Clay F. Johnson

Writer | Poet | Pianist | sometime Alpinist | hopeless Romanticist

John Keats's Letter to Fanny Brawne, 25 July 1819

I have two luxuries to brood over in my walks, your Loveliness and the hour of my death. O that I could have possession of them both in the same minute. I hate the world: it batters too much the wings of my self-will, and would I could take a sweet poison from your lips to send me out of it.
—John Keats, 25 July 1819

Once, many years ago, I believed that I had come into the quiet heart of this life.  I was wrong.  What I had found was my own life’s unquiet dream, not exactly a nightmare, but a vision of infinite regret and never-ending despair.  I bring up this bit of melodramatic memory because, for reasons unknown to me, I have been lately reminded of this time from my past and have suffered many odd dreams and waking memories these past couple of weeks.  There was even a brief moment when I breathed in a shadow of a fragrance that hasn’t haunted my breathing air since 2005—this brief encounter, possibly entirely imaginary, lingered long within my heart & mind.  Has my consuming monomania for Keats’s July 1819 love letters reopened a door I had desperately closed so many years ago?  Perhaps.

 

But perhaps not.  I would never dare to put such an unfounded blame on my beloved Keats, especially since his brilliant writing has had such a profound inspiration on my own life & writing over the years.  Like Keats, and perhaps partly influenced by him, I too left a financially stable career to pursue a life of Poetry & poverty.  And now, a couple years later, with a few published poems and teetering on the brink of financial ruin, I have him to thank.  Wait…

 

Ha. I am only being humorous here. Sort of. As in, the so-called financially stable career was commonplace knavery, chockfull of vainglorious narcissists (the uncreative kind) playing petulant games for self-important titles & duplicitous appellations and I would have left with or without ghostly encouragement from Keats. Truly, there were only two options for me: conform and live a life of decently-paid mediocrity, or go utterly mad—I am incapable of the former, and the latter runs in my family. It is too bad this digital age has made it somewhat difficult to just flee to the continent and escape my creditors like Shelley, or, in Byronian fashion, just skip out on paying my bills altogether. On second thought, the rich still get away with not paying for things, but an unconnected & impoverished writer such as myself would be thrown in prison for such offenses. But I am only being lighthearted here for I fear this post is about to take a very dark turn, per usual.

To return to the possible reasons for the recent apparitions of old ghosts and the unwanted & unsought reminder of a past life, I think there are probably many, not least of all family issues that have been plaguing my heart out the past few weeks.  However, in the spirit of love-letter writing & reading which I want to continue in, I dare say that my dear Rousseau and his epistolary novel Julie, ou la nouvelle Héloïse, originally titled Lettres de Deux Amans, Habitans d'une petite Ville au pied des Alpes ("Letters from two lovers, living in a small town at the foot of the Alps") may have had an influence.  My July 2019 ecstasy & idée fixe for love letters led me to read two different English translations of Rousseau’s Julie (yes, I have a problem—hell, I even re-read Henry James’s “The Aspern Papers” and watched the 2018 film adaptation which I found to be brilliant) and, at the moment of writing this, two passages stand out to me.  Each passage is from a different translation and, although I do not copy them out from memory, I remembered a particular emotion within them that currently consumes me:

 

Doubt not, divine Julie, that could you see the incandescence this long week of languor has kindled in my soul, you yourself would lament the afflictions you are causing me. They are henceforth beyond remedy, and I sense with despair that the fire which consumes me will die only in the grave.

 

And:

 

I have but one last word, my own Julie! you know the ancient use made of the Leucatian rock, last refuge for so many unhappy lovers. This spot resembles it in many ways: the rock is sheer, the water deep, and I have reached despair.

 

Despair.  A familiar emotion, and one that just may send me to an early grave if I’m not careful—or is it caring too much that causes such despair?  Who the hell knows and, besides a few old ghosts, who the hell cares?  Unlike Rousseau’s character, in both reason & state of mind, I have not yet reached despair.  But like Keats, I despise this bloody world of ignorance & strife, where smiling sycophants are rewarded by other smiling sycophants, and I would gladly take a sweet poison from my lover’s livid lips to send me out of it.

 

This last bit of melodramatic desire was brooded upon regularly when I lived in Edinburgh last fall and winter. Prior to my arrival in October 2018, I had experienced Keatsian beauty in Hampstead Heath, including graveyard-walks within Highgate Cemetery, and an unforgettable dinner at The Spaniards Inn; Tolkienesque fantasy & Spellbound witchery in Oxford; heartbreak & tragic loss at Newstead Abbey (I don’t think I can ever write about this day); a renewed hope at both Fountains Abbey & Castle Howard in Yorkshire; and, lastly, madness & Gothic inspiration beneath a full moon at Whitby Abbey. It was during this moment of cold seduction at Whitby Abbey where my Muse whispered poetic madness and touched my imagination with her skeletal fingers, giving me a sort of despairing creativity that inspired a rather dark poem. My overly Romantic imagination aside, the poem was indeed inspired by the Gothic scene, but it was also a culmination of all my recent travels and an event in 2017 that forever changed me—an event that I believe will haunt me for the rest of my life.

However, it is that “renewed hope” whom I met in Yorkshire that is most relevant to this most Keatsian post.  She was a half-breed—half forest troll and half Noldor elf—and was rather dwarfishly tiny (in an adorable garden gnome-like sort of way), her dirty reddish hair enchanted me, and she had a pensive countenance of aristocratic arrogance & elegance.  But I resisted her charms & spell-craft at first, for I was still rather wretched & miserable, and I had come to see the beauty of Fountains Abbey and walk the grounds of “Castle Hackton” as it is known in Barry Lyndon, and thus had no notion of falling in love.  However, when we wandered together through the luxurious rooms and manicured gardens of Castle Howard, talking of Tolkien & High Fantasy, Gothic poetry & literature, London tearooms, horseback riding, and my dear Barry Lyndon, I was vanquished.  The anguish which resided in my heart was quelled, the storm was over, and the night which had haunted me like witches in the wind no longer whispered poetic poison.  The coiling and ever-tightening serpent that is despair had finally released me.

 

But such hope & happiness was short-lived, as it always seems to be, and soon the serpent of self-despair was slithering coldly upon my throat once more.  This feeling crept up almost immediately after parting ways, for the miseries of recent events gathered like a storm in my brain.  And even though we had agreed to meetup again in Edinburgh in about two weeks’ time, I felt strangely about it, almost as if I dreaded it.  If such odd feelings weren’t enough to presage my Scottish unhappiness & despair, then it was an appropriate assemblage of dying rose petals that did.  Before my first proper Edinburgh apartment was ready on Dundas Street, I took a rather cheap AirBnb in Canonmills.  Not only did this cheap apartment contain a “Scottish breakfast” each morning of teeth-shattering oat-cakes (more on this with relation to Keats in a future post), but both the kitchen and bedroom contained withering rose petals that mirrored my withering heart.

 

Rose leaves, when the rose is dead,
Are heaped upon the beloved’s bed—
And so thy thoughts, when thou art gone,
Love itself shall slumber on…

 

Needless to say, there was no second meeting with the Yorkshire forest troll, and the tragedies & regrets of recent weeks only cut me deeper as my misery lingered. Thus, my brilliantly Gothic Edinburgh (a city whose architecture I had fantasized about since childhood), before I even truly experienced her beauty & inspiration, had become a tomb to me. The first week was nothing but harsh winds & frozen sea-mists. The city felt cold & dead. Yet I could not stay indoors; I just could not stand still, and writing was just not possible. Outfitted with the most inappropriate clothes, barely suitable for the chilled winds of a Basque Country summer, I set off every day & night and walked the streets of Edinburgh for hours. I had more than enough to brood over.

For those whose hearts beat with life, repose is Hell.

 

These walks, and later doggo-runs, helped clear my head from a clot of chaos, from a fumarole of tristesse, and the serpent of despair transmogrified from crippling writer’s block to lucid visions of poetry.  I was still unhappy and filled with regret, to be sure, and my cemetery-walks upon the midnight hour did not exactly put back the inspiration in the grave-flower, nor was this a Melancholist’s dream, but my broodings did somewhat become luxuries and it awakened a new voice of writing—a new voice which often spoke to me long into the night.

 

Besides my Shelleyan moments in pursuit of ghostly inspiration & high talk with the departed dead, much of my brooding walks occurred in a place which would become my sanctuary during my five months in Edinburgh: Inverleith Park.  Although my walks would begin on either Dundas Street, Claremont Crescent, Charlotte Square, and a couple short-term locations in Old Town, my wistful solace never truly began until I wandered the doggo-wild grounds of Inverleith.  My spirited doggo-runs with those friendly & leash-less pooches brought about a happiness & calm within my soul that I just cannot quite put into words.

 

Keats had two luxuries to brood over in his walks: Fanny Brawne’s loveliness and the hour of his death.  I had miseries that consumed me during mine.  However, those consuming miseries gave way to two luxuries of my own to brood upon: the Yorkshire forest troll’s loveliness and the hour of my death, and how I wished to possess both in the same minute—or perhaps I just wanted la petite mort.

 

I think Keats would approve of this unexpectedly lighthearted and somewhat tastefully vulgar penultimate paragraph above. Even I am a bit flummoxed for this has been a rather difficult and emotional piece to write—perhaps a bit too emotional, but I am who I am. However, to those who actually read this and don’t quite follow the joke—it was indeed a joke, for I was far too enchanted by her to think so pruriently—then send me an email and I shall explain. And there is no need for a concluding paragraph. I saved the best writing for last.

My sweet Girl, …

You cannot conceive how I ache to be with you: how I would die for one hour—for what is in the world? I say you cannot conceive; it is impossible you should look with such eyes upon me as I have upon you: it cannot be. Forgive me if I wander a little this evening, for I have been all day employ’d in a very abstract Poem and I am in deep love with you—two things which you must excuse me…

My dear love, I cannot believe there ever was or ever could be any thing to admire in me especially as far as sight goes—I cannot be admired, I am not a thing to be admired. You are, I love you; all I can bring you is swooning admiration of your Beauty…

You absorb me in spite of myself—you alone: for I look not forward with any pleasure to what is call’d being settled in the world; I tremble at domestic cares—yet for you I would meet them, though if it would leave you the happier I would rather die than do so…

I have two luxuries to brood over in my walks, your Loveliness and the hour of my death. O that I could have possession of them both in the same minute. I hate the world: it batters too much the wings of my self-will, and would I could take a sweet poison from your lips to send me out of it. From no others would I take it…

What softer words can I find for you after this—what it is I will not read. Nor will I say more here, but in a Postscript answer any thing else you may have mentioned in your Letter in so many words—for I am distracted with a thousand thoughts. I will imagine you Venus to-night and pray, pray, pray to your star like a Heathen.

Your’s ever, fair Star,
John Keats

© 2019 Clay F. Johnson