The Guardian- John Keats, portrait by Joseph Severn, c1821-1823. Illustration: Alamy
From Ode to a Nightingale to Modern Love, Ruth Padel, Will Harris, Mary Jean Chan, Rachel Long and Seán Hewitt choose their favourites
Ode to a Nightingale (1819)
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?
Chosen by Ruth Padel
For three hours, Keats sat in a friend’s garden listening to a nightingale. He was 23, and trying to live by poetry though reviews so far had been woundingly critical. He had just watched his younger brother die of tuberculosis, which he now had, too. The eight stanzas he wrote that day track fluctuating feelings about mortality and transience that everyone has had at times. Especially now, during the pandemic.
You sound so happy, the poem tells the nightingale. I don’t envy you, I’m glad at your happiness, I long to escape this world of suffering. You, though, will never die. Your song opens vistas on to history and myth, which, though magical, are very lonely. When you stop singing I’m back, asleep or awake, with reality.
That’s the thread. But the pitch-perfect music, the profound thought wrapped in sensuous imagery, and dark-glowing description of things seen only through imagination – the essence of poetry – make this poem one of the greatest of all English lyrics.
- Ruth Padel has written Songs of the Night, a poem inspired by Ode to a Nightingale, to mark the bicentenary with the Poetry Society and Keats House Hampstead.
I had a dove (1819)
I had a dove and the sweet dove died;
And I have thought it died of grieving:
O, what could it grieve for? Its feet were tied,
With a silken thread of my own hand’s weaving;
Sweet little red feet! why should you die –
Why should you leave me, sweet bird! why?
You liv’d alone in the forest-tree,
Why, pretty thing! would you not live with me?
I kiss’d you oft and gave you white peas;
Why not live sweetly, as in the green trees?
Chosen by Will Harris
When our English teacher read out Ode to a Nightingale, he cried. Though I didn’t think he was pretending, I couldn’t understand it. It played into my feeling that some people liked the idea of poetry more than poetry itself – and who represented the idea of poetry more than Keats?
Years later, I read another Keats poem, nothing like the Ode. “I had a dove” appears in a letter Keats wrote to his sister and brother in January 1819. He dismisses it as “a little thing”, but its serious context looms over it: Tom, his youngest brother, had just died.
The poem is a strange, sing-songy fable about loss. The speaker traps a dove; the dove dies. Did he kill it? There are plain statements and unanswerable questions (“Why should you leave me, sweet bird! why?”). Amid the monochrome of grief, three colours come through: “little red feet”, “white peas”, “green trees”.
It’s the Keats poem that makes me cry. It reminds me of his line about poets being “the most unpoetical of all God’s creatures”. “Unpoetical” because, despite any strong feelings, the poet is always trying to empty themselves out, to let ambivalence speak, to experience the world with “trembling delicate and snail-horn perception”.
- Rendang by Will Harris, winner of the 2020 Forward prize for first collection, is published by Granta.
To Autumn (1819/20)
Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.
Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep,
Drows’d with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cyder-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.
Where are the songs of spring? Ay, Where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,—
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.
Chosen by Mary Jean Chan
Growing up in Hong Kong with English as my second language, I remember finding Anglophone poems to be a distinct challenge. But I was able to rely on my love of classical Chinese poetry to help me navigate them, as I appreciated how each word could carry multiple layers of meaning, that musicality was key to a poem’s internal logic. I remember loving the phrase “winnowing wind” when I first came across To Autumn in secondary school, in particular because I had mistaken the word “winnow” for “minnow” and thus conjured up this lovely image of the wind meandering like a tiny fish. The poem also made me feel less alone. The lines “Where are the songs of spring? Ay, Where are they? / Think not of them, thou hast thy music too” was a source of comfort to my 16-year-old closeted self, who felt inadequate and ashamed in a heteronormative world. In her book Infinite Gradation, the Canadian poet Anne Michaels writes: “Poetry must lead the reader not to the poet’s life, but to the reader’s own.” I remember thinking, “thou hast thy music too”, and for a brief moment, believing it.
- Flèche by Mary Jean Chan, winner of the 2019 Costa award for poetry, is published by Faber.
La Belle Dame sans Merci (1820)
O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
Alone and palely loitering?
The sedge has withered from the lake,
And no birds sing.
O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
So haggard and so woe-begone?
The squirrel’s granary is full,
And the harvest’s done.
I see a lily on thy brow,
With anguish moist and fever-dew,
And on thy cheeks a fading rose
Fast withereth too.
I met a lady in the meads,
Full beautiful—a faery’s child,
Her hair was long, her foot was light,
And her eyes were wild.
I made a garland for her head,
And bracelets too, and fragrant zone;
She looked at me as she did love,
And made sweet moan
I set her on my pacing steed,
And nothing else saw all day long,
For sidelong would she bend, and sing
A faery’s song.
She found me roots of relish sweet,
And honey wild, and manna-dew,
And sure in language strange she said—
‘I love thee true’.
She took me to her Elfin grot,
And there she wept and sighed full sore,
And there I shut her wild wild eyes
With kisses four.
And there she lullèd me asleep,
And there I dreamed—Ah! woe betide!—
The latest dream I ever dreamt
On the cold hill side.
I saw pale kings and princes too,
Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;
They cried—‘La Belle Dame sans Merci
Thee hath in thrall!’
I saw their starved lips in the gloam,
With horrid warning gapèd wide,
And I awoke and found me here,
On the cold hill’s side.
And this is why I sojourn here,
Alone and palely loitering,
Though the sedge is withered from the lake,
And no birds sing.
Chosen by Seán Hewitt
La Belle Dame sans Merci is a ballad. Ostensibly, it tells a story: a knight has fallen for an enchanted woman, but has witnessed the horrors of those she has taken before him, “their starved lips in the gloam / With horrid warning gapèd wide”.
Keats varies the rhythm in the fourth line of each stanza, sometimes abruptly, halting the cantering music of the previous lines. The form restrains his excess, as in the contrast between the repetition of “And there I shut her wild wild eyes” and the curtailed rhythm of “With kisses four”. You can almost feel the pull of the form, reining in the poem, so that when the grip loosens, and the images become hallucinatory, the effect is all the more unsettling.
It is full of lacunae and weird associations – the knight answers the unseen questioner, but his answer is almost a riddle. The poem echoes beyond itself – a man in shock, witness to something brutal and eerie, tries to account for his isolation. In its staccato, faltering music, its replacement of the sublime with the austere, the poem suggests a mind haunted by trauma, the surreal breaking through into the bleak, lonely landscape where “the sedge has withered from the lake / And no birds sing”.
- Tongues of Fire by Seán Hewitt is published by Jonathan Cape.
Modern Love (1848)
And what is love? It is a doll dress’d up
For idleness to cosset, nurse, and dandle;
A thing of soft misnomers, so divine
That silly youth doth think to make itself
Divine by loving, and so goes on
Yawning and doting a whole summer long,
Till Miss’s comb is made a pearl tiara,
And common Wellingtons turn Romeo boots;
Then Cleopatra lives at number seven,
And Antony resides in Brunswick Square.
Fools! if some passions high have warm’d the world,
If Queens and Soldiers have play’d deep for hearts,
It is no reason why such agonies
Should be more common than the growth of weeds.
Fools! make me whole again that weighty pearl
The Queen of Egypt melted, and I’ll say
That ye may love in spite of beaver hats.
Chosen by Rachel Long
It is fitting that I should be revisiting this poem days after a Valentine’s spent alone in my flat, and, like everyone else in the country, in the ache of Lockdown III. A Keats-esque question keeps appearing on my timeline: what is love, in the time of corona?
The clever beauty of this posthumously published poem, which is not anti-love but let’s-be-real-about-love, lies in its timelessness, its enduring relevance – no mean feat for a poem to speak to lovers in the 19th century and 2021. Keats’ critique of the fluffiness of love feels more relevant now than ever. Here we all are, levelling with love, asking it how it needs us to be. How can we show it to ourselves and others when we no longer have the luxury of being grandiose with it? (No making dinner reservations at a favourite restaurant, taking yourself to the cinema in the middle of the afternoon, or texting a lover “pack a bag, meet you at Heathrow” – OK, I have never done this, but I dream.) In this most painful moment, when we cannot see family or friends, we’ve had to learn how to communicate our love through a screen, from two metres, through glass. Gone is the “tiara”-love, the “doll dress’d up”. Love in the time of corona, is, I think, happening in a far less decorated but perhaps more honest way. Keats might approve.
- My Darling from the Lions by Rachel Long, shortlisted for the 2021 Folio prize, is published by Picador.