[The following poem and reflection contain descriptions of suicidal ideation as well as imagery associated with suicide attempts. The Keats Letters Project urges its readers to do what is right for them, and if that means avoiding such materials as this poem, we will understand.]
Elegy Written on the Bicentennial of Keats’s Death
Unhappiness and sorrow, rouse the muse
In me: a friend is dead, and no excuse
Can make me see that I am not the cause
Of travesty. The thing that gave me pause
Last night was whether I should swallow pills,
Enough that I would cease my worldly thrills
To brave the undiscovered country. I
Will say it plainly: I wanted to die,
But now, in place of me, a dear friend lies,
And I am left to grapple with my vice
Of melancholia. My own despair
Has silenced my dear friend. What rancid air
Disintegrates her flesh? What unripe grave
Must her unready, hasty corpse now brave
In place of me? I grant that she was old,
But my death, more than hers, has been foretold:
Since I discovered how my mother died,
Her callous noose has traveled by my side
And has awaited my return to her.
Last night I thought that I could not endure
This desolation of my life much longer;
Last night I thought that Keats had made me stronger,
But now I know that poor Darlene had lent
The life she had to me. I must repent
For what my mind has wrought: a graveyard now
Possesses one more tombstone, with a bough
Of one lone sycamore to grant it shade.
Why couldn’t I have been the one unmade?
Oh, do not tempt me, ever-present noose!
If I should perish, what would be the use
Of Darlene’s sacrifice? If I am here
And she is not, no matter my despair,
I must endure the sun’s imperial rays,
And so, for Darlene’s sake, prolong my days,
For when I wished to swallow all my pills,
My body wracked with winter’s wicked chills,
Some force impelled me to retire to bed,
As if Darlene had in my childhood said,
As she had many times before, Now sleep.
When I awoke I heard the news and wept
For Darlene’s final act of charity
After all the things she did for me:
She watched my brother and I as we played,
Our reckless youth through sanguine acts displayed:
The football we would play in our backyard,
The fights we needed to be torn apart
From. Most of all, though, she relaxed with us:
She occupied our minds with dominoes,
And told us of her family as we
Would place those ivory tiles in an array
Of branches not unlike her family tree,
Abundant and familiar in their way:
There is her granddaughter, who taught me how
To write my stories, in fifth grade, about
The goblins and adventurers that filled
My mind, and taught me how to world-build;
There is her grandson, one of many, who
Played football for Northwestern, and who knew
The rules of chess, and played me when we met;
There are three sons, whose stories I forget,
But who, when I decided I should call
To ask about the wake and funeral,
Recalled my name, and told me that Darlene
Had thought of me as one of her grandchildren;
And so, I guess, I too, in my lament
Remain a broken kindred monument
To her, and how I wasted her last days.
I cannot offer anything but praise
For her. It isn’t right that she should give
Her life for someone who struggles to live
Beyond the confines of his mind’s lament.
When I consider how my years were spent
I cannot help but think on how I was,
Before this bitter morning, dangerous,
And think on how my logical response
Should be to give in now to what I want:
To sleep, perchance to dream. But no! My friend
Has given life so I may comprehend
How fleeting life is. I must live, for now
I must tend to that lonely sycamore’s bough
And so preserve whatever of Darlene
Remains, and make her sacrifice now seem
As though it was worthwhile. I must live
As long as my body has breath to give.
And you, Darlene, now dwell amongst the grass,
Where you remain until all things will pass.
Know this: that you and Keats are now compact
In our imagination, and in fact,
For what is Earth but one enormous tomb
Where everything that perishes finds room
Together for their bones to rest, as you
And Adonais, for all time, now do.
I offer up this verse to you. It’s poor;
I cannot make you Genius of the shore,
But still, I offer this, in hope that you
May still persist, through this poor verse and through
The life I live that you have given me.
I hope that in due time I’ll learn to see
My life as meaningful, like yours. I’ll make
This bargain worth it, for your memory’s sake.
I hope I have not somewhat loudly swept
The string; I hope that I have fully wept
And fully strummed as hard as I could play.
Now muse, depart me. Leave me for today.
All is still disarrayed within my mind
With you still here, and Darlene in the ground,
For you bring melancholia, and I
Must now, for Darlene’s sake, refuse to die.
On the night of February 22, 2021, I, for reasons I will not go into, experienced a depressive episode that was accompanied by suicidal ideation. I followed my well-trodden algorithms for dealing with such situations, and eventually went to bed in place of doing anything harmful to myself. Still, the thoughts and impulses were there. The next day, February 23, the bicentennial of John Keats’s death, I woke up to the news that a family friend, one who had played an integral role in raising my brother and I (especially following our mother’s suicide), had died that morning. Even though there was no logical connection between my depressive episode and her death, I still felt guilty: in spite of the fact that I knew this was illogical, I felt like this family friend had died in place of me when I had been contemplating suicide, as if she had exchanged her life for mine. I also felt, on another level, guilty for having wanted, however briefly, to die, when others, like my friend, die without an option for more life. Later that day, I attended a reading (put on by the Keats Letters Project) of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Adonais” and was deeply moved by the poem. That night, I resolved to attempt to write an elegy for my friend which was inspired by “Adonais” (the poem rather clearly wound up having other, more prominent intertextual connections, but this was the initial intent of the poem). The central conceit was that my friend had given her life so that I might live, and that my friend would now, by me, be remembered with John Keats because of the day on which she died. I worked on the poem for several hours; by the end of that period I had an initial draft of 96 lines which would, with much editing, become the poem in its current iteration.
The form of the poem did not immediately come to me; I knew I wanted to work in form of some kind, but I also knew that I lacked the formal dexterity to compose an extended poem consisting of Spenserian stanzas. I initially tried to write the poem in elegiac stanzas , but I was making very little progress. Eventually, I abandoned the few stanzas I had written and tried to start the poem over, and then I noticed that “muse” rhymes with “excuse.” I thus started following the form that holds throughout the poem (with one exception, an elegiac stanza that happened completely by accident when I rhymed “we” with “array” and then noticed I wanted to bring up my friend’s “family tree”), which consists of quatrains composed of two heroic couplets each. In addition, I felt that couplets made some sort of sense as an homage to John Keats himself, who often wrote his poems in couplets early in his career, perhaps most notably in Endymion. I left the stanza length at four lines because I still wanted to echo the tradition of elegiac stanzas on some level: even while not adhering to the form, I hoped that the quatrains would lend the poem some resemblance to elegiac stanzas.
Whether or not the poem is successful and worthwhile, I am grateful to the Keats Letters Project for providing me the opportunity to publish this work. No matter how effective and moving the poem may or may not be, this poem, at the very least, solidifies my feelings towards an important figure in my life, and my reaction to her death. Like Keats, she is now a portion of the loveliness that comprises everything on Earth, which she made more lovely through her acts. I am honored to be given a platform for my offering of gratitude and mourning for her, and I am honored that you, dear reader, have deigned to engage with my work, and by doing so have granted my friend a place to dwell in your mind, however briefly it may last. Thank you.