Sincerest Forms of Flattery

As we come to the tenth day of National Poetry Month 2024, I’m turning my attention to one specific poet, John Keats (1795-1821). Many literary scholars count Keats among the all-time great poets.

One poem written by Keats (a sonnet from 1818) goes by the clunky title When I have Fears That I May Cease To Be. Given Keats was still in his twenties when he died, the sonnet provides a curious window into his spirit. In my view, the poem deserves multiple readings and invites contemplative thought. (See the link above to read the poem for yourself.)

Often, when I reflect on works of poetry, there are lines which fix themselves to my brain. This Keats poem is no exception. As with many classic pieces of poetry, my mind insists on snatching images and rhythmic word pictures which I must then re-write, giving them my own take. When Oscar Wilde noted Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, he understood the human tendency. My own sonnet simmered a long while before completion.

But first, a brief back story … During my mother’s early childhood, she lived in several multi-generational households. Her father (struggling from the damage done by mustard gas during World War I) was often confined in convalescent hospitals. One extended family situation included my mother, my grandmother, my great aunt (with husband and several children) as well as my blind great-grandmother (a widow of advanced years).

I can recall several times my mother told me it was her job before the evening meal to climb the stairs, proceed quietly down the hall, knock lightly on the door and enter a darkened bedroom where she’d find (my) great-grandmother, usually sitting in her rocking chair. In hushed tones, my mother would address the blind widow:  “It’s time for dinner, Granny. I’m here to help you down the stairs.”

From this early age (somewhere between 4 and 6 years old), my mother had an awareness of blindness. Because her blindness had developed late in life, my great-grandmother’s condition was mostly chalked up to a side-effect of old age. The condition (now known as macular degeneration or AMD) wasn’t part of common parlance at that time. It was simply old people with old people’s issues.

As it turns out, age-related macular degeneration is hereditary and as my mother aged into her late 60s, she began to suspect the condition would become part of her existence. Eventually, her visual impairment worsened. I recognized I was also at risk. We’re fortunate in 2024 to benefit from medical advances as well as regular screenings.

The sonnet below provides contemplation about when I have fears … though I wouldn’t call it fear so much as an awareness of one possible future scenario for me. Unlike Keats, the notion of an early death (thankfully!) doesn’t trouble me. I acknowledge I’m blessed to have reasonably good eyesight still, and to have enjoyed God’s favor throughout life.

Macular-D, a sonnet

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