I’m afraid I’m cheating this week.The poem by John Keats (picture from here) that I had my heart set on featuring this week isn’t in the anthology I’ve been reading so I’ve gone to my old Everyman edition of Keats to find this lovely sonnet. There were several poems in my anthology that I also love, often because they’re quoted or referenced in other books. One of my favourite moments in Barbara Pym’s Excellent Women is when Julian, the jilted vicar is standing in Mildred’s living room & sentimentally quotes from Keats’s Ode to a Nightingale, “I cannot see what flowers are at my feet.” Mildred quotes the next line, “Nor what soft incense hangs upon the boughs” & briskly moves the conversation on to more mundane matters, such as whether Nor What Soft Incense has ever been used as the title of a novel about rival churches. There is even a quote in my chosen poem from the movie Brief Encounter, where Fred is doing the crossword & asks Laura for the missing word in his clue which, significantly, is Romance.
Keats’s short life produced some of the most beautiful poetry in the language. His wonderful year of 1819 was the final blaze of genius before his health declined & he died of tuberculosis in Rome in 1821 at the age of 25. Several of his poems seem to foreshadow his early death & this sonnet is one of the most poignant.
When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has glean’d ny teeming brain,
Before my high-piled books, in charact’ry,
Hold like rich garners the full-ripen’d grain;
When I behold, upon the night’s starr’d face,
Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,
And feel that I may never live to trace
Their shadows, with the magic hand of chance;
And when I feel, fair creature of an hour!
That I shall never look upon thee more,
Never have relish in the faery power
Of unreflecting love! – then on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone, and think,
Till Love and Fame to nothingness do sink.