Thursday, October 27, 2016
The Letters of John Keats
It might be surprising to a lot of people to know that John Keats, the great 19th century English romantic poet, was best remembered by other children at school as a fist fighter. A prominent aspect of the best portrait we have of Keats, a pencil drawing by his friend, Charles Brown, is his surprisingly large and powerful fist which he is leaning his face against. It is a very interesting portrait in that it presents not just the true image and un-sentimentalized vision of Keats himself, but also some of the great conflicts that defined his life. On the one hand we see the powerful boxer's fist and the broad shoulders of a young man in his prime. On the other had we see him supporting his head on that fist in exhaustion, and we see his flushing cheeks, both indications of the tuberculosis that would soon take his life.
There's been so much written about John Keats that it might seem pointless, or even pretentious to add anything more. I write about him here partly because he was my favorite poet, but more so because not just his poetry and his biography, but his ideas are still very worthy of study. These ideas, put forth mostly in his letters, offer terrific insights to those struggling to write and understand poetry, and to the struggle to understand life itself. I myself have taken up poetry again, after a 35 year hiatus, and in that process I've come back to study Keats. The reason I've come back to Keats at age 54 is that he became arguably the best poet in English before his death, at just the age 26, and only composed poetry in the last 5 or 6 years of his life. Such a rate of achievement was meteoric, and having made the decision to write poetry at this relatively late age I feel I can greatly benefit from the ideas of a poet who's work advanced at such a rate.
The perception of Keats today it seems, at least in the popular consciousness, is that he was a dreamer; a sort of wilting flower too delicate for this world who wrote pleasingly effeminate lyrics of little or no interest to the world today.* This conception of him as a mere dreamer is a reversal of the truth. As I said Keats was a fighter. In his short life he fought bullies in the schoolyard when teased him about his small stature (he was just five feet tall) and later he fought against class prejudice, against time, against poverty, against disease and against death. In spite of all this he became a doctor, but gave that up to become a poet, a notoriously difficult career to live on. Through it all he never let himself be influenced by other writers to the point it hindered him in the search for of his own voice. The incredible courage of Keats' is at the root of his unparalleled achievement. So much for the wilting flower view of John Keats.
Thou was not born for death, immortal bird!
No hungry generations tread the down,
The voice I hear this passing night was heard,
In ancient days by emperor and clown,
Perhaps the self same song that found a path
Through the sad heart of Ruth when sick for home
She stood in tears amid the alien corn...
Perhaps it was all that Keats endured that enabled him to write such immortal lines as those above, lines of great beauty but also steeped in the inexplicable suffering, frustration, and injustice of life. Such lines would represent genius at any age but written at just 24 they show a remarkable ability to convey tragic experience. Yet in spite of such mature ability, in my estimation these lines couldn't have been written by an older poet. They retain the freshness and sensual clarity most often lost with the passing years: a loss that too often makes the writing of older poets feel wooden and academic. Keats was able to combine this sensory clarity of youth with the method of composition and life experience of a much older poet and in his letters Keats chronicles much of the artistic territory he crossed in the process of becoming a great writer.
He was born a Cockney in London, the son of a livery stable owner who died when John was a child, after being thrown from a horse. His mother died soon afterwards as well of tuberculosis. Perhaps a decade later his younger brother Tom also preceded him in death from tuberculosis, the same disease that would kill Keats himself at the of age 26. Added to the difficulties and misfortunes alluded to above his inheritance from his father's business was tied up in court all his life, and never seeing a cent of it he and his siblings lived in desperate poverty. Lastly, Keats fell in love with a woman shortly before he died and so suffered the full awareness he would die before his love could be requited. The notion that someone who faced such a life with courage and dignity was a pansy says nothing about Keats but everything about certain aspects of our own society.
This last point has a deeper relevance I believe than simply to literature. Our misconception of Keats seems to arise from a larger misconception of courage as a whole. Those who display the greatest virtues such as the self-sacrificial stamina and the endurance needed to hold society together - often in spite of gteat social disadvantages - are often vilified and denigrated as being weak, while those who live primarily for themselves and their self-aggrandizement are often admired and seen as courageous. So in the general consciousness a man with the courage of John Keats comes to be seen as a pansy while men such as Donald Trump or John McEnro are seen by many as being courageous, as winners.
Keats was a fighter who confronted terrible adversity; a compassionate man of exceptional sensitivity he was not afraid to engage that compassionate side of himself. So let us presume that what mankind does best; what is at the root of our dominance over the earth is our ability to communicate. This is where the the unseen power of a poet comes into play. The ability to write exercises real, if somewhat abstract power in the world, because it influences the intellectual climate of the age - which in turn influences everything. This was true in the time of Byron, in the in time of Homer, and in the time of the King James Bible and is still true today. Ideas are power, therefore studying the letters of Keats is powerful, for it may allow us a greater effect upon our times. Those who have dismissed Keats as an inconsequential pansy might take that into consideration in forming their concept of a real man. I would highly recommend a study of Keat's letters to learn about writing, and about the brevity of life. John Keats didn't have much time.
*Please understand that I'm not condemning the feminine here. Women have, of course, written great poetry. I'm condemning the effeminate in the context of an affectation, not femininity itself.
Copyright 2016 Brent Hightower
*image John Keats, pencil on paper, by Charles Brown