Friday, October 17, 2014

The Living Dead

Honouring our poetic ancestors


Ode to Fanny
By John Keats (1795-1821

Physician Nature! Let my spirit blood!
O ease my heart of verse and let me rest;
Throw me upon thy Tripod, till the flood
Of stifling numbers ebbs from my full breast.
A theme! a theme! great nature! give a theme;
Let me begin my dream.
I come — I see thee, as thou standest there,
Beckon me not into the wintry air.

Ah! dearest love, sweet home of all my fears,
And hopes, and joys, and panting miseries, —
To-night, if I may guess, thy beauty wears
A smile of such delight,
As brilliant and as bright,
As when with ravished, aching, vassal eyes,
Lost in soft amaze,
I gaze, I gaze!

Who now, with greedy looks, eats up my feast?
What stare outfaces now my silver moon!
Ah! keep that hand unravished at the least;
Let, let, the amorous burn —
But pr'ythee, do not turn
The current of your heart from me so soon.
O! save, in charity,
The quickest pulse for me.

Save it for me, sweet love! though music breathe
Voluptuous visions into the warm air;
Though swimming through the dance's dangerous wreath,
Be like an April day,
Smiling and cold and gay,
A temperate lilly, temperate as fair;
Then, Heaven! there will be
A warmer June for me.

Why, this, you'll say, my Fanny! is not true:
Put your soft hand upon your snowy side,
Where the heart beats: confess — 'tis nothing new —
Must not a woman be
A feather on the sea,
Sway'd to and fro by every wind and tide?
Of as uncertain speed
As blow-ball from the mead?

I know it — and to know it is despair
To one who loves you as I love, sweet Fanny!
Whose heart goes fluttering for you every where,
Nor, when away you roam,
Dare keep its wretched home,
Love, love alone, his pains severe and many:
Then, loveliest! keep me free,
From torturing jealousy.

Ah! if you prize my subdued soul above
The poor, the fading, brief, pride of an hour;
Let none profane my Holy See of love,
Or with a rude hand break
The sacramental cake:
Let none else touch the just new-budded flower;
If not — may my eyes close,
Love! on their lost repose. 


Like many of us in English-speaking countries, I first encountered Keats at school. I had good English teachers who read verse beautifully, so I loved the Odes and for decades agreed unquestioningly with the view that Keats was the most brilliant of the Romantic poets — or would have been, if his promise had not been cut off at the age of 25 by his tragic death from tuberculosis.

It was quite a surprise, then, when I looked for a Keats poem to share with you, to discover that I don't much like his writing now! This must make me some kind of tasteless idiot, since he is still considered a very important poet by people much more scholarly and famous than me. But he suddenly seems old-fashioned, in ways which not all poets of past eras do.

I found many of the poems over-sentimental. Well, perhaps that's a fault of youth, which he would have outgrown. I also found the thees, thous, wouldsts etc. irritating, and had trouble tolerating what now seems to me his frequent long-windedness.

 'Get to the point!' I want to yell, rather than following his leisurely turns of thought.  Oh dear!

I chose this poem because the intensity of his frustrated passion gives it pace and urgency.  

I guess many of you know something of Keats's life, and his romance with Fanny Brawne, from the movie Bright Star. You can find more details from Wikipedia (link on his name, above). 

There is a longer, even more detailed and literary biography at The Poetry Foundation. And, just when you've accepted that he died because of medical ignorance and/or the stress of his work being unfairly criticised, here is an article by a new biographer, saying it was all his own fault!

HIs portraits are contradictory too, some showing him as romantically handsome, some as a bit gormless, and still others as frankly fat. So I used the death mask, as that must surely be accurate.

Perhaps you won't agree with me about his work. (Few people do.) You can check it out for yourself, or refresh your memory, at PoemHunter. Or you can find many books of his poetry, as well as letters and biographies, at good old Amazon.

Oh, wait — I did find one exceptional poem which still doesn't disappoint. I didn't share it here as it is very well-known and I like to try and give you something which might be new to you. But do read (or re-read) it anyway. It's true — he really did have brilliant promise after all. Unlike some of his other poems, I think On First Looking Into Chapman's Homer is a masterpiece.

7 comments:

  1. Oh, Keats, I met him in high school too and thought him very romantic. Watched Bright Star again recently, an attraction of opposites which might not have remained so romantic had he lived longer. Thanks for this, Rosemary. You always research well and provide such interesting information.

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  2. For me it was Anne Bradstreet and "To My Dear and Loving Husband", and Donne with "Break of Day" - those two bridged the centuries for me.

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    1. Ah, Donne. Now you're talking!

      As a non-American, I've never really caught up with Anne Bradstreet. I'll have to rectify that.

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  3. A day late ... but as usual, I enjoy your essay almost more than the poem. And Keats seems to agree with you. At least in line 2 he says "O ease my heart of verse and let me rest." Truly I liked his expression of love woven out, but not how he ties it off with need for ownership. And yet, this was, after all, the romance of his life.

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    1. Some commentators put his jealous moods down to the effect of his illness and/or medication.

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  4. Nice one Rosemary :-) ...Keats in one of my favourite poets...especially love his odes and Endymion... :-)

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  5. I enjoyed reading this poem, Rosemary, and your commentary even moreso.

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