Tuesday, November 9, 2010


In the film Chariots of Fire, when Andrew Lindsay joins Harold Abrahams in attempting to beat the clock round the courtyard at Trinity College, he proclaims that he is doing so on behalf of John Keats, which causes the gathered students to cheer, with great fervor. Almost certainly apocryphal, the scene is nonetheless illustrative, not only of a time when students read poetry for the joy of it, but of the special place that Keats occupies within the ecstatic human consciousness.

Paula Jane was reading to me from his sonnets earlier today, and reminded me that I had missed his birthday—215 years old, Sunday before last—and we were both marvelling at the power and sensuality of his verses. Keats is among the rare poets whose name has become a descriptor for far more than the symbol of a man or woman; as with the great poets, he represents an essence, and in common with Shelley, his is such that the sound of his name quickens the pulse and races the heart, because he is forever associated wth an approach to reality that rapturously regards the possibilities that dwell in the heart of every breathing moment.

His self-styled epitath, Here lies one whose name was writ in water, was intended to be a bitter comment on his legacy, but to me it has another meaning. Keats spoke from a place that somehow transfigured language into something approximating the essential, elemental as fire or wind or water. It is there his name is etched, into the foundations of our awareness, a place where mere language cannot impress.

Even if you've read this poem 100 times, read it again, and remember why you loved this great poet in the first place:

Bright star, would I were steadfast as thou art--
Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night
And watching, with eternal lids apart,
Like nature's patient, sleepless Eremite,
The moving waters at their priestlike task
Of pure ablution round earth's human shores,
Or gazing on the new soft-fallen mask
Of snow upon the mountains and the moors
No--yet still steadfast, still unchangeable,
Pillow'd upon my fair love's ripening breast,
To feel for ever its soft fall and swell,
Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,
Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
And so live ever-or else swoon to death.

(Note: I copied this poem at Poemhunter.com, and was amused to see that the readership there rated this poem as being 7.6 on the 1-10 scale...Tough graders, I guess—lol)

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