Last night I read a short essay on the poet John Keats. The essayist begins by stating the obvious–that is, something anyone reading the essay would know: that “Keats did not finish his career.”He adds that “No issue is more significant, in closing the book on Keats’ life as poet, than choosing a poem to conclude.” Really? Nothing about Keats is more significant about Keats that a “final poem”? I wonder.
After what I interpret as some factitious equivocation, the essayist chooses “This Living Hand” to be the “final poem.” It is, granted, a mysterious poem, “a fragment without a name.” The lines were jotted down in the manuscript of another poem. The question seems to be–the right one it seems to me–what the poem meant to Keats? What was its genesis? To whom was the poem written–or was it, as some say, words out of the mouth of some character Keats planned in another work, a play, some scholars suggest? Nobody knows for sure, but I, like the essayist, can guess, and my guess is different from his. Here’s the poem:
This living hand, now warm and capable
Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold
And in the icy silence of the tomb,
So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights
That thou would wish thine own heart dry of blood
So in my veins red life might stream again,
And thou be conscience-calm’d–see here it is–
I hold it toward you–
The writer of the essay says the poem “fails” if it is read through Fanny Brawne’s eyes: “its tone becomes bullying and painful, its mixture of horror and pathos appears too selfish to carry a message of love.” The poem read this way is repellent: we “draw away” from it. The essayist prefers to think of the poem as a “gift” to the reader: And insofar as it is qualifies as such a poem, it offers only the dimmest hope for poetic survival. By investing his hope in the reader’s conscience, not in his own imperishable work. . . Keats resigns his fate to strangers. At best he must trust our ‘wish.’”
In other words, the poem is written by a death-doomed Keats, a dying young man aware, too aware, of his fleeting mortality, and he cries out to the reader to remember him.
Well, in the words of the sardonic Jake Barnes in The Sun Also Rises: “Isn’t it pretty to think so.” If one, for example, looks at some of Keats’s letters to Fanny Brawne, one doesn’t find a bright young poet, his sails plumped with sweet winds of restraint and beauty: one finds a petulant and jealous young man, one who wonders painfully if “his girl” is bestowing intimacies on some other man. Why would we resist the notion of Keats being a young man in love, torn with all the vexations a star-crossed affair can bring? After all, he was dying, and he knew he was dying–and he was heartsick about it. On his death bed, he asked that his friends not speak of Fanny. Any mention of her, he said, went through him like a spear. I don’t know why the critic would deny to the young man Keats that which he, the critic, would freely admit about himself when young. Poets, no matter how great, can be foolish about women, foolish about many things. Didn’t Auden forgive Yeats for the dead poet’s silliness? Can’t we forgive Keats for crying to Fanny, “You’ll be sorry when I’m gone”? It could be, too, that if by some miracle Keats had lived, worn into old age, he would have, later in his life, dismissed the poem in question, smiled at his youthful effusions.
I don’t know for sure. Who does? The essayist may be right about Keats. I, however, don’t think any less of Keats if this poem was written about Fanny Brawne, don’t find it hectoring in the extreme, bullying, repellent; and I can’t believe–every sinew and fiber of my imagination, everything I know from experience–the lines, just these few written in a manuscript, are from some play Keats planned to write. Mind you, they might have been. No one knows for sure, but my heart tells me the lines were self-indulgent. I don’t mean necessarily in a pejorative way, only in that Keats wrote the poem in response to the emotional turmoil stirred within him by his relationship with Fanny Brawne. And, contra the essayist, I believe that did Fanny read the poem she would have immediately seen the love in the poem. She would have, I think, understood the poem. I can’t imagine her thinking, “How selfish he is.” She would have discerned the passion in the poem, one born out of confusion and despair and yearning–but not a passion burdened and fettered by selfishness.