Monday, November 30, 2020

'You Know What I Mean'

I should have known but that most commonplace of words, good-bye, is likely a compressed form of “God be with you” and “God be with ye.” The former is confirmed by the OED as a parting valediction from at least the late fifteenth century, and the latter from a century later. The definition suggests that a cliché can be suffused with good manners invisible from frequent usage: “used to express good wishes when parting or at the end of a conversation.” The Dictionary in its entry cites Shakespeare four times, including Costard the rube speaking to Biron in Act III, Scene 1 of Love’s Labour’s Lost: “I thank your worship: God be wi’ you!” – a line that is at most serviceable, hardly Shakespearean. I looked into good-bye when reading the saddest use of that simple word I know:


“I can scarcely bid you good bye, even in a letter. I always made an awkward bow.”


Those are the final sentences in the final letter John Keats ever wrote, on November 30, 1820, three months before his death at age twenty-five. The poet is writing from Rome. His 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.” Keats was fortunate in his friends. He was lovable. They loved him. With Keats in Rome was Joseph Severn, the patron saint of friendship. Keats and Brown, the poet’s senior by eight years, had met in 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 kill the poet in another two years, John lived with Brown at Wentworth Place in Hampstead, now the Keats House. “Brown’s kindness and attention," Rollins says, "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.”


That 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!”


Keats’ tour de force of good-byes comes in the long letter he wrote to George and Georgiana Keats between September 17 and 27, 1819:


“You know at taking leave of a party at a door way, sometimes a Man dallies and foolishes and gets awkward, and does not know how to make off to advantage—Good bye—well—good-bye—and yet he does not—go—good bye and so on—well—good bless you—You know what I mean.”

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