Poet's Pick April 30
John Keats: "Ode to a Nightingale"
Selected by Adam Fitzgerald
National Poetry Month 2014

Letter from the Editors

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Adam Fitzgerald's Poetry Month Pick, April 30, 2014

"Ode to a Nightingale"
by John Keats (1795–1821)

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.

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:

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 to-morrow.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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?

*Adam Fitzgerald Comments:
Where is there left to say about the poet John Keats and his great poem, my favorite in the language, Ode to a Nightingale? Part of that impossibility of writing about the poem belies its ubiquity, in anthologies and high schools, two taboo sites for professional poets to wax nostalgic over. It was my A.P. Literature course, senior year, we read On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer, a poem itself in response to poetry—and, more surreptitiously, about another poet’s response, the contemporary playwright of Shakespeare, George Chapman, whose muscular/masculine line was thumping and loose in an age still haunted by dominance of Pope, his haute couture couplets, over-finessed, exact. (Tellingly, the highest term of distinction for poetry in the 18th century was Wit: to Keats, this was a straightjacket, like the hyper-punctuated and radically enjambed music of Pope, to say nothing of Pope’s own translations of Homer which Dr. Johnson had pronounced the greatest poetical work yet produced by an English poet.) 

The poet who left the company of a friend late after midnight, reciting Homer with his wide and rapacious mouth, who did impersonations of a bear so uncanny his friends thought best to leave record of this to posterity, Keats, who still has—with Dickinson—the greatest letters in the world, writes in one of them about a new phrase he’s heard around the tavern, people “hanging out,” returned home and first thing by dawn had the postman send his poem so that it could be read by breakfast. No wonder Keats is favored especially by poets—his development so tangible, so transparent.

Only four years later, in the month of May, he would pause from his own epic and one morning in the backyard of a friend’s house sit down and compose eighty or so lines in a straight shot, one of his great odes. With Ode on a Grecian Urn and To Autumn, they form a suite of lyrics unrivaled for gorgeousness, expression of feeling, phraseology, classical form overpowered by irrepressible Romantic exuberance. 

You see, before Wordsworth, poems were supposed to be about events or things, mostly presenting occasional prompts or modeled from ancient texts. With Wordsworth, they could be about states of mind, and with Keats, about poems themselves. His beginnings are nearly all palinodes, like the tribute to Chapman, or an early imitation of Spencer, where he writes about whales as sea-shouldering creatures. By the time of the great odes, Keats has found a way to write a poem that contains the entire history of poetry, not unlike the way Schubert’s melodies are really all one needs to understand the history of classical music.

In Ode to a Nightingale, the poetic history is overt and subtle, starting with Milton and Coleridge, who themselves wrote about nightingales, the patron songbird of poets since, oh, at least Sophocles. Let’s sample a few notes. Here’s Milton:

O NIGHTINGALE that on yon blooming spray
Warblest at eve, when all the woods are still,
Thou with fresh hopes the Lover’s heart dost fill,
While the jolly Hours lead on propitious May.
Thy liquid notes that close the eye of Day…

Here’s Coleridge:

Farewell! O Warbler! till tomorrow eve,
And you, my friends! farewell, a short farewell!
We have been loitering long and pleasantly,
And now for our dear homes. That strain again!
Full fain it would delay me!

Just as Eliot would pick up the jug jug from the same poem in The Waste Land, Keats steals “farewell” in his now more famous close transforming it into “forlorn. // Forlorn!” — “Adieu! adieu!” its repetition also Hamlet’s plaintive Ghost. When I was young and reading Keats, this was exactly what excited me—the idea that poetry could be a compression for all of one’s readings, jumbled together with manufactured sensations and feelings half-expressed or not even fully known about during everyday life. His poetry was the escape into a reality I found much more appealing and engrossing, the one in my head that I sometimes encountered in books.  

I remember many of the first poetry critics I read and their thoughts on it. The way Christopher Ricks recognized Midsummer’s Night Dream compressed within its allusions and echoes, especially the fifth and most gorgeous stanza, which Helen Vendler calls somewhere, perhaps in her classic Odes of John Keats, perhaps the most beautiful in all of poetry. I remember Allen Tate sharply criticizing the third stanza, which he thought a blemish upon the entire lyric.

Today, I see the poem as amazingly harmonic and more disjoint. Don’t we tend to thing of Keats as a single, however lovely, monotonous infinite yarn of pure silky luxuriance? Yet it’s interesting, how the poem leans in its paroxysms on archaic phrases out of Spencer and Shakespeare, like the Queen Moon and her starry frays, to Bacchus and his pards (leopards, that is) on the viewless wings of Poesy (wink), so that a kind of wince-inducing preciousness (faery lands forlorn, anyone?) is inevitably weaved into the garment’s whole. Keats’ is very honest about how we feel in extreme states: we’re always composing, fabricating, making it up, a bit, as we go; just few of us, even in poems, ever sound this supreme. Boy, how the poem modulates, loudens, softens, whispers and purrs, stanza to stanza, sometimes line to line.

All that punctuation! Dashes, colons, semicolons and accent marks; those compound, double adjectives. Keatsisms, in fact. Lethe-wards, light-wingèd, full-throated, deep-delvèd, Provençal, purple-stainèd, spectre-thin, leaden-eyed, to-morrow, Queen-Moon, fruit-tree, Mid-May’s, musk-rose, self-same, hill-side, valley-glades… It’s such a moving poem, and yet it’s so coy, and unembarrassed of its coyness. I could never imagine letting myself write “deceiving elf,” but, you know, great poets let their hair down, even in great poems. I think I mean especially in great poems. Ode to a Nightingale’s still my favorite.

About Adam Fitzgerald:
Adam Fitzgerald lives in New York City and is the founding editor of the poetry journal Maggy. He is the author of The Late Parade (Liveright 2013). He teaches creative writing and literature at The New School and Rutgers University.

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