Sunday, August 4, 2013

Sunday Poetry - John Keats

I've decided to take up that idea from last week about quotations in books & movies. Keats's Ode to a Nightingale has two quotations in it that are familiar to me from other contexts. One of my favourite scenes in Barbara Pym's Excellent Women is when the vicar, Julian Malory, visits Mildred one evening after an emotionally upsetting scene (I'll say no more for fear of spoilers). They're standing in front of the electric fire & he's just put a pair of ping pong bats down on the table,

'I cannot see what flowers are at my feet,' said Julian softly.
Nor what soft incense hangs upon the boughs, I continued to myself, feeling the quotation had gone wrong somewhere and it was not really quite what Julian had intended.
'That's Keats, isn't it?' I asked rather bluntly. 'I always think Nor What Soft Incense would be a splendid title for a novel. Perhaps about a village where there were two rival churches, one High and one Low. I wonder if it has ever been used?'

Mildred cuts through the sentimentality in a very Pymish way.

I'll leave you to speculate about the other quotation. It's from a movie about a widow & a ghost in a house by the sea.

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 thy 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
Cooled a long age in the deep-delved earth,
Tasting of Flora and the country green,
Dance, and Provencal song, and sun-burnt 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 tomorrow.

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,
Clustered 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 covered 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,
Called 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
Charmed 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 famed 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? 


  1. So wonderful to read this, Lyn. THE GHOST AND MRS. MUIR is the film you hint about - right? I'll have to see it again since I don't remember much about it except that Rex Harrison was utter perfection as the Captain.

    A Keats quote is also used - intriguingly - by Rex Stout in his book THE DOORBELL RANG. (One of his best Nero Wolfe stories.) The quote is from ODE ON A GRECIAN URN, mangled by a character to suit her own ends:

    The mangled version: (written on the back of a photo of the male murder victim lying naked - while still alive - on a sofa).

    Bold Lover, ever, ever shall thou kiss,
    And win the willing goal, and never leave;
    She will not fear, and thou shalt have thy bliss.
    Forever wilt thou love, and she be fair!

    As Archie Goodwin's lady fair tells him: "It's a take-off of the last four lines of the second stanza of Keats' 'Ode on a Grecian Urn.' It's sort of clever, but no one should monkey with Keats..."

    The actual lines from Keats:

    Bold Love, 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!

    1. Yes, it is TG&MM, one of my favourite movies. I haven't read any of the Nero Wolfe books, would you recommend them? I have to agree with Archie lady friend, messing around with Keats is not on!

  2. Lovely poem - I guessed the film from your clue, not from Keats, sadly.

    1. Yes, I'm fond of movies about ghosts as well as nuns!