John Keats was in his early twenties when he wrote the sad, prescient sonnet that begins,
When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has glean’d my teeming brain,
Before high-piled books, in charact’ry,
Hold like rich garners the full-ripen’d grain…
You gotta love that agricultural imagery. I’m envious of that teeming, which at first sounds a little boastful on Keats’ part; at my age I have to work slowly and methodically to find new thoughts which my brain grudgingly parcels out, and I only teem when I’ve had too much Sudafed. Isn’t it strange, then, that Keats envisions his writing process as gleaning rather than, say, harvesting, especially since he’s planning to fill a rich garner? Gleaning was, after all, a project for the poor, gathering up the leftovers once a commercial harvest was complete. To describe your brain as teeming ought to go along with picking up more than just scraps.
Maybe his point is that nothing ought to be wasted–that he wanted it all. Yes, his brain was teeming, and yes, he would harvest and harvest and then keep right on harvesting. This appetite, this energy, this extraordinary ambition, makes me think of Thomas Wolfe’s remark that the artist is life’s Hungry Man. He can never get enough.
I know the feeling. Keats, of course, filled some rich granaries, all right, but died way too young. You could say that he died as he lived.
Note to self:
1. Get brain to teem.
2. Glean teeming brain.