I always made an awkward bow.
My fascination with the life and death of poor John Keats might fairly be described as morbid. There is a lot more to it than the poetry. There is the voluptuous little green and gold leather volume of his poetry bound by Baynton-Riviere that I got from a London antique dealer – with the title plate in scarlet; so pretty to look at; so fine to hold – and to read. There is the portrait framed above me – a one-off drawing by an English cartoonist based on a Severn painting – all black and white; except for the eyes, which are innocent and inquiring – and pale blue. (Which may not have been the colour of the eyes of the man.) There is also on the wall the mounted blue and white ashtray of Number 26 Piazza di Spagna, now known as Keats Shelley House purchased in situ. And there is the gorgeous Grolier Club edition of his letters from Scotland, now slip-cased, on paper specially made by the Czechs, and with tipped-in facsimiles of his letters and maps.
It’s as if the real presence were here now in Yarraville in my home.
Keats was born on 31 October. So was I. We have nothing else in common – except for three things. Our native tongue is English. We think that Shakespeare is as close to God as we will ever get. And to the extent that you could put a label on the standing of our parents, ‘born to the purple’ was not one of them.
This little guy – he was only a tick over five feet, but he had a presence that strangers noticed and recalled – said a lot of things that have stayed with me. Two of them stand out, and they came back to me with a blast on reading Robert Gittings’ wonderful biography again – after a gap of about a quarter of a century.
People of high art surprise us all the time. You might never know when you will come across something – even for the twentieth time – that takes your breath away, and you just gulp or sigh. It is a kind of soft shock, but it is a thing of wonder – just the kind of stuff we live for.
The best example for me in painted art is one whole painting – the Deposition of Pontormo in the Church of Santa Felicita. Where on earth did that come from? In music, it could be the trio near the end of Act I of Don Giovanni. An inconsequential phase of the drama – and possibly the most beautiful music I have ever heard. (That was, I think, the view of Mendelsohn – and he was a walking book on soft shocks – the Dream overture is littered with them.)
They are of course all over the place in Shakespeare – but he and Mozart are rather Alpine company.
The one that gets me every time with Keats comes when Cortez and his all his men catch sight of the Pacific and look at each other ‘with a wild surmise.’ That is, and it was meant to be, out of this world.
Which is the feeling you get watching anyone of high technique – like an expert fly cast or a cover drive – or one of the few who can cross-examine. It looks both real and unreal, both natural and supernatural – but made to look so natural as to be easy, and with time and effort to spare; gorgeous, but so frustrating.
As it happens, that reference to high technique looks to accord with the views of Keats on poetry. Some have it; most don’t. He had three axioms.
Poetry should surprise by a fine excess….it should strike the Reader as almost a Remembrance…. the rise, the progress, the setting of imagery should like the Sun come natural to him…; if Poetry comes not naturally as the Leaves to a tree, it had better not come at all.
Mr Gittings describes the background to the writing of the poem I refer to. Keats had been to a dinner where the cognoscenti were talking about Chapman’s Homer – a translation of Homer in the high poetic style of the era. Then he went to a dinner in Clerkenwell where the text was read at length.
Leigh Hunt had described Chapman as ‘a fine rough old wine.’ They went all night ‘and a memorable night it was in my life’s career.’ One passage caused Keats to give ‘the reward of one of his delighted stares.’ It was the phrase ‘the sea had soaked his heart through.’ No wonder our little guy grabbed at that. Parts of the Iliad stirred Keats so much that ‘he sometimes shouted.’ ‘And words that flew about our eares, like drifts of winter snow.’ Leigh Hunt ‘found the young poet’s heart as warm as his imagination.’ (It sounds like Keats was as high as I get watching a replay of the 2021 Grand Final. And it’s not quiet.)
Keats left the function, in the words of Mr Gittings, ‘with the long fourteen syllable lines of Chapman’s verse of the Iliad, the rough rhyming Odyssey pentameters, still rolling in his head like breakers on a beach.’ (Yes, Mr Gittings wrote poetry.)
Keats left the function at six in the morning. He wrote his famous poem about Chapman’s Homer, and caught the first postal messenger, so that when his host from the night before got to breakfast at ten o’clock, he found the sonnet on his table. There was only one after-thought of correction.
Two things. I did say that the hot shots make their own time. And they don’t make them like that anymore. It reminded me of the movie Amadeus, and the look of bleak horror on the face of Salieri as he leafed through the manuscripts of Mozart looking in vain for a correction.
Keats was not yet twenty-one. Although he could practise as an apothecary, he was about to give up his advanced studies and practice in medicine. He would not make it to see twenty-six.
God or Providence leaves us wondering, then, how might we compare him to Shakespeare, who lived more than twice as long, or Mozart, another short man (5 foot 4 inches), but one who made it to thirty-five. For example, we marvel at the speed with which Mozart composed the last three symphonies. Mt Gittings tells us that Keats composed his four great odes – Indolence, Melancholy, Nightingale and Grecian Urn – in a few weeks, possibly a few days in May 1819.
Keats mined Dante and Milton for all they were worth. But he more than idolized Shakespeare. The plays were his bible, his refuge, and his source of strength. Lear was the favourite; ‘poor Tom’, his favourite line. He even went back a lot to Troilus and Cressida, which for me gives Cymbeline a close run as being the most unwatchable play of the lot.
Mr Gittings, the poet, is excellent on La belle dame sans merci. It is of course beyond other mere words. It’s like Giorgione’s La Tempesta. ‘What on earth is going on here?’ It’s as if Brahms gave us Stravinsky or Coleridge gave us T S Eliot. (Mr Gittings refers to ‘the nightmare atmosphere of The Ancient Mariner, with its incantatory power’- which is apt for our present discussion.)
Keats was still getting over the death of his younger brother, ‘poor Tom’. And whether he knew it or not, John Keats foresaw his own death – or at least he saw the implacable lottery that times it. ‘Send not to know for whom the bell tolls….’
Perhaps the nearest we get to the tone of La Belle Dame goes back a lot further – to the untranslatable lines of Virgil:
Sunt lachrymae rerum
Et mentem mortalia tangunt.
A very free translation could be ‘We see tears all around us, and mortality gets us right where we live.’ A judge for whom I worked fifty years ago was as close to the epitome of wisdom as I will ever get. His Honour said ‘There is something permanent about death.’ ‘And no birds sing.’
That water is pretty deep.
The year that preceded the year which resulted in the death of Keats is described by Mr Gittings, who was not prone to gushing, as ‘the greatest year of living growth of any English poet.’ Just, what then, has been denied us?
At the end of that year, Keats went back home one night ‘travelling outside on the stage-coach for cheapness.’ He staggered home in a fever, as if drunk. As he was slipping into bed, he coughed blood and he called for a candle. ‘I know the colour of that blood; it is arterial blood…That drop of blood is my death warrant. I must die.’
That kind of roll of the dice is enough for many people to banish any notion of God. And it was not the lot of poor John Keats to cease upon the midnight with no pain.
We do know of course that Keats went to Rome for the air, and that he died there, and that he was buried at night in the Protestant Cemetery. His death was slow, cruel and gruesome.
We grizzle now at the time it takes us to get to London – say, thirty hours door to door. Keats and his friend Severn boarded a small ship – a brigantine of 127 tons – at Tower Dock on 17 September, 1820 and they arrived at Naples on his birthday – 31 October, 1820. Say, six weeks.
They were given a small cabin ‘with six beds and at first sight every inconvenience.’ They had to share this cluttered and unchanged space and their constant sea-sickness with two women on the other side of the sheet – a mother and her daughter, who was also dying from a disease of the lungs. The phrase ‘personal hygiene’ dies on our lips.
Keats and his friend – and what a friend – made their way to Rome and took lodgings on the second floor of the building overlooking what are now called the Spanish Steps – the first floor was occupied by an elderly Englishman, Thomas Gibson, and his French valet. One room overlooked the Piazza – the other, the Steps.
In the last letter he wrote – at least in this world – Keats said ‘Yet I still ride the little horse.’ He referred there to the vocation of his life – composing poetry. He concluded that letter this way:
Write to George [the brother in trouble in the U S] as soon as you receive this, and tell him how I am, as far as you can guess; – and also a note to my sister – who walks about my imagination as a ghost – she is so like Tom. I can scarcely bid you good bye even in a letter. I always made an awkward bow.
God bless you!
Mr Gittings is plainly right that the snobbery and malice – yes, malice – of the critics did not kill Keats. They just made his end unbearably bitter. What could be a worse way to go than to be someone of these immense gifts being cut off so early – and apparently with no recognition from the world of his genius – or of his contribution to our never-ending betterment?
The remorseless critics were like those mean small people here who fear and begrudge excellence, and who respond by leering, sneering and jeering. You can catch them every night after dark on TV. They are vicious because they make nothing, and they are left to comment on the work of others.
An apothecary, old boy, is not a gentleman. Shame on you, ‘Pestleman Jack.’ ‘It is a better and wiser thing to be a starved apothecary than a starved poet.’ It was as bad as that.
(He had also been attacked for being an atheist. He was not. He just couldn’t cop what the priests preached. That is the fourth thing we have in common.)
We see just so much of that venom all about us. It is like the ‘daily beauty’ in Cassio that turned Iago wild, and the Furies against Keats were the men like Cassius that Caesar feared as being dangerous because they think too much. And this poor little blighter had actually come out of the East End.
Well, the better people like Byron and Shelley took their own sweet time to come to the aid of the little Cockney, who was by then dead. Shelley, who had surely done so much more than Keats to provoke God, as had Byron, referred to camels and gnats and said: ‘Nor shall it be your excuse, that murderer as you are, you have spoken daggers but used none.’ (Mozart faced similar problems. After a run-in with a count, he wrote to his father: ‘I may mot be a count, but I have more honour within myself than many a count.’ He would probably have said of Byron at least what he and Beaumarchais said of all aristocrats, that their sole contribution to the world was taking the trouble to be born.)
The other phrase of Keats that sticks in my mind is that which Keats directed to be inscribed on his tombstone (which I have visited in Rome): ‘Here lies one whose name was writ on water.’ That really is unbearably sad. And it all comes from the taipan within every one of us.
When commenting on Visconti’s great film The Leopard, Martin Scorsese said ‘This is one of the things I live for.’
Here is one of mine.
Much have I travell’d in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-brow’d Homer ruled as his demesne;
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star’d at the Pacific—and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise—
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.
Poetry – Keats – Shakespeare – snobbery.