Late in 1819, already dying of tuberculosis, Keats was working on a comic poem, a fairy tale. Charles Brown later reported in The Life of John Keats that the poem “was to be published under the feigned authorship of Lucy Vaughn Lloyd, and to bear the title The Cap and Bells, or, which Keats preferred, The Jealousies. Keats never finished his comic poem but, suddenly, while he was working on it, he broke off writing—“Cupid I / Do thee defy”—and jotted down something else in a blank space on the manuscript. He wrote this untitled eight-line fragment:
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 would 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 toward you.
These were probably the last serious lines of poetry Keats wrote. Most scholars agree that he meant them for later use as part of a larger poem or play, but, nonetheless, this freestanding lyrical fragment seems so vital, so haunting, I don’t see how anyone can safely ignore it. These lines were written by someone who knew, at the moment of writing, that the “warm” hand with which he could still touch you (the authoritative word “capable” hovers capably, both adjective and verb, at the end of the first line) will soon be “cold” and unable to grasp anyone, anything. He reaches out for contact because he can’t stand it. He is distraught, enraged, terrified. He would prove to you he exists: “see here it is,” he declares, interrupting himself, urgently holding out his hand. This is no sentimental gesture. He brings the future listener into direct focus. He turns that listener, that reader, from a more formal and distant “thou” to a closer and more intimate “you,” even as the poem moves from the conditional future to the present tense. He knows he will soon be collaring someone from beyond the grave, but he can only enact that gesture, that grasping motion, while he is still alive. This lyric is a time bomb which the poet is setting to explode on contact, on reading.
The “I” and the “you” in this fragment are unspecified, indeterminate. The speaker could be addressing a private communiqué to someone he knows and possibly loves, say, Keats to Fanny Brawne. An unnamed character in a poem or play could be addressing another character in the same work. Or the poet could be projecting forward toward the reader…I feel free to infer the speaker in the poem as a stand-in for Keats. And I hear the voice with the certainty that the person whose real voice animated the fictive one is now dead. If he could, Keats would have bridged in advance the gap—the impossible threshold—between the dead and the living. We know from his odes that he was obsessed with fusion experiences. But as it stands here, he cannot achieve one. Instead, he would cheat death by haunting the recipient’s (the reader’s) sleep, he would trouble your dreams, leave you so guilty, so stricken by loss you would wish to sacrifice yourself to bring him back to life, thus soothing your “conscience.”
I have never been able to read the line “So in my veins red life might stream again” with any equanimity. The haunting, he seems to suggest, would be more terrible even than death and so you should actually give up your own life to resurrect him. The fury behind this idea is immense—the fury of the desire to live, the fury of the consciousness of death, the fury that some love might have assuaged all this suffering. The utter lack of love infuses the poem’s tone. What ferocity drives it! Keats keeps the desperation going in this lyric, he embodies it in a Shakespearean rhetoric. That desperation give voltage to the well-wrought lines, almost lifting them off the page, almost scorching them. I hear it in the beseeching, agonized, infuriated voice. I feel it incarnated in the physical image of his once-living hand.
To read Keats in good faith is to breathe in these devastated and devastating lines, to take up the offer of his flesh-and-blood hand. He hold that hand toward you in a fierce and plaintive gesture of poetry that tries to go beyond poetry. One imagines his hand moving furiously across the page and then suddenly stopping. The truth was intolerable. The reality that his actual hand would be replaced by these living lines of poetry seems to have given him no comfort. Still, these lines must carry as much of him as possible, now; they are all that is left. The poet perceives this in advance. He gave his word for it. Take it up, as if you were taking his hand.
From How to Read a Poem, by Edward Hirsch