Patrick Donnelly's Commentary on John Keats's "This Living Hand"

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Patrick Donnelly on Keats's "This Living Hand"

My treasured, battered copy of The Norton Anthology of English Literature (which my mother used in grad school, and passed on to me when I began my own MFA study) says that John Keats's poem "This Living Hand" was "found written in the margin of a page of Keats's unfinished satire The Cap and Bells, and commonly assumed to have been addressed to Fanny Brawne."

This poem—though I wonder if Keats would have called it that—interests me because it anticipates so much about contemporary dramatic-lyric strategies of directness, compression, and subordination of narrative to image and emotion, and also the line management strategies of free verse. For the contemporary reader—with our greater appetite or tolerance for disorder—Keats's marginalium seems to be a finished and complete work of art, as Michelangelo's unfinished sculptures also seem to be. In fact, the poem's lack of the kind of orderliness and polish we associate with most 19th-century verse contributes to its power, because we have also come to associate, rightly or wrongly, that variety of order and polish with insincerity, or, at the very least, with lack of spontaneity. This little fragment feels completely unguarded, and instantly summarizes and communicates the terrible emotional predicament of Keats's final years.

For those of us who love Keats—as a poet of superb music, and emotional and spiritual nuance, and as the tender, witty, passionate, complex and imperfect person who is revealed in his poems and letters—this fragment points prophet-like toward the direction poetry would take. Keats's life, like this fragment, feels complete, in part because he made such a miraculous accomplishment in so short a time: his great odes written in one year, "Ode to a Nightingale" begun and finished in a single morning. Perhaps the frustrated impulse to reach back to 1819 with a prescription of isoniazid and rifampicin to give Keats fifty more years of life and work can be assuaged by donating to programs like Partners in Health <>, which prevent and treat tuberculosis and HIV around the world—diseases still striking down Keatses, and blighting their odes, in the morning of their power. Well might they threaten us with their own "Living Hands."