A Brighter Word than Bright: Keats at Work By Dan Beachy-Quick

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“Yes, if Keats,” Dan Beachy-Quick reports he responded when queried about contributing to the University of Iowa Press’s Muse Books: The Iowa Series in Creativity and Writing. John Keats is often a favorite among younger readers, particularly the teenaged. His early writing tends to leave excessive passion on full display as only the young are wantonly given to do. Beachy-Quick describes how “In the early depths of his poetic life, Keats is most himself when least himself—less a thought, more a sensation.” Everything’s jiggling and thrusting about. This at first near embarrassing aspect of his writing soon blossoms to become its greatest attractive strength. Keats continually seeks to lose himself—giving his identity over to sensation and all else—as only the purest-driven are capable. Many a mature poet is left envious at his seemingly innate capacity for throwing his whole being into pursuing poetry. He constantly strives to be nothing but poet, putting the work first. Beachy-Quick’s reading reveals evidence of “his presence, not as man, not as identity or personality, but as poet.” And that’s as it should be. After all, it’s as Keats himself would have it.

Keats is a prime example par excellence of the innocent tragic poetic genius doomed to early death. He dies young not due to drugs or any youthfully rash, risky, death-defying behavior but rather as a result of having nursed—Keats originally studied medicine in hopes of making it his profession—his mother, followed later by his younger brother, dying from tuberculosis, known as ‘consumption’ at the time. Already relatively small and slight of frame in body, this early exposure to TB combined with the cold weather around London and his peripatetic tramping about always on the move from temporary lodging to temporary lodging, along with what may have been an ill-advised walking tour of Scotland highlands, leaves his death a foregone conclusion. Keats’ constitution never stood a chance. When he coughs up blood in his twenty-fifth year, he knows for certain. He is a dead man. Death comes the following winter, while he seeks in vain to recuperate in Rome, on February 23, 1821.

Jane Campion’s recent film Bright Star (2009) familiarized many readers with a doomed version of the dying poet Keats in love with Fanny Brawne. Beachy-Quick thankfully doesn’t get bogged down in overly wading through the romance with Fanny or lamenting the poet cut down in the prime of his youth—the brevity of Beachy-Quick’s text accomplishes that: the final pages feel as though cut short, as if there must be more to be said. Beachy-Quick sets right in on getting at what matters: the work itself. The life of Keats is here only in so far that it informs the what, why and how Keats makes the poetry he does. It’s clear that once Keats decides upon pursuing poetry as his primary activity there is no holding him back. He pours all his effort into directing every moment of his life into dwelling within poetry. If he isn’t writing he’s lamenting the fact of his lassitude. In Beachy-Quick’s words, Keats often “struggles with his most comment complaint: ‘I have written nothing, and almost read nothing, but I must turn over a new leaf.’”

When Keats is engaged with poetry, which is all the time, he’s always envisioning a grand scope and scale to his work, measuring it against everything and everybody he considers to be colossally great (often this is Shakespeare). His enthusiasm knows no bounds. Discussing Keats’ Odes, Beachy-Quick points out the hazards of such extreme engagement:

The Odes record enthusiasm’s complications. The etymology of the word is telling: to be possessed by a god. Keats seeks not simply inspiration, but enthusiasm—a state of fervered apprehension, where possession and perception are aspects of one another, not the work of the solitary witness, but of the poet asking to see through a god’s eyes even as he looks through his own.

Keats would easily will his vision over to the control of a God as much as a Nightingale for the sake of the poem. His inclinations refuse recognize any significant distinction between the two. Both are equals, being simply other identities separate from his—which he feels must always be escaped from for the poem’s sake. The poem’s occasion of exchange acting as a double-edged blade, as Beachy-Quick acknowledges:

The eye, that dark flower open to the sun’s light, consumes what peers into it. In vision there is this threat: that what we see we feed upon, and brightness distills down into poison, as potent as any contradictory essence. Here Keats’ background in the medical pharmacy collides wholly with the ancient pharmakon, where poison and cure are one and the same, and language bears inside it the fever from which it also seeks ease. Keats can no longer assume that poetry is simply, without irony, “a friend to man.”

Keats recognizes the fragility of his position in regards to the malignancy of poetry when he is already facing the prospect of his early death. In what seems a last ditch effort to harness the powers of poetry to conquer death, he writes what is generally acknowledged as among the last of his poem fragments.

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 wouldst wish thine own heart dry of blood
So in my veins red life might stream again,
And thou be conscience-calmed—see here it is—
I hold it towards you.

Once you’ve lived with reading through all of Keats, discovering his efforts for yourself, these lines will likelier than not chill the spine. Vampire? Zombie? Keats here is both. Goose-pricked, how many a hapless reader would not gladly give over his or her body?

Similar to the case with Emily Dickinson, Keats’ letters offer invaluable insight into the poetic nature of his imagination. There are several infamous passages, many of which Beachy-Quick draws upon. Keats’ observations are not only fresh and immediate, they are interior looking. It’s exactly as if he’s in the midst of merging with all he witnesses. He not only sees what’s in front of his eyes, he intuits what’s yet-to-come alongside what might-yet-be.

The noble animal Man for his amusement smokes his pipe; the Hawk balances about the clouds—that is the only difference of their leisures. This is that makes the Amusement of Life to a speculative Mind. I go among the Fields and catch a glimpse of a stoat or a field mouse peeping out of the withered grass. The creature hath a purpose and its eyes are bright with it. I go amongst the buildings of a city and I see a Man hurrying along—to what? The Creature has a purpose and his eyes are bright with it.

Beachy-Quick comments, “the ‘eye is bright’ with what it wants” as he then continues further quoting from the same letter of 1819:

Even here, though I myself am pursuing the same instinctive course as the veriest human animal you can think of, I am however young writing at a 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.

Keats echoes his own notion of ‘Negative Capability’ a concept he sets forth in a letter of 1817: “I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” This is among the most freeing as well as terrifying descriptions of the sensation of artistic creation. Open to anything, anything may happen. The term gets a bit overly bandied about every now and then, but remains nonetheless central to many a poet. I personally know no fewer than two who have ‘Negative Capability’ tattooed on the arm. Beachy-Quick’s book proves himself a candidate who just might make it three.

Patrick James Dunagan lives in San Francisco and works at Gleeson Library for the University of San Francisco. His recent books include: from Book of Kings (Bird and Beckett Books), Drops of Rain / Drops of Wine (Spuyten Duyvil) and The Duncan Era: One Reader's Cosmology (Spuyten Duyvil). More from this author →