April 25: John Keats’s “This Living Hand”
“In Poetry I have a few Axioms,” wrote John Keats in 1818, in one of his famous letters. “1st. I think Poetry should surprise by a fine excess and not by Singularity—it should strike the Reader as a wording of his own highest thoughts, and appear almost a Remembrance—2nd. Its touches of Beauty should never be half way thereby making the reader breathless instead of content: the rise, the progress, the setting of imagery should like the Sun come natural natural to him—shine over him and set soberly although in magnificence leaving him in the Luxury of twilight—but it is easier to think what Poetry should be than to write it—and this leads me on to another axiom. That if Poetry comes not as naturally as the Leaves to a tree it had better not come at all.” Two centuries on, much of our poetry is still written in the long shadow of these ideas. Indeed, just a few lines by Keats are a tonic reminder of the stunning naturalness of a good poem and what issues from it: the transformation of basic human experience into a form that enlarges it, and us.
This Living Hand
This living hand, now warm and capable
Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold
And in the icy silence of the tomb,
So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights
That thou would[st] wish thine own heart dry of blood
So in my veins red life might stream again,
And thou be conscience-calm’d—see here it is—
I hold it towards you.