On March 18th, a poet named John was hit in the eye and knocked out by a ball while playing an informal game of cricket. Perhaps because of the confused state of mind that followed, he didn’t make clear whether he was batting at the time or fielding. He just said, rather confusingly, he was relieved the ball was a white ball, not a clout.
What may be of some interest to those who like poetry is the effect of this injury. It literally laid John low, so low that he didn’t want to do anything at all, not even pick up his pen, let alone a bat. He didn’t wake up till 11 o’clock next morning and then he felt quite faint.
In this state of mind, he did experience a vision in which three figures passed him by like figures on a Greek vase. He claimed only he could see through the disguise of these allegorical forms. One was Love, another Ambition and the third Poetry. These were evidently the three powers struggling for supremacy within his psyche. In the utterly lazy state the cricketing accident had left him in, he refused the blandishments of all three. Laziness reigned supreme.
Mind you, Love had recently been beckoning in the particular form of an 18-year-old girl. John called her a little minx, her behaviour the previous Christmas so bad, flying out at people and calling them such names, it is no wonder he supposed she was only 16. Anyway, he had taken her aside and told her he would have nothing more to do with her unless her behaviour improved.
Ambition hadn’t fared any better. John aimed to be a great poet like Edmund Spenser or John Milton. So he tried writing long poems like theirs. These he tended to leave unfinished, if not hardly begun. While it may be valuable to read the poets of the past, it is better not to try and write exactly like them.
Where does that leave the figure of Poetry? Well, it leaves John declaring he can’t write at all, won’t write at all and certainly won’t publish anything he has yet written. He will do nothing at all.
Finding a Job
Unfortunately, family matters mean John really ought to be doing a job. His parents are dead, his younger brother has died in his arms of TB and his younger sister is still at school. He is pinning his hopes on his other brother, who has gone to the United States and aims to make his fortune there before calling John. His brother has even been playing cricket in Philadelphia: yes, they do have quite a tradition for playing cricket in Philadelphia.
John’s guardian has been taking the trouble of finding jobs for him: successively, as an assistant to a hat-maker, a book-seller, a tea-broker and, on account of some experience John has had in medicine, as a doctor on a ship bound for India. John always fails to turn up.
Looking into the Future
Gazing into a crystal ball, we can see that the little minx will move in next door and that John will tell her his head is so stuffed like a cricket ball he cannot find time to spare for her. In spite of that, before many months have passed, he will be sending her passionate letters saying he has written her letters too passionate to be sent.
That’s Love and Love is not likely to leave John much time to realise his old Ambition of being a great Poet. But this is where the cricketing injury intervenes. You will remember it causes John to feel so lazy he doesn’t even want to write at all, let alone long poems. Well, although John keeps on saying he isn’t writing at all, that’s not quite true.
In the month that follows the cricketing accident, John does scribble a few sonnets, two of them on the foolishness of aiming to become famous. Fame is like a woman, he says, pursue her and she runs away; ignore her and she might just follow you. What the little minx thought about this is not recorded. As it turns out, John doesn’t like the pouncing rhymes of sonnets and he tries to lengthen things out a bit by writing an ode.
What John does is take up the vision he has had of Love, Ambition and Poetry contending for his attention and Laziness winning out over them all. He calls his poem Ode on Indolence. But, note, it is a bit of a sleight of hand because he has now written this out in a poem and so really Poetry has won out over Laziness, or Indolence, and not vice versa.
John says he likes this poem better than anything else he has written. This resort to the ode form has actually lead him in May to write several odes one after the other in quick succession.
One of them is about other figures he imagines on a Grecian Urn: “Bold lover, never, never, cans’t thou kiss,/ Though winning near the goal...”; while another ode is about a Nightingale he has heard on the same heath where he had played cricket: “Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!/ No hungry generations tread thee down...”
200 Not Out
You will know by now that the John I am referring to is John Keats, the Romantic poet. The cricketing accident that befell him took place exactly 200 years ago, on March 18th, 1819. While its immediate effect was to knock him into another state of consciousness, perhaps it had a similar longer-term effect as well?
The letter that tells of the cricket also includes a sonnet that refers to the three archetypal figures (under variant names) that haunted him the next day:
Verse, Fame and Beauty are intense indeed
But Death intenser - Death is Life’s high mead.
The overpowering fourth state, Laziness or Indolence, has been transmuted into Death. John, mortally ill from TB, has some premonition, perhaps, that he has less than two years to live. After the cricketing accident, he falls into states of lassitude that increase as death approaches. He believes he has written nothing at all but in fact he has experienced a series of “little deaths,” you might say, when, musing on death in an abstracted state, he writes the greatest odes in the English language.
In his normal state of mind, John seemed to be unaware of this. Shortly before he died, he wrote: “I have left no immortal work behind me - nothing to make my friends proud of my memory - but I have loved the principle of beauty in all things, and if I had had time I would have made myself remembered.”
John Drew in memoriam John Keats. This spring Drew is at ULAB as a visiting scholar.