When I was still just a teenager, I fell for John Keats. He was a Romantic, prone to fits of passion and depression, the highs and lows most teenagers can relate to. He had studied and gotten his apothecary license, but who wants to be a doctor when they could be a poet? Both fix the heart, do they not? He sat under a plum tree and wrote an ode to a nightingale. Swoon. He wasn’t stuffy. He infused humor into his poetry and broke traditional rules, using false rhymes. He went on “road trips,” walking tours of the Lake District, Ireland, and Scotland. There’s a beautiful scene in the film Bright Star, about Keats’ romance with Fanny, in which a million butterflies flutter though a bedroom. And isn’t that just like love? Whimsical. Animated. Delicate. Fleeting. Memorable.
Gregory Corso, the poet associated with the Beat Generation, was a fan of John Keats’ poetry. It’s easy to see their resemblance to each other—the way they both referenced their hero poets in their poetry, the cheeky humor, their admiration for the Classics, the way they strayed from conformity, their struggling to make ends meet.
In honor of Valentine’s Day, here’s Keats’ thoughts on modern love.
Fragment: Modern Love
And what is love? It is a doll dress’d up
For idleness to cosset, nurse, and dandle;
A thing of soft misnomers, so divine
That silly youth doth think to make itself
Divine by loving, and so goes on
Yawning and doting a whole summer long,
Till Miss’s comb is made a pearl tiara,
And common Wellingtons turn Romeo boots;
Then Cleopatra lives at number seven,
And Antony resides in Brunswick Square.
Fools! if some passions high have warm’d the world,
If Queens and Soldiers have play’d deep for hearts,
It is no reason why such agonies
Should be more common than the growth of weeds.
Fools! make me whole again that weighty pearl
The Queen of Egypt melted, and I’ll say
That ye may love in spite of beaver hats.