The mighty dead




I have always believed that poems come into your life when you need them most. (That was the whole premise of Lifesaving Poems.) Listening to the BBC’s Clive Myrie reading John Keats’s Endymion this week I had that experience again (thank you Peter Carpenter for the recommendation). When was the last time I read it, I thought. University?  Since then? When? I fell on Keats as a student because he made me tingle all over and I was lonely and in and out of love and it was all hopeless. Plus he was a good deal shorter than slogging through Anthony Trollope. But I don’t think I really got him until I heard Thomas Lux reading a poem about him on a tape (remember those?) Naomi Jaffa sent me around 2003. Something clicked. I realised that all the being in and out of love and loneliness I connected with was really about his uncommon awareness of the presence of death in everything, not least his own. In these strange, lengthening days when life’s preciousness and precariousness seem accentuated in every newsflash and conversation, remotely or in person, as Peter texted me Keats seems to be the poet we need right now. I stopped listening to the Today programme years ago for mental health reasons. It is good to know that their emotional antennae have not deserted them.




from Book 1

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.
Therefore, on every morrow, are we wreathing
A flowery band to bind us to the earth,
Spite of despondence, of the inhuman dearth
Of noble natures, of the gloomy days,
Of all the unhealthy and o’er-darkened ways
Made for our searching: yes, in spite of all,
Some shape of beauty moves away the pall
From our dark spirits. Such the sun, the moon,
Trees old and young, sprouting a shady boon
For simple sheep; and such are daffodils
With the green world they live in; and clear rills
That for themselves a cooling covert make
‘Gainst the hot season; the mid forest brake,
Rich with a sprinkling of fair musk-rose blooms:
And such too is the grandeur of the dooms
We have imagined for the mighty dead;
All lovely tales that we have heard or read:
An endless fountain of immortal drink,
Pouring unto us from the heaven’s brink.

Nor do we merely feel these essences
For one short hour; no, even as the trees
That whisper round a temple become soon
Dear as the temple’s self, so does the moon,
The passion poesy, glories infinite,
Haunt us till they become a cheering light
Unto our souls, and bound to us so fast,
That, whether there be shine, or gloom o’ercast;
They always must be with us, or we die.


John Keats

With thanks to Peter Carpenter

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