Joel Brower's Commentary on John Keats's "This Living Hand"
This short poem by John Keats—just seven and a half lines of blank verse—was most likely written sometime very near the end of 1819, a remarkable year in the life of the 24-year-old poet, during which he'd written "The Eve of St. Agnes," "Bright Star," "La Belle Dame Sans Merci," "Ode on a Grecian Urn," "Ode to a Nightingale," "Ode on Melancholy," and "Ode on Indolence." Not bad for one year's work. Even better, he was in love. In April, he'd become secretly engaged to the "beautiful and elegant, graceful, silly, fashionable and strange" Fanny Brawne (the description is from a letter Keats wrote to his brother George on December 16, 1818, just after he'd met Brawne for the first time), and they had made the engagement official at some point during the autumn. Meanwhile, however, the tuberculosis that would eventually kill the poet had already begun to press the life out of him. In February of the following year, 1820, he would suffer a severe lung hemorrhage, after which he would write no more poems, and he would die a year after that, in February, 1821, at the age of 25. "This living hand" was written at the peak moment of Keats's life, when he was filled with "ripeness to the core," as he wrote in "To Autumn," and just before he was to begin his awful decline.
Keats wrote "This living hand" in the margins of the manuscript of a longer poem he was working on called "The Cap and Bells," a satirical and slightly ribald fairy tale full of witticisms and winks, very different from his usual serious, meditative poems. Why was he writing such a poem? Perhaps his friend Charles Brown put him up to it, thinking Keats might be able to sell it and raise some much-needed money. Perhaps after writing so many intensely solemn poems in the preceding year, and being so preoccupied about his health, finances, and love life, Keats wanted to play around with something more light-hearted. Whatever the reason, the poem didn't much agree with Keats—he planned to publish it under a pseudonym rather than his own name, and, as it turns out, he never finished it.
We may imagine that one morning Keats found himself looking at his own hand as it glided across the page, tossing off the frothy lines of "The Cap and Bells," and that he was struck by the realization that "this living hand now warm and capable" would soon be "cold and in the icy silence of the tomb." The lines came to him, and he didn't even reach for a different sheet of paper; he just wrote them right there in the margin of "The Cap and Bells," as if to deliberately cast a shadow of morbidity over that poem's bright, comic lines. I like thinking about that moment, and imagining that Keats became suddenly irritated with the artificiality of "The Cap and Bells," a poem written to distract and entertain, rather than to illuminate some essential human truth. Perhaps "This living hand" is a kind of vindictive gesture, a splash of ink in the faces of the silly characters that populate "The Cap and Bells"? The structure of the poem may support such a reading. Notice how Keats begins with a hypothetical scenario—"would, if it were cold . . . "—and then builds up that scenario with layer after layer of syntax and significance, preventing you from even taking a breath as you read on and the sense of inexorability swells in a gathering wave of anger and fear until that wave finally breaks—"see—here it is—"—and the mood switches suddenly from the subjunctive to the indicative, as if the poet is casting aside all evasions and artifice and thrusting toward us the inevitability of death.
This isn't necessarily what Keats had in mind. Some have suggested that the "you" in the poem is Brawne, and that in the poem Keats is both boasting about how much she'll miss him when he has died, and at the same time panicking that because of his illness, she may no longer want to be with him. (Indeed, two months after he writes this poem, Keats will offer to break the engagement, because he doesn't want Brawne to feel trapped in a relationship with a dying man.) Other critics have noted that at around the time Keats wrote "This living hand," his friend Brown was trying to talk him into writing a verse drama, and since verse dramas often use blank verse, it's possible that Keats was imagining a character in a play speaking these lines, rather than himself. We'll never know whether Keats imagined himself or a dramatic character speaking these lines, or whether he imagined the "you" to be Brawne, the reader, or someone else entirely, but the poem gains power rather than loses it on account of this ambiguity, since so many different readings are possible.
Any interpretation of the poem has to acknowledge the masterful use of rhythm I've described—that vertiginous build-up and abrupt revelation—and has to reckon too with the sublime weirdness of the poem's sentiment, which might be paraphrased as something like, "If I were dead, you'd feel so awful that you'd be willing to die yourself if it would bring me back to life. In fact, only by trading your life for mine would you be able to have a clear conscience." This is not exactly humble! Literature and history are full of examples of people who consent to die so that others might live, but can you name any examples of people who demanded that others die in order that they themselves might live? This seems to be the outrageous demand that Keats is making when he extends that hand at the end of the poem.
But it's more complicated than that. We need to remember that Keats has not said the hand is dead; he's only talked about what would happen if it were dead. As Keats "holds it towards you" at the end of the poem, the hand is still very much alive, and "warm and capable of earnest grasping." Death—the poet's, and your own—may be inevitable, but it is still at this moment being held in abeyance, and the poet's veins are streaming with "red life." Keats has managed, in this short poem, to make that extended hand a figure for both warm life and cold death, but above all for the understanding that the two are inextricable. To reach out and take that hand is not to embrace life or death, but to acknowledge both.
Finally, the poem's last line. Is it confident, or desperate? I can hear it both ways.