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A Little Man in a Hurry. R.I.P. John Keats – died on this day in 1821.

February 23, 2017

keats“How can we know the dancer from the dance?” asked Yeats, whose name eye-rhymes with Keats who died today in 1821 in Rome, at just 25 years of age.

Morrissey’s more optimistic meditation upon the reading and writing of verse declared that “Keats and Yeats are on your side”.

The notion that we should continue to personalise our formal response to lineation and metrics around “poets” who still “speak to us” and forge “relationships” with us is frustrating and irresistible at one and the same time.

Keats was an astonishingly prolific writer for someone who died so young and with no real juvenilia to speak of.  When we deal with Keats we are dealing with four very intense years of achievement.   When Christopher Ricks was mocked for comparing Keats with Bob Dylan and had “Wiggle Wiggle” quoted back at him as evidence of Rick’s supposedly asinine value judgements, Ricks might have countered that Keats’ achievement should be compared with Bob Dylan – 1962-66 – i.e. four intense years and a motorcycle accident.  Ricks of course has written a superb book about Keats and embarrassment – a book which treats Keats’ correspondence with detailed and critical affection, while reminding us, gently and humorously, that Keats was a breast man.  Keats and Ricks have reminded me of the centrality of embarrassment to eroticism, and that querulous hesitation is the pulse-quickening essence of that feeling of the “liminal” that sexual encounters (real or imagined) ideally (or practically) provide.

Last year, while at a conference, that there might be more in common between Alexander Pope and John Keats than I’d thought.   Not only were they both very short men who didn’t have sex, but the layering of dream states in The Dunciad and Endymion bears some comparison.   The prophetic visions of Dullness provoke deluded states from which it is impossible to wake, just as Endymion’s green world creates impossible and interminable oscillations between abstract and physical modes of existence.  The conclusion of The Nightingale Ode reminds me a bit of that hopelessly annoying Christopher Nolan film Inception – which I saw on a plane having spent the entire previous night packing and therefore continually fell asleep during.

It’s the Ovidian Keats that is fascinated by sleeping and waking and waking and sleeping because Keats is fixated by points of transformation.  Food is important to Keats, ripe fruit that liquidates in the mouth absorbs him.  And his breast fixation is likewise significant as breasts are solid and liquid at one and the same time, or solids that contain liquids.  Keats emerges as someone who wished to transcend physical limitations and yet who refused to completely dissipate into airy nothingness.  Whenever he gets too airy, he  grasps at the sensual and the tangible.  It’s a very different breast-fixation to that provided by Wordsworth in The Prelude, who envies the nursing infant’s sense of utter dependency on and co-existence with a mother who is the entire universe to him.  The delight of not knowing where you start and someone else begins is not disintegration or identity loss but a delight in boundaries, never more precious than when most smudged or violated. Porphyro “rises” and “throbs” and “melts” all in the same stanza.  He becomes harder (yes in the most obvious and rude sense), and softer at one and the same time.

Beyond a mortal man impassion’d far
       At these voluptuous accents, he arose
       Ethereal, flush’d, and like a throbbing star
       Seen mid the sapphire heaven’s deep repose;
       Into her dream he melted, as the rose
       Blendeth its odour with the violet,—
       Solution sweet: meantime the frost-wind blows
       Like Love’s alarum pattering the sharp sleet

Against the window-panes; St. Agnes’ moon hath set.

As with sex, so with death.   Keats requests that it be recorded that his name “was writ in water” but the fact of this transience and liquidity is to be engraved in stone.  His name is to melt and endure at one and the same moment.

I wrote this a year ago in something of a hurry, because Storm Doris had just woken me up.


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