Sunday, October 31, 2010

`I Am Leading a Posthumous Existence'

To celebrate his birth on Halloween two-hundred fifteen years ago I’ve read this week among Keats’ poems and letters, noting old notations and making new ones (a quality of great writers being the eternal newness of their words), reading without thesis, waiting for lights to go on. Here, from the close of his letter to Fanny Brawne on July 25th, 1819 (two months after composing the great odes), comes one of many illuminations:

“Nor will I say more here, but in a postscript answer anything else you may have mentioned in your letter in so many words - for I am distracted with a thousand thoughts. I will imagine you Venus tonight and pray, pray, pray to your star like a Heathen.”

Keats was the smoothest of operators, whether or not he knew it (one suspects he didn’t): “I will imagine you Venus tonight…” What a line. Try to imagine being the recipient, though I’m unsure of its effectiveness in an email. I was toying with another Keats-Beckett convergence when Nige supplied it:

“Any book that begins in such a mode [`present tense narration’] is almost certain to be worthless. Unless it's this one:

“`From where she lies she sees Venus rise. On. From where she lies when the skies are clear she sees Venus rise followed by the sun. Then she rails at the source of all life. On. At evening when the skies are clear she savours its star's revenge...’

“That's Samuel Beckett. The rules don't apply.”

Right he is. Nige quotes the opening of Ill Seen Ill Said (1981) and I’ll supply the remainder of the paragraph:

“At the other window. Rigid upright on her old chair. It emerges from out the last rays and sinking ever brighter is engulfed in its turn. On. She sits on erect and rigid in the deepening gloom. Such helplessness to move she cannot help. Heading on foot for a particular point often she freezes on the way. Unable till long after to move on not knowing whither or for what purpose. Down on her knees especially she finds it hard not to remain so forever. Hand resting on hand on some convenient support. Such as the foot of her bed. And on them her head. There then she sits as though turned to stone face to the night. Save for the white of her hair and faintly bluish white of face and hands all is black. For an eye having no need of light to see. All this in the present as had she the misfortune to be still of this world.”

In his last letter, written to Charles Brown on Nov. 30, 1820, less than two months before his death, Keats says:

“I have an habitual feeling of my real life having past, and that I am leading a posthumous existence.”

1 comment:

zmkc said...

In my appalling, uncontrolled pedantry, (which I finally acknowledge on my blog today), my mind has snagged on 'having past' - was that normal usage at the time, am I mad or is 'having passed' more normal (or did Keats mean that he felt as if his real life had a past to it)?
And, yes, since you ask, I do know I have a problem, but shouting at me won't help.