Keats and the Elgin Marbles

Amy Clampitt

From The Kenyon Review, New Series, Spring 1983, Vol. V. No. 2

for Frederick Turner

Openings. Winandermere* and Derwentwater.
The Elgin Marbles. That last evening
at the Crown in Liverpool, with George
and his new wife, imagination failed

    —and still fails: what can John Keats
    have had to do with a hacked clearing
    in the Kentucky underbrush? How could
    Mnemosyne herself, the mother of the Muse,
    have coped with that uncultivated tangle,
    catbrier and poison ivy, chiggers,
    tent caterpillars, cottonmouths,
    the awful gurglings and chirrings
    of the dark?

                                 Turning his back
against the hemp and tar, the
creaking tedium of actual departure,
the angry fogs, the lidless
ferocity of the Atlantic—epic
distances fouled by necessity—
he left them sleeping, George
and his Georgiana, so much wrapped up
in being newly wed they scarcely knew
they had no home now but each other,
he took up his pack (a change of
clothes, pens, paper, the Divine
in translation—he knew no

Italian yet, or Greek) and headed north,
on foot, with his friend Brown. Rain
held them up a day, but on
the twenty-sixth of June (a letter
to his brother Tom records) they came
in sight of Winandermere. He stared,
then slowly swore, “”This—

    Italy, the never-never
    vista, framed, of Stresa
    on Lago Maggiore, to badger
    an imagination starved for charm,
    for openings, living on cornpone,
    coonskin, literary hand-me-downs,
    and hating everything in sight.

a vista, as he put it, to make one forget
what tended to cut off, refining what he called
the Sensual Vision into—he fumbled for
an image—a sort of North Star, open-
lidded, steadfast. Winandermere:
the Italy he’d never seen, though in
imagination he already lived there:
his mind’s America. Bright star.
Made one forget the creak, the tar,
the lunging hulk, homesick, sea-
sick, of the Atlantic.

                                              Or almost did.
Next day, at Helvellyn (mist about its foot
so thick he never saw it, fleas
in the bed at Nag’s Head) he invoked,
in an acrostic on Georgiana’s name, Ulysses
stormed at sea, and after
Derwentwater and Lodore made weak amends
with fact by conjuring a doggerel prospect
“where furrows are new to the plow.”
After Skiddaw—a ten-mile hike,
made fasting, having gotten up
at four—they took a coach
for Scotland.

                           The tomb of Burns.
Pinched lives. Bad food. A fog
of whisky. The cold, pale, short-
lived, primeval summer. He was tired now,
homesick for another kind of grandeur:
Lord Elgin’s windlass-lowered metopes (“A sun—
a shadow of a magnitude,” he’d written
of the space they opened). Scotland
seemed—the epithet broke from him—
anti-Grecian. Admitting prejudice,
he repented, tried whisky-toddy,
wrote a ballad, saw the poverty, grew somber
as he thought of Burns, observing his imagination
had been southern too; caught a cold
he couldn’t shake, grew peevish,
cut short his tour. In Hampstead,
Tom had been coughing blood again.

summer gone, Tom worse, his own sore throat
recurring, Endymion stillborn, picked over
by the vultures. Well,
they were partly right; the rest he wouldn’t
think about. Now, primed on Lear,
Milton, Gibbon, Wordsworth, he’d set himself
to re-imagining an epic grandeur, such as
(if it arrived at all), came battered
and diminished, fallen like Lucifer,
or else dismantled, fragmentary, lowered and
transported, piece by piece, like the heroic
torsos, the draperied recumbent hulks Lord Elgin
took down from the Parthenon.

in the back settlements, the rise
of Doric porticoes. Courthouse
spittoons. The glimmer of a classic
colonnade through live oaks. Slave
cabins. Mud. New Athenses, Corinths,
Spartas among the Ossabaws and
Tuscaloosas, the one no less
homesick than the other for
what never was, most likely,
but in some founder’s warped
and sweating mind.

                                            Ruin alone,
in a bad time, had seemed to him
grand enough. But then, out of the
still unimagined West, that welter
of a monument to hardship, stirrings
of another sort: Georgiana
was to have a child

domestic comfort, a firelit
ring of faces’ bright cave
in the Kentucky wilderness: the wonder
of it! Not quite two years
since, in lodgings he and George and Tom,
three orphaned, homeless brothers
had moved into, he’d invoked
just such an image: small, busy flames
playing through fresh-laid
coals, a refuge hollowed from
the gloom of London in November. Now,
out of that solitude, a child,
another Keats, to be the bard of what
John Keats himself could never quite
imagine: he turned the fantasy
into a lullaby, went back
to reconstructing such an inlet
to severe magnificence
as a god might enter. “I think
I shall be among the English
poets after my death.” There,
he’d said it.

                                  The evening of
October twenty-fourth (a date that,
once again, would go on record),
walking from Bedford Row to Lamb’s
Conduit Street, he met the enigmatic
Mrs Isabella Jones, and walked her home.
Her sitting room a trove of bronze,
books, pictures, music: an Aeolian
harp, a linnet: rich and somber—moonlight
through diamond panes, a Turkish carpet—
was the way he’d re-imagine it.
A prior contretemps seemed to require
some move; tactfully declining to
be kissed, however, she released him
to a state of mind that was—as
he discovered, walking home

                                    He was free.
He could imagine anything at all,
needed no home, would never marry—not
though the carpet there were silk,
the curtain made of morning cloud, with windows
that opened on Winandermere. The roaring
of the wind, he wrote (hyperbole again, but
never mind) would be his wife, the stars
seen through the windows would be his children.
A perfect solitude. A thousand worlds thrown open.
He was as happy as a man could be—or would be,
he conscientiously amended, if Tom were better.

Bright star. Winandermere. A week
from now, he would be twenty-three.

* Winandermere, an older spelling of Windermere, is the one Keats used in his

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