A boy of six, all legs and a big head is rustling through a stack of books. His mother is lying still in the other room. Her left leg is suspended to an attachment in the ceiling and casted in a chalky plaster. She just survived a motor accident that could have claimed her, and the household is suspended in the horror of it still. The house is quieter than usual. Even the normally loud laughing doves that made a nest on the Cashew tree in the backyard seem to have lost their humor. The afternoon remained voiceless save the distant sound of the train whose noise respected no silent noon. The silence is serene. The boy moves the books one faithful step after the other, almost methodically, like he has done this before. His father, two days earlier, had yelled at him for this exact reason. “Stop going through my books,” he’d said in his unusually shrill but loud voice. This remains the surest part of the memory, the only one he will never doubt. But he persists still. 

He searches book after book, diaries with long languid scrawls of his father’s penmanship. Books with titles written by ancient philosophers and novels written by European commentators on Africa. Oldish but in good conditions of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and Wole Soyinka’s The Man Died yell their titles at him, screaming for him to pick them up, but he doesn’t. He doesn’t because he has read them all before. Not that he understood any of the things he read in there. He read them on lonely afternoons, waiting for the day his older siblings would find him useful for one of their games, but they never do. Now, he rummages through the books like a scavenger in hunt for treasure, but nothing calls to him. Yet he persists. On the verge of giving up, he kicks the shelf that houses the books, and a small termite infested book jumps out. If he was a superstitious boy – which he was – he would say that the shelf answered his heart desires. He would say that the gods who lived inside shelves heard the searing hiss of his frustrated soul and decided to test him. He picks the book up. It is the size of his mother’s purse. The words “Endymion” by John Keats is written in bold letters. He opens the book and begins to read. “A thing of beauty is a joy forever,” the first line says, and this line is one he will never forget.


John Keats was the eldest of the four children of Thomas and Frances Keats. Not entirely unlike me, who is a third of four. I like to imagine that being a member of a large family is one of my claims to his genius. But this will be the extent of my attempts at making wild comparisons with him because his life was tragic. He lost his father to a freakish accident on his way home from work and two months later, his mother remarried. Soon after, her own father would die also and despite leaving a substantial inheritance to the family, Frances Keats would feel disenfranchised by the whole business of it. She went to court to challenge the ruling of the inheritance, and when she lost, she degenerated into a lifelong spiral into alcoholism which would inadvertently render her children orphaned. Eventually, after years of alcoholism, she would succumb to that terrible illness tuberculosis, which will claim Keats as well, but not before it claimed his little brother Tom. Keats was notably committed to his siblings, to the extent that some of his notable poetry could be mapped with the compass of his relationships with them.

In his famous Ode to a Grecian Urn, the speaker mulls over the idea of eternity in art. The speaker does what art historians do when in front of a piece of art: he tries to fit together the narrative that gave birth to the image. The first stanza shows the speaker observing two scenes of ancient Greek life painted on the urn. The first scene depicts lovers and musicians in a rural setting. The speaker then speaks to the figures on the urn as if they were alive and listening to him. He speaks to them as if he can hear their wails and whines of weary motionlessness. He admires their states of existence, the stillness of being, and the fact of not having to worry about the foes of human existence or the inevitabilities of time. He explains that the lovers will always love, even if they will never consummate the desire that binds them. He also explains that the musicians will always play beneath trees that will never lose leaves. In this moments, Keats’s speaker invites readers to the realm of imagination. He transports readers to that moment, to that scene and one can almost feel the texture of the imagined music and the sunlight that illuminated their happy faces. This is true in the consideration of how Keats considered art – in all its forms. He believed that art makes beauty permanent. That despite the difficulty of immersing the self in the contemplation of said beauty, the existence of art remains an intact example of what beauty aspires towards.


I am the boy with the termite eaten book. The book itself is no more. It has vanished in the way of things lost to time, lost to memory, never to be seen again. But recently, this poem appeared again in the syllabus of a class I thought I was going to drop in grad school, as if by its reappearance, the meanings and interpretation I thought forever lost can be found again. For about four years after finding the book, I read the first part daily as if by the act of rereading, the words on the pages might in some way find new meanings. I wrote versions of my own and kept them hidden. Recently, in a telephone conversation with my mother, she would tell me about finding these horrific replicas, and I would tell her to throw those poems away. No one should ever have to see them. My shame for these initial works of imitations were not unlike Keats’s attempt at an epic poem, in his uncompleted verse, Hyperion. In the story of writing Hyperion – a Fragment, it was said that he had to abandon the poem because it had too many Miltonic inversions – in reference to the way the poem mirrored some of the ideas within John Milton’s famous epic poem of the time, Paradise Lost.

As a boy, my interpretation of the first book of Endymion went something of this nature, that beauty is something that can be found in anything: a house full of people, a classroom filled with friends and foes, the cheerful face of a joyful puppy, the blaring horn of my father’s car on arrival from J4 on Fridays, the jollof rice and chicken during Christmas, my grandmother’s cheerful face during her visits, my mother’s miraculous recovery from the accident and everything one could cast the aspiration of beauty towards. As I grew older however, this joyful interpretation became of less importance. Life’s notorious ways took me on a violent trip, and I forgot the joy I once found on the pages of poetry to the extent that when I had the chance to study Keats again in high school, I chose physical education over literature, not minding the fact that I was atrociously unathletic. I became a morbid teenager that was obsessed with sports I was never good at, and my confidence became a thing trampled upon by meaner and successful classmates. I like to think that this period of my life marked the beginning of what I would eventually become, a man of strong convictions but always quick to be agreeable to his own detriment.


Keats, in one of his many remarkable letters to his brother, George who migrated to America wrote that, “true poets like Shakespeare, lived lives of allegory upon which their works are a commentary.” Although I never found this letter until recently, there was a way these words rang true to my ears. It reminded me of the early years when I took up the writerly curse, I wanted the things I wrote to serve as an entry point into that place for which I may be understood. I was in the sixth year of primary school as a transfer student, new and confused. Up until then, my father had developed this notion of always orchestrating my transfer from schools every year for no other reason but the fact that he didn’t think the schools were good enough for me. All I had to do to earn a transfer was to be among the best students in the class and the next session I would be on my way out. So, I never had the privilege of assimilation or friendship with any of the other kids. In the new school, the script was repeating itself. None of the other students wanted to be my friend and I got an idea from somewhere, I can’t remember where now, that if only Tola, the last daughter of the overbearing proprietress of the school became my girlfriend, my social currency in the new school would soar and I would be able to fit in. 

So, I wrote her a letter, professing my desire. This letter was Keatsian in its rendering if it ever was found again. I wrote of my journeys from the schools I attended from nursery school, the possibility of being some sort of boy-wonder whose father could never be satisfied with his success and pushed him hard to become better. In this letter, I referred to the girl, Tola as a thing of beauty and explained that she should be flattered because I got the phrase from a poet of old.

For a boy of nine, this was unheard of in my hometown. To profess love to such an extent was against our extreme beliefs of Christianity. I put the letter in an envelope I stole from my father’s briefcase and slipped it under her desk. By chance or by the virtue of circumstance, some other kid got the letter instead and after weeks of blackmailing and bullying, he reported me. When my mother was summoned to the school because the proprietress was convinced that I was a spawn of the devil, my mother, who was a schoolteacher herself would arrive to beat the shit out of me. I would go home vowing never to write another letter to another girl again in this life or the next.


In the later stanzas of Keats’s Ode to a Grecian Urn, the speaker of the poem’s joyous clamor and admiration for the state of the figures on the urn took a somewhat steep and sorrowful turn. He begins to query the things in which he had earlier praised the urn for – especially the suspension of time. He explains that the urn, even while beautiful in its rendering, and possibly eternal by the virtue of being a piece of art, is not life. That the lovers – while forever young and delirious in their happiness of the moment – will never be able to sire children or even consummate the desires that burn them. That though there is delight in the face of the musicians as they render their music, the music will never be heard because it is in fact toneless. He ends the poem with a riddle posed by the urn to the speaker, “that beauty is truth and truth beauty.” A strange but appropriate response since art in all its forms captures the beauty of a moment, such that its representation becomes a thing of timeless wonder. Thus, it won’t be farfetched to say that Keats thought of art as the ultimate representation of beauty. For him, to create art is to create beauty because beauty is connected to the unknown and unknowable and it is what inspires imagination. His odes for instance, can be seen as his attempt to make beauty permanent, to insist that beauty is achievable even if it is raw and decipherable only by few. In his Ode to a Nightingale, he elevates the banal, and flings it to the realm of imagination, thereby rendering it eternal. In his Ode to Psyche, the speaker vows to build a temple for a goddess but not with his hands but through her imagination. 


In my journey as a writer, I have become an unconscious pursuer of this beauty in imagination that Keats wrote about. I have become a believer in Negative Capability, a theory expounded by Keats in one of his letters to his brother, where he highlights the capacity of the greatest writers to pursue visions of artistic beauty even when it leads them into intellectual confusion and uncertainty, as opposed to a preference for philosophical certainty over artistic beauty. I have often found myself attempting to freeze time, either through my works of photography or nonfiction. I didn’t come by any of these things from studying Keats, what I have found however, because it will take me years to return to his works, is a validation. I have often found that my memory – though it often shows a pretense of excellence – can also be extremely unreliable. 

Recently, I have been experiencing certain feelings of disassociation, as if my body was never mine, as if it once belonged to someone else, as if the memories that made me who I am today are not mine at all. I have had to revisit moments of childhood in telephone conversations with my parents and siblings to check if I am not making these things up. And even when I get verbal evidence to support them, I find that I am still distrustful. In conversation with a therapist recently, I was informed that my issues are not entirely strange since I am no longer in familiar surroundings. Beauty for me, has now become home and home is now where the truth of my sense of self is. Sometimes I like to claim that home is the road because of how much I have looked forward to a life on the move, but recently, I have found that home can also mean other things. My mother’s cooking for instance, which I haven’t tasted in a few years. Or a long conversation with my father where we begin by talking about politics in Nigeria and his wishes for my future before we move on to talking about his failing health. Or the long queries from my niece about what I am doing with my life which my little niece can never stop herself from asking me. Or watching Arsenal play with my older brother.

So, if ever I must think of beauty, it will be the faces of these members of my family and the friends I have chosen whenever I look at their images, from whatever moment it was taken, and this will invoke the joy from the first part of Keats’s Endymion

Tolu Daniel is a Nigerian writer and editor. He attended Kansas State University where he was awarded the Seaton Fellowship, the Popkins Scholarship, Peggy & Gary Edwards Scholarship and the Popkins Scholarship for Creative Writing. He is the curator of Ellipsis, a newsletter featuring diasporic voices on Culture, Migration, Displacement, & Literature via Personal Essays & Interviews.

He won the 2022 Creative Nonfiction Award in the annual Graduate Creative Writing Award at Kansas State University for his essay “After the Arrest.” His essays and short stories have appeared on Catapult.co, Olongo Africa, The Nasiona Magazine, Lolwe, Prachya Review, Elsewhere Literary Journal, and a few other places. He is an alumnus of the Bookaterea Creative Writing Masterclass, which was facilitated by Teju Cole, Emmanuel Iduma, and Ayobami Adebayọ and the Writivism Mentorship Program. He was longlisted for the 2018 Koffi Addo Prize for Creative Nonfiction.

He is currently an MFA Candidate at Washington University in St Louis.




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