Sunday, October 16, 2016

Poems I Journey With 27

Sketch of John Keats
As a young student of English literature at college in the late seventies of the last century when I was 19 or 20, I discovered the wonderful poems of John Keats (1795 – 1821).  There was romance written in the face of the young poet depicted in whatever copies of sketches or paintings that were then available.  To add to the romantic mystery and intrigue was the fact that he had perished from TB, or consumption as it was then called, at just 25 years of age. He was one of the main figures of the second generation of Romantic poets, along with Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley, despite his work having been in publication for a period of only four years before his untimely death. Coupled with this, his devotion to his craft, to nursing his younger brother Tom and to his sweetheart Fanny Brawne also added to the romanticism that surrounded this great poet.  To add further to his mystique, we were to learn that in 1816, when he was just 21, Keats received his apothecary's licence, a qualification which made him eligible to practise as an apothecary, physician, and surgeon. Further as a qualified doctor he was to know that his death was imminent when he coughed up blood during his sleep – indeed, he recounts this sad fact in one of his letters.  However, before the end of 1816, he announced to his guardian that he was resolved to be a poet, not a surgeon.

Needless to say, given these brief biographical details one could not be faulted for concluding that John Keats lived with dying and death on a daily basis. The first poem I offer the reader for reflection is his beautiful sonnet “When I have Fears” which is suffused with this ultimate concern, to use the current language of Existential Psychotherapy.

When I Have Fears - Poem by John Keats

When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has glean'd my teeming brain,
Before high-piled books, in charactery,
Hold like rich garners the full ripen'd grain;
When I behold, upon the night's starr'd face,
Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,
And think that I may never live to trace
Their shadows, with the magic hand of chance;
And when I feel, fair creature of an hour,
That I shall never look upon thee more,
Never have relish in the faery power
Of unreflecting love; - then on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone, and think
Till love and fame to nothingness do sink. 

The second poem I should like to offer the readers of these pages is a less well-known one named “Sonnet: Written on the Top of Ben Nevis.” 

Sonnet: Written on the Top of Ben Nevis

Read me a lesson, Muse, and speak it loud
Upon the top of Nevis, blind in mist!
I look into the chasms, and a shroud
Vapourous doth hide them, -- just so much I wist
Mankind do know of hell; I look o'erhead,
And there is sullen mist, -- even so much
Mankind can tell of heaven; mist is spread
Before the earth, beneath me, -- even such,
Even so vague is man's sight of himself!
Here are the craggy stones beneath my feet,--
Thus much I know that, a poor witless elf,
I tread on them, -- that all my eye doth meet
Is mist and crag, not only on this height,
But in the world of thought and mental might! 

A pensive John Keats
I love this sonnet for its mysticism and also for its rather “misty” attempt at naming the mystery at the heart of life. In fact, the poem is all about our incapability of grasping this strange mystery, this rather cloudy or unclear life that we live.  The absurdist writer Albert Camus often ended up in despair at life as it was so full of contradictions and unclarity while he was obsessed with finding confirmation and clarity. His book The Myth of Sisyphus is all about the sheer absurdity of the human project which he likened to that of Sisyphus having to eternally roll his great rock up the steep hill of life.   Keats admits in this poem that his own insight into himself, or that his own knowledge of his self is simply shallow to say the least, or foggy or misty to use the imagery of this very poem:

Even so vague is man's sight of himself!
Here are the craggy stones beneath my feet,--
Thus much I know that, a poor witless elf,
I tread on them, -- that all my eye doth meet
Is mist and crag....

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