He was always the smallest, in any room, “an Atom of a man” somebody said (the word existed then, although not in our later sense); but spunky, quick to rise to a righteous indignation and to support it with a whirligig of fists.
“Terrier courage,” one of his schoolfellows called it. In 1819 he was discovered brawling in the rich north London back-alley muck with a musclehead butcher’s apprentice, who was “something of a bruiser” compared to Keats’s own just-barely-topping-five-feet. This brutish opponent had been tormenting a kitten. Keats won. Another early schoolfellow recalled that, as a child, Keats was “not attached to books [but] he would fight any one—morning, noon, and night. The daring of his character, this pugnacity & generosity of disposition—in passions of tears or outrageous fits of laughter—always in extremes—made an impression on me.” (A bit later on, after one impetuously youthful foray into a brothel, his chosen inamorata reported, “Proportionally, all of his Parts are in keeping with the General Heighth, but I must say his enthusiastic Persistence is nonpareil.”)
“Today,” the schoolmaster shouted out to his zoo of young charges, “we are going to be, each with a named role to play, the sun and its planets.” This was at John Clarke’s Enfield boarding school, and Keats was nine. (John Clarke was known as a liberal dissenter, and his headmaster skills were inventive. Thus, his attempt at an anthro-solar system.)
He pointed. “Bunt Watkins, please position yourself in the center, here, unmovingly.” Bunt Watkins was the stoutest; he was commonly called Barrel Bunt. “You, Master Watkins, by the privilege of your imposing rotundity, shall be our Sun.”
And then the rest of the sky was assigned. Seven students: seven planets; and a few unruly comets and meteors sent to gallop through at an angle. It made for exuberant pandemonium, though not chaos exactly: all of this schoolyard energy was still in the interest (or so Clarke wishfully theorized) of demonstrating celestial organization.
“And if you please, Master Keats, our Mighty Minuscule, do us the honor to run way back . . . no, farther on . . . yes, there . . . past the brook . . . and be a tiny distant pinprick of Starlight.”
Clarke intended this as a left-handed honor: representing all of the rest of the Firmament. But needless to say there was laughter at this, not all of it genial. “Pinprick” was Keats’s name for the remainder of the term.
So there he was, on his faraway own, a star; which is also a sun, irradiant, thermonuclear, perfect as a symbol for the passions and ambitions that roiled inside of him and sought release. Although nobody pointed this out as he stood there, still and alone, while the planets enjoyed their afternoon recess of whooping orrery orbiting.
And eventually he would recognize the sun to be an image of his early infatuation with . . . what would the word be? . . . Art? Inspiration? Parnassus? . . . The sun, become a golden access lane to the realm of the Muse.
By 1815, however, he was well on his way—increasingly reluctantly—to a medical life, to become a Surgeon. Already he had risen from a “dresser” (the assistant to the practicing Surgeon) and then had obtained an apothecary’s license, and now was enrolled for a completing course of instruction at Guy’s Hospital. But beguiled by the ever-more-undeniable urge to become a Poet . . . not a dabbler, no, but a man of literary vivacities fully steeped from awaking to candle-snuff in the quest for poetic excellence, a Poet recognizably so in the very marrow! . . . he felt himself, more every day, as trapped inside his studies as an anatomical specimen is buried inside a resin brick.
Perhaps his closest confidant at this time was Charles Cowden Clarke—the son of Keats’s old schoolmaster—who remembered that the drone of medical seminars would run “from him like water from a duck’s back.” When together they read Spenser’s Faerie Queen, Keats “went through it as a young horse would through a spring meadow—ramping.” But preparing the cannula to drain a wound? reciting a list of nerves in the buttocks? Clarke remembered Keats telling him, “The other day, during the lecture, there came a sunbeam into the room, and with it a whole troop of creatures floating in the ray; and I was off with them to Oberon and Fairy-land.”
Perhaps other Worlds are contiguous with our own! Perhaps there are Worlds in concentric circles! And when they touch, once in a century . . . ! He had an occasional vision of a man in a shaggy beast-skin robe—a priest-king? a healer? This figure was here on Earth for the space of one astonished breath, and then . . . gone! Perhaps. . . .
“. . . can observe the hemispherical bisymmetry. And the term for the removal of the brain from the cranium . . . ? Mister John Keats?” [dazed silence] “I say there, Mister Keats, you are to answer this question, not enact it.”
He longed to be “among the English poets.” The giants. The undying. “Many and many a verse I hope to write,” he says in Endymion.
Charles Cowden Clarke was there at what’s arguably the first of the legend-behind-the-masterpiece stories. Clarke had acquired a 1616 folio edition of George Chapman’s verse translation of the Iliad. For Keats, as biographer Robert Mighall puts it, “poetry had replaced medicine as a demanding full-time discipline”—this time a discipline that quickened his blood. The two friends stayed up the night, until 6 am, drinking and reading aloud passages of that thick-packed, gloryful seventeenth-century language, their eyes lit with the campfires of an ancient savage pageantry, and their tongues apotheosized to something grander. Clarke said that Keats “sometimes shouted” with delight.
In the thinly lightening rag-end of the night, Keats made the two-mile walk from Clerkenwell, where Clarke lived, back to his student lodgings in Southwark, his head filled with “teeming wonderment,” and his heart and his breaths and his steps like chips of balsawood abob on an iambic pentameter chop.
It was dark. But the last of the moon still relayed a bank-shot of sun. . . . And with it a whole troop of creatures floating in the ray. It was dark, but his path was golden.
By 10 am a clean copy of his sonnet “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer” was delivered to Clarke’s breakfast table.
One senses that Keats’s description of amazed exploration refers not only to his spirited introduction to Chapman, nor even to the poem’s famous climactic moment, the discovery of the Pacific by Western eyes, but also to the night’s unveiling of his own instantaneous powers.
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken. . . .
“Sweet are the pleasures that to verse belong,” one early piece begins. But he saw, too, more and more, how—in addition to flights of inspired rhapsodizing—poetry’s deepest pleasures required deep dedication, strategizing, refining. “I have asked myself so often why I should be a Poet more than other Men, seeing how great a thing it is, —how great things are to be gained by it.” Mighall says his goal now was “to measure up to the august ideals he had set for his art.”
A neighbor once called Keats “quite the little Poet.” Keats riposted: that was like calling Napoleon “quite the little Soldier.”
It was dark, but his path was golden.
Luckily for him, there are tornadoes in Kansas.
Yes; they’ll pick up a man or a woman like a cork doll, and they’ll flatten a house, a barn, as if it’s a cardboard box for matches. In the aftermath, the hairs from a horse’s tail have been discovered driven through wood. Anybody who lives in Burdett, Kansas, knows this. Anybody who spends one sweaty minute in its wheat fields, there with nothing but sky 360 degrees around, just sky and endless vulnerability, knows this. It’s smart to have a tornado cellar somewhere close that a family can run to when a hundred roaring dinosaurs of wind rolls out of the sick-green sky. Smart—and lucky, for Clyde Tombaugh, anyway; Clyde has big, big plans.
“Boy—your fork handle!” They’re breaking for lunch, a threshing crew of eleven men, including the fourteen-year-old Clyde, and if you don’t pack your pitchfork into the haystack handle-first, the grasshoppers always attack the wood. That gesture should have been second nature by now, so much of his life has been spent in working sixteen-hour days in fields like this, so much of him becoming a cog in the rhythms of Midwest farming. The family owned 250 acres, and he’ d have been expected to know every stalk and husk of the season, in every row.
But occasionally he “got moony,” as they called it. Or maybe “Marsy”: even in Burdett, Kansas, out in the cowshit and clay, they know about the twentieth century; and lately, more and more, in his head the orange-reddish fields at sunset blur without resistance into the russet dunes of Mars.
He’s born in 1906, the first of six children for Muron and Adella. The solar system has eight known planets. A thousand miles away from the world of wheat, at the Lowell Observatory set like a gem in the highest of New Mexico ’s peaks and pointed at its unobstructed skies, the famous Percival Lowell is one year into his patient and persistent search for “Planet X”—the ninth of the solar family that he’s certain is in hiding out there.
Clyde is a good boy, industrious, polite, adept at smoothing the sometimes recalcitrant hitches in farm machinery. For threshers of wheat and huskers of corn and trudgers-through-mud in the wake of horse-drawn harvest wagons, the family is pretty much educated. (Jacob Tombaugh, Clyde’s grandfather, was a schoolteacher who had completed college.) Clyde attends a two-room schoolhouse. He reads—he loves reading. At night, his body done stropping itself on the sharp edge of a day’s hard work, he turns the pages of anything—anything that has pages—in the oleo-yellow light of his kerosene lamp. And his uncle Lee, on the farm only nine miles over . . . ? Lee has a three-inch-diameter nonachromatic reflector—a telescope! It’s not unlike the primitive (but obviously effective) telescope Galileo had first used. 1918: Clyde peeks through it when he’s twelve. And so his true life begins. The Moon! He can see the Moon! Its face is more ridged than his own fingerprints, more bumpy than his brother Roy’s pimples. It looks as if he could grate cheese on that roughly textured surface! (If he trained this marvelous looking-tube on Annie Melcher’s bedroom, then what mysteries would he—no, don’t think that!)
By age sixteen his interest in the star-flecked sky is overwhelming. In order to observe, he needs to “dark-adapt”—to spend a prefatory hour adjusting his eyes in a darkened room. His brother Roy says, “He just sat there; he couldn’t read anything, and we didn’t have a radio or a phonograph.” Biographer David H. Levy picks up the anecdote: “Clyde’s mind was always so active that he had no trouble keeping it occupied during such a long wait. For instance, one day after farm work he calculated the number of cubic inches in Betelgeuse, the bright star on Orion’s east flank: His solution was 1 duodecillion (39 zeros).” In. His. Head. (Another day, he calculated the number of kernels of wheat in a 10,000-bushel granary.) “Muron,” (they’re in bed whispering), “is that our boy, or did the fairies leave him?” “Don’t worry none, Adella. I don’t know what his future is, but he has one.”
In the barn, when he’s alone in the familiar darkness scented sweetly of sawdust and horse dung, Clyde can lean his groin against a rail and think of girls. They’re so . . . you know, different! So enticingly different! He leans and he softly groans. They’re so enticing . . . and they’re about as distant from him as Neptune and Jupiter; farther maybe. Girls . . . and planets. . . . Sometimes he dreams of Annie Melcher’s stylish mother until her red, red lips are puckered into a circle that blends in his fancy into the high red circle-shape of Mars. So beautiful; so unexplored.
He reads, and excels. His schoolteachers favor him. David H. Levy assumes that Clyde knew Keats’s exalting sonnet “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer,” with its allusive burst of astronomical triumph. (In fact the first chapter of Levy’s biography of Tombaugh is titled “Looking into Chapman’s Homer.”)
Much have I travell’ d in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-brow’ d Homer rules as his demesne;
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star’ d at the Pacific—and all his men
Look’ d at each other with a wild surmise—
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.
He’s on fire with this. He reads, he joins some correspondence astronomy clubs (do girls belong?—maybe girls belong!), he sends for a copy of Scientific American’s Amateur Telescope Making. Two dollars. “When a new planet swims into his ken.” He looks up “ken.” (He thinks of “ken” as a net, and planets as swimming pufferfish.) He saves up farm-chore money for the materials he learns he’ll need. Uncle Lee can keep his trusty, rusty, creaky little ol’ looker. Clyde’s going to build his own telescope!
It’s a wonderful age of how-to and know-how and autodidact twiddling. Darwin is in the air, electricity is in the wires, parts for a zillion amateur inventor projects are in the mail. Catalogues! Pen pals! Manuals!
Clyde sets up a grinding stand on a post dug into the ground just south of the house, and works on an eight-inch mirror—a “speculum”—that, because he lacks the professional skill to silver its surface, gets sent to the telescope firm of Napoleon Carreau in Wichita, Kansas. But, as Clyde says later, “Everything I did was wrong,” and though Carreau is impressed by the young man’s dedication, he has to report that the lens is pretty much a botch. What he needs, says Carreau, is an underground testing chamber, the kind the real backyard astronomers use. That part both stings and inspires: the real astronomers! What is he then, some cornpone kid just toying around at the grown-folks’ table?
“Dad, we’re doing so good, and we have so much surplus lately. Wouldn’t a cellar be a help, for storage?”
“Well, sure it would be a help, Clyde. It would also be a gol-dang thing to dig. Now hand me that bag of nails there.”
“Dad. . . . And it would double as a tornado shelter. We need a tornado shelter. You said so yourself last year, when the hailstorm hit. You said. . . .”
“I know what I said, boy. The question is, what are you saying? Under what you’re saying, tell me the other thing you’re saying.”
After the 1926 harvest, Clyde begins the tough work, with his father’s permission but by himself, on a cellar seven feet deep and twenty-four-by-eight. Some nights the wheelbarrow he muscled down and up and down the loading planks all day keeps making its wearying circuit in his sleeping brain until he wakes with a lingering image of loading and unloading heaps of dream dirt.
When the pit is finished, neighbors help pour twenty cubic pounds of concrete. Lordy! There’s an arched roof, stairs, and windows. Even with the stacked-up dairy products and canned goods, it’s a chapel for astronomy, it’s a cool, calm, wingding wonder!
Up—the compulsion is up. And he’s getting there, slowly, in hard-won stages. Up.
He just didn’t know he’ d have to shovel so damn far down to get there.
The second mirror, cellar-perfect, gets sent to Carreau for silvering in late spring of 1927. “A happy improvement by many degrees,” he writes to Clyde, who accepts this sentence of praise as if a king of old had just knighted him. He views the impressive match-scratch of Comet Pons-Winnecke striking across the night sky. He begins a third telescope, grinding the carborundum with infinite patience, and then the polishing rouge; the mounting includes odd parts from his father’s retired 1910 Buick and an out-of-luck cream separator.
Carreau sends a letter: in one year, he’ll be needing an assistant, and if one Clyde Tombaugh would care to put his skills to work professionally . . . Well, would he! Would he ever! Meanwhile, by fall of 1928 he’s making drawings of Mars, and then of Jupiter rotating on its axis. Are they good? Well golly, he doesn’t know, although he has his hopes, and late in December he mails his drawings to the astro-honchos at Lowell Observatory in Arizona, requesting suggestions for improvement. Let his brother Roy step out with that giggle-puss jiggle-tits Annie Melcher and come home caked in backroad dirt as if they’ d rolled around out there like rutting hogs . . . okay, but Clyde is drunk on the wine of astronomy, Clyde is striding into the future wearing a sorcerer’s star-burred cape, Clyde Tombaugh is opening up the sky like his personal cabinet of curios and arranging the planets like eight resplendent geodes on its shelves!
October 8, 1928
Dear Mr. Tombaugh,
Dr. Lapland and I admired your drawings, particularly the Jupiter sample of July 7. Your letter arrives at an opportune time as we happen to have a position open at the moment for a man able to operate a new photographic telescope. . . . Would you be able to withstand long, cold nights in a mountaintop observatory? . . .
At first the words are gibberish. Even the signature doesn’t make sense, it’s so plummeted into his afternoon from another cosmos altogether. Yours, sincerely, V. M. Slipher, Director, Lowell Observatory.
He slaps his hand on the envelope’s postmark. Then he takes a deep breath and slowly, slowly spreads his fingers until the smeary telltale words are visible. Flagstaff Arizona. Really. Flagstaff Fucking Arizona. Oh Mr. Napoleon Carreau, I’m sorry. Oh corn and wheat and horse poop, goodbye.
And so on 14 January 1929—without even funds for a ticket back home if his ninety-day trial period is a failure—Clyde Tombaugh boards the train for a twenty-eight-hour journey west.
He brings along plenty of reading: back issues of Popular Science, Amateur Experimenter, Sky and ’Scope, and a book of poems, although some of the latter he knows by heart and so he doesn’t need them to read so much as keep nearby for a talisman.
Will he be true to his task, to his future? He looks out the window at night, and whispers.
Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art—
And he’ d often lazily daydream back to those human planets pirouetting awkwardly over the schoolyard grass . . . a solar system . . . a way of imagining
form . . . (thus, understanding; thus, control) . . . upon the unthinkable Void. In the wake of his mother’s death (Keats was fourteen), in that inconsolable time, even the regularity of humdrum school routine seemed purposeful, a rescue. Biographer Denise Gigante: “Later in life, John would continue the habit of punctilious dressing in order to combat melancholy.” As he put it, “Whenever I find myself growing vapourish I rouse myself, wash and put on a clean shirt, brush my hair and clothes, tie my shoe strings neatly and in fact adonize as [if] I were going out.” Not eye-poppingly solar, perhaps, but . . . a system just the same.
“Ah you! My very own prince, to escort me and my newfound retinue to this beautiful view.” The girl was flirting with him, Matthew Wynsome, medical student and self-styled rake, was pleased to see. Yes, flirting with him, as planned: it was the reason for delivering this gaggle of ten young chattering friends, with basketed wine and cold chicken, to an isolated overlook where the sea on its near end doilied itself at the foot of the cliff and, at its far end, dwindled indistinguishably into the sky.
“Indeed, milady, I endeavor to provide the view that the viewer herself deserves. Exalting induces exalting. And as for our fellow adventurers, let me introduce, with the pride of a royal chamberlain, Master Randolph, Mistress Millicent . . . ,” and he casually named those sprawled nearby. His own companion’s, he saw now, wasn’t the only flirtation: overly courtly gestures from some of the men as they uncorked the wine, and overly coquettish side-looks from the women.
“And who is he, with his back to us?”
“Sitting on the cliff edge there, milady? An introspecting acquaintance of mine who, too, is from the great lists of the medical fraternity.”
“But he has his back to us!”
“Well . . . yes. But he has his face set to the Infinite [wink]—eh, Johnny?”
In 1811, for a senior school prize, Keats was awarded a copy of John Bonnycastle’s Introduction to Astronomy in Letters to His Pupil, an enormously popular book that was originally published in 1786 and stayed in print through 1822. Historian Richard Holmes says, “Bonnycastle’s book was a thoroughly Romantic production, which included a good deal of ‘illustrative’ cosmological poetry from Milton, Dryden and Young.” (Bonnycastle’s publisher was also William Blake’s and, later, Coleridge’s and Wordsworth’s.) “It also sported an engraved frontispiece by Henry Fuseli. This showed the goddess of astronomy, Urania, in a diaphanous observation-dress . . . instructing a youthful male pupil.”
It’s no surprise that Keats was enthralled by this book, and reread and reread it, and that the planetarium dome it made inside his schoolboy skull never dimmed. Its enthusiasms remained in there, all of the astral beacons and schoonering planetary globes that fill, or at least preside over, his writing. Bonnycastle gave Herschel’s 1781 discovery of Uranus its own chapter, and we can see how Keats’s memory of reading about that dramatic achievement surfaces five years later into his sonnet on “Chapman’s Homer.”
Nor, given his character, is it any surprise that the lesson the young Keats took from Herschel’s discovery of Uranus wasn’t that of laborious calculation, of painstaking and mechanical records-keeping (although of course those were a large part of it), but that of the “eureka!” moment: the revelatory light-burst when a Seeker possessing determination and genius is crowned with success. Or, symbolically, the moment the goddess Urania exposes to him her most intimate of secrets.
In 1817 Keats and his brother Tom journeyed to Canterbury—Chaucer’s city with its castle grounds, imposing Gothic church, and old Roman garrison walls. Tom explored these. Keats was at work on Endymion, his first ambitious project, and had no time for mere sublunary interests, for mortals and their crumbling productions. In the poem he seeks happiness in a “higher hope . . . / of too wide, too rainbow-large a scope, / To fret at myriads of earthly wrecks.” Gigante says, “Despite its magnificence, the ancient cathedral city and its great ruined castle captured his imagination less than the moon and the stars.”
He was drawn to the sublime.
That is, he was drawn to explore the sensuality and what might be called the “empyrean” or the “cosmic,” drawn to comprehend it in follicle, optic nerve, tongue-root, and dendrite . . . that is, finally, he was drawn to attempt great poetry at what he believed to be its highest, most impassioned—and most demanding—level.
On 28 December 1817, Benjamin Haydon, painter of plush historical scenes, threw a festive dinner for the arts crowd in his north London studio. William Wordsworth was there, and Charles Lamb, and according to Haydon “They abused me for putting [Isaac] Newton’s head into my picture.” (Newton was then known only to be the empirical, clinical man-of-scientific-calculation supreme; the mystical side of his character, which we know now, hadn’t yet been uncovered.) Newton, the anti-artist, the exemplar of Reason over Imagination, and the champion of, as Richard Holmes says, “the destructive and reductive effects of the scientific outlook.”
Lamb declared that Newton “believed nothing unless it was as clear as the three sides of a triangle.” At which, an aspiring young poet named Keats chirped up to agree with Lamb that Newton “had destroyed all the poetry of the rainbow.” And then the assemblage lifted their cups (far from the evening’s first, one supposes) and drank an ironic toast to “Newton’s health, and confusion to mathematics!” There was a rousing, resounding cheer. It seemed to Keats as if the surrounding crowd in Haydon’s paintings—men in robes and armor from Christ’s Jerusalem, and the toga’ d Romans from the days when the pagan gods walked the Earth—joined in. There, in an oily-dark corner . . . did one enthusiastic fellow lift his spear and shake it? Did a priest-king wearing a shaggy pelt roar forth with the rest of the revelers?
Heady stuff, this sublimity.
But it came with a price.
Sublimity requires hours-long lone looking off a cliff edge into the transcendental murk on the horizon. It needs to drift aloft. It can’t be dully anchored by a chicken thigh provocatively unwrapped from a basket and offered up by a woman with seductive jabber in mind. If you’re communing all night exclusively with the Man in the Moon, you have no time for man.
Gigante reminds us of how “the ‘voice mysterious’ of the sea calls out to him,” how for Keats “the moon in her mythological splendor peers out through a curtained sky”—surely a beckoning prospect—and yet how “elevated reverie, sustained thought and intensity—combined with a constitutional inability to tolerate inauthenticity, either in oneself or in others—can make for great poetry, but can also make the poet’s path through life more demanding.”
Isolation is a two-edged state. The question behind Keats’s lifelong (and not consistently successful) balancing act, she says, was “how to attain the sublime vision made possible through solitude, and yet maintain the human connection necessary to avoid that soul-killing vacuum, solipsism?”
There were nights, many nights, when the moon’s full face (or circumspect, wan part-face) didn’t suffice, and Keats could look back even to the medical training he’ d fled from once as a time when the human connection kept him tethered here, to the rest of us: A mother cuddling her new, ninth child, still with the blood-petals dried to her inner thighs. A young man turned so that the wound in his ribcage looked to be the mouth the moaning issued from. A severed arm, a leg, still warm when Keats was asked to bear them out of the surgery room. The sweet stink of humanity was a cloud above the offals pail. It glued him to these other lives.
And if his embrace of sublimity sometimes made him question his life path, it made others question its place in his failing—and all too rapidly fatal—health. If you choose a goal that’s all-consuming . . . by definition you get consumed. Keats didn’t believe in this diagnosis himself (and he was correct in that), but felt obliged to send it along in a letter to his sister: “The Doctor assures me that there is nothing the matter with me except . . . the too great excitement of poetry.”
There were aesthetic dangers as well.
He understood how, in his courtship of the sublime, a poem could waft away on Olympian clouds, or a gee-whiz pumped-up rush of adrenalin, and so be lost to the world of adult readers’ adult concerns.
Part one of Wordsworth’s definition of the creative act came readily to Keats, “the spontaneous overflow of emotion.” Ecstasy welled up in his breast at the merest hint of a sunrise; brooding stalked him with the inescapability of his shadow. But the second part, “recollected in tranquility”—the search for a properly clarifying constraint—was the talent that needed growing into, and at first he often fumbled.
The major ingenue challenge he set himself in Endymion overvalued the constraint: he predetermined that this epic poem would be 4,000 lines (a strangely numerical process for the sozzled young man who had boldly toasted “confusion to mathematics!”), and day by day, lodging by lodging (London, the Isle of Wight, Oxford, Canterbury, the “quaint coastal village” of Bo Peep, Paris, Hampstead, Burford Bridge . . .), he dragged the manuscript with him, ambitious and frustrated, needing to generate content enough to fill (and to be worthy of) the vasty expanse of that form.
He called the poem a “test, a trial of my Powers of Imagination and chiefly of my Invention . . . by which I must make 4000 Lines of one bare circumstance and fill them with Poetry.” This sounds like strained production—manufactory, almost—and even though, as Mighall says, “there are moments of real beauty” (the sort of beauty implied in the poem’s own opening lines: A thing of beauty is a joy forever: / Its loveliness increases; it will never / Pass into nothingness), still, “Keats has difficulty sustaining this over the course . . . It fell short of his expectations and standards.”
“Gelding,” Keats said in a letter to his brother George, describing the process of his late revisions to the poem; no writer should have to speak so bitterly of his work. His final assessment (ironically, itself a tiny testament to Keats’s knack for memorable language): “The foundations are too sandy.”
And with that behind him, and greatness ahead, he entered the task of learning to govern the teeter-tottering back-and-forth of content and form. In a way, the story of his poetic success is the story of providing these two a viable mutual scale. With the completion of “The Eve of St. Agnes,” says Mighall, “Keats manages a coherent synthesis of style and subject for the very first time. Intense sensualism and rich pictorialism . . . had been in abundance before, but their luxuriant excess, often for its own decorative sake, generally undermined argument or narrative. Here, finally, they are completely and successfully integral to his design.” By the time of “the Great Odes . . . he found his voice and the perfect vessel for his mature artistry.”
We can see him bent over the table, his head at rest on a manuscript page. It’s night. The last gig of the street had sounded its weary clopping hours ago. The candle starts to stutter: it’s as used-up now as this man. He looks so . . . depleted. And yet, if we could only stand behind him and read the lines he’s just completed . . . When old age shall this generation waste, / Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe / Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st, / ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty’—that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know . . .
we see it’s more as if he’s decanted the best of himself, into this.
“You’re a good boy, John. No mother could ask for more. But you mustn’t—” and then the phlegm-stuffed rattle-cough of a body becoming unjoined inside—“you mustn’t attend me this faithfully. This journey I’m on will not be reversed by a forehead towel or a bowl of leeches.” Still, she held out her hand and was grateful for his touch in return. He was fourteen. Does anything bring one closer to a mother than changing the pans; and lifting the spoons of broth; and reading to her, as she’s dying?
And that, she was. In March of 1810, at the age of thirty-five, the disease that already had taken her two younger brothers took Frances Jennings
But consumption (we would say tuberculosis) doesn’t halt to revel in its victories. It keeps on. Opportunistic. Familial.
In December of 1818 Tom, the beloved younger brother, died just shy of his nineteenth birthday—again, after Keats’s careful and affectionate attending to the seepages; and the coughs that rattle the bones like a butcher’s cart; and the belly-crawl of the spirit through ash and bloody spit-cloths and leech water. Again.
But twice isn’t a form; twice is happenstance.
Infected mucus is highly contagious. On 4 February 1820, on “a [deceptively] mild day in a deep-frozen winter” (Mighall; Gigante says it was 3 February), Keats spent the afternoon in London, without his bulky winter coat, and returned home to Hampstead riding on the outside seat of a coach, as he normally did for thrift’s sake. Flushed and weak on arrival, he immediately went to bed. His friend Charles Armitage Brown heard the coughing.
“What is the matter, Keats?—you are fevered?”
“A little, yes, a little. Bring a candle now please, I want to look well at this blood. It is blood from my mouth.” A single spot of it darkened the chilly white sheet.
This is what Brown’s record says: “After regarding it steadfastly, he looked up in my face, with a calmness of countenance that I can never forget, and said, ‘I know the colour of that blood;—it is arterial blood;—I cannot be deceived in that colour;—that drop of blood is my death warrant;—I must die.’ ”
Three times is a form.
And as the bacillus thrived inside him, for the remaining twelve months of his weakening life, John Keats became the content of that form.
Even in the zowier reaches of science fiction, the search for a planet is tedious.
Oh, if you want to stress the “fiction” part and downplay the “science,” as many outer space wonder-romps do, it’s possible to bypass the mind-numbing, painstaking labor. In another essay I’ve written about my lingering affection for the Doubles series of science fiction novels published continually by B-paperback publisher Ace from the 1950s into the ’80s—those volumes in which two novels were bound together with one spine, topsy-turvy to each other (and so technically they had two front covers, and no backs). There were 221 Doubles sci-fi books in all (442 titles), and in most of them one can sense a spirit that thumbed its twenty-fifth-century nose at earthbound notions, lifted a gleeful middle finger to the breakable chains of gravity, and blasted gung-ho into a universe defined by adventureful gosh and devoid of numbers-crunching.
James A. Corrick, in his overview study Double Your Pleasure, says, “The covers were often garish, the blurbs exaggerated, and the prose lurid.” Once you’ve seen them lounging seductively on a drugstore spinner rack, there’s no ignoring these books. That’s what “lurid” means—it allures. Typical titles are Sentinels from Space, The Universe Maker, Beyond Earth’s Gates, The Stars Are Ours!, The Conquest of the Space Sea, The Forgotten Planet, Overlords from Space, The Space-Born, Space Station #1, Sargasso of Space, Empire of the Atom, The Cosmic Puppets, Voodoo Planet, Star Born, Planetary Agent X. . . . No day-at-the-office pencil-tapping here!
But Isaac Asimov’s science-fiction ventures never depreciate the “science” half of the “science fiction” contract. In his novel The Stars, Like Dust (not published by Ace, but Doubleday), Asimov’s heroes are searching industriously for the “rebel world” they believe holds the key to overthrowing the tyranny of a galaxies-spanning “master race.” But then he tells the reader, applying realistic brakes to his zoom-along warp-drive story,
To those who have not actually been in space, the investigation of a stellar system and the search for habitable planets may seem rather exciting. . . . To the spaceman, it is the most boring of jobs. . . .
Locating a star, which is a huge glowing mass of hydrogen fusing into helium, is almost too easy. It advertises itself. . . . But [and from this point on he may as well be writing about Clyde Tombaugh’s task in Flagstaff] a planet, a relatively small mass of rock, shining only by reflected light, is another matter. One could pass through a stellar system a hundred thousand times at all sorts of odd angles without ever coming close enough to a planet to see it for what it is, barring the oddest of coincidences. Rather, one adopts a system.
There follow over two hundred words delineating this system, with no attempt to gild it with the fantastical. Then: “It is a very dull procedure indeed, and when it has been repeated three times for three different stars, each time with completely negative results, a certain depression of morale is bound to occur.”
One understands why the Lowell Observatory panjandrums were pleased to hire a talented neophyte for this least compelling of observational projects. Founder Percival Lowell, millionaire and visionary, had died in 1916, leaving “Planet X” as yet undiscovered despite his enthusiasms and rigors. The quest continued, but sitting alone in the high cold dome, the whole night, every viable night, was a test of even a seasoned astronomer’s dedication. And working the plates—“blinking” them, as the process was called—and comparing their complexities of star-dots (up to a million of them teeming on some of the individual goddam almost-alike exposure plates; and then the variables and asteroids!), image after image, pot of coffee after pot of coffee, patch of nebulosity after patch of nebulosity . . . eventually, one wore the look of a steer stunned by a 2 × 4. But only give them a capable newbie, juiced up with a hard-on for the job, and willing to suffer the frosty air and the insufficient wages. . . . Ah, here comes the train!
Then off to the observatory (Mars Hill, as they’ve named it), up a road so slick with the melting January snow that V. M. Slipher needs a second try before they reach the top. Hellos are tiny clouds of breath that visibly float in the chilly air. The first labor Clyde is assigned is furnace duty, tending to the split pine logs and each new night’s 150 pounds of coal. Over two months of this sort of handymanning goes by; and then on 6 April 1926, once the observatory’s new 13-incher lens is installed and a sample exposure is taken . . . Clyde Tombaugh officially tests the thumbscrews on each corner of the plates; and adjusts his eyepiece; and positions his feet; and smells the coffee, even as his nose hairs start to stiffen from the cold; and enters the boringest and fussiest-obsessive, pinhead-tabulating fool’ s job in the universe. But that’s just it!—he’s smack-dab in the void-and-fire glory-ride of the universe, and he wouldn’t trade this for anything.
Clyde Tombaugh’s telescope is a battleship-worthy cylinder that declares its presence, its heavy bulky hereness, as soon as you see it. It’s a reddish rust-orange (strangely, the color that conjures up not Pluto, but Mars; and, not so strangely, a color that blinks between festive and—when linked in our minds to the unrelievable weight of its metal—industrial). In the photograph I’m looking at now it’s pointed up at exactly that angle we laypeople always associate with sky exploration, with jaw-wagging, eye-goggling, dogged pursuit.
“Dogged”—if that even comes close. A time or two in that bubble above the rest of the world, Clyde’s brushed by hypothermia. They’ d provided him with a buffalo robe to wrap around his wiry string-bean body—the robe acquired from what old Arizona nook he never does learn—and he sits there feeling like some kind of a half-beast priest-king shaman, arisen out of ancientdom to preside, here, now, on this unlikely throne. But that, and the hat with the earflaps, and the mummying sweaters, are still an insufficient fortifying. “Above the world,” he hums to himself, “below freezing.” The priest-king’s mantra, in his battle against the basilisk cold.
And the rest of the world somewhere below his outlier perch continues its distant pursuits. There are nations relaxing, or festering, or making plans, between—although nobody sees it this way yet—two World Wars. There are eggs-over-easy being flipped at the Black Cat café in downtown Flagstaff; some kissy-kiss or shoot-’em-up is playing at the Orpheum Theater. He has his suspicion that women of easy virtue (girls! somewhere on the planet are girls!) are sometimes smuggled into the other astronomers’ quarters . . . or is that just a fevered imagining of his starstruck high-up hermitage? “Dogged”—yes. He’s hounding the scent of something.
“Tombaugh’s ten months of dedicated work would eventually yield 29,000 new galaxies, 3,196 asteroids, 1,800 variable stars, and 2 comets,” Marcus Chown says in Solar System. I like that casual throwaway, “2 comets.” Oh, right, two comets: yawn.
And one planet. Or what was then, in his lifetime, a planet, what was over seventy-five accepting years a planet, an icy grommet fastened to the firmament that I would have assumed was evermore a planet, as much a planet as Earth, as true as the seasons, as real as spring that faithfully returns every year with its fruits and heifers and trilling streams when Persephone is contractually released for those few months from the underground halls of her husband—who happens to be, well, Pluto, a god, an eternal.
And yet that planet I grew up with has been recently demoted. Knocked down to size. What reviewers did to Keats in his knocked-down lifetime. Lord Byron famously said it was the reviews that killed him. This may not give credit enough to tuberculosis; but we know what he means.
Still, Keats’s poems survive. Not liking them is, as Joyce Carol Oates once Twittered about The Great Gatsby, “like spitting into the Grand Canyon. It will not be going away anytime soon, but you will.”
Certainly Keats doesn’t go away from Clyde’s star-sputtered brain in his ten months of searching. If anything, they seem to have occasional bursts of acquaintanceship, these oddball two, seem to have anachronistic sightings of one another . . . as if their eccentric orbits share a common nucleus, and time for them isn’t linear so much as sympathetic.
Why not? Keats had written his brother George in America that, as Gigante summarizes it, “the present moment had no claim on him. . . . When John and George opened their Shakespeare at the same time, they might encounter each other.” And Keats wrote, “A Poet . . . has no Identity—he is continually in for—and filling some other Body.” Some nights, long nights, Clyde feels filled for a moment. A line of Keats’s comes out of the great redundant sky, O mortal pain! / O Darkness! Darkness!, and Clyde sees his shaggy-pelted self go floating across the ceiling of that room in Rome as a body below, in hemorrhagic seizures, thickly gasps its final moment.
And it’s not as if Clyde hasn’t turned his hand—at least when he was a high school kid—to poetry. He can still (and on longer nights, he does) recite “Our Team” from 1921. It begins
There’s not a better team in the state!
We’ve beaten La Salle at any rate,
Pat slings his opponents around
Like a wind makes apples fall to the ground. . . .
Then eight more lines for which, I think, it’s best that only the stars are there to bear a silent witness.
The recently widowed Mrs. Frances Brawne had rented one side of the house where Keats’s friend Charles Dilke lived. With her: a fourteen-year-old son named Sam; a small girl, Margaret; and a daughter who had just turned eighteen, Fanny. Sometime in the late autumn of 1818, Keats and Fanny Brawne first met. They were just the right age, and about the same height.
Attraction thickened the air between them almost immediately, and they were together all of Christmas Day, whispering, sharing the coded stares that a simpatico couple develops over time. Fanny wrote it was “the happiest day I have ever spent.”
Keats wrote, “Her nostrils are fine—though a little painful—her mouth is bad and good—her Profile is better than her full-face . . . —her feet toler-
able . . . —monstrous in her behaviour flying out in all directions, calling people such names—that I was forced lately to make use of the term Minx.”
Not exactly exemplary, ready-for-Hollywoodesque infatuation.
He’ d written, “I hope I shall never marry . . . Though the most beautiful Creature were waiting for me at the end of a Journey or a Walk . . . my Solitude is sublime. . . . Nothing strikes me so forcibly with a sense of the ridiculous as love—A Man in love I do think cuts the sorryest figure in the world.” He’ d written, “When I am among Women I have evil thoughts, malice and spleen . . .
I am in a hurry to be gone.”
For what’s become one of literary legendry’s most cherished love sto-
ries . . . not exactly a promising start.
The challenge, as with his growing into his poetry, was one of structure. “Woman” was a form of the sublime for him, ideal in the way the shapes in Plato ’s “Realm of Original Forms” are ideal, supernal, and never disappointing: the Chair that’s a pure idea of “chairness,” the Bird that all birds on our mortal plane descended from and aspire to. (We’re the defective counterparts of those perfect, immutable ur-selves.) For a form like that, the addition of content—dailiness in all of its squabble and pap smear and stubble and drunken nuzzling and fraught misunderstandings—is only a violation. (One suspects this wariness came from a boyish fear, masquerading as a philosophy.) In an early poem, he writes,
Shapes from the invisible world, unearthly singing
From out the middle air, from flowery nests,
And from the pillowy silkiness that rests
Full in the speculation of the stars
—describing a level of Beauty so demanding, so constructed of Light itself, and of the Ineffable, that a woman might only exist there as a constellation, above a foot and its bunion, above a shrewish harangue with the costermonger. In a letter he says, “The mighty abstract idea I have of Beauty in all things stifles the more divided and minute domestic happiness.”
And any coquette on a clifftop with a wink and a proffered chicken thigh? He imaged her as a way of trapping him into the domestic. To his publisher Keats once writes that “the love of a woman [is] treacle to the wings of independence.” The more his heart was smitten (and yes, his heart was smitten), the more he argued with his heart. In his earliest surviving letter to Fanny (1 July 1819) he tells her, “Ask yourself my love whether you are not very cruel to have so entrammelled me, so destroyed my freedom.” From a later letter, this touching, revealing flash of self-awareness: “I am a Coward, I cannot bear the pain of being happy.”
Pain was involved necessarily, and perhaps I wasn’t fair when I attributed his obstinacy in the face of her charms to only “a boyish fear.” Keats understood the financial precariousness of his bold leap from the medical profession to that of (always cap-P for him) Poet. He couldn’t bear to provide her “Love in a hut, with water and a crust,” and nothing more; she was stylish, she was deserving of fashion and comforts. Beyond that, of course, he intuited—below thought, in the folds of his lungs—that his future might be all too brief, a place “Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies.” If he was chary of anything deeper than casual dalliance, it was partly in the interest of saving Fanny from the dark world of insolvency—and the darker world of widow’s wear.
And yet. . . . And yet. . . .
There they were. The sun through the fanlight, true to its point of entry, spread on the Turkish carpet in the shape of a peacock’s opened tail. The house was quiet . . . except for Keats’s heart, which sounded—surely anyone could hear it, even out in the street!—like calvary.
He undid—she let him undo—a button. “This is how,” he joked to himself in his head, “we derive the word ‘button.’ One, but-one only.” His etymological jest was correct; she stopped him with a light touch, mixed of affection and rebuke. And it was this firmness in her, “a sudden bone in the butter” as he thought it, that created his growing respect for her; and then, out of the respect, a growing passion.
“I have been thinking, my Johnny. . . .”
“Yes! And you do think, my love. I like that in you, ferociously. Brains and Brawne.”
She arched a single eyebrow. “Oh, you are clever with language, sir! Have you thought of becoming a Poet?”
“What! A Poet? Not a Licentiate of the Society of Apothecaries? Not a Distinguished Member of the Royal College of Surgeons?” If he could have arched a responding eyebrow, he would have; but he lacked that power.
“Nor a tallow-chandler, or iron-monger, or cooper, or haberdasher, or uplands collier. Nor a King’s Guard on a snow-white charger. No, I shall have you a Poet.”
“And . . . ?”
“And you, my Johnny, will write your epics here by my side as fixed as a fork in a pothouse.” (In those cheapest of taverns, the knives and forks were chained to the tables.)
“And . . . ?” Oh he was a duck in a pond of love, oh he was a smelt in a pan of the undying frying oils of love, oh he was dunked in love the way that the bathing machines at Margate dropped their holiday-makers splash into the sea.
“And, as I say, I was thinking . . .”—she let her eyes leave him, to circle the room—“I was thinking of how so impossibly large a fire as the Sun can be let through the fanlight there.”
“It must be something in the way of how your Passions can be made to pass through a quatrain, my dear.”
“Well then my love for you, although it’s of immeasurable size, may also reveal itself. . . .”
“Yes? Reveal itself?”
“Through only a single opened button, my love, which is for now sufficient.”
Mighall claims that Keats’s rapid turnabout in attitude occurred sometime in the autumn of 1818, not long after the finishing flourishes of his final Great Ode, “To Autumn,” one of his last completed poems. The season, the poem says, “of maturing sun,” the season to “fill all the fruit with ripeness to the core.” These lines may have signaled a new corresponding maturity in himself.
In any case, says Mighall, “he visited Fanny on 10th October, and there immediately followed a string of ardent letters. . . . In the first he declared himself ‘dazzled’ by her, at ‘her mercy,’ but no longer resisting the tender yoke of love.” Two days later the man who once wrote “I find that I cannot exist without poetry” writes Fanny that “My love has made me selfish. I cannot exist without you. . . . Love is my Religion—I could die for that—I could die for you. My Creed is love and you are its only tenet.”
Perhaps a young woman inevitably is moved to return the loyalty of such a declaration. Perhaps she sensed (“I could die. . . I could die. . . .”) how little time remained for him—and something of a loving pity, or something in her in love with doom and drama, awoke. Perhaps she implicitly understood that in loving Keats now, earnestly, for this bespelled while, she did nothing to counter her chances for a more normal (and solvent) relationship in a future she had and he didn’t. Perhaps he realized subconsciously that his major work was behind him now—the Nightingale, the Urn, and the rest—and his almost superhuman investment of passion was freed, to embody itself in earning her affections. Perhaps the priest-king flashed through his mind’s back door, the shaman in the animal robe, and for just that single wingbeat of time he heard as if ancestral wisdom, “The one right kiss done right outweighs a scuttle-full of stars.”
So many perhapses. Or it could be so simple as He + She = Wow, the ages-old formula that’s passed down in the genes.
What we do know is that, as Mighall puts it, “the couple made their emotional commitment in a secret engagement.” Gigante calls it “a private understanding.”
And as the dying waxed inside him, his loving waxed apace. As the time moved on, their insouciant cooey banter was like the sparkling designs that skaters slice into ice above the unacknowledged depths beneath.
In February, following the hemorrhage that Keats termed his “death-warrant,” Charles Brown offered to the poet his front parlor, where Keats then spent the rest of that winter under a blanket before the fire. Brown chose, Gigante says, to be “fierce in enforcing the doctors’ orders [for strict calm]. . . .
Fanny Brawne had to make do with seeing her lover through his window.” When Brown left on errands she would sneak inside and sit by Keats, doing her needlework.
And when later, in June of 1820, he was found vomiting blood, and his good friend Leigh Hunt took him in (“heaving in pain, and horrible convuls’ d”) for around-the-clock nursing, “he slept much of the day,” Gigante says, and “when not asleep, he would stare in the direction of Hampstead, thinking of Fanny.”
The Leigh Hunt household, overrun by a brawling brood of children and rowdy literary lounge-abouts, proved impractical for an invalid’s needs. Seven weeks from his arrival there, Frances Brawne took him in and “defied societal convention to let her daughter nurse John.” The broth. The cool cloth to the forehead. The soiled underlinen. And over it all, the continuing blithe avowals of lovers’ commitments. “In pity give me all,” he’ d written to her in a poem, “Withhold no atom’s atom or I die.”
But not the gift of every atom in Fanny Brawne’s body could halt that march. His friend John Reynolds reported, “He is advised—nay ordered—to go to Italy.” As if the atoms of the Mediterranean light could do what Fanny couldn’t. Keats knew that his upcoming death was a fact, and yet—for everybody’s sake—he needed to live by the fiction. Not long after, on 13 September 1820, the brig Maria Crowther was voyaging John Keats, heartbroken, Italyward.
Gigante: “During their final days together, Fanny had made every effort to pretend that the couple would be seeing each other again in the spring. . . . She clipped a lock of her hair for him as a keepsake, and she lined his traveling cap with silk.”
“And Johnny . . .” Nobody else was around. She slipped something into his chill hand. Then she bent to kiss his brow. “I will be waiting for you when you come home, love.”
In his palm were five torn-off buttons.
Later that day, an errand boy approached Wentworth Place. He recalled,
I could n’t resist going around to the kitchen door to ask after Mr. Keats, for I had n’t seen him for a long time tramping around. It was September, and the back door was half open, and just inside Miss Brawne herself talking to one of the maids. I stammered out my words not feeling sure of my welcome, some way. Her answer was curt enough, but I have always fancied she’ d been crying.
In private. In private only. Her content was nakedly grievous; but decorum dictated her form.
Wilson Tucker’s To the Tombaugh Station originally appeared in the July 1960 issue of the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (classified as “a short novel” on the cover and “a long novelette” on the contents page—an exquisite parsing of size). The plot revolves around Kathy Bristol, a spaceways bounty hunter in 2009, so far from 1960 into the future that, of course, a trip to Pluto is easily doable.
I would have been twelve when that issue appeared on the stands, and “Tombaugh” would have been only a strange name. Now I know enough to see the small honorific involved in Wilson’s naming one of Pluto ’s plateaus (and therefore the astronomical observatory station on it) after the planet’s discoverer. In fact, Wilson envisions the Tombaugh Station as clearly in the spirit (and the physical conditions) of Clyde Tombaugh’s own night-by-night experience: it’s an isolated pod-of-a-place, set in a landscape of bone-white escarpments and fatal cold, its telescopic capability ever-alert to the universe beyond. (Is it coincidence that Isaac Asimov’s science column on page 65 of this same issue is called “Beyond Pluto”? He starts, “A couple of days ago [as I write] a Soviet astronomer announced the discovery of a tenth planet, one beyond Pluto.” A mistake; but even so, it’s in the spirit of Tombaugh’s impulse.)
Not long after this original appearance, To the Tombaugh Station appeared as number D-479 in the Ace Doubles series, with a striking Valigursky cover of bubble-helmeted spacemen afloat against the ebony endlessness, and backed (or fronted, depending) by Poul Anderson’s kitschier-covered Earthman, Go Home! In kind and in chunkette length, To the Tombaugh Station was a natural for Ace to reprint. I note, though, that originally its opening was matter-of-fact: “Kathy Bristol entered her supervisor’s office by the side door.” Its redone Doubles version starts: “She was a huntress . . . in a statuesque body.”
Ah, Ace, Ace, Ace . . . what would my adolescence have been without you?
I’ve been thinking of a new Ace Double. One side is a life of Keats (it’s the shorter of the two sides). On the cover a young man, wide-eyed, almost deliriously enthused with life, is walking under a deeply indigo sky that’s ablaze with a nervous system of stars: “He dared to voyage to the sublime!” The other side is a life of Clyde Tombaugh. On the cover a young man, wide-eyed, almost deliriously enthused with life, is—well, we’ll add a 1920s thresher in the background to distinguish this from the other, with moonlight glimmering off its levers and blades. “They said he couldn’t, but he reached the solar system’s edge!” On both of the covers the sky is a thing of overcompelling mystery in a way that implies our life here on Earth is, as well.
They’re two different stories. And yet, placed thus, they share a spine.
And so I can’t refuse the thought of that frequently-relied-upon sci-fi trope, the wormhole. How many novels and movies and comic books and video games by now have used the dubious but popular idea of this tunnel through the fabric of space: your rocket cruiser enters it at one end and, in a blink of the spacetime continuum, you exit at the other end a gazillion light-years distant. It allows the creation of stellar-expansion empires, and of import-export systems as vast as a galaxy, and of cops-and-robbers played along the dangerous alleys of nebular drift. And information—from one world to another, almost as speedy as thought!
So now I’m placing an actual bookshelf wormhole into my two-title book. With paper now half a century old, that’s not unlikely. Keats and Clyde—a corridor of narrative trade between the two. Keats and Pluto, Clyde and Fanny, corn husks, lung blood, night sky like a blessing and an imprecation settling into the single era and onto the single continent where we all live, at our most rhapsodic. . . .
For better or worse, I’ve always been susceptible to what sci-fi novelist John C. Wright suggests in his novel Orphans of Chaos: “The argument was incomprehensible, and that made it easier to believe.”
I’ve always felt the truth of these enchanted lines in a poem of Gregory Orr’s:
The house of a poem,
By your other self—
That person you
Could have become
Had things gone
* * *
June 7, 2013 / 2:20 pm
The 1800 block of Palisade Street in Wichita, Kansas, is given over to lower-income single-family houses—although who knows what inventive versions of “family” really live in them? Most have a slightly frowzy, but not unappealing, aspect.
Some, like the red-faced fat kid valiantly straining for some success at a chin-up bar, are obviously holding on to a sense of respectability and are trying to lift themselves higher than that: a second job, an English-as-a-Second-Language night course, a Bible study group.
Others, it’s not unreasonable to guess, are holding on to a basement meth lab. One or two of the teenage girls know how to squeeze twenties from the wallets of lower-end horny businessmen.
In early June, the trees are greenly lush enough to bump boughs with the corresponding trees on the other side of the street; they form a spotty, rustling, block-long canopy that sieves the light, which lands with an attractive dappling effect.
I park in front of 1836. It’s small, and one of the frowzier, a bunker-like construction sided cheaply with thin aluminum slats. A faded-yellow child’s plastic chair sits on the concrete-slab-of-a-front-stoop, and beside it is an overturned plastic bucket, enervated-blue. An empty minivan waits on its minimal concrete apron.
I’m making notes—these notes, that you’re reading. Suddenly the front door thutters open and a girl, about five or six, skips out, with the bounce of her frizzy ponytail exaggerating her energy. I’ve been up since eight, and her eyes are the alivest things I’ve seen all day, quick and huge with an innocent curiosity. Her skin is that butternut-cocoa color America is tending toward as formerly inviolate races and nationalities mix in sexual tra-la-la. One day her ass may be cooling in a jail cell, on a drugs charge. Then again, one day she may be in the Oval Office, determining national policy,
An option that no sane person could have imagined for her in 1926.
In that year, optometrist and telescope-maker Napoleon Carreau was living at, and conducting his business at, this address. And that was the year an eager farm boy from Burdett, Kansas, sent his carefully ground and polished eight-inch speculum to Carreau, to have it professionally silvered.
Whatever house Carreau lived in, it wasn’t this cheaply thrown-together 1960s aluminum block. I have no idea how many structures have stood on this lot since 1926, as we have no idea what would have become of Clyde Tombaugh had he accepted a life of employment here . . . but one suspects his name would just be yesterday’s flown-away thistledown; gone with the wind; writ in the water.
This girl from 1836 is staring at me in my Nissan with a problematic combo of focused interest, open willingness to converse, suspicion, and territoriality. I don’t know her real future any more than I can posit Tombaugh’s alternate-reality 1826 Palisades future; but I can feel the uncontrollable wild exuberant girlish oomph in her—her content—and I hope the form it finds one day is as functional for her as the sky that finally shaped his crazy wheatfield dreaming was, for him.
And Clyde’s “real future”? It will be an exemplary thing. He’ll meet Patsy. They’ll be married for sixty-two affectionate years. The children. The satisfying career as a teacher. The grandchildren. Fundraising. Autographs. The honorary coaching of varsity football at New Mexico State. At age eighty-two he’ll still be on the lecture circuit; at Stellafane Observatory, three thousand knowing astronomy buffs will deliver a standing ovation before he orates a single word. When he slumps over dead in his wheelchair on a Friday morning in 1997, and the announcement is issued, dozens of editorial cartoonists walk around all day with an image in their heads of a full-faced Pluto shedding a tear.
But nobody knows this in 1930. There’s no telescope for future time. Clyde knows that the day is cold and cloudy: February on Mars hill. At the Orpheum Theater, Gary Cooper’s seminal western The Virginian is playing. Clyde’s eyeballs feel as tight as a military bedsheet, and gritted—nothing new about that. He aligns the blink comparator plates from a few days earlier, 23 January and 29 January. And checks. Don’t get TOO woowoo excited, farm boy. And doublechecks. And triplechecks. And then he walks down the corridor past the secretary’s room, to the large main office, and knocks, and enters, and utters some of twentieth-century science’s most amazing words: “Dr. Slipher, I found your Planet X.”
He says that aloud; in his head it’s all woowoo.
And then? A bout of caution. As Clyde says, “Everybody was excited as the dickens!” but nobody wants to rush. It isn’t until mid-March that the International Astronomical Union’s Central Bureau in Copenhagen distributes the imprimatured news to the world that it spins about in a system of planets newly numbered at nine.
And the flashing of the cameras, and the amazing rivers of (pink and gold!) champagne, and the thousands of letters suggesting a name for the system’s newcomer. Headlines, busybody gawkers, generals, mayors, pundits, comedians, gushing women (girls!), and enough hands to shake in a day to last a Kansas kid a lifetime.
There’s a particularly important press convening at the telescope itself, and the observatory staff is there with its range of emotions from stuffy pride to Clyde’s astonished shyness. One reporter—and a brassy, beautiful woman she is, too—asks him, with a discomforting unblinking look, how it happened, how it felt, what it was like “to father a planet.”
“Well, ma’am, it just swam,” Clyde tells her with a secret smile, “into my ken.”
Bronze and springily flexible and eleven inches long (and looking something like an engine’s dipstick, with a charming insect-body handle and a horizontal splash guard), the elegant subject captured in this photograph is improbably but actually the proboscis of an insect . . . the sphinx moth from Madagascar.
Its wings are a velvety mottle of fawns and cocoa-browns and bumblebee-like gold-and-black-brown nap. And even in Madagascar, where it isn’t “exotic,” it’s still considered exotic. With a proboscis extended three times the length of its thorax, it certainly earns the aura of mystery that its name implies, the name that European entomologists gave it upon discovering it fluttering through the sunlight of the mothways with the utter unfathomability of a sphinx.
Darwin had predicted its existence decades earlier, while studying an example of a Madagascar orchid from a botanical collection right in England.
Spectral, spindly, and a richly waxy white, the flower offers up to the world an outsized eleven-inch nectar receptacle. Something had evolved in Madagascar to effectively harvest that nectar, yes? To hover with pinpoint grace above it, to make an aerial obeisance, a thrust, to effortlessly perform what Keats was longing to perform as he sat on a dockside staring into the clammying scumble of the bay’s incessant clouds, wherein a loose mélange of Fanny Brawne and poetry, and poetry and Fanny Brawne, enacted the wedding of content sliding perfectly into form until it became the form—and the wedding of form, opening, and accepting, and closing holistically over the content.
How they dance around each other, these two! Bumping, parting, looking moodily anywhere but, then approaching again, daring a tango step or two, then dancing cheek to cheek, then parting again. . . .
It wasn’t uncommon for the seventeenth-century nouveau riche in England to invent long-standing pedigrees, sometimes to the point of exhuming an actual ancestor’s bones—a fishmonger’s, say—and reburying them below a marble bust in a more prestigious churchyard. / form with bogus content
The annual Cheese Rolling competition in Gloucester has been held since 1850, but in 2010 the traditional eight-pound wheel of Gloucester cheese was replaced by a plastic one. / seemingly stable form, but altered content
On 4 April 2013, a pair of bloody eyeballs packed in ice was found in a box set on the lid of a trash bin across from the pumps of a Kansas City, Missouri, gas station: pigs’ eyes, it was determined, but no other information was ever found out. / mystery content, separated from its original form
The current human genome contains a small amount of Neanderthal code, on average about 2.5 percent. / form with generally unacknowledged content
Father Gabriel Amorth, head of the International Association of Exorcists, claims to have carried out 50,000 exorcisms, sending 160,000 demons out of human bodies and back to Hell. / form with metaphysical content
After routine prostate surgery in 2009 in a German hospital, Dirk Schroeder’s X-ray revealed sixteen pieces of medical equipment left inside him, “including a needle, a six-inch roll of bandage, a compress, several swabs and a fragment of a surgical mask.” / form filled by accidental content
A group of miners shot dead when they attacked police at the Lonmin platinum mine in Marikana, South Africa, had used a potion made from the tongue and chin of a murdered security guard to render them bulletproof. / content that fails to sustain the form
Foster E. L. Beal, in the employ of the U.S. Bureau of Biological Survey early in the 1900s, spent much of his twenty-five years there slicing open the stomachs of 37,825 birds (“with particular attention to the woodpecker branch”), examining the food in their guts to determine which birds were “good” and which were “bad” for the nation’s agriculture. / obsessive hunt through form for its contents
Data from the IceCube neutrino telescope shows that two neutrinos under study “each had energies of about 1 petraelectronvolt.” / impossible-to-imagine-form with impossible-to-imagine-content
And so goes the dance, and so goes the dance.
And Keats and Clyde? With no overt attachment, I’ve attached them here. I’ve needed them, two characters in search of a common essay. That’s the form, and I’ve asked them to step inside it, from out of their independent lives and from under their independent heavens: I’ve reminded them that Pluto was discovered in the Gemini constellation (the Twins); and I’ve read to them about how photons of light can be made “entangled” and act as one although separated by hundreds of miles; I’ve asked them to try to be a working binary system for this little while, to take a ticket and enter the tango line and see what happens.
The calmest thoughts come round us; as of leaves
Budding—fruit ripening in stillness—Autumn suns
Smiling at eve upon the quiet sheaves—
Sweet Sappho ’s cheek—a smiling infant’s breath—
The gradual sand that through an hour-glass runs—
A woodland rivulet—a Poet’s death.
Three years ago he had written this, three years before the night that first dark ominous spot of lung-blood appeared on his sheet. In a sense, what he had to do now was complete the shape he’ d worked at constructing all of his life, filling it in.
They were standing on deck, leaning against the rail. Heading out to sea on a clement day, with the sky and the water vying for the prize of most lucent blue. Masted sails scattered along the horizon, like laundry hung from an invisible line.
“A long way, John. I feel as if we may as well be voyaging to Timbuctoo.”
“Ah, Severn . . . ! I’m afraid I am voyaging much, much farther than that.”
Joseph Severn accompanied him. Severn was a budding artist (he’ d won some medals already) and later admitted that, at first, his easy willingness to serve as the traveling companion of his old school friend John Keats was motivated at least in part by hopes for his own career—Rome was, after all, the acknowledged artistic capital of the world. But over the months of Keats’s wasting there, Severn met the deeper occasion with a consistent, unflagging empathy that Mighall calls “as gratifying in its untiring selflessness as the details of what this entailed are harrowing.”
Just the crossing was a harrow blade or two.
For six weeks, Keats and Severn shared their cabin space with the captain and two difficult female passengers: a fussy martinet named Mrs. Pidgeon; and Miss Cotterell, a frail adolescent who was also in an advanced stage of consumption, and who, when not in a faint, would argue with Keats over whose condition appeared to be least or most dire. The ship was often becalmed (“a Flat day,” Severn called these). At other times the water ran rough enough to rise like cliffs, and they would skidder down these as their gorge flew up in counterpoint; one morning as a cabin boy attempted to hold the breakfast table steady, a ham shot into Severn’s lap. The bunks were frequently drenched, the chairs and trunks sent clattering around the overpopulated crypt-of-a-cabin like peas in a jester’s rattle. Miss Cotterell needed the cabin window open, for air; Keats needed it closed against the chill. Twice, they were halted by other ships for questioning: once a quadruple-decker Portuguese man-of-war, and once a British warship. Miss Cotterell desired diverting merriment; Keats desired philosophical silence. And when they entered the Bay of Naples the ship was put into ten days of quarantine. The projected four-week crossing had lasted two months, some of it punctuated by Keats’s vomiting blood. “I wish for death every day and night to deliver me from these pains, and then I wish [this] away, for death would destroy even those pains which are better than nothing . . . The thought of leaving Miss Brawne is beyond every thing horrible.” One morning Severn stood at the rail admiring the wake of the ship, silver in the sapphire water, following them—as if to taunt Keats—like a bridal dress’s train.
Nor did arrival in Italy ease their distresses.
Today of course the rooms at 26 Piazza di Spagna above the Spanish Steps are a shrine to the poet who died there thinking his life was a waste and his poetry a failure and his reputation “writ in water”; thousands make their pilgrimage there each year. The tour buses come and go. But at the time, that stony building was simply the place where the dying—a painfully messy dying—continued, agonizing day by day. Keats’s second-floor bedroom window gave onto a view of the Fontana della Barcaccia, the “sinking boat.” That language would not have been lost on him. His attempt to study Italian by reading Vittorio Alfieri’s tragedy Filippo came to a sudden end at the lines “Miserable me! No comfort remains to me / But crying, and that is a crime.” The book was too much a mirror, and he tossed it across the room. And Fanny’s final letters remained unread. Even the sight of her handwriting on the envelopes was a torture. “Oh, God! God! God! Every thing I have in my trunks that reminds me of her goes through me like a spear.”
There were occasional lighter glimmers. Severn, with an optimism their future didn’t warrant, set up his easel in the alcove off Keats’s bedroom. Keats encouraged him to paint, and to venture out on his own: museums, cathedrals, street circuses, ladies fair! In their earliest days in Rome they even attempted some festivity as a duo—and why not? The mild clime was going to work its panacea magic on Keats’s system! The grounds of the great Monte Pincio park was a beautiful medley of greenery where, as Keats’s physician put it by way of recommendation for healthful strolling, “all of the beauty and fashion of Rome [come] to parade, either in their equipages or on foot, and discuss the gossip and tittle-tattle of the town.” There was the basilica of Saint Peter, “where a hundred lights were kept burning around the tomb of the saint.” One day they went to the Borghese Palace, and there, with the special permission of the Princess Pauline Borghese (Napoleon Bonaparte’s youngest sister), viewed the statue for which she had posed nude from the waist up, lounging seductively on a one-armed settee.
At a lighter cough, Severn would even joke. “Keats, don’t be catching a cold, sir!” To which Keats would reply, more grimly and yet with levity still, “Severn, you may as well tell a man to not take a gulp of water as he walks the streets of Atlantis.”
And all the while, although invisibly, death rotted away his inner foundations. Death’s inducement: I can end this endless terror. Death went at him as at a suckbone, gnawing him, working its tongue in, teasing out the juices.
Eventually Keats couldn’t accompany Severn out of his invalid’s cell, and eventually Severn’s sympathies wouldn’t allow him to strike out solo. “Poor Keats . . . opens his eyes [from sleep] in great horror and doubt—but when they fall upon me—they close gently and open and close until he falls into another sleep—The very thought keeps me by him until he dies.” Was it a thousand years ago that Severn had won the Royal Academy’s gold medal for a painting called The Cave of Despair? He lived in it now.
“Keats?” he’ d ask, solicitously.
“Severn. . . .” It burbled out, toward the end, as if from a tar pit.
Toward the end, Keats wrote to Charles Brown, “There is one thought enough to kill me—I have been well, healthy, alert, &c, walking with her—and now. . . . I am leading a posthumous existence.”
On the tenth of December, Keats vomited a pint of blood, dark and syrupy. He was, wrote Severn, “more prepared for his death than I was.” For two more months the hemorrhagings, those way stations of dying, became a fact of life.
On the night of 21 February, Severn heard strenuous gurgling issue from Keats’s throat. The poet asked him if he had ever seen anyone die. No, he replied. “Well then I pity you poor Severn—what trouble and danger you have gotten into for me—now you must be firm for it will not last long—I shall soon be laid in the quiet grave.”
“But,” Gigante says, “when the sun came shining through the window the next morning, and he was still alive to see it, John dissolved in tears.”
And at 11 pm on 23 February, he died in Severn’s arms.
His body was wrapped in a winding sheet. His unopened letters from Fanny Brawne—as if some sonnet was tidily brought to closure in its final line—were placed above his heart.
At the end, are we vouchsafed a vision of our entire life brought up to that moment, a clear shape? Oh, we know what was in us: the hurly-burly pourings of thought and emotion we broadcast hither and yon, the cinctures of abstemiousness and the huge voluptuary excesses, the dreams that succeeded as well as the nosedive dreams in hundreds of fragments, the whoop-ass, the bubble of quietude, all of the human bouillabaisse, olla podrida, and haggis that we call a life . . . but do we see the final shape all this will have made? As the poet Stephen Dunn asks, “Who were you, and who was I? / Such questions seemed like a lifelong job.”
In an essay on Las Vegas brothels, Ginger Strand considers that city’s well-remunerated sex professionals who flicker from being Ellen or Wanda or Margaret to being Allure and Honey Dew and Mistress Stern and then back. “Jocelynne” drives ten hours to The Bunny Ranch for her high-dollar gigs: “I need that ten hours to go from being soccer mom to being Jocelynne.” Strand says, “Academic sociologists Barbara G. Brents, Crystal A. Jackson, and Kathryn Hausbeck . . . point out that the global economy’s shift to selling experiences, things like themed travel, preprogrammed adventure, or fantasy [think of role-playing games and their wizard/sorceress avatars], has played into . . . [how] we have grown comfortable seeing ourselves as multiple. We’re one person at work, another on Facebook, another in bed with a lover. In fact, there may not even be a ‘real’ self at the center, just endless new versions.”
We’re serial us. And surely this chimes chummily with a post-Newtonian quantum-mechanical cosmos where a subatomic particle seems to heckle our comprehension, zinging in and out of “impossibly” differing simultaneous states of sub-existence; where we’re mainly a field of energy always redoing itself in emptiness.
Keats knew what’s still today our common understanding of how this works on the cellular level: “I dare say you have altered,” one letter says. “Every man does—our bodies every seven years are completely fresh-materiald.”
He made it to three-and-a-half seventh selves. Did he sense, in that near-to-final moment as Severn helped turn him to the sun, his priest-king guardian spirit appear from some future world, from some sky-scanning aerie, with a summary of those twenty-five years and their promiseful accomplishments?
Perhaps. And when he closed his eyes, was it then, along with his eyelids, that the lid of his life clicked shut, like a jar, like an ancient Egyptian canopic jar with the holdings of the mortal body inside it, in its darkness? Perhaps. As always: so many perhapses.
And perhapses aren’t answers. Nor are these kinds of questions answerable.
But the light was a fact, and it bathed his face. The light was an incontrovertible fact, and it’s been here, either obviously or covertly, in all eight sections of this. It bathed his face and perhaps . . . perhaps . . . he could feel it as we know it to be, the all-irradiant vehicle of delivery and the substance being delivered . . . in one. The perfect marriage: photon and ray, purely bodiless energy even as it carries the whole of our solid, embodied world. They bathed his face, this form and this content, married in the physics and the poetry, in the flesh and the spirit, they bathed his face like a consecration, in sickness and health, for richer or poorer, married until the eventual death of the solar system do them part.
Most of the foregoing comes from the universe you live in. A little comes from a nearly identical alternate universe in my head. As the protagonist of Sean Russell’s novel The Compass of the Soul says, “The story you told us that night . . . the meaning was clear, the emotional truth there for anyone to hear. The facts,” he shrugged, “the facts should not be mistaken for truth.”
For John Keats: primarily Denise Gigante, The Keats Brothers, and Robert Mighall, Keats; with extra context from Daniel J. Boorstin, The Discoverers; Richard Holmes, The Age of Wonder; Ginger Strand, “Company Town” in Tin House #57.
For Clyde Tombaugh: David H. Levy, Clyde Tombaugh: Discoverer of Pluto; Marcus Chown, Solar System; with an able assist from Richard Grossinger, The Night Sky, and Michael Byer’s novel Percival’s Planet.
For science fiction: Isaac Asimov, The Stars, Like Dust; James A. Corrick, Double Your Pleasure; Wilson Tucker, To the Tombaugh Station (both magazine and book versions).
Scattered factoids were gleaned from Ross King’s novel Ex-Libris, and from a clutter of clippings from issues of Audubon, Fortean Times, National Geographic, New Scientist, and Smithsonian.