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  • Stephen Altman

John Keats, a Sunset Poet

The weather (if not the climate) is getting better here in Shepherdstown. Because autumn's arriving, and because John Keats wrote "To Autumn," the perfect poem, I had thought of posting it today. But if you're at all familiar with Keats, you know the poem already, and if you're not you can find it with a click or two. Instead, here's a small series of remarkable observations about Keats and the end of things by Stanley Plumly, from his book, The Immortal Evening: A Legendary Dinner with Keats, Wordsworth, and Lamb, which he published in 2014. Plumly met his own end in 2019. He writes:

The Italians have a term, crepusculari, for the writers they have categorized as the sunset poets, Keats being among them, especially since he died in Rome. Italy, of course, is not the only country where the crepuscular occurs, where the eye fills with light, the falling light. The painter’s eye, like the poet’s, may have a lot on its mind, but its first responsibility is to see, to allow the imagination to come to terms. What is the great subject in nature if not sunset, the long slow end of each day? It is mortal time made immortal, as we attend it, again and again. The archetypal brilliance of Keats’s “To Autumn” is its recognition of the passing of the season as represented in the passing of a day—spring, summer, autumn, winter; morning, afternoon, evening, night—with the emphasis on the harvest moment, the sheaves, the binding up of the last of the light, as “The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft; / And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.” The day, and all it adds up to, passing into night, the light leading into the dark . . . what else is there except our acceptance of this passing and our longing to transcend it?


[The sketch of Keats was made near the end of 1816 by his friend Joseph Severn. Keats was 21.]

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