A summary of a remarkable short poetry fragment by John Keats
‘This living hand, now warm and capable’ is an oddity amongst John Keats’s poetry – indeed, amongst Romantic poetry in general. Just eight lines long – or seven-and-a-half, even – it’s almost a fragment, written in blank verse, almost as if it’s a snippet of spoken dialogue from an unwritten play. (Fittingly, Keats wrote ‘This living hand’ on a manuscript page of one of his unfinished poems.) The most likely date for the poem’s composition is towards the end of 1819. A short summary and analysis of the poem’s contents (if it can be called a ‘poem’) may help to elucidate its meaning.
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 would wish thine own heart dry of blood
So in my veins red life might stream again,
And thou be conscience-calmed – see here it is –
I hold it towards you.
The poem, like many other poems, is a memento mori: it reminds us that we are all mortal and destined to die. The speaker’s hand is, at present, warm with the blood running through it and capable of touch (‘earnest grasping’ suggesting clinging to a loved one, but also perhaps hanging on to life: Keats already feared he was not long for this world). But if he were dead and his hand cold, his hand would haunt the addressee of the lines, to the extent that she (and we can speculate that the addressee of the poem is a lover or would-be lover – possibly Keats’s own betrothed, Fanny Brawne) would wish that she had been the one to die instead, so that she might be relieved of her conscience.
Why should she feel this pricking of conscience over the death of the poet? The poem does not tell us. It ends with something strikingly direct and demonstrative – ‘see here it is – / I hold it towards you’. There’s something dramatic about it, so that even if the lines weren’t written as the tiniest fragment of an unwritten drama, they resonate with dramatic potential, with the ‘thisness’ of the stage direction. There’s also something suggestive about that final line breaking off, midway – just as Keats’s own hand would be stilled by death when he was in his prime, struck down by tuberculosis while only twenty-five years of age.
The poem’s directness and plainness of speech make it unusual, even amongst Keats’s other poems. One of the most masterly things about it is the way it holds in delicate – indeed, fragile – balance a series of opposites: living/dead, warm/cold, nights/days, thou/I, now/then (now my hand is warm and capable, but then, if I were to die, it would be cold and lifeless). This is what makes the poem so chilling: Keats is writing about a hand that is living (indeed, most probably the very hand he used to write the poem), but speculating on what it will be like when he is dead and the blood had stopped flowing through it. And it is a case of when, not if – not just because we all die, but because Keats already knew, when he wrote the poem, that he would be dying sooner than most. (The poem’s composition predates his first major lung haemorrhage by a few months, but the symptoms of TB were already present.) But Keats does not say when: instead, he holds the very prospect of death at arm’s length (‘if it were cold / And in the icy silence of the tomb’).
Then there are the wonderful local effects that lend the poem its haunting power: ‘icy silence’ seems to give off a cold chill through its delicate sibilance and assonance; the return of the unreal and abstract ‘dreaming’ in the viscerally real and bodily ‘stream’ of blood reminds us that dreams are nothing if we do not live to see them realised. And finally, the last word of the poem, which is perhaps the biggest mystery of all: ‘you’. It seems a simple enough word, but it is actually hugely surprising. Why? Because if we look back through the poem, we find ‘thy days’, ‘thy dreaming nights’, ‘thou wouldst wish thine own heart dry of blood’, ‘thou be conscience-calmed’. ‘Thou’, not ‘you’. Why does Keats suddenly shift from the intimate ‘thou’ address to the more formal and distant (or deferential) ‘you’ form of address?
There is no easy answer to this, but one analysis that might be proposed is that the poet is submitting his hand for either acceptance or rejection, in a formal manner: he is, quite literally, offering his hand. On 18 October 1819 – around the time Keats probably wrote this fragment – Keats proposed to Fanny Brawne. She accepted, granting her own hand in marriage. He offered his hand, and she vouchsafed hers in return. They were destined never to marry; Keats would be dead in two years. Twelve years after Keats’s death, Fanny married, and raised a family of three children. She died in 1865, having outlived Keats by more than 40 years.
More Romantic poetry can be found in related posts: our analysis of Wordsworth’s classic sonnet ‘Composed upon Westminster Bridge’, our analysis of Percy Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’, and our analysis of Keats’s ‘On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer’.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.