When reading the poems of Shakespeare or Milton, Wordsworth or Keats, I am often struck by the graceful lines of verse that belie what arduous exertion poetry writing demands. As W. B. Yeats famously said:
“A line will take us hours maybe;
Yet if it does not seem a moment's thought,
Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.”
Though Yeats possessed the unusual mind that combines an extraordinary lyrical gift with an uncanny perception, to write poetry for him was to work harder than “all these” who labor physically in order to earn their livelihood. Such hyperbole might raise our incredulity, but the burden of composition requires poets to summon the patience to wade through weary hours for the right words and phrases to arrive. And if time draws from them a poem that is less than their ideas conceived, their disappointment must be more than ours. John Keats wrote while struggling against the illness (tuberculosis) that he knew would kill him before he reached thirty years of age. His sonnet "When I have fears that I may cease to be" offers an eloquent and touching portrait of his fear that death would preempt his success as a poet. Milton, who lived long and wrote abundantly in prose and poetry, had to endure the blindness that threatened his aspirations for poetic achievement. His sought solace in God through his sonnet: “When I considered how my light is spent.”
In the poem Keats anguishes over thought that death will eclipse his life before he fully realizes his poetic gifts and achieves “Fame”:
When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has glean’d my teeming brain,
Before high piled books, in charact’ry,
Hold like rich garners the full-ripen’d grain;
When I behold, upon the night’s starr’d face,
Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,
And think that I may never live to trace
Their shadows, with the magic hand of chance;
And when I feel, fair creature of an hour!
That I shall never look upon thee more,
Never have relish in the faery power
Of unreflecting love!—then on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone, and think
Till Love and Fame to nothingness do sink.
Lines 2-12 enumerate the opportunities death would deny him. Though death did cut short his life, this early demise did not diminish Keats’ reputation as a great Romantic poet. Some wonder if Keats would have ascended to even loftier poetic heights had he lived longer. But who knows? I would argue that the imminent threat of illness and death sharpened Keats’ poetic power and hastened his pace of composition. Seeing clearly how soon he to “nothingness [might] sink,” Keats imagined what death would have taken from him, and seized it for himself to write his sonnet.
’s sonnet he laments his increasing loss of sight and how that loss will deprive him of his talent to write poetry: Milton
When I consider how my light is spent
Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,
And that one talent which is death to hide
Lodg'd with me useless, though my soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest he returning chide,
"Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?"
I fondly ask. But Patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies: "God doth not need
Either man's work or his own gifts: who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is kingly; thousands at his bidding speed
And post o'er land and ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and wait."
I can’t help but feel sympathy and frustration when reading this sonnet.
questions the divine logic of his affliction, even though he submits to God’s Will. Could it be that he, like Job, accepts without doubt the tenet: “The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away. Blessed be the name of the Lord?” Or does Milton challenge that tenet in the octave of the poem? Milton
While reading Camus’ “The Myth of Sisyphus” this week, I thought of
’s response to his blindness as presented in his sonnet. In the story, Sisyphus’ punishment is to roll a stone forever up a hill and accomplish “nothing.” Yet, he has a victory over his punishers (gods): he “knows himself to be the master of his days”…and that his fate is “created by him” alone. Though it is impossible to know whether Milton ’s belief that they “who best/Bear his mild yoke” reveals his Christian humility or exposes his craven supplication for the deity’s help, he should be admired for foiling his blindness in composing this sonnet. It seems without realizing it Milton already possessed the means (his daughters as amanuenses) to produce what would become the greatest epic in the English language. He could not foresee that the politics of the time would continue to divert for a time his attention from his grand scheme of writing his epic. Would he have laughed or even smile had he known what he would eventually accomplish? It is hard to imagine the grim Puritan Milton smiling, and unlike Sisyphus, who “One must imagine …happy,” impossible to imagine him happy. Milton