Sunday, March 12, 2017

`They Seem to Be Full of Fine Things'

In a comment on Saturday’s post, Nige reminds me of the letter Keats wrote to one of the most loyal and poetically knowledgeable of his friends, John Hamilton Reynolds, on Nov. 22, 1817. We might think of Reynolds as the anti-Leigh Hunt. Keats is busy writing Endymion, which he completes in Burford Bridge, after a walk up Box Hill. Keats quotes ten lines of the new poem in his letter to Reynolds. I read Endymion as something Keats had to get out of his system before he could write the great odes the following year. In it are some of the most embarrassingly awful lines he ever wrote, and a few of the loveliest:  

“A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.”

That final line is bitter, knowing as we do that Keats already suffers from the tuberculosis that will kill him in little more than three years. Wherever he traveled, Keats carried with him a portrait of Shakespeare. In the letter, he writes to Reynolds:

“One of the three books I have with me is Shakspeare’s Poems: I never found so many beauties in the sonnets—they seem to be full of fine things said unintentionally—in the intensity of working out conceits. Is this to be borne? Hark ye!”

I can’t think of another writer who is so thoroughly suffused with the spirit of another, yet without a suggestion of aping or plagiarism. Shakespeare’s language set Keats free to fashion his own music. He quotes lines five through eight of Sonnet 12, then, in the passage cited by Nige, he quotes the “cockled snails” reference in Love’s Labours Lost, then six lines from “Venus and Adonis,” plus three more sonnets, all in slightly more than a paragraph. We sense excitement and nervous tension, not a showing off of erudition. For Keats, Shakespeare is a stimulant. In his final paragraph, without identifying the allusions, he gives us “lend me thy hand to laugh a little,” from Act II, Scene 4 of Henry IV, Part 1; “send me a little pullet-sperm” from The Merry Wives of Windsor, Act II, Scene 5; and “a few finch eggs” from Troilus and Cressida, Act V, Scene 1. Keep in mind that Keats is one of literature’s great autodidacts. 

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