By Joan Mulvihill.
“Fears that I may cease to be before my pen has gleaned my teeming brain” – Keats
That quote is scribbled on the cover of one of my teenage sketchpads. If I hadn’t committed to writing it down maybe I’d have forgotten it by now but one way or another it’s lodged itself firmly in my brain. I like the thought of Keats racing his pen along the page trying to keep pace with tumbling thoughts tripping out over ideas for fear that he might die before he had set them free. Did he know at the time of its writing that he was to die young?
Keats died of tuberculosis at only 25 years of age, in 1821. And here we are almost 200 years later and when asked to write about Ideas, it is my scribbled quote in 1990 that first came to mind – Keats’ urgency and determination to get his thoughts to paper, that they might find their way into the world and make it more beautiful.
Keats’ sense of urgency is spurred by his ill health and likely short life so while Ideas are often borne of frustrations they also die of frustrations, a lack of money, time, confidence, skills. The realisation of our ideas is frustrated by each of these (and sometimes by all of these) limitations. But, just because WE cannot do it, does this mean that we should keep the idea to ourselves?
When I have a ‘great idea’ (for we all think our ideas are great in the moment of having them), I am excited. In that moment, I have that satisfying feeling of being clever, of being creative and the idea is then elevated to ‘sheer genius’ by a heady shot of confidence. I blurt it out, eagerly anticipating the audience gasping awe. Except its not a gasp of awe at all. It is that deep inhale before venting their ‘constructive’ criticism so that in that moment they feel clever too. They have spotted the flaws, picked at the holes and shot me down. Where to now? Cowed to silence. Fear of failure and foolishness dam my ideas with my teeming brain drowning in its own repressed flow.
Keats feared that he might cease to be. Some fear being made look foolish, some fear theft of ideas and loss of recognition and reward.
And so I am brought to the Parable of the Talents. The Master gave 5 talents to one of his servants, 3 talents to another and one talent to the final servant. Years later on returning from his travels, the Master called to each of his servants and asked them what they had done with the talents they had been given. The first two servants told the master how they had put their talents to use and in doing so had doubled their worth. The final servant however told his master that he had been afraid of losing the talent so he had buried it deep in the ground to keep it safe. The Master was angry with his ‘fearful and lazy servant’. He had been given the talent to use, to make the world better, to make it more beautiful and instead he had kept it to himself and had not shared that gift with anyone.
The point is that our ideas are like our talents. It is in sharing them that we increase their worth. Likewise, when someone shares something as special as their talent or their idea with us then should we not accept it with greater grace and appreciation? It may not be the perfect idea but to that person, in that moment, it is. When someone shares their ideas with us maybe we shouldn’t be so quick to respond with our own ‘cleverness’ or worse grab to take it as our own.
Keats shared his ideas through poetry with generosity, courage and urgency in the face of death and has inspired my thoughts these 200 years later. So long life to his beautiful ideas: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty, that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know” (the final lines from “Ode to a Grecian Urn”, Keats).