Here and there – Reflections on poetry on a bleak day outside Melbourne


On a lousy day at Malmsbury at the beginning of what was supposed to be spring, I wrote to friends along the lines set out below.

I read the Oxford edition of King Lear yesterday.  The editor quoted Keats:

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.

Keats was in truth a fan.  I wonder how often in his short life Keats read this play – in company, and aloud.  I wonder if he saw it performed. I forget.

My favourite lines – perhaps I should say quotes – were:

so out went the candle and we were left darkling


Nero is an angler in the lake of darkness.

Both lines were uttered by fools, actual or pretended, and each is so apt for the foolish darkness all around us now in Australia, England, and America – where the fools are in triumph.  Trump in particular does a fair take on Nero, and he loves nothing more than angling in darkness.  And, Boy, can he put out the candles!

Another phrase that caught my eye was in the press.  ‘Intrinsically disordered’ is apparently a line employed by one church to describe homosexuality.  It’s one of those lines that goes clear out of the back of your head as soon as you have heard it – probably in response to a very healthy defence mechanism.   Himmler may have used that line about the Jews.  We could say a lot about it – including that it is utterly impossible to imagine the holy man whose life and teaching gave rise to this church saying anything like it.

What’s wrong with these people?  A friend of mine is a true and decent follower of the man Einstein called ‘the luminous Nazarene’.  (Kant, too, would never use the name.)  My friend compared the response of the institutional church to marriage equality to the behaviour of the Commonwealth Bank generally.  That’s shockingly sad.

There may not be all that much of a gap between foolish darkness and terminal illness.

You will see, then, that with things as they stand, this Shakespearian fruit is much more bitter for me than sweet.

The reference to Keats, and the weather, sent me back to read for the nth time the letters of Keats from his Scottish tour.  It’s a glorious edition from The Grolier Club, with rough edged handmade paper from the Czech Republic, and a tipped facsimile of a letter (over-written vertically to save on postage) and a portrait and a map.  The portrait is different to that which looks down from my fireplace, but both show the doomed poet with his chin on a hand (although with different hands).  I expect that the portrait shown in the book was done from life; mine was not.

But for two things, the reader may not have thought that the letters came from a poet.  One is that when Keats first saw a waterfall, he spoke ‘if I may say so, [of] the intellect, the countenance of such places.’

The space, the magnitude of mountains, and waterfalls are well imagined before one sees them; but this countenance or intellectual tone must surpass every imagination and defy any remembrance.  I shall learn poetry here and shall henceforth write, more than ever for the abstract endeavour of being able to add a mite to that abstract of beauty which is harvested from these grand materials, and put into ethereal existence for the benefit of one’s fellows.  I cannot think with Hazlitt that these scenes make man appear little.  I never forgot my stature so completely; I live in the eye, and my imagination, surpassed, is at rest.

These thoughts and his well-known piece about ‘negative capability’ suggest to me that Keats had an intellect of singular analytical firepower.  Medical science being what it was then, Keats should have chosen law.  He looks to me to have been a born advocate.

The other thing that alerts us to poetry is that Keats keeps breaking into it.  He says ‘I am sorry I am so indolent as to write such stuff as this – it can’t be helped.’  He climbed the highest mountain.  It nearly killed him. ‘On that account I will never ascend another in this empire.’  Well, he could still write a sonnet ‘on the top of Ben Nevis.’  In it he jotted down or threw off these lines in his windswept exhausted state:

I look into the chasms, and a shroud

Vaprous doth hide them; just so much I wist

Mankind do know of hell: I look o’erhead,

And there is sullen mist: even so much

Mankind can tell of heaven: mist is spread

Before the earth beneath me; even such,

Even so vague is man’s sight of himself.

It’s just not fair!  The poor little bugger just couldn’t help himself.  And to make good the comparison – if I had attempted that climb up Ben Nevis, an emergency call to the  Intensive Care Unit at Fort William or Inverness would have gone out within, say, ten minutes of the start – if Scots wielding straightjackets hadn’t got to my ‘impassioned clay’ first.

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