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.
In Italy (or What I Did on my Cancer Vacation), I found I agreed heartily with Percy Shelley; the non-Catholic cemetery is indeed the “holiest place in Rome.” This, though the previous night, I’d had mass with the Pope.
I’d bought a nice little hardback volume of poems in the Keats house; I sat by his grave in a sweltering silent heat and read this poem. How chilling it is, the physical presence of death–and comforting too. The pervasiveness of poets who thrust their tubucular bodies into their verse, and the image of that outstretched hand–as in Whitman:
Mon enfant! I give you my hand!
I give you my love, more precious than money,
I give you myself, before preaching or law;
Will you give me yourself? Will you come travel with me?
Shall we stick by each other as long as we live?
and in Crane’s reply:
My hand / in yours, / Walt Whitman — / so–
I am enamored of cemeteries, and I guess a little of death. And of the irony of Keats’ poem: the “icy silence” interruped by the near violence in the image of his outthrust hand. And of the omnipresence of Whitman beneath our boot-soles and Plath’s Lazarus unwrapped “hand and foot.” I’m considering the continual trope of the post-mortem voice–
as in Hardy:
Ah, are you digging on my grave,
My loved one? — planting rue?
Until the moss had reached our lips,
And covered up our names.
I developed a new respect for Keats’ lyric sufferings after understanding the science of his disease, the awful physical progression of tuberculosis. In the abstract, in an anthology, it is all nightengales and whining. But then the reality of blood and ugliness underscores so strongly this search for beauty. Ie, how can anything as ethereal as the pursuit of art persist against something as demanding and decisive (derisive?) as corporeal decay?
Still, despite the chill of Keats’ hand stuck up out of his grave like a flag or a flower, despite Tennyson’s elegaic temper and Milton’s pastoral mourning, I prefer death in American verse (& perhaps as a newly-inducted 19th-century Americanist, I am obligated to say this).
I cannot imagine two views of death as disparate yet individually visionary as Dickinson’s and Whitman’s; in each, there is a distinct kind of kinship. For Dickinson, a kinship with Death:
We slowly drove, he knew no haste,
And I had put away
My labor, and my leisure too,
For his civility.
–and for Whitman, a kinship with audience which transcends it:
What do you think has become of the young and old men?
And what do you think has become of the women and children?
They are alive and well somewhere,
The smallest sprout shows there is really no death,
And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait at the end to arrest it,
And ceas’d the moment life appear’d.
All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses,
And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.