200 years ago this month a 21 year old surgical resident decided to give up his studies to become a doctor and to instead concentrate on the writing of poetry. An interesting decision. He had already rolled up a considerable education debt, and while it’s possible that poetry’s earnings potential might have been greater in 1816 than today, greater than zero is not a high bar.
So how prudent was our young not-to-be surgeon? He had tried his hand at poetry and had published a couple of poems in magazines before his decision. Hmm. Not a great prospectus you might think. In a rough translation for our time, it’s as if the young student had ditched his studies and loan debt for a shot at touring as an indie-rocker, even though he’s only played in his dorm room and doesn’t have a band.
His friends thought he had promise. In the forthcoming year, and with their help, he would find a publisher for his first volume of poems, but his work was mostly unnoticed, and where noticed, the reviews were at best mixed. One reviewer had rich fun with this impudence:
“The spectacle of an able mind reduced to a state of insanity…. It is a better and easier thing to be a starved apothecary than a starved poet; go back to the shop, Mr. John, back to `plasters, pills and ointment boxes.'”
Another reviewer offered this judgement
“We regret that a young man of vivid imagination and fine talents should have fallen into so bad hands as to have been flattered into the resolution to publish verses, of which a few years hence he will be glad to escape from the remembrance.”
We know how this turns out, more times than not: the young fool will be unable to sustain a long career in the arts—and yes, that was the case here. The young surgeon turned poet was to have a career of less than 5 years—but that was because of his early death at age 25. Yup, he dies two years too young to make the 27 club. Our surgeon turned poet was John Keats.
Besides talent, and desire that was the equivalent of foolishness, Keats worked very hard reading poetry, thinking about it, and writing it in those less than five years, producing some of the best lyric poetry in English.
In my own twenties, this encouraged and discouraged me. On one hand, it said I could write and read fearlessly as a young poet in the first half of my twenties; and on the other, as I measured what I had accomplished, I often admonished myself: John Keats died at 25.
Almost exactly one year after he broke from medicine for poetry, John Keats wrote the words for this piece In the Drear-Nighted December. He wrote it after struggling for much of the year to write his first long piece, Endymion, a neo-classical epic in heroic couplets that he never thought he got right.
This is something many writers experience. You struggle mightily to create something. Something big, something impressive. You bring all your craft to it, but it doesn’t quite work. You finish it, or otherwise set it aside, and in the aftermath out pops another smaller-seeming thing that is much more perfect. It’s like the muse says to you “You don’t control me and direct this, and here’s the proof.”
What has Keats done here? First off, those words cannot be read and not sung. This kind of silent melody is not easy to do in English, yet here is the young Keats doing it brilliantly. His images? I’m deep in a minus 17 degree F. Minnesota afternoon as I write this this. His trees with their “sleety whistle,” those branches glued with ice, once flowing water frozen like mineral crystals—I know these things, but Keats has said them well to remind me that we both know.
John Keats encased in Carbonite by Jabba the Bad Reviews
And then his sublime last verse, so beautiful I could not help but repeat it. In two verses Keats has setup an nice lyric that doesn’t stray far from convention. To paraphrase: “Hey, look at nature in winter. Doesn’t look like it does in spring or summer at all. Even though we conscious beings know (more than dumb water and trees) that these trees will bud and the brook water will flow again, nature doesn’t care.” Now the third verse: “How smart are we compared to non-conscious nature? We will ‘writhe’ in pain as things are taken from us (and though unspoken: since the image has been of a repeating natural cycle, this will happen again and again). This is not a poem that says “Suffering? Don’t worry, spring will come again.” This is poem that says suffering will come again, as surely as winter. “The feel and not to feel it, when there is none to heal it.” What a line: “The feel and not to feel it!”
A good song for winter solstice, so to hear the LYL Band perform In the Drear-Nighted December, click the play button the player gadget that will appear below.