The World is Full of Magical Things: Patiently waiting for our wits to grow sharper.
February 7, 2023
4 min read
Life Cut Short
John Keats died at the age of twenty-five. His mature writing career spanned a little over four years, including when he was still a teenager — from 19 to 23.
We know many rock stars who burned bright and whose lives were curtailed early on from our own time. We wonder what works they might have produced if they had lived longer. And we can look at other rock stars that had much to say, which embodied the distillation of remarkable life experience, which speak profoundly and intimately. And then they go on to live long lives expressing lesser degrees of insight and inspiration.
Sometimes the trajectory is unsustainable, and a life of enjoyment and ease dilutes the desperate urge and need to be understood. Youth can speak and profoundly so. This urgency drove the gift we have from Keats. It is idle to wonder what more we might have been cheated of by his early death.
Keats published fifty-four poems in three slender volumes and a few magazines during his lifetime. His body of work includes a relative handful of extraordinary poems. He is most well known for the five great odes he wrote in 1819. In these five poems, he brought the English ode to its most perfect form and definition.
Besides the ode, he also wrote in various poetic forms, from the sonnet to the Spenserian romance to the Miltonic epic.
John Keats was not an aristocrat in a time when opportunities and learning were very limited to everyone who was not. Class and social structure was a major impediment to the hopes and dreams of all but the most fortunately high born.
Keats was derided and dismissed by critics as a stable keeper’s son. But it was a changing time, and education and learning were becoming tenuously accessible even to the lower middle classes in England through books and progressive schools.
He received a liberal education in the boy’s academy at Enfield and trained at Guy’s Hospital to become a medical assistant. He had no university or formal literary education. He did have access to books and was a ferocious autodidact.
Though these circumstances made for personal struggles and strife, the latitude it offered freed him from the conventions of the time and allowed him to develop unconstrained as a literary artist.
His poems resonate with us in their beautiful construction and modern sensibility. He is modern in the sense that he seeks inspiration in teasing out the numinous qualities of mundane, everyday events, and natural settings. He explores the interior nature of personal experience and describes it in a common language. He is a Romantic, perhaps the arch-romantic.
Prior to his time, most poetry comprised the epic retelling of the glorious achievements of historical, mythical, or spiritual figures by authors who were uncritical believers in the virtue of those tales. By Keats’ time, skepticism, doubt, and questioning had disrupted the intellectual fabric.
This questioning opened the door to science and progress and curiosity about truth but also left humanity with a crisis of what to believe in.
The resolution of these disorienting consequences of self-awareness and charting a way forward became Keats’ project. He presents the solutions poetically.
Though he doesn’t place his poetic gift in the service of reciting episodes of glory and fame and even questions the usefulness of such concepts, through his profound sensibilities and explorations and his command of language, in his brief life, he himself achieved an immortal legacy of fame and glory.
As the Irish poet Butler Yeats beautifully put it,
“The world is full of magical things patiently waiting for our wits to grow sharper.”
Keats presents us with the sharpened wits to perceive magical things.
It is an important insight that places the locus of responsibility on us to grow and deepen if we desire to become more fully aware of the magic and miracles the world offers. These poems, and the narratives they rehearse as we hear them, offer us a way to achieve and participate in that deepening. The poetry of John Keats helps us to hone our senses and our wits, so we are more attuned to the magical things that permeate our everyday.
Ironically William Butler Yeats was not a Keats fan.
F. Scott Fitzgerald, who was a big Keats fan, wrote this about him:
“Poetry is either something that lives like fire inside you — like music to the musician or Marxism to the Communist — or it is nothing, an empty, formalized bore around which pendants can endlessly drone their notes and explanations. The Grecian Urn is unbearably beautiful with every syllable as inevitable as the notes in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, or it’s just something you don’t understand. It is what it is because an extraordinary genius passed at that point in history and touched it. I suppose I’ve read it a hundred times. About the tenth time I began to know what it is about, and caught the chime in it and the exquisite inner mechanics. Likewise with the Nightingale which I can never read through without tears in my eyes; likewise the Pot of Basil with its great stanzas about the two brothers: “Why they were proud, etc.”; and The Eve of St. Agnes which has the richest, most sensuous imagery in English, not excepting Shakespeare. And finally his three or four great sonnets: Bright Star and the others…
Knowing those things young and granted an ear, one can scarcely ever afterwards be unable to distinguish between gold and dross in what one reads. In themselves those eight poems are a scale of workmanship for anybody who truly wants to know about words, their most utter value of evocation, persuasion, or charm. For a while after you quit Keats all other poetry seems to be only whistling or humming.”
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