Sometimes a poet, or even a single poem, can save your life. It can take you the way you are, in a place of darkness, loss or lostness, and, without changing anything, transmute everything, make everything available to you new, having ‘suffered a sea-change/ into something rich and strange. Thats how it was for me when I first encountered Keats, in my mid-teens, a very dark period of my life. This poem, written in the Spenserian Stanzas he used so effectively, is an account of how he changed things for me, and in its own way an act of testimony and thanksgiving. It is set on the Spanish Steps and in the house there where Keats spent the last months of his life. It was there, in the room where he died, that I first read the sonnet Bright Star, written into the fly leaf of his Shakespeare.
You can hear me read this poem by clicking on the title or the ‘play’ button.
The sun strikes gold along the Spanish steps,
Patches of god-light where the tourists stray.
The old house is in shadow and still keeps
It’s treasures from the searching light of day.
I found it once, when I had lost my way,
Depressed and restless, sheltering from rain,
Long years ago in Rome. But from that day
Everything turned to gold, even my pain,
Reading the words of one who feared he wrote in vain.
I too was ‘half in love with ease-full death’,
But standing by the window, near his bed,
I almost heard the ‘tender-taken breath’
On which his words were forming. As I read
I felt things shifting in me, an old dread
Was somehow being brought to harmony
Taught by his music as the music fled
To sing at last, as by some alchemy
Despair itself was lifted into poetry
I spent that summer there and came each day
To read and breathe and let his life unfold
In mine. Little by little, made my way
From realms of darkness into realms of gold,
Finding that in his story mine was told;
Bereavements, doubts and longings, all were there
Somehow transmuted in the poem’s old
Enduring crucible, that furnace where
Quick-silver draws the gold from leaden-eyed despair.
Now with the sun I come on pilgrimage
To find this house and climb the foot-worn stair,
For I have lived to more than twice his age
And year-by-year his words have helped me bear
The black weight of my breathing, to repair
An always-breaking heart. Somehow he keeps
His watch on me from somewhere, that bright star…
So, with the words of one who mined the depths,
I sing and strike for gold along the Spanish steps.
14 responses to “Transmutations; an act of thanksgiving”
And now you must Florence-wards! Where we can give you, habeas corpi, Walter Savage Landor, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Arthur Hugh Clough, Frances Trollope, as many women as men. And have their books.
I will definitely make that journey soon!
Appreciate this personal poem, the power of art to transform. Thank you, Malcolm. Elizabeth firstname.lastname@example.org
Beautiful, Malcolm. Thank you. I sometimes wonder if those of us who despair in this way have never fully forgotten the glorious place from which we come and thus the “dark breathing” becomes unbearable at times? C.S. Lewis said something like that, I think, using a fish analogy — I’m sure you know it. Keats was a life-saver for me as a teen, too!
I, too, came to this poem as a teenager and even if perhaps I didn’t grasp it’s full meaning at the time, its other-wordly music did connect.
I loved your line: ” that furnace where
Quick-silver draws the gold from leaden-eyed despair”
It sums up the power of poetry.
Many thanks for this.
Thanks for this Marika, yes for me too it was, as you beautifully put it, the ‘otherworldly music’ in Keats before any further levels of meaning emerged. ‘taught by his music as the music fled/to sing’. We clearly had a very similar experience M
Hopkins, Donne, Dickinson, Wordsworth have all had similar impact on me. Poetry will one day save the world. Thanks for spreading beauty.
Thanks Robert. Yes I’m with you on that list. Hopkins and Donne especially though in different ways can make that lucid transformation – Owen Barfield put it well when he said that true poetry brings about ‘a felt change of consciousness’ M
Love it. Keep up the great work. Poetry to the rescue I say!
Particularly Emily! I have been diagnosed with a brain tumour recently albeit a benign one and a friend sent me her poem: “The brain is sider than the sky -amazing. It really touched my sould.
Oops – typing is terrible. Should read “The brain is wider than the sky”
It really touched my soul.
I’m going away at dawn but just had to post a quick thank you before leaving- really lovely poem that I will return to – so grateful for all the gifts you continue to pour out on us, Malcolm!
You have a baptized imagination and a working ‘noticer’. Thankful you had Keats and more than thankful we have you. It matters.