A Literary or a Scientific Answer to a Human Question?

The current issue of UU World has a lovely long meditation on mortality and John Keats, “Loss, poetry, and the ballast of faith“, by Kathryn Hamilton Warren. Go on–read it. It’s not long and it’s worth your time. Then I’ll put a small tile on her mosaic.

Kathryn Hamilton Warren isn’t the only one of us who finds answers to deep human questions in art, especially the written word. I find them there, and chances are you do, too. I also find answers in science. So do you, probably, and so does Kathryn Hamilton Warren.

But what of my mother’s spirit, her energy, the person and the presence brought into being by that utterly contingent constellation of atoms? This, of course, is the great question, about which science says this:

There’s another way of answering this question, by going back to John Keats and one of his last works–“This Living Hand“:

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

It’s built to be read aloud. The meaning falls into place after a time or two. Most criticism takes this to be Keats expressing fear of mortality, which is true enough, and goes on from there into considerably darker interpretations. Everyone’s a critic, right?

But that’s not how I read it. This poem says:

I am alive now (line one)
I will be dead soon (lines two and three)
You’ll think about me (line four)
You’d do anything to have me back (lines five and six)
It’s okay (line seven)
I’m still here (line eight)

That’s where Keats’ spirit went. It went onto paper and into the people he knew and out into the world generally while he lived. Now that his body is gone, he is still reaching his hand out to us to freely give us what he can:

And thou be conscience-calm’d—see here it is—
I hold it towards you.

We don’t have to make our “own heart dry of blood” for Keats, any more than he died for us. Keats lived, and  reaches out to us today.

That’s where I figure my mom’s spirit is, and my dad’s, and someday mine. Holding my hand out, what’s left of me in the world, offering.

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