Monday, March 10, 2014

`I Have Never Been a Reasoner'

Without trying, some of us collide with conventional judgments and taste. When it comes to books, it’s sustenance that counts, not fashion. I’ll probably never read Romeo and Juliet again, or Titus Andronicus, but I annually recycle King Lear and Macbeth, as regulated by some internal clock. With Keats, I read the odes and sonnets according to a system unknown to me, one that feels more like hunger than readerly obligation, but I’ll probably never again read all of “Endymion.” Even more essential are the letters, which contain some of the best prose in the language. In a letter written this week almost two centuries ago to his friend Benjamin Bailey, on March 13, 1818, Keats begins like this: 

“When a poor devil is drowning, it is said he comes thrice to the surface, ere he makes his final sink--if however, even at the third rise, he can manage to catch hold of a piece of weed or rock, he stands a fair chance, as I hope I do now, of being saved.” 

He jokes about his lagging correspondence with Bailey, but we know Keats was dead less than three years later, in Rome, where his stone reads: “Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water.” Nearby in the Protestant Cemetery is buried Shelley, who drowned in the Gulf of Spezzia in Italy, seventeen months after Keats died of tuberculosis. Keats is often eerily precognitive about his own mortality, in poetry and prose. A few sentences later: 

“This is the thing--for I have been rubbing up my invention; trying several sleights--I first polish'd a cold, felt it in my fingers tried it on the table, but could not pocket it: I tried Chilblains, Rheumatism, Gout, tight Boots, nothing of that sort would do, so this is, as I was going to say, the thing.” 

His humor, so striking in the letters, gives the lie to Keats the wraith-like spirit, too pure for this world. His tastes run to Milton, yes, but also to Cervantes, the bawdy of Shakespeare, Burton, Swift and Sterne. Like his friend Charles Lamb, he’s not even above the lowly pun:  

“....the two uppermost thoughts in a Man's mind are the two poles of his World he revolves on them and every thing is southward or northward to him through their means. We take but three steps from feathers to iron. Now my dear fellow I must once for all tell you I have not one Idea of the truth of any of my speculations--I shall never be a Reasoner because I care not to be in the right, when retired from bickering and in a proper philosophical temper. So you must not stare if in any future letter I endeavour to prove that Apollo as he had cat gut strings to his Lyre used a cats' paw as a Pecten--and further from said Pecten's reiterated and continual teasing came the term Hen peck’d.”

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