On First Looking into Keats’ Poems
To paraphrase Tom Lehrer, it is sobering to think that when John Keats was my age, he’d been dead for five years.
I’m thinking of Keats for two reasons. Firstly, aided and abetted by the British newspaper The Guardian which was giving away pamphlets of poetry a few weeks ago, I have begun to read selections from the Romantic poets, and Keats was the subject of the first pamphlet. Secondly, Keats wrote prolifically even whilst dying from consumption. And whilst not on my deathbed with consumption, I’m certainly on my illbed with a nasty cold, and an overwhelming desire to do nothing but read or watch unchallenging television shows. Certainly not write, and I can only admire Keats for continuing his output whilst not only mortally ill, but at such a tender age.
It seems he packed more living, feeling and writing into one score and five than most of us do in the traditional three score and ten.
The poem that most speaks to my condition, as the Quakers are wont to say, is When I Have Fears That I May Cease To Be:
When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has glean’d my teeming brain,
Before high-piled books, in charactery,
Hold like rich garners the full ripen’d grain;
When I behold, upon the night’s starr’d face,
Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,
And think that I may never live to trace
Their shadows, with the magic hand of chance;
And when I feel, fair creature of an hour,
That I shall never look upon thee more,
Never have relish in the faery power
Of unreflecting love;–then on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone, and think
Till love and fame to nothingness do sink.
Keats must surely have been conscious of how quickly he would cease to be. His brother died of consumption, and he too would follow. Whatever poems he did not manage to write, he certainly gave of his best.
I write not for riches (although that would be nice), and I write not to find fame (although that too would be welcome). I write so that when I am gone there will be something of me left behind as testament that I was here, that I thought and felt and wondered. Some enduring marker of a transient existence.
The sobering thought is not the one that I started this article with. The truly sobering thought is that someday I may too cease to be “before my pen has gleen’d my teeming brain”.
We are all allotted a portion of time in this world and we cannot know its length. So we must make the best use of it we can. So even though I am feeling poorly, I should keep the pen moving and pour my thoughts out onto the page, otherwise when I am gone I will take them with me. And in the words of Granny Weatherwax, “I aitn’t dead yet”.