"Here lies one whose name was writ in water."
--John Keats' self-composed epitaph
Can we distill Keats - his life, the essence of his career - to one sentence? If it is possible, Keats, of course, out-did us all in that attempt. Composing an epitaph that is both touchingly beautiful and perversely macabre, it captures the transcience of Keats too - his fragile physical body that ultimately succumbed to TB at age twenty-five.
It is hard to write an epitaph like this without an acute awareness of one's own mortality, and surely it is a strange state for one to embody, living one's life while constantly walking a tightrope of death and sickness.
This ethereal quality of Keats - the sense of feeling trapped between worlds - is one of my favorite images of his.
He captures it in Ode to a Grecian Urn*, where he describes the youth in the urn as trapped in the climactic moment of waiting for his lover's kiss, as the speaker consoles the youth: "...yet do not grieve; / She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss, / For ever while thou love, and she be fair!" The lover is eternally caught before the moment of innocent consumation - though his lover retains her perpetual beauty.
Reading Keats' "La Belle Dame Sans Merci
" last night, I saw the imagry again, and thought of his epitaph. The Knight in "La Belle," like the youth in the Grecian Urn, is dejected: "And this is why I sojourn here /Alone and palely loitering" in the thrall of the lady. Regardless, he still occupies an unknown no-man's land in the "cold hill's side."
I'm sure Keats saw a lot of himself in these two figures - caught between the spheres of life and death. Bestriding two worlds like a Collosus - surely that is an apt description for poetic genius.
*I owe the Grecian Urn insight to my former Shakespeare Professor, Bill Watterson.
Labels: Keats, SOTD