“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.
When I Have Fears That I May Cease To Be
by John Keats (1795 – 1821)