Tuesday, September 30, 2014

`The Great Divorcer For Ever'

“I have many more Letters to write and I bless my stars that I have begun, for time seems to press, -- this may be my best opportunity.” 

Carefully, hopefully weighed words from John Keats, who was writing to his friend Charles Brown on this date, Sept. 30, in 1820. Five months later he was dead. Keats was writing aboard the Maria Crowther, a brig bound for Italy, off the Isle of Wight, at Yarmouth. This was the start of the poet’s final voyage. His traveling companion was the ever-faithful Joseph Severn. Boarding at Gravesend was a Miss Cottrell, a woman of about eighteen who, like Keats, was dying of consumption. In his John Keats (1963), Walter Jackson Bate reports: “Miss Cottrell…had unfortunately reached that state where the invalid is humanly tempted to compare notes, and she did this throughout the trip, with a great deal of curiosity about Keats.” She outlived Keats but died several years later in Naples. The specter of Fanny Brawne shadows the letter: “The very thing which I want to live most for will be a great occasion of my death.” A few sentences later, Keats sets off a psychic explosion when he asks Brown to “be a friend to Miss Brawne when I am dead.” Bate describes the phrase as “the first really open admission” that Keats knows what others have suspected and hoped to deny: Soon he would die. Bate writes: 

“Certainly Keats—from now until almost the end (indeed from the spring of 1819 until the end: in a sense perhaps from the beginning)—was exemplifying that extraordinary capacity which we so often find among the English at their best, and perhaps more frequently than among most other peoples, to grow calmer as emergency increases and demand deepens.” 

As Bate goes on to sample Severn’s letters from the journey, Keats seems even more admirable a human being, not the ethereal wraith of legend: “he cracked jokes at tea”; “my wit would have dropped in a moment but for Keats plying me”; Keats loses his breakfast, but only in “the most gentlemanly manner.” Severn almost faints on deck but is revived and cheered by Keats who praises his gift for “sailorship.” In his letter, Keats formulates an Irish bull-like paradox worthy of Beckett, a great Keats admirer: 

“I wish for death every day and night to deliver me from these pains, and then I wish death away, for death would destroy even those pains which are better than nothing. Land and Sea, weakness and decline are great seperators [sic], but death is the great divorcer for ever.”

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