A common man marvels at uncommon things. A wise man marvels at the commonplace. CONFUCIUS

Monday, 23 June 2014

Bright Star (16)

That quintessential romantic, John Keats, wrote a handful of the most exquisite poems to be found anywhere in the whole of English literature: To Autumn, On First Looking into Chapman's Homer, On the Grasshopper and the Cricket, La Belle Dame sans Merci, When I Have Fears That I May Cease to Be, Ode to a Nightingale.

I recall vividly my first encounter with Keats. I was on a family holiday in the West Country, and my father had given me a 'holiday allowance'. I went straight to the fossil and shell shops which lined the beach front, then to the higgledy-piggledy second-hand bookshops half-hidden in the quaint alleyways of that seaside town. I bought two hardback poetry books, published by Collins: the Selected Poems of Alfred Lord Tennyson and the Selected Poems of John Keats. Somehow I lost the Tennyson over the years; the Keats I have still (minus its blue dust jacket). It's lying next to me as I write this.

This is probably his last poem, written for Fanny Brawne, the love of his short life. The title of Jane Campion's achingly beautiful film about Keats, Bright Star, was taken from this lovely and poignant sonnet. Keats died in Rome of tuberculosis aged only 25.

Bright Star

Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art —
         Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night
And watching, with eternal lids apart,
         Like nature's patient, sleepless Eremite,
The moving waters at their priestlike task
         Of pure ablution round earth's human shores,
Or gazing on the new soft-fallen mask
         Of snow upon the mountains and the moors —
No — yet still stedfast, still unchangeable,
         Pillow'd upon my fair love's ripening breast,
To feel for ever its soft fall and swell,
         Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,
Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
And so live ever — or else swoon to death.



The Weaver of Grass said...

I like Keats Robert, although dare I say that I find him a little dated now. Some poets seem to wear better with age than others.

dritanje said...

Thank goodness we were taught Keats at school. I don't think you see that I would have gone out and spent my holiday allowance on one of his books. But because I learned Ode to a Nightingale at school it has stayed with me or at least the first few lines. And I am hugely grateful for that as it wasn't until my twenties that I got into poetry late starter you might say. But even when at school I recognized there was something special here. And even though we might not use that kind of language nowadays I don't at all feel that it's dated if anything his language makes the feelings all the more powerful. In my opinion. Very humbly Yours Etc.

The Solitary Walker said...

All poems are 'dated', whatever that means — of their time, written at a particular time and in a particular style relevant to that time?

Though, often, great poems are for all times, and read new and fresh, even if the language is 'of their time'. (Shakespeare's plays and sonnets are perfect examples of this — as 'modern' and immediate as the day they were written.)

I actually think that Keats is ageless — like Coleridge, Wordsworth and some of Tennyson. But perhaps I'm just an impossible romantic at heart!

Jean said...

We were at Keats' house in Hampstead the other day to hear Linda France read some of her botanical poems, including the one that recently won the national poetry prize. It rained softly on the incredibly green lawns outside the windows - very atmospheric. My friend Rachel took this lovely photo: http://tinyurl.com/kcaw3kh

The Solitary Walker said...

Yes, I remember reading Linda France's prizewinning poem. I've never been to the Keats House in London, though I've seen the one in Rome by the Spanish Steps. Thanks for the link to the photo — that must be Fanny Brawne in the portrait?

George said...

I agree with you entirely, Robert, on the "dated" issue. The best poems are timeless.

The Solitary Walker said...

Indeed, George.

am said...

What a gift it is today to read that series of poems in your links! Wonderful to revisit these poems by Keats that I haven't read all in a piece since I went back to finish college in 1980. My degree is in English Literature. English literature is a timeless treasure for the world.

The Solitary Walker said...

Yes, I read all of these poems again several times while putting this together, and they are so wonderful. Funny how sad poems and songs, and ones full of yearning and melancholy, can make us feel happy, isn't it?

I don't think I knew your degree was in English Literature. Fabulous!