One Whose Name Was Writ in Water: John Keats and the Page of Cups

keats cups

I like to assign tarot cards to fictional characters and historical individuals. It’s an enjoyable exercise, and useful in that it helps me get better acquainted with the cards. Three months of tarot-ing with the Rider-Waite deck and I’m still not entirely sure what I’m doing. More often than not the cards are just making fun of me, but I’m always making fun of myself, so that’s not a big surprise. For example, the 10 of Swords was sort of my primary card for this past week. I tend to favour Beth Maiden’s interpretation of this card, because the 10 of Swords really is so melodramatic, so over-the-top.

He's not just dead, he's super dead

He’s not just dead, he’s super dead

I take it as a reminder to not take myself so seriously — but also to be affected in my misery. I mean, what is the point in experiencing misery if you don’t do so theatrically? Take a shot of whiskey with an air of despair; broodily stare into the night sky at 2am, smoking cigarettes and listening to Sad Music. The more affected your behaviour, the more amusing it is, and that eases a lot of misery.

John Keats probably could have learned something from the 10 of Swords, because he was far too serious in his sadness. Not to say he couldn’t also be very playful and light-hearted: he once pretended to be a trumpet all evening instead of hanging out with Wordsworth, and he liked to get in sword fights using stalks of celery. But, you know, he lived in the 19th century, not in the 21st century with our glorious sense of post-modern irony. He was therefore pretty earnest in his misery.

Keats felt everything really strongly, which is part of why I associate him with the Page of Cups. Keats in general is very much a cups/water person. Extremely emotional and spiritual, often to his own detriment. I know little about psychology, but sometimes I wonder if Keats had BPD: he had such intense relationships, especially with women. When he was kid he held his mother at sword-point to stop her from leaving the house — talk about fear of abandonment. He wasn’t a very grounded individual. He could have used some pentacles in his life, seeing as he was really bad with money and all such humdrum things. But nope, our dear Keats was too divine for that mundane stuff. Born in the fall (the season whose element is water), specifically on October 31st, traditionally the day when the borders between this world and the next are thinnest, Keats comes across as a very ethereal being. I wrote my whole undergraduate thesis around the fact that Keats enthusiastically did not want to ‘exist.’ He figured that poets didn’t really have coherent selves, and Keats wanted to be a Poet first and foremost.

A Poet is the most unpoetical of any thing in existence; because he has no Identity — he is continually infor[ming] and filling some other Body — The Sun, the Moon, the Sea and Men and Women who are creatures of impulse are poetical and have about them an unchangeable attribute — the poet has none; no identity — he is certainly the most unpoetical of all God’s Creatures.

 -John Keats, in a letter to Richard Woodhouse (27 October 1818)

“Filling some other Body” — as if the Poet is a liquid that takes the shape of whatever vessel it’s poured into. Keats had wanted his gravestone to declare him “one whose name was writ in water.” Keats never wanted to be tangible, graspable; he wanted to be ethereal and ephemeral. And though at times he could be egotistical and ambitious, he was at his best when his work was without teleology. Jane Campion’s Bright Star really captures this of-the-moment Keats in the following lines — which I honestly keep misremembering as being from Keats’s letters, but it’s just Jane Campion really getting our sweet consumptive nightingale:

A poem needs understanding through the senses. The point of diving into a lake is not immediately to swim to the shore but to be in the lake, to luxuriate in the sensation of water. You do not work the lake out, it is an experience beyond thought. Poetry soothes and emboldens the soul to accept mystery.

The Page of Cups is that divine moment of luxuriation — though luxuriation is perhaps not the best word: it implies a kind of calmness, and divinity is not always calm. Like the fragmented end of Hyperion where Apollo is shriekingly stretched into something godly, the divine can be wonderfully painful.

Soon wild commotions shook him, and made flush
All the immortal fairness of his limbs;
Most like the struggle at the gate of death;
Or liker still to one who should take leave
Of pale immortal death, and with a pang
As hot as death’s is chill, with fierce convulse
Die into life: so young Apollo anguish’d;
His very hair, his golden tresses famed
Kept undulation round his eager neck.
During the pain Mnemosyne upheld
Her arms as one who prophesied.—At length
Apollo shriek’d;—and lo! from all his limbs
Celestial…

The Page of Cups is Christ-like in the Rider-Waite deck. I look at the fish poking its head out of the cup and I wonder, is the Page going to transform it into multiple fishes? What about the water behind him? Is he going to walk out onto it? But that water is not flat and calm, it’s wind-blown and rolling. Even Jesus might be knocked over and knocked out by a wave if he tried to walk on that.

Maybe self-destruction is the point, though. I mean, we’re all hurtling towards death. It would make sense if cups were, in the end, all about drowning. I figure Keats understood that better than most as he gurgled his last breath, drowning in the puréed remains of his own lungs. Tuberculosis makes for an ugly death, but the Romantics and Victorians elevated it to a divine illness. Spes phthisica is the euphoric burst of creativity supposedly felt by those dying of pulmonary tuberculosis, as if being on the edge of death/nothingness is when you’re closest to the divine. Walking on water right before the wave envelops you.

Ode to a wet nightingale

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One thought on “One Whose Name Was Writ in Water: John Keats and the Page of Cups

  1. Pingback: ten & ten | daughter of cups

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