Sunday, November 30, 2014

`I Always Make an Awkward Bow'

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

The poet writes from Rome. The recipient is Charles Brown (1787-1842) who, in the words of Hyder Edward Rollins, editor of Keats’ letters, “now has a sort of immortality of his own.” If one is doomed to die young, how sadly fortunate to be blessed with loving friends. With Keats in Rome was Joseph Severn, who might be beatified as the patron saint of friendship. Keats and Brown, the poet’s senior by eight years, met in the summer of 1817. The following summer they made their walking tour of northern England and Scotland. After the death of Tom Keats from tuberculosis, the disease that would claim his older brother in another two years, John lived with Brown at Wentworth Place in Hampstead, now the Keats House. Rollins says, “Brown’s kindness and attention were unremitting.” Keats writes in his letter: 

“I must have been at Bedhampton nearly at the time you were writing to me from Chichester - how unfortunate - and to pass on the river too! There was my star predominant! I cannot answer any thing in your letter, which followed me from Naples to Rome, because I am afraid to look it over again. I am so weak (in mind) that I cannot bear the sight of any hand writing of a friend I love so much as I do you.” 

Rollins notes that that sad, proud, indelibly Keatsian phrase – “There was my star predominant!” – is an allusion to The Winter’s Tale. In Act I, Scene 2, Leontes says: 

“It is a bawdy planet, that will strike
Where ’tis predominant; and ’tis powerful, think it,
From east, west, north and south: be it concluded,
No barricado for a belly; know’t;
It will let in and out the enemy
With bag and baggage: many thousand on’s
Have the disease, and feel't not. How now, boy!”

The further Keatsian echoes in the passage are eerie. He concludes his note to Brown: “I can scarcely bid you good bye even in a letter. I always made an awkward bow.” This is Keats’ last surviving letter, written on this date, Nov. 30, in 1820. Three months later, on Feb. 23, 1821, he died in Rome at the age of twenty-five.

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