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  • Stephen Altman

"I feel as if we've met somewhere . . ."

I was out walking earlier today, putting steps on the Fitbit before the real August heat set it--when a question popped into my head: "Who are you to talk about Keats?"

A question, I must say, that had never before occurred to me.

I'm no academic, that's for sure. I've never pretended to anyone--least of all to myself--that I know more than any other attentive amateur about Keats's life and work or his place among the critics (or, God forbid, whether one literary "theory" or another has gotten hold of him). But I do know as much about him, I believe, as is necessary to love him. Love does not require credentials.

And in this case--my case, that is--love is the important thing. Love and constancy. In 1819, when Keats wrote the odes and other works for which he is best known, he was 23. He was as tall as he'd ever get--five feet, three-quarters of an inch. He had no social status and he had no university. He was an orphan; he'd lost his father when he was eight, his mother when he was 14. He was now, at the core, alone: He had two brothers to whom he was utterly devoted, but one had recently emigrated to America, the other, age 18, had just died, horribly, of tuberculosis, with Keats nursing him at bedside in the rooms they shared. Tuberculosis was what his mother and her brothers had died of; now his brother; and in two years Keats himself. He had already thrown over medicine--he'd spent five years in training as an apothecary and surgeon--for the sake of becoming a poet. Thus far the critics had beaten him like a gourd. He had a disposition that swung from bright to bleak and back unpredictably, and he suffered. He had, in real ways, nothing. But two things he loved: his own gift for poetry and the thought of where it might take him if he were given the years on earth to get there; and Fanny Brawne, who lived next door. The year in which Keats fell for Fanny Brawne was the year in which he became a great poet, the year in which he wrote the works for which we remember him. He wrote "Bright Star" for her that year:

Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art—

Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night

And watching, with eternal lids apart,

Like nature's patient, sleepless Eremite,

The moving waters at their priestlike task

Of pure ablution round earth's human shores,

Or gazing on the new soft-fallen mask

Of snow upon the mountains and the moors—

No—yet still stedfast, still unchangeable,

Pillow'd upon my fair love's ripening breast,

To feel for ever its soft fall and swell,

Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,

Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,

And so live ever—or else swoon to death.

John Keats's greatest poems are chocked with wisdom and consolation and loveliness and if you get me started I'll begin reciting them to you. But the young man who'd been dealt a whole lot of bad breaks, and who drove with a fierce power to take his genius and his love for someone else as far as he could in the brief time that he had--this is what won me decades ago. My love of the boy is what qualifies me to talk about him.

[The photo was taken in 2015 in the borough of Southwark in London, outside Guy's Hospital, where Keats was a"dresser," a kind of surgeon's apprentice, before he gave up medicine for poetry. The moment captured here was as close as he and I ever came to meeting in person.]


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