During a small hiccup in my departure from hospital this morning, I penned the following note on the back of a most priceless package – my discharge papers. I penned it twice – a doctor’s quote on time is worth as much as a lawyer’s.
I had taken with me my beautiful Baynton-Riviera binding of the poems of John Keats – olive green leather with gold leaf and a burgundy label. I saw, I think for the first time, that Keats was born on the same day as me – 31 October (the day that Luther unleashed his thunderbolts). This poor little Cockney – reviled for being just that – did not make it to 26. Yet I in my quietude look set to cheat the Reaper to reach 76. How does God square that? A young man who could happily walk twenty miles in Scotland before breakfast succumbed to a disease of the lungs more lethal to him that the cancer and emphysema that afflict mine – and which a very short while ago would certainly have killed me.
Shelley thought that the critics killed Keats with their sneers and snobbery. That’s as may be, but the end of Keats in Rome was sad and cruel. It took the poor little bugger twenty-eight days to clear the Channel. He had no nurses – his good friend Severn nursed him. In his rotten end, Keats felt worse than unnoticed – he felt despised and rejected. ‘Here lies one whose name is writ on water.’ That is on the headstone of a grave dug at night for Protestants in Catholic Rome. (And what does God have to say about that?)
At home, I have a drawing of Keats by a distinguished English cartoonist. It is in black and white – except for the eyes – which are pale blue. Eyes beguiled the young poet. ‘And her eyes were wild’. ‘Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes/ He stared at the Pacific – and all his men/Look’d at each other with a wild surmise –./Silent upon a peak in Darien.’ And that singular prescription for a coquette: ‘Nymph of the downward smile and sidelong glance.’
This gentle young man, this bright star, was too young to have acquired malice, but he even found time for a sketch of what passes now for politics.
And where we think that the truth least understood,
Oft may be found in a ‘singleness of aim’,
That ought to frighten into hooded shame
A money-mong’ring pitiable brood. (Sonnet addressed to Haydon.)
Well, those people have no time for Keats. But his poetry taught us the rich fullness of life, while his own life showed us its raw brutality.