Keats for Valentine’s
I love John Keats, and this year I am regarding him as my Valentine.
Valentine's Day sticklers may say that’s not how the holiday works. One has the love of one's life, and that union is celebrated. But what if you don't have anyone and would like to, but find it harder to meet that person because they're becoming rarer in this world? A person who is forthright about their feelings, and who is willing to, gasp, embrace vulnerability?
Vulnerability is hard to come by. Poses from behind a computer screen are plentiful, and saying what we think people want to hear, which is almost always a lot different than what we're really thinking and feeling. I believe that's how most people now come together, in whatever fashion they do—as friends, as a couple, members of a Facebook group, a follower of someone on Twitter.
The famed—well, at one point—Shakespearean scholar A.C. Bradley wrote a book in 1904 about the greatest poetry. When people think of poetry now, it's often in connection with Valentine's Day, and bad jokes beginning "Roses are red," etc.
Bradley devoted a sizable portion of his tome to my man John Keats, focusing on an area one wouldn’t expect. He dialed in on Keats' letters, about 200 of which survive. They are poems in prose form—more musical than music—but they were also reviled upon their initial publication in the Victorian era.
Keats had had a renaissance, and was recognized as one of the past masters of poetry, but now there were all of these letters to undue his reputation. Many were to a woman named Fanny Brawne, whom Keats fell in love with at the end of his short life. The poet didn’t stint in the sharing of his feelings. Or his desires, his ambitions, his fears, the passions of his life. He told all, openly, nakedly, bravely.
Today, the people who love these letters as I love them, view them as among the finest writings in the English language. They may even be preferred over Keats' poems, which is quite the statement. But at the time of publication, they were seen as pathetic. Unmanly. Gushy. "Too much information," as we say.
Keats knew his life was not to be a long one, so consider the additional resonance of these lines to Brawne: "I almost wish we were butterflies and liv'd but three summer days—three such days with you I could fill with more delight than fifty common years could ever contain."
"Common years." We know what he means by that. Those words can really hit home for some who are in a relationship rut, being in a relationship just to be in it. Playing out the string. Dreading the day the last child leaves for college and then what?
I love Keats because he is an exemplar of going for it. Of courage in putting one's feelings out there. In not settling. In waiting if one must wait. Even in dying if one must die, as Keats did. Or loving even through the act of dying.
I will continue to hope that the person unlike any I've ever met is out there, and her path will be overlaid with mine. But for now, for this day we associate with lovers, I'll spend some time with Keats' letters, and give myself over to the love that is behind all true love. A Valentine’s as real as it gets.