is only the beginning:
In his last days John Keats was hungry
And knew no fare
But bread sopped in a little milk
As he hacked
And watched his flesh divorce itself
Although, the scenes from his deathbed weren’t all bad. Severn tied the bottom wick of a candle about to burn out to the top wick of a new candle. That way one would light the other so Keats could have a light burning all night. When the flame jumped from one candle to the other, Keats saw it and was all “Fairies!”
One last thing about his deathbed scene that obsessed me was that he was upset to be dying in the spring. (“Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they? / Think not of them, thou hast thy music too[.]”) He asked Severn to close the window so he did not have to all the spring flowers blooming outside his window.
I wrote a ridiculous and maudlin song about it (which I won’t share) at around 25 — nearly the same age Keats was when he died. That was the last thing I wrote to him or about him.
Then I moved on to other obsessions — like the language poets — replaced by Bob Cobbing and Alice Notley and Mei-mei Berssenbrugge — and all the vestiges the living make in us when we finally concede to making art.
Who were your first obsessive loves in writing?