New York Review of Books
July 24, 2017
In 1803, the guillotine was a common children’s toy. Children also had toy cannons that fired real gunpowder, and puzzles depicting the great battles of England. They went around chanting, “Victory or death!” Do childhood games influence character? We have to assume that they do, but let’s set aside such heartbreaking speculations for a moment. War—it’s not even a proper game—leaves influenza in its wake, and cadavers. Do childhood games typically leave cadavers behind in the nursery? Massacres in those little fairy-dust minds? Hoist the banners of victory across the table from the marzipan mountain to the pudding! It’s perhaps a dreadful thought, but we’ve seen clear evidence that both children and adults have a taste for imitation. Certainly, such questions should be explored, and yet let us allow that there is a purely metaphysical difference between a toy guillotine and war. Children are metaphysical creatures, a gift they lose too early, sometimes at the very moment they learn to talk.
John Keats (1795-1821) was seven years old and in school at Enfield. He was seized by the spirit of the time, by a peculiar compulsion, an impetuous fury—before writing poetry. Any pretext seemed to him a good one for picking a fight with a friend, any pretext to fight.
Fighting was to John Keats like eating or drinking. He sought out aggressive boys, cruel boys, but their company, as he was already inclined to poetry, must have provided some comic and burlesque treats. For mere brutality—without humor, make-believe, or whimsy—didn’t interest him. Which might lead a person to extrapolate that boys aren’t truly brutal. Yes, they are, but they have rules and an aesthetic. Keats was a child of action. He’d punched a yard monitor more than twice his size, and he was considered a strong boy, lively and argumentative. When he was brawling, his friend Clarke reports, Keats resembled Edmund Kean at theatrical heights of exasperation. His friends predicted a brilliant future for him in the military. Yet when his temper defused, he’d grow extremely calm, and his sweetness shone—with the same intensity as his rage had. The scent of angels. His earliest brushes with melancholy were suddenly disrupted by outbursts of nervous laughter. Moods, vague and tentative, didn’t settle over him so much as hurry past like old breezes.