IT IS extraordinary how often, in the quiet hours of this long lockdown, I find that poems I read and absorbed in my youth resurface in my mind and press on me with fresh poignancy. In this new year, Keats has been much on my mind, partly because 2021 marks the 200th anniversary of his death — indeed, we have marked the very day, 23 February, in this past week.
But it’s not just the anniversary: it’s a deeper and more subtle confluence of time and circumstance, and, most of all, the tenor of his writing. I suppose his “negative capability” is something we have all been practising willy-nilly: that power to abandon our own agenda and be absorbed utterly in the moment, to make ourselves open and patient to experience, whether of beauty or melancholy, or both together, so that it dwells in us richly and eventually finds rich expression.
Certainly, the “Ode To Melancholy”, and the other great odes, have been accompanying me in these months. But this week it’s not been the high achievement of his annus mirabilis in 1819-20, but something that he wrote in January of 1818, when he was only just coming into his powers, which has haunted me. And the connection has not been so much the anniversary of his death as his courage in expressing the common fear of death itself. I am thinking of the sonnet that begins:
When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has glean’d my teeming brain,
Before high-pilèd books, in charact’ry,
Hold like rich garners the full ripen’d grain. . .
That fear must have passed through all our minds in this past year, and I suppose Keats’s expression of it haunts me most because it is the writer’s fear: what if I never finish the books, never write the poems, never capture in words that little bit of vision which is always glimmering before me, beckoning, waiting to be wooed into full expression?
And yet there is something both poignant and promising in this poem — poignant because we read it knowing that, three years later, Keats was dead, and yet the promise he feared to fail of was, indeed, fulfilled. In those few years left to him, he achieved miracles. His modest hope of “gleaning” something, some few fallen grains from his teeming brain, was more than fulfilled. He left us not just gleanings, but, as he longed to, “rich garners” full of ripened grain. He achieved the very things he feared to fail in. In the next quatrain of that sonnet, he says:
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. . .
In the course of the next two years, those cloudy symbols of high romance that he had intuited in the glimmering of the night sky filled the pages of his notebooks and letters: “La Belle Dame Sans Merci”, “The Eve of Saint Agnes”, the great odes. In “When I have Fears That I May I May Cease to Be”, he feared that he would “Never have relish in the faery power, Of unreflecting love”.
But he was to express just that love more fully than any other poet in the language. This sonnet ends with the image of Keats standing alone on “the shore, Of the wide world”, with love and fame sinking to nothingness.
But, in the end, he himself became the bright star, far above that shore, steadfast and eternal, gazing down on “The moving waters at their priestlike task, Of pure ablution round earth’s human shores” (Last Sonnet).
All of us who may share in “priestlike tasks” can give thanks for him!