If By Dull Rhymes

John Keats (1795 – 1821)

My imagination is a monastery, and I am its monk

John Keats

If By Dull Rhymes

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 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

(An Excerpt)

by Percy Bysshe Shelley
 
XXXIX
       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.
 
XL
       He has outsoar’d the shadow of our night;
       Envy and calumny and hate and pain,
       And that unrest which men miscall delight,
       Can touch him not and torture not again;
       From the contagion of the world’s slow stain
       He is secure, and now can never mourn
       A heart grown cold, a head grown gray in vain;
       Nor, when the spirit’s self has ceas’d to burn,
With sparkless ashes load an unlamented urn.