Keats again. This diseased young poet died of tuberculosis at 25. He wrote La Belle Dame sans Merci (internal link) and Ode on a Grecian Urn among hundreds of other pieces.
This poem was published after his death. He was naturally afraid of death with his condition which was incurable and of course mightily feared. As a medical student he full well knew he was doomed.
He wrote lighter poems such as Where ye be going, you Devon maid? which showed Keats had some fun before he died. I’ve included that poem at the bottom of this page after When I Have Fears.
Keats represents an unapproachable gap between those gentleman and women schooled in the classics and those of us today who were taught in academically impoverished public schools.
They knew Latin and Greek and most certainly French. References to “an amarous Zephyr” or “Porphyro” or “silken Samarkand” weren’t meant to show off a poet’s education but were the common currency among the upper classes for whom most of these poets wrote.
That gulf continues to this day. Read any of Aldous Huxley’s essays like those in Beyond the Mexique Bay and be embarrassed in finding how little you know. You intuitively sense that he is making great and profound points yet every paragraph means looking up things that a contemporary of his would already know.
I knew a Cambridge educated newspaper editor named Michael Duffet. He was warm and humorous and never condescending. Still, I knew he was disappointed with how few classics I had read. “Tom, you haven’t read that? You absolutely must!”
For my part I could not understand how he had managed to read all of those works in just a few years at university. But schooling in Latin and Greek and the classics begun years before in lower grades.
Michael’s desk was covered in books in Japanese and Arabic because he often translated one into another. And into German. Probably others. He had lived for five years with the Bedouins after Cambridge and then worked his way through India and then onto Japan.
The gap in our education was oceans’ wide and I am sad to this day over not completely benefitting from his scholarship. And so it is, too, for all of us with so many of the great English poets.
When I Have Fears That I May Cease to Be
by John Keats (1795-1821)
When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has glean’d my teeming brain,
Before high-piled books, in charact’ry,
Hold like rich garners the full-ripen’d grain;
When I behold, upon the night’s starr’d face,
Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,
And think that I may never live to trace
Their shadows, with the magic hand of chance;
And when I feel, fair creature of an hour!
That I shall never look upon thee more,
Never have relish in the faery power
Of unreflecting love!—then on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone, and think,
Till Love and Fame to nothingness do sink
Read by Frank James
Where Be Ye Going, You Devon Maid?
by John Keats by John Keats (1795-1821)
Where be ye going, you Devon maid?
And what have ye there i’ the basket?
Ye tight little fairy, just fresh from the dairy,
Will ye give me some cream if I ask it?
I love your meads, and I love your flowers,
And I love your junkets mainly,
But ‘hind the door, I love kissing more,
O look not so disdainly!
I love your hills, and I love your dales,
And I love your flocks a-bleating;
But O, on the heather to lie together,
With both our hearts a-beating!
I’ll put your basket all safe in a nook,
Your shawl I’ll hang up on this willow,
And we will sigh in the daisy’s eye,
And kiss on a grass-green pillow.