Fitzgerald and Keats

“For awhile after you quit Keats all other poetry seems to be only whistling or humming.” – F. Scott Fitzgerald

The Great Gatsby and people’s fascination with it is something I can’t quite put my finger on. It was only after I’d read it for the first time and that I began to learn about F. Scott Fitzgerald’s influences and possible influences that I began to understand more. I don’t know how The Great Gatsby is studied in school, how the material is taught or what topics are covered, however in my self-study of the book and Fitzgerald’s writings I became interested in his apparent preoccupation with John Keats.

Keats’ influence on Fitzgerald is something that seems to be generally overlooked, but that shouldn’t be ignored as I believe it’s an important key to understanding – and perhaps even enhancing one’s own enjoyment – of his works. Fitzgerald wasn’t alone in admiring or reading the Romantic poet: many of his contemporaries and fellow writers studied the Romantics, as well as the classics, in school and continued to read them later in life, as well as being influences on their own writings. Through his admiration – and possible idolization – of Keats, Fitzgerald sought to emulate him, as can be found in examples of his work.

It’s been argued that Fitzgerald wanted to be a poet, as well as a writer. In The Great Gatsby, an epigraph appears in the form of a short poem:

Then wear the gold hat, if that will move her;
If you can bounce high, bounce for her too,
Till she cry “Lover, gold-hatted, high-bouncing lover,
I must have you!”

This poem is by a certain Thomas Parke D’Invilliers – actually a pen name of Fitzgerald’s, as well as the name of a character in his debut novel This Side of Paradise. One can easily find online other poems written by him, under his own name, but it is apparent that he is remembered more by his prose than his verses. Yet even within the prose, he develops his own poetry. Keats’ influence is made apparent in this example from The Great Gatsby:

“He lit Daisy’s cigarette from a trembling match, and sat down with her on a couch far across the room, where there was no light save what the gleaming floor bounced in from the hall.”

In a 1938 letter to his daughter, Scottie, he admits that he adapted a passage from Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale into the example above. The original lines:

But there is no light,
Save from what heaven is with the breezes blown
Through verdurous gloom and winding mossy ways

Most notably, the title for his last completed novel, Tender is the Night, is again taken from Ode to a Nightingale. (Of a personal interest, “a trembling match” reminds me of P.G. Wodehouse’s penchant to make inanimate objects the vehicle for a character’s emotion to punctuate a scene, i.e. a moody sausage ed: “a thoughtful lump of sugar”. However, I don’t think that Fitzgerald was necessarily trying to achieve the same result – Wodehouse’s intent was usually for comic effect.)

A final example from The Great Gatsby, of Fitzgerald emulating Keats, comes in the form of perhaps one of its most well-known passages when Gatsby begins to show Daisy his wealth by tossing all of his shirts into a heap on the table. Several critics have noticed it bears striking similarity from a passage in The Eve of St. Agnes, as both women (Daisy and Madeline) weep.

Perhaps that is what attracts people so – Gatsby’s elusiveness. For, after reading it, I was left with the feeling of knowing very little about Gatsby. People who read it will read it over and over, and obsess over it, to glean what they can but it is only as much as what the character Gatsby offers of himself – and further, what readers will interpret and take from it. Set in the Jazz Age (a term Fitzgerald coined himself), it is considered as encapsulating the glamour of that era but it is also considered a love story (primarily, Gatsby and Daisy – or at the very least, Gatsby’s idealization of her), a story about old money and new money, the American dream… Perhaps what makes Gatsby, the novel, great is its enigma.

Reading it again with the reference of Keats’ influence, the language is enriched and washes over one like music. (Not that it wasn’t before, but that enrichment is borne from an understanding of those references.) When used well and executed in a particular way language can perform a similar function as cinematography can in film, not only invoking mood or atmosphere but also sometimes enhancing the story, in addition to fulfilling the primary purposes of storytelling and communication.

While I hesitate to draw comparisons or even paralells, it’s not without interest that Fitzgerald – much like Keats – died, forgotten. Unlike Keats, though, he enjoyed the – albeit, relatively brief – limelight and was famous; whereas Keats was never famous within his lifetime and, on his deathbed, considered himself a failure, as demonstrated by his choice of epitaph on his tombstone: “Here lies One whose name was writ in Water.” Both, however, have regained popularity after their deaths – and recently, Fitzgerald especially so in light of Baz Luhrmann’s movie.

Lastly and on more of a fun note, it’s something that I consider too important to ignore that two of my favourite actors, Tom Hiddleston and Ben Whishaw, played these two literary characters. Below, a video of BW talking about his research for playing John Keats in Bright Star.

TH as Fitzgerald in Midnight in Paris: (since hearing recordings of Fitzgerald’s voice, I wonder if he had ever heard his voice because his accent sounds quite close.)

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