Now more than ever….

August 12, 2022 at 3:43 pm (Poetry)

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.

From Ode to a Nightingale

Easeful death did, apparently, come at the very end. Before that came agony. Keats was attended, to the end, by his close friend, the painter Joseph Severn, who had traveled with him to Rome in a last ditch effort to ease his suffering. In the early nineteenth century, tuberculosis was a death sentence. Keats had already lost his nineteen-year-old brother Tom to the ravages of the disease.

From a letter by Severn, written to a mutual friend, informing him of the death of their mutual friend John Keats:

My Dear Brown,

He is gone – he died with the most perfect ease – he seemed to go to sleep. On the 23rd, about 4, the approaches of death came on. ‘Severn – I – lift me up – I am dying – I shall die easy – don’t be frightened – be firm, and thank God it has come!’ I lifted him up in my arms. The phlegm seemed boiling in his throat, and increased until 11, when he gradually sunk into death – so quiet – that I still thought he slept. I cannot say now – I am broken down from four nights’ watching, and no sleep since, and my poor Keats gone. Three days since, the body was opened; the lungs were completely gone. The Doctors could not conceive by what means he had lived these two months. I followed his poor body to the grave on Monday, with many English. They take such care of me here – that I must else have gone into a fever. I am better now – but still quite disabled.

What a deep pleasure it has been to revisit the poetry of John Keats, as presented in Lucasta Miller’s luminous traversal. For instance, in a splendid turn of phrase, she refers to Keats’s “Shakespearean level of verbal fecundity.”

There are generous quotes from Keats’s letters interspersed throughout the text. This one was especially meaningful to me:

The “heart must feel and suffer in a thousand diverse ways” if an individual soul is to fulfill its potential as “God’s own essence.”

The letters, I think, are worth seeking out for their own special depth and beauty.

Here is part of Miller’s analysis of Ode on a Grecian Urn:

What he wrote reflects his complex response to the pagan past, which he uses as a springboard from which to interrogate–quite literally, given the number of question marks that punctuate the poem–the relationship between art and reality, immutability and transience, past and present, death and life.

Keats, the author tells us, was criticized for privileging that pagan past over the eternal verities of Christianity. Such cavils seem not to have troubled him, thank goodness.

By the by, the exact Grecian urn that Keats was apostrophizing has not been conclusively identified. It existed in his mind, possibly an amalgam of several of its type, and by virtue of his brilliance, it now exists in ours as well. And I have come to believe implicitly in the poem’s final stanza:

O Attic shape! Fair attitude! with brede
Of marble men and maidens overwrought,
With forest branches and the trodden weed;
Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral!
When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

The poems that form the spine of Miller’s narrative are the three great odes – To a Nightingale, On a Grecian Urn, and To Autumn – two or three sonnets, the strange and enigmatic ballad La Belle Dame Sans Merci, and several others.

To Autumn possesses what, to my mind, is one of the most purely beautiful opening lines in all of literature:

‘Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,…’

Keats packed all this verbal brilliance into a painfully short period: he died in 1821 at the age of 25. He was buried in Rome’s Protestant cemetery. This is his tombstone:

Almost painful in its deliberate obscurity, it does not even divulge his name, asserting only that “Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water.”  

Nothing could be further from the truth. Instead, Keats is revered as one of the greatest poets  from a land rich with great poets. The only greater was Shakespeare, whom he revered.

Keats listening to the song of the nightingale, a posthumous painting by Joseph Severn

Keats’s poems can readily be found here.

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