Clay F. Johnson

Writer | Poet | Pianist | sometime Alpinist | hopeless Romanticist

A Brief Opening to Writings & Ramblings

How horrid was the chance of slipping into the ground instead of into your arms—the difference is amazing, love.
—Keats


Often do I wonder what my life would have been if I chose to slip into the ground instead of into Her arms.  What posthumous existence would I have experienced?  A spirit-world of ghosts & demons, or would I have become a sapphire violet growing out of my once-living flesh?  I am haunted by what might have been.

We know what we are, but know not what we may be.

The arms I slipped into belonged to my beloved Solitude who, for so many years, had almost entirely eluded me.  Or perhaps it was the arms of Hecate who embraced my madness & self-eclipse.  After all, it is Hecate who shares my passion for the night, for ghosts, the otherworld, for magic and all things supernatural.  Whoever it was, She took me in when I retired from the world, so to speak, embracing my lonely questionings with Romantic & Gothic inspiration that galvanized my writing for many nights.  This awakening was precisely what my imagination needed after leaving a job that I loathed from day one—a job that I had spent years pursuing only to realize the irrevocable waste of time it all was after obtaining it.

And yet, a few years after this brief spell of quiet retirement from the world, I feel as if I already have possession of a posthumous existence.  I feel myself detached from life, outward & inward, and I feel consumed by a profound sense of otherworldliness.  As Keats said almost 200 years ago, according to his friend Joseph Severn who was with him when he died, “I can feel the cold earth upon me—the daisies growing over me—O for this quiet—it will be my first.”

Was it madness to leave a knee-crooking government job of knavery so idolized by society & Hollywood?  Was it selfishness to deny my corporeal spirit the warmth of friendship in order to pursue a higher inspiration?  Was it foolishness to start taking my writing seriously, believing that focusing on my own poetic musings could quell the storm within me?  Although I continually contemplate the lingering consequences & complainings of my actions, I regret nothing.

Perhaps what I do regret is a lack of friends who share my own interests & passions.  A lack of human camaraderie, a sort of esprit de corps, whom I can write to and relate with over literature, poetry, art, and all profound mysteries of the world that still inspire me.  It is also unfortunate that, despite my appearance and the petulant & unfounded judgements against me from lesser minds, making friends does not come natural to me and I find it incredibly difficult to relate to others—not only does alcoholism & madness run in my family, but so does this heartbreaking quality of friendlessness.  Alas.

However, we all have problems.  My miseries are not unique in this world of ever-encroaching sameness.  We all have regrets, sadness, loneliness (some worse than others), sickness, madness, fear, self-loathing, and a myriad of other ailments.  We all suffer such complications that seem to continually consume us unrevenged.  But what matters is how we deal with it.  Do we cower away from such adversary, hide ourselves in drink and boozy comfort?  Do we succumb to such misery, allowing it to crush us and defeat us?  Or do we grab our demons by the throat and decide our own fate?

The demons within me, although quite persuasive with their whisperings at times, have been strangled & silenced more times than not by my skeletal hands—perhaps made silver-like to such werewolf desires from an obsession with c-sharp minor.  Unfortunately, those voices are becoming more difficult to suppress the older I get.  Is this not the opposite of what should be happening?  Are we not supposed to become wiser to life’s complications as we age?  Are we not supposed to become better at handling our own failures?  And yet, here I am, feeling more conflicted about life with each passing day, with each passing minute.

But perhaps this wine-like wisdom that supposedly comes with age is not wisdom at all, but rather commonplace complacency.  A self-satisfied contentment with prosaic reality.  True resignation, not from the world, but from one’s self.  Allowing our imagination to wither away and die.  Losing our passionate wonderings for the mysteries of the world when the mysteries no longer seem mysterious.  Existing ingloriously & incuriously.  Dreaming passionless.  Inspirationless.  If this is the wisdom and peace of mind that comes with prolonging one’s life then I hope I never find it.

Many a bard's untimely death
Lends unto his verses breath;
Here's a song was never sung:
Growing old is dying young.

Such terrifying imaginings of what just may become my own realities reminds me of a passage from Percy Bysshe Shelley’s essay “A Defence of Poetry” which I recently reread.  Shelley wrote this brilliant essay in 1821, just a year before his death at the age of 29 during a violent storm on the Gulf of La Spezia—he died less than a month before his 30th birthday, an age I’ve come to loathe as representing the beginning of poetic decay.  Although Shelley’s passage is more about the fall of morals and the “decay of social life” as it pertains to true poetry of the imagination and not the kind made obedient & spiritless (“Poetry is a sword of lightning, ever unsheathed, which consumes the scabbard that would contain it.”), it still holds the same horrifying ideas of my fears of withering away, losing that fire, becoming complacent, normalized, obsequious, infected & corrupted by a living monster that, instead of feeding the imagination, feeds upon it and consumes all mysteries of the world.

“At such periods the calculating principle pervades all the forms of dramatic exhibition, and poetry ceases to be expressed upon them. Comedy loses its ideal universality: wit succeeds to humor; we laugh from self-complacency and triumph, instead of pleasure; malignity, sarcasm, and contempt succeed to sympathetic merriment; we hardly laugh, but we smile. Obscenity, which is ever blasphemy against the divine beauty in life, becomes, from the very veil which it assumes, more active if less disgusting: it is a monster for which the corruption of society forever brings forth new food, which it devours in secret.”

I suppose there is a way—a singular way—to flee from my fear of withering old age, no matter how unfounded this fear may be.  Particularly Romantic if such a fit of madness & poison plays out to its irrevocable end in one’s youth.  Or is it?

No.  There is nothing Romantic about such moments of despair, such moments of hopelessness, even if the luminosity of youthful glow remains immortal.  And besides, what happens if one has become too old to die young?  What then?  And what if no accomplishments have been completed by the time of said death, “no immortal work…nothing to make my friends proud of my memory” when I have become food for worms & flowers?  Then I soberly ask myself, What friends?  After all, in many a case throughout artistic history, it is one’s friends who propel the dead to immortality everlasting.

These are such poisonous thoughts that have plagued me in recent months, in recent years.  Particularly bedeviling when my brief retirement to pursue my own writing led to no success, revealed no profound answers, propelled me further into debt, and, most likely, has caused me more harm than good.  Again, although Shelley had something else in mind, it is a “corruption of society” that leads me back into the world to wear an artificial smile, a countenance of complacency & ignorance, and a mind bent on fitting in & conformity in order to make some sort of a decent living.  Once one sees the self-reflection of one’s own disturbing truth, no matter how necessary it may be, one can never un-see it.

Here again I am reminded by another quote.  This one I picked up from Professor Stanley Plumly’s The Immortal Evening which I read last month after hearing of his passing.  Although I am a graduate of Maryland, I never had him as a professor—my prosaic pragmatism led me to study economics & finance back then.  However, I did briefly correspond with him in 2015 near the height of my crushing depression & despair.  I wrote him a rather long-winded email about writing & publishing.  His response was incredibly terse and matter-of-fact.  Without getting into his response (I humorously composed a ridiculous lyric on it while on the metro just after receiving it), I hesitantly took his advice, worked my craft a bit more, and published my first piece a year later in 2016.  Although I somewhat disagreed with him at the time, I daresay he was right.  And he remains right several years later.  I regret not telling him so.

The rather hilarious quote that I was reminded of just now while remembering the pains of office life comes from painter Benjamin Robert Haydon.  He was an early friend of Keats, although their friendship decayed toward the end.  It is, I suppose, also fitting that I quote Haydon here for, in a well-planned moment of his own despair, he took his own life at the age of 60.  The night before his suicide, he paces his painting room and writes letters to friends, family & patrons; in the morning he purchases a pair of pistols.  When the shot to his head doesn’t produce the effect he intended, he takes a razor and cuts his own throat.  Horrifyingly and, again, not at all romantic, it is his poor daughter, Mary, who discovers him lying in a pool of his own blood which she first mistook for paint.  No doubt this would haunt her for the rest of her life.  It certainly did Haydon’s eldest son, Frank, for he, too, would take his own life four decades later.

Anyway, suicide aside, to give a bit of context to the humorous quote that reminded me of working with office-folk, Haydon is writing to Sir Walter Scott about the broker’s men who had moved into his flat to make sure nothing was removed before his insolvency sale—he was perennially in debt, borrowing heavily from friends & creditors alike to continue his artistic way of life.  Haydon hilariously writes:

“My painting room, where none but rank & talent had ever trod, was now stenched with the sleeping heat of low-lived beasts, slumbering in blankets!”

Ha!  I know this smell all too well.  No, I am not comparing my fellow man & woman to the smell of beasts; I actually love the smell of beasts—the potent fragrance of flowery farm-life & horse-smells are odors that I would stench myself in for eternity if I could.  The smell I am reminded of comes from the stress of office-work, the smell of white-collar colognes & perfumes mixed with the nervous sweat of regret & hopelessness, the stench of broken dreams.  It is a monster that demands everything from us, forcing us to feed it in secret.

However, in an effort to avoid this apparently inescapable inner corruption, to cut & bleed this consuming monster, this withering of mysteries, this self-despair & miseries, and my seeming incorrigible inability to relate to the living (I have always been too in love with the past, too in love with the Illustrious Dead), I am devoting this “Writings & Ramblings” section of my new website to the strange passions that consume me.  The consuming curiosities of the world that, for me, still possess a sense of wonder, fantasy, inspiration, and that beloved mystery.

To those who know me and/or follow my Twitter posts, it will be no surprise to read that one of those consuming passions is the poetry & writings of John Keats.  This year of 2019 is an important one for Keats, and it even brings back similar emotions I had in 2016 when the bicentenary of the “Haunted Summer” possessed & consumed my imagination.  The year without a summer of 1816, also lovingly called the haunted summer, has been a passion of mine for years and in 2016 I was galvanized with inspiration by it.  So consuming was this beautiful madness that I even travelled to Switzerland in June to visit the Villa Diodati on the shores of Lake Geneva where, exactly 200 years prior, frequent & violent storms forced five brilliant people indoors.  Those five people were Mary Shelley (then still Mary Godwin), Percy Bysshe Shelley, Claire Clairmont, Dr. John William Polidori, and Lord Byron who had rented the villa on June 10.

About a week later on June 16, the stormy weather was profound and Byron, being Byron, took a collection of German ghost stories translated into French titled Fantasmagoriana, ou Recueil d’histoires d’apparitions de spectres, revenants, fantomes, etc. and began to read from them.  Afterward, he challenged everyone to a most Gothic contest that would produce stories that would change literature forever.  He proposed that each of them write a ghost story.  Perhaps sensing something dark from Mary, he told her, “You and I will publish ours together.”

I busied myself to think of a story,—a story to rival those which had excited us to this task. One that would speak to the mysterious fears of our nature, and awaken thrilling horror—one to make the reader dread to look round, to curdle the blood, and quicken the beatings of the heart. If I did not accomplish these things, my ghost story would be unworthy of its name.

Needless to say, Mary Shelley’s story was Frankenstein, a Gothic masterpiece which has been a macabre inspiration to me for many years. Not only did her story rival the ghost stories read aloud from Fantasmagoriana, it surpassed them. Byron’s ghost story challenge (also Byron himself) would go on to influence Dr. John William Polidori’s novella The Vampyre—now in its 200th year of publication as of 1 April 2019—which is arguably the vampire tale that started it all, from Bram Stoker to Anne Rice. This “Haunted Summer” also inspired brilliant poems by Percy Bysshe Shelley including “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty” and “Mont Blanc”, and also works by Byron such as “Darkness” and his unfinished “Fragment of a Novel”. To have been at the Villa Diodati on the shores of Lake Geneva on such a monumental bicentennial for Poetry & Literature was an experience that I shall never forget.

But enough of the “Haunted Summer” for now.  I have already planned a proper writeup from that experience, one that I started writing while staying in Montreux just a day after visiting the Villa Diodati and the unforgettable exhibition Frankenstein: Creation of Darkness at the Bodmer Foundation Library and Museum.  The Bodmer is quite literally less than a 10-minute walk from the Villa Diodati, so to go directly from the villa to see Mary’s original manuscripts & journal entries, the first edition of her own annotated copy, the copy she gave to Byron, original oil paintings, and many other delicious items from the writers & poets who embraced their own darkness that haunted summer was a thing of Gothic beauty that I cannot even put into words.  On second thought, I did put them into words, in the form of Poetry.  To read some of those poems inspired by their haunted summer and my own, see my “Poetry” section.  I’ve only posted a handful, but I’ll be posting much more in the future and, hopefully, a proper collection will be properly published one of these days.

However, this year of 2019, for me, is all about Keats.  It is the 200th anniversary of, in my opinion, Keats’s greatest year, or annus mirabilis.  As I begin to write this in the month of May, I am reminded of his great Odes which he began exactly two hundred years ago in Hampstead just outside of London—his “Ode to a Nightingale” is the first and only piece of writing that I have ever memorized by accident.  This year of 1819 also gave birth to “The Eve of St. Agnes” in January, “La Belle Dame sans Merci” in April, his exceptionally brilliant piece of Ovidian witchery Lamia over the summer, and ending the year with The Fall of Hyperion and his final ode “To Autumn” which would be his last major poem before his death less than a year and a half later.

And yet, as much as I adore Keats’s poetry, it has been his letters that have moved me most in recent years during my retirement from the world.  His letters have been my constant companion during my incurable madness, at times despair, and helped me through a terrible time in my life, preventing a possible hanging or poisoning during the weeks after I held my best and only friend in my arms as he took his final breaths on 15 September 2017.  I am still haunted by this.

Keats’s letters have also helped me during my apparently fruitless search for a more artistic purpose in this world than just slaving over a “respectable job” until creeping old age looks back at you in the mirror each morning, until your personality becomes artificial, corrupted by a life of paying bills, and whatever passion & inspiration that once existed within you exists no more, your imagination has withered into such nothingness that you can’t even remember the dreams you gave up on nor the regrets that once inspired them, and the only thing left to do is die and hope for Heaven or Hell.  I’m a cheery fellow, I know.

This existential crisis that I cannot un-see, this madness within me that seems more like whispering cancer now than inspiration, began in 2016 when, like Keats, I thought I could give up on a financially sustaining way of life to pursue a life of Poetry & poverty.  Although, despite some of my more melodramatic & even macabre ramblings above, I don’t necessarily regret it—not all of it, at least—even if it has ruined me.

Most people become bankrupt through having invested too heavily in the prose of life. To have ruined one's self over poetry is an honour.

Ruination or not, much of the inspiration behind the creation of this website was thanks to Keats’s letters, especially on the cusp of such an important bicentenary—both his poems & his poetic prose.  This year of 1819 not only produced some of the greatest poetry ever written, but also some of the most beautiful love letters that have ever been penned to another living being. These letters were written to his beloved Fanny Brawne and I plan to write a bit about them this year on the day of their bicentennial anniversary. Certain passages from his letters of July (especially the 1st & 25th) and October have particularly haunted & inspired me over the last several years.

You absorb me in spite of myself—you alone … 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.

And a passage from an October letter:

My love has made me selfish. I cannot exist without you. I am forgetful of everything but seeing you again. My Life seems to stop there; I see no further. You have absorb’d me. I have a sensation at the present moment as though I was dissolving … My Love is selfish. I cannot breathe without you.

Besides writings on Keats’s letters that I have in mind, including those from 1820 which are profoundly beautiful & heartbreaking, I have already begun several posts, some by accident as I was writing up my thoughts for journal entries after particular travels & adventures from this past 2018 and early 2019, including a brief writeup on The Ashmolean’s exhibition Spellbound: Magic, Ritual & Witchcraft, my thoughts on The Bodleian Libraries’ brilliant 2018 exhibition Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth which I visited twice during my three days in Oxford last October, my heartbreaking experience at Byron’s Newstead Abbey that I’m finding too painful to even write, the haunting inspiration & madness I felt at Whitby Abbey under a full moon that inspired a poem that will be published later this year, my rather ridiculous rough-water swim and half-drowning on a rather unknown nudist beach in Asturias, an entry about my climbs & scrambles in the Picos de Europa including an exhausting night-hike by moonlight & phone-light back to civilization to catch the last bus back to San Sebastian, the inspirations I felt and still feel from the January Turner watercolors which I visited constantly during my last month in Edinburgh (including the last day of Turner’s Dublin watercolors which I caught on my first day in Ireland), the longing I felt for the unique cloudy skies & colors of Venice after viewing Dublin’s National Gallery of Ireland’s exhibition Canaletto and the Art of Venice, and, lastly, a long-winded writeup about my exhausting & inspiring winter ascent of Ben Nevis this past January and how I related with Keats’s summer ascent of 1818.

Speaking of long-winded, this opening ramble has gotten away from me—as does everything when writing about my passions.  But I suppose that is precisely the point with regard to my opening paragraphs.  As I return to “career-life” and 80-hour work weeks, I need something to write to so that the sickness of reality does not poison my sense of Romance & Fantasy, so that the esurient monster of prosaic predictability does not consume my musings for mysteries, and so that the magic of imagination & inspiration does not become outmagic’d by the greatest of hidden secrets that become lost when they are no longer sought by inspired eyes.

Watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don't believe in magic will never find it.

If, like me, you’re enduring the Calamities of so long life and suffering over the pangs of disprized Love and the Law’s delay, then perhaps these posts may speak to you in some way. If you happen to like my Romantic- & Gothic-inspired poetry, then I hope you will like my brooding ramblings as well. If you don’t like my poetry (how dare you!), then perhaps these writings will possess a happier fate within your heart. Either way, this website is going to be my much-needed outlet for my Keatsian inspirations & musings, my consuming passions & imaginings, my love for literature & poetry & art, a place to write about my travels & adventures, and, instead of someone, something to vent to about the miseries of reality. If for no other reason, I write these ramblings for myself.

© 2019 Clay F. Johnson