A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
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-calm’d–see here it is–
I hold it towards you.
— John Keats 1795–1821
Edward Hirsch says about this poem:
…It was sometime in December, 1819, and Keats’s health was perilous. The wastage of his body was becoming apparent. Leigh Hunt remembered that his friend often looked at his hand, “which was faded, and swollen in the veins, and say it was the hand of a man of fifty.” Keats had received his death warrant from tuberculosis, and the great poems were behind him—the sonnets, the odes, including “To Autumn,” which may be the most perfect poem in English….
The poet dreams through his hand, a sign of dexterity, the capable movement of a capable imagination. The person who wrote “This living hand” knew, at the very moment of writing, the “warm” hand with which he could still touch you would soon be “cold” and unable to grasp anyone or anything. He is distraught, terrified really, and reaches out for contact. He is enraged and displays his hand to prove to you he exists—”see here it is.” He converts the listener, the reader, from a formal “thou” to a more intimate “you.” The sentence moves from the conditional future to the present tense. He will someday be collaring you from beyond the grave, but he can only physically enact that gesture while he is still alive.
Keats understood that he would probably be dead by the time you encounter this fragment. He suggests that he would like to cheat death by haunting the reader’s days and nights, troubling your dreams, so devastating you that you would be willing to sacrifice yourself and calm your conscience by trading places with him. This impossible blackmail—”So in my veins red life might stream again”—is a last desperate gesture. He once lifted up a living hand. It reaches out to us still, but now through words. Here it is—this made work, this living thing. Look, he is holding out his hand. He is challenging you, whoever you are, to grasp it.
From “On John Keats’s ‘This living hand'” by Edward Hirsch. Published by The Poetry Society of America.