The Death of KeatsBy Luke Wright
What better way to start a journey than
with friends? I’m sure yours tried their best: a backslap,
a bon voyage or two beside the Thames.
But later, as you listened to the salt-splash
on the hull, the black spell on your lungs
and mind, clot-coughing in your coffin bunk,
as drear-night England slipped behind, her leafy
glades, her rills, the dryads that you’d conjured
gleaming from the lunacy of ink,
each snubbed out on the high seas dark as Lethe -
what hope was left that you might yet behold
your set again? That you might marry her
and let love be a surgeon to your soul,
a lady’s hand to deftly pick the burrs
of bad luck from you. Poor chameleon
you’d been a friend, a libertas, a trickster
rampant reader, poet, nurse, but when
the turning of her white carnelian
became a simple act of grief, you fixed there,
sallow in the shade of the condemned.
Then back on land you dragged your tin-can chain
of failure strung with the locked hearts of critics,
rattling in censorious refrain,
past the bleached bones of bandits hung from gibbets,
past the red-cloaked Cardinal who shot
the songbirds from the sky with perfect aim
and onto Rome, the fountain in the square:
Bernini’s sculpture of the sinking boat
which took on water, surged it out again
suspended in final desperate prayer.
No moonstruck couplets waited in that room,
no flowery luxury, no beauty in
the black blood on your sheets, no chirp, no bloom
just wretchedness to see her handwriting,
the mucus boiling in your throat, the sap
of spittle on your lips, the rasping rage,
the spectre of your brother at the last.
As memories burst like tubercles, you spat
T wang dillo dee to your barbaric age,
you bolted upright, clung to Severn, gasped
and then collapsed and tumbled weightless through
the sky, till softly on a forest floor
you landed under light-hung leaves, and drew
at last an unencumbered breath and saw
the band of shepherds come as in your dream.
You knew them as your friends. They walked towards
a glade and gathered there around an altar
spurting fountain-like into a stream
which future-flowed from sight, and bore the words:
Here lies one whose name is writ in water.
Luke Wright is a poet and theatre maker, www.lukewright.co.uk. He was specially commissioned by Wanted in Rome and ArtHouse Jersey to write this poem to mark the bicentenary of the death of Keats.