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Stephen Altman - The Blog
All about Life, John Keats and Blues for the Muse

  • Stephen Altman

For all you divorcees out there, or other humans who might need a little reassurance after some hard knocks, here is “Failing and Flying,” by Jack Gilbert--this week's literary find on Scrapbook Friday.

Everyone forgets that Icarus also flew. It's the same when love comes to an end, or the marriage fails and people say they knew it was a mistake, that everybody said it would never work. That she was old enough to know better. But anything worth doing is worth doing badly. Like being there by that summer ocean on the other side of the island while love was fading out of her, the stars burning so extravagantly those nights that anyone could tell you they would never last. Every morning she was asleep in my bed like a visitation, the gentleness in her like antelope standing in the dawn mist. Each afternoon I watched her coming back through the hot stony field after swimming, the sea light behind her and the huge sky on the other side of that. Listened to her while we ate lunch. How can they say the marriage failed? Like the people who came back from Provence (when it was Provence) and said it was pretty but the food was greasy. I believe Icarus was not failing as he fell, but just coming to the end of his triumph.


The painting is The Fall of Icarus, by Jacob Peter Gowy, at the Prado in Madrid. Considering the content of the poem, I might well have chosen a still from Kramer vs. Kramer or Marriage Story. But Gowy's baroque extravaganza has always been irresistible.

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  • Stephen Altman

This is the first full day of autumn. You shouldn't let it pass without reading--preferably aloud, under an old elm with your own true love--the perfect poem, which was written in the fall of 1819 by John Keats and which is called "To Autumn."

I am not going to interfere with the experience. Here's the poem. Do read it. But notice when you're done that Keats doesn't say a word about your life going by with a sweet lingering joy that you'd be wise to savor because someday it will be gone. He tells you without a word.

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,

Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;

Conspiring with him how to load and bless

With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;

To bend with apples the moss'd cottage-trees,

And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;

To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells

With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,

And still more, later flowers for the bees,

Until they think warm days will never cease,

For Summer has o'er-brimm'd their clammy cells.

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?

Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find

Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,

Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;

Or on a half-reap'd furrow sound asleep,

Drows'd with the fume of poppies, while thy hook

Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:

And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep

Steady thy laden head across a brook;

Or by a cyder-press, with patient look,

Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.

Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?

Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,—

While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,

And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;

Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn

Among the river sallows, borne aloft

Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;

And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;

Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft

The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;

And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.


That's my backyard in the snapshot, a few autumns ago just before my beloved old sugar maple had to be taken down. Root rot. Alas, a metaphor if ever I met one.

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  • Stephen Altman

I'm embarrassed, I must say, to have forgotten any mention of cats in a story set, in large part, in the Non-Catholic Cemetery and on the streets of Rome. Rome's got cats galore. There are an estimated 120,000 free-roaming Roman felines. Here in the States some people might think of them as mere alley cats. But in Rome, cats are beloved. They are legally protected and have rights to live where they feel like it. Good for Rome. I am a fan of cats.

Rome's even got designated cat sanctuaries--they call them colonies--where felines can wander in and live the life of leisure, generally under the benign and watchful eye of gattare, or cat ladies. Rome's most famous cat colony, in the heart of the city at Largo Argentina, is on the site where Julius Caesar was assassinated. (Only in Rome, right?) Maybe the next most famous colony is at the Pyramid of Caius Cestius, a Roman magistrate who, a bit more than 2,000 years ago, had a 120-foot-tall pyramid erected to himself to serve as his final resting place. Turned out that pyramid made quite a backdrop for the final resting place of the poet John Keats. The oldest part of the cemetery, the part where Keats was buried 200 years ago, lies virtually in the shadow of the pyramid.

Today the old Roman magistrate's empty tomb gleams in the sun. On the site opposite the cemetery, cars and motorbikes roar past. Its immediate grounds are home to a cat colony, complete with kind-hearted gattare and other volunteers. Meanwhile the feline residents, when they're so inclined, wander over to the cemetery where the remains of John Keats and some 4,500 other humans are interred. Spend time there, as I have, and you'll find yourself snapping cell-phone pictures of cats on tombstones, cats on vaults, cats on the statuary. You won't have to wait very long till one shows up.

So it's Keats and cats, so to speak. As it happens, the poet himself--very much alive in early 1818 and only 22--wrote a mock-heroic sonnet to his friend John Hamilton Reynolds' mother's dozing old tomcat. Here you go:

Cat! who hast pass'd thy grand climacteric,

How many mice and rats hast in thy days

Destroy'd? - How many tit bits stolen? Gaze

With those bright languid segments green, and prick

Those velvet ears - but pr'ythee do not stick

Thy latent talons in me - and upraise

Thy gentle mew - and tell me all thy frays

Of fish and mice, and rats and tender chick.

Nay, look not down, nor lick thy dainty wrists -

For all the wheezy asthma, - and for all

Thy tail's tip is nick'd off - and though the fists

Of many a maid have given thee many a mail,

Still is that fur as soft as when the lists

In youth thou enter'dst on glass bottled wall.


The image above is one of the innumerable snapshots I've taken of felines living the good life in and around the Non-Catholic Cemetery in Rome. This one dates from the fall of 2012.

And here is a (mercifully brief) analysis of "Sonnet to Mrs. Reynolds' Cat," which might be useful if you're reading or teaching the poem.

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