From Poems published in 1820, edited with introduction and notes by M. Robertson. Clarendon Press, 1909.
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The University of Adelaide Library
University of Adelaide
South Australia 5005
The text of this edition is a reprint (page for page and line for line) of a copy of the 1820 edition in the British Museum. For convenience of reference line-numbers have been added; but this is the only change, beyond the correction of one or two misprints.
The books to which I am most indebted for the material used in the Introduction and Notes are The Poems of John Keats with an Introduction and Notes by E. de Sélincourt, Life of Keats (English Men of Letters Series) by Sidney Colvin, and Letters of John Keats edited by Sidney Colvin. As a pupil of Dr. de Sélincourt I also owe him special gratitude for his inspiration and direction of my study of Keats, as well as for the constant help which I have received from him in the preparation of this edition.
These four odes, which were all written in 1819, the first three in the early months of that year, ought to be considered together, since the same strain of thought runs through them all and, taken all together, they seem to sum up Keats’s philosophy.
In all of them the poet looks upon life as it is, and the eternal principle of beauty, in the first three seeing them in sharp contrast; in the last reconciling them, and leaving us content.
The first-written of the four, the Ode to a Nightingale, is the most passionately human and personal of them all. For Keats wrote it soon after the death of his brother Tom, whom he had loved devotedly and himself nursed to the end. He was feeling keenly the tragedy of a world ‘where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies’, and the song of the nightingale, heard in a friend’s garden at Hampstead, made him long to escape with it from this world of realities and sorrows to the world of ideal beauty, which it seemed to him somehow to stand for and suggest. He did not think of the nightingale as an individual bird, but of its song, which had been beautiful for centuries and would continue to be beautiful long after his generation had passed away; and the thought of this undying loveliness he contrasted bitterly with our feverishly sad and short life. When, by the power of imagination, he had left the world behind him and was absorbed in the vision of beauty roused by the bird’s song, he longed for death rather than a return to disillusionment.
So in the Grecian Urn he contrasts unsatisfying human life with art, which is everlastingly beautiful. The figures on the vase lack one thing only — reality — whilst on the other hand they are happy in not being subject to trouble, change, or death. The thought is sad, yet Keats closes this ode triumphantly, not, as in The Nightingale, on a note of disappointment. The beauty of this Greek sculpture, truly felt, teaches us that beauty at any rate is real and lasting, and that utter belief in beauty is the one thing needful in life.
In the Ode on Melancholy Keats, in a more bitter mood, finds the presence, in a fleeting world, of eternal beauty the source of the deepest melancholy. To encourage your melancholy mood, he tells us, do not look on the things counted sad, but on the most beautiful, which are only quickly-fading manifestations of the everlasting principle of beauty. It is then, when a man most deeply loves the beautiful, when he uses his capacities of joy to the utmost, that the full bitterness of the contrast between the real and the ideal comes home to him and crushes him. If he did not feel so much he would not suffer so much; if he loved beauty less he would care less that he could not hold it long.
But in the ode To Autumn Keats attains to the serenity he has been seeking. In this unparalleled description of a richly beautiful autumn day he conveys to us all the peace and comfort which his spirit receives. He does not philosophize upon the spectacle or draw a moral from it, but he shows us how in nature beauty is ever present. To the momentary regret for spring he replies with praise of the present hour, concluding with an exquisite description of the sounds of autumn — its music, as beautiful as that of spring. Hitherto he has lamented the insecurity of a man’s hold upon the beautiful, though he has never doubted the reality of beauty and the worth of its worship to man. Now, under the influence of nature, he intuitively knows that beauty once seen and grasped is man’s possession for ever. He is in much the same position that Wordsworth was when he declared that
Nature never did betray
The heart that loved her; ’tis her privilege,
Through all the years of this our life, to lead
From joy to joy: for she can so inform
The mind that is within us, so impress
With quietness and beauty, and so feed
With lofty thoughts, that neither evil tongues,
Rash judgments, nor the sneers of selfish men,
Nor greetings where no kindness is, nor all
The dreary intercourse of daily life,
Shall e’er prevail against us, or disturb
Our cheerful faith, that all which we behold
Is full of blessings.
This was not the last poem that Keats wrote, but it was the last which he wrote in the fulness of his powers. We can scarcely help wishing that, beautiful as were some of the productions of his last feverish year of life, this perfect ode, expressing so serene and untroubled a mood, might have been his last word to the world.
My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains
My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,
Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains
One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk:
’Tis not through envy of thy happy lot,
But being too happy in thine happiness —
That thou, light-winged Dryad of the trees,
In some melodious plot
Of beechen green, and shadows numberless,
Singest of summer in full-throated ease. 10
O, for a draught of vintage! that hath been
Cool’d a long age in the deep-delved earth,
Tasting of Flora and the country green,
Dance, and Provençal song, and sunburnt mirth!
O for a beaker full of the warm South,
Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene,
With beaded bubbles winking at the brim,
And purple-stained mouth;
That I might drink, and leave the world unseen,
And with thee fade away into the forest dim: 20
Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget
What thou among the leaves hast never known,
The weariness, the fever, and the fret
Here, where men sit and hear each other groan;
Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last gray hairs,
Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies;
Where but to think is to be full of sorrow
And leaden-eyed despairs,
Where Beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes,
Or new Love pine at them beyond tomorrow. 30
Away! away! for I will fly to thee,
Not charioted by Bacchus and his pards,
But on the viewless wings of Poesy,
Though the dull brain perplexes and retards:
Already with thee! tender is the night,
And haply the Queen–Moon is on her throne,
Cluster’d around by all her starry Fays;
But here there is no light,
Save what from heaven is with the breezes blown
Through verdurous glooms and winding mossy ways. 40
I cannot see what flowers are at my feet,
Nor what soft incense hangs upon the boughs,
But, in embalmed darkness, guess each sweet
Wherewith the seasonable month endows
The grass, the thicket, and the fruit-tree wild;
White hawthorn, and the pastoral eglantine;
Fast fading violets cover’d up in leaves;
And mid-May’s eldest child,
The coming musk-rose, full of dewy wine,
The murmurous haunt of flies on summer eves. 50
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!
Still wouldst thou sing, and I have ears in vain —
To thy high requiem become a sod. 60
Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!
No hungry generations tread thee down;
The voice I hear this passing night was heard
In ancient days by emperor and clown:
Perhaps the self-same song that found a path
Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home,
She stood in tears amid the alien corn;
The same that oft-times hath
Charm’d magic casements, opening on the foam
Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn. 70
Forlorn! the very word is like a bell
To toll me back from thee to my sole self!
Adieu! the fancy cannot cheat so well
As she is fam’d to do, deceiving elf.
Adieu! adieu! thy plaintive anthem fades
Past the near meadows, over the still stream,
Up the hill-side; and now ’tis buried deep
In the next valley-glades:
Was it a vision, or a waking dream?
Fled is that music:— Do I wake or sleep? 80
In the early months of 1819 Keats was living with his friend Brown at Hampstead (Wentworth Place). In April a nightingale built her nest in the garden, and Brown writes: ‘Keats felt a tranquil and continual joy in her song; and one morning he took his chair from the breakfast table to the grass-plot under a plum, where he sat for two or three hours. When he came into the house I perceived he had some scraps of paper in his hand, and these he was quietly thrusting behind the books. On inquiry, I found those scraps, four or five in number, contained his poetic feeling on the song of our nightingale. The writing was not well legible, and it was difficult to arrange the stanza on so many scraps. With his assistance I succeeded, and this was his Ode to a Nightingale.’
l. 4. Lethe. Cf. Lamia, i. 81, note.
l. 7. Dryad. Cf. Lamia, i. 5, note.
l. 13. Flora, the goddess of flowers.
l. 14. sunburnt mirth. An instance of Keats’s power of concentration. The people are not mentioned at all, yet this phrase conjures up a picture of merry, laughing, sunburnt peasants, as surely as could a long and elaborate description.
l. 15. the warm South. As if the wine brought all this with it.
l. 16. Hippocrene, the spring of the Muses on Mount Helicon.
l. 23. The weariness . . . fret. Cf. ‘The fretful stir unprofitable and the fever of the world’ in Wordsworth’s Tintern Abbey, which Keats well knew.
l. 26. Where youth . . . dies. See Introduction to the Odes, p. 230.
l. 29. Beauty . . . eyes. Cf. Ode on Melancholy, ‘Beauty that must die.’
l. 32. Not . . . pards. Not wine, but poetry, shall give him release from the cares of this world. Keats is again obviously thinking of Titian’s picture (Cf. Lamia, i. 58, note).
l. 40. Notice the balmy softness which is given to this line by the use of long vowels and liquid consonants.
ll. 41 seq. The dark, warm, sweet atmosphere seems to enfold us. It would be hard to find a more fragrant passage.
l. 50. The murmurous . . . eves. We seem to hear them. Tennyson, inspired by Keats, with more self-conscious art, uses somewhat similar effects, e.g.:
The moan of doves in immemorial elms,
And murmuring of innumerable bees.
The Princess, vii.
l. 51. Darkling. Cf. The Eve of St. Agnes, l. 355, note.
l. 61. Thou . . . Bird. Because, so far as we are concerned, the nightingale we heard years ago is the same as the one we hear to-night. The next lines make it clear that this is what Keats means.
l. 64. clown, peasant.
l. 67. alien corn. Transference of the adjective from person to surroundings. Cf. Eve of St. Agnes, l. 16; Hyperion, iii. 9.
ll. 69–70. magic . . . forlorn. Perhaps inspired by a picture of Claude’s, ‘The Enchanted Castle,’ of which Keats had written before in a poetical epistle to his friend Reynolds —‘The windows [look] as if latch’d by Fays and Elves.’
l. 72. Toll. To him it has a deeply melancholy sound, and it strikes the death-blow to his illusion.
l. 75. plaintive. It did not sound sad to Keats at first, but as it dies away it takes colour from his own melancholy and sounds pathetic to him. Cf. Ode on Melancholy: he finds both bliss and pain in the contemplation of beauty.
ll. 76–8. Past . . . glades. The whole country speeds past our eyes in these three lines.
Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness,
Thou foster-child of silence and slow time,
Sylvan historian, who canst thus express
A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme:
What leaf-fring’d legend haunts about thy shape
Of deities or mortals, or of both,
In Tempe or the dales of Arcady?
What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?
What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy? 10
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:
Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave
Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;
Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal — yet, do not grieve;
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair! 20
Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed
Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu;
And, happy melodist, unwearied,
For ever piping songs for ever new;
More happy love! more happy, happy love!
For ever warm and still to be enjoy’d,
For ever panting, and for ever young;
All breathing human passion far above,
That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloy’d,
A burning forehead, and a parching tongue. 30
Who are these coming to the sacrifice?
To what green altar, O mysterious priest,
Lead’st thou that heifer lowing at the skies,
And all her silken flanks with garlands drest?
What little town by river or sea shore,
Or mountain-built with peaceful citadel,
Is emptied of this folk, this pious morn?
And, little town, thy streets for evermore
Will silent be; and not a soul to tell
Why thou art desolate, can e’er return. 40
O Attic shape! Fair attitude! with brede
Of marble men and maidens overwrought,
With forest branches and the trodden weed;
Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral!
When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,”— that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know. 50
This poem is not, apparently, inspired by any one actual vase, but by many Greek sculptures, some seen in the British Museum, some known only from engravings. Keats, in his imagination, combines them all into one work of supreme beauty.
Perhaps Keats had some recollection of Wordsworth’s sonnet ‘Upon the sight of a beautiful picture,’ beginning ‘Praised be the art.’
l. 2. foster-child. The child of its maker, but preserved and cared for by these foster-parents.
l. 7. Tempe was a famous glen in Thessaly.
Arcady. Arcadia, a very mountainous country, the centre of the Peloponnese, was the last stronghold of the aboriginal Greeks. The people were largely shepherds and goatherds, and Pan was a local Arcadian god till the Persian wars (c. 400 B.C.). In late Greek and in Roman pastoral poetry, as in modern literature, Arcadia is a sort of ideal land of poetic shepherds.
ll. 17–18. Bold . . . goal. The one thing denied to the figures — actual life. But Keats quickly turns to their rich compensations.
ll. 28–30. All . . . tongue. Cf. Shelley’s To a Skylark:
Thou lovest — but ne’er knew love’s sad satiety.
ll. 31 seq. Keats is now looking at the other side of the urn. This verse strongly recalls certain parts of the frieze of the Parthenon (British Museum).
l. 41. Attic, Greek.
brede, embroidery. Cf. Lamia, i. 159. Here used of carving.
l. 44. tease us out of thought. Make us think till thought is lost in mystery.
No, no, go not to Lethe, neither twist
Wolf’s-bane, tight-rooted, for its poisonous wine;
Nor suffer thy pale forehead to be kiss’d
By nightshade, ruby grape of Proserpine;
Make not your rosary of yew-berries,
Nor let the beetle, nor the death-moth be
Your mournful Psyche, nor the downy owl
A partner in your sorrow’s mysteries;
For shade to shade will come too drowsily,
And drown the wakeful anguish of the soul. 10
But when the melancholy fit shall fall
Sudden from heaven like a weeping cloud,
That fosters the droop-headed flowers all,
And hides the green hill in an April shroud;
Then glut thy sorrow on a morning rose,
Or on the rainbow of the salt sand-wave,
Or on the wealth of globed peonies;
Or if thy mistress some rich anger shows,
Emprison her soft hand, and let her rave,
And feed deep, deep upon her peerless eyes. 20
She dwells with Beauty — Beauty that must die;
And Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips
Bidding adieu; and aching Pleasure nigh,
Turning to poison while the bee-mouth sips:
Ay, in the very temple of Delight
Veil’d Melancholy has her sovran shrine,
Though seen of none save him whose strenuous tongue
Can burst Joy’s grape against his palate fine;
His soul shall taste the sadness of her might,
And be among her cloudy trophies hung. 30
l. 1. Lethe. See Lamia, i. 81, note.
l. 2. Wolf’s-bane, aconite or hellebore — a poisonous plant.
l. 4. nightshade, a deadly poison.
ruby . . . Proserpine. Cf. Swinburne’s Garden of Proserpine.
Proserpine. Cf. Lamia, i. 63, note.
l. 5. yew-berries. The yew, a dark funereal-looking tree, is constantly planted in churchyards.
l. 7. your mournful Psyche. See Introduction to the Ode to Psyche, p. 236.
l. 12. weeping cloud. l. 14. shroud. Giving a touch of mystery and sadness to the otherwise light and tender picture.
l. 16. on . . . sand-wave, the iridescence sometimes seen on the ribbed sand left by the tide.
l. 21. She, i.e. Melancholy — now personified as a goddess. Compare this conception of melancholy with the passage in Lamia, i. 190–200. Cf. also Milton’s personifications of Melancholy in L’Allegro and Il Penseroso.
l. 30. cloudy, mysteriously concealed, seen of few.
Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease, 10
For Summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.
Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep,
Drows’d with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook; 20
Or by a cyder-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.
Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too —
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn; 30
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.
In a letter written to Reynolds from Winchester, in September, 1819, Keats says: ‘How beautiful the season is now — How fine the air. A temperate sharpness about it. Really, without joking, chaste weather — Dian skies — I never liked stubble-fields so much as now — Aye better than the chilly green of the spring. Somehow, a stubble-field looks warm — in the same way that some pictures look warm. This struck me so much in my Sunday’s walk that I composed upon it.’ What he composed was the Ode To Autumn.
ll. 1 seq. The extraordinary concentration and richness of this description reminds us of Keats’s advice to Shelley —‘Load every rift of your subject with ore.’ The whole poem seems to be painted in tints of red, brown, and gold.
ll. 12 seq. From the picture of an autumn day we proceed to the characteristic sights and occupations of autumn, personified in the spirit of the season.
l. 18. swath, the width of the sweep of the scythe.
ll. 23 seq. Now the sounds of autumn are added to complete the impression.
ll. 25–6. Compare letter quoted above.
l. 28. sallows, trees or low shrubs of the willowy kind.
ll. 28–9. borne . . . dies. Notice how the cadence of the line fits the sense. It seems to rise and fall and rise and fall again.
O Goddess! hear these tuneless numbers, wrung
By sweet enforcement and remembrance dear,
And pardon that thy secrets should be sung
Even into thine own soft-conched ear:
Surely I dreamt today, or did I see
The winged Psyche with awaken’d eyes?
I wander’d in a forest thoughtlessly,
And, on the sudden, fainting with surprise,
Saw two fair creatures, couched side by side
In deepest grass, beneath the whisp’ring roof 10
Of leaves and trembled blossoms, where there ran
A brooklet, scarce espied:
‘Mid hush’d, cool-rooted flowers, fragrant-eyed,
Blue, silver-white, and budded Tyrian,
They lay calm-breathing on the bedded grass;
Their arms embraced, and their pinions too;
Their lips touch’d not, but had not bade adieu,
As if disjoined by soft-handed slumber,
And ready still past kisses to outnumber
At tender eye-dawn of aurorean love: 20
The winged boy I knew;
But who wast thou, O happy, happy dove?
His Psyche true!
O latest born and loveliest vision far
Of all Olympus’ faded hierarchy!
Fairer than Phoebe’s sapphire-region’d star,
Or Vesper, amorous glow-worm of the sky;
Fairer than these, though temple thou hast none,
Nor altar heap’d with flowers;
Nor virgin-choir to make delicious moan 30
Upon the midnight hours;
No voice, no lute, no pipe, no incense sweet
From chain-swung censer teeming;
No shrine, no grove, no oracle, no heat
Of pale-mouth’d prophet dreaming.
O brightest! though too late for antique vows,
Too, too late for the fond believing lyre,
When holy were the haunted forest boughs,
Holy the air, the water, and the fire;
Yet even in these days so far retir’d 40
From happy pieties, thy lucent fans,
Fluttering among the faint Olympians,
I see, and sing, by my own eyes inspired.
So let me be thy choir, and make a moan
Upon the midnight hours;
Thy voice, thy lute, thy pipe, thy incense sweet
From swinged censer teeming;
Thy shrine, thy grove, thy oracle, thy heat
Of pale-mouth’d prophet dreaming.
Yes, I will be thy priest, and build a fane 50
In some untrodden region of my mind,
Where branched thoughts, new grown with pleasant pain,
Instead of pines shall murmur in the wind:
Far, far around shall those dark-cluster’d trees
Fledge the wild-ridged mountains steep by steep;
And there by zephyrs, streams, and birds, and bees,
The moss-lain Dryads shall be lull’d to sleep;
And in the midst of this wide quietness
A rosy sanctuary will I dress
With the wreath’d trellis of a working brain, 60
With buds, and bells, and stars without a name,
With all the gardener Fancy e’er could feign,
Who breeding flowers, will never breed the same:
And there shall be for thee all soft delight
That shadowy thought can win,
A bright torch, and a casement ope at night,
To let the warm Love in!
In one of his long journal-letters to his brother George, Keats writes, at the beginning of May, 1819: ‘The following poem — the last I have written — is the first and the only one with which I have taken even moderate pains. I have for the most part dashed off my lines in a hurry. This I have done leisurely — I think it reads the more richly for it, and will I hope encourage me to write other things in even a more peaceable and healthy spirit. You must recollect that Psyche was not embodied as a goddess before the time of Apuleius the Platonist, who lived after the Augustan age, and consequently the goddess was never worshipped or sacrificed to with any of the ancient fervour, and perhaps never thought of in the old religion — I am more orthodox than to let a heathen goddess be so neglected.’ The Ode to Psyche follows.
The story of Psyche may be best told in the words of William Morris in the ‘argument’ to ‘the story of Cupid and Psyche’ in his Earthly Paradise:
‘Psyche, a king’s daughter, by her exceeding beauty caused the people to forget Venus; therefore the goddess would fain have destroyed her: nevertheless she became the bride of Love, yet in an unhappy moment lost him by her own fault, and wandering through the world suffered many evils at the hands of Venus, for whom she must accomplish fearful tasks. But the gods and all nature helped her, and in process of time she was reunited to Love, forgiven by Venus, and made immortal by the Father of gods and men.’
Psyche is supposed to symbolize the human soul made immortal through love.
l. 2. sweet . . . dear. Cf. Lycidas, ‘Bitter constraint and sad occasion dear.’
l. 4. soft-conched. Metaphor of a sea-shell giving an impression of exquisite colour and delicate form.
l. 13. ’Mid . . . eyed. Nature in its appeal to every sense. In this line we have the essence of all that makes the beauty of flowers satisfying and comforting.
l. 14. Tyrian, purple, from a certain dye made at Tyre.
l. 20. aurorean. Aurora is the goddess of dawn. Cf. Hyperion, i. 181.
l. 25. Olympus. Cf. Lamia, i. 9, note.
hierarchy. The orders of gods, with Jupiter as head.
l. 26. Phoebe, or Diana, goddess of the moon.
l. 27. Vesper, the evening star.
l. 34. oracle, a sacred place where the god was supposed to answer questions of vital import asked him by his worshippers.
l. 37. fond believing, foolishly credulous.
l. 41. lucent fans, luminous wings.
l. 55. fledge . . . steep. Probably a recollection of what he had seen in the Lakes, for on June 29, 1818, he writes to Tom from Keswick of a waterfall which ‘oozes out from a cleft in perpendicular Rocks, all fledged with Ash and other beautiful trees’.
l. 57. Dryads. Cf. Lamia, l. 5, note.
Ever let the Fancy roam,
Pleasure never is at home:
At a touch sweet Pleasure melteth,
Like to bubbles when rain pelteth;
Then let winged Fancy wander
Through the thought still spread beyond her:
Open wide the mind’s cage-door,
She’ll dart forth, and cloudward soar.
O sweet Fancy! let her loose;
Summer’s joys are spoilt by use, 10
And the enjoying of the Spring
Fades as does its blossoming;
Autumn’s red-lipp’d fruitage too,
Blushing through the mist and dew,
Cloys with tasting: What do then?
Sit thee by the ingle, when
The sear faggot blazes bright,
Spirit of a winter’s night;
When the soundless earth is muffled,
And the caked snow is shuffled 20
From the ploughboy’s heavy shoon;
When the Night doth meet the Noon
In a dark conspiracy
To banish Even from her sky.
Sit thee there, and send abroad,
With a mind self-overaw’d,
Fancy, high-commission’d:— send her!
She has vassals to attend her:
She will bring, in spite of frost,
Beauties that the earth hath lost; 30
She will bring thee, all together,
All delights of summer weather;
All the buds and bells of May,
From dewy sward or thorny spray
All the heaped Autumn’s wealth,
With a still, mysterious stealth:
She will mix these pleasures up
Like three fit wines in a cup,
And thou shalt quaff it:— thou shalt hear
Distant harvest-carols clear; 40
Rustle of the reaped corn;
Sweet birds antheming the morn:
And, in the same moment — hark!
’Tis the early April lark,
Or the rooks, with busy caw,
Foraging for sticks and straw.
Thou shalt, at one glance, behold
The daisy and the marigold;
White-plum’d lilies, and the first
Hedge-grown primrose that hath burst; 50
Shaded hyacinth, alway
Sapphire queen of the mid-May;
And every leaf, and every flower
Pearled with the self-same shower.
Thou shalt see the field-mouse peep
Meagre from its celled sleep;
And the snake all winter-thin
Cast on sunny bank its skin;
Freckled nest-eggs thou shalt see
Hatching in the hawthorn-tree, 60
When the hen-bird’s wing doth rest
Quiet on her mossy nest;
Then the hurry and alarm
When the bee-hive casts its swarm;
Acorns ripe down-pattering,
While the autumn breezes sing.
Oh, sweet Fancy! let her loose;
Every thing is spoilt by use:
Where’s the cheek that doth not fade,
Too much gaz’d at? Where’s the maid 70
Whose lip mature is ever new?
Where’s the eye, however blue,
Doth not weary? Where’s the face
One would meet in every place?
Where’s the voice, however soft,
One would hear so very oft?
At a touch sweet Pleasure melteth
Like to bubbles when rain pelteth.
Let, then, winged Fancy find
Thee a mistress to thy mind: 80
Dulcet-eyed as Ceres’ daughter,
Ere the God of Torment taught her
How to frown and how to chide;
With a waist and with a side
White as Hebe’s, when her zone
Slipt its golden clasp, and down
Fell her kirtle to her feet,
While she held the goblet sweet,
And Jove grew languid. — Break the mesh
Of the Fancy’s silken leash; 90
Quickly break her prison-string
And such joys as these she’ll bring. —
Let the winged Fancy roam
Pleasure never is at home.
This poem, although so much lighter in spirit, bears a certain relation in thought to Keats’s other odes. In the Nightingale the tragedy of this life made him long to escape, on the wings of imagination, to the ideal world of beauty symbolized by the song of the bird. Here finding all real things, even the most beautiful, pall upon him, he extols the fancy, which can escape from reality and is not tied by place or season in its search for new joys. This is, of course, only a passing mood, as the extempore character of the poetry indicates. We see more of settled conviction in the deeply-meditative Ode to Autumn, where he finds the ideal in the rich and ever-changing real.
This poem is written in the four-accent metre employed by Milton in L’Allegro and Il Penseroso, and we can often detect a similarity of cadence, and a resemblance in the scenes imagined.
l. 16. ingle, chimney-nook.
l. 81. Ceres’ daughter, Proserpina. Cf. Lamia, i. 63, note.
l. 82. God of torment. Pluto, who presides over the torments of the souls in Hades.
l. 85. Hebe, the cup-bearer of Jove.
l. 89. And Jove grew languid. Observe the fitting slowness of the first half of the line, and the sudden leap forward of the second.
Bards of Passion and of Mirth,
Ye have left your souls on earth!
Have ye souls in heaven too,
Double-lived in regions new?
Yes, and those of heaven commune
With the spheres of sun and moon;
With the noise of fountains wond’rous,
And the parle of voices thund’rous;
With the whisper of heaven’s trees
And one another, in soft ease 10
Seated on Elysian lawns
Brows’d by none but Dian’s fawns
Underneath large blue-bells tented,
Where the daisies are rose-scented,
And the rose herself has got
Perfume which on earth is not;
Where the nightingale doth sing
Not a senseless, tranced thing,
But divine melodious truth;
Philosophic numbers smooth; 20
Tales and golden histories
Of heaven and its mysteries.
Thus ye live on high, and then
On the earth ye live again;
And the souls ye left behind you
Teach us, here, the way to find you,
Where your other souls are joying,
Never slumber’d, never cloying.
Here, your earth-born souls still speak
To mortals, of their little week; 30
Of their sorrows and delights;
Of their passions and their spites;
Of their glory and their shame;
What doth strengthen and what maim.
Thus ye teach us, every day,
Wisdom, though fled far away.
Bards of Passion and of Mirth,
Ye have left your souls on earth!
Ye have souls in heaven too,
Double-lived in regions new! 40
l. 1. Bards, poets and singers.
l. 8. parle, French parler. Cf. Hamlet, I. i. 62.
l. 12. Dian’s fawns. Diana was the goddess of hunting.
Souls of Poets dead and gone,
What Elysium have ye known,
Happy field or mossy cavern,
Choicer than the Mermaid Tavern?
Have ye tippled drink more fine
Than mine host’s Canary wine?
Or are fruits of Paradise
Sweeter than those dainty pies
Of venison? O generous food!
Drest as though bold Robin Hood 10
Would, with his maid Marian,
Sup and bowse from horn and can.
I have heard that on a day
Mine host’s sign-board flew away,
Nobody knew whither, till
An astrologer’s old quill
To a sheepskin gave the story,
Said he saw you in your glory,
Underneath a new old-sign
Sipping beverage divine, 20
And pledging with contented smack
The Mermaid in the Zodiac.
Souls of Poets dead and gone,
What Elysium have ye known,
Happy field or mossy cavern,
Choicer than the Mermaid Tavern?
The Mermaid Tavern was an old inn in Bread Street, Cheapside. Tradition says that the literary club there was established by Sir Walter Raleigh in 1603. In any case it was, in Shakespeare’s time, frequented by the chief writers of the day, amongst them Ben Jonson, Beaumont, Fletcher, Selden, Carew, Donne, and Shakespeare himself. Beaumont, in a poetical epistle to Ben Jonson, writes:
What things have we seen
Done at the Mermaid! heard words that have been
So nimble and so full of subtle flame,
As if that any one from whence they came
Had meant to put his whole wit in a jest,
And has resolved to live a fool the rest
Of his dull life.
l. 10. bold Robin Hood. Cf. Robin Hood, p. 133.
l. 12. bowse, drink.
ll. 16–17. an astrologer’s . . . story. The astrologer would record, on parchment, what he had seen in the heavens.
l. 22. The Mermaid . . . Zodiac. The zodiac was an imaginary belt across the heavens within which the sun and planets were supposed to move. It was divided into twelve parts corresponding to the twelve months of the year, according to the position of the moon when full. Each of these parts had a sign by which it was known, and the sign of the tenth was a fish-tailed goat, to which Keats refers as the Mermaid. The word zodiac comes from the Greek +zôdion+, meaning a little animal, since originally all the signs were animals.
No! those days are gone away,
And their hours are old and gray,
And their minutes buried all
Under the down-trodden pall
Of the leaves of many years:
Many times have winter’s shears,
Frozen North, and chilling East,
Sounded tempests to the feast
Of the forest’s whispering fleeces,
Since men knew nor rent nor leases. 10
No, the bugle sounds no more,
And the twanging bow no more;
Silent is the ivory shrill
Past the heath and up the hill;
There is no mid-forest laugh,
Where lone Echo gives the half
To some wight, amaz’d to hear
Jesting, deep in forest drear.
On the fairest time of June
You may go, with sun or moon, 20
Or the seven stars to light you,
Or the polar ray to right you;
But you never may behold
Little John, or Robin bold;
Never one, of all the clan,
Thrumming on an empty can
Some old hunting ditty, while
He doth his green way beguile
To fair hostess Merriment,
Down beside the pasture Trent; 30
For he left the merry tale
Messenger for spicy ale.
Gone, the merry morris din;
Gone, the song of Gamelyn;
Gone, the tough-belted outlaw
Idling in the “grenè shawe;”
All are gone away and past!
And if Robin should be cast
Sudden from his turfed grave,
And if Marian should have 40
Once again her forest days,
She would weep, and he would craze:
He would swear, for all his oaks,
Fall’n beneath the dockyard strokes,
Have rotted on the briny seas;
She would weep that her wild bees
Sang not to her — strange! that honey
Can’t be got without hard money!
So it is: yet let us sing,
Honour to the old bow-string! 50
Honour to the bugle-horn!
Honour to the woods unshorn!
Honour to the Lincoln green!
Honour to the archer keen!
Honour to tight little John,
And the horse he rode upon!
Honour to bold Robin Hood,
Sleeping in the underwood!
Honour to maid Marian,
And to all the Sherwood-clan! 60
Though their days have hurried by
Let us two a burden try.
Early in 1818 John Hamilton Reynolds, a friend of Keats, sent him two sonnets which he had written ‘On Robin Hood’. Keats, in his letter of thanks, after giving an appreciation of Reynolds’s production, says: ‘In return for your Dish of Filberts, I have gathered a few Catkins, I hope they’ll look pretty.’ Then follow these lines, entitled, ‘To J. H. R. in answer to his Robin Hood sonnets.’ At the end he writes: ‘I hope you will like them — they are at least written in the spirit of outlawry.’
Robin Hood, the outlaw, was a popular hero of the Middle Ages. He was a great poacher of deer, brave, chivalrous, generous, full of fun, and absolutely without respect for law and order. He robbed the rich to give to the poor, and waged ceaseless war against the wealthy prelates of the church. Indeed, of his endless practical jokes, the majority were played upon sheriffs and bishops. He lived, with his ‘merry men’, in Sherwood Forest, where a hollow tree, said to be his ‘larder’, is still shown.
Innumerable ballads telling of his exploits were composed, the first reference to which is in the second edition of Langland’s Piers Plowman, c. 1377. Many of these ballads still survive, but in all these traditions it is quite impossible to disentangle fact from fiction.
l. 4. pall. Cf. Isabella, l. 268.
l. 9. fleeces, the leaves of the forest, cut from them by the wind as the wool is shorn from the sheep’s back.
l. 13. ivory shrill, the shrill sound of the ivory horn.
ll. 15–18. Keats imagines some man who has not heard the laugh hearing with bewilderment its echo in the depths of the forest.
l. 21. seven stars, Charles’s Wain or the Big Bear.
l. 22. polar ray, the light of the Pole, or North, star.
l. 30. pasture Trent, the fields about the Trent, the river of Nottingham, which runs by Sherwood forest.
l. 33. morris. A dance in costume which, in the Tudor period, formed a part of every village festivity. It was generally danced by five men and a boy in girl’s dress, who represented Maid Marian. Later it came to be associated with the May games, and other characters of the Robin Hood epic were introduced. It was abolished, with other village gaieties, by the Puritans, and though at the Restoration it was revived it never regained its former importance.
l. 34. Gamelyn. The hero of a tale (The Tale of Gamelyn) attributed to Chaucer, and given in some MSS. as The Cook’s Tale in The Canterbury Tales. The story of Orlando’s ill-usage, prowess, and banishment, in As You Like It, Shakespeare derived from this source, and Keats is thinking of the merry life of the hero amongst the outlaws.
l. 36. ‘grenè shawe,’ green wood.
l. 53. Lincoln green. In the Middle Ages Lincoln was very famous for dyeing green cloth, and this green cloth was the characteristic garb of the forester and outlaw.
l. 62. burden. Cf. Isabella, l. 503.
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