by Ellen O’Neill
“It has been estimated that at the time of Keats’ death, the combined sales of the three books published during his lifetime amounted to 200 copies.”
Andrew Motion, The Guardian, 23 January 2010
Yet here we are, two hundred years later, and the Keats-Shelley Memorial Association is running an international prize for essay and poetry celebrating the publication of the first volume.
How does a life that ended at 25 wield such power?
This year’s Keats-Shelley theme is ‘To a Friend’ and the idea of Keats’s own relationships. It stirred in me enormous emotions about my own relationship to John Keats– through the editions of his poems that brought him into my life. Like great choral music, if no one picks up the actual books and reads (or sings), the genius is silent.
In junior high school, just starting to be conscious of the names Keats, Shelley, Byron, Wordsworth, Coleridge, I noticed books that had long been on the family bookshelf: The Literature of England: An Anthology & A History, Vol. 1 & 2, Wood, Wyatt, Anderson, Scott, Foresman and Company, 1947; and Seven Centuries of Verse: English & American, A.J.M Smith, Michigan State College, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1947. They are my parents’ college anthologies from the early 1950s! Each filled with representations of the Romantics.
As I sit up late many nights and page through the big books over and over I feel an enormous connection to the pages of the Romantics. I dive in so easily, read so easily, understand on an as-yet untutored level. And I develop a deep connection to these editions because they belong to my parents and bring me in communion with en entire world I long to know more about.
I only realized years later that I grew up with some casual peppering of some of the great quotes in casual conversation: my Mom, “It winter comes, can spring be far behind” whenever the snows came forceful; my Dad pronouncing “A thing of beauty is a joy forever” in the most sardonic tone when something wasn’t going right.
For myself I felt particularly drawn to
Much have I travell’d in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
That wonderful cadence and what I visualized as an Emerald City of books gleaming in gold: I did not know who Chapman was then. My love of this poem would lead me to getting a fairly significant and needed college scholarship because of an essay I wrote based on it. Hmm. So, those late night cogitations had meaning outside of my own heart. . . .
College brought the heady days of being an English major and spending hours with the poets I had met in the family’s anthologies. I had the privilege of studying with William Keach for Romantics, and so was ushered into some of the finest thinking about the era and work and enjoyed expert tutelage about my own ideas.
On the larger canvas love came and went, was requited and unrequited in a strange venn diagram that included Paul Fussell and a shy student I’ll call “Keats” who was courting me and whom I did not appreciate, blinded by my love for a “Byron” who would never be right for me.
For my birthday one year “Keats” bought me a handful of various Romantics tomes from our college town’s wonderful used book store. He inscribed the Byron volume with “Happy Birthday–The years ahead, however thin the strands, however frayed , this one will still be strong, our love for these books, especially Byron.”
Sadly, as I had not appreciated the gift bearer, I barely even looked at the Keats volume at the time. Turns out is it
The Poetical Works of John Keats . Given From His Own Editions and Other Authentic Sources and Collated With Many Manuscripts. Edited with notes by H. Buxton Forman and Mrs. Keats and a Biographical Sketch by Wm. M. Rossetti. Complete Edition. A. L. Burt Company, New York
Looking into this realm of gold now unexpectedly renews my relationship with Keats as I discover the deep riches of this edition decades after I first owned it. (Its one glaring flaw is on the spine, which regrettably heralds Keat’s Poems.)
The great Victorian biographer/forger H. Buxton Forman became friends with Dante Gabriel Rossetti around 1871, which probably led to brother William’s biographical sketch being included in the full poetical works volume.
Rossetti’s sketch feels like a portal that daisy chains back to a direct connection to Keats and Shelley as in ‘shaking the hand of the hand that shook Abraham Lincoln’s hand.’ Keats died in 1821, Rossetti was born in 1829, but twenty-five years on the outer circle was still very much alive to pass along knowledge to the literary Rossettis. The New York edition is from 1906, although the Rossetti sketch is from some years earlier, as he refers to Frances Mary Llanos Gutierrez as “this lady still living in Spain and has a son known as a painter,” and she died in 1889.
I love the cadence of Rossetti’s prose and how he limns the overall sketch. He touches on many points that have since been much retold, including that Keats did not die from negative criticism:
It is more to the purpose to say that the once very prevalent story that Keats had been extremely pained and dejected by the adverse reviews, even to the extend of losing in consequences of them his health and ultimately his life, was a romance of literature. Shelley by a noble poem, and Byron by a jeer, are greatly responsible for the diffusion and acceptance of this fable: Lord Houghton has, to the deep satisfaction of all who value manliness as a portion of the poetic character, dispelled it once and forever. [page xi-xii]
Rossetti also captures the power of desire to be close to our bright star, remarking on the burial instruction to inscribe “Here lies one whose name was write in water”:
That is an age-long and shoreless water, which will continue flowing while generation after generation of men, his brothers and lovers, come to contemplate the sacred tomb in Rome, dominated by the pyramid of Caius Cestius. They have but to move some paces aside, and stand by a still more sacred tomb which opened in the ensuing year, 1822–that of the world-loving, world-hated Shelley, divinest of the demigods. [xvi to xvii]
Rossetti ends his sketch with thoughts of the poet’s character
“As of Keats’s character, so of his poetry, enjoyment is the primary element, the perpetual undertone: his very melancholy is the luxury of sadness.” [xviii]
“Keats, youthful and prodigal, the magician of unnumbered beauties which neither author nor reader can think of counting or assessing, is the Keats of our affections.” [xix]
Of all the magical ideas that Keats left us, the poem that suggests that poetry itself can replace drinking for mind/body altering experience is in some ways the most ambitious. Benjamin Robert Haydon (and others, and the timeline) tell us that Keats was suffering from the untimely death of his brother Tom when he wrote these lines:
Here, where men sit and hear each other groan;
Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last gray hairs,
Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies
Forman note: “Haydon, in a letter to Miss Mitford (Correspondence &c, Volume II, page 72) says of Keats–‘The death of his brother wounded him deeply, and it appeared to me from that hour he began to droop. He wrote his exquisite ‘Ode to the Nightingale’ at this time, and as we were one evening walking in the Kilburn meadows he repeated it to me, before he put it to paper, in a low, tremulous undertone which affected me extremely.”
We know that it was Haydon who gave a copy of the poem to Annals of the Fine Arts editor James Elmes, who purchased it and published it in the July issue, before it was published in the 1820 collection with “Lamia.” I wonder if Keats really recited it to Haydon during the act of creation.
But of no import.
The poem has been explicated, close-read, metrically analyzed from every possible angle; I sometimes feel the weight of all of the thought, much of it profound, clever, nuanced.
Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!
No hungry generations tread thee down;
The voice I hear this passing night was heard
In ancient days by emperor and clown:
Perhaps the self-same song that found a path
Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home,
She stood in tears amid the alien corn;
The same that ofttimes hath
Charm’d magic casements, opening on the foam
Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.
“In the last line of the stanza the word ‘fairy’ instead of ‘faery’ stands in the manuscript and in the Annals: but the Lamia volume reads ‘faery’, which enhances the poetic value of the line in the subtlest manner–eliminating all possible connection of fairy-land with Christmas trees, tinsel, and Santa Claus, and carrying the imagination safely back to the middle ages—to Amadis of Gaul, to Palmerin of England, and above all to the East, to the Thousand and One Nights. ”
And in my own happy dream state, the fleeting music can only be:
What can I give Keats,
Poor as I am?
If I were a poet
I would bring iambs;
If I were a scholar
Endymion’s where I’d start.
Yet what I can, I give Keats –
Give my heart
Give . . . my heart.
This post first appeared on Ellen’s blog https://mapeel.blogspot.co.uk/
Ellen O’Neill blogs cultural, literary, and travel pieces as M.A.Peel. She is the Creative Director at The Paley Center for Media in NYC, a judge for the Webby Awards, and a thwarter of diabolical masterminds.