A Tragedy in Five Acts

Adam Cady
Illinois Wesleyan University

Editor’s note: Representing the culmination of Adam’s first substantial foray into Keatsiana, the following semi-autobiographical work fittingly arrives on the one-year anniversary of his first letter-specific contribution to the KLP, as well as Keats’s theatrical and Otho-centric July 31, 1819, letter to C.W. Dilke. Borrowing its name from the subtitle of Keats’s only completed drama, Otho the Great,“A Tragedy in 5 Acts” moreover embodies the dialogical spirit of the KLP, as the stylized epistolary prose-poem is meant as a direct address to Keats himself. For more on the content and context of Adam’s “Tragedy,” please see the introduction, published yesterday on the KLP.

A Tragedy in 5 Acts

to mine vy & ever affectionately, my Brother, as ever, most truly

13 October 2017

Address: John Keats/ Piazza di Spagna 26/ Roma—Italy/ Or Thereabouts
Postmarks: K. GROVE 100; Hampstead—London; or THEREABOUTS

Act I: imprudent moveables

My dear Junketsbeetling o’er the

September 7th

—thank God it has come. I have seen your Comet—stately, stedfast and crossed with nightblue, hanged by the transitive heaventree of diamonds: a tree, evening, and how fares the Prince? On summer’s final feverish breath—aloft and watching—a sleepless patient in cramped unrest & casting for faults in lookingglass clouds, I see this second through double-pained reflection your stellar smile of a Ponderous Saxon. Pressurized—unflappable—these inner organs of metal fowl recede along the velvet firmament, privy to your service—your priestlike task. O dearly Beloved, I don’t believe in baptism—vulgar superstition, or more dreadful cares— but, confronted as I am by your sermon’s sound, I confess the imprint of glories immortal. A splendorous sacrament, your Poesy’s black spell tolls from on high its christening moan—that cosmic homily with power to disturb, to shatter the mirror & raze their walls. A mummering cantor in Jehovah’s favorite choir, yours is the hymn which stirs below us the leviathan leagues—that scrotumtightening sea. Keats! if you’ll have me, be my Confessor, my clerical confidant in all things unhallowed. From this plane existence, let us swoon into To-morrow. Let us, my darling, most distant Companion—let us not what people call, settle. We’ll not—and trust yourself to me—we mustn’t dawdle in stagnant ponds. Nor should we, Keats, freeze neck-deep by hostile shores, but ascend from this wretched brine, toward Eternity’s finer amusements. Shall we chat, then, you and I, with those glory crown’d? Might we swim, Father, in the nights of good-bye? Shall we dance while we can? Shall we go? Should I not?

Ah! but I’ll not deny my damned insecurities: I fear you dread my desperate plea for bathing in Skies—for cleansing heavens. Surely, you ask after my health (not telling me whether your Consumptive fits are tamed). I am quite well, Keats, but you and I, you must understand, are both old Stagers in the picturesque: unless it be something very large and overpowering, we cannot with relish bare bear ourselves. Though I flee the lesser fellowship of that other, American world—the helpless chronology & hellish procession of Patriarch’s ridicule, the shrill paramour, and castrating cares—though I seek singular Achievement in bygone environs, my departure lacks some grandeur without your familiar Genius as its cosmic friend. This sounds, I admit, oddly to me, and I dare say I do it awkwardly enough. Yet you—with me—we’re together engaged in a Spectacle which I am impell’d to finish. Sham! Fool! you undoubtedly deride, with menace and echo double-distilled, my adonized Picture of idle Narcissus which bows to itself & applauds: Hurray for the Goddamned idiot! Your flint-worded choir of kindling Doubts harangues this ranting, tasteless rambler—coxcombical dramaturge incapable of a scene. Lecherous amateur, and you tear at the Gordian thread of my existence, why contaminate this dramatic rite? You beat, you pummel; you crucify me. Have you no fear of hangmen? and then, the tyrant’s righteous parenthetical (Have you no fear of the faggot?). Of course, I know, You will never be a saint! but an enterprising pilgrim nonetheless, think it not blasphemy that I—with you—should propose to stand. Forgive instead dear Adam’s transgressions, innocent but for the satiating hiss. How the—? you ask. Whose fault is it? Well andbutso, much as a letter mailed in the air, old and secret, from a midnight world—perhaps from on High, or from sulfuric Depths—the voices of sirens, sweet murderers of men, whisper to me and mine alone of Autumn and escapades to come. Arise—arise! I took it for a joke, when first I heard their melodious call: the twilight is at hand. Yet they bring through the music such plausible reasons, and discourse so diligently on dramatic effect—Awake! arise! and fearless be—that I am from the shore of the wide world swayed. Adam, a Man, in the hurry of business, my mind is now heaped to the full with Ambitions—awakened, as I say, by Mystery’s anonymous preamble, to the glory & power of your Bright Star’s suggestive flash, and to the Profitable vergance of our unlikely fates. Rapt, I tell you, in the claws of our ravenous drama, I glean at last your fermented heart through the mist of Plots—make out your figure of glistening Maleager through unwritten speeches, counterplots and counterspeeches. As once I lounged in a solitude and silence which you alone should have disturb’d, I am this instant spurred from decadent habits and hitched, darling Keats, to our dog-cart affair—our engagement, I mean, in unfolding forefiveplay. All my thoughts, my unhappiest days and nights, have—I find—not cured me of my love of Beauty: I look upon fine Phrases like a lover, and yours have given me more delight than any thing in the world but yourself could do; indeed, I am astonished that any absent one should have this imperious command over my senses. Even when I am not thinking of you, I receive your influence, and from oystershell reaches of womb-like nightblue, hear our Acts’ clamoring for shuck and scrape of meaty essence—for liberation! and révolution!—an unrealized babe which, like the unnamed Temptation of resonant antiquity, yearns for actualizing sacrifice. Thus, if conception should quench most rapacious desires, we ought to guzzle unto Oblivion. But should our Labours prove sterile, fruitless—should Ambitious designs bare bear no more than the bastard wretch of epiphanic mutterings—I should still like to greet you, Junkets, with a smile. 

Meanwhile, I fear, you urge caution. Is there another, then? Shall I awake and find all this a dream? It is as painful, I know, to be awakened from a fantasy as to emerge the waggling casualty of some careless duo. Should I not?

Winedark sea when wilt thou drown,
The sober doubt and pain?
Christ, if that c—t were in my arms
And I in the earth again!

Ah! my dear, dear John—what shall I say for myself? Forgive this four-Lettered outburst—and know that I cannot think of you without some sort of energy. Though Ambition makes superb kindling for better passions’ Gold inferno (Love of certain nobler pursuits is a religion, for which I might gladly die), I remain excessively unloverlike, ungallant, and begrudge Mel’s settling, domestic bondage. Yes, some days ago, there was that revealing matter of the dog—that grinning elder hound whose evident wellbeing, in the so-sudden aftermath of colossal, totaling wreck, was—reflexive, without hesitation—my foremost concern. She, of course, was bleeding profusely—her aquiline protrusion a gushing wellspring of glinting crimson terror. Yet in clarifying panic—a skittering, unyoked adrenal psychotic—the stout & ebony, spaniel-eared companion of cloudless boyhood days seemed utterly superior—instinctively outweighed the ignoble attraction of her infantile human frailties. Encouragingly composed—instantly forgiving—his pink-tongued & panting smile answered her senseless, hysterical sobbing with unwitting mockery, pure-of-heart and level-headed. Andbutso what’s wrong with Mel, really (and I trust the discretion of your mannish Sympathies), is that she is stupid—flippant, vain, inconstant, proud, childish, and full of fancies. Oh, she’s managed to get by all right, but she hasn’t one peck of intuition. Mel (and I know the generality of women would hate this betrayal of blue-stockinged suffrages)—she appears to me as the drawling child to whom I would rather give a spanking than my—No! no! this is not it either. This piggish dread is moreso dread of—well, I suppose—dread of unchecked contentment. Of placid banality. I’ve had to promise her nothing, it turns out—conceded nothing. It’s all for free. There’s such love, I’ve found—such sinister, satiating love—which loves to love love, and to witness her even now, this side of Jove’s clouds, I should be dissolv’d—or interwreathed—in the gloomier tapestries of her Gorgon’s shape. In her fractured halo, I find your heavenly visage, yet like hissing Caduceus she constricts myself—her palpitating snake some demon’s mistress, or perhaps some demon’s self. She—an anesthetizing Hygeia—I feel her sanitary personage reap in me such sinful indifference, or else degenerate, everlasting denial. With she an unknowing, soft-freckled Nemesis—in her ringlets, a noose of dumb dispassion—I sway, taciturn, above roots of blackened fig—over ignorant reaches of Protean sludge where she slithered & sleepwalked before our tryst—a prisoner, to the lap of unrealised possibility. In such dire climes as these, I ask, What is to be done? She has taken more than a rib, dear Keats, andso Adam—again—made ill by way of Knowledge, I should reject euphoria of the transgressing fallen—shrink at descent of the impotent dove. Who, after all, would wish to be among that commonplace crowd of the little-minded, each individually lost in a throng of incorrigible coupled selves? Is her conventional feminine clay worth louting and playing the hypocrite for? Oh! how a solitary life engenders miserable egotism! True: I know it does, but such Misery and egotism are surely the propellant precursors to exquisite Spectacle—so I will indulge them.

No, Junkets, I hardly sense in you such Trouble, nor do I anticipate from you the corporeal doldrums of grounded existence. Rather, with you, I’m at last self-acquainted, and I realize myself, the singular heir to vast, Unsettled fortune—to near-secure & palpable Greatness. And though I like her society as well as any Underling’s, yours is surely the more invigorating—the most intuitive Other I’ve known. With surgeon’s precision, you excise my shallow Center—unmake my too-pacific state and know me, Keats, as no one has. Ho! from our great, sweet mother Atlantic—her whitened dermis & deeper viridescence—I see now the paleface pallor of seas’ imperious sovereign—the soft-fallen mask of mountains. Beneath, the yawning, green, pastoral stretches of many-a-poet’s birthplace—and then, with dirt and discomfort dressed in pools from the wet night’s stormy protest and glimmering in light of the coming day, the cobblestone stitchwork and circuses and thoroughfares, the public-houses and palaces, the double-Windsored creatures of parasitic habit, the hawkers, thieves, butchers and vagabonds—beckon with promise of environmental virility, intoning our nations’ pond-spanning ethos of Ambition’s necessary meritocratic reward. Yes, my regrettably distant friend, with merciful descent toward the well-tread paths of your former, corporal marching, I’ll soon know the Promise of your enterprising homeland, and make real these visions of elephantine Spectacle—triumph, dear Keats, and, with your Blessing, prosper, amid the cliched fog and chimney-tops which spell that city’s hallowed name: London.

Act II: so much oppress’d at Westminster

Of course, they’ve only English Breakfast here. Remember, remember—12 September—the abortive Guido whose explosive scheming (a Catholic shame) might have spared this present ennui. In a Portcullis broomcloset, I fire the kettle. It smells of gunpowder, treason and plot. Yes, likewise arrested by foolhardy Ambition, this menial brewing was agreed upon with Pride—a misplaced hunger, you understand, which has, by way of misinterpreted Vision or misheard ditty of cerebral Undines, condemned my person to unbecoming service—humiliatingly unspectacular, these damned piddling tasks. And so Ungrateful: I hear it, from your lips to Whomever—but tell me, Keats, would you have me grovel & beg Recognition from a loathsome breed of artless aristocrats? Two o’clock and quite unwell, craning my neck in the window’s corner, I see through the drizzle Liz’s jubilant phallus—her Towering Benjamin, a national disgrace—a scaffold-draped UNESCO relic, like braces on legs of a sickly child; the entirety, in fact, of Parliament’s travesty is wrapped in this tinfoil buttress. A graphic metaphor—a proportional, pictorial representation—it’s as though it might at any second collapse—on Commons, on Lords, come Thundering down. Below them, there, ‘neath Her Majesty’s rubble, in that claustrophobic iron-clad yard that harkens to bastards’ Act of Inclosure, are skittering lanyards, ill-fitted children and their member/master Dogs. Are these, your Countrymen, worth supplication? Servile reverence, in exchange for…what, exactly? Oh! what I’d give for a trustworthy stockpile, an undiscovered undercroft, a capable & intrepid Jesuit! Can’t you hear the quivering Bricks? The concussive Release of mortar-splitting blaze? All the Queen’s horses and all the Queen’s men—Britannia burnt in palatial effigy! Don’t you cherish the Empire’s Fall? And still the roar—I admit—o’er the bubbling, churning kettle is little comfort with ill-equipped cabinet; the Irish, I find—it’s vastly better. Listen, it whistles, and 

It whispers too, that brisk revenge
And service vain and lowly,
Would be profaned by posture pure
Or passions high and holy;
For, Freedom comes from no command,
And needs no Godly chain;
Since palefaced crowds who filch our land
Couldn’t put Humpty together again!

(All this, of course, in good humor, dear Keats—wouldn’t want to offend. The sins of the Fatherland—a rancid people—can hardly be blamed on one boyish wordsmith—on a barbarous empire’s exceptional Son.)

Andso Black, for me, and for the milkier rest…Finished yet? the blonde one, this morning, asked. She, the high-heeled & short-skirted—the skin-tight, well-defined—the unpaid Brightonite, was Bussy (short for? I never did ask). A tad hoarse (tealess), her voice then lapped—it rolled & receded, with seaside Vintage—a Boardwalk amusement on auricle shore. Perfect, she said, and she (practically) is. Just how I like it, and I watched her ebb. Hannah, meanwhile, lingered on. The former, her fairness—phantasmagoric—holds Sussexual qualities yet unexplored, but Hannah—her emerald, kaleidoscopic eyes, like gold-flecked maelstroms or puckering cosmos—is clover honey’s fleshy glide. Thank you, she says, and she takes one for Huddersfield, the plump MP whose reclining figure haunts from adjoining chamber our coffin—our pinewood closet, with its world-historic view. A bloated & bloviating, mammalian boor, I hear his too-heavy sighs of approval—that paternalistic rhetoric of sweety and lass, missy and darling and sweetheart and, weightier still, a squeeze of the hand or a well-placed pat. Certainly, I’ve noticed these girls—women, rather—Hannah, Bussy, the others—they’re not a little attractive. This cropped brunette, compared with pyrite tangles—Bussy’s oceanic curvature, against aquiline edges & that felicitous, disinfected mold of Mel’s—I have to admit (I shouldn’t) they’re spectacular. In light of these twenty-somethings’ inescapable starglow, with fingers trembling for want of moonlight, I’ve entertained daydreams of loftier conquest. Me, too, I’ve thought of the Member’s glances—his pudding-thick, glazy cataract stares. What I wouldn’t give, but then…? Ogling & caressing with political precision: is this—perchance—my Father’s way? Might the Physician enjoy such command of his too-feminine employ? 

In a very pleasant Pugin booth, overhanging the snotgreen Thames, with a glimpse of the paltry peasant hordes, I joined this Member for afternoon Breakfast—tea, I mean, in dark-paneled grandeur. His ossified bourgeois respectability, a product of so many decades in the Palace, lent an air of managerial poise. Illinois? he’d inquire, then finger a sandwich, flatulate some forced remark about Chicago and corn—our dear departed forty-four, with whom I share a name, you know. Not so doll-eyed—so tar-hearted, lifeless—as surrounding Tory perverts, his menial jesting is deceptively human—an effective counter for Blairite underbelly, or syrupy cologne for his pompous stench. Still, I smelled in that chattering Member the disheveled imitation of surrounding Conservatives—their Etonian brownnosing’s quaquaquaqua:

Given the existence as uttered forth in the public works of Hume and Smith of infallible system quaquaquaqua beyond critique without exception that from the heights of divine and sufferers who for reasons unknown are plunged in fire whose fire flames if that continues and who can doubt it will but faster and considering what is more is that as a result of the labours more efficiently schemed by the Eugenicist Acacacacademy of Phrenological Craniometrists of quaquaquaqua that we in brief in spite of the strides of alimentation and defecation are obliged to profit and concurrently simultaneously…

Hannah, too, had joined us there—the dazzling psychedelia of each spangled iris reassuring beside his pillowy disappointment. She sipped with a grace less contrived, more humane, and spoke of justice, of Jezza, of freeman and slave, patrician and plebian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman—of that already acknowledged and oft-decried spectre against which all the powers of Europe have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise

Then, beneath the oaken beaming of angel-jurors’ Judgment, beneath the iron chandeliers and gothic transparency of Westminster’s resonant Hall, I stood that day accused of Cavalier indecency—of insubordination, of Treason & Plot. On loafer-worn stone of Roundheads’ shrewd ascendance, I stood in place of the bumbling Prince. Mine was the vantage of castrated Leviathan—of the farcical sovereign on His hard-earned path. Have you no idea where you stand? I didn’t, no, and I told the Member as much. He uttered the bloodstained name of Charles, then recited the evidence. With good reason, I shrank and dwindled and stood stark naked in this summer’s soft-dying wail. I thought of Bushes, O’Bamas and Dons, of Blairs and Camerons and Mays more deserving—their effigies scorched in democratizing blaze.  And still it was I who suffered his Mischief—who marched from those steps to the Hooded One’s block—who heard o’er the ringing the angels’ Guilty! and swift wind of the winnowing Blade. Head in my hands, I felt that I had better get drunk.

Act III: the same natural history of Monsters

The history of all hitherto existing persons is the history of Disappointments. Never mind those valiantly antithetical & protracted people’s wars, the glamorous Terror of public executions, or the rousing schadenfreude of bourgeois electoralism. Secession—oh yes, your anachronistic Eminancy—is the generational reenactment of synthetic truth (a copy of a copy of a copy of a). Andso Disappointments, says He—the Sons striving to be atoned with the Fathers, whose tyranny they doubly loathe—all the history of the world is full of them. And also with You, adds the Son, for ever and ever and I took a pregnancy test. Yes, oh yes, I received her message; she wrote me the day I arrived, about the time the something-or-other broke. Why scandalize my Joys with such opprobrious surprise? A woman, you’ll recall—a rib-stealing so-and-so with motherlight in her eyes—once bore postpartum miscarriage in the sibling disappointments of fratricidal savage and fragile, spineless prey. Imagine Mel, then—imagine it, Junkets—the lily-hearted concubine, my settling bride-to-be, condemning another to their lineage! (Her quintuple siblingship, or that of my Mother—that Oedipal happenstance which I dutifully repress—entails considerable & perilous virility!) No, dear Keats, I mustn’t conceive of her content with our slipping—our reckless abandon, rapt in the first fragrant Bloom of motherhood, intoning her thanks to One unseen—to the Universal Bridegroom. Mightn’t she, though (my god!)—might she pray to the doubly departed—to Our absentee Father? Could congenital charms arrest her senses, and force her hoarding of fortuitous cells? Would she—the sapping, settling lamb—might she so jauntily genuflect before Him whose Design was our first great burden? How could she worship Another so foul? Andso, well, she asked me—in the same—how I was doing. Was that some kind of joke? I took a pregnancy test it was negative. I breathed in, and listened to the old quaquaquaqua of my heart: I was, I am, I will be, at least for a little while longer.

Wellbutso Saturday, September 23, couchbound & queasy on the outskirts of München,  und ich fühle mich wie ein Fickfehler. It has turned out fortunate for me to-day that Destiny appointed me a sturdy-livered Überwhathaveyou, though unchecked guzzling of Oktoberfestbier has natheless rendered me a palsied captive of the morrow (ein verkaterer Kriegsgefangener). After myriad liters of Hofbräu, Paulaner, Hacker-Pschorr, andthelike (saufen auf der Theresienwiese), memories of yesterday are tattered and scant, yet the reverie’s aftermath is painfully intact: the U-Bahn’s ashtrays lined with vomit; my tattered trousers, unwearably shredded; the long-knived assault on both my temples, or cottonmouthed History’s Blitzkrieg endeavor to mash my frontal lobe. Yes, Keats, with Delphian pain I’m predictably punished, having drunk my fill of Bavarian sunshine—having drunk till my brain was hideously interwoven, welded to the rheumy passions of Hades. From Charon’s soul-worn skiff, indeed—from beside the sweep of Styx-splitting rudder, Elysium’s shore and Tartarus chasm, I’ve heard the Abbot’s intoxicating accusation of paternally pissed cobblestone stumbles: a nightly plunge. Had a great fall. Is this Dionysian mishap the Gospel Truth? Is claret’s kiss not—with you—the fragrant sweet destroyer of lesser worlds’ pleasures? Mightn’t you, in fleeting mood of the upright but flimsy, persuadable Occident you are—have you ne’er felt the honeyed embrace of Opium? I’ll not judge—hardly so—the storied impulse of us fallible & generationally burdened demigods demagogues. On the contrary, my bloodborne legacy is one of grandmother’s twelvepack approach to nurturing—quaky-fingered keeping of babies Caroline (the Sister) and myself. Andso yes, of course, naturally, prone to sloshy psychic bastion, she received with chemical aid his blows—he, who buggywhipped his dog-cart bride, and worked his mare to the brink of death. What last-ditch catechism and mail-order Dianetics could not, clear-eyed, divine—the Reddened lace bandana patchwork of depressive-slackened neurotransmission meant pious submission to patriarch’s ire: a Remedy. Of course, grandpa was well-acquainted with the delicious technicolor spectrum of intoxicants—needles, bottles & pills and the like—as was his eldest, Jim, Jr. (deceased, died of heart attack some years ago), as I, go-getting grandson I am, haven’t much merry ground to cover. 

My throat, by the way, is a swollen encumbrance. Once, twice, three times over, I am—by this bout of early autumn—2/3 settled on Easeful Death. A once-removed Doppelgänger, after all—more familiar than most, though hardly acquainted—a second cousin or something-or-other eliminated his own map this Spring. Dioxide, they told me (or a daring leap? something more…Spectacular?), did dear Charles in. Yes, Junkets, being once- and too-acquainted with this late fool’s garrulous affianced, the fragrant sighs of Marching earth brought with their blossoms and soft, sweet rain word of his self-inflicted Demise. I assure you, though, Keats, this festering, rankle, running ulceration—this pestilent itching which, at present, strangulates my every phlegm-flecked thought—is no less maddenning than was my lay-Double’s quaint attitudinal malady! With each congested snotgreen wheeze—saliva’s engorged, unnavigable pass—reason slips like hourglass grains, absconds and clamors on its way o’er the Threshold for heftier aid of medicinal helpmate: opium, Keats—for fuck’s sake—I’ve none! Andbutso in maternal tradition, too—billygoat-livered, beer-an-inning antics, or the gin & Squirt soaking of Luckily Struck lips—I’m coerced by Providence & History’s kiss to guzzle away the blessed panacea. In absence of upright, commendable Cure, the smooth gold serum of deutsches delight & tracheal formication of JJS’s fireant crawl are my soul sole unswerving Comforts. Spirits—the numbing, scorching restoratives—these singularly Capable convoys through many-a-dark & discontented Night are marrow-deep, familiar friends from defunct Generations’ kindred coping. Heredity, then, you must understand—that organic anathema, as well as the prying eccentricities of Parentage—such is the Mask we cannot remove. Incessant, and retreading its irresistible yarn in perpetual masturbatory prose, Posterity assures our deathless vassalage—our unremitting Sameness. What possible escape is there, Junkets, from Ourselves? What—and I beg your luminous Solution—what is the purpose of all this writhing, resistance & strive—of bootless efforts to inhabit the Other, to empathize, to understand?

Well, my linguistically limber companion, I’m reminded of traipsing ‘cross their barbed-wired grave: through wrought-ironic, iconic gates, over well-trodden yard in blistering daylight, into the lonesome shelter’s solace. What more is there to say? What use is the grasping prattle of one so predestined to lonesome experience—to the indescribable Cage of Being? Tell me, Keats: what good is chameleonic wordplay’s subtle conveyance of creaking floorboards’ telltale beckon or the sweltering air gone breathless-cold if ultimately sterile—incapable of genuine emotional transference? Indeed, John, I’ll only—fumbling, blind—graze with knobbly & meager Phrasing a most unexchangeable Truth: that there, in the purish-white bowels of subterraneously conjoined medical barracks, a narrowing glimpse of cylindrical eternity—the outstretched flare of Death’s angelic, glittering apparition—appeared to me through the suffocating mass & singed-hair stench of unseen bodies’ lingering pain. Yet how could the most Ambitious verse ever convey their temporally Unsettled suffering? What prose or utterance or Trick of the Light could so thoroughly suspend disbelief & penetrate the biases—overcome that tyranny of the invariably settled Living? And suppose, my Negatively agile comrade, that real transcendence of the Cage were possible. Imagine it, Keats—that understanding is at last within the trifling purview of breathing, mortal Man. What use is such transcendent empathy to invalids, Reds, queers, Juden, whose piled corpses scraped the tunnel ceilings—what use, if its quashed & once-human Subjects remain unmoved by our best intentions? Despite the shrieking residue of pestilence and slaughter, their Liberation has long since passed; they’ve no need for us—for the reaching Concern, the yearning for identification, which oh-so-faintly & pitifully scratch at the obstinate bars of our perceptual pens. Yes—oh yes, Keats—in shimmering Death, they are made free.

Act IV: a Man dallies and foolishes

You see what a many words it requires to give any shape to a thing I could have told you with one swift incision? This predicament, I say—Keats! I say—my good fellow (scrabbling an irregular script with my left, and testing the water with a rolled-sleeve right) Keats says I (doodling a bath (tho by the way, at the moment, I’m rather over-clothed)) Keats—my—go-o-ood fell o-o-o-ooh! (interlarding this exclamation with uncorrupted swig) is’t a Dagger’s work we smell before us? No! no—take it away! It gets awkward now—and (butso)—naturally (as taking leave of a party), I delay, and don’t know how to—well—good-bye—and still I don’t—go—and the bath (incompatibility of aquacity) is over-hot so—well—pirouetting wet (though I’ve first plunged my head) it drains much faster—good bye and so on—than it filled and—well—you know what I mean (still in the same predicament but furthermore dripping with both ears red and pins & needles), no? No, this is all a lie—I’m sober as the Physician, when He happens to be sober. The bottle’s mere accessory to the tight-wound energies of my despair, without which I should be quite overwhelm’d, though I take no solace to-day in the too-heavy sighs of healing spirits (to-night? To-morrow? Whiskey! some wine!). No, no, I’ll act the stage-play fiend, but drink from mind and mine alone—wallow and…what now of our sickly birthright? Fathers, their fathers, wives and brothers & sons? They can languish—alone, together or—behind, elsewhere in the Ages’ hypodermic mist—all a mist—and well, no legacy baccalaureate (JJS) with honors, no tenured professor of John Jameson, but—no—maybe—perhaps andbutso I’ll indulge the deeper impulses of my storied flesh. What good, after all, is the ode-worthy stuff if not for some liquescent relief (O! Ah!)—what use, in times like these, if not to inspire the requisite Courage? Andso well, with sky as our bowl for brighter, clearer (Ho! some more!)—we’ll not sneak off, tails tucked, like a spanial—not dally longer till they’re crying be off!—but soar tonight (and this is clever) away! Away! Not on Poesy’s waxen wings (perplexing, retarding, leaden things), but ascendant, on Bacchus’ sweeter draught, toward slipknot-relief and the unassuming domesticity of iron’s emancipating extension. Whosoever—after this—holds a grudge can piss their displeasures on my paltry tomb. Keats I say (Mm! Aha!), just as dread of gestating legal fiction vanished—Spectacular—with unpunctual clause, and just as Mel could—without me, I see now, and modestly propose—engage the stellar reaches of intuitive potential, you and I might this Eve be off. To be sure, with me, she’s a soft-hewed hindrance—a silken leash, or a velvet-lined (God damn!) coffin. Upon my Soul, she’s metastasized; she has absorbed me! I have a sensation—thinking, at present, of anesthetic attraction—as though I am dissolving, yet know with certainty—understand—and smell that buried Gorgonian fancy which so portends abasing desertion. Were I to Persist & amble, sweet bard, in the safer gardens of ignorant Love, the unpromising twilight of my life—these subastral longings & misty Ambitions which have, of late, meant hideous blunder—would surely impel her to unaroused retreat. Oh yes, Junkets, Yes I say—yes she will. Yes. She’ll take flight from me andso—well—let us soar! Let her! I’ll not travail for beggar’s pay, nor play the Cuckold to a new-awakened domme. I shouldn’t protest, and so bid her farewell (never mind that knife—no, whip—in the back)! A malcontent in desirous half-exile, I’ll not endure encroachment of some Angel-christened miniature—some substitutive Latter-zealot who steals my face and position in one. Though engrossing as tar to green ex-Lovers, the curdled indulgence of envy’s sour lactate is no satiation for the passion-famined beau. It’s a fool (O! the triple-distilled Glory and Grace of Apollo!) who stands at pining gaze! Let us instead, you and I, this 13 October (this Friday, that is—Friday the 13th. St. Edward’s Feast. Ed. The Confessor. Fitting, of course…yet men still die on holy days.)—let us pass through tender night, fade further and further away, dissolve in the orgasmic black of nightly lightless ink. Is it possible we’re hungry?

1. Grab a bight (double back), then double back again.

Liquid lunch (Oho!) should do the trick. Otherwise I should be appeased with silken Phrases (and what’s further, nibble on silver sentences). When I spoke to her last, John, she seemed offended by a little childish playfulness—the lightest intimation of my liberating intent. I’ve no doubt—with time, and the rousing prod of my swelling Disappointment—she’ll prove the Brighter-spirited freeman, yet her tears recalled a miserable serf. To think, I once made her my Judge—my captor! With forehead pressed against the ground, in parabolic spinal form of the groveling, settled sycophant, I pledged my undyingsettledness. No more (Yes! A thousand times, yes!) should I ‘Beseech thee to hear us O Goddess.’ No prudent fixture, I’ll not go out and whither beside her! With you, unsettled—neither simmered nor freezing—our nobler amusements should be unbounded, formless petals in the heaventree’s lofty boughs. Our vaster, sublime, and enervating silence, never to be disturbed by wedding bells’ cry, will to-morrow ring with consummate euphoria—ecstatic songs of limitless pleasure!

2. Wrap the Thing, then wrap once more (one or two turns ‘round the double line and through the little loop).

Of course, with my sudden leave of absence, there promises to be some mild panic—I imagine, a sort of parental mania. My conscience can bear her trifling whine…but my mother’s? Caroline? These are…unfortunate…civilian casualties in a campaign for freedom everlasting. Even the Physician—inconvenienced, with an unexpected void—could be moved to something resembling sadness, some alien sensation…faintly crestfallen countenance…remorse-adjacent. Wouldn’t that be something?

3. Pull the end to tighten.

You see how I go on, like so many strokes of a Hammer! I cannot help it! I am impell’d, driven to ramble by some Unseen Devil, the invisible hand of our biological Imperative: to propogate! Once, in lysergic, off-white haze, I dreamt a baby in her rockabye arms. Knuckle-dragging homunculus, I felt compelled to the bleary-eyed thing (everything in me screaming No!)—its gummy maw & pustule nose, those fingers, like so many wriggling larvae, and that too-sweet smell of milk—a pristine cheese aroma, heretically clean (the sum of me: sighing Yes.). Was’t earnest love of life that threatened deeper settlement—which wrenched this roving Soul toward the squirming hallucinatory bastard & its pinning psychic weight? (Haha!) Never! I perpetuate now—I entertain life—because I so admire Dead legions. Their days have ended and—well—soon I’ll join their ranks, butso for the briefest moment, I’ll marvel at their bygone wonderment, in dearest anticipation of a mystery very nearly solved. What a long way I’ve come (to be destroyed)!

4. Slide the thing now, up or down. Adjust according to size.

(Oho! Ho! Aha!) Oh Keats, if I’ve said nothing decisive in any one particular part of my rambling (Slainte!), you may glean the truth from the Silences correctly. The Rig is rather complicated, but (Prost! Sweet Jesus! Christ! Cheers!), seeing as I’ve no merciful opium…a rather dull tendency to avoid incising objects…I’m doomed to one last awkward bow. Keats I say (mounting on tiptoe the door-slung cord)—Keats says I (an escalating slur of semi-sensical & strung-together sentiment) my most affectionate Brother (stalling somewhat…insolently interposing to the last), I can scarcely bid you good bye even in a letter. No matter. Soon enough now (God bless America!), this unsettled and anxious rapport (with clip-on ease, the knot around neck…tightening…tighter) should give way (Fuck me! Shit! and God damn the Queen!) to astronomicbondage (sinking mass—perfectly straight, and pale as smooth-sculptured stone). From starcrossed comrades to conjoined paramours (moaning forth some witless ditty…a sighing, dying tone), we’ll emerge immeasurable, massless Glory (not shivering but dogged, steady-handed, firm). And what if it fails, this sweet solution? If nothing else, a hyperprivileged hypochondriac’s proof of sufficient Hardship (the door swings shut…the noise is gone…Mel’s gone…I am)—andwellbutso—

Good bye—We are unmoored—sweet John, good night!
Where is our hand, Junkets?—what bloodred gasp!
We are so weary—faint—we brace the door—
And fly from here!—To-morrow—

God bless you!


Act V: certain ventriloquial parentheses

—and to-morrow and to-morrow and what Unscripted Hell is this? What midnight charm—what dream has come? Could it be…14 October? Ay, there must be some way out of here—these verdurous glooms and winding mossy ways. No, she’s assured me, there’s too much confusion—She, this feather-toned banshee, She’s an Angel of whatnow? Of deceit, I propose, as we courted Death Untouchable under green gravemolded wall. Ah! bitter chill it is, where churchyard yawns its frosted breath, like pious incense from a censer old. How ungrateful are the Sculptur’d Dead! Acquitted, liberated from their frozen black. Keats—my God!—to be stretched out beside them! to feel the poppied warmth of sleep, and melt that icy stream—to shut, as a full-blown rose, and become a bud again! I wish’t Devoutly: to die—to sleep. Do I wake or do I…? Adam, She began, punctually interjecting. Somehow, I gathered, She’d sensed my despair, though my expression, unmoving, remained enigmatic—that subtly suggestive rigor-mortis smirk. Have you seen a ghost? Casually, then, and unsuspicious, I allowed my gaze to drift. In the distance, that familiar Heathside manor sparkled white as an unkept promise. Vacant now, its walls are hardly privy to harrowing mortal strife. A polished museum—perpetual mortuary—it breathes no human sound, and still, the expectant punctuation of Her last, unanswered utterance hung patiently in the pregnant London fog. I delay’d and joked and thought of six million—eleven, really—of subterranean luminescence in their chalky, unmarked crypt. No, I lied, evading Her eye. In Her well-worn hands, She took my quaking fingers—Her left, a firm, reliable base and Her other, placed gently atop Our strange appendage-pile. Well, She said and lingered awhile, so that I choked—almost—on grim anticipation, I have. Of course! and then, I’d arrived. From stedfast spell, it seemed to me a piercing, iridescent Truth: the answer to a feeling of my Real Life having past. I—and I faltered at spectral Awakening—I am leading a posthumous existence. But Her Truth proceeded without acknowledgment—without confirmation—no Talk of my shuffling, or of mortal coils. Rather, Her speech was a glib little warning about the dangerous, deathly burdens of genius—real genius, She stressed. The Depressed Person (Her friend)—in cerebral self-exile—an oversensitive, empathetic giant & wordsmith extraordinaire, his laborious thoughts were sufficient cause for gracious termination. This, She said, was exceedingly rarethat kind of talentthat pressurethat understandability. She’s older, by the way, but not…old. She’s not my mother, precisely, nor a relation of any kind, but in Reason’s absence, She is somehow preferable. This, I realize—my Mother, and Caroline—this thankfulness at Absence is the work of a somber conscience’s remorse. Were I to wake from this treacherous Forever, I’d not pardon crave from a circumstantial hostage, but as a Son…a Brother…repent through Love and careful future the impersonal Betrayal of a lever-happy Hangman. And to Mel—that significantly displaced Other—I’ve little more to say…only that I’ll not feign Loverly remorse, nor beg for harsher penance in this unnamed Abyss. With her, I’m relieved of most unpleasant Pleasantries—of the brownnosing drivel which accompanies Love. With all haughty haste & faith of Icarus, I bid farewell to our settling circumstance—saw through to Truth in terminal sunshine, and pledged my allegiance to a first-class mimic—a chameleonic Prodigal Son whose poetical kiss meant Romantic fervor. Where, might I ask, are you, Junkets? Certainly not in this bitter by-and-by.

Are you cold, I thought, at first, She’d inquired. Not particularly, no. She nodded, believing. It was pitchdark night, and the church bells cried—same as a wedding, a funeral, mass. They chimed—premature—for some hallow’d hour; the hour was running late. She repeated Herself, more strident & dire: Are you Kind? The tolling ceased, as if to listen—accentuated the witless vacuum left in potent non-answer’s wake. Andso yes, oh yes, of course, naturally, I clawed away at this deathless Nightmare—scrambled to counter with delay’d affirmations the prodding thrust of interrogatory deluge.  Was’t so long ago—so inconceivable—that I’d bettered the state of some Sufferer or another? But then, of course, You should have seen me reading Marx! Before, that is, in the Garden, amid the Regent’s hedgerows—manicured greens, with space to Disappear—this recent, spontaneous-yet-overdue venture had proved a tonic (however briefly) for the miserably immaterial, unenlightened Soul—a corrective bolt of righteous lightning, blessed & sent—an opiate for the conscience, and for the Masses alike—from tubercular Heaven, by invisible hand. And She, Herself, had visited, too, the gent whose outlook you perhaps previsioned in a pot of basil’s Conscious ire—that whiskered bust of one whose words had indeed brought change—had jimmied the locks & warped the bars of Proles-a-plenty, in estranging Cages. Andbutso why not—I wonder—entreat Another, whose prophetic verse is the urgenter undertaking? Why not, young fellow, appeal to Blake, or to the unmoored Multitudes of Whitman? In fact, why not the Man himself—or better still, the Nameless Vassals for whom his improbably stirring Vision meant the chainless end to History’s reign? Andso, well, I’m afraid I must ask again: Where are you, Keats, if not in this Asphodel’s mindless grey? 

No, no, She intruded, and halted our Progress. This is not your tune. If this place resides in Truth, I prayed, let it be the briefest visit—a passing through, or a cursory conference with Perdition’s gentlest demon. And then, well, I’m aware, moreover, this latest Indulgence hasn’t the kindliest face. If fanciful flight—emancipation—strangles, too, some reliant Others, this swansong’s bereft of bourgeois moralité. Mother, sister—the Physician, even—a friend or more, and Mel, perhaps—these are each victims of what now seems a Farce. Forgive me, Junkets, for this epiphanic outburst, yet what good is the heaventree’s stedfast perch, compared with suspense & mortal splendor of each finite, tender-taken breath? But oh no, Keats! no more of this blubbering penitence’s knee-splitting rugburn. No more of these upheld, interlaced fingers’ quivering sentimentality! I am in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, irritably reaching after fact & reason, so I tenderly suppose I’ll tell each of them in time—beseech Forgiveness, in too-casual Confession. Captive, even in this vacuous Nowhere, to a still-breathing conscience’s softhearted pleas, I imagine I’ll tell her, even—Mel—tell her, at least, when some cumbrous reunion forces (combined with ill-advised quantity of claret, stout, or other Vice) the onanistic thing through my whetted whistle, over swelling tongue, or in nasally drip. Yet no—oh no—I’ll not think falsely, nor overexcite some deep inner Good. They needn’t hear this song, dear Junkets, whether deserved or not. This way, She enjoined, then rounded a corner—a stony, emerald concealer of What? This venerable, ivy-swathed Yank’s abode, the atrophied timber and bricks of which—their lingering ruin, without hope of Repair—reminded of half-death’s present likelihood. In the bath before, Keats, I traced your name—writ its curls & tails in water. Is this our Fate? Of course, and I’ve known it: life’s Terminable Jest. Andbutso I watched Her—this formidable, vigilant, benevolent Specter—pass ahead through listless gate, into his foyer’s absorbing Light. It was rancid, somehow, the radiant passage—inherently Masculine, in all the worst ways. I’d ask you, Brother—anxious & affectionate—once more where you’ve gone, but at any rate, I knew, it would be a relief to quit the cold, uncertain climate. Andso from wettish & mildewed perfumes of dubious expiration, I passed once more o’er secretive Threshold—onward, Keats—I—see me off—I am going—I’ll go easy; don’t be frightened. Don’t be frightened.


Keatsian Correspondences: An Introduction to “A Tragedy in 5 Acts”

Adam Cady
Illinois Wesleyan University

Editor’s note: One year ago, on July 30, 2019, Adam Cady shared the introduction to his work as an undergraduate researcher and Eckley Scholar at Illinois Wesleyan University: “Redressing the Tragedy: The Place of Otho the Great in John Keats’s Letters.” The following day, July 31, Adam shared “Dog-carts, Elephants, and the Collaborative Effort of Otho the Great,” the first of four KLP entries celebrating the bicentennial of specific Otho-related letters. As the KLP is dedicated to the scholarly commemoration of literary anniversaries and fostering dialogues across time, it seemed only fitting that the introduction to Adam’s more creative extension of earlier Keats research should be published on this, the anniversary of his first contribution to the KLP. To correspond with his first letter-specific post, then, the body of Adam’s latest work, “A Tragedy in 5 Acts,” a Keatsian, chameleonic, epistolary prose-poem and phantasmal memoir addressed directly to Keats himself, will be released tomorrow on the KLP.

Not so loftily “stedfast” as his poem’s titular bright star, John Keats’s twenty-five years of aspiring life represented an ephemeral explosion of stunning creative output. Persisting through boyhood woes and the near-disastrously wasteful pragmatism of a medical education—through recurring tubercular bouts, as well as periods of melancholic “idleness” and “darling lounging habits”—Keats’s brief literary career was more than enough to secure his legacy as one of the greatest English poets (July 31, 1819, letter to Charles Wentworth Dilke). In the fall of 2017, though, when I joined Illinois Wesleyan’s semester-long study abroad program in London, my knowledge of the famed Romantic and his spectacular canon—of his sonnets, odes, romances, letters—was limited to mere, faint recognition of names like “Nightingale” and “Grecian Urn.” My experience with Keats began and—essentially, at that point—ended with an angstily atheistic freshman essay on his sonnet “Written in Disgust of Vulgar Superstition.” Those few, formative years ago, I luxuriated deeper in the mists of ignorance, blind to the personal and profitable impact Keats would soon have on me. I was, most hauntingly, oblivious to the uncanny biographical overlaps—those coincidental Keatsian correspondences—which would eventually solidify my connection to the poet and unambiguously demand the writing of “A Tragedy in Five Acts.”

Take, for the sake of outrageously narcissistic argument, these few facts of Keats’s short life: he was plagued off-and-on by the respiratory pains of tuberculosis, the same miserable ailment which eventually took his life; chronic illness was exacerbated by travel via a stormy carriage ride that triggered his most worrisome bout of illness to date; his ambitions were such that, amid the most productive period of his fleeting existence, he actively resisted the settling affections and “domestic cares” of his dear inamorata, Fanny Brawne; in the dreary, pain-filled months which preceded his passing, he begged for lethal doses of laudanum and the preferable release of suicide; and finally, though he lived for much of the previous seventeen months with friend Charles Armitage Brown at Hampstead, the poet’s mortal journey expired in Rome, where his tomb now resides (July 25, 1819, letter to Fanny Brawne). Though any conceivable echoes of Keats in my sordid English experience fail to merit the employment of paranormal investigators, my prematurely terminated stint in Keats’s hometown was notably sullied—in part—by airway-adjacent illness: tonsillitis. And however nonthreatening such an infection may seem in relation to the bloody suffocation of a historically devastating condition like tuberculosis, the twofold emergence of a peritonsillar abscess did—it turns out, in addition to prohibiting the swallowing of my own saliva—constitute a potentially deadly annoyance. As my tonsils were horrifically swollen just days after my arrival in London, I moreover suspect that travel—the ludicrously unsanitary state of most commercial airliners—was the real origin of my sickness. Amid all this suffocating unpleasantness, too, I was constantly reminded that vague, unnamed, inadvisable ambition had inspired my go-getting escape to Britain, and that same ambition fostered within me an alienating sense of pending greatness—a lonely, misguided pride which meant particular disdain for a stateside girlfriend and fear that we may at any point forfeit “nobler amusements” in order to “what people call, settle” (August 5-6, 1819, letter to Fanny Brawne). Regularly bedridden, isolated, and betrayed by the woeful inadequacies of my physical self, then, my sojourn in Europe was colored by suicidal ideation, as well as an eventual attempt to take my own life. When that blunder brought my semester to a hasty end, I was meant to visit a cousin earning his master’s degree in Rome, but instead found myself facing the professional judgement of a Hampstead psychologist, mere blocks from Wentworth Place and the Keats House museum.

However simultaneously self-aggrandizing and repulsively macabre such thinking may be, when I first encountered Keats’s rich biography, that narrative of suffering, suicidal woe, and death was near-immediate cause for celebration. In the doomed Romantic’s somber tale, and in the language of Keats’s remarkable letters, I recognized my own trauma, my ambitions, and my deficiencies. The Romantic’s greatest literary failure, for instance, is likely that of his singular completed drama, Otho the Great, a disastrously convoluted and largely forgotten tragedy on which I’ve previously written and published extensive scholarship. Conceived as a money-making scheme, Keats agreed to undergo this doomed venture with companion and co-author Charles Brown out of sheer financial desperation. Similarly accidental, my scholarly involvement with Otho began as a wild suggestion—the last-ditch recommendation of Professor and KLP editor Mike Theune, whose informed curiosity was mercifully extended as the answer to my imprecise longings for the praise and cash which accompanied Illinois Wesleyan’s Eckley Summer Scholars and Artists Endowment. While Keats and Brown never saw a measly ha’penny for their “dog-cart” dramaturgical labors, however, the Tragedy (as Keats refers to Otho in his letters) proved a rewarding avenue of inquiry for me, resulting not only in $4000 for investigation of the overlooked drama, but also serving as the basis for an independent study course, an exceptionally rare staged reading of the play, and research honors (July 31, 1819, letter to C.W. Dilke). Most importantly, exploration of Otho’s curious role in the poet’s correspondence (a multipart project titled “Redressing the Tragedy: The Place of Otho the Great in John Keats’s Letters,” published in installments on the Keats Letters Project website) fostered in me a profound appreciation of Keats’s life and works—wonderment at his linguistic mastery, as well as awe at our respective biographies’ improbable confluences. In recognition of that more conventional project’s fundamental influence, then, my subsequent “Tragedy in 5 Acts” borrows its name and pseudo-dramatic structure from the subtitle of Otho, while its stylized language and epistolary nature derive from Keats’s correspondence. Beyond mere admiration for his canonized poetical prowess, the strangely familiar experiences and observations, haunting themes and varied locales which filled and defined Keats’s brief life and letters have—despite the ongoing bicentennial of his fleeting career marking an enormous temporal gulf between our irreconcilably removed selves—proved inexhaustible wellsprings of inspiration. 

Likewise, Act I of my Tragedy, “imprudent moveables,” takes its title directly from Keats’s August 5-6, 1819, letter to Fanny Brawne—a supposed love letter which nevertheless balks at the settling capacities of romantic attachment. As the introductory Act initiates an irreverent retelling of my less-than-ideal experience studying abroad, it rightfully clarifies the circumstances and mindset which first inspired my overeager escape to London. Magically and without real explanation, the highly disturbed letter extends its epistolary address across two whole centuries—purports to communicate directly with Keats himself—yet its primary focus remains the nameless “Ambitions” which demanded such bold, inadvisable action as months-long removal from my home continent. As if pestered by the disembodied “voices of sirens, sweet murderers of men,” the unstable speaker (essentially, a past and problematic version of myself) travels to London in search of unknown, unspecified success, thus subjecting himself to conditions which foster the twin burdens of woefully undertreated tonsillitis—a cyclically flaring infection of the throat, somewhat like Keats’s own tubercular bouts—and mismanaged clinical depression. Still, throughout Act I, the speaker’s foolhardy transatlantic journey is cause for elation—cosmic hallucination and homoromantic forecasting—given the fervency of his urge to leave behind one specific American. In that same August 5-6, 1819, letter, disturbed by the domesticating potential of his feelings for Ms. Brawne, Keats professes his constitutional inability to pen “proper downright love letters,” and, similarly “unloverlike” with regard to Mel, his Yankee paramour, the speaker in my Tragedy suffers “dread of unchecked contentment. Of placid banality.” No matter how unfit this speaker is to face the wider world’s debilitating truth, he is, like Keats, unwilling to take the steadying hand of love: “Better be imprudent moveables than prudent fixtures” (August 5-6, 1819, letter to Fanny Brawne). 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Act II, “so much oppress’d at Westminster,” totally undercuts Act I’s ambitious fantasizing with the sobering realities of an impressive-yet-insufferable workplace. Borrowing, this time, from Keats’s July 31, 1819, letter to C.W. Dilke and referring to the social difficulties of that friend’s young, bullied son, “so much oppress’d at Westminster” comparably entails the boyish struggles of a first “real job”—in truth, an unpaid Parliamentary internship with a Labour MP (unnamed here, though there’s ample context in Act II to out this unsavory official). As this dissatisfying work results from those same, undefined aspirations which spill forth in the energetic ramblings of Act I, preparing tea and returning emails in a cramped, musty office is—of course—a colossal disappointment, compared with the dreamy, ethereal visions promised to a dubiously receptive addressee. Yet after whining childishly about such menial, secretarial business—reflexively degrading the English people, praising Irish nationalism, and envisioning explosive, terroristic revolt—the act transitions to more earnest, pressing matters than the speaker’s mild discomfort: the #MeToo Movement’s pivotal revelations, and the quiet complicity of onlooking men. As my real, interrupted semester abroad coincided with the breaking of the Harvey Weinstein story, I was—that autumn—suddenly attuned to the prevalence of misogynistic abuse in the workplace. Thus, the speaker notices his duly elected employer’s tendency to hire beautiful twenty-something women, while simultaneously indulging the kind of ogling objectification that he finds so apparent in the MP’s “pudding-thick, glazy cataract stares.” Whereas “the Member” appears to view his female staffers exclusively as fetishized sources of optical pleasure, though, the speaker’s degrading lustfulness is partially resolved by his coworker’s espousal of radical Leftism—by Hannah’s teatime recitation of Marxist philosophy, which both forces a humanistic reassessment of female staffers’ interior lives and shifts the speaker further from his boss’s tepid Blairite politics. As a result of this modest growth, the speaker is symbolically punished, taken by the MP to Westminster Hall—to the exact site of Charles I’s fateful trial—where he imagines a swift execution via “the winnowing Blade.”

Following this vivid, figurative decapitation, Act III, “the same natural history of Monsters,” draws its ominous moniker from a comical indictment of lawyers in Keats’s February 1819 journal letter to his brother and sister-in-law, George and Georgiana Keats. While a disconcerting segment of my extended family has indeed practiced law, though, the emphasis of this section is rather the nightmarish presence of history—prior generations’ venomous influence, and the futility of resisting their genetic authority. Presented as the hungover musings of a “couchbound & queasy” Oktoberfest attendee, the Munich-based segment begins by further lamenting the settling power of Mel; in this case, the gut-wrenching terror wrought by a stateside pregnancy scare. Connecting immediate fears of paternity to a “bloodborne legacy” of alcoholism and violence, the speaker then explicates his family’s multigenerational tendency toward overindulgence, not-so-subtly excusing his own vices in the process. In this third segment of the Tragedy, the speaker also remarks for the first time that he’s suffering from the “swollen encumbrance” of severe tonsillitis—compares his “maddening” pain to that of his second cousin, Charles, a recent victim of suicide. Just as Keats, in his final, tubercular months, begged for “Easeful Death” through laudanum, the speaker is evidently determined to relieve his own misery and “pestilent itching” by whatever means necessary. In such a state of sickness and despair, Act III turns—finally—to the famous question of Keatsian Negative Capability and asks: Is such transcendent forfeiture of the self even possible? Relaying the semi-supernatural memory of a cold and luminous apparition in the empty basement of a preserved concentration camp’s medical barracks (in truth, a recollection from an earlier visit to metropolitan Berlin’s Sachsenhausen camp, purposely juxtaposed with the Germanic revelries of Munich’s Oktoberfest), the speaker seems to conclude that, even if such selflessness were possible, it wouldn’t matter: our purest empathy won’t save the millions slaughtered under the Third Reich, nor will it free us from our inexorable, isolating fates. Death, he proposes, is the only escape. 

If Act III’s historical ruminations and foray into Holocaust literature are ambitiously expansive, Act IV, “a Man dallies and foolishes,” is perhaps the Tragedy’s most limited segment—a snapshot of a single night’s anguish, and the suicide attempt which results from this alienated despair. That being said, Act IV is the Tragedy’s climax, and it offers a violent resolution to many of the most pressing issues raised by the speaker in previous sections. Like the September 1819 journal letter to George and Georgiana from which the act takes its name, this paramount segment of the Tragedy is primarily concerned with leave-taking, especially farewells of the spectacular, theatrical variety. Evidently confirming his theory of inherited alcoholism’s inescapability, the speaker, throughout Act IV, swigs from a seemingly depthless bottle of Jameson, contemplating all the while the pros and cons of suicide. In much the same way that he previously realized the depth and savvy of his Marxist coworker, Hannah, the speaker now revises his assessment of Mel—still dreads her settling influence, yet recognizes the likelihood of heartbreak in the wake of her inevitable self-actualized departure. Although the speaker does consider—briefly, distracted—the horror his narcissistic act could inflict upon his family and loved ones, the fabricated prophecy of Mel’s devastating exit seems a more compelling argument than sentimental concerns for his mother or sister. Refusing, then, to become settled or to be made a blubbering fool, his decision is steadfast and clear. With a darkly parodic recitation of Otho the Great’s final lines, the speaker takes “one last awkward bow.”

What appears in Act IV as a final, suicidal flourish, however, is immediately and insolently undermined by a struck-through salutation: “God bless you!” No matter the seriousness of the speaker’s lethal intentions, Act V, “certain ventriloquial parentheses,” defiantly sustains his narrative with what is—essentially—an ambiguous epilogue. With its title pulled from that same, exit-obsessed journal letter from September 1819, Act V is likewise interested in the art of the farewell, and it attempts to cunningly reimagine the performative leave-taking which immediately precedes it. In this closing segment, suddenly accompanied and strangely comforted by the stern presence of an unnamed female guardian, the speaker confusedly retraces Keats’s steps, traipsing through Hampstead and the foggy English night. Aside from the Keats House museum, “that familiar Heathside manor,” little is recognizable in the evening’s “frozen black,” and the speaker actively questions his novel, purgatorial surroundings: “…what Unscripted Hell is this? What midnight charm—what dream has come?” Much as Keats, in his final months, experienced the chilling fantasy of a waking half-death, the speaker now has “an habitual feeling of [his] real life having passed,” as though he is “leading a posthumous existence” (November 30, 1820, letter to Charles Brown). Suspended in this state of unknowing, without the slightest indication of when—or if—he’ll receive any semblance of placating resolution, the speaker even begins to doubt his atemporal relationship with Keats, and he semi-accusingly ponders why the letter’s deceased addressee isn’t Blake or Whitman or Marx, instead: “why not…entreat Another, whose prophetic verse is the urgenter undertaking?” Like so many others, though, this question remains unanswered—is left there to hover in “Asphodel’s mindless grey.” Without the conclusiveness of genuine death or sufficient assurance of life’s continuation, he passes over an unnamed threshold, mingles with its “absorbing Light,” and, echoing Keats’s last words to friend Joseph Severn, the speaker reassures his rashly selected and evidently absent companion: “onward, Keats—I—see me off—I am going—I’ll go easy; don’t be frightened. Don’t be frightened.”

Given the preponderance of Keatsian phrasing, structures, wordplay, and themes in this hazily autobiographical, phantasmal memoir, I imagine that—by now—Keats’s posthumous influence on my “Tragedy in 5 Acts” is obvious. The occasion for writing was, after all, contingent on his biography’s familiar specifics. The lengthy epistolary style and five-act structure are moreover nods to Keats’s writings, and, in addition to the piece’s title and various section headings, borrowings from the poet’s letters and verse emerge in this Tragedy’s most consequential moments. Helping to bridge the two-century gap between writer and addressee, however, are the additional influences of miscellaneous and seemingly unrelated artists—phrasing from canonical masters like Shakespeare, with whom Keats was enamored, as well as the disparate traces of such post-Keats voices as Joyce, Baldwin, Plath, Dylan, Beckett, and the Grateful Dead. Take, for instance, the Tragedy’s motley opening lines: “—thank God it has come. I have seen your Comet—stately, stedfast and crossed with nightblue, hanged by the transitive heaventree of diamonds: a tree, evening, and how fares the Prince?” Reminiscent of that circularity which binds the opening of Finnegans Wake to the incomplete sentence at its end, “—thank God it has come” completes the reiteration of Keats’s last words which closes Act V, “certain ventriloquial parentheses.” The Romantic’s July 8, 1819, letter to Fanny Brawne is then directly quoted with this dazzling celestial flattery: “I have seen your Comet.” Next, language from Ulysses’ first and seventeenth episodes (“Telemachus” and “Ithaca,” respectively) fuses with Keatsian and other, less canonical phrasing to evoke a new and murkier sensation. “Plump,” for one, is replaced by the “stedfast” of Keats’s “Bright Star,” while the night’s “heaventree of stars hung with humid nightblue fruit” blends with the inversely solar lyrical poetics of Robert Hunter’s “Dark Star” to form a keen-eyed hangman’s preferred, psychedelic “transitive heaventree of diamonds.” Finally, my piece’s opening lines present a modest bastardization of those words which are, in Beckett’s tragicomic masterpiece Waiting for Godot, a fittingly sparse introduction to the play’s dismal setting: “A country road. A tree. Evening.” In this case, the description is accompanied by a reference to Keats’s wildly different, inferior drama, Otho the Great—positioned alongside an inquiry for which Estragon’s dreary opening line is a suitable answer: “Nothing to be done.”

Admittedly, the whole of this elaborate literary endeavor suggests the continued influence of a moderately unhinged mindset. To suggest the mutual experience of sickness and the recurrence of some imprecise locales as grounds for intricate comparison to a poetical titan—to further incorporate a bizarre mixture of wholly unrelated artistic voices as subliminal backing for my simultaneously self-aggrandizing and embarrassingly earnest project—is, after all, deranged. Yet as I write, I can’t help but call attention to the spectacular web of Keatsian correspondences in which I once again find myself. Having endured for years the recurrent miseries of a vicious respiratory illness, John Keats endured his first pulmonary hemorrhage on February 3, 1820. A former medical student, Keats recognized his symptoms’ grim portentousness, and he direly remarked to Charles Brown: “I know the colour of that blood,—it is arterial blood—I cannot be deceived in that colour; that drop is my death-warrant. I must die.” At the behest of his physician, Keats then set out for the sunnier environs of Rome, but his stormy, disastrous journey was punctuated by further torment: upon his arrival in Naples, a purported outbreak of cholera at home in Britain required that Keats’s ship be held in a ten-day quarantine. When the misfortunate Romantic did, at last, reach Rome on November 14, that city’s last oozings of prescribed warmth had dissipated, giving way to the sapping chills of autumn, and after months of tubercular torment, Keats at last found the mercy of death on February 23, 1821. Though I don’t anticipate hacking up wads of “arterial blood,” the specter of respiratory illness has landed me (and much of the world) in a version of quarantine, a shelter-in-place order meant to lessen the effects of COVID-19. Similar to the way in which Keats faced terrible uncertainty in the face of incurable pestilence, months of isolation have transformed the sluggish hours and weeks before me into a blurred and terrifying amalgam, extended endlessly in the baffling mist of unfinished history. 

More disturbing, perhaps, than even these latest Keatsian connections, I also find elements of my Tragedy reflected in the ongoing crisis; specifically, that sense of incompleteness which now haunts both the speaker in Act V and my day-to-day existence. After working, writing, and organizing for months to become one of history’s foremost experts on Otho the Great, my research was accepted as part of the British Association for Romantic Studies Early Career and Postgraduate Conference. As though prescribed by fate, the conference was moreover set to take place this June at Keats House in Hampstead, but thanks to the calamitous global pandemic, my triumphant return to London, the affirmation of my ambitions’ ultimate meaningfulness, and the glorious resolution to my prior woes remain indefinitely postponed. One of the many ways in which—I admit—my experience differs critically from that of Keats, however, is in the sheer understandability of his melancholic despair and suicidal longing for merciful release. Whereas Keat’s worldly path led only to gory, premature demise, the near-death and painful experiences autobiographically detailed in my epistolary prose-poem—that perverse “Tragedy in 5 Acts”—have at least enabled my therapeutic internalizing of the present weirdness as a test of what is possible: If, as an immunocompromised asthmatic and panic-prone depressive, I survive this indefinite period of maddeningly unpredictable pestilence, fleeting personal anguish will never again seem a justifiable reason to, as they say, eliminate my own map.

Works Cited
Bate, Walter Jackson. John Keats. Cambridge, Belknap Press of Harvard UP, 1963.

Beckett, Samuel. Waiting for Godot. 1952. Grove Press, 2011.

Grateful Dead. “Dark Star.” Dark Star/Born Cross-Eyed, Warner Bros., 1968.

Joyce, James. Finnegans Wake. Penguin Books, 1999. 

Joyce, James. Ulysses, prepared by Hans Walter Gabler with Wolfhard Steppe and Claus Melchior, New York and London, Garland, 1984. 

Keats, John. Complete Poems and Selected Letters of John Keats. Modern Library, 2009.

Keats, John. The Letters of John Keats, v. 1 1814-1818 and v. 2 1819-1821, edited by Hyder Edward Rollins, Cambridge, Harvard UP, 1958.

Roe, Nicholas. John Keats: A New Life. Yale University Press, 2012.