Graham’s talks go online, starting with 30 March at 7pm.
Details below and at Scheduled Events.
Dear Poetry Friends
Donne, Keats, and a new way to be in an audience
That old quotation-friend of ours, ‘No Man is an Island’, so knowingly quoted by us out of its original context as if it never had one, came into my thoughts this morning alongside the deplorably dispiriting and urgently replaceable word “self-isolation”.
More than usual, the phrase rewards our reflecting on it just as the word does. Much as we love to say it out loud, with that tone in our voice – ah well, you see, no man is an island – what has John Donne really been telling us by it all these years? And can it address our new ways of living now, especially the much more widespread choice we have made more recently to live alone, but also the consequences of social distancing?
In saying that no man is an island, Donne is not, I think, arguing against singlehood or keeping ourself company; he is simply, as he says, refuting the idea that any of us is unconnected to the mainland of the world or society, no matter what we may at any one time feel to the contrary.
This is why being alone in a crowd has to be understood as not only being alone in the same place as a crowd which consists of other people, but also being one person in a crowd, perhaps waiting on a station concourse for the same announcement as the others, but neither particularly sorry nor particularly relieved that they too are there.
So, being alone without a crowd can be a good prelude to single-minded endeavour and a greater sense of self on a par with the benefits of spending more time with someone you love. We can also usefully be, as Lucy Winkett said only the other day on the radio, together alone.
John Keats was keen on this idea as a way of coping with missing his brother and sister-in-law George and Georgiana Keats when they went to live in America. In a letter Keats wrote to them on 12 March 1819, he talked of a longing to picture them there:
“—the fire is at its last click—I am sitting with my back to it with one foot rather askew upon the rug and the other with the heel a little elevated from the carpet—I am writing this on the Maid’s tragedy which I have read since tea with Great pleasure—Besides this volume of Beaumont & Fletcher—there are on the table two volumes of Chaucer … but I require nothing so much of you as that you will give me a like description of yourselves, however it may be when you are writing to me—Could I see the same thing done of any great Man long since dead it would be a great delight: as to know in what position Shakespeare sat when he began ‘To be or not be’—such thing(s) become interesting from distance of time or place”.
Shakespeare set up such time-travel longings in Keats, because Keats believed reading him helped to get closer to him. As for synchronised reading, his own and the two other Keatses’ shared knowledge of Shakespeare would, he believed, bridge the Atlantic miles between himself and them: a week later he finessed the Shakespeare as a medium of contact with the proposal,
“I shall read a passage of Shakespeare every Sunday at ten o’clock – you read one at the same time, and we shall be as near each other as blind bodies can be in the same room”.
Whether that virtual shared room were to be in America, in some mid-Atlantic waterproof Arcadian limbo, or the house where he had been living happily for three months, Wentworth Place, on the South Green side of Hampstead Heath, now Keats House, where Keats reports sitting with his back to the fire, wanting distance togetherness.
So, Donne and Keats were at my back when I decided not to postpone my talks (as venues close) but ask you to go online and join a real-time audience instead, starting on the advertised day, 30 March at 7pm.
The first online evening is Poetry Is Communication, originally planned for The Hop Blossom in Farnham but now open to everyone online. Details, including how to book, await you on my website, www.grahamfawcett.co.uk, under Scheduled Events. Special offer for 30 March to launch this online series of unknowable length: tickets at £5 !
Poetry Is Communication is a new lecture-performance-with-readings. Illustrated throughout from a wide range of poetry, it tells a story – in voices as personal and engaging as good eye-contact between people – of discovering poems which talk straight to us, including by John Donne, Anna Akhmatova, Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Giacomo Leopardi.
After your booking has been received, you will be sent a link to give you direct access to the talk on the night.
See my website’s Scheduled Events for all the details.
I very much hope to see you !
All best wishes
P.S. If you have friends who might be interested in receiving my newsletter and attending the online talks, do point them in the direction of the Sign Up feature on the Events page.