Death

Keats And A Creative Fear Of Death


“When I have fears that I may cease to be

~~Before my pen has glean’d my teeming brain,

Before high-piled books, in charact’ey,

~~Hold like rich garners the full-ripen’d grain;

When I behold, upon the night’s starr’d face,

~~Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,

And think that I may never live to trace

~~Their shadows, with the magic hand of chance;

And when I feel, fair creature of an hour!

~~That I shall never look upon thee more,

Never have relish in the faery power

~~Of unreflecting love!–then on the shore

Of the wide world I stand alone, and think

Till love and fame to nothingness do sink.

– John Keats, When I Have Fears
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I find this poem so deeply relatable. I have many books and stories I am in process of completing and I always tend to keep more content in my head than on paper. I would assume that most other artists have contemplated the fear of dying without completing the work they can visualize. J.D. Salinger had a 6 chapters draft of The Catcher And The Rye stuffed in his jacket when he landed on the Normandy beaches on D-Day. I wonder what other manuscripts didn’t survive that day? That’s not to mention the countless authors like Dickens who have died in the midst of some of their most intriguing work.

This poem is not simply about leaving unfinished work. It’s also about the fear of leaving behind the very inspirations of this world. Keats writes like a man nurtured by romanticized nature and the triumphs of artists before him. For him the standing alone, thinking, and sinking into nothingness must have been greater than most. To be inspired is to run great risk.

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Author Quotes: J.R.R. Tolkien On Creativity and Death


There are many obvious reasons to love J.R.R. Tolkien. As the years go on his son Christopher Tolkien, who is now quite an old man himself, continues to publish the nearly completed works to which his father was devoted. Just when we assume that everything great has been revealed, the author who has been dead for half a century is revealed to have written another riveting tale to add to his impressive cannon.

Aside from his fiction work, however, I am brought back time and again to the philosophical moorings upon which the author founded all of his creative thinking. His essay “On Fairy Stories” is, in my opinion, a breakthrough and little-rivaled treatment of the nature of inspiration and the mystical and supremely natural traits inherent in human creativity.

Apart from this (or perhaps as a part of this), there is one other area of thought that constantly brings me back to considering Tolkien’s creative works, thoughts on creativity, and thoughts on life in general. He was obsessed with everything being layered upon a recognition of death. Death surrounds us. Death defines our lives. Around 1951, Tolkien wrote a 10,000 letter to Milton Waldman of Collins Pub. in hopes of convincing them to include The Silmarillion in their decision to print The Lord Of The Rings. In the midst of explaining the value he sees in what really was his entire life’s work, he makes this clarifying statement

“In the cosmogony there is a fall: a fall of Angels we should say. Though quite different in form, of course, to that of Christian myth. These tales are ‘new’, they are not directly derived from other myths and legends, but they must inevitably contain a large measure of ancient wide-spread motives or elements. After all, I believe that legends and myths are largely made of ‘truth’, and indeed present aspects of it that can only be received in this mode; and long ago certain truths and modes of this kind were discovered and must always reappear. There cannot be any ‘story’ without a fall – all stories are ultimately about the fall – at least not for human minds as we know them and have them.”

Tolkien always returns to contemplate the extremes of falleness against sheer natural beauty, death against the irripressable joy of living. In Tolkien’s work many find that the escape of the good story actually leaves them ready to enjoy their own life more fully rather than longing for a different world. I think Tolkien’s tragic personal history and the closeness of death throughout his formative years built a resilience and awareness in him that ultimately directed his creations and provided that almost indescibable beauty and familiarity which captures his readers.

Tolkien does himself and his work justice when he summarizes his work with a Simone de Beauvoire quote on the mysteries of dying and living.

 

*Althought I find the writing and editing quite odd, I highly suggest watching the entire Tolkien episode of the BBC’s In Their Own Words, available here in part 1 and part 2.