Some months ago I came across the email address of my former English teacher from my schooldays of more than 35 years ago. It was during the BBC's TV poetry season and, after the screening of their documentary of the life of Eliot, I took the opportunity to contact him and thank him for sowing the seeds of a lifelong love of poetry in general, and for Eliot and Yeats in particular. I received a gratifying reply from a man who must by now be into his late 70's, and who was clearly delighted to hear from an erstwhile pupil, of whom he had reasonably fond recollection, and on whom some of his own literary passions had rubbed off. However... Since then I have acquired and imbibed this complete Keats edition, and I have considered emailing him again to chide him, at least light-heartedly, for never exposing us to this outstanding treasure of our literary heritage. But it is a serious question that an educated Englishman can get to age 51 without a serious encounter with Keats, whom I've since come to consider our second literary marvel after Shakespeare. Is this not symptomatic of a deprived childhood?
It has been a long, slow journey. Whenever I read poetry I read it out loud to ensure that I get the maximum of sense and rhythm from it. This book has been my read-aloud companion in all sorts of places over the summer just gone; the North Yorkshire Coast, Hadrian's Wall, by the bridge over the Wye at Hay and on London's South Bank. Fortunately I no longer care if passers by will consider such behaviour eccentric. But by far the most of it has been read in the bath where the acoustics are optimum.
My instincts are modernist. Until Keats, with the exception of Shakespeare, my interests started with Baudelaire, through to Rilke and so on. I have had a good try with Wordsworth and Shelley, but found the pride and self-assurance of their time and class, for the most part, alien and unengaging. But, whether it's a time in my life or a quality in the man himself I find there to be a reality in Keats' outlook that allows me to connect deeply enough to start enjoying the language, and my, what language it is.
All the poetry I have really enjoyed, till now, has been free verse. To my taste I have always found that the restraints imposed by rhyme and regular meter results in something that sounds artificial at best, and hopelessly stilted at worst. However, I have found with Keats that these apparent constraints are marvellously liberating, and one finds oneself in intimate communion with a mind whose facility with language is as freakishly enhanced as that of the greatest of mathematicians with respect to logic, or the greatest composers with patterns of sound. It is utterly baffling to my mundane mind how, despite the straitjackets of rhyme and meter, someone can still say exactly what they want to say, and a hundred times more beautifully than without those constraints.
I am curious as to why two reviews of selections have been associated with this complete collection. There are so many examples of perfection in the complete corpus that any number of wonderful and inspiring selections might be made. But to take on the complete works is a journey and a job of work not without its trials. Because of the briefness of his life somewhat of what has come to us is incomplete or in an unperfected state. Nonetheless, it is right that these works are included because even where the wholes are imperfect, there is always enough of dazzling brilliance about which to wrap one's heart and mind and tongue.