It was the winter when I found myself in bed with a dead poet.
And found myself thinking about life and beauty.
And about making one’s mark on the world.
“A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.”
When you’re ill for a long time, you can slide into feeling very sorry for yourself and forget what a blessed life you’ve had. That even to have lived this long is a blessing.
One day it occurred to me that I’d already lived a lot longer than poet-singer Bob Marley, whose songs I could still hear in my head, decades after his death: Redemption Time; No Woman, No Cry.
Longer than American civil rights leaders Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, who both died at age 39.
Longer than poet Emily Dickinson and singer-poet Karen Carpenter.
Longer, even, than my own grandfather, a brilliant wordsmith and inventor who never became world- famous, but whose legend lives on in our family.
And way longer than John Keats, the English poet who wrote such marvelous lines as “A thing of beauty is a joy forever....” (from “Endymion”) and “Thou was not born for death, immortal bird!” (from “Ode to a Nightingale”).
It was during our tough, difficult winter — when I found it difficult to stand, walk, sleep and even breathe – that I rediscovered the tender, beautiful poetry of John Keats.
And the winter when I got to know John Keats.
Some poets had privileged lives.
Not John Keats. His father died when the children were young. His mother remarried. Her husband abused her, took the family’s money then disappeared.
John later spent years caring for his brother Tom — who had tuberculosis — knowing he’d become infected too.
John loved his neighbour Frances, and she loved him back. But he couldn’t marry her. He couldn’t even touch her – he’d contracted tuberculosis by then.
One autumn day in 1819, John took a walk near Winchester, England. He came home and wrote “Ode to Autumn“.
“Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run…”
John died two years later, aged 25, thinking himself a complete failure. He asked that no name be put on his tombstone.
“I have left no immortal works 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.”
Ode to Autumn became one of the best-loved poems in the English language, and John Keats became world-famous – more than a century after he died.
How truly wonderful, I thought as I read Keats’ poems.
To be so talented. To be able to see beauty “in all things”.
And how truly awful, I thought as I read his story.
To die so young. To die believing you’d accomplished nothing of worth.
John Keats’ poems gave me a much needed boost that week.
But for a little while, I also felt like weeping — for a man I’d never met.
Dedicated to the lesser-known poets among us.