Friday, June 12, 2015

The Living Dead

Honouring our poetic ancestors

Ode to a Nightingale

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?

I featured Keats on October 17th last year, at which time I was a little disenchanted with his poetry, or at least had trouble finding something to use here. That's partly because I didn't want to choose something that many of us might know so well that there could be no element of discovery. Of course, his best poems are the most famous ones, which is why they're so famous. And now here I am giving you the most famous of all!

I'm sure you'll agree it's very beautiful — sensual, musical and evocative. But the particular reason it came to my attention is that Kerry O'Connor recently used it (here) to inspire the poets at 'imaginary garden with real toads' — only she presented it as a YouTube reading by the British actor Benedict Cumberbatch.

I'm a total fan of the lovely Mr Cumberbatch, whether he's playing Sherlock, or Frankenstein's monster, or anything else at all. He's always brilliant.

I often dislike the way actors read poetry. They don't always seem to understand the nuances and emphases in the same way a poet would. But Benedict Cumberbatch proves once again that he can do no wrong! I don't think I've ever heard a poem read so beautifully. His voice is wonderful and so is his delivery, lingering over the words and giving each one its full value. You feel he really gets what Keats is saying, at the deepest level.  Hearing him, I realise afresh the sad blend, in Keats, of his great love for life and the natural world at the same time as being 'half in love with easeful death'. Life was difficult for Keats.

Some of you will have heard this already at 'imaginary garden', but it's no hardship to listen to it again. It's a treat!

There's a lovely article on Keats himself at The Poetry Foundation, Click the link on his name under the poem title, above.


  1. rendition of Keats' lust for life is very difficult indeed...a great attempt by the British actor Benedict Cumberbatch....thank you Rosemary for presenting this...

  2. Oh, I have always loved this poem by Keats, Rosemary. Thanks for the opportunity to reread it.

  3. That was a great read as always. Many thanks!

  4. Oh yeah. baby that's John Keats :D the legend which continues to inspire us all with his amazing poems! Loved this!! Thanks for posting Rosemary :D

  5. Lovely, Rosemary. This was the first poem, when I was fourteen, that showed me what a poem could do. It is a wonder.

  6. I confess I am have not been enamored of the florid passionate depth of this, but I am more open to it today than ever. In fact I listened after i read. I closed my eyes and saw some of it. Now I have to go to the garden to see Kerry's prompt!

    1. Oh, I'm remiss! I should have posted the link. I have now included it. Too late for you, probably, but hopefully not for others.

  7. Swoon............ I need some smelling salts

  8. Rosemary, Cumberbatch's deep baritone, almost bass in register, has a way of enveloping words in silk and presenting them in their best possible light. He is a master at his craft, and I'm so glad you featured this clip, because it's been around but not really put to good use. A perfect marriage of artist and blog! Amy

    1. Yes, he brought out the meaning for me anew, particularly in that last line with its deeper ('to be or not to be?') meaning.


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