Second in our series on the odes of John Keats is Ode to a Nightingale, in which Keats imagines a journey into the realm of negative capability, a concept introduced in our previous episode on Ode to a Grecian Urn. Keats hears a nightingale’s song and it inspires him to ponder such questions as, what makes an ideal artist? How might we access the world of artistic creation? How does art unite humanity across the ages? Wes and Erin discuss whether artists, however inspired, can escape the anxieties of a potential audience.
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Wes: All right, so this is the second of a three-part series on Keats. We did Ode on a Grecian Urn, and next time we’ll be doing To Autumn. It seems like the common element in these poems is a sort of reflection on poetry and the arts.
Erin: Yes, poetry and the arts, poetry and the senses, the different functions of poetry, the different roles of the poet, how the poet is like and unlike makers in other art forms. He’s touching on so much here. But yes, poetry and the other arts. And here the nightingale would represent the musical arts.
Wes: So we’re gonna go stanza by stanza. We’re going to read the stanza and then discuss it.
Erin: Yeah, and I should say that there are eight stanzas total 10 lines each. Each line is a 10 syllable line, so I’m going to read the first 10 line stanza now.
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.
As with Grecian Urn we can tell that he’s talking to the nightingale, but he doesn’t begin by addressing the nightingale directly, which I think is kind of interesting. He starts with ‘my’: “My heart aches and a drowsy numbness, pains my sense.” So this is kind of an unusual opener for him, I think. I don’t know. Would you agree, Wes, that this is, maybe, more personal than any of the other Odes?
Wes: Yeah, I think you’re right. And in a way it’s almost… the beginning of the poem is an attempt to… I mean, it starts out personal. It’s in an attempt to attribute what’s personal to the nightingale and then, I think, it returns in a way to him at the end. I mean, I find it very poignant at the beginning, with his heart ache and this sort of juxtaposition of the idea that he’s been poisoned with the idea that he’s taken opiate something, you know, they’re not the same thing, right? So the sinking to forgetfulness, or a kind of intoxication, and to have been poisoned and on the way to death, is related. It’s an interesting association to put up front.
Erin: Right. Well, I think… I think I read somewhere that hemlock actually taken in small doses acts as a sedative.
Wes: I see. Okay.
Erin: But I think that, obviously, that association with hemlock, with Socrates, is supposed to be there. So I mean, in the same way that you can take too many opiates and have an accidental death, you can also take the right amount of hemlock, a small amount of hemlock, and only be put to sleep. But I think that line between sleep and death is something that he’s going to walk a lot in this poem. He starts out with this problem, I guess. He has this drowsy feeling, his heart aches, he’s numb. And he says it’s as if he’s “sunk into Lethe”, which is the river of forgetfulness in ancient Greek myth. And then we realize, when he says “Thy” in the fifth line, so midway through the first stanza, “‘Tis not through envy of thy happy lot.” So okay, he is talking to the nightingale. But that’s… the first time, this beginning part, is, like, very personal, using all of these metaphors to talk about how sleepy and weird he feels. And then he says, “It’s not because I envy you, but it’s because I’m too happy in your happiness.”
Erin: Which is really a strange paradox, like “I kind of want to die because I’m so happy because you‘re so happy.”
Wes: [laughter] It’s not that I envy you.
Wes: That’s the way I feel looking at Facebook. It’s not that I envy people. I call Facebook “envy books”.
Wes: It’s not that I envy all the vacations and happy things that are happening. It’s just that I’m happy for people. That’s the pain. [laughter]
Erin: You’re too happy in their happiness.
Wes: Exactly. It’s an interesting idea that we might be confused about when we are happy for people and when we actually envy them, and whether it conjures up the idea that those two things might be related. Or that we might think that we’re happy for others when we actually envy them or something like that. Or that the two emotions might be mixed. But we can’t take his rejection at face value necessarily, although it may turn out to be true.
Erin: It gets sort of even more complex here because of the association, the classical association of the nightingale.
Wes: Right? So, yeah, you wanna say something about that?
Erin: Yeah, so the Nightingale’s song, because it originates in Greek myth, it really pervades, whether people like it or not, any sort of association with the Nightingale throughout poetic history. But the story of the Nightingale is the story of this woman named Philomela, who was brutally raped by her sister’s husband, by her brother in law, and he enslaved her, actually, in a dark wood, which is interesting. And then he cut out her tongue so that she couldn’t tell her tale to her sister. She then tried to communicate what had happened to her sister by speaking with her hands and by weaving a tapestry that sort of told what had happened. And in punishment, then there was this whole kind of creepy thing, where they fed the brother in law’s child to him, they chopped up the baby and fed it to him. You know, like you do.
Wes: [laughter] Yes. Her own child to punish…
Erin: It was either her own child or her nephew. I can’t remember. Because the sister in law and… or rather the sister and Philomela are often… the roles are often swapped. The sister’s name is Procne. So sometimes it’s Procne who was the one who got her, who was raped and… yeah.
Wes: Oh, I see. Yeah, it is Procne’s son, I think.
Erin: It depends on the telling because it was told so many times that the two sisters have become, they’ve had interchangeable roles. But anyway, long story short, after they did all this kind of gross stuff in punishment, they were turned into birds. And so, Philomela, it’s commonly assumed, was turned into a nightingale, and her song has an origin, I suppose, as a song of pain, as a song of suffering. So when the classical poets heard the nightingale’s song, they heard it through the lens of Philomela’s tale and therefore heard it as… like a lament, a sad song. And it also… it begins as an origin story of sort of like poetic making. It places the origin of poetry as a place of pain, a place of suffering and of lament. So the fact that Keats really takes this and interprets the nightingale song as being a happy song is something that hadn’t been really done before in English poetry, except for this poem called The Nightingale by Coleridge, which was also interpreting the nightingale’s song as a happy song. And Coleridge deliberately tries to move away from the nightingale in that mode of being the lamenting singer because he says, “Hey, if you just listen to the nightingale’s song, it sounds happy, so I’m not going to load it down with all of this human meaning and mythological weight. I’m just going to listen to it for what it is, which is a natural-sounding happy song.” And Coleridge deliberately makes it a male bird, I believe. And, interestingly, this is just a side note, Philomela, being turned into a nightingale, wouldn’t even be able to sing because, actually, the female nightingale has no song.
Wes: Right. [laughter] Coleridge was more accurate there.
Erin: Oh, he was more accurate, yeah. And Keats still makes the nightingale female bird, but he interprets it, the song, as being sort of simply happy, natural… unthinking, maybe, is a good term for it. Not as if a nightingale ever thinks about their song, but when the story of the nightingale is so loaded down with myth and interpreted as this lament, this cry of pain, you know, the pathetic fallacy is at work there and people think, “Oh, yes. This sad, sad song of the Nightingale.” Really, of course, it’s just a bird. It has no reason to be sad, [laughter] and so you… probably, unless I don’t know, something bad recently has happened to it. So Keats, and Coleridge before him, have just interpreted it as being happy, unthinking, just the natural utterances of an animal that has no reason not to be happy, in their opinion. I mean, if they had to walk a day in those shoes, then maybe they would think otherwise, but…
Wes: You’re saying this is Keats’ approach as well?
Erin: This is Keats, too, yes.
Wes: Did you get on the Internet and listen to a nightingale’s song [laughter] in preparation for this?
Erin: I did!
Wes: Yeah. So to me… well, first of all, it’s a really weird song. There’s clicking… and…
Erin: One of the commenters on the YouTube video that I watched described it as, like, bird dubstep.
Wes: [laughter] Yeah, exactly. Exactly. So I encourage listeners to do that. Go listen to this. I found that really odd. I think it’s odd to associate it with either happiness or melancholy. So I’m not sure how the nightingale got this. What do you hear when you hear that song? Other than dubstep, yeah. [laughter]
Erin: The sound that the bird makes is definitely recognizable. So it stands out. I think that, you know, the nightingales maybe, therefore have been singled out as a badly used animal because so much has been put on this bird. I mean, you could say as Coleridge and Keats do, well, it’s just a bird, so the sound is a happy one, it doesn’t have to be sad, but in fact, they are also placing some kind of emotion on the bird. It’s not really a happy or a sad sound. I think it just is, maybe, a testament to any sort of natural sound in nature, something that might stick out to us in a wood if we if there was a nightingale there as being a particularly fruitful sound on which we can sort of hang our own feelings. And you know, however we want it to sound is whatever emotion we can attribute to it.
Wes: So I took the nightingale… I think you had said the nightingale stands for song, right, which in turn I see is standing for one aspect of poetry.
Erin: Oh, interesting. There’s, of course, the idea that the ode is a lyric. The ode is a type of poem that’s typically as they said, I think, in the last episode, typically accompanied by a loot, it was typically sung. But also I think what you’re getting at is the fact that this is the song of a single bird, a single voice and that the ode, therefore becomes sort of personal, in a way. It’s a more personal form of poetry,
Wes: So, and I may be wrong about this, but I see the odes as sort of ruminations on poetry.
Wes: And here we get a kind of, as in Ode on a Grecian Urn, and I think we get a thesis that he’s offering an initial thesis that ultimately will be challenged, if not refuted. The idea here, you know, the question that’s being asked is what is the experience of the poetic? And maybe we might think about the arts in general and specifically, music.
Wes: And I might be wrong, too. We’ll have to find out if I’m right and just reading this as being about poetry specifically. But I thought it was asking the question of whether the poetic… is this feeling that he’s having, definitive of the experience of poetry, being sort of like the effects of a dull opiate or something like that? Or is it something else? And I think it might end up being something else.
Erin: I think you’re right. I think the envy that he feels of happiness, as you say, he says he’s not envious. But as we know by choosing to say that you’re not something in a poem…
Erin: …you both are and are not that thing.
Wes: And in life, there’s no “no” in the unconscious, as Freud said,
Erin: Oh, that’s a good one. The word envy, of course, is in the poem. So by choosing to say that you’re not envious and choosing to use that word, you’re also introducing it into the poem. And I think this first stanza is just full of a lot of these paradoxes. I mean, how can he not be envious of the bird when he is feeling so down or so numb? And he hears this song, which he interprets to be a happy one and says, “Oh, light-winged, Dryad”, you know, while he is down and he’s sinking and he’s numb, the bird is light and up in the trees, and it has this melodious sound, and it “singest of summer in full-throated ease.” So it’s accomplishing something that he is obviously feeling not quite capable of, or maybe in this moment, not quite up to. Also a paradox, because of course, he’s writing about it. So, as a poet, he is capable of the same sort of expression though he may think that the nightingale’s voice or the nightingale’s song is superior to his own art, his own poetry.
Wes: The idea of “full-throated ease” points to it being effortless, right and something that comes by nature, as opposed to something that is of the arts or something that is a techne. So he has to, whatever he’s doing as a poet, it has to be worked at, and that’s kind of a product of the fall, right, that’s part of the human condition. And that’s not the predicament of the bird. So there’s the question of what he might envy here. What is it that the nightingale has that he wants to take away from it or to possess himself? And so it could be simply happiness, but it might be this idea that one could be a great artist and not have to work for it. [laughter]
Erin: And background info that provides some extra irony here is that, for all we know, the person that Keats was staying with at the time that he wrote this which I can’t remember his name, but in an account of Keats on supposedly the morning that he wrote this, Keats went out, and he came back a couple of hours later, having written almost the entire poem. So it was actually pretty easy for him to write, remarkably easy, considering the length of it. And I guess maybe that’s a testament to how great a poet, Keats was, but also hard on himself.
Wes: Well, I’m thinking here, for a human being to do this sort of thing, to make a beautiful song or poem, for instance, there’s a lot of ways in which it’s much different than what the nightingale does. So he’s doing it for an audience, for instance, and as we know, you know, he’s getting raked over the coals by critics. This consciousness of another consciousness and its reaction, the poetic and the creative is fraught with that. And I think there’s a rumination on that here because ultimately he’s going to be fantasizing about loss of consciousness and leaving the human behind. So I think there’s a fantasy here that’s something that is artistic and ultimately artificial, in that non pejorative sense of just being made by human beings for other human beings, there’s an idea that it could be completely natural, and the nightingale is not aware of him the way he’s aware of the nightingale, so that you might be… have this pure experience of being creative without thinking about it being for another. And that’s a fantasy that can’t hold up.
Erin: Should I read the next stanza?
Wes: Yeah, let’s do it. This is gonna be a 10-hour podcast, by the way. Just… [laughter]
Erin: Yes. [laughter]
Wes: It’s worth it. It’s worth it. [laughter]
Erin: Here we go.
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:
Wes: I love “the beaker full of the warm South.” I love that.
Erin: Oh, that’s the best. That’s the best. It reminds me of an Auden… one of my favorite Auden poems, Goodbye to the Mezzogiorno. The idea of the South as being a place that’s baked in this kind of warm and homey way.
Wes: Yeah, So the warm in the homie. Yes. That’s what this stanza is about.
Erin: Yes, exactly. So he is again going after this reflection at the end of the stanza, of the previous stanza, about the “full-throated ease.” He then makes him want to have a drink. Relatable. And he asked for something that’s been in the “deep-delved earth” a long time, that has all of these tastes within it: flora and the country green, and then dance also and song, and, as he says, sunburnt mirth. He wants something to dull him, in a sense. Maybe ‘dull’ is too strong of a word for wine, but he wants some kind of… what’s the word I’m looking for…?
Erin: …having to do with Bacchus. Yeah, something intoxicating.
Wes: So it’s progress. We’ve moved on from drugs, to alcohol. [laughter]
Erin: There. That’s it. Um…[laughter] that contains within it all of this mirth. So there’s something about alcohol that to him seems, I guess, happier than just being numb and dull and sunk in the river of forgetfulness, which makes sense.
Wes: And it’s also progress in the sense that it now fuses. So we’re thinking above about something purely natural, including the song of the nightingale and hemlock, which I don’t know how much that has to be processed. I guess it probably does a lot. Or maybe you could take it right off the…? What is hemlock exactly? Can you take it out of the ground and get the…?
Erin: Yeah… I don’t know. I imagine that it’s looking like lavender.
Wes: It’s a tree, probably, right?
Wes: But anyway, I think, you know, the thing about wine is that… so this is made by human beings, so now we’re getting into…
Wes: And yet he’s going to conjure up lots of natural images. So it’s made by human beings but it’s “cool’d a long age in the deep-delved earth / tasting of Flora,” so you get all these natural associations. So I think, in a way, this stanza fuses what is natural with artifice, and you extend this fantasy so you can enjoy through something that’s been created by human beings. It could be a communion, a kind of communion with nature.
Erin: Even those things that he says that are sort of contained within the wine, that are human made, have this element of being totally natural at the same time. So dance, as being the world’s oldest expression of any kind of emotion through one’s body, is it a sort of natural thing, Provençal song. So not just any kind of song, but the song of Provence, a kind of a native song.
Wes: He’s evoking folk traditions, and… country folk, right? We were supposed to be closer to nature.
Erin: And Provence… Their song would perhaps speak of the lush environments of that particular region of France. It’s a wine making region, and the song is being something native to that place, and the native, of course, being somehow, like, closer to the natural in its etymology, and kind of, in its sense, than something that’s not native. And then “sunburnt mirth”. So happiness and joy, but joy that is sunburnt. It’s… sort of the implication here is a kind of a holiday joy or a joy of the South, of being outdoors and in the sun and enjoying the natural elements and the fact that it’s easier to be happy when when you’re in the sun all day enjoying beautiful weather, which is just objectively true. Then he takes that association with the human and then takes it, I think, one step further into the mythological, where, he says, “a beaker full of the warm South, / full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene.” And this is the spring of Greek myth, that was, I think, guarded by the Muses where if you drank from it, you would get poetically inspired. And he imagines that it’s not a spring of water, but that it’s a spring of wine, which seems…
Wes: …purple stained, mouth-stained.
Wes: I like the fact that you put the extra syllable there to make the meter.
Erin: I have to make the meter. Which is interesting because the Hippocrene is, of course, mythological. But then he goes. He goes a step further and imagines this spring that’s full of wine, which is, like, really unnatural and yet seems natural at the same time.
Wes: So, yeah, we get this fusion of the natural and mythological and then country folk, you know, so sunburnt mirth as you mentioned. So we’re thinking of… Again, I think we’re… I hate to use the word redneck, [laughter] but a redneck is created by the sun. People who are outdoors a lot, let’s say and are getting a lot of sun, and so country folk. That’s offensive because… [laughter]
Erin: It’s offensive to me because I think of the warm South as being a place where my family is from.
Wes: Well, I’m from Georgia, so I’m allowed to say these things. I’m…[laughter]
Erin: No. I mean, the original South. The original South.
Wes: No, I know, I know.
Erin: You’re Napolitano, right? In other words, the rednecks of Italy.
Wes: Right. There are rednecks everywhere.
Erin: Exactly. No. But then he says, why does he want to do all this? He wants to “drink, and leave the world unseen, / and with thee fade away into the forest dim”. Okay, so there’s again a kind of a multivalent meaning here. So he wants to drink in order to go along the path or to enter into the world of art and song. But there’s also a fading that he says he wants to “fade away with you into the forest dim”, so he wants to go into the world of art, which also means leaving this world and maybe even leaving oneself, taking leave of one’s own senses so that you can join the nightingale in this dimmer place.
Wes: Fade into the world of art where we conceive of art as being stripped of artifice, in a way, again natural, this weird fantasy of a fusion of two things that we might think of as being opposites. Now we have an interesting turn in the poem because we’re bringing back in hints of the last stanza, right? So a different sort of fantasy started to emerge. He moved on from drugs, alcohol, [laughter] and now he really wants to get drunk, right, And depart with the bird, go home with the bird, [laughter] get drunk, take the bird home with him, or have the bird take him home with it, so…
Erin: We are going to a weird place there.
Wes: Sorry. Is that too much? [laughter]
Erin: No. [laughter] No.
Wes: It’s my attempted humor.
Erin: I’m trying to hit it harder. I’m doing the…
Wes: [laughter] Yeah, that’s what it deserves. So we’re returning to this idea of being intoxicated and losing oneself, losing consciousness of oneself and being, you know, disappearing, being unseen. We’re meant to think of that not just as disappearing from humanity, but actually kind of ecstatically having oneself become one with or lose oneself in the natural environment and in poetry, right? So again, I’m thinking of this as a reflection on poetry, and the question is here, the suggestion, that I think is going to be rejected, and we’re moving towards that, is the idea that poetry and experience with the poetic, is simply about losing oneself, being intoxicated. I think we’re going to reject that thesis. And it’s sort of parallel to Ode on a Grecian Urn, where we start with the thesis that the urn is a historian that’s there to convey factual information. And maybe rejection is too strong a word, but we’re gonna modify that point of view, or we’re going to give it some nuance, at the very least.
Erin: That turn is just in the first two lines of the next stanza, which maybe… maybe we’ll move on to now. Okay, so here’s the third stanza.
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.
He wants to fade away with the nightingale into the forest dim and then he, at the beginning of this stanza, re-emphasizes that, with even stronger language, ‘fade far away’, ‘dissolve’, the elimination of the self, and ‘quite forget’.
Wes: Human troubles, specifically. It’s about leaving humanity behind because life is full of sorrow and trouble. Specifically, I mean that sort of things that he talks about, right, aging, getting old, losing one’s beauty, “where Beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes, / or new Love pine at them beyond to-morrow”. So the loss of love, because to become unbeautiful by aging, is to become unlovable, at least. Young, romantic, lustful desire fades with physical beauty.
Erin: Right. I think it’s important to remember that Keats here, writing this, is 23 years old. He will die in two years, so he’s obviously never seen like those speech body pictures of Helen Mirren or something. So [laughter] he thinks…
Erin: He thinks that being old means to be ugly, I guess. He’s not the most…
Wes: Madonna… Madonna in her bathtub.
Erin: Oh, God!
Wes: She’s in her sixties. Did you see that?
Erin: Yes, that’s so disgusting.
Wes: We’re going through… because I don’t know when listeners are gonna to be hearing this. We’re on our coronavirus lock-down right now and Madonna put up a video of herself in the bathtub talking about, you know, how we’re all united in our vulnerability to this, rich and poor alike, and it’s bizarre, and she does look like she’s had a lot of plastic surgery [laughter] and she looks strangely young.
Wes: And yet there are hints of the truth there, behind the plastic surgery mask. But, as in Ode on a Grecian Urn, behind this, he’s evoking the idea that there is some sort of beauty that is permanent, that we can relate to as permanent, that’s not going to fade away, right? And that’s the arts in general or poetry. So there are hints of the sorts of things that he was getting at in Ode on a Grecian Urn here, with this idea of permanence. I think, in Ode on a Grecian Urn as well we had the idea of the happy, happy states of lovers who are not gonna ever lose their love because the beauty of their beloved is not going to fade, even though they could never have them, even though they could never actually consummate it.
Erin: That’s the world of the nightingale, I suppose. This is what the nightingale has in common with the people on the urn, that they have never known the weariness, the fever and the fret. The human world is something the nightingale doesn’t know or understand. She doesn’t know human pain or aging or death or thinking. The idea that thinking itself is what makes people sorrowful
Wes: Right. “Where but to think is to be full of sorrow”
Erin: Yeah, “And leaden-eyed despairs”. And the nightingale… and the nightingales, as sort of the symbol of the whole natural world, is unthinking and therefore incapable of sorrow.
Wes: So the suggestion here is that maybe we can get rid of human relationships and just go off and be poets, or we can get what we need simply through aesthetic experience. Which again is not really going to turn out to be the case, but it’s part of the fantasy here. So we’re thinking here of a relationship to a kind of beauty that’s not the same problems as our relationships to human beings and to human beauty, and that’s what art can seemingly offer us. But again, the paradox here is that it can’t be consummated in the same way. So aesthetic experience isn’t, as we saw with Ode on a Grecian Urn, it isn’t consummated in the same way that human relationships are consummated and there are costs and benefits to that. You know, one of the costs is that the lovers don’t ever get to kiss on the urn. But one of the benefits is that beauty seems to be more permanent. Maybe the stanza’s entertaining the possibility that maybe he can fade away with that and get away from… be connected to beauty but not be connected to all these drawbacks.
Erin: On that note, let’s follow him into the next stanza
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.
Wes: We should say here, like hearing you read it, the poem itself has an intoxicating effect, I think. It lives up to the way he advertises it in the beginning, with the achey heart and the drowsy numbness. There’s something about the language which is so… I can’t say poetic.[laughter] It’s a smooth… It’s not smooth jazz, that’s that’s wrong, too.
Wes: It’s exquisitely beautiful. Let’s put it that way.
Erin: I think maybe I’ll just stay here to do my poetic due diligence to talk just a little bit about the structure of this. He’s writing it in… each stanza has a quatrain and a sextet, so the rhymes are really beautiful. He has… in the quatrain, it’s an AB AB rhyme, and in the sextet it goes CDE-CDE. So it kind of is like a backward mini sonnet that he’s working with each time. So each stanza is just wound up beautifully, like a clock. And he’s also… he’s interspersing short vowel sounds with long vowel sounds in each line, so that there’s this beautiful rhythm to these kind of beautiful round vowel sounds are really getting their due, and they’re really being showcased by this kind of beautiful setting he’s putting them in, of these shorter vowel sounds so that the combination is like sumptuous. It’s beautiful.
Wes: The way the rhyming is done, it doesn’t give you too much of a sing-songy quality.
Erin: With a quatrain with the AB AB, the beginning of the stanza the rhymes are close together, ‘pains’ ‘drunk’, ‘drained’, ‘sunk’, ‘been’ ‘earth’ ‘green’ ‘mirth’. Then it kind of unfolds. It’s like tendrils on a vine, branching out, because in the sextet, with the CDE CDE, now we have the two Cs are three lines away from each other and the same with the D and the E. So it branches out.
Wes: So we wait a little bit for our consummation. It’s not as quick, you know. It’s so clustered around by “all her starry Fays”, and then we get two lines, and then we get the pay off with “ways”. So there’s a nice suspension there, in between, and then, in the meantime, of course, the intervening lines are rhyming back to previous lines.
Erin: Right. Beautiful lines in here. Obviously beautiful to F. Scott Fitzgerald, for one, who took the title of one of his books, Tender is the Night from this stanza.
Erin: “The Queen Moon on her throne”, and you can hear the different vowel sounds here: “haply, the Queen Moon on her throne”. We can hear the interspersing with the short and long vowel sounds. Beautiful.
Wes: Here in the stanza we have a turn. You know, you talked about him starting with being focused on himself before he’s focused on the bird. And now, in a way, we get a turn back to that, I think. So “Though the dull brain perplexes and retards / already with thee” we get the idea now that it’s not the nightingale and the nightingale’s song per se, that is necessarily doing this to him. Or I think we can entertain that idea, that this feeling actually comes from within him, “already with thee”.
Erin: Yes, his movement or his transport is per usual with him in these odes. it’s entirely a mental transport. Everything is a mental exercise, like in Grecian Urn, when he sort of sinks into each individual scene and then imagines, you know, where they came from, where they’re going in the religious procession. Here he is taking that kind of a mental journey, which is like, really common theme in a lot of romantic poets, starting with Wordsworth. Yeah, so he’s saying that he’s going to fly, he’s going to go away and fly to the nightingale and he says, “Not charioted by Bacchus and his pards”, which is… that’s actually leopards, I think, so that the chariot of Bacchus was drawn by leopards, which is…just super cool.
Wes: And the chariot is, you know, it’s a sports car model.
Erin: Yeah. [laughter] He’s the richest rapper in the world. [laughter] He’s saying, I’m not going with Bacchus. I’m not taking this journey via wine and all of Bacchus’s delights, “but on the viewless wings of Poesy”. So not via drunkenness, but via poetry. The “viewless wings” is an interesting choice there. So yeah, the blindness of that. He’s going to the place where there is no view. This is reminiscent of when he says he wants to fade away with a nightingale into the forest dim, that the place where poetry is, where we go with poetry, is the dark place, maybe the deep cavern of one’s own mind. The “viewless wings” is sort of like a blinded bird or something, in a way, or the idea of blinding the animals so that they will sing more sweetly.
Wes: I was reminded of “piped the spirit-ditties of no tone” in Ode on a Grecian Urn. And so this idea we’re moving beyond the merely sensual with Poesy; we’re directly communicating with the spirit, or the soul, or the mind.
Erin: Right. Which is a strange idea because this is sort of like the exercise where you try to create a totally original monster in your own mind. And you can’t create a monster that’s completely original, you say, well, okay, it’ll have the head of a lion and the feet of a chicken and the… you know all of these different things, But it’s all we’re doing is we’re taking parts of already existing animals and putting them together to create this monster. So it’s this exercise that he wants to go to a place where the cares of the world don’t follow him, or where there’s just poetry in this dark place with a spotlight shining on it, like the Holy Grail or something. And he is sort of imagining that this is a place that is weirdly empty of the senses. And yet, of course, that’s not possible. It’s not possible in many ways, mostly because poetry is written with words and words all have meaning that corresponds with our own senses and our own experience, like there is no… In other words, there is no place you can go where you can escape yourself.
Wes: So many of these wishes, you know, as we’ve said, they’re not going to be possible, many of these sort of idealistic fantasies about poetry. So even it will turn out this idea of leaving humanity behind, for instance. That’s not gonna be realistic either, as we’ll find out, and there are hints of it here. Okay, “Away away, for I will fly to thee / not charioted by Bacchus and his pards.” So those lines are… seem to be a rejection of the Dionysian association, so intoxication, right? He’s saying, All right, forget about intoxication. Now let’s think about something more spiritual, the viewless wings of Poesy. But then, you know, wait a minute. The dull brain perplexes and retards already with thee so that there’s no flight necessary at all. He’s already there, and to be human is already to be there. To be human is already to be within the domain of some of these things. Forgetfulness, for instance. It’s not just to be groaning and aging and weary, but these satisfactions are actually possible within the human fold. They’re not really possible without it. I think that’s ultimately the conclusion where we’re tending towards.
Erin: Yeah, that’s the double edged sword, right, that you can get there but you’re also carrying all of your physical body with you, with the spirit that comes with its own baggage and its own implications about everything, about being human that sucks. He says, okay, I’m there, and, oh, it’s this beautiful night. He has this Queen Moon, which is really interesting and kind of like Edmund Spenser-esque, and she’s clustered all around by her starry face and he imagines the moon is a queen, and all around her, the stars are like fairies, gathering around her, like The Faerie Queene, Spencer’s poem, is what that puts me in mind of. “But here there is no light / save what from heaven is with the breezes blown.” So he’s saying, okay, well, where I’m standing, it’s dark. So he’s gone into the forest dim, and he can barely experience the light that’s coming off of this beautiful moon and the stars. And he’s in these “verdurous glooms and winding, mossy ways.” So except for the small amount of light blown through, he’s mostly in this green and mossy gloom. He’s in this dark place, the viewless place.
Wes: To be already there… You know, I was interpreting that as to be within the domain of the human. The place of “leaden-eyed despair” was already to be there, but I think that might not be entirely right, because “already with thee” he’s now giving another account of being in this natural setting with mythological overtones and…
Erin: I interpreted it as a spiritually or imaginative flight. And then, weirdly, he’s imagining an environment for his disembodied spirit.
Wes: I see.
Erin: As weird as that is, and the environment is a dark one, and as we’ll see, it gets even more complicated, the environment that he’s in.
Wes: Yeah, let’s do the next stanza, because this gets really interesting here, what he does with that environment.
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.
He is now virtually blinded by darkness. He can’t see what flowers are at his feet, but he knows they are there, he can smell them. He could smell the incense on the bows but can’t see them. He’s not just in darkness, but he’s in “embalmed darkness”. So there’s obviously this funereal implication. This is a funeral Bauer that he’s in. He can’t see anything but can only smell flowers. So it’s like his own death.
Erin: And he can only guess what’s around him by the scent of the flowers and the fact that… what month it is, the fact that it’s springtime, he can infer what flowers in particular those are. And he goes from the grass up through the thicket to the fruit tree, and he’s describing all of these different flowers. The hawthorn and the eglantine, which is a sweet briar, it’s a type of rose, and the violets, which are interestingly they are “fast fading violets”, so they’re “covered up in leaves”. They’re on their way out, and coming up is the musk rose in mid May, it’s soon going to be here. So he’s putting himself in a very particular sort of time of the year, this spring on the verge of summer, which is familiar to us from Grecian Urn.
Erin: This is a little bit later, or even the exact moment of the Grecian Urn time of being on the cusp of something fuller and more complete, like summer. But this is the cold spring of total detachment. This is the near sensual fulfillment of what’s about to happen, the moment right before the kiss.
Wes: What I find really interesting here is that the fading away in darkness and intoxication that he’s been hoping for, something new now has emerged out of that, because the darkness becomes an opportunity for him to essentially use his imagination, right? He’s seeing these things without being able to see them. He’s imagining them there, despite the fact that the darkness is embalmed, which I take to be… you got a funereal implication, but the idea that it’s like darkness doubled in a way, darkness itself has died, or darkness is so extreme that it conjures up the idea of having died. That’s the kind of darkness one might experience if one had died, so. But the process here is also one of interpretation. So this is another part of aesthetic experience. It’s not simply intoxication or forgetfulness or losing oneself. It’s this sort of interpretative act that he’s now engaged in, this guessing at what sorts of flowers are underneath his feet. That, to me, is a really interesting turn here, where it’s yet another challenge to the initial thesis of the intoxication.
Erin: There’s even some synesthesia going on here, maybe, the so many senses colliding at once. They’re all sort of mixing in the stanza in an interesting way. So the nightingale’s singing in the background, we might assume, and he calls, um… the smells like incense, that are hanging upon the bows. There’s touch here. He says… he tries to “guess each sweet / wherewith the seasonable month endows”. The ‘sweet’ is the sweet smell. But there’s also that taste there. He describes the musk roses “full of dewey wine”. So again there’s this drinking, it’s dewey wine. It’s interesting because, is the wine the scent? or is it the dew that has gathered in the sort of cup of the musk rose? He’s projecting out into the future here. So he’s also kind of blending senses and he’s blending time, like he’s anticipating the coming of the musk rose.
Wes: Right, and then “the murmurous haunt of flies on summer eves.”
Erin: Yeah. And that’s really interesting. He’s anticipating that it’s going to then be the haunt of flies so he can hear the flies murmuring. But there’s also something, of course, death-like about that, the fact that the flies are going to gather around it, and it actually reminds me of a kind of a trope in still-life paintings around this time, but also preceding it, and maybe as early as the 17th century, where painters would show, of course… the still-life is commonly shown with flowers and fruit, and all of those good things. But then it became fashionable to show flies on the fruit and maybe even some of the fruit being kind of eaten away at by, like, little worms and gross things so that this still-life, it was supposed to also be kind of a Memento Mori.
Erin: Cool. So we move on? Next stanza:
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.
So “Darkling I listen”. This is my favorite stanza in the whole poem. And I always thought that when I was 13, I was like, Oh, yeah, I totally get it. “I have been half in love with easeful death.” I thought that this was like so… [laughter] so cool, which is…
Wes: It’s a persistent part of human life, though, this attraction. Death because it’s… death is easeful. We leave our troubles behind, supposedly, and at the very least, you know, all the tension involved in life goes away, including the longing of the lovers.
Erin: There’s a shift here, as there always is, with each new stanza. He’s saying, okay, I’m listening. I’m listening to the nightingale. And then he turns his attention to Death himself. His name is capitalized. It’s a capital D. So he’s personifying him, and he’s calling him ‘him’, as a person. And he’s saying, I’ve been half in love with death. I wanted to die myself, and I’ve even romanticized death in my poetry in the past, right? “I’ve called him soft names in many a mused rhyme” or mused rhyme.
Wes: Yes. So almost wooed death, or…
Erin: He says “now, more than ever, seems it rich to die” while you’re singing. So he’s saying… this seems as good a time as ever to die painlessly in this sort of embalmed state that he’s still in. Remember, he’s still in the dark wood, in the bower, while I’m listening to you: “while thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad / in such ecstasy!” So he turns back to the nightingale here.
Wes: Yeah, well, I was going to say this idea of “rich to die”, as if he were receiving, in dying, receiving this bounty this…
Wes: …receiving riches, which kind of goes along with the pouring forth. So the nightingale gives him all of these riches, but that becomes a form of… not of expansion of life, but it becomes a form of dying.
Erin: But then he recognizes that there’s a downside to that, that if he died in this moment, the nightingale would keep on singing and “I would have ears in vain to thy high requiem become a sod”. So if you kept singing and I died, then it would be kind of a shame because I have these ears and so your requiem (so he interprets that the song would become a requiem upon his dying) your song would fall on deaf ears because I would become earth, I would just become a piece of earth and so it would be a shame to have you sing to no one. Which is interesting for a lot of reasons: that he interprets the death as a requiem, so the nightingale is somehow responding to him, but also that the nightingale perhaps does need an audience, because he’s saying it would be a shame if I couldn’t hear you. And that seems to be a reciprocal relationship here: I wouldn’t hear you and you wouldn’t be heard.
Wes: The paradox here is that we might think of aesthetic experience or the experience of poetry as losing ourselves as de-individuating. But that is not entirely possible, right, because if we do that too much, we’re no longer experiencers at all, we can no longer hear. And there’s a limit to that sort of thing. He’s not gonna be able to cast off his individuality and humanness. He’s not gonna be able to leave human troubles behind because to leave those troubles behind is also to leave behind aesthetic experience. He’s stuck. If he wants the nightingale’s song, he has to stay himself, and he has to stay, to some extent, outside of nature. To become fully natural is to become sod, it is to lose that dyadic relationship between observer and the observed, and the aesthetic can’t do without them.
Erin: Okay, the penultimate stanza.
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.
Wes: Now he’s fully moving on from the idea that… of leaving human troubles behind with the bird, right. In fact, the bird connects him to humanity, to other generations. It connects the ancient to the present. It connects him to this biblical figure of Ruth, for instance. I like the idea of the alien corn here. I’ll let you explain that reference.
Erin: It’s so strange. The places that he goes here, I guess.
Wes: Right. From the Bible to fairies and…
Erin: Yeah, and none of them are mythological places, I suppose. I mean, they’re the ancient days, the emperors of ancient days, so that has, I suppose, a pagan Greek and Roman implication. But then he goes to the biblical, which is so rare. It’s really strange that Ruth is in the middle of this poem. I suppose her being in the middle of this poem is maybe also fitting at the same time because she’s in an alien place. He’s referring to the fact that she was a… gosh! I don’t know the story as well as I should. I suppose I could make a Catholic joke here about how “Hey, I’m just a Catholic. I’m not supposed to know the Bible.”
Erin: But anyway. [laughter]
Wes: So I’m Latin or Greek, right? [laughter]
Erin: Yeah, whatever. No, but the story of Ruth is that she’s a stranger in a strange land, right? She’s from Moab, and she marries an Israeli. So she’s put into a strange place, and then her husband dies, and she has to help her mother in law, Naomi, find protection in this strange land. And so she’s standing in this alien corn of the land of the Israelites, which is not native to her, and in the same way she’s sort of not native to this stanza, or this sort of pagan kettle of fish that she’s put into. So he’s saying this is maybe the song that she heard, not just the song that the Greeks of myth would have heard, but Ruth, even in the Judeo tradition, Judeo-Christian tradition, and then even in these magic times. Which is interesting, too, because now he goes to a place where there aren’t even any people that he’s mentioning. He just mentions “magic casements, opening on the foam / of perilous seas”. So I assume that these are magic windows on a ship, piratey-type things, the seas of maybe…
Wes: I think immediately of the Dawn Treader and C. S. Lewis, actually. [laughter]
Erin: Oh! I was thinking of the Tempest.
Wes: Oh! I suppose he hadn’t read C. S. Lewis. [laughter]
Erin: No… [laughter] Of course, any time in English poet mentions fairies, we think of England, their particular tradition of which is in fairies. The strangeness of this maybe is just the fact that there’s no actor in these last lines. We have the emperor and the clown, those are people, obviously, and we have Ruth, who’s a person, and then we have “windows opening on the foam of seas,” so a window of a ship, not opened by anyone, but just opening, looking at the sea, and then the fairy lands, but they’re not lands populated by fairies, who are moving about doing their own thing. It’s the fairy lands and “the faery lands forlorn.”
Wes: Oh yeah, I missed that, yeah.
Erin: Yeah, that is strange.
Wes: Before we get to the charmed magic casements, we have him now… In the beginning, he’s just… he’s an audience of one, right? It’s just him and the bird. And now he has fellow audience members for this. It can be a shared experience and one that connects him now to human beings and… as I said, and to other generations, so that it’s not simply a way of escaping humanity, but a way of connecting to other human beings but also connecting to this feeling of homesickness, which is really interesting because the poem begins with heartache, right? And we have a new… now it’s the sad heart of Ruth. It’s someone else’s heartache, and we have new possibilities for heartache. We have the idea here that it’s not a heartache of wanting to leave humanity behind, but it’s the heartache of wanting to return, sick for home.
Erin: And ‘home’, for Keats, would be what?
Wes: It’s back to the place where “palsy shakes a few, sad, last gray hairs”. It’s back to the place of “leaden-eyed despairs”. It’s back to this place of human troubles, I think. Instead of aking simply to get away from it, we’re now aching to return, I think.
Erin: And yet he speaks of the mortal world with such bitterness. I mean, I think the most bitter line of the poem, of maybe any of these three poems, certainly is “no hungry generations tread thee down.” He’s imagining that the hunger of the next generation coming up has no concern for the generation that preceded them and just walks all over them, or kind of uses them up like firewood or something, or eats them. There’s this cannibalistic nature of humanity that he hints at here, which is very dark, and the nightingale, by being a bird, but also by having all of these implications that he’s endowed with, is literally above it all. And so it can survive over the generations. And that’s why he then references that it was there in the ancient days, the ancient days of both the Greco-Roman and the Judeo-Christian ancient days. And even in these magic places or these magic places of the sea, which has no country, right, or of England, of the fairy lands.
Wes: That’s interesting. Yeah. Now that you say that I’m thinking the bird is immortal in the sense of its immortal at this level of species, right? But also, I think again we’re supposed to be thinking of poetry and the arts here. And I thought also of the Urn, right, the “unravished bride of quietness” that persists through all these different generations of humanity. And it’s something that… wasn’t there a part in the Urn where we had the idea of generational replacement as well.
Erin: The cultural implications of the urn are that the urn as being a remnant of a whole culture now lost. I suppose the urn is a much more communal idea of everyone sort of being in it together on the urn, in the same static place, and then coming from the same culture. But there was the idea, maybe that the maker of the urn is now dead.
Wes: Yeah, I was also thinking of “when old age shall this generation waste.” So it really wasn’t one generation wasting the other. I was misremembering that, but “thou shalt remain in the midst of other woe” So the bird is playing… the nightingale is playing a similar role here.
Erin: Yeah, as a comforter, as art comforting one, in the idea that you’re going to die but art will live on, and what you add to the stores of art, if you manage to add something to that, will also live on beyond you and give you a kind of immortality.
Wes: It gives us a new way to think about… well, I think I have mentioned this in our episode, but the idea of what ravishment is, you know, here we have the idea of, you know, by implication, it’s, you know, as you said, it’s one generation treading down the other, but it’s something that cannot be done to the bird. And again, there’s something about the inexhaustibility of the artistic object: it doesn’t get ravished, it doesn’t get destroyed by our use of it, by appreciation of it. The song persists in that sense and can be for multiple audience members, right? It’s not like a jealous love relationship, which has to be between two people.
Erin: Yeah, and his naming of these other audience members unites them. It correlates them across time as being… because they’re all audience members of the nightingale’s same song, they’re all in a kind of artistic community. Yeah, so he’s making a connection between the emperor and the clown. So, as Madonna would say… [laughter]
Wes: I was gonna say that! [laughter] So Madonna is right is what you’re saying.
Erin: I mean, she’s always right. [laughter] But yeah, it’s the great equalizer, as Madonna would say.
Erin: It unites people across social class, but he’s also saying it unites them across time. So he’s kind of like friends, in a sense, because he has that experience of listening to this bird or appreciating art in that way, he’s made frends to, or at least put on the same plane with, this emperor, this clown, Ruth. And then these sort of like magic lands, also.
Wes: It’s interesting because we get death is the equalizer, right, and something that Shakespeare makes a lot of. But here we get a competing equalizer in art.
Erin: This is a dark poem compared to Grecian Urn and to Autumn. And maybe that is this poem’s sort of realization here, in this penultimate stanza, that gives us some comfort, that it’s not just the art giving us comfort, but the realization that other people love art. That is also supposed to give us comfort [laughter] or something, which is also, I guess, I suppose, in Keats’s own life, I mean, the fact that he comes from a generation of these friends who were also creating this great art, you know, specifically Shelley and Byron. Those people were his friends, all embarking upon this same quest for, you know, artistic knowledge and understanding, and that that is a true sort of form of friendship, I suppose, a true uniter of people in desperate times and places.
Wes: We can’t just put on our Goth makeup and go off and be petulant…
Wes: …arts-loving adolescents and the rest of the world are phonies.. we are…
Erin: …we are…[laughter]
Wes: …called back to some sort of communion. We have to sit around with Byron, then drink and listen to his stories of womanizing or whatever, make up ghost stories and be inspired to write great novels. And yeah.
Erin: I was just thinking… something that my friend Nick mentions a lot is that you very rarely see great poets come up in a vacuum. Almost always great poets are part of a generation where they’re friends with other great poets. Somehow they find each other and they bolster each other, and it’s very difficult to… and the same is, I’m sure, is true of other art forms, that you see these clusters because of that necessity of communion with others. It’s very hard for artists to be in a vacuum.
Wes: I think it’s true of every discipline and the idea of the lone genius. I mean, there’s an element of truth to it because I think for geniuses there is a real sense in which they are cut off, a real sense in which they have departed with the bird, so to speak. But it can’t be complete. It has to be… there has to be some tether back to the social and the communal. Poetry is inspired, right? It’s not even one’s own exactly. You can’t do it under the illusion that it’s simply one’s own. That’s why the idea of inspiration is so key. It becomes idiotic, in a way, when I’m using that word technically to mean, like the Greek, ancient Greek word, ‘idio” means “cut off”. Idiosyncratic. You get to the point where you’re no longer communicating. It’s become too narcissistic. So you need to be communicating with others, you need to be thinking of an audience. You do not reach that point of being nightingale-like and simply naturally admitting one’s naturally beautiful song effortlessly. Yeah.
Erin: Yeah. Well, and I think that that then calls us to the last stanza. Here we go:
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?
The word “forlorn”, that he has at the end of the penultimate stanza, in “fairy lands forlorn”, that word is like a bell that he says tolls him back from the nightingale “to my sole self”. So this really emphasizes, I think, what we were getting at in the past… in the last stanza. The communal element of the artistic spell is kind of broken here, and he’s reminded that he is alone and he comes out of his… what many critics have called “the kind of the trance” that he is in for the middle stanzas of the poem. Really, when he goes on “the viewless wings of Poesy” and goes into this kind of near-death state and then makes this imaginary flight through all these different ages, and now he’s… bam! He’s back. He’s back by himself. The spell is broken, the trance is over, and he comes out of his reverie to sort of realize his own loneliness.
Wes: So the interesting kind of paradox, here, or irony is that the communion with the bird set off a kind of reverie in which he really is with his sole self, you know, so it’s supposedly he’s with the bird in some sense, but really, it’s a very… he’s retreated into himself for that reflection. And to come out of that, to come out of it to his sole self, it’s a different… you know, it’s a different kind of being back with oneself. To be with oneself in the trance is different than this, you know, individuated. So I think the trance, you know, in a way, he’s merged with the nightingale and here the nightingale is gone… Two different ways of being alone, really.
Erin: And then he says, you know, “the fancy cannot cheat so well / as she is fam’d to do”, so he’s gone on this amazing mental journey, or whatever, this trance, and yet he says that my imagination can’t cheat so well. It can’t trick me as well as it’s supposed to in thinking that I can really fly away with you, which is, you know, his imagination has certainly taken him as far as eight stanzas, so…
Erin: …you know, [laughter] he’s a little harsh there on his own imaginative gifts, and he calls the bird “deceiving elf,” which is like a little cute winky epithet. He describes the bird… I guess, he says “thy plaintive…” (now it’s become a plaintive) “…anthem fades”, and he describes it as flying over the meadows, the stream, up the hillside, and now it’s in the next Valley. So, okay… so the bird has left him and now has gone away somewhere else, and he hears it fading. So the whole thing was like a dream. This visitation of the bird is like the visitation of the Muse, and now he’s broken out of this trance and the Muse has gone elsewhere. And now he’s left wondering: was it real? Or was it all just a dream or a vision? Which is a strange word to use, ‘vision’, because he was blinded most of the time and he wonders if he was waking or sleeping. So it’s interesting because the immortality of the bird, on the one hand, is contrasted with how long it stays with you, on the other. The bird is immortal, that unites people across all of these generations, across time, real and imagined, and yet it also just will up and leave you when it wants to. This, to me, has a lot of implications about the result of our reverie, like the poem that we create, like at the end of the day, how do we know if it was really inspired? How do we know if it’s any good or not? This is a lot of artistic self doubt that enters in when the Muse leaves us, so to speak. And I don’t really think that I commune with a Muse or anything like that, but this self doubt, to me, really speaks to the poetic experience in these last lines.
Wes: Yeah, part of it is… you know, and the experience of writing a poem can really be… in my experience, can be quite trance-like and static. It can have that feeling of… you can actually get to that feeling of being operated through, or being a medium for the actions of something else that acts through you. And then when you’re done with that, you’re left with the question of whether… you know, to show it to anyone. [laughter] You’re left with the question of whether there’s something true about that, whether it’s just a deceiving elf and it’s a very fraught situation that the artist finds himself or herself in. And I think this is, you know, there’s a lot of great literature that’s a reflection on… (and Shakespeare’s Tempest included, for instance) it’s a reflection on this problem of the audience and the artists, and what that relationship does, and how… the anxiety of it, and how it affects the art, and what the artist has to do psychologically, to cope with that anxiety. The anxiety of the audience as rejection, the anxiety of finding out that this thing, which you can think of it as coming either from use or from one’s innermost self, let’s say, that the idea that it’s just bad poetry, [laughter] that it needs to be worked over in a different frame of mind, you know, in the frame of mind of the sole self, who’s the editor now, who’s the more rational or more critical, applying a more critical faculty.
Erin: The interesting thing about the making of this poem is that, supposedly, Keats did write it in one morning, which, because of its length, means that it would have had to have been fairly transcribed from that kind of trance-like state in order for it to work out that he could come up with this in such a short time. So it was pretty well inspired, and yet, you know, that’s something that the romantics really emphasized, that they were really obsessed with, this idea that, you know, you should only go with divinely inspired verse and that the people who preceded them, like Pope, for instance, with the heroic couplets, that that was really false and that, you know, you should use more ordinary language and that things should feel like they were just immediately written down after some bout of inspiration. And in fact… I can’t remember who it was, I can’t remember if it was a younger generation romantic poet finding… like, maybe, Coleridge’s work, or if it was a Victorian who found one of the younger generations work like Keats, or something. But someone found a bunch of drafts of something that the poet himself, whether it be Byron or Shelley or whoever, had said had come to them all in one flash. And someone who was going through all their stuff said that they found all of these drafts painstakingly edited and revised and words crossed out and new things written in, and that it had actually taken ages and ages for them to come up with the final product. But they were really, um, you know, the romantics wanted to kind of keep up this facade of things having been written in the moment, and it seems like this poem, oddly enough, is one of those rare moments when one of those gifts, as some poets like to say, that did just present itself to him in a kind of complete state.
Wes: And there’s a virtue to that as well. I mean, I… (as a real poet, you know this better than I) but too much revision can become a real problem and there’s always the problem of knowing when you’re starting to damage a poem or a piece of writing, right, by overthinking it, and by scrubbing away some of the inspiration because it looks a little too rough around the edges or something like that. So I’ve had that experience in trying to workshop pieces of writing and writing classes, getting all kinds of different conflicting opinions and then just saying, you know, fuck it. I’m not doing this by committee. This is just the way it is. That’s going to stay that way. So..
Erin: Right. Well, there’s that famous line that, you know, “no poem is ever finished. It’s just abandoned.” The inspiration of the moment, I suppose, really gives a kind of energy, I guess, that it loses when it’s hacked away after many revisions, and so it could be in very rough shape. But that energy is very hard to fake later on in revision, so you kind of go through these many different drafts to kind of try and get it to that original energy that it had in the first place, but with it actually making sense and…
Wes: More form, more precision, or however you wanna think about it.
Erin: Right. And that’s really, really difficult to do because you’re trying to affect an inspiration that’s at the same time tempered with all of these poetic, logical formal considerations.
Wes: It all speaks to a deeper problem, I think, with being an artist, which is combining these two different sorts of moments, one of which is manic and one of which is kind of depressive. So this we’ll see when we talk about The Tempest one day. It’s well represented there, that, you know,the idea that the poet has to be inspired and the poet… you know, there has to be a certain kind of hubris or narcissism to thinking that other people are going to be interested in your own words, or that you might have a sort of divine power to create something out of nothing to confront a blank page and do something with it. Something has to get you over the kind of anxiety that naturally accompanies creativity anyway. And I think that manic moment will help you get beyond that. But it has to be tempered by something, or it could just be something that’s not really for others. So the temptation, for instance, for a playwright might be, to… I think I mentioned this in whatever previous episodes, but it might be to try to get off on the control of one’s characters, for instance, or to moralize, to punish villains, to have things happen not by the internal logic of a plot, but because it gratifies, you know, say, for instance, the sadism of the poet, of the filmmaker, of the writer. Those are the sorts of dangers and that have to be resisted in the way of I think part of the way of doing that is to reach a point of letting go of those temptations, the way Prospera puts it, to abjure his rough magic. I think the artist… part of the second moment of the creative act, is to be able to do that. I was also thinking… you had mentioned the idea of “fairy lands forlorn” and the fact that what it seems to evoke is the idea that those lands have been abandoned and that a kind of childhood fancy has been abandoned, right? So eventually we grow up and we no longer believe in fairies or eventually societies evolve and they no longer have the same superstitions so that it becomes a kind of nostalgia where you think of England, for instance, here in the countryside and you have these associations to fairies and too long abandoned mythologies. But now you’re kind of returned to the real world, and that’s what returns him to the real world in the end. Something about the… yeah, return to reality at the end of the poem as representative of that second moment. But also just, you know, the forlornness of… you know, on the one hand we’re talking about the beginning of the poem in a way as, I think, is an attempt to abandon humanity. And then in the penultimate stanza we’re getting an idea of return to humanity. And here I suppose the return to humanity involves a… in a way, leaving behind of the magic stuff or leaving behind of his trance. So it does or it doesn’t, right? It still preserves that moment, but it must also involve the moving on. Do you have any other final thoughts on this?
Erin: I suppose the one thing I wanted to say is about the nightingale’s song itself. I suppose there’s also a sense that music and poetry are so deeply interrelated, and yet they’re also so different. I mean, music is… instrumental music, or any music that doesn’t have any words, is often considered, I think, the most abstract of any of the arts. I mean, I was thinking of… there’s this great scene in one of my favorite novels, Howards End, by E. M. Forster, where Helen Schlegel, (I think it’s Helen) goes to this Victorian oddity of an intellectual lecture, which apparently was was common in the Victorian era, called “Music and Meaning”, where the lecturer, who’s also a musician, will, you know, play on the piano some bars of Beethoven and then stand up and say, “Okay, well, you know, that was clearly goblins going into the city where they live underground” and he was like… you know, and he’ll describe in each movement or in each… just in these bars of Beethoven or who… I think it was Beethoven’s Fifth that he was discussing, describing sort of. Well, you know, this is clearly what Beethoven had in mind. That he’s clearly just, you know, hey means to evoke goblins. It has to be goblins, and I think someone stands up and says, “Well, could it be… maybe trolls?” “No, it has to be goblins.” You know, so there’s this kind of, I guess, what E. M. Forster is kind of skewering there as the Georgian that he is, as Victorian insistence, which was a reaction to the romantic era, of having to have kind of like a clear, non abstract meaning behind all of these musical tones that are all abstract. And they have their own meaning in that they follow the bounds of music, they follow a clear structure. Obviously it’s all contained within the staff and and everything, but that is kind of, at the same time, up in the ether, that there’s something magic about that in itself, that, you know, the violin with a movement of the bow on the strings creates the sound that seems to kind of hover above the head of the player. There’s something magic in that that makes people who want easy answers, I suppose, kind of uncomfortable or wonder what the story is, that they have to ascribe a narrative to all of this abstract sound, which is the kind of the joke that Forster is making that,you know, these people can’t just appreciate something for itself, they have to try and figure out what it means underneath everything, or ascribe a narrative to it, which is interesting. And so that’s what Keats sort of most admires, though, in the bird, is the abstraction of that, the fact that there is no… the instrumental music or the vocal ease of the bird, which is just a term for the most famous vocal ease in written music, is Rachmaninoff’s vocal ease, which is for voice but it has no words, it’s just on an “ah” tone. So this thing that has no words, it’s just pure tone, is in a way a perfect demonstration of Keats’s idea of negative capability because there can’t be any moralizing, there can’t be any narrative, there can’t be any point or days ex machina that is involved in the interpretation of these musical notes. It’s just what it is. It’s just pure, as he would say, unthinking…
Wes: It’s non representational.
Erin: Yeah, to think is to be full of sorrow. So the idea that the bird being an unthinking thing, just producing this natural sound, not thinking, not ascribing meaning, not ascribing any kind of value, that that is the thing that the poet can try to aspire to, but of course, never quite reach, because of the fact that it’s dealing with instrumental music is the most linked, ideologically, to Keats’s idea of negative capability, but also kind of the impossibility of negative capability at the same time.
Wes: Yeah, I think it’s linked in the sense that poetry involves representation so it lacks the purity of the musical, right. There’s something… Schopenhauer thought this, too, there’s really something about music, which makes it the only pure aesthetic experience, and the idea is that because the musical is non representational, he sees that as a vehicle for leaving humanity behind or to getting to something that’s pure, leaving himself behind. That doesn’t work, but it’s not to say that there isn’t something to that. Like I was talking about the two moments for creativity. One of them has to be manic and ecstatic. One of them has to be a leaving behind, but I think there also must be a return as well, and part of that return is precisely what’s meant by negative capability, right? What Keats praises in Shakespeare is negative capability. It’s just what I was talking about. It’s the capability to abjure rough magic. It’s the capability for not giving into the temptations of the ecstatic moment, which can actually destroy the artistic project. So again, for instance, by not letting characters simply be themselves but having to insert oneself and one’s opinions and preoccupations, having to gratify oneself as an artist in ways that are not going to be aesthetically gratifying to an audience. So I think that fits perfectly negative capability with that second moment, and I think that’s part of what this, you know, he’s… what the rumination in this poem leads to as a conclusion.
Erin: Right. And of course, for anyone who has the ability to listen to birdsong or any kind of instrumental music, the idea is that that kind of reverie, that trance-like state that exists outside of ourselves or that opportunity where we can take a journey outside of ourselves exists for all of us, it’s available to us. I don’t mean this to be like a PSA for listening to more instrumental music, but maybe, I mean, [laughter] he kind of, you know, he uses that as this great vehicle for going outside of himself, and that seems to be… this movement outside of the self is interesting to me in a deeply self-absorbed world. I mean, it’s interesting that this poem is his most confessional of all of the Odes. It’s in that kind of confessional mode which won’t really exist in its full form until the mid 20th century, but that idea of dwelling on our own feelings, on our own thoughts, is something that we’re really used to as people, especially as 21st century people, where we’re constantly thinking about our own position relative to other people, and where we stand, and who we are, and all of these types of considerations, which are which are important ones, don’t get me wrong, but which kind of contend to selfishness and these types of universal art forms that draws out of ourselves and connect us with other people are worth a shot, I think.
Erin: It’s perhaps one of the messages that we might take from it.
Wes: Alright, We’re gonna have to let the bird fly away now and say goodbye. I really enjoyed that. Thank you.Erin: Yeah. Thank you.