Music of Japan. Parsimoniously from the water clock the drops unfold in lazy honey or ethereal gold that over time reiterates a weave eternal, fragile, enigmatic, bright. I fear that every one will be the last. They are a yesterday come from the past. But from what shrine, from what mountain’s slight garden, what vigils by an unknown sea, and from what modest melancholy, from what lost and rediscovered afternoon do they arrive at their far future: me? Who knows? No matter. When I hear it play I am. I want to be. I bleed away.
Secret Sonnets – An Incredible Poetry Initiative in Miami in 2015
by Lola Ridge (1873-1941)
infesting my half-sleep…
did you enter my wound from another wound
brushing mine in a crowd…
or did I snare you on my sharper edges
as a bird flying through cobwebbed trees at sun-up
I am certain of nothing but the holiness of the heart’s affections and the truth of imagination.
by John Keats (1795 – 1821)
Bright star! would I were steadfast as thou art— Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night, And watching, with eternal lids apart, Like Nature’s patient sleepless Eremite, The moving waters at their priestlike task Of pure ablution round earth’s human shores, Or gazing on the new soft fallen mask Of snow upon the mountains and the moors— No—yet still steadfast, still unchangeable, Pillow’d upon my fair love’s ripening breast, To feel for ever its soft fall and swell, Awake for ever in a sweet unrest, Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath, And so live ever—or else swoon to death.
The Flower (An Excerpt)
by George Herbert (1593 – 1633)
How fresh, oh Lord, how sweet and clean Are thy returns! even as the flowers in spring; To which, besides their own demean, The late-past frosts tributes of pleasure bring. . Grief melts away . Like snow in May, As if there were no such cold thing. Who would have thought my shriveled heart
Could have recovered greenness? It was gone Quite underground; as flowers depart To see their mother-root, when they have blown, . Where they together . All the hard weather, Dead to the world, keep house unknown.
And now in age I bud again, After so many deaths I live and write; I once more smell the dew and rain, And relish versing. Oh, my only light, . It cannot be . That I am he On whom thy tempests fell all night.
If by dull rhymes our English must be chain’d, And, like Andromeda, the Sonnet sweet Fetter’d, in spite of pained loveliness; Let us find out, if we must be constrain’d, Sandals more interwoven and complete To fit the naked foot of poesy; Let us inspect the lyre, and weigh the stress Of every chord, and see what may be gain’d By ear industrious, and attention meet: Misers of sound and syllable, no less Than Midas of his coinage, let us be Jealous of dead leaves in the bay wreath crown; So, if we may not let the Muse be free, She will be bound with garlands of her own.
Today is the 200th anniversary of John Keats death. Keats died at the age of 25 from tuberculosis. Keats did not die peacefully, he was in agony, denied opium for his pain by his doctors, fearing he would intentionally overdose, they offered him no respite, forcing him to suffer at the end. He had moved to Rome in his final months hoping the climate would help cure him, but his disease was too far progressed to prevent his death.
Keats is a great example its not quantity but quality that is the lasting legacy of a poet. He wrote poetry for only six years. In his life time only about 200 copies of his three volumes of poetry were sold. Yet, Keats has gone on to become immortalized as one of the great English poets because of the sheer beauty of his work.
He himself doubted his poetry’s staying power, in part because of his limited publishing success. In a letter to Fanny Brawne a year before his death he wrote “I have left no immortal work behind me – nothing to make my friends proud of my memory – but I have lov’d the principle of beauty of all things…” Keats’ work became loved by generations of readers, due in part to Shelly and Hunt’s admiration keeping his work in front of the public through their ongoing tributes and support after his death. Keat’s poetry is an example that great lyric poetry never goes out of style. Beauty remains beautiful when it is created for the pure artistic pleasure of the writer.
Shelley penned and published Adonais in the year following Keats death and it brought a wider audience and interest to Keats work that would build and build throughout the remainder of the 19th century. Keats wrote sonnets in a style and at a time when lyric poetry was revered.
I believe that if Keats were alive today, his sonnets would garner attention for their sheer beauty, but he might find his publishing success might not be that dissimilar to what he experienced 200 years ago. So it is ironic that modern tastes have moved wide of his mark, and yet it would be interesting to estimate how much money publishers have made publishing Keats poetry while it has been in the public domain? I’d wager its a very large sum. There’s something that feels like a tear in the cosmic universe about publishers benefiting handsomely from poets long dead.
In a recent trip to my Barnes and Noble I stopped by the poetry section and was disappointed that I could not find a single new book of poetry that interested me, the current tastes of publishers running to one or two lines of free verse confessions with stick figure illustrations that look more like memes to my eyes and ears than poetry. Is that the attention span of readers these days for poetry? Maybe the pendulum will swing so far towards simplicity that it will start swinging back towards the beauty of more complex lyric poetry again. Maybe the beauty of Keats will inspire a new generation of readers to reach further into their imaginations, to expect more of writers, publishers and of ourselves in the poetic vision of our modern world.
Adonais: An Elegy on the Death of John Keats
by Percy Bysshe Shelley
Peace, peace! he is not dead, he doth not sleep,
He hath awaken’d from the dream of life;
‘Tis we, who lost in stormy visions, keep
With phantoms an unprofitable strife,
And in mad trance, strike with our spirit’s knife
Invulnerable nothings. We decay
Like corpses in a charnel; fear and grief
Convulse us and consume us day by day,
And cold hopes swarm like worms within our living clay.
“Crying does not indicate that you are weak. Since birth, it has always been a sign that you are alive.”
Charlotte Bronte (1816 – 1855)
Sleep Brings No Joy To Me
by Emily Bronte (1818 – 1848)
Sleep brings no joy to me,
Remembrance never dies;
My soul is given to misery
And lives in sighs.
Sleep brings no rest to me;
The shadows of the dead
My waking eyes may never see
Surround my bed.
Sleep brings no hope to me;
In sounder sleep they come.
And with their doleful imagery
Deepen the gloom
Sleep brings no strength to me,
No power renewed to brave:
I only sail a wilder sea,
A darker wave.
Sleep brings no friend to me
To soothe and aid to bear;
They all gaze, oh, how scornfully,
And I despair.
Sleep brings no wish to knit
My harassed heart beneath:
My only wish is to forget
In the sleep of death.
by John Keats (1795 – 1821)
O PEACE! and dost thou with thy presence bless
The dwellings of this war-surrounded Isle;
Soothing with placid brow our late distress,
Making the triple kingdom brightly smile?
Joyful I hail thy presence; and I hail
The sweet companions that await on thee;
Complete my joy let not my first wish fail,
Let the sweet mountain nymph thy favourite be,
With England’s happiness proclaim Europa’s Liberty.
O Europe! let not sceptred tyrants see
That thou must shelter in thy former state;
Keep thy chains burst, and boldly say thou art free;
Give thy kings law leave not uncurbed the great ;
So with the horrors past thou’lt win thy happier fate!
I was never afraid of failure, for I would sooner fail than not be among the greatest.
by John Keats (1795 – 1821)
O soft embalmer of the still midnight!
Shutting with careful fingers and benign
Our gloom-pleased eyes, embower’d from the light,
Enshaded in forgetfulness divine;
O soothest Sleep! if so it please thee, close,
In midst of this thine hymn, my willing eyes,
Or wait the amen, ere thy poppy throws
Around my bed its lulling charities;
Then save me, or the passèd day will shine
Upon my pillow, breeding many woes;
Save me from curious conscience, that still lords
Its strength for darkness, burrowing like a mole;
Turn the key deftly in the oilèd wards,
And seal the hushèd casket of my soul.
A Long, Long Sleep
by Emily Dickinson (1830 – 1886)
A long — long Sleep — A famous — Sleep —
That makes no show for Morn —
By Stretch of Limb — or stir of Lid —
An independent One —
Was ever idleness like This?
Upon a Bank of Stone
To bask the Centuries away —
Nor once look up — for Noon
“To be a poet, I realized, a true poet, was to become the Avatar of humanity incarnate; to accept the mantle of poet is to carry the cross of the Son of Man, to suffer the birth pangs of the Soul-Mother of Humanity.”
by Gerard Manley Hopkins
Not, I’ll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee;
Not untwist — slack they may be — these last strands of man
In me ór, most weary, cry I can no more. I can;
Can something, hope, wish day come, not choose not to be.
But ah, but O thou terrible, why wouldst thou rude on me
Thy wring-world right foot rock? lay a lionlimb against me? scan
With darksome devouring eyes my bruisèd bones? and fan,
O in turns of tempest, me heaped there; me frantic to avoid thee and flee?
Why? That my chaff might fly; my grain lie, sheer and clear.
Nay in all that toil, that coil, since (seems) I kissed the rod,
Hand rather, my heart lo! lapped strength, stole joy, would laugh, chéer.
Me? or me that fought him? O which one? is it each one? That night, that year
Of now done darkness I wretch lay wrestling with (my God!) my God.
A pandemic by its definition is something novel, something new, for which there is no resistance or immunity. For all of history, disease was simply endemic, the novelty wears off fast. Keats labored under ill health from tuberculosis. Countless other poets, writers, musicians and composers died prematurely from the same. The thing that proved most useful in reducing the impact of TB was a concept called public health. The idea that what was best for an individual was what was best for society. The idea that if we improved the quality of the public works in sanitation, sewage, better housing and clean drinking water for all we could stop or at least reduce the impact of cholera and TB.
There are other pandemics that happen that are more metaphorical in their influence, but just as powerful in impacting human lives. Truly novel new ideas in technology, art, literature, governance, religion, that travel like a virus, carried from one human to the next, until those ideas become ingrained as part of our culture.
Dan Simmons is one of those big intellects, whose writing stretches me, so nuanced are the things that capture his imagination. Simmons has that rare talent who can write a good yarn, filled with complex ideas and not feel the need to hit you over the head, but let you find from it what you will. I have read and reread more than one of Simmons novels. The first time reading it for the excitement of the plot and then a careful rereading to try and understand the more complex connections. I have shared two poems that Simmons used as titles for novels, two of my favorites novels that he has written.
Simmons has written science fiction, horror, detective novels, historical fiction and there is only one thing that connects all of his writing in my perspective – the ability to expand his curiosity around a central idea rooted in literature and then let his creativity take it someplace new. It is not without great thought that the titles and characters of many of his novels come directly from some of the greatest poets and writers of all time. Tacit in his books is an understanding that ideas and literature have a power unto themselves that can move like energy across time and materialize action as real as any imaginary time machine. Literature can bring to life a new reality in our minds.
There is not a cure for COVID-19 to be found in reading Keats or Hopkins or Donne or Shakespeare or Wordsworth. But there is hope to be found in reading the classics, inspiration lays in wait. And in the end, hope is what’s needed during times like this.
Endymion (Excerpt from Book 1)
By John Keats
“Now, if this earthly love has power to make Men’s being mortal, immortal; to shake Ambition from their memories, and brim Their measure of content; what merest whim, Seems all this poor endeavour after fame, To one, who keeps within his stedfast aim A love immortal, an immortal too. Look not so wilder’d; for these things are true, And never can be born of atomies That buzz about our slumbers, like brain-flies, Leaving us fancy-sick. No, no, I’m sure, My restless spirit never could endure To brood so long upon one luxury, Unless it did, though fearfully, espy A hope beyond the shadow of a dream.
“I am certain of nothing but the holiness of the Heart’s affections and the Truth of the imagination.”
On The Sonnet
by John Keats
If by dull rhymes our English must be chain’d, .And, like Andromeda, the Sonnet sweet
Fetter’d, in spite of pained loveliness;
Let us find out, if we must be constrain’d, .Sandals more interwoven and complete
To fit the naked foot of posey;
Let us inspect the lyre, and weigh the stress
Of every chord, and see what may be gain’d .By ear industrious, and attention meet:
Misers of sound and syllable, no less .Than Midas of his coinage let us be .Jealous of dead leaves in the bay wreath crown;
So, if we may not let the Muse be free, .She will be bound with garlands of her own.
Keats commitment to poetry was metaphysical, religious. He famously rejected the Christian norms of the time, in particular the idea of salvation through a belief in Jesus Christ. The quote above comes form a letter to Benjamin Bailey dated November 22, 1817:
I am certain of nothing but of the holiness of the Heart’s affections and the truth of the Imagination. What the imagination seizes as Beauty must be truth, whether it existed before or not, for I have the same Idea of all our Passions as of Love they are all in their sublime, creative of essential Beauty. . . . I have never yet been able to perceive how any thing can be known for truth by consequitive reasoning. . . . O for a Life of Sensations rather than of Thoughts! It is a “Vision in the form of Youth” a Shadow of reality to come‹and this consideration has further convinced me . . . that we shall enjoy ourselves here after by having what we called happiness on Earth repeated in a finer tone and so repeated. And yet such a fate can only befall those who delight in Sensation rather than hunger as you do after Truth.
Isn’t that the point of poetry? Poetry provides a respite from the impossibility of truth and a chance to live for a moment in sensations. Poetry provides a brief silence in which our imaginations might be fulfilled with a glimpse of something bigger than ourselves, that ephemeral connection of our soul to the universe.
By John Keats
O Solitude! if I must with thee dwell,
Let it not be among the jumbled heap
Of murky buildings; climb with me the steep,—
Nature’s observatory—whence the dell,
Its flowery slopes, its river’s crystal swell,
May seem a span; let me thy vigils keep
’Mongst boughs pavillion’d, where the deer’s swift leap
Startles the wild bee from the fox-glove bell.
But though I’ll gladly trace these scenes with thee,
Yet the sweet converse of an innocent mind,
Whose words are images of thoughts refin’d,
Is my soul’s pleasure; and it sure must be
Almost the highest bliss of human-kind,
When to thy haunts two kindred spirits flee.
The poetry of earth is never dead:
When all the birds are faint with the hot sun,
And hide in cooling trees, a voice will run
From hedge to hedge about the new-mown mead;
That is the Grasshopper’s–he takes the lead
In summer luxury,–he has never done
With his delights; for when tired out with fun
He rests at ease beneath some pleasant weed.
The poetry of earth is ceasing never:
On a lone winter evening, when the frost
Has wrought a silence, from the stove there shrills
The Cricket’s song, in warmth increasing ever,
And seems to one in drowsiness half lost,
The Grasshopper’s among some grassy hills.
August is the peak time in Minnesota for insects of all types. We don’t have many cicadas singing to us (yet) this summer, an off year for their shrill tunes. But the cricket chorus has begun to build in the last week and should take us all the way through fall.
Agronomists, gardeners and good observers will take note around now that the green of the folliage on the trees isn’t as green as just a couple weeks ago. The levels of chlorophyll peaked in the leaves in July and is starting to wane, causing leaves to take take on a slightly darker hue. Insects, fungal and bacterial diseases on leaves are also at their peak, further reducing the amount of green in the canopy. In two short weeks, it will suddenly be September and everything will seemingly change overnight, the lush greens of summer, replaced by a lighter paler and darker green and the start of colors of fall.
I am surprised there aren’t more examples of dueling poems and poets. Two friends, each accomplished writers, who challenge each other to write a poem with the same prompt, the same inspiration. Maybe there are lots of them and I am not literally aware enough to recognize them (pun intended). Dear reader, if you know of more, please share them with me, I would be fascinated to uncover more examples of dueling poems, particularly dueling sonnets.
Do we need to declare a victor? Did Hunt and Keats settle their friendly bet with a round of drinks? Which poem did they privately declare superior? In my opinion Hunt’s is the better sonnet, more imaginative language, clever in its delivery. I particularly like the image Hunt paints of crickets as ‘warm little housekeepers’, a fond way of referring to the inevitable cricket or two who find their way into the basement or wood bin near the fireplace to sing a private serenade as the snows of winter begin.
Hunt’s friendship and writing is often credited in helping Keats become a better poet. Hunt, true to his name, led out and showed Keats the way, and Keats took up the challenge and blossomed as an artist, knowing his time on Earth likely short.
To The Grasshopper and The Cricket
by Leigh Hunt (1784 – 1859)
Green little vaulter in the sunny grass
Catching your heart up at the feel of June,
Sole voice that’s heard amidst the lazy noon,
When ev’n the bees lag at the summoning brass;
And you, warm little housekeeper, who class
With those who think the candles come too soon,
Loving the fire, and with your tricksome tune
Nick the glad silent moments as they pass;
Oh sweet and tiny cousins, that belong,
One to the fields, the other to the hearth,
Both have your sunshine; both though small are strong
At your clear hearts; and both were sent on earth
To sing in thoughtful ears this natural song,–
In doors and out, summer and winter, Mirth.
“At worst, one is in motion: and at best, Reaching no absolute, in which to rest, One is always nearer by not keeping still.”
From On The Move by Thom Gunn
A loose, slack, and not well dressed youth, met Mr. — and myself in a lane near Highgate. — knew him, and spoke. It was Keats. He was introduced to me and stayed a minute or so. After he had left us a little way, he ran back and said: “Let me carry away the memory, Coleridge, of having pressed your hand!” — “There is death in that hand,” I said to —, when Keats was gone; yet this was, I believe, before the consumption showed itself distinctly.
Samuel Coleridge – 1832
Keats At Highgate
By Thom Gunn
A cheerful youth joined Coleridge on his walk
(“Loose,” noted Coleridge, “slack, and not well-dressed”)
Listening respectfully to the talk talk talk
Of First and Second Consciousness, then pressed
The famous hand with warmth and sauntered back
Homeward in his own state of less dispered
More passive consciousness–passive, not slack,
Whether of Secondary type or First.
He made his way toward Hampstead so alert
He hardly passed the small grey ponds below
Or watched a sparrow pecking in the dirt
Without some insight swelling the mind’s flow
That banks made swift. Everything put to use.
Perhaps not well-dressed but oh no not loose.
In a very quick study of Keats entirety of his poetry, sonnets comprise 25 of the 54 poems he shared with the world in his life time, not quite half. No other poetical form is represented in as large a volume in Keats work. So it is fitting that Gunn, who would not be known for his sonnets, would write a tribute to Keats as a sonnet.
What captured Gunn’s imagination to pen this little rebuttal to Coleridge? Coleridge was a formidable critic and poet of his time, of much greater stature than Keats. But time has flipped the tables in a way, at least for those of us who fancy ourselves a bit influenced by the romantics. One has to wonder whether Tuberculosis has robbed humanity of great art by shortening the lives of so many over history, or whether through its premature death, one can see death coming in what should be the flourish of their youth, that many of our most beloved artists stayed on the move long enough to capture the beauty of life in words amidst the juxtaposition of the tragedy of their consumption.