John Keats and Our Days of Uncertainties
by Mike Dillon
On a mid-May Saturday morning in 1958, my big brother let me tag along with him and his friends as they explored the woods near our house.
I was eight. Times were more innocent then.
We stopped in a small clearing where splintered sun fell through the dark heights of a tall cedar. The effect reminded me of my first communion the week before, how the sun drifted through the clerestory windows to touch the shadowed altar and its wooden crucifix. And then the old priest’s nicotine-scented fingers delivered the immaculate white host to my tongue, a whiff of the actual world waiting outside the church door.
My brother and his friends, five or six years older than I, started talking about movies. Preternaturally shy, I sat on a patch of moss, almost invisible, and gazed upon the angelic precision of their pubescent faces.
When a bird caroled from high up in the cedar — a beautiful song, sweet and liquid — I stared up into broken sunlight but saw no bird. I’ll never know what braved my shy tongue to speak.
“What kind of bird is that?”
And I’ll never know what made the oldest of my brother’s friends, Ray, turn his attention to me and answer: “Nightingale.”
Ray came from what was called, in those days, a “dirt-poor” family of eight or nine kids. Most people on Bainbridge Island, west of Seattle, were not rich then, but Ray’s family was left far behind in the post-War, upward-mobility steeple-chase.
He was probably fourteen: Handsome, soft-spoken, with the kindly presence of a warm spring rain. What magic casement inside him, thousands of miles from the nearest nightingale, opened to the wide world to allow him to answer the way he did?
I don’t know what became of Ray, but I do know the bird that stirred me was surely an American robin.
In 1975, as a back-packing, American set-piece in Europe, I stood in the Protestant cemetery in Rome before John Keats’s white tombstone inscribed with his chosen epitaph: “Here lies one whose name was writ in water.” I was twenty-five, the same age as the poet when he died.
I was struggling to write poetry, and searching for certainties in life that would prop me up. And there, on that hot July afternoon in Rome, somewhere in that peaceful cemetery of pine trees and rotting tombstones, a place of sunlight and shade — a nightingale sang.
By then, Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale” was my most treasured poem. It still is.
As I write this in the dreamlike, pandemic days of social and political angst, I find myself thinking of John Keats.
February 23, 2021 will mark 200th anniversary of the English poet’s death of consumption. Had Shakespeare died at twenty-five, he’d be remembered for a couple of light comedies. Chaucer, not at all. John Keats stopped writing well over a year before he died.
In one of his many extraordinary letters, Keats, explaining his stance towards poetry and life, wrote that one must be “capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.”
Capable or not, that’s where I find myself as the days, the weeks, the months wear on. Each morning I take my bowl of cereal to the computer to check on the news with a sense of trepidation. Who knows what’s around the corner?
For Keats the state of “being in uncertainties,” was not a dodge into mystical mistiness or passivity, but the starting place for an intense quest to know, to do, and to expand the circumference of the possible. Echoing a phrase from Wordsworth, Keats squared up and assumed the “Burden of the Mystery.”
“I must choose between despair and energy,” he wrote a friend. “I choose the latter.”
Like the happy accident of an early classmate who remains a lifelong friend, Keats is the first poet who got to me.
The Poem as a Remembrance
In the spring of 1968, in my college prep English class, I was introduced to the poetry of John Keats. When we turned to “Ode to a Nightingale, with its eight rhymed, ten-line stanzas, that moment with Ray and the others in the woods ten years earlier returned to me. I’d grown to love the robin’s spring and summer carol — robins are as common as rain in the Pacific Northwest.
I confronted Keats’s poem on the page with full attention. And the first three, strongly accented syllables, “My heart aches,” followed by the paradoxical, “and a drowsy numbness pains my sense,” pulled me into a universe of strange diction and new sensations that, inexplicably, seemed “almost a remembrance,” as Keats said the best poetry should be.
As I entered deeper into the poem, the poem entered me.
I wandered through “verdurous glooms and winding mossy ways;” stood before “mid-May’s eldest child, the coming musk rose” and looked up to where “tender is the night, /And haply the Queen Moon is on her throne.”
Most poems merely bear witness to an experience. “Ode to a Nightingale” constituted experience itself. It was and remains a place where I could “leave the world unseen” and, like the nightingale, “fade away into the forest dim.”
“I do not understand this”
Keats wrote some 150 poems; three of his books were published while he was alive. His “living year,” as biographer Robert Gittings called it, began in autumn 1818 and closed in autumn 1819, a span generally considered by critics to be the most brilliant twelve-month performance in the history of English poetry. In an astonishing rush came most of the poems we remember him by: Hyperion, The Eve of St. Agnes, La Belle Dame Sans Merci, Ode to Psyche, Ode to a Nightingale, Ode on a Grecian Urn, To Autumn, Lamia, The Fall of Hyperion.
Victorian mythology viewed Keats as a poetic snowflake killed off by the Tory reviewers. Others, closer to Keats, knew better. A friend from their early school days remembered a brawler and his “terrier courage” in the face of playground injustice. Short and stocky, the poet hiked through Northern England and Scotland and a small part of Ireland with his friend Charles Brown for six weeks, covering more than 600 miles while suffering bad food and awful weather. The sore throat that cut Keats’s trip short presaged his doom, but not before he and Brown made the grueling trek to the summit of Ben Nevis, Great Britain’s highest mountain at 4,413 feet. Every year people die up there doing the same.
Friends noted Keats’s Greek-like beauty and treasured his brio and bonhomie, which made him the ideal companion for a country weekend. Countless passages in Keats’s letters show why: “Give me books, French wine, fruit, fine weather and a little music played out of doors by somebody I do not know.”
And yet tragedy pressed its foot on the pedal point of his short life.
Both his parents were dead before he was fifteen, shattering a humble, tight-knit London family. Keats’s young sister lived with her guardian and his wife in a Dickensian caricature play of quasi-house arrest. Brother George and his wife emigrated to America in 1818; adored brother Tom, nursed by Keats until the end, died of consumption the same year.
His own tuberculosis cut off Keats’s engagement to Fanny Brawne. Savaged by the critics (“vulgar Cockney poetaster”), forced to abandon England for the warmer climate of Rome while knowing, as an artist, he might have given Shakespeare a run for his money, Keats had a surfeit time in that “coffin of a room” above the Spanish Steps to reflect on the iron-clad absurdity of it all.
Decades would pass before the world, beyond a coterie of admirers back in England, knew what it had lost.
“I do not understand this,” he told Severn from his sick bed.
“In a sense, he had been trying to understand from the beginning,” W. Jackson Bate, one of Keats’s great biographers, wrote.
Just like the rest of us.
“Ode to a Nightingale” was written in 1819, likely on the last day of April or in early May at Hampstead Heath, in those days outside of London, where Keats shared a house with Brown. A nightingale had taken up residence in the neighborhood. Years later Brown remembered (or possibly misremembered) the occasion.
“Keats felt a tranquil and continued joy in her song,” Brown wrote, “and one morning he took his chair from the breakfast-table to the grass-plot under a plum tree, where he sat for two or three hours. When he came into the house, I perceived he had some scraps of paper in his hand, and these he was quietly thrusting behind the books.” Brown, who apparently didn’t know the male of the species is the songster, later claimed he helped re-arrange the scraps into the final poem.
The nightingale, which winters in western Africa and summers in Europe, is about six inches long, drab brown with a lighter underside, and sports a rufous tail. The bird’s plainness is a visual let-down, but its song is beautiful and rich — a series of melancholy crescendos that has launched operas, plays, books, and moved poets from Ovid and Sappho to W.S. Merwin.
And, of course, Keats.
As biographer Bate wrote: “We are free to doubt whether any poem in English of comparable length and quality has been composed so quickly.”
A November of the Soul
As I neared high school graduation in spring 1968, having entered poetry through Keats, the world seemed on the edge of something better. The assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in early April cast a brutal shadow over that season of millenarian hope, yet Robert Kennedy, who promised to end the war in Vietnam and fight for racial justice at home, seemed to be riding a wave that could carry him to the White House.
On the Republican side, Nelson Rockefeller represented a plausible obstacle to Richard Nixon’s march to the Republican nomination. In Paris a student uprising rocked France. Behind the Iron Curtain the “Prague Spring” liberalization movement proved anything might be possible. It was a spring when nothing seemed to stand between the dreamer and the dream.
By autumn it was all over. Robert Kennedy had been murdered in early June. In France, the Gaullist’s strengthened their hand at the ballot box. Soviet tanks rolled into Prague in August. And Richard Nixon and Hubert Humphrey, two artifacts from the ancien regime, battled for the Presidency. Nixon barely won in that drizzly November of the soul. The war in Vietnam would grind on another seven years.
And I was a freshman in college — disoriented, confused, depressed. I looked back on the lost paradise of my college prep English class and recognized, in a way I couldn’t have in the spring, that “Ode to a Nightingale” represented a tug-of-war between the human desire for transcendence and earth’s gravity.
Gravity had won. And hell yes, my heart ached.
No Small Thought in Parlous Times
I live in a small, mainland town on Puget Sound about a dozen miles northwest of Seattle, a short bridge and a 25-minute drive from where I grew up on Bainbridge Island.
After raising our two boys, my wife and I remain in our swayback cottage after nearly 40 years. We’re surrounded by foliage, firs and cedars. Out back a thick maple grove almost hides a declivity pleached with shadow and sunlight where a creek runs through the woods on its way to the shoreline a few hundred yards away.
To borrow from “Ode to a Nightingale,” we live “in a melodious plot of beechen green” (Keats meant plot to be read two ways). In the spring come the “pastoral eglantine and white hawthorn.” We tread “winding mossy ways” year-round. Each spring, the robin, like the nightingale, begins “pouring forth thy soul abroad/in such an ecstasy.”
I’m 70. I’ve lived long enough to have learned what Keats knew to the marrow in his early twenties — that life is a “vale of Soul-making” and despair is not an option. The capability to live in uncertainties checks the ego at the door, allowing the world to shine in its “suchness,” to use the Buddhist term. The same capability also reinforces empathy for others.
Above all, as he repeatedly demonstrated in his letters, Keats believed life is an intense process of discovery, not confirmation. We work our way through adversity towards “the holiness of the heart’s affections.”
This is no small thought in our parlous times.
The late poet Stanley Kunitz observed: “Modern readers do not need to be told to admire John Keats: whether they know it or not, he has already entered their dreams, he is a portion of their hopes, he lives in their desires.”
This year I have found myself taking the time to watch and listen to the birds more often than in the past. A robin’s carol almost always stops me. Usually, the bird is unseen. I simply listen, as Keats listened to the unseen nightingale that spring in Hampstead.
And sometimes I wonder about Ray.
Mike Dillon lives in Indianola, Washington, a small town on Puget Sound northwest of Seattle. He is the author of four books of poetry and three books of haiku. Several of his haiku were included in “Haiku in English: The First Hundred Years,” from W.W. Norton (2013). His most recent book, “Departures: Poetry and Prose on the Removal of Bainbridge Island’s Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor” was published by Unsolicited Press in April 2019. “The Return,” a poetry chapbook, is forthcoming from Finishing Line Press. He is a previous contributor to Adelaide.