Thursday, February 05, 2015

Poetry Friday: Keats and Me

It's funny that since choosing "Unafraid" as my One Little Word for 2015, I've done a lot of thinking about fear.  All kinds of fear.

The other day I was thinking about how short life is, and how fast it goes, and how little we leave behind us.  How little I've done, and how little I will leave to my children.  The opening line of Keats' sonnet "When I have fears that I shall cease to be..." came to my mind, and I looked it up.  I had the window open the rest of the week, and the way my laptop abbreviated the title, combined with the poet, did make me giggle a bit.

Ceasing to be, that's one thing.  Ceasing eats...well, that's something else.

Seriously though, I've already lived more than twenty years longer than Keats did.  Turns out he was right to worry about ceasing to be, long before he had written all that he had in him to write, and long before he could share a life with his love.

And yet...Keats recognized there was more than Love and Fame.

Here's the poem:

When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has glean'd my teeming brain,
Before high pil'd 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 feel 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.

When Keats had fears like that, he wrote, and writing helps me deal with fears too.  There's something about organizing words that makes me feel more in control.

I've been working through a retelling of the Iliad with my eighth graders, and this week I wrote a poem about Thetis, Achilles' goddess mother, who wanted so much to ensure the perfect safety of her son, and just couldn't, because that's one thing about being human - we cease to be, at least this life we're living ends, and we lose and grieve.  I found this photo of a statue of Thetis (made by Thomas Banks and housed in the Victoria and Albert Museum) dipping her infant son in the River Styx to make him invulnerable.



Thetis has a simple desire for her baby Achilles:
Not just a baby book with all his milestones carefully entered
Not just professional portraits taken every month
But real immortality.
That’s how she ends up at the entrance to Hell
Where, let’s be honest, we’d all go for our babies.

She looks as though she hasn’t even had time to get dressed,
But just wrapped herself in a sheet before rushing out her door
To do this urgent task,
This ultimate baby proofing.
Her face as she dangles her naked baby in the River Styx is calm and determined,
A bit like a mother gripping her screaming child during a vaccination,
A mother saying, “This is for your own good.”

Oh, Thetis,
If only you realized that as you clutch his little ankle
You are keeping one place from those waters
Which would make him unassailable.
Not only won’t he live forever,
But he’ll die young, as the prophets have foretold.
All your efforts to keep him safe:
Rubbing him down with ambrosia,
Burning away his mortality,
Hiding him in a dress in someone else’s court -
They will all fail.

He will win everlasting fame, of course.
But that is no consolation.

I tell my students that Thetis controls Achilles
And make much of that scene where he goes to her whining,
“If I’m going to die young, the gods owe me whatever I want.”
But in reality, my sympathies are entirely with Thetis,
A mother grieving in advance
The obscene truth
That being human
Precludes invulnerability.

Thetis doesn’t care about Helen or Paris or any of those people in Troy.
She doesn’t care about the horse or the burning towers
Or Homer’s bestseller that will make untold generations sigh over her beautiful, spoiled son.
She simply holds her breath in that eternal moment
When Paris’ arrow pierces Achilles’ heel,
And loss becomes all she has.

by Ruth, from

Here's this week's Poetry Friday roundup.  


Sally Murphy said...

I love that Keats poem, but I giggled at the abbreviation, too. Thanks for sharing it :)

trailerdweller said...

Love your poem (and Keats's too!)

jama said...

The Keats poem took me right back to grad school. Nice to read it again and reflect on life and our fears.

Retelling of the Iliad -- sounds like quite a project! Enjoyed your poem :).

Ruth said...

We're not retelling it -- we're reading a retelling someone else wrote. :-)

Andromeda Jazmon Sibley said...

Oh, this poem of yours makes me cry! There is nothing like a mother trying to protect her son...

Liz Steinglass said...

I love your poem--the ultimate baby-proofing. Perfectly said and yes, we'd all do if we could, wouldn't we, though I'm sure we'd all fail just as Thetis does. My daughter's 8th grade is also reading it. I will give your poem to her. I know she will appreciate it.

Karen Edmisten said...

Love the abbreviated ref. to the Keats poem! Really enjoyed yours, too -- esp. "this ultimate babyproofing."

Joy said...

Like a mother gripping her screaming child during a vaccination-- what an image. Good line.
Thanks for an excellent post.

Tabatha said...

Keats' poem is still so wonderful, isn't it?
Poor Thetis! It's better if we don't know ahead of time, isn't it, so we don't take all those desperate measures, especially when they will come to naught.

Tara Smith said...

She simply holds her breath in that eternal moment
When Paris’ arrow pierces Achilles’ heel,
And loss becomes all she has.

How I love these lines... I've been feeling exactly the sense of "what have I accomplished?" too, Ruth. I'm taking it as a sign to focus (my OLW) and be unafraid (your OLW).

Anonymous said...

The Keats is moving and insightful. Your poem made me feel all my parental fears. No parental ruse or trick can keep fate from our kids heels. Fear. Fearless. Who can't relate?

Robyn Hood Black said...

Like Tara, those last lines pierced me, too. So poignant.
Thanks for sharing - and, again, what lucky students you have! (And as one who has torn her Achilles tendon a few years ago, this whole story makes me wince a bit.) ;0)

Mary Lee said...

Oh, gasp! You poem is all kinds of perfect. Wow. (I accidentally typed "woe" instead of "wow" -- that, too! Perfect grief.)

Michelle Heidenrich Barnes said...

Your discussion of fears had me hooked, Ruth. How can any mother not bond with Thetis through the telling of your poem. Wonderful insights and comparisons with modern day, like when you touch on vaccinations.

Bridget Magee said...

Wow on so many levels - your poem, Keats, our parental fears. =)

Steve Hersey said...

Wonderful poem. I read and reread it. Love you lots, and keep the poetry flowing.

Myra Garces Bacsal said...

"Loss becomes all she has"
how lovely and heartbreaking is that line.
I will be discussing issues of loss and mortality with my own higher-degree students in two days' time. Thank you for reminding me of Keats' poem. :)

Jessica Stock said...

I love your poem! So much a mother can relate to.