poppy fields :: the Death of John Keats

This is a short fictional scene inspired by the life and work of John Keats. It makes use of many references to Keats’ poetry, aesthetic and overarching themes. The character of Isabella is loosely based on the lesser known and short-lived love interest in Keats’ life. Given the nature of the scene and the sense of its ending, it is possible for the scene to be expanded into a larger text which tackles the ‘Keatsian’ oeuvre and life more methodically. That is an idea that for the moment, is writ in water.

Scene 1. A field of poppies. A young woman, Isabella, wanders the field. An old woman, Adelaide, accompanies her. 

Isabella: (Twirling a poppy in her hand) Oh Adelaide. Lies there a truth in this beauty, this ocean of poppies?

Adelaide: By truth, dost thou mean life? Speakest thou of the breath of the starling, or the span of its measured flight?

Isabella: The truth of living, Adelaide. The only truth we can know.

Adelaide: I think this ocean is its own truth, Isabella. You stand amongst these red blooms, lie amongst them; watch the world slip through their lips incarnadine. And you speak of a greater truth? Your life is contoured around these harbingers.

Isabella: (Drops the poppy, looks straight at Adelaide) Shall I cherish my mortality, then? Caress these flowers as though they were the very complement of my breath? Shall I cherish a beauty I know not eternal?


Adelaide: With the quiet desperation of a woman out of her time. Oh, with the very last gasp of your soul.

Isabella: But what about John, Adelaide? These poppies are his too!

Adelaide: Isabella, darling. John lives not for poppies, but for the stars of a twilight winter. His mind spans not the starling’s flight, but the infinite held in the small circle of the urn, forever circling, never falling within. In the ways of the poet, his forevers are perhaps larger than your own.

Isabella: You say I am not worthy of him?

Adelaide: Worth is never defined by magnitudes, Isabella. It is defined by the love of water for the earth o’er which it rests.

Isabella: What dost thou say, Adelaide?

Adelaide: The greatest love, Isabella, is that of the lakes. The stillness of water is the etching of its force, of its ephemerality, for it remembers the world as it was a moment before. The oceans are barren lands of change, worlds that we cannot enter for fear that we might lose our way. The rivers forget our love for them; they never stay to hear us speak. Why dost thou think that lovers meet by the lakes?

Isabella: But I am no fool! I understand! What greater sacrifice than to love those who can do nothing for you?

Adelaide: The one that thou art maketh. The field upon which you stand is but a reflection of thy self. Look upon it: the blooms have conquered the land, its waves froth incarnadine; crushed blood you can never wash off your hands. It is both an ocean and a river in all its terrible, terrible beauty. You do not know what happens when—

(Isabella reaches for a poppy – Adelaide gasps – Isabella plucks the poppy)

Adelaide: (Undertone of urgency with a hint of fear) You hold his life in your hands, Isabella. You may be but a word in his poetry, but every written word carries the etching of its maker’s heart. You endeavor toward the truth? The truth is that you possess a few strings of his mortality. Do you not see that the flower in your hand could be his life? This is not his home, it is his grave!

Isabella: (Urgency in voice) Thou liest, Adelaide! Purvey this beauty, the flowers of which you speak are not the populants of a valley of death! They adorn these hills with the quiet desperation of death faced with the beauty of life! Are these poppies not living? Is the sky not a shining blue? Thou speakest of the starlings- see you not their murmuration in the distance? I will not yield to the bland fear of your croaking wisdom! I shall move the mountains to offer him safe passage! This is his home!

Adelaide: Beware the beauty you see, Isabella. It is not the truth. Water falls not for the moans and chisels of earth. It flows over it, marks it, feeds the poppies but stays not for their gratitude. John is a man of evanescence. He does not know what the lakes of the world look like, for he is always chasing the water flowing by him, forever circling the urn, never falling within. (Increasing pitch in voice, but still maintains a somber effect) Do you understand, Isabella? You speak of sacrifice, of which you know naught. You speak of beauty- you have not lived long enough to see its transience. You seek truths greater than our poppies, yet refuse the very truth they stand for. You speak of love, of life, of the breath of birds and the skies, but you have not gazed into the darkling face of death.

Isabella: (In a calm, albeit angered tone) Death does not bother me, Adelaide. It bothers you, perhaps because you stand so close to it. (A flash of anger across Adelaide’s visage) I have lived in this ocean for all my life, and I have known the breath of winter as the camel does a parching tongue. Perhaps it is true that I hold John’s life in my hands, but you see this as a terrible thing, and I see it as beautiful. This valley is not for you. You are but a visitor, a silent character in a stage which I was born to appreciate and not deride as you do.

Adelaide: (Slight whisper, controlled emotion) Careful, child. I speak a truth born of age.

Isabella: (Shouts) Your truth is one of death, of transience, of a lack of meaning and an abundance of nothing! It is a world devoid of youthful color and beauty, the world that John desires to the greatest extent that I desire his heart! How dost thou live here?

Adelaide: (tired voice) I wander in a field of poppies, Isabella. I live not with abandon- I watch my step amongst these flowers. It has been a long time, and I have suffered greatly. I wish only for the sweet release of death, and as for beauty– there are many kinds.

Isabella: Then it is I who must leave. This ocean is but a frame. I seek the vitality of life, the fountain Hippocrene. I seek a world of infinite meaning, a world of love unbound where the waters bleed not the whispers of death into mine ears.

Adelaide: You shall come back, Isabella. None of us can escape the beauty in death.

Isabella: (scoffs) Beauty in death? Never!

(She plucks another poppy from the ground.) These I shall bring him.

(She turns and leaves, smiling at the beauty of the flower, suddenly brighter, somehow stronger than when it was bound to the earth.)

Adelaide: (Aside) (Walks toward the audience and faces them) (Voice breaking) Will she come back?




Note: Artwork is ‘In The Sun’ by Andrea Kahn.


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