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Vol. LXI, No. 44
Wednesday, October 31, 2007
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Book Review

Discovering Keats: A Birthday Celebration

Stuart Mitchner

I am, however young, writing at random, straining at particles of light in the midst of a great darkness, without knowing the bearing of any one assertion, of any one opinion. Yet may I not in this be free from sin? May there not be superior beings, amused with any graceful, though instinctive, attitude my mind may fall into?”

— John Keats, age 23

John Keats was born on October 31, 1795, and died on February 23, 1821. As a presence in western literature, he feels a whole lot closer than those dates suggest. But then so does Jane Austen, who was born exactly 20 years before Keats and who is with us more than ever now by way of the reading club boom and what seems to be a yearly sighting on movie screens, including a new film, Becoming Jane, in which Austen herself is played by Anne Hathaway. Next year Keats’s own emergence as a lion of Club Lit should be helped along by Jane Campion’s film, Bright Star, which takes its title from one of his most celebrated sonnets and is currently in production with Ben Whishaw as Keats and Abbie Cornish as Fanny Brawne, the other half of the doomed romance.

Most deep-dyed admirers of Keats will have mixed feelings about the prospect of seeing him portrayed on the big screen. It’s hard not to feel protective of someone with whom you’ve established a serious relationship, however illusory. Keats is one of the most companionable literary figures of his own or any other time. Among his longest and most revealing letters are those to his younger brother George and his sister-in-law Georgina, including the February-to-May 1819 journal in letters from which the passage quoted at the opening of this column is taken. I wonder how many others “writing at random” identified with those sentiments as they, too, pursued “the same instinctive course as the veriest human animal ever.” I copied the passage in black marking-pen letters on a piece of paper kept near at hand for years, and for years carried in my wallet folded-up passages from his poetry so I could hunker down and read them like scraps of holy writ in odd corners of the world.

It goes without saying that you can discover Keats in the classroom or perhaps even in a movie theatre, but it’s more exciting to do it on your own or by way of “the magic hand of chance” (from Keats’s sonnet “When I have fears that I may cease to be”). The discovery may come in the marked-up volume your father used in graduate school. Reading around, you reach the fourth stanza of “Ode on a Grecian Urn” (“And little town, thy streets forever more will silent be”) and suddenly your heart is in the palm of his hand. You keep reading and find more of the same, and the relationship deepens as you explore his letters, the time-lines dissolve, and you come to think you know him better than you know all but your very best friends. Then one day you find yourself in a tiny room in Rome, and you feel a chill, as if you’d already been there standing in the shadows behind his friend Joseph Severn, who saw him through the last days and nights of his life. Later on you’re standing in front of his gravestone in the Protestant Cemetery, with the Pyramid of Cestius looking over your shoulder, and the spot becomes sacred ground to you, as does the house in Hampstead where you can sit under the tree he supposedly sat beneath when he composed “Ode to a Nightingale.”

A Meeting on the Heath

Jane Campion has been quoted as saying that she regards Keats as “somebody who had something almost angelic about him.” That impression could bode ill for Bright Star since one of Keats’s most appealing qualities is his down-to-earthness; it’s the backbone of his poetry and it’s what enlivens and illuminates his letters. Don’t forget that it was Keats who once called himself “the most unpoetical of God’s creatures,” and therefore, something less than “angelic.” At 27, Ben Whishaw is close to the right age, and has played the anything but angelic roles of the young Bob Dylan in I’m Not There (2007) and Keith Richards in Stoned (2005), not to mention Hamlet in Trevor Nunn’s 2004 Old Vic production of the play. He’s nine inches taller than Keats, however. But how many five-footers are you going to find this side of Danny DeVito?

One scene I’d be sure to do if I were making my own Keats movie is sketched out in that same amazing letter to his brother and sister-in-law, where he recounts the day he caught sight of Samuel Taylor Coleridge walking with a friend on Hampstead Heath and asked to join them. This has to be one of the more memorable unplanned encounters in all literature (the magic hand of chance strikes again), and Keats does everything but aim the camera and supply dialogue as he describes Coleridge walking at “his alderman-after-dinner pace” and then gives an inventory of the very Coleridgean topics the creator of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” covered in the two-mile walk, including nightingales, poetical sensation, metaphysics, different genera and species of dreams, nightmares, a dream accompanied with a sense of touch, single and double touch, monsters, the Kraken, and last but not least: “a Ghost story.”

In my movie, I’d go for a Halloween release. Even though the meeting happened in the spring, I’d set it on Keats’s birthday, All Hallows Eve, with a heavy mist on the Heath and Anthony Hopkins as Coleridge and Johnny Depp as Keats. Even in his forties, Depp is the most versatile actor on the planet and could do just fine as the 23year old poet. In fact, with a little cinematic trickery, he could play both parts. The scene would end as it did in so-called “real life” with Keats taking his leave and then turning around and coming back saying “Let me carry away the memory, Coleridge, of shaking your hand.” As Keats walks off, Coleridge would turn to the shadowy third party (a man named Green) and say “There was death in that hand.” Coleridge has given several accounts of the scene; in one Keats is “a young man of very striking countenance” and in another, “a loose, slack, not well-dressed youth.” Pressed in later years to explain what it was that suggested death in Keats’s handshake, the best he could do was to admit he couldn’t describe it beyond saying, “There was a heat and dampness in the hand.”

Corny though it may be, from there we’d cut to Keats at his desk late at night writing one of the messages I typed and kept in my wallet, the poet reaching across time, extending “This living hand, now warm and capable of earnest grasping” that would, “if it were cold/and in the icy silence of the tomb,/So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights/That thou wouldst wish thine own heart dry of blood/So in my veins red life might stream again,/And thou be conscience-calm’d.” Then: “See here it is — I hold it towards you.”

Walt Whitman wants you to reach your hand into his poetry and grab him by the beard. Somehow it makes sense for Keats to be reaching out as he reached out for Coleridge’s hand that day on Hampstead Heath. I know just where they were walking. It’s the lane on the Highgate side of Kenwood. It all finally makes you wonder what we want from these relationships — to reach back, ourselves, and seem to be there, in another time, or to bring the poet like a living spirit into our world.

A New Book

A Longman Cultural Edition edited by Princeton University faculty member Susan J. Wolfson, John Keats (Pearson/Longman 2007) offers a way into the poet’s life and work arranged to dissolve the barrier between our time and his. You follow a chronological trail of letters, words, poetry, and documentation, so that you see, for example, the first poem he published (“To Solitude”) in its original newspaper environment, directly beneath the notice of a soldier’s death whose conclusion seems to bleed right into Keats’s poem (“the body was so changed that she with difficulty recognized it to be her brother’s, and the blood was then oozing through the shroud”). The effect of the placement (chance at work again) is that it suggests sights not unlike what Keats in this period was witnessing as a surgeon’s assistant at Guy’s Hospital in London. Wolfson also performs an interesting typographical departure from the norm by having the letters and manuscripts set in a cursive font that creates a semblance of the actual landscape formed by Keats’s 19th-century hand. The image on the book’s cover evokes one of the poet’s masterpieces, “La Belle Dame Sans Merci.”

Bright Star will be released next year, as will Negative Capability, which is also in production. Described as a mockumentary “grunge” musical based on Keats’s letters, it’s set in Seattle at the beginning of the 1990s and directed by Daniel Gildark.

The picture of Keats used here is from a miniature done in 1819 by Joseph Severn.

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