No life without death, no death without life': laureate's tribute to Keats
The poet laureate Simon Armitage has written a new poem, ‘I speak as someone …’, to mark the bicentenary of the death of John Keats in Rome. The poem was published in the Times newspaper as part of an interview with Armitage in which he said of Keats: “He had exactly the sort of biography you would expect a romantic poet to have.
“Coughing blood from tuberculosis, penniless, despondent about the critical reception of his work, tormented by a perhaps unconsummated love affair and dead at 25. Right through the Victorian period, and even after, he was the poster boy for that kind of melancholic lifestyle and personality. And a lot of the writing about him, until quite recently, still bracketed him in those terms.”
The poem – described by Armitage as “a sonnet with a bonus line” - was commissioned by the Keats-Shelley Memorial Association in Rome, and will be engraved on a Grecian-style urn being created by the artist Dan Baldwin.
In the last few months of his life, with his fatal illness advancing, Keats travelled to Italy, in search of fresher air, leaving the home by Hampstead Heath where he lodged, and also Fanny Brawne, the love of his life. Lulls and storms delayed his arrival for weeks, and then a 10-day quarantine in the Bay of Naples was imposed on the passengers before they were allowed to go ashore.
Armitage said: “It’s tragic and ironic that Keats had gone to Italy to get better air in his lungs, but was then forced to spend ten days breathing this really rank air below decks. By the time he got off the boat and made the journey to Rome it was mid-November and the summer was over. The whole journey was pointless and actually detrimental to his health. He died in Rome just a few weeks later.”
Armitage says his poem “speaks with Keats’s voice”. Towards the end it contains a Keats-like adage — “no life without death, no death without life” – and the laureate links Keats’s lung disease and today’s fatal pandemic and quarantines: “Now bats roost in the plush colonnades/ of human veins, and naked arms are offered up/ to the dewy-eyed syringe.”
I SPEAK AS SOMEONE . . .
by Simon Armitage
The poet laureate’s new poem, inspired by the last months of Keats’s life
I speak as someone whose skin was thinner
than gold leaf, with a soul so porous the world
blew through him in a light breeze, whose coughing
landed his heart in his palm many times.
And as someone who sailed the panicky seas
of his own blood. In Naples Harbour
the summer served its ten day quarantine
below deck, till the air wasn’t fit to drink.
Now bats roost in the plush colonnades
of human veins, and naked arms are offered up
to the dewy-eyed syringe; so my tired hand
must hover over the séance again to write
no life without death, no death without life,
just semaphore flags and fragile bottles bobbing
from coast to coast freighted with ink and breath.