Halloween is also the birthday of John Keats. Most people know who Keats was: the young English poet who died in Rome in 1821 at the age of 26, in despair from a feeling that his work had come to nothing. For millions of tourists, especially English and American tourists, it has been a part of any first visit to Rome to go to Keats's room near the Spanish Steps and see the place where he died. A friend was with him, the painter Joseph Severn. Keats had with him, unopened, the letters of the young woman he had loved in England, Fanny Brawne. Some tourists stop to read the enigmatic poem or fragment of a poem that he left behind. It's been titled "This Living Hand." It goes like this:
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 wouldst wish thine own heart
dry of blood
So in my veins red life might stream again,
And thou be conscience-calmed -- see here it is --
I hold it towards you.
I had not thought about this connection, but the American poet Lynn McMahon had. There is a poem about it in her new book, The House of Entertaining Science (David R. Godine). McMahon is a poet of terrific intelligence and an exact and refined verbal art. Her book is full of pleasures. But this was the poem that stopped me:
Strange to think of Keat's birthday
and the American Halloween -- there
an oblong bony damp, here,
the parade and tramp behind
the resurrected dead to beg or threaten
trick or treat. He couldn't eat
the last plates of food, Severn said.
They threw them out the window
onto the cobbled walk.
The concierge wanted them both
thrown out. Poets still write about that,
and Fanny's sad unopened notes
(the handwritten address alone was enough
to crack his heart) and professors
pry open "This Living Hand"
with its ghoulish close which reads as though
All Hallows Eve at last retrieved
its first-born child. Though really
it had never let him go.
Fast fading fast at seven,
at fourteen, at twenty. The future
passed the sentry at his mother's door
and then poor Tom's a-cold.
The cold warmth on the granary floor
still seems a meager recompense,
that twist of flowers spared by the scythe.
So little of the loss restored.
We were thinking about it tonight
on our meandering course down the road
celebrating this autumn's close.
A holiness of wraiths and creeps,
death-eating Deaths. Our breath
visible in the pumpkin-lighted streets.
The cold traveled centuries to show us that.
We looked, but the dead had all gone back.
No one dressed as Keats.
"Poor Tom's a-cold" is Kent's line from "King Lear," when he follows the king onto the moor, dressed as a mad beggar. It was a line Keats liked, and when his younger brother Tom died of the tuberculosis that was also going to kill him -- which he may have caught while nursing his brother -- Keats marked his passing by writing the date of his brother's death beside the phrase in his volume of Shakespeare's plays.
The lines about "The cold warmth of the granary floor" and "That twist of flowers spared the scythe" refer to the image of autumn in his great ode to the fall season:
Who has not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on the granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or a half-reap'd furrow sound asleep,
Drows'd with the fume of poppies, whilst thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers;
Eerie, the idea of the hand in his last scrap of poetry reaching out to us on his birthday: Trick or treat?
"Anniversary" from The House of Entertaining Science, reprinted by David R. Godine, Publisher.
Copyright 1999 by Lynne McMahon.