“This living hand now warm and capable” By John Keats

After reading this poem through once, I felt that it was unfinished, or perhaps there was more to be said. After doing some research on John Keats, I discovered, fittingly,  that the poet wrote this poem on a manuscript page of one of his unfinished poems. Regardless, this poem has so much meaning behind it that it is important to dissect it, line by line, to discover and elucidate its meaning.

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-calmed – see here it is –
I hold it towards you.

This poem can be referred to as a memento mori. This is a latin theory that serves as a warning or reminder of death. Upon reading this poem, I felt that was actually one of the main messages that the poet was trying to deliver to the reader; that we are all mortal and are all destined to die. This message can even be interpreted from the first line of the poem alone. “This living hand, now warm and capable” tells the reader this hand that is now warm with the blood running through it and capable of touch, will one day be lifeless and cold, meaning that it will be dead. This mystery hand that we are introduced to is also capable “of earnest grasping” perhaps suggesting clinging to a loved one or even clinging/hanging on to his own life. After doing some research I believe that both suggestions are plausible. It seems as though the poet was sensing his impending death since he suffered with tuberculosis at the time and it seems as though John Keats was desperate to impart the urgency of action. However, it also seems as though the poet was yearning for someone to take advantage of his touch or else they be “haunted” with regret by not doing so after he had passed. The person he may have been yearning for to take his hand may have been Fanny Brawne, his lover at the time. This haunting hand seems to be the central image of this creepy poem.

The initial symbolism of the poem demonstrates to the reader that at the time, the poet has yet to go outside his comfort zone but soon he grasps out with this creepy hand of his, seemingly towards a lover, he immediately begins to fret over the “cold” or rejection. There are reoccurring references to warmth and cold throughout the poem. For example,  Keats discusses the icy silence of a tomb, which could possibly represent an awkward silence following a rejection while giving the reader the impression that he would die if his lover does not accept his hand, possibly a symbol of his love.

“So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights.” This line could be interpreted in several different ways. Focusing on the hand as a symbol of love, this line may suggest that John Keats, who according to history may have been dying at the time, is telling his lover that he will still watch over her and will visit her in her dreams. However, the words used in this line are quite eerie rather than comforting. This dreary image is overridden by the next line which states “That thou would wish thine own heart dry of blood” This vivid imagery of red life portrayed by blood streaming again ironically brings life to the poem back to the poem.

Keats uses incredible imagery throughout the poem that gives the poem its haunting power: “icy silence” seems to give off a cold chill through its delicate sibilance and assonance while the return of the unreal and abstract “dreaming” and bodily “stream” of “blood”  seen in the line “So in my veins red life might stream again,” gives off a feeling of warmth, This extended hand serves as 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. Perhaps Keats is suggesting that if his lover accepts his love it will be a good or warm feeling, but if she rejects it, it will be cold and only continue to haunt her.

And thou be conscience-calmed – see here it is –I hold it towards you. These last two lines are very important to the overall message of the poem. Although there may be several interpretations to this poem, these last two lines reassure me of what the poet is trying to say. It seems that he is submitting his hand for either acceptance or rejection, offering his hand, possibly in marriage.

Another important aspect to note is that the last word in the poem “you” is not used throughout the rest of the poem. The poet continuously uses phrases such as “thy days,” “thy dreaming nights,” “thou wouldst wish thine own heart dry of blood”, but never mentions the word you. His use of you  in the last line also reassures the fact that he is talking to his lover and asking her whether or not she will accept his hand.

The images of the poem convey the deeper meaning of a lover’s inner battle through simply the warmth, or coldness, of a hand. Without such imagery the poem would offer no deeper meaning and would not be thought provoking in the mildest sense. Although this is just my own opinion regarding the analysis of this poem, there could be several other interpretations, which demonstrates the beauty of poetry. No one really knows the true meaning behind the poem unless we ask Keats himself.  Who knows? Maybe his hands were just cold and he just wanted someone else to come help warm them up!



One thought on ““This living hand now warm and capable” By John Keats

  1. Sherein, Lovely work. I especially like: “To reach out and take that hand is not to embrace life or death, but to acknowledge both.” A strong insight, elegantly put. You don’t wrestle with the word that gives me the most trouble when I read this poem, or fragment: “conscience,” and the compound he makes of it: “conscience-calmed.” I suppose it could just be Keats warning the you that regrets of every kind become incapable of being assuaged once someone is dead. Although the suggestion that the you would prefer to be dead (or at least to feel nothing), rather than live with the haunting insoluble regrets, makes a certain kind of sense. You handle the whole discussion admirably. And you rightly end with a wry look at the possibility that we’re reading much more into these lines than Keats ever intended!


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