If Rilke’s ‘Archaic Torso’ sees you without eyes, then the life and death masks of Keats touch you without ‘living hands.’ The mouth, so wide and fleshy, seems capable of kissing you, or of whispering in your ear. The eyelashes, so shockingly visible, pierce you (all Keats’s glances and depth-charge stares are contained beneath the bulbous lids like poems; these eyes are still, somehow, palpating life). The cupped philtrum, the wispy, fine hairline look tantalisingly warm, like a live body is warm and like Keats once said the stubble fields at Winchester looked warm. (1) How to distinguish between these life and death masks? The life mask is an arrow: the face propels itself, Hyperion-like, into Odes and Epics. The death mask’s sunken features are the ripples a stone makes when dropped into deep water (think of the letters here; ‘negative capability’ enacted, ‘uncertainties, mysteries and doubts’ deepening into an agony of the unsayable ). A voyage out and a journey back, the masks show us a Keats the ground of whose being was death and the apprehension of death.

1) See Keats’s letter to J.H. Reynolds of Autumn 1819

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