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Wednesday, 25 February 2009

There Are Still Not Enough Stars: John Keats and Lyra (The Lyre)


The whole fate drama hoving into view
Before dawn under the lyric stars...

Young Master Keats was an ostler's son born within earshot of Bow Bells. This tiny Cockney lad bore the social mark of the stables upon him, and the brand of class so deeply habituated into his speech that he would, as he rose in the world, take to self-mockingly imitating his own social awkwardness by abbreviating his name to "Junkets" when in the relaxed company of certain friends. Yet he determined early on--despite the enormity of the ambition, considering his mean class status--to make a name for himself in time to come as among "the English Poets."

At play among the minor magnitudes as a child
Above the Swan and Hoop Keats toys with stars,
Sky bodies dance like tops in agile
Imaginings of his small street boxer's hands.

Rising over London Wall, anchoring the Summer Triangle,
Vega, a bluish white star of major magnitude in Lyra,
Is conspicuous in its passage from the south
Over the smoky fogbound eighteenth century town.

We hear in the Mythologies John Keats read at school--the "light classics" versions of Greek and Latin poets' tales, providing an underprivileged child's tenuous grasp upon infinitely desirable "Realms of Gold"--that Hermes found an empty tortoise shell on the beach and strung seven strings through the holes, and that light shimmered then upon the strings, which when plucked delivered heavenly sounds.

Losing himself into the moment of his studenthood,
Prosing the Aeneid, learning Lemprière by heart,
Scanning, while downstairs Cowden Clarke practised Mozart,
The night sky anatomy of a mythic

Pre-world with its promise of high morning heroism and its
Even higher paradigms of expanding darkness--
Already by some poet instinct knowing that here in the universe
The evening is young, there are still not enough stars...

Hermes swapped this instrument to Apollo for a magic healing staff entwined with snakes. The staff also possessed the ability to render its owner airborne. But Apollo did not feel cheated in the exchange, for he now possessed the divine power of song.

Apollo passed on the power of song to his son, Orpheus, but not without warning him about the special concealed defect of this wonderful gift. Though it was a very strong power, it left you in many ways defenseless, because you could not do harm with it. And the defect concealed in this gift? You might well die for the possessing of it....

All through that aching starlit spring
In Hampstead...

At a literal and historical level, the astronomical Lyra is a sky-sign under which Keats was born. In his life story the poet's lyre appears as a figure of poetic gift--meanwhile also distantly beckoning overhead, through the smoke and gaslight and fog, as that remote constellation in the London night sky.

After a night of whisk and brag and gin and water
At Rice's cardplaying club on Poland Street,
Coming out before dawn under the lyric stars,
Vega conspicuous at the point of the Lyre

At five o'clock of a summer morning encompassing
286 degrees of the London Arabic sky,
The whole fate drama hoving into view,
While the slow making of souls overshadows

Every thing...



Zephirine said...

I liked 'small street boxer's hands'... it's always good to re-assert that Keats was quite a tough little person even though he was intensely emotional; that Victorian greenery-yallery image of him as the wispy soul too good for this world still persists. I suppose people who die young leave their unfulfilled future as a convenient blank on which the world can project its own fantasies.

This is a lovely piece of work, Tom, reading it sent me back to Keats's letters, and I was reminded that he must often have been a lot of fun before the illness began to drag him down. Forgive me if I post a rather long extract from a letter to Jane Reynolds, but it is kind of irresistible:

"Give my sincerest Respects to Mrs Dilke saying that I have not forgiven myself for not having got her the little Box of Medicine I promised for her after dinner flushings - and that had I remained at Hampstead I would have made precious havoc with her house and furniture - drawn a great harrow over her garden - poisoned Boxer - eaten her Cloathes pegs, - fried her Cabbages fricaceed (how is it spelt?) her radishes - ragouted her Onions - belaboured her beat root - outstripped her Scarlet Runners - parlezvou'd with her french Beans - devoured her Mignon or Mignonette - metamorphosed her Bell handles - splintered her looking glasses - bullock'd at her cups and Saucers - agonized her decanters - put old Philips to pickle in the Brine-tup - disorganized her Piano - dislocated her Candlesticks - emptied her wine bins in a fit of despair - turned out her Maid to Grass and Astonished Brown - whose Letter to her on these events I would rather see than the original copy of the Book of Genesis."

tc/btp said...


Your point seems absolutely worth making over and over again: we have heard so much of the vulnerable, frail Keats, and so little of the brave, forward soul "history" would find it so much easier to see him as, had he not died so very young.

"A lot of fun" he surely was, a delight to all his friends, who loved his enthusiasm and good cheer (and felt deeply for him when he suffered his intermittent "lunes" or blue moods); really, in that un-self-assuming way that was characteristically his, he was the life and heart of a little social circle whose "textual center" (were one to speak silly-academically of so unpretentious a poet) was his poetry.

And aren't those letters still absolutely wonderful, absorbing, engaging reading, in which the intimacy, sweet openness and generosity of heart feel so real to us even now?