Sunday, April 17, 2016

`I Find I Cannot Exist Without Poetry'

I find that I cannot exist without poetry – without eternal poetry – half the day will not do – the whole of it – I began with a little, but habit has made me a Leviathan.”

What moves Keats to such a gleeful declaration? The poet was twenty-one and had already reached his adult height of five feet – a modest Leviathan, more Pip than Moby-Dick. His finest poems are two years in the future, his death less than four. He begins writing a letter to his friend John Hamilton Reynolds on this date, April 17, in 1817, and completes it the following day. Reynolds was a poet, playwright and journalist who for several years worked as clerk for a London insurance company, the marvelously named Amicable Society for Perpetual Assurance, which nicely encapsulates the role Reynolds played in Keats’ life.

Earlier in the letter, written from Carisbrooke on the Isle of Wight, Keats tells Reynolds he found a portrait of Shakespeare hanging in the inn where he stayed. “Well—this head I have hung over my books.” Many of us do this. Propped on my shelves are postcards of Chekhov, Ulysses Grant and Louis Armstrong – tutelary spirits. Keats’ first Shakespeare allusion is unannounced: “I see Carisbrooke Castle from my window, and have found several delightful wood-alleys, and copses, and quick freshes.” In The Tempest (Act III, Scene 2), Caliban chirps:  

“What a pied ninny’s this! Thou scurvy patch! 
I do beseech thy greatness, give him blows 
And take his bottle from him: when that's gone 
He shall drink nought but brine; for I'll not show him 
Where the quick freshes are.”

The meaning is apparent from context but the OED gives “of water: Not salt or bitter; fit for drinking.” Clean water, unpolluted, potable. Though young, Keats has absorbed Shakespeare, sees with his eyes, hears with his ears. Two lesser references follow, from A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Merry Wives of Windsor. Again, Keats makes no big show of his Shakespeare-suffused sensibility:

“The wind is in a sulky fit, and I feel that it would be no bad thing to be the favorite of some Fairy, who would give one the power of seeing how our Friends got on, at a Distance - I should like, of all Loves, a sketch of you and Tom and George [Keats’ brothers] in ink which [Robert] Haydon will do if you tell him how I want them.”

Finally, Keats writes: “From want of regular rest, I have been rather narvus - and the passage in Lear -- `Do you not hear the Sea?’ -- has haunted me intensely.” The allusion is to Act IV, Scene 6, Edgar’s cruel charade to Gloucester: “Hark, do you hear the sea?” He includes a new sonnet, “On the Sea,” and returns to Shakespeare the following day:

“I'll tell you what - on the 23rd [of April] was Shakespeare born - now if I should receive a letter from you and another from my Brothers on that day ’twould be a parlous good thing. Whenever you write say a word or two on some Passage in Shakespeare that may have come rather new to you, which must be continually happening, not withstanding that we read the same Play forty times.”

Which he surely had. Only at this point in his letter does he declare to Reynolds: “I find I cannot exist without Poetry.”

1 comment:

Brian said...

I used to provoke students by saying that all great poetry was religious. Is Keats saying the same when he refers to poetry as "eternal", or does he mean only ever-present? If the former, then it seems to be a disqualification of the gushing kind that plays with sound and is rooted only in the self.