On Dying Young

by Matthew Koslowski on November 18, 2009
in Anecdotes

As I have written before, I aspire to be a novelist.

But that desire to be a novelist does not come without a number of uncertainties and fears. Looking at the papers, it is not difficult to come across an article bemoaning the state of the publishing business or another article bemoaning the state of the American reader. Stories circulate within writers communities about the difficulties of finding first an agent and then a publisher. The story is so well known that it even appeared in the movie Sideways as the special lot of writers.

I know that many writers also share this fear. You need only look at the table of contents of any writers’ magazine to find an article addressing some one of these fears, and many other fears. And for further evidence you can go over to the writing instruction section of your bookstore.

But if you’re at all like me in mind, you’ll be overwhelmed by the sheer volume of paper on those shelves.

Another fear strikes me. I fear, for no reason I’ve ever been able to figure out, that I will die young. That my legacy will be cut short before I have delved deeply into my mind and found all the stories that are locked in there.

Only I can tell these stories. Even if I cover story arcs that have been covered before — there are numerous versions of the Don Juan legend, for example; and Shakespeare refashioned existing stories into pieces so distinctly his own that we have quite forgotten their progenitors — only I can tell the stories through my own vision.

One of my favorite poets did die young. John Keats was only twenty-five when he died. And he had accomplished more by that time than I have who has outlived in by two years. With him died his poetic vision, a vision that teaches us

A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness. …
-From Endymion, lines 1 through 3

and whose vision birthed “Ode to a Nightingale”.

Yet, he died believing himself a failure. He thought he would be quite forgotten and asked that his tombstone be emblazoned with

Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water.

His friend honored his wish. In fact, Keats’s tombstone does not contain his name at all, just calls him a “Young English Poet.”

But even Keats himself was afraid of dying young. Engaging with his own fears, Keats wrote a poem that every writer should keep framed on his or her desk. Any writer should read this poem before reaching for pen and paper, or keyboard.

When I have fears that I may cease to be
  Before my pen has glean’d my teeming brain,
Before high piled books, in charactry,
  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 think 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 may never look upon thee more,
Never have relish in the fairy power
  Of unreflecting love;–then on the shore
Of a wide world I stand alone, and think
Till love and fame to nothingness do sink.
–John Keats

In the film Bright Star, which introduced me to this poem, John Keats gets distracted by Fanny Brawne’s beauty and forgets the poem half way through.

I looked it up when I got home from the film. I wish that I could thank the screenwriter and the director directly. In reading this poem, I found a new strategy for addressing my own fears. Rather than focus on the fame and recognition I hope to receive as a novelist, focus rather on the characters and the symbols.

So let me stand alone to think, until to nothingness do both love and fame sink.

Comments are closed.