John Keats: “There is nothing in the world so bright and delicate”
Like Aristotle’s theory of tragedy, John Keats’ life unravelled in a climatic procession of dramatic events steeped in universal trappings of love, loss and thwarted happiness. Having spent most of his life obsessively fixated with the idea of death, Keats’ tragic poverty-stricken end arrived at the vernal age of 25. He passed away in a foreign land, torn from the woman he loved, believing he had left no footprint in the world, no “immortal work”. Flicking through the beautiful Salt Pocket Classics’ edition of Ode to Psyche and Other Poems I was reminded why Keats had always been my favourite elegiac potentate of lovelorn verse. It is impossible to mistake his work with any one of his contemporaries, for not a single one was capable of scribing in that consummately melancholic vein or gleaning “beauty in all things.”
Some critics have hypothesised that Keats’ end was, in part, brought about by savage criticism when in fact it was his irreversibly failing health. Keats and his friend, the painter Joseph Severn, sailed to Italy in September 1820, hoping that the climate would be more salubrious for the poet’s well-being. Alas, Keats “sank into death” from tuberculosis in Rome on 23rd February 1821, with Severn by his side playing Joseph Haydn on the piano as Keats had requested. The story of Keats – his working-class genesis, the lacuna in formal education, poor critical reception and premature death constitute a perfect tabulation for a popular archetype of the Romantic Poet. The myth, however, detracts somewhat from his influence on the Romanic Movement and the precedent he set in regulating poetic life by principal aesthetic tastes.
Shortly after Keats’ passing, Severn painted a portrait of his late friend. Recollecting the process, he said: “I made an effort to call-up the last pleasant remembrance…at the time he first fell ill and had written the ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ (1819) on the morn of my visit to Hampstead. I found him sitting with the two chairs as I have painted him and I was struck with the first real symptom of sadness which Keats so finely expressed in that poem.” Ode to a Nightingale is one of six Odes which Keats penned between 1818 and 1819, while residing at Wentworth Place in Hampstead Heath with his friend Charles Armitage Brown. That winter marked the beginning of Keats’ annus mirabilis in which he wrote his most sophisticated work. The Ode traces the inception, temperament and decline of the creative mood, and expresses Keats’ attempt to comprehend the disparity between the ideal and the corporeal, the inextricable affinity between pleasure and pain, and more particularly, the desire to escape earthly imperatives and “fade away” into the idyllic world as represented by the nightingale, until eventually Keats concedes defeat and bids the bird to: “…quietly forget/ What thou among the leaves hast never known/ The weariness, the fever, and the fret/ Here, where men sit and hear each other groan”.
The theme of the melancholic, the sensual, the cultic and the moral, binds the Odes together. Ode to Melancholy is equally as lyrical and affecting yet one of the most overlooked. Here Keats attempts to express the “anguish of the soul” through reference to nature, saying: “But when the melancholy fit shall fall/ Sudden from heaven like a weeping cloud/ That fosters the droop-headed flowers all/ And hides the green hill in an April shroud.” The poem rejects conventional preoccupations, of the gothic imagination with the macabre, in favour of the meditations which interested Keats in the Ode to a Nightingale, namely beauty and its transience, melancholy and its relationship with mirth, encapsulated perfectly in the following lines: “She dwells with Beauty – Beauty that must die/ And Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips/ Bidding adieu; and aching Pleasure nigh/ Turning to poison while the bee-mouth sips.”
The title poem of the collection, Ode to Psyche, was the one that started the series, although according to some sources Ode to Indolence was written first. The original version of Ode to Psyche was recorded in a letter Keats wrote to his brother George. The epistle ends with a transcript of the poem, of which Keats notes: “I have for the most part dash’d of[f] my lines in a hurry – This I have done leisurely – I think it reads the more richly for it and will I hope encourage me to write other thing[s] in even a more peaceable and healthy spirit.” The poem, regarded to be the most puritanical, despite its ripened metaphors and imagery, aims at a complete and lasting annihilation of the sensuous in favour of the cerebral, with Keats exclaiming: “Oh for a life of thoughts…instead of Sensation!” and later vowing to the Psyche: “Yes, I will be thy priest, and build a fane / In some untrodden region of my mind.”
Most of Keats’ poetry written during this period was influenced predominantly by him falling in love. Keats first met Fanny Brawne in 1818 while she was visiting Wentworth Place. A year later, Brawne and her widowed mother moved there and the couple’s relations began to transform into “huge cloudy symbols of a high romance”. It proved an impetus and an inspiration, inculcating Keats’ craft with the vibrancy of his new-found feelings. Coquettish and of “elegant, pure, aerial” mind, endowed with natural bonhomie and a fine wit, Brawne soon had Keats “entrammeled” and “careless of all charms” but hers. On his part, Keats took the monadic representation of his beloved “sweet creature”, and turned it into a vivid image in Bright Star which he later gifted to Brawne as a declaration of his intentions, making pellucid his desire to live with her forever or “else swoon to death”. The concept of the poem is echoed in one of Keats’ letter when he says: “You dazzled me – There is nothing in the world so bright and delicate.” It was a sentiment reiterated in many of his epistles, alongside his unyielding, prehensile, yearning for her with confessions such as: “I want to believe in immortality…If I am destined to be happy with you here – how short is the longest life. I wish to live with you forever,” and “I cannot exist without you – I am forgetful of every thing but seeing you again – my Life seems to stop there – I see no further. You have absorb’d me.”
In the beginning, however, Brawne both confused and exasperated Keats as much as she fascinated him. Keats wrote to his brother George on the subject: “Shall I give you Miss Brawne? She is about my height with a fine style of countenance of the lengthened sort – she wants sentiment in every feature – she manages to make her hair look well – her nostrils are fine though a little painful – her mouth is bad and good – her Profile is better than her full-face which indeed is not full but pale and thin without showing any bone – her shape is very graceful and so are her movements – Her arms are good her hands baddish – her feet tolerable…. She is not seventeen – but she is ignorant – monstrous in her behaviour flying out in all directions, calling people such names that I was forced lately to make use of the term Minx – this I think not from any innate vice but from a penchant she has for acting stylishly. I am, however, tired of such style and shall decline any more of it.”
But, of course, he could not decline. It was already too late. Having previously declared that any creature in love “cuts the sorryest figure in the world”, he became a new man, one for whom love was a “religion” and a thing so sacrosanct he was ready and willing to “die” for it. These biographical developments coincide with new directions in Keats’ craft, denoting an allegiance to his newly found amative convictions and a tentative exploration of the interrelation between mythology, experience and the imagination. La Belle Dame Sans Merci, considered to be one of Keats’ finest ballads and penned in medieval tradition with classical, biblical and historical references, draws on the destructive nature of desire which Keats himself knew firsthand through the petty jealousies and insecurities that made his love both his “pleasure and torment”. La Belle Dame Sans Merci relays a tale of a knight enthralled by an elfin woman, an innocent yet obdurate seductresses charming the male to his proverbial end with doleful “wild wild eyes” and promises of love. The poem is both sensual and emotional, and pays homage to Brawne, who like La Belle Dame had Keats “in thrall”, as following lines attests: “I met a lady in the meads/Full beautiful—a faery’s child/ Her hair was long, her foot was light/ And her eyes were wild…She found me roots of relish sweet/ And honey wild, and manna dew/ And sure in language strange she said/I love thee true.”
Everything Keats wrote in that year was a far cry from his earlier work, which impenitently questioned the sweet encomiums of amour and their facile undertones, most notably in Modern Love when he queried mockingly: “And what is love? It is a doll dressed up/For idleness to cosset, nurse and dandle,” or proclaimed in winsome verse, like some jejune hellion, his “beloved Trinity” to be: “women, wine and snuff”. There’s little doubt that Keats’ personal life played a pivotal part in his work, epitomised succinctly but aptly by the following line in a letter to Brawne: “My Creed is Love and you are its only tenet.” The Salt Pocket Classics’ collection, selected and introduced by Chris Hamilton-Emery, contains Keats’ most celebrated works including all the Odes, and some of my personal favourites such as: Fancy (Oh, sweet Fancy! let her loose/Every thing is spoilt by use), To Autumn (Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?/Think not of them, thou hast thy music too/While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day/And touch the stubble plains with rosy hue), When I Have Fears (When I have fears that I may cease to be/ Before my pen has glean’d my teeming brain/Before high piled books, in charact’ry/ 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 To Sleep (O soft embalmer of the still midnight!/ Shutting with careful fingers and benign/Our gloom-pleased eyes, embower’d from the light/ Enshaded in forgetfulness divine). Reading Keats’ work again, contemplating his life, its “sorrows and delights/passions and their spites”, I realised that his name is not only “writ in water” but also in the minds, the hearts and the notebooks of millions of old romantics like me.