On the inside cover of my college text, Complete Poetry and Selected Prose of Keats (edited, with an introduction by Harold Edgar Briggs, The Modern Library) is a penciled note, “read in Mary-Ellis’ book pg. 312, 317, 329-30” that I’ve been puzzling over. I think it has to do with Romantic Lit being at 9:00 AM. I missed so many classes that apparently Mr. Tosswill enquired several times if I was unwell. I wish I could get back those classes when I missed pages 312,317, and 329-30 in the Keats text. I might have made useful notes that I would appreciate seeing now that I am a morning person. On the other hand, when I was 20 years old my notes said things like:
Flora—goddess of flowers
Darkling—in the dark
Lethe—river of forgetfulness
Heinous- hā´ nes –odious, hateful
These aren’t words I need help with any longer
John Keats died at age 26, a shooting star who didn’t begin writing until he was 18, and matured as a poet in about six years. His father was an ostler who died when John was eight. His mother died when he was fourteen. He trained as an apothecary but never practiced. He is nowadays considered to have had bi-polar disease.
His brief life was troubled but sensitivity, grace, and compassion come through his poems and letters. After Shelley who seems so full of himself, Keats has an astonishing maturity, the kind of personality I love to spend an evening with. Shelley reminds me of people I skulk down the far aisle to avoid. The two of them are often linked because—I believe– they wrote during the same time period and both died young.
After reading Keats in the over-footnoted Norton, I will never again wonder about the meaning of eremite (hermit) or Aeolian harp (harp played by the wind.) All the times I played Aeolian in Scrabble I never cared what it meant, but now I know. Also I have begun looking for individuals who can be described as “alone and palely loitering” (from “La Belle Dame Sans Merci”) because it is such an outstanding descriptive phrase.
Keats learned construction by writing sonnets, but he felt constrained enough by the form to create the odes:
“So if we may not let the muse be free,
she will be bound by garlands of her own.”
(If By Dull Rhymes Our English Must Be Chained).
I love the odes. They have a sweet sadness that suggests Keats knew he wouldn’t live long. “Ode to a Nightingale” comforted me in years when I was deeply depressed. It contained so much feeling that it helped me manage mine:
Darkling, I listen; and for many a time
I have been half in love with easeful Death,
Call’d him soft names in many a mused rhyme,
To take into the air my quiet breath;
Now more than ever seems it rich to die,
To cease upon the midnight with no pain,
While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad
In such an ecstasy!
Beyond the sonnets and the odes, I was impressed this week with the letters. Here are some bits and pieces from Keat’s letters:
*I am certain of nothing but the holiness of the Heart’s affections, and the Truth of Imagination.
*Nothing startles me beyond the moment.
(letter to Benjamin Bailey, Nov 22, 1817)
*Every man has his speculations but every man does not brood and peacock over them till he makes false coinage and deceives himself.
(letter to John Hamilton Reynolds, Feb 3, 1818)
*I. . . intend to become a sort of Pip-civilian. An extensive knowledge is needful to thinking people. . .
(letter to John Hamilton Reynolds, May 3, 1818. A pip-civilian seems to be an enthusiastic amateur, a dilettante)
*What shocks the virtuous philosopher delights the camelion poet. It does no harm from its relish of the dark side of things any more than from its taste for the bright one; because they both end in speculation.
(letter to Richard Woodhouse, Oct 27, 1818)
*Nothing ever becomes real until it is experienced—Even a Proverb is no proverb to you till your Life has illustrated it.
*Call the world, if you please, “The Vale of Soul-making–” then you will find out the use of The World. . .
(letter to George and Georgiana Keats, Feb-May, 1819)
And finally, here are some lines that have entered the language and Hallmark shops:
*A thing of beauty is a joy forever:
Its loveliness increases, it will never
Pass into nothingness; but will still keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.
*O for a beaker full of the warm south. . .
*. . . tender is the night. . .
*. . . amid the alien corn. . .
(Ode to a Nightingale)
*Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Are sweeter; therefore ye soft pipes, play on:
Not to the sensual ear, but more endear’d
Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone. . .
*“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,”–that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
(Ode on a Grecian Urn)
*Ay, In the very temple of Delight
Veil’d melancholy has her sovrain shrine
(Ode on Melancholy)
*Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness. . .
And if Mary-Ellis will just have a look inside her college Keats text and tell me what she’s written on pg 312, 317, 329-30, I’d be grateful.