To John Keats
by Charlene Anderson
(Two Visits to John Keats’s Home: Hampstead Heath, London)
I. First Visit: (Summer 1966)
Twenty-five years ago
I walked into your house in Hampstead Heath.
It’s small, I thought, and no one’s home.
Browsing through your books,
admiring your tables and your chairs,
I wanted to sit down and talk to you.
But there was no one there, except the other tourists,
no one to invite us all to sit right down
and take some toast and tea.
Outside in the yard
I found some flowering bushes I’d never seen before
and thought them beautiful.
“Hydrangeas,” an English tourist told me, hurrying away.
I wanted to stand with you and hear you, in your fine British accent,
recount the history of hydrangeas since before the world began.
But no voice spoke. No hand reached out
with even one of those exotic blooms to take back to America with me.
Suddenly I was shivering. The fog was coming in
and transforming that temperate summer day to deepest winter chill.
I hurried away down the narrow street
and never looked back at your small cottage,
modest yard, burgeoning hydrangeas:
I couldn’t bring myself to see that there was no one there
to wave goodbye to me.
Time hurried past,
and in those busy years,
I soon forgot the sadness and the loneliness
I’d felt that dreary London day when I came to call on you
and found that you were permanently away.
I grew older. You stayed dead.
I moved at last to San Francisco and live now just off a quiet street,
in a house full of books and memories.
The patio in front has a speck of yard,
and almost every day in summer,
as the fog blows in, cold and damp off the ocean,
I’m out there wandering among my flowers.
And the one I love the best, I planted first,
a vibrant pink hydrangea.
At night I lie in bed, blankets pulled up around my chin,
listening to the foghorns wailing on the Bay.
Lying here in my small house in San Francisco,
I think about the other one in Hampstead Heath,
both full of memories and old books.
both with hydrangeas blooming in the yard.
One little house without you is quite enough, I muse.
I turn over, fall asleep, and dream of you.
II. Second Visit: (September 2011)
The tour guide says, as a doctor,
you cared for and contracted TB from your brother,
and died at twenty-five.
Still, somehow, in that brief span of time, and in your spare time too,
you managed to become a great English poet.
I snap some pictures of flowers growing along your fence
so I can paint them later.
Your words, “a thing of beauty is a joy forever”
filter through my mind and I wonder
if I have sufficient time left in this lifetime
for my painting or my writing to attain the merest hint of beauty.
Our lives, no matter how long,
are little more than fleeting whispers rustling down vast corridors of time.
You were the incredible exception:
only twenty-five years of life to create great poetry!
I hope whatever beauty any of us create does survive us to become a joy forever,
as yours certainly has.
But I think, not being the genius that you were,
for me, the process of creation, not what may come after it,
must suffice and be my true, though sadly finite, joy.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Charlene Anderson received an MA in English Literature from Purdue University and an MA in Research Psychology from San Francisco State University and spent most of her working life at the University of California San Francisco in grant administration. As a child, she always knew she would write, told stories to her friends, and even invented a pen name for herself, Charles Andrè. So, while working on budgets and submitting grant proposals at UCSF, she continued to write and, in 2001 published a novel, Berkeley’s Best Buddhist Bookstore. When Vistas & Byways was launched in 2015, she was pleased to be asked to chair the Editorial Board. She has served in that capacity ever since.
Other works in this issue:
Heaven or Earth?