As a way to say goodbye to Lear I thought I would share this poem, and some thoughts sparked by it:
Written Before Re-Reading King Lear
by John Keats
O golden-tongued Romance with serene lute!
Fair plumed Syren! Queen of far away!
Leave melodizing on this wintry day,
Shut up thine olden pages, and be mute.
Adieu! for once again the fierce dispute
Betwixt damnation and impassioned clay
Must I burn through; once more humbly assay
The bitter-sweet of this Shakespearian fruit.
Chief Poet! and ye clouds of Albion,
Begetters of our deep eternal theme,
When through the old oak Forest I am gone,
Let me not wander in a barren dream,
But when I am consumed in the Fire,
Give me new Phoenix wings to fly at my desire.
Keats wrote this pedestrian sonnet on January 22, 1818. There is little here to suggest greatness. Yet he was only 9 months from entering what Robert Gittings called “The Living Year.” As Gittings explains (in his critical study bearing that title), this miracle year begins in September 1818 when Keats starts writing his Miltonic epic Hyperion. This he soon abandons (“English must be kept up,” he declares--a telling pronouncement on Milton), and after some false starts, falls into writing a sequence of odes, before then drifting back to Hyperion and recasting it as a “Dream” fragment a year later. Hyperion: A Dream is a strange poem, too long for me to summarize except to say that in it Keats confronts his deepest fear: that he is a dreamer and not a poet. It has one of my favorite lines: the goddess looks at him and says,
“Thou art a dreaming thing, A fever of thyself.”
It is September 1819. The TB he picked up while nursing his brother Tom to his death was already incubating. Only what Keats would call his posthumous life lay ahead. It features a torturous sea voyage to Italy. A mysterious fellow consumptive—a beautiful young woman—who approaches Keats and says, “Are you the young man who is dying?” Later they laugh together at the other passengers, who have fallen sea sick, from the wicked storm. He prefers to get out of the carriage and walk as they make their way to Rome. When the food is bad, he tells his companion, the young painter Joseph Severn “Watch this,” and then tosses the food out their second story window. Afterwards the food improves. As his state worsens he turns bitter. He writes, I hate all men—and women more. He can’t bear books. He demands that he be buried under a stone without his name on it. Just “Here lies one whose name was writ in water.” But then a sea change. He makes Severn describe the setting in which he will buried again and again, and pronounces it beautiful. And he wants books again. Their presence brings him comfort. Severn eventually breaks down. He can’t afford more books. When Keats dies, Severn will sketch his face and--much later--it will make him famous. And when they perform the autopsy, the doctors say its amazing that he lived as long as he did—the lungs were empty. He was 26.
I fell for Keats in a junk shop in Brooklyn. It was the late 80’s and as hard as it is to believe, such places still existed. It was a few blocks down from my brownstone on 7th Avenue and I would usually drop in on the way to taking the orange line into Greenwich Village. One day an amazing collection of books showed up. By the looks of it the owner, one Elaine Black, had been a grad student in English at Harvard back in the early 70’s. A decade later she had dumped her books and headed out west, so the store owner said.
There was a lot on the Romantics, especially Keats. Most books were a buck. Like I said, it was a junk shop. I never worried that some one else would buy these books, I simply ducked in and bought one or two when I felt like getting something new to read on the subway. That’s where I picked up my copy of Gittings, and Jackson Bate’s biography of Keats.
Later Bate would say some silly things about Derrida and deconstruction. He was easy pickins for my dissertation director, Stanley Fish. But when it comes to literary biographies, Bate towers above the rest. His Samuel Johnson. His Coleridge. And then there is his Keats. If you are looking for the ultimate cross between a tear jerker and a close study of the stunning (and rapid) maturation of a great poet, read Bate. You’ll get three books in one: the poems, presented with love and intelligence. And Keats’ letters sifted and situated, and Keats is the greatest letter writer of all the English poets (his closest rival, Elizabeth Bishop, would object if I didn’t put her down as second). And you get Bates’ presentation of the history.
Causes Matthew Biberman Supports