We first met many, many years ago, when I was Sweet 16 and still at school. Although I’ve now matured, I haven’t forgotten that cyclonic vortex called: “growing up” and how you helped me through.
While I attended an all girls’ school, there were these beings we met up with at the station in the afternoons called “boys”, who’d also been condemned to spending adolescence in a single-sex school. Not unsurprisingly, there was an absolute explosion of hormones every afternoon as soon as the school gates flung open.
Since you’re not up to date with contemporary movie stars and heart throbs, I won’t mention any names but there was one particular “Adonais” who roamed the North Shore Line. Of course, whenever word got out that he was on the train, you’d be amazed how the girls flocked from all directions. The other boys were left for dead. Well, not exactly. Most of us were nowhere near his league and knew it. We stayed put.
You and I first met during this rollercoaster of love and pain, which was mingled with the angst of school exams and my future hanging in balance. In retrospect, these troubles were trifles. However, at the time each surging wave of emotion smacked me straight in the face, pulling me under before chucking me up on the beach in a bedraggled heap. Of course, I didn’t find any of these tortures “character building”. If I’d heard these words from Rumi, I definitely would have scoffed:
“Sorrow prepares you for joy. It violently sweeps everything out of your house, so that new joy can find space to enter. It shakes the yellow leaves from the bough of your heart, so that fresh, green leaves can grow in their place. It pulls up the rotten roots, so that new roots hidden beneath have room to grow. Whatever sorrow shakes from your heart, far better things will take their place.”
Instead, you spoke straight into my melodramatic and broken heart:
Now more than ever seems it rich to die,
To cease upon the midnight with no pain,
While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad
In such an ecstasy!
John Keats: Ode To A Nightingale.
Indeed, I knew beyond a doubt that you’d written: Ode To Melancholy just for me:
Ay, in the very temple of Delight
Veil’d Melancholy has her sovran shrine,
Though seen of none save him whose strenuous tongue
Can burst Joy’s grape against his palate fine;
His soul shalt taste the sadness of her might,
And be among her cloudy trophies hung.
I think I thank you for giving me these words, although a kick up the rear and a bit of perspective was what I probably needed. Destroying your whole life over someone you’ve only known a few weeks, has to be ridiculous. After all, mathematically speaking, it simply doesn’t add up. This boy had been but a infiniessimal speck of my life to date and certainly not worth throwing my future away. However, a young head filled with hormones can’t think. Indeed, you’re sort of drugged!
Moreover, as annoying as it was to be told: “there are plenty more fish in the sea”, the truth is that the numbers were actually well in my favour. I only needed to catch one fish and while stocks looked questionable, there were enough…plenty even! Indeed, it was more a matter of catching the right fish. Not being fussy…only discerning!
It makes me shudder to think my kids are about to navigate their way through all of this madness and I hope they do a better job. As much as we can provide them with a map, compass, torch, a bottle of water and even sunscreen, that’s not enough. To be honest, I don’t know what it takes. After multiple collisions and breakdowns along the way, I simply turned up at a party and there he was. There were even fireworks. It was New Year’s Eve 1998 and we were watching the fireworks explode over Sydney Harbour. Such incredible beauty, which I was trying to photograph for eternity.
Even when I squint, I can’t even imagine what Sydney looked like in your day. Indeed, the planet was such a different place and yet so much remains the same.
Sorry, in all this excitement, I almost forgot to tell you that you’ve actually become one of the most read and loved English poets of all time. This may come as quite a surprise. Only 200 volumes of your work had been sold before your death. Indeed, in February 1820, you lamented to Fanny Brawne:
“I have left no immortal work behind me – nothing to make my friends proud of my memory – but I have lov’d the principle of beauty in all things, and if I had had time I would have made myself remember’d.”
I’m so sorry that you didn’t live to experience your success. I wonder if that makes the anguish of your early death even more acute? Or, is it longing for the arms of your beloved, especially as you languished in Rome, that hurts you most? It doesn’t seem fair that one who had such vision, was claimed by death so soon!
This is no doubt my greatest folly…trying to find reason in between the lines of this nonsensical play. Why did death snatch you away in your prime? Why couldn’t it take someone else? After all, there’s so much evil in the world and those who waste away their time. Can’t wait til 5 O’clock. Then, there was you writing such inspirational verse, reaching to the deepest depths of human understanding and YOU were snatched away! It makes no sense!
Not that I mean to be nasty and I’m not the first to ask why the good die young. Indeed, is it so unnatural that I would ask:
“Please, sir, I want some more.”
― Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist
I don’t think so. Not at all. I am not the first to utter this lament. Indeed, your friend Shelley wrote a moving tribute and when he drowned in a shipwreck in Italy, he actually had your poems in his pocket:
Adonais: An Elegy on the Death of John Keats
I weep for Adonais—he is dead!
Oh, weep for Adonais! though our tears
Thaw not the frost which binds so dear a head!
And thou, sad Hour, selected from all years
To mourn our loss, rouse thy obscure compeers,
And teach them thine own sorrow, say: “With me
Died Adonais; till the Future dares
Forget the Past, his fate and fame shall be
An echo and a light unto eternity!” …Verse 1.
Later, Oscar Wilde wrote:
THE GRAVE OF KEATS
Rid of the world’s injustice, and his pain,
He rests at last beneath God’s veil of blue:
Taken from life when life and love were new
The youngest of the martyrs here is lain,
Fair as Sebastian, and as early slain.
No cypress shades his grave, no funeral yew,
But gentle violets weeping with the dew
Weave on his bones an ever-blossoming chain.
O proudest heart that broke for misery!
O sweetest lips since those of Mitylene!
O poet-painter of our English Land!
Thy name was writ in water—it shall stand:
And tears like mine will keep thy memory green,
As Isabella did her Basil-tree.
However, as much as I lament your languishing suffering and premature death, would Keats have been Keats if you hadn’t contracted tuberculosis? If you’d simply married your one true love and live happily ever after? I doubt it, although perhaps I’ve just walked straight into another conundrum.
On that note, I’ll emulate a certain white rabbit muttering: “I’m late” and disappear down a rabbit hole without a trace.
It’s been so absolutely wonderful to finally speak with you and reflect on what you’ve meant to me and no doubt millions around the world.
A bright star, you’ve definitely left your mark!