Tuesday 23 February 2021

'A sun – a shadow of a magnitude'

 It was 200 years ago today that John Keats died, in Rome, of the tuberculosis that had already carried off his brother Tom. It is one of the saddest deaths in literary history, made still more so by the poet's heartbreaking last letter ('... I can scarcely bid you good bye even in a letter. I always made an awkward bow. God bless you!'). Whatever his headstone in the Protestant Cemetery may say, his name was not 'writ in water', and the bicentenary of his death is being duly marked with some Covid-friendly low-key events. Radio 4's Today programme called on Ruth Padel to read a poem she had written for the occasion. At least, they said it was a poem but, listening to it, you'd be hard put to distinguish it from prose, and very dull prose at that. 
  Regular readers of this blog will know how much I love Keats, as poet, man and letter-writer, though I love him rather more as man and letter-writer than as poet. Certainly he wrote half a dozen or so of the greatest poems in the language, but if I could save only the letters or the poems from the wreck of civilisation, I would choose the letters, for the infinite riches they contain and for what they show us of human character at its best. However, I'm going to mark this day with a poem – one that Keats wrote in 1817, at the age of 21, and which I think is quite startlingly brilliant (and too little known):

On Seeing the Elgin Marbles

My spirit is too weak—mortality
   Weighs heavily on me like unwilling sleep,
   And each imagined pinnacle and steep
Of godlike hardship tells me I must die
Like a sick eagle looking at the sky.
   Yet ’tis a gentle luxury to weep
   That I have not the cloudy winds to keep
Fresh for the opening of the morning’s eye.
Such dim-conceived glories of the brain
   Bring round the heart an undescribable feud;
So do these wonders a most dizzy pain,
   That mingles Grecian grandeur with the rude
Wasting of old time—with a billowy main—
   A sun—a shadow of a magnitude.

No comments:

Post a Comment