A Book of Answers X: Keats And The Nightingale


There was an awful rainbow once in heaven:
We know her woof, her texture; she is given
In the dull catalogue of common things.
Philosophy will clip an Angel’s wings.

Keats has made his protest in advance against my nightingale’s reply. It seemed to many in the nineteenth century that not only religion but the whole field of mythology, the pasture of poets, was being destroyed by the discoveries of science. The poets of a later age have had to find another view in which the mysterious bow of God’s covenant with man remains valid for the imagination and is not touched by what the sciences of optics and meteorology tell us. And it is in this sense that I have allowed the spokesman for the nightingales to address the chosen representative of the poets. Keats’s superb ode is not touched; it depends on its own truth: “what the imagination seizes as beauty must be truth—whether it existed before or not”. But we turn our backs on the other sort of truths at our peril—at the peril of the integrity of poetry. They have their own beauty and they are not hostile to the imagination. In the end they are necessary to it, if poetry is not to lose touch with the real world. The catalogue of common things is only dull to the dullard.

The facts are indeed as stated. The nightingale, as a migratory bird, has to establish and defend its nesting territory by a warning song. It is the cock alone who sings and he sings as much by day as by night.

Mr John Keats 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 thy happiness,—
That thou, light-wingéd Dryad of the trees,
In some melodious plot
Of beechen green, and shadows numberless,
Singest of summer in full-throated ease.

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.

Darkling I listen; and, for many a time
I have been half in love with easeful Death,
Called him soft names in many a muséd 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.

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 the music:—Do I wake or sleep?

A Nightingale To Mr Keats (and to poets in general)

Dear Mr Keats, had your delightful ode
Not charmed more ears than any song of mine
I might indeed have poured my soul abroad
Reckless alike of poetry and wine.
‘Tis not through envy of romantic song
But being too much its theme that I become
A poets’ perquisite rather than a bird
In their melodious plot:
Rank myth and plangent symbol keep me dumb;
My real voice dies in their rich hymns unheard.

Must I play Philomel, the ravished maid,
The warbler with her breast against a thorn,
Or Virgil’s songstress in the poplar shade
Sad feathered Niobe of her brood forlorn
Or your immortal dryad of the trees,
Figuring death or grief or art or love
Or bawd to lust (the medieval view)?
I sicken at all these
Emblems of female heart-break in the grove.
High time the poets learned a fact or two!

Would you please tell them, all those men of rhyme,
It is the cock and not the hen that sings?
Not love or rapture, grief or the sublime
Inspires him but hostility: he flings
Defiance at intruders on his right
And warns off rivals, singing night and day.
Your talk of death, the ecstasy, the pain,
The moon’s enchanting light,
The beechen shade, they touch him not for they
Touch not the championship of his domain.

Heard melodies are sweet but those unheard
You say are sweeter; Poets may like them best,
But I’m a simple migratory bird:
A ditty of no tone won’t guard my nest;
And in that other ode from which I quote
Nature must join with art, as I recall,
If Beauty is the harvest they would reap.
I end then on this note:
The beauty of truth is all you need and all
You have to tell whether you wake or sleep.

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