I stood tip-toe on a little hill

Throughout my years of reading, teaching, discussing, appreciating literature I have tossed off a few pithy phrases that sometimes help to get the discussion going and sometimes shut it down and make immediate adversaries of everyone around me. I suppose it depends of the room I am playing at the time.

It’s All Fiction

This one I absolutely stand by—all writing is fiction—it may seem real but it is all filtered by the human imagination and intellect. People have argued that if history is fiction then the Holocaust didn’t happen. See the fallacy here? I didn’t say that the events in the history of the world were fiction, only that the writing about those events is fiction. All writers, whether they are involved with fiction or that bookstore categorization, non-fiction, select what they will write and how they will write it. Do you know they place Glenn Beck in the non-fiction shelves. That should tell you  … It’s all fiction!

All great English Literature is written by the Irish

This one has many exceptions but even so, think of the great writers of English Literature:  Oscar Wilde, Jonathan Swift, Oliver Goldsmith, W. B. Yeats, James Joyce, Laurence Sterne, Sean O’Casey, John M. Synge, Elizabeth Bowen, Samuel Beckett, Brian O’Nolan, William Congreve, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, John Banville, George Berhard Shaw, Maria Edgeworth, George Moore, Charles Maturin, C. S. Lewis, Edna O’Brien, Bram Stoker, J. Sheridan Le Fanu, … and many more.

To be a great poet you have to either die of consumption or a venereal disease, preferably at a young age

This one shows my focus on the English Romantic poets as an undergraduate (I shifted to Restoration Drama in graduate school). I’m sure that the list of English poets who died of old age is quite impressive, but for a while there, I didn’t know if I should cough or just head for the opium den.

But this does bring me to a subject I have been mulling over:  here I am on the downward side of sixty-five and I read about these artists and writers that captured the world’s imagination (well, some of the world) and then died. Today we have many examples of artists dying young, often attributed to AIDS, but my unavoidable nemesis is John Keats.

John Keats

Look at this little list of a few major works by Keats:

  • Endymion: A Poetic Romance (1818)
  • Lamia (1819)
  • Hyperion (1820)
  • The Fall of Hyperion: A Dream (1820)
  • The Eve of St. Agnes (1820)
  • La Belle Dame Sans Merci (1820)
  • Ode to A Nightingale (1820)
  • Ode on a Grecian Urn (1820)

And he died of consumption (tuberculosis) at the age of 26. I know it’s not Alan Ginsberg or T. S. Eliot but when I read The Eve of St. Agnes I have a distinct full-body reaction and quiver through several stanzas until I begin to settle in to the verse. Try this

I.

ST. AGNES’ Eve—Ah, bitter chill it was!
The owl, for all his feathers, was a-cold;
The hare limp’d trembling through the frozen grass,
And silent was the flock in woolly fold:
Numb were the Beadsman’s fingers, while he told
His rosary, and while his frosted breath,
Like pious incense from a censer old,
Seem’d taking flight for heaven, without a death,
Past the sweet Virgin’s picture, while his prayer he saith.

II.

His prayer he saith, this patient, holy man;
Then takes his lamp, and riseth from his knees,
And back returneth, meagre, barefoot, wan,
Along the chapel aisle by slow degrees:
The sculptur’d dead, on each side, seem to freeze,
Emprison’d in black, purgatorial rails:
Knights, ladies, praying in dumb orat’ries,
He passeth by; and his weak spirit fails
To think how they may ache in icy hoods and mails.

III.

Northward he turneth through a little door,
And scarce three steps, ere Music’s golden tongue
Flatter’d to tears this aged man and poor;
But no—already had his deathbell rung;
The joys of all his life were said and sung:
His was harsh penance on St. Agnes’ Eve:
Another way he went, and soon among
Rough ashes sat he for his soul’s reprieve,
And all night kept awake, for sinners’ sake to grieve.

IV.

That ancient Beadsman heard the prelude soft;
And so it chanc’d, for many a door was wide,
From hurry to and fro. Soon, up aloft,
The silver, snarling trumpets ’gan to chide:
The level chambers, ready with their pride,
Were glowing to receive a thousand guests:
The carved angels, ever eager-eyed,
Star’d, where upon their heads the cornice rests,
With hair blown back, and wings put cross-wise on their breasts.

V.

At length burst in the argent revelry,
With plume, tiara, and all rich array,
Numerous as shadows haunting fairily
The brain, new stuff d, in youth, with triumphs gay
Of old romance. These let us wish away,
And turn, sole-thoughted, to one Lady there,
Whose heart had brooded, all that wintry day,
On love, and wing’d St. Agnes’ saintly care,
As she had heard old dames full many times declare.

VI.

They told her how, upon St. Agnes’ Eve,
Young virgins might have visions of delight,
And soft adorings from their loves receive
Upon the honey’d middle of the night,
If ceremonies due they did aright;
As, supperless to bed they must retire,
And couch supine their beauties, lily white;
Nor look behind, nor sideways, but require
Of Heaven with upward eyes for all that they desire. …

It continues for many stanzas and I invite you to finish reading the poem at Bartleby on the net. Another favorite is Isabella, or The Pot of Basil … gorgeous and creepy at the same time (Bartleby). How old was Keats when he wrote these two extended poems? I am so depressed … cough.

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