Unheard Melodies

The Odes of John Keats

by Helen Vendler
The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 330 pp., $18.50

When Keat’s brother Tom was dying, and the poet was falling in love with Fanny Brawne, he wrote to a friend,

I never was in love—Yet the voice and the shape of a woman has haunted me these two days—at such a time when the relief, the feverous relief of Poetry seems a much less crime—This morning Poetry has conquered—I have relapsed into those abstractions which are my only life—I feel escaped from a new strange and threatening sorrow.—And I am thankful for it—There is an awful warmth about my heart like a load of Immortality.

Poor Tom—that woman—and Poetry were ringing changes in my senses.

(Letters, I. 370)

Helen Vendler quotes some of these sentences in her new book on the odes of Keats. But she does not review the commonplaces of the poet’s overfamiliarity with bereavement. For the young Keats—not yet twenty-four when he wrote the great odes—lost his father when he was eight. His mother was remarried speedily and unfortunately; but the children went to live with their grandparents. For Keats (the eldest), these shocks were softened by the fact that he was already at an excellent boarding school, where he acquired an abundance of French, Latin, and fatherly attention from the headmaster.

However, the poet’s affectionate grandfather died less than a year after his father. When Keats was fourteen, his mother, who had returned to her family, died after a prolonged illness; and four years later, his grandmother followed her. His beloved brother George emigrated to America when Keats was twenty-two. It is no wonder that Keats said, “I have never known any unalloy’d Happiness for many days together: the death or sickness of some one has always spoilt my hours” (Letters, II. 123).

While watching Tom die of consumption, the poet, who had been a medical student, might have detected symptoms of the same disease in himself. During the spring of 1819, when he had an ominous and persistent sore throat, he began to produce his great odes. To Keats, these poems did not set themselves apart from the many others he was engaged in at the time. They were not grouped together in his 1820 volume of recent work. “To Autumn” does not bear the word “ode” in its title. The “Ode: Bards of Passion and of Mirth” is not generally classed with the great odes.

Yet Helen Vendler has chosen to make a limited canon—to use Robert Gleckner’s term—of five odes (“Indolence,” “Psyche,” “Nightingale,” “Grecian Urn,” “Melancholy”), an extract from The Fall of Hyperion, and “To Autumn.” She finds these have a special relation, dealing progressively with a common theme, the creative imagination. It would take much evidence and a careful argument to defend such a plan. But Vendler seems to assume that the fruits of her labor will justify the approach.

I am sorry, therefore, that every stage of the bold project remains controversial …

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