Monday, October 21, 2013

Finally Meeting Keats on the Spanish Stairs

October 21 is a fateful date for John Keats and myself: he landed in Italy in 1820 in a last-ditched effort to find relief in the warmth of the Italian sun to cure his diseased body, and I landed on the earth (as did Coleridge). 

“Oh, the streets of Rome are filled with rubble,
Ancient footprints are everywhere.
You can almost think that you’re seein’ double
On a cold dark night on the Spanish stairs...”

When I Paint My Masterpiece, Bob Dylan

I first began visiting Rome in 1999 when I enjoyed the friendship of an American Benedictine monk studying at Sant'Anselmo, whom I will call Cadfael.

The graves of Keats and Shelley in the Protestant Cemetery were top priority for my very first days. And then the Keats-Shelley House at the Spanish Steps.  The house was closed when I went, and back in that day, it wasn't easy to find out when it would be open.

I visited Rome throughout the aughts, and each time the house was closed. (When I finally did first enter, I met Catherine Payling, the museum's curator. She told me that instituting regular open hours for the public was one of her big missions.)

And so it was in August 2010 that I arrived when the building was open and the pilgrimage was achieved to finally enter the apartment where John Keats died on February 23, 1821, at the shockingly young age of 25.

What Is It about Those Stairs?

The Scalinata is one of the strangest of tourist phenomena, because we all have steps. These are the longest and widest in Europe, but that in itself wouldn’t attract so many visitors. They connect the Piazza di Spagna to the Trinita dei Monti church, which dominates the view of the stairs. It is one of the French churches of Rome, built in 1585. The stairs were built in 1723 to 25, bequeathed by a French diplomat to link the Bourbon Spanish Embassy to the Holy See.

So yes, it was Spain and France vying for Roman cultural power that produced this magnetic spot. Oh good, glad something explains it.

Then Came the Brits

It is hauntingly lyrical that two giants of English Romanticism—Keats and Shelley—died and are buried in Italy. Keats was in a very weakened state when his doctor and friends thought a last ditched effort to get him in the Italian sun would help his TB-shattered body.

Keats leaves London in September 1820 with his friend Joseph Severn, and lands in Naples on October 21— today—which happens to be my birth date (and Coleridge's in 1772). It’s a small factoid of history that has given me a cosmic connection to him even beyond my English major’s love of his work. He arrives in Rome in November, settles into an apartment at 26 Piazza di Spagna, and three months later, on February 23, 1821, he dies at 25.

Capturing the Bright Star

I saw Jane Campion’s biopic Bright Star on the plane to China in April 2010, four months before my successful pilgrimage. Even the tiny size of a seat screen couldn’t diminish the sense of the poetic life she captured on film. From Roger Ebert’s review:

“What Campion does is seek visual beauty to match Keats' verbal beauty. There is a shot here of Fanny in a meadow of blue flowers that is so enthralling it beggars description.”

What struck me is the shot of Fanny in her white room with the white muslin curtains softly blowing. It’s a visualization of the “bliss” that overfills Fanny after her first walk out with Keats. It also captures the soft, light feeling that reading Keats’s poetry can create.

Against all this LIFE is a story of almost unmitigated tragedy. A short summary from the Guardian:

“Keats’s life was not merely bookended by tragedy but invaded by it at every turn: when he was 8 his father was killed in a riding accident. His mother’s second marriage collapsed, but not before her husband took possession of most of her wealth. She returned to her children but died when Keats was 10. His brother Tom succumbed to tuberculosis and the poet diagnosed the same fatal disease in himself not long after: one night, having coughed up some blood he is recorded as saying: ‘I know the colour of this blood: it is arterial blood . . . that drop of blood is my death-warrant. I must die.’ “

In the House Today

And that brings us to the foreigners’ quarter of the Piazza di Spagna. The house is very much as Keats found it. His and Severn’s rooms were on the second floor, divided from their landlady’s by a curtain.

I went straight to his bedroom. None of the furnishings are original, because Vatican law decreed that everything be burned after he died. But the structure hasn’t changed, and the most important piece to me is the window looking out onto the Scalinata (my picture from Keats's window). Here Keats would spend hours watching the river of people meeting, strolling, selling up and down the steps, and the children splashing in Pietro Bernini’s boat-shaped fountain. It was mesmerizing, even in 2010, to see the beauty of the steps from the window: the gorgeous Italian light, the coloring of the surrounding buildings, the sparkling blue sky.

And the saddest part of the apartment is the ceiling: what Keats would have spent hours staring at when his body was too weak to drag to the window.

Keats was a nova for this world: a bright star that was burned out by disease. His story would make anyone think of mortality, especially on their own birthday.

A thing of beauty is a joy forever
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing

My father often quoted the first line of Endymion, usually in a sardonic way. He died in early middle age. Keats and my dad will never pass into nothingness. Wings have memory of wings. (And I've always loved that Yeats and Keats are separated by just one letter.)

My 2014 visit: the Pietro Bernini fountain, under renovation.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

"Four in the Morning" :The Go-to Time for "It's Really Late"

I love this compilation, via Andrew Sullivan. And there's a with more.

It's like a zoom-in detail to Christian Marclay's The Clock, which only spent a few seconds on 4:00 am. Now there are people giving the 'dark night of the soul' hour it's due. 

Thursday, October 3, 2013

National Poetry Month: The L.I.R.R. Commuter Tales (with thanks to Chaucer)

I was born in Brooklyn, but grew up on Long Island, so I have Commuting in my DNA. My dad and brother worked in Manhattan, and there was no doubt I would too.

I started commuting on the Long Island Railroad into Manhattan at 16 for an internship at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and continued on and off until I moved into the city at 24.

I was horrified by the depressing suburban commuting experience, and ranted about its Dickensian dark side in a small piece that the NY Times ran in a Sunday Long Island opinion column.

Wordsworth tells us that "poetry is emotion recollected in tranquility."

After I had moved into the city, I thought about my fellow suburbanites who were still grappling with a twice daily struggle with the commuting monster. Hmm.

Chaucer gave us The Knight’s Tale, Second Nun, Monk’s Tale, the Wife of Bath, etc., enroute from London to the pilgrimage site of St. Thomas Becket’s tomb at Canterbury Cathedral.

My L.I.R.R. Commuter Tales offers a look at some of the types I met on the rails: the Dashing Dan, the Bridge Players Four, and the Angry Young Man.

The L.I.R.R. Commuter Tales by Ellen O'Neill


Drawn by the power of the almighty dollar
Thousands don the starched-white collar.
Through the bowels of the earth they make their way,
Five times a week, twice a day.

The Commuter is a complicated class
With its varying breeds traveling en masse.
View them not as a homogenous whole
Their characters differ as their stories unfold.

The Dashing Dan

The Dashing Dan flies off the bus
To make the 5:36 it’s an absolute must
To sprint a 440 around the block;
He is confidently playing “Beat the Clock.”
The stairs of the station are now in sight,
In one mighty leap he has bounded two flights.
The digital clock that decides his fate
Whether he will arrive home on time or late,
Viciously displays 5:34
As the trainmen threaten to close the train doors.

But Dan does not fear
That the appointed time draws near!
His strong sturdy legs enable him to pass
The slow, sluggish movements of the bovine mass.
It is 5:35 and one staircase more
Then a second-wind sprint to reach the train door.

He smiles as he crosses the threshold,
Another day a master, a pro.
With a move of the hand, his tie knot to fix
The train pulls away, it is 5:36.

The Bridge Players Four

The Bridge Players Four, as the may be named,
Have come into a small bit of fame.
The regulars on the train expect these four
To occupy the facing seats to the left of the door.
Before the train has pulled away
The Players prepare for the long journey’s play.
Coats, ties, and briefcases are stored on the rack,
While bad remembrances of the day are sacked.
For the game is an escape for their overworked minds
And they do not allow intrusions of any kind.
The ad for Cosmopolitan is taken from its space
And sits across their laps as the playing base.

North, the dealer, is boisterous and loud.
He enjoys his games, and of his group he is proud,
For they can talk and laugh and enjoy a good cigar
While depression and fatigue fill the rest of the car.
His feigned hearty laughter bellows out to chime
How in the midst of other’s misery, he is having a good time.

South, his partner, seated across the board
Flinches ever so slightly each time that North roars.
Refined and reserved, he also enjoys the game
But never spots wishing that North were more tame.

Though East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet,
The two join forces twice a day, the North and South to beat.
East and West became fast friends as part of their master plan,
Each wanting to associate with the followers of Pierre Cardin.
As North and South already enjoyed the benefits of that fame,
So East and West sought them out and joined their little game.

Thus East pals with North by laughing just as loud,
While West appeases South, complaining of vulgar crowds.
And so they bid the long way home.
Though it’s not often plain,
The game they play continuously to further person gain.

The Angry Young Man

There appears on the scene the Angry Young Man
In a three-pieced grey suit with diploma in hand.
He has mastered Economics and Management 304,
International Banking, Finance, and more.
They have taught him well the classical business form,
Now he descends upon Wall Street to take it by storm.

For how clearly he sees the evils of the past
Which his elders, his teachers, have permitted to last.
And that Troubled Grey area which perplexes the wise
Separates into White and Black in his eyes.
As it was obvious to that noble man of Spain
So it is to our Man blatantly plain
That he must go forth with his luminous pearl
And enlighten the floundering businessman’s world.

Armed with his youth he boards the train
Defiantly standing, for there is no strain
In commuting four hours a day when one is twenty-two
And sturdy legs and a pure heart easily support you.

On the way home he judges his peers:
The middle-aged man content with his beer;
The suburbanized man with his middle-aged spread
Who sprawls out in his seat like it were his bed,
And unconsciously snores with his mouth open wide
Upsetting the tired young assistant who sits at his side.

The Angry Young Man feels contempt and scorn
For his elders who should have corrected all ere he was born.
Not yet knowing the injustices of life,
The Angry Young Man continues his fight
Against that which silently oppresses his peers,
Whose faces reflect the frustration of years.


The Commuter is a hardy breed,
A descendant of the pioneer, who, with his steed
Trekked three thousand miles is search of hope:
The Commuter travels that far, but in a narrower scope.
All of his efforts focus on getting there and back again,
His traveling takes him nowhere but where he’s already been.

PoetryDayUK: Hello John, from a Daughter of Your "fair defect of Nature"

 Reposting from 2008 in honor of PoetryDayUK 2017

John Milton would turn 400 years old today, if we lived in a Doctor Who universe and Doctor/Donna could take us to a planet where the 17th century is still thriving.

This pillar of English literature, this oceanic talent of the English language, is generally unheralded today, like Dryden, Ben Jonson, Alexander Pope, even Samuel Johnson, although Adam Gopnik is shining a little light his way in a recent New Yorker essay about his love/loss of Mrs. Thrale.

The Puritan is not entirely forgotten: Cambridge has put together a site with lots of lectures, exhibits, and music for the Milton Quatercentenary.

The academic rogue Stanley Fish, a Milton scholar himself, has been tracking the birthday celebrations in his NY Times blog, bestowing some new life to the epic in the comments. When I was an undergraduate at Rutgers, one of his acolytes, Walter Benn Michaels, was visiting for a semester. I took his literary theory class, where I entered the heady if sterile world of reader response criticism. My friends and I were positively giddy when Fish spoke at a conference at Brooklyn College and we went and sat in the front row.

166 people are now debating whether a new “translation” of the poem Paradise Lost into prose by Dennis Danielson is PL for Dummies, or an insightful way to help readers through the dense syntax. The verdict is about even.

The subject of PL is no less than how the human race came to live in a world of pain. It amplifies the idea from the Bible that God made a perfect world, and then man and woman, but their disobedience got them thrown out and we have all been coping with the pain and torments of life outside of Paradise ever since. As an epic it has a loftier goal than the “I gotta get home” of the Odyssey or the “here’s what happened in the war” of the Iliad. The concept of original sin is a creation myth to some, faith-based fact to others. I find debating questions like this uninteresting: we will all learn the truth when we die. I can wait.

“Of Man’s First Disobedience, and the Fruit
Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal taste
Brought Death into the World, and all our woe,
With the loss of Eden, till one greater Man
Restore us . . . .”

Besides, there is so much more going on in the epic. Milton’s depiction of the “reasonable” beguiling Satan is a surprise to many. The Puritan’s intellect behind the characters of God, St. Michael, Satan, Moloch, Mammon, Beelzebub, Belial, Adam, and Eve is staggering.

The Mother of All Mistakes

Ah, Eve. I did well in Benn Michaels's theory class, which allowed me to take graduate English classes as a junior. And that is how I found myself in a small class with the intimidating Catharine Stimpson. First day she asks the 10 of us, “what literary depiction has done the most harm to women?” I suggested “Milton’s depiction of Eve.” Yes, she said, and on she went with a feminist analysis of PL. But I actually see it differently.

Milton does enormous justice to the complexity of the Fall. Satan’s own envies, torments, and desires to corrupt God’s new creations, man and woman, is seductive reading itself.

Adam, on the other hand, whines a lot, particularly in Book 10. He’s blaming everyone:

"O why did God,
Creator wise, that peopl’d highest Heav’n
With Spirits Masculine, create at last
This novelty on Earth, this fair defect
Of Nature, and not fill the World at once
With Men as Angels without Feminine
Or find some other way to generate

He goes on for pages like this. It’s pretty harsh toward Eve and women and our role in procreation, but to my ear it’s whining. But this is an interpretation from the vantage point of a modern woman. Dean Stimpson is right: centuries of pain was caused by Milton’s vision of women as the cause of the loss of Paradise.

I, however, feel no gender guilt at all. Eve was conned by a professional—-and not just a professional, but the incarnation of evil. She thought she would be enlightened, and by that light, love God all the more. Who knew that the primacy of “obedience” was the be all and end all? Kind of a Catch 22 there, since knowing, knowledge, is what was being withheld in Paradise.

As for Adam, if he had stayed at her side, or at least in shouting distance, and protected her, she would not have been vulnerable to the con-Devil. And, he could have said “no” when she offered the forbidden fruit. Suck it up, Adam. The fault lies not in Eve, but in yourself.

And this is all relevant, Why?

Why would anyone care about Paradise Lost almost 400 years after it was published?

One of the comments on Fish’s blog raises the relevancy question:

“I am too distraught at the moment trying to understand what drives young men on the other side of the earth to murder scores of people they don’t know, and too confused by the disintegration of the world financial order, to concern myself about some dense and irrelevant old poem. Pardon me for visualizing here with disdain your mussed up grey hair community of commenters, content in all their elbow patch tweed jacket and nondescript brown shoe erudition.”

To which another answers:

That Milton wrote “a great poem describing as best he could just why humans start wars and torture people and form tyrannies to slaughter innocent people in other countries and enslave whole continents in the name of religion and civilization who overcomes.”

It is an epic of big, eternal ideas. And it has much to teach us all about this English language that we glibly wield, right from the opening ambiguity, with that teasing verbal venn diagram.

“And justify the ways of God to man”— What does Milton mean here? Is it:

(Justify the ways of God) to man


(Justify) the ways of God to man

Two VERY different ideas.

But my favorite is the last line of the epic, as Adam and Eve leave Eden:

“They, hand in hand, with wandering steps and slow,
through Eden took their solitary way.”

“Their solitary” way. A beautiful oxymoron. Solitary cannot be plural. Yet it is. They are alone, because they are separated from God, but man and woman have each other. Now we’re off to the races. And once that “greater Man” hits the scene, well, it’s the beginning of Christmas, among other things . . .