- From “Drinks with Dead Poets”
No. 1. Keats reads to six in the village hall
‘When old age shall this generation waste, Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,”—that is all Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’
Twelve hands make the sound of ten hands clapping, because Heath doesn’t deign to clap from his chair three rows back, he just nods alone in the dark a bit as if that helps. Then again, at least he showed up, to show his tough-guy approval of the gifted little chap. No sign of bloody Orlando or Barry or Lula Lopez. On the front row the angels clap ferociously, Iona McNair, Mrs. Caroline Jellicoe, and a tall girl called Isabella I believe I know. And wordless shy Kevin’s clapping for all his worth, as am I, as I sit down next to John on the edge of the stage again, but that’s ten hands and that’s your lot.
Wonderful, John, you said you’d be happy to take some questions?
(He looks at me and shrugs and Caroline’s already raised her hand)
‘That was so beautiful, John. Can you tell us something about your influences?’
(He looks at me as if this wasn’t quite what he had in mind, but he seems to make up his mind to be agreeable)
‘I—never quite despair if I read Shakespeare.’
(The three women are all nodding in approval, and he goes on) ‘I’m very near agreeing with Hazlitt that Shakespeare’s enough for us.’
Hazlitt, yes, earlier, John, we met earlier remember, you talked about Dante…that amazing Canto Five of Inferno? (I haven’t had time to look it up but at least I got the number)
John smiles wider than ever before, his legs give a little dangling kick, and he leans back with his hands spread behind him on the dusty stage: “Paulo and Francesca…I dreamt of—I’d passed many days in [End Page 98] rather a low state of mind and I—I dreamt of being in that region of hell…one of the most delightful enjoyments I ever had…I floated about the whirling atmosphere with—with a beautiful figure to whose lips mine were joined—it seemed for an age—I was warm…flowery treetops sprung up and we—we rested on them with the lightness of a cloud…I tried a sonnet but—nothing.’
Did you cry to dream again, John?
He clocks my Caliban, applauds me briefly with a bully-for-you, and says ‘I could dream it every night.’
This obviously earns a short adoring silence, which Isabella breaks by asking ‘Do you think a poet is born? Or can you learn to be one?’
I glance at her approvingly but she’s gazing on him like the moon at a planet. I’m being cold-shouldered in my own coma.
‘In the first place,’ saith the poet, ‘Sancho will invent a journey heavenward as well as anybody.’
From Don Quixote there (inserts their teacher).
‘No…the poetical character,’ goes John, ‘it’s not itself…’
Isabella’s already seriously nodding and scribbling, ‘it—has no self. It’s everything and nothing. It has no character. It enjoys light and shade, it lives in—gusto, be it foul or fair, high or low, rich or poor. It has—it has as much delight in conceiving an Iago as an Imogen. A poet is the most unpoetical thing in existence, because he has—he has no identity. He’s continually in for—filling some other body…’
Are you talking in terms of the poet as playwright, John?
To which he pays no heed: ‘I think poetry should—surprise by a—a fine excess, not by singularity. It should strike the reader as a—a wording of his highest thoughts—appear almost a remembrance…its touches of beauty should never be halfway—the rise, the progress, the setting of imagery should—like the sun—come natural to him, shine over him and...