Tuesday, March 22, 2011

John Keats -- His Legacy

I'm a sneaky teacher. Early in our unit on the Romantic poets, I had Anna watch Bright Star, a movie about John Keats and the woman he loved, Fanny Brawne. A compelling, warm, sad story, Anna was caught in their lives. Like I said, I'm sneaky.

Later, I pulled out a huge red book. (I mentioned it here.) Prose of the British Romantic Movement -- I put it in her lap and asked her if it looked interesting. It's comparable in weight to a dictionary, and about as fun inside. She opened it and sighed. Prose. A book of essays. Ick.

Then I told her that the book also contained John Keats's letters to Fanny Brawne, and her eyes lit up. Then I read her some passages from his letters, full of passion, jealousy, despair, adoration.  She was hooked.

To her, John Keats will never be just a boring poet from the 1800s.

"Write the softest words and kiss them that I may at least touch my lips where yours have been."

"I have two luxuries to brood over in my walks, your Loveliness and the hour of my death."

"I cannot exist without you -- I am forgetful of every thing but seeing you again -- my Life seems to stop there -- I see no further. You have absorbed me."

"Love is my religion -- I could die for that -- I could die for you. My Creed is Love and you are its only tenet -- You have ravished me away by a Power I cannot resist...."

Keats was jealous of her, and jealous of his friend, Charles Brown. "When you were in the habit of flirting with Brown you would have left off, could your own heart have felt one half the pang mine did."  He was tortured to watch her with any other man, even in light flirtation.  "I will resent my heart having been made a football." He asks, "How have you passed this month? Who have you smiled with? All this may seem savage in me. You do not feel as I do -- you do not know what it is to love ...."

Six months before his death in Italy, far from her, he wrote, "I feel it almost impossible to go to Italy -- the fact is I cannot leave you .... If I cannot live with you I will live alone .... The world is too brutal for me -- I am glad there is such a thing as the grave ...."

Later, writing to Brown, he describes his consuming passion for Fanny: "O that I could be buried near where she lives! I am afraid to write to her -- to receive a letter from her -- to see her hand writing would break my heart -- even to hear of her any how, to see her name written would be more than I can bear. My dear Brown, what am I to do? Where can I look for consolation or ease? .... this fever has never ceased wearing me out .... A person in my state of health should not have such miseries to bear."

Keats died 3 months later.

This is his death mask.

Keats agonized that he was dying young, before he could make a permanent literary mark on the world. 
"When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has gleaned my teeming brain,
Before high-piled books, in charactery,
Hold like rich garners the full-ripened grain ....."

Keats envisions a library, full of the books of poetry he longs to write. The library is a room of silos, full of the poetic harvest he's reaped from his mind. What an image!  But it was a vision he would not accomplish.

"'If I should die,' said I to myself, 'I have left no immortal work behind me -- nothing to make my friends proud of my memory -- but I have loved the principle of beauty in all things, and if I had had time I would have made myself remembered.'"

Oh, if he only knew how much he has been remembered! He is regarded as perhaps the finest of the Romantic poets. He died at age 26.  Wordsworth wrote nothing of importance until he was 27. If Keats had had another decade? Who knows.

1 comment:

  1. I know very little of Keats -- thank you for sharing this!


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