The Poetical Works of John Keats, John Keats
London Macmillan & Co Ltd, 1929
A THING of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness. . . .
When you open the door she is alone. The apartment is old and dark, musty and small. The wallpaper faded and carpet tired and frayed. She has the TV on too loud and she is smoking a cigarette and drinking orange juice. She is 80 years old and her cat has just been put to sleep. For the last two weeks it had refused to eat, waiting instead by the door for her husband to come home. He had died, however, at Christmas and would never be coming back. But the cat didn’t know this and waited instead by the door crying patiently. These were not the first deaths. Nor would they ever be the last. Her only daughter had died of leukemia six years before. Her older brother of Asthma. Her sister of a heart attack. Death was like a warm knotty blanket that covered the sofa. That lined the foot of the bed. It was a wide and soft and hairy thing that curled up with you as the sun went down. That swaddled and smothered you at midnight. That soaked up the longing and wetness that flowed from your eyes.
The first time we visited you in Basel the bells of St. Joseph’s were ringing on Amerbachstrasse. The clouds flowed over the red-tiled roofs and cobble-stoned streets like fat galloping soldiers. You made us hot cocoa and spinach dumplings, and we slept in the fold-out bed in your living room. You had a red sticker on your toilet seat that said “love forever’’ with two cartoon caricatures holding hands across a big red heart. You hugged us and kissed us and showed us new things in a new land where we had never been before. You were our aunt and uncle and you spoke a strange language it took me only years later to ever understand. But your hearts were golden and your love a simple, precious thing. A thing to hold on to forever.
No, no, go not to Lethe, neither twist
Wolf’s-bane, tight-rooted, for its poisonous wine;
Nor suffer thy pale forehead to be kiss’d
By nightshade, ruby grape of Proserpine;
Make not your rosary of yew-berries,
Nor let the beetle, nor the death-moth be
Your mournful Psyche, nor the downy owl
A partner in your sorrow’s mysteries;
For shade to shade will come too drowsily,
And drown the wakeful anguish of the soul.
-from “Ode to Melancholy”
You unpack the groceries one by one and show her what you’ve got. Pasta and noodles for soup. Tomato sauce. Bread, crackers, cheese. Salami. Muesli. Apples and orange juice. Cookies and chocolate and toast bread. She will never eat it all. She barely eats. You pull out meat from the freezer. You carry in the water bottles. You wonder how she will ever make it living alone on her own. But she’s tough and feisty. Old-world and old school. You picture here up in the mountains in a small village with your father before the Second World War. You see the bakery shop where they grew up together. The cow stall next door. The sloping green Alps and towering crags and mountains. You see the goats and hey houses and hear the bells ringing from the cows. You smell the thick wet of spring dung.
When we picked you up in San Francisco the fog was lifting over the bay. We drove through China Town and saw the colorful dragons slithering up the steep and crooked streets. You had the fattest cat we had ever seen in the world when we picked you up at the airport. His name was Reno after the town where your brother now lived. I can still see the beautiful little girl with the long black hair who was there with you. She was our new cousin. It was summer and we all slept together in one hotel room in Berkeley. You were running away from something in the old country but we never knew what it was. Dad would never tell us. He had run away once, too. But you were now here and come to live with us. It was all so new and exciting for a little boy.
Darkling I listen; and, for many a time
I have been half in love with easeful Death,
Call’d him soft names in many a mused rhyme,
To take into the air my quiet breath;
Now more than ever seems it rich to die,
To cease upon the midnight with no pain,
While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad In such an ecstasy!
-from “Ode to a Nightingale”
I kiss you goodbye and shut the door. It’s an ugly old elevator and ugly old building. The streets are dirty and the neighborhood changed. The sticker on your toilet seat is faded but still there. No bells are ringing. I try to remind myself that this is a hurtful but natural part of life. The loving. The parting. The pain. That even the smallest and most ugliest things hold the biggest and strongest beauty. That flesh departs but the hard nut of something stronger flashes on forever. It’s mean and it hurts and there is no answer to it all here or now and nothing else to do but hold on and push on and take care of the ones you love the most. It’s a small thing. An easy thing. And again, the tiniest things hold the most beauty.
Down the street you take me screaming on your bicycle, Oh, soft cousin of the long black hair! You are dark-skinned and beautiful. Your hair streams out like soft summer silk. Your white dress billows out like a nylon parachute. We are giggling and laughing. The sun is going down. Mom is cooking something warm for us back home. Dad is finishing up something in the garage. Your mom (and my aunt!) will be home from her part-time job soon. My brother is doing something evil with army men on the porch. The simple and huge blue desert sky stretches out like a giant battle shield forever. We are all happy and we are all here together.
When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,”—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know
-from “Ode on a Grecian Urn”