This Living Hand

Discussion on the works of John Keats.

Moderators: Saturn, Malia

This Living Hand

Postby alastor » Sat Dec 13, 2003 3:19 am

This Living Hand

This living hand, now warm and capable
Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold
And in the icy silence of the tomb,
So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights
That thou wouldst wish thine own heart dry of blood
So in my veins red life might stream again,
And thou be conscience-calmed--see here it is--
I hold it towards you.

I read this short poem by Keats late one quiet night and I found it to be really moving. I think that the voice in the poem is a thoroughly modern voice. That is one of the distinguishing features between Keats and the other Romantics, I believe: his modern sounding voice. I think that Keats really submerged himself into various experience; I think in doing this he was being brave, showing confidence in his own ability to "sing the sensations" as it were. His ability to communicate was remarkable. It is a curious thing, considering the subjective nature of all experience.
Posts: 2
Joined: Sat Dec 06, 2003 12:04 am

Postby Endymion » Sun Dec 14, 2003 10:39 pm

I think this is an incredible statement by Keats - What an impact it has!! Do you think this was written for Fanny Brawne? I tend to think so, when K. was at his lowest ebb and totally afraid of his life and what would become of it.

Just this section made me really think about my own existence. This short poem has such meaning in it.

But what about that sting in the tail:

"See - here it is - I hold it towards you - "

I wouldn't like to be the person in receipt of such a verse!
"He Stood in His Shoes and he Wondered
He Wondered
He Stood in his Shoes and He Wondered."
Posts: 61
Joined: Fri Nov 22, 2002 4:03 pm
Location: London, UK

Postby alastor » Sun Dec 21, 2003 12:48 am


It probably was written with Fanny Brawne in mind. The book I copied it from says that it was written 1819-20. A perspective of death from the living, where the living might feel the force of the dead, and perhaps feel a little guilty. Something like, you and me are equal, but you might hold the cup a little longer.
Posts: 2
Joined: Sat Dec 06, 2003 12:04 am

Postby Rich Roach » Wed Dec 31, 2003 12:47 am

How wonderful it is to read these lines again, like meeting an old friend, or happening on something written in our own time with which I feel a total affinity. It is also very Shakespearean sounding to me, as if it were a part of a play, being very dramatic. It is far better than Shelley saying, "I fall upon the thorns of life - I die!" Keats completely catches a kind of eerie reality, a morbid understanding of his own mortality. It is redolent of MacBeth in one of his famous soliloquies.

I am amazed at this writing, especially as it is done with so many monosyllabic words, and since it does not vary from the iambic pentameter.

What is Keats saying exactly?

He is saying that his hand, which because of its warmth and ability to grasp feelingly, would, if he were dead and his hand were thus made cold, haunt the reader by day and chill the reader by night. So much so, he says, that the reader would wish he/she had died in his stead in order to calm his/her conscience. You can almost see the hand held out to the reader at the end; it is such a direct way or writing.

But still - why does he say this?

If it is to Fanny, then what is he saying to her? If I die, you'll wish you had instead? I think this is not meant for Fanny, but to the reader in general, with Keats meditating on his mortality. I am not certain, but I know it is very powerful.

Great thread.

User avatar
Rich Roach
Posts: 11
Joined: Fri May 30, 2003 2:36 am

Postby Matt » Wed Jan 07, 2004 6:45 pm

I've always presumed this to be directed at the critics who slammed Keats' work, particularly the writer of the Quarterely review of Endymion. I know that 'This Living Hand' was written a year later but maybe Keats was aware that his life was to be cut short by illness and so the poem was a bite back at the people who were so ruthless when it came tohis work.
I am sure that critics would not treat 'This Living Hand' the way they did 'Endymion.' In fact i reckon that 'This Living Hand' had a huge effects on earlier critics of his work. It is very chilling! Of course its not about Fanny. Its about the people who tried sohard to make Keats' life a misery-the critics. Anybody else agree?
Posts: 88
Joined: Wed Dec 10, 2003 5:26 pm

Postby kara » Mon Feb 09, 2004 8:22 pm

A number of books that I've read have marked this poem as having been intended to be part of a larger work. Others have cited it as being a reation to his fear that his death would fall on the conscience of his friends and family. I see that this applies with the last two lines, but based on the rest of the poem, I don't know how this is possible. He sounds very menacing.
Posts: 7
Joined: Wed Jan 28, 2004 9:07 pm

Postby Becky » Mon Feb 07, 2005 5:25 pm

I think he's talking about our desperate desire to keep a hold on our mortality - we'd rather kill someone than die, or at least let someone die in our place, even if we cared for them. There is also the secondary meaning that poetry, the symbolic work of the hands, can both resurrect the tormented poet and torment the reader to death, in the sense that they can feel his suffering.
Posts: 92
Joined: Mon Jan 31, 2005 6:11 pm

Postby Junkets » Thu Feb 10, 2005 5:18 pm

Some how this poem has managed to escape me all this time.
My first reading of it, in particular the reference to the hand, reminded me of the mention of the hand in Hyperion: "His old right hand lay nerveless, listless, dead, Unsceptred". Alastor wrote that the poem was written between 1819 and 1820, and seeing as Hyperion was published in 1820 I'm wondering if he is referring to the same hand (I'm not entirely sure at the moment of when Hyperion was completed so I may be clutching at straws).
Picking up on what Matt has written, assuming the poem was written in response to the savaging Keats received for Endymion (and also assuming that it could have been referring to the same 'dry' period detailed in Hyperion), I wonder if could it be a jubilant exlamation hailing a return to form, a flaunting of poetic genius, a literary two fingers, in the faces of the critics? The poem certainly opposes terms used to describe the hand in Hyperion: living/dead; 'capable of earnest grasping'/unsceptered.
The inclusion of the word 'now' in the first line of the poem suggests that the hand was once cold and incapable of 'earnest grasping' as was the hand in Hyperion. Also the inclusion of "see here it is - I hold it towards you! intimates that Keats is using the poem as an offering; an example of his abilities, which would corroborate the notion of the poem being directed at the critics.
Posts: 51
Joined: Mon Oct 11, 2004 12:17 pm

Postby Saturn » Fri Feb 11, 2005 11:00 am

This is a post I wrote in response to an earlier thread on this topic:

The poem 'This living hand...' is one of Keats very last (either this, 'In after time...', or 'To Fanny'), and naturally for Keatsians has its own special poignancy. Written roughly in late 1819 while his fatal illness was gradually taking hold. It was probably written at the same time as his unfinished satirical faery tale 'The Cap and Bells: or, The Jealousies'. The poem was written or at least copied on a page of the Ms of 'The Cap and Bells'.

Also written in this period was the few scenes of his abandoned historical drama 'King Stephen', which he laid aside in his dejected state partly because of the flamboyant actor Edmund Kean's threat to go on a tour of America.

There are two theories about the meaning of the poem. One theory is that it was a fragment of a speech written for the drama 'King Stephen'. The other theory is that in it's bitter, suspicious, and accusatory tone, it relates closely to his poem 'To Fanny', in which Keats accuses Fanny Brawne of being unfaithful to him while he lies prostate on his deathbed.

The deathly spectre of the hand of a dying man reaching out and 'earnest grasping' is a terrifying one, which is designed to frighten the reader (possibly Fanny herself) that his ghost will haunt the reader, like Banquo, or the ghost in Hamlet, they will be malignant, restless and unappeased spirits.

Keats also may be referring to his own illness when he writes about the 'heart dry of blood' and 'in my veins red life might stream again'. Keats' consumption or tuberculosis was at this time fully developed and increasingly making his life and his work unbareable. He first was certain that he had developed it when, after a horendous coach ride in early February 1919, to save expense, he rode on the outside, and returned home fevered, and coughing blood, he realised it was arterial blood and that he was certain to die. He also may be referring to the profuse bleeding he was treated with (a universal treatment at this time), which may have left him feeling drained of blood.

The reader will be 'conscience-calmed' perhaps to a confession of guilt - see Hamlet's soliloquy 'O what a rogue and peasant slave...' for a similar evocation of the power of conscience.

I hope this in any way helps you, it is only a personal interpretation and must be regarded as such.
"Oh what a misery it is to have an intellect in splints".
Forum Administrator
Posts: 3993
Joined: Mon Apr 12, 2004 10:16 am


Postby Junkets » Tue Feb 15, 2005 2:04 pm

I did a bit of reading about this poem last night, and while most critics are of the impression that 'This Living Hand' was written for Fanny Brawne, I did read a something that suggested it wasn't. It was in a John Barnard book. I was meant to bring it to work with me today, but forgot it. I'll try and remember it tomorrow.
Posts: 51
Joined: Mon Oct 11, 2004 12:17 pm

Postby Junkets » Thu Feb 17, 2005 1:59 pm

I've managed to remember the John Barnard book, it says the following of This Living Hand:

"There is one [...] poem, sometimes associated with Fanny Brawne, sometimes thought to be a scrap for a possible drama, written late in 1819. Given the feelings expressed it can hardly have been addressed to Fanny, and seems, unlike the personal lyrics addressed to Fanny, to be purely private poem [...]. The fact that Keats did become a major poet gives these lines an unanswerable poignancy. It is almost an epigraph to the poetry, demonstrating poetry's effort to 'grasp' the reader from beyond the grave, an attempt of no help to the dying Keats. Poetry is turned, ineffectually, against the living."

What does everyone think of this perspective?
Posts: 51
Joined: Mon Oct 11, 2004 12:17 pm

Postby Despondence » Thu Feb 17, 2005 2:59 pm

I is about as plausible and as impossible to prove as most of the other speculations voiced in this thread. It is his personal educated guess, which may be a lot more educated than any of ours, but still nothing more than so, unfortunately.

I mean things like: "Given the feelings expressed it can hardly have been addressed to Fanny, and seems, unlike the personal lyrics addressed to Fanny, to be purely private poem"

What contradiction is there in it being a private poem and addressed to Fanny? And why do the "feelings expressed" disqualify it for being addressed to her, if it is a private poem? Whatever else we may speculate about, we know for sure that she was strongly present in his mind at this time, but unless new source material turns up I don't think we'll have any way of resolving who he meant this poem for.

Postby Junkets » Fri Feb 18, 2005 9:26 am

Quite right.
Posts: 51
Joined: Mon Oct 11, 2004 12:17 pm

Postby Despondence » Fri Feb 18, 2005 1:06 pm

Whoops. Sorry if I killed the conversation...I need to work on my negative capability :) Carry on, everyone.

Postby Saturn » Fri Feb 18, 2005 8:26 pm

Despondence wrote: unless new source material turns up I don't think we'll have any way of resolving who he meant this poem for.

As with many literary mysteries, this may remain as such... :roll:
"Oh what a misery it is to have an intellect in splints".
Forum Administrator
Posts: 3993
Joined: Mon Apr 12, 2004 10:16 am


Return to Poems, Odes and Plays

Who is online

Users browsing this forum: No registered users and 3 guests