Ode to Love

 

In early honor of Valentine’s Day …

 

Pillow’d upon my fair love’s ripening breast,
To feel for ever its soft fall and swell,
Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,
Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
And so live ever — or else swoon to death.

 

John Keats lived to be just 25 years old, but in that time he wrote some of the most exquisite love letters in the English language. These tender missives of ardor were to his betrothed, Fanny Brawne.

Keats was 23 years old, recently back from a tour of Scotland, England, and Ireland (during which time he’d probably contracted the tuberculosis that would soon kill him), and had moved back to a grassy area of London, where he met and fell in love with Fanny Brawne. During this time, he composed a number of his great poems, including Ode to a Nightingale.

One Wednesday in the autumn, he wrote this letter, considered by many the most beautiful in the English language:

 

My dearest Girl,

This moment I have set myself to copy some verses out fair. I cannot proceed with any degree of content. I must write you a line or two and see if that will assist in dismissing you from my Mind for ever so short a time. Upon my soul I can think of nothing else. The time is passed when I had power to advise and warn you against the unpromising morning of my Life.

My love has made me selfish. I cannot exist without you. I am forgetful of every thing but seeing you again — my Life seems to stop there — I see no further. You have absorb’d me. I have a sensation at the present moment as though I was dissolving — I should exquisitely miserable without the hope of soon seeing you. I should be afraid to separate myself far from you.

My sweet Fanny, will your heart never change? My love, will it? I have no limit now to my love … I have been astonished that Men could die Martyrs for religion — I have shudder’d at it. I shudder no more. I could be martyr’d for my religion — love is my religion — I could die for that. I could die for you. My Creed is Love and you are its only tenet. You have ravish’d me away by a Power I cannot resist; and yet I could resist till I saw you; and even since I have seen you I have endeavored often “to reason against the reasons of my Love.” I can do that no more — the pain would be too great. My love is selfish. I cannot breathe without you.

Yours for ever
John Keats

 

The following spring, Keats wrote: “My dear Girl, I love you ever and ever and without reserve. The more I have known you the more I have lov’d. … You are always new. The last of your kisses was ever the sweetest; the last smile the brightest; the last movement the gracefullest. When you pass’d my window home yesterday, I was filled with as much admiration as if I had then seen you for the first time.”

Keats and Brawne became engaged. He had hoped to earn a bit of money for them before they married. But before too long, he began coughing up blood. When he saw it, he said: “I know the color of that blood; it is arterial blood. I cannot be deceived in that color. That drop of blood is my death warrant. I must die.” He wrote to tell her that she was free to break off their engagement since he would likely not survive. But she refused, and he was hugely relieved. Sadly, death preempted their wedding.

 

Photos: Jane Campion film Bright Star
John Keats by William Hilton

 

I suspect there are any number of those out there as eminently gifted as Keats vying for the hearts of their beloved this Valentine’s Day. One can only hope they require in excess of 140 characters to make it so. Or perhaps not. Have we, after all, morphed into a culture of brevity with the capacity of saying so much more with a paucity of so much less?

 

 

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~ by eaesthete on 02/09/10.

8 Responses to “Ode to Love”

  1. Errant, you never stop to amaze me. I have been wanting to see Bright Star, and I am just in awe about this love story; it is like the love that I have always wanted to have, but never thought possible (except him dying at such a young age). I love poetry, and his love poems definitely captured my heart, mind, and soul. Thank you for being you. I was having such a bad day today, and in those times I click to your site in search of inspiration, and you are always there to provide that; it does not matter anymore if you only exist in cyber space.

  2. I have tried, I really tried, but I cannot digest the letter as anything other than trite and old fashioned. And I hate myself for it. Imagine all the poetry I am missing.

    Such as shame. But! – at least I can appreciate the film (“Bright Star”).

    We are mostly too cynical in our generation for such delicate emotions to be stated so loudly without any hint of sarcasm, or at least a musical number for god’s sake.

  3. I loved the diversity of these two comments – truthful, heartfelt and, yet, worlds apart.

     

    Richie,

    I have always found solace in poetry, particularly the words of Keats. One can understand how the purity and rawness of his emotion could captivate and even open a heart, including his own.

    My sincerest gratitude for giving voice to your very kind sentiments.

     

    Katie,
    Thank you for your honesty. In truth, I had debated including these letters for the very reason you state, but changing tastes, trends, and uses in language should not be discarded for falling out of favor or use. (Consider your taste in music, for example, as compared to that of your parents).

    I believe one’s efforts at understanding and attempting to cultivate an appreciation for what is, oftentimes, perceived as oddly different and unusual is essential to our comprehension of history, humanity and art. As I write that, even I feel the least bit embarrassed for sounding trite and old fashioned, but so be it.

  4. Katie’s words take my breath away with such profound sadness. With all of this instant texting there is so much noise, so little beauty for young people today. My husband and I were both English majors. He preferred the romantic poets and Yeats; I preferred Whitman and Emily Dickinson. With lousy weather keeping us from going the art museum, I had Bright Star at the ready for Super Bowl night. My husband knows so many of these poems by heart. How beautiful to hear his voice say these words without sarcasm, cynicism, sense of triteness. Poems like prayers nearly whispered in adoration. Beats whodat any day.

    • Home,

      Thank you for your eloquence on this most important topic. I do hope Katie will return to read it.

      And how very blessed you are to have a man who can quote Keats from memory.

  5. THIS BREAKS MY HEART.

    katie is right, seems like the younger generation has no tolerance for this ‘mushy stuff’. break-ups occur over a text message or when the status on facebook is switched to ‘single’. where is the honor? why is it perceived that to be emotionally closed off is manly? when in fact, a man who can understand and talk about his feelings is truly a man. (like Home’s husband above.) Keats — what a treasure, what a tragic loss. i don’t understand how these young men of today can wear such girly jeans yet be so emotionally stunted.

  6. home before dark, your husband sounds very sweet and romantic. Maybe I will be lucky enough to have one of my own whispering to me one day. In the dark, with the lights out. I will close my eyes and grind my teeth, only enjoying it in secret, deep deep inside without anyone ever knowing!

  7. Chère Suzanne:

    The responses to this post made me think about what great writing is and how we learn to recognize it. When I read Keats’ letter my first thought was that he could write great prose as well as great poetry; he was doubly blessed. Great prose can move the reader regardless of when it was written, but it helps to be aware of the context for increased understanding. In Keats’ day it was common for women to die in childbirth, for some or all of the children in a family to die before attaining adulthood, and for young poets to die at twenty-four of diseases that are easily treatable today. So when their writing seems a little too romantic or “mushy” to suit modern tastes, it reflects the style of their day and the spirit of times more difficult than ours, when the lives of your loved ones were more tenuous than are the lives of ours today. The quality of good writing still shines through, however, so we can still enjoy the writing while understanding the romanticism.

    –Jim

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