Monday 4 May 2009

Travelogue Review: Wings of Poesy

There are six great English writers of the early Romantic period: William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Jane Austen, George Gordon Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, John Keats (in chronological order of their births between 1770 and 1795). There is just one woman and just one prose writer: Jane Austen. If you want to add to this list, you may do so. I could make a case for Mary Shelley, but the difficulty, as usual, is to convince others.

In my travelogues over the last few weeks, I have concentrated on the part of London where my partner, Jennifer, and I are living, South End Green, at the southern tip of Hampstead Heath. Two of the English Romantics lived near here. Keats lived for nearly two years in part of a house called Wentworth Place, which was built around 1815. We are about 400 yards from it. About a mile away on the opposite edge of the Heath, Coleridge lived in a fine terraced house in Highgate.

In a letter of 15 April 1819 that Keats wrote to his brother and sister-in-law (George and Georgianna), he describes how, when he was out walking towards Highgate the previous Sunday (i.e. 11 April), he met someone he knew who was walking with the famous Coleridge, and who made the introduction. Then, writes, Keats:
I walked with him [Coleridge] at his alderman-after-dinner pace for near two miles I suppose. In those two Miles he broached a thousand things--let me see if I can give you a list--Nightingales, Poetry--on Poetical Sensation--Metaphysics--Different genera and species of Dreams ...
And so on for a few more lines. Keats ends this paragraph by saying that Coleridge "was civil enough to ask [him] to call on him at Highgate." The biographers (e.g. Motion, 1997), say that Keats did not take up the invitation. They also tell us that, according to his friend Charles Brown, with whom he shared part of Wentworth Place, a few weeks after the conversation that touched on nightingales and dreams, Keats took a chair one morning after breakfast, and sat outside under a plum tree in which a nightingale had built her nest. For some time, Brown says, Keats had "felt a tranquil and continual joy" in the nightingale's song. Now, under the plum tree, over two or three hours he wrote a draft of "Ode to a nightingale." The poem is a dream in which Keats imagines himself no longer in springtime but in summer, not in the morning but at night, as he accompanies the nightingale, and fades into the darkness of the forest. The move to night-time increases the intensity of the dream state, and allows Keats to replace distancing qualities of sight with more intimate sensations and feelings.

Keats had nursed his brother Tom, who died of tuberculosis the previous December; and we know that less than two years after writing the poem, he would die of the same disease. The poem is full of contrasts between the dream state and the frailty of human embodiment, with passages of intense sadness. But although, in its beginning, the poem is about escape from the human condition, as he continues Keats forgoes that idea and takes up instead the idea of engagement. By joining the bird he too can offer song; he becomes most fully what he wishes for himself in poetry.
But on the viewless wings of Poesy,
Though the dull brain perplexes and retards:
Already with thee! tender is the night,
Then in concentrated thoughts, Keats understands that while we mortals live amid suffering in history, the nightingale in her song is immortal.
The voice I hear this passing night was heard
In ancient days by emperor and clown:
With his own voice achieving immortality, flying "already with thee" in this very poem "on the viewless wings of Poesy," Keats ends by returning to his embodied state, awake and sitting in daylight in May 1819, in a garden you can still visit (the house is now a museum), though not until after November because at present the house is closed, covered with scaffolding, needing repair.

John Keats (1816-20). Selected poems and letters of Keats (Ed. D Bush). New York: Houghton Mifflin (current edition 1959).

Andrew Motion (1997). Keats. London: Faber and Faber.

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