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. One could endlessly debate the choice of the seven pieces analyzed; for there are other poems and passages that would fit the scheme. The order in which Keats wrote the odes is not certainly known. Many scholars place “Indolence” after “Melancholy”; and the “Nightingale” may be later in composition than the “Grecian Urn.” However, Vendler takes for granted both an order and a progression, with each principle supporting the other. To some readers, therefore, her demonstrations will appear circular.

Just as setting apart certain poems as odes is an act of criticism, so connecting them with the poet’s private experience is an act of interpretation. I am moved by the way W.J. Bate, in his splendid biography of Keats, dwells on the relation of the “Ode to a Nightingale” to the poet’s “constant exposure to death.”1 The congenital melancholy that dogged Keat’s character often found expression in his letters. He was a little man—five feet, one inch, in height—with a colossal, competitive ambition but with a genius that matched his hopes. It is obvious that the art of poetry became a refuge from his natural feelings of despair, and that, in his imagery, the association of bowers with the creative imagination is one out-come of this providential relation.

Beauty, art, the intense experience of aesthetic satisfaction (in the widest sense), the power of the human mind to recompose painful ordeals as shapely and seductive music, as stories or poems—these resources are what keep us from going rigid with horror in the face of the grinding wretchedness that even the most placid existence must endure.

But I am not sure that Keats would thank us for interpreting his greatest poems as focused on aesthetics. Any work can be seen as implying general principles of creation. If a man writes in stanzas, one may say that he implicitly recommends stanzaic design. If he praises music for relieving his sadness, one may say he recommends art as a consolation for life’s burdens.

Yet if we are to convince other readers of our interpretations, a poem should itself invite us to draw general inferences from its unique performance. I rarely see these poems doing so. It is common to treat “To Autumn” as an ode and to link it with the odes of the spring. Stuart Sperry, in his excellent Keats the Poet, does so; and he regards “To Autumn” as the poet’s “most mature comment on the nature of the poetic process.”2 Now Helen Vendler in turn calls the poem “Keat’s most reflective view of creativity and art.”

Nevertheless, the implications of their judgment emerge only figuratively, and depend on the principle that what is said about autumn is a metaphor for the poet’s philosophy of art. Vendler makes the penetrating observation that “not natural process alone, but the interaction of natural process and human harvest, is the central topic of the poem.” It is true as well that the poet suggests his work is a song of autumn, and, further, that he employs musical analogies. Are we therefore to decide, as Vendler does, that the twittering of swallows alludes to “poetic utterance”?

A simpler case than “To Autumn” is the “Ode to a Nightingale.” In this the themes of death and art do mingle; and the connection with the death of Tom Keats is commonly accepted. The poet opens with thoughts of suicide. He mentions drinking hemlock and sinking toward Lethe while hearing the nightingale sing about summer. In the third stanza he thinks of youth growing pale and dying. In stanza 6 he says he has often been half in love with “easeful Death,” and adds, “Now more than ever seems it rich to die.”

Vendler spends almost ten pages on the themes of this poem, and says of death that the poet’s guilt over surviving his brother and his sense of the pain of the world press him toward suicide. She finds that the poet has a tryst with death, invoked with erotic adjectives. She says that both nature and art seemed to Keats, “after his brother’s death, equally comfortless.” Still the poem remains, for Vendler, an inquiry into the nature of art. Summing up the themes of her examination of the odes, Vendler asks fifteen and more questions in a row, but none about what death meant to the poet. Sperry, in Keats the Poet, declares that the problem of the “Ode to a Nightingale” is that of the creative process.

A worrying feature of Vendler’s method is her reliance on source material as an aid to interpretation. I am not sure that she always avoids the genetic fallacy, or the assumption that the origin of a phrase can determine its meaning. A fundamental danger of reading a work through its sources is that one never knows what one has overlooked. Expressions which we take for granted as original may have sources we have missed. A source that seems obvious may be wrong. Yet a good deal of Vendler’s energy goes into such connections and explanations. Words, images, and concepts become, for her, bridges between odes, or between Keats and earlier poets. In making these connections, Vendler extends and adds new depth to the work of W.J. Bate.

Yet even supposing all the relations a critic has traced are valid, we cannot certainly know that any particular source matters for the meaning. If we discover several distinct origins for a single passage, can we be sure they are all pertinent? If Dante and Milton both have influenced a poet, can we really harmonize their doctrines?

Analyzing her chosen passage from The Fall of Hyperion, Vendler indefatigably brings to bear image after image from the odes of Keats. She traces elements to Spenser, Shakespeare, and Burton, even as Sperry traced elements to Milton, and as J.L. Lowes traced the structure of the poem to Dante. As for me, I find Pope in The Fall of Hyperion. I think the structure follows that of Pope’s Temple of Fame. I also think the comparison of the priestess Moneta’s face to the moon (“beam’d like the mild moon”)—which Vendler connects with Spenser, Shakespeare, and the younger Keats—derives from Pope’s description of the face of his Lady:

So when the sun’s broad beam has tir’d the sight,
All mild ascends the moon’s more sober light.

(Pope, Moral Essay II, “To a Lady,” II. 253-254; cf. Keats, Lamia, I. 156)

For “To Autumn,” Vendler sets out a list of “essential antecedents,” or half a dozen authors—from Shakespeare to Keats himself—who supplied phrases and concepts taken into the poem. In ten pages she considers the implications of these sources for Keats and for the reader of his masterpiece. But Vendler relegates Dryden, Thomson, and Chatterton to her end notes. Perhaps they are, in her terms, not “centrally important.”

Does Virgil deserve no thoughtful consideration? Normally, Vendler finds Spenser, Shakespeare, and Milton of central importance. So also any verse by Wordsworth or Coleridge is likely to weigh heavily with her. But surely Keats also read prose, studied Latin intensively, and knew Dryden’s works. Would it be worth asking whether or not he responded to some poems written between the death of Milton and the publication of the Lyrical Ballads (1798)? From “To Autumn,” the words “sun,” “conspiring” (conspire), “winnowing” (winnow), “furrow,” “stubble,” “sing,” and “skies” all appear in a passage of sixteen lines of Virgil’s Georgics as translated by Dryden (I. 385-400). From the same poem by Keats, the words “spring,” “wind,” “day,” and “swallows twitter” all appear in four lines of the Virgil-Dryden Georgics (IV. 431-434; cf. Keats, Lamia, II. 26-32).

If Vendler feels that “To Autumn” is entirely English, could she not observe that in the “Ode to Psyche,” the scene of the lovers entwined recalls Virgil and Dryden’s lovers who “lay their guilty limbs in Tyrian beds” (Georgics II. 727), or that the moan of the choir might be derived from the prayerful shepherd “making fruitless moan” in the Georgics (III. 694)? When discussing the “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” might one notice that the opening stanza echoes a passage by Virgil and Dryden on bacchanalia, in which young men “in rude Saturnian rhymes express their joy” (Georgics II. 532)?

Examining the “Ode to a Nightingale,” I can illustrate more generally the consequences of Vendler’s approach. For the language of this ode, the critic refers us to Spenser, Shakespeare, Milton, and Coleridge. But the best known of all European poems was, for centuries, probably the first pastoral of Virgil. In Dryden’s translation, the opening lines of that poem supply words for the opening stanza of the “Ode to a Nightingale”: “beechen,” “singest” (sing), and “ease.” While Vendler discovers Spenser in the dying youth of stanza 3, I detect the sorrow and the specters of the approach to Hades in the Aeneid (VI. 384-398 in Dryden’s translation).

If we slip away from the Elizabethans and Romantics, and glance at Laurence Sterne (whose prose Keats certainly read), we may learn why Vendler has nothing to say about the sources of stanza 2 of the “Ode to a Nightingale”; for it stems from Tristram Shandy. At the end of volume 7 of the novel, and the beginning of volume 8, Tristram (like Keats in the poem) is fleeing from death, and arrives in Provence; and there he dances with a “sun-burnt daughter of Labour” to the tune of “Viva la joia” (VII. 43).

This is of course the direction the poet starts from in the “Ode to a Nightingale”—away from the pressure of suffering and death, toward the consolations of song, dance, and natural mirth. Vendler says the nightingale’s song is “without verbal content.” Yet Keats does not represent it as meaningless. Rather, he tells us that the song is about summer, it is happy, and it is natural. If he had wished to stress the lack of referential meaning, we can expect he would have done so as he does in the “Ode: Bards of Passion”).

But Vendler is looking forward to the “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” where she will find a stress on meaning; and to enhance the difference between the two poems, she makes the bird’s art peculiarly senseless. So also, in bringing out the “reiterative” aspect of the “Ode to a Nightingale,” Vendler anticipates the “interrogation” of the “Ode on a Grecian Urn”; and she therefore neglects the structure of contrasts in the earlier poem.

For the wine in stanza 2 of the “Ode to a Nightingale” is opposed to the hemlock of stanza 1; the dance is opposed to the numbness; the sunburnt mirth is opposed to the heartache and shadows. The poet’s fading out of the sorrowful world into the happy bird’s forest is opposed to his sinking toward death in stanza 1. Vendler is hardly fair to the second stanza in treating it as a set of reiterative parallels to the images of the first. It actually evokes the joyous implications of the bird’s song.

Again, between stanza 3 and stanza 4, Keats establishes a contrast between an earthly beauty, short-lived as her admirer, and the heavenly moon, attended by her eternal stars. Vendler sees no order in the imagery; she is thinking of reiteration rather than contrast. But surely the emblematic figures of stanza 3—the men who “hear each other groan,” the youth growing pale and dying—make a bridge to the mythical divinities of stanza 4, from which we move to the concrete detail of stanza 5, where the earth to which the poet returns is transformed by the imagination that the flight upward has awakened.

If one judges from this example, it does seem, as Sperry has said, that reading the odes as a group is less likely to be successful than individual readings. However, the most appealing feature of Vendler’s work remains; and that is her desire to follow the poet in his labor of creation. With Keats as with other poets who have engaged her attention, Vendler’s fundamental method is to enter intuitively into the decisions and changes of mind which lie behind the finished work, so that she gives us a dramatic sense of how the poem reached the state in which we know it. Carefully pondering the alterations which Keats made in his manuscripts, comparing sketches with finished pieces, studying the evidence of the poet’s letters, Vendler strives tactfully to recover the stages of composition and to see each poem as the outcome of heroic undertakings.

One can only regret that the evidence is too fragmentary to support the accounts offered by Vendler. It may be that Keats designed each ode with a principal rhetorical pattern (or “constitutive trope,” in Vendler’s terms). It may be that for the “Ode on a Grecian Urn” this pattern is one of interrogation and for “To Autumn,” enumeration. I cannot bring myself to see so much. Again, when Vendler declares that the first decision a poet makes is “the choice of a theme,” I think of instances to the contrary. Vendler may also be correct when she claims that in the “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” the poet tries out three successive hypotheses concerning aesthetic experience. But it does not seem so to me.

As a program for expounding one’s view of the odes, the trail of the author’s process of composition may be alluring. But as a reliable account of the decisions the poet made and the order in which he made them, Vendler’s immensely complicated story strikes me as needing to be minutely buttressed by data that Keats alone could supply. Like the whole, brilliant, rash scheme of Vendler’s approach to the poet, her search through particular poems reveals learning, imagination, insight, and ingenuity on a scale to stir any reader with admiration. Yet it will leave most of us sorrowfully unpersuaded.

  1. 1

    Walter Jackson Bate, John Keats: The Growth of a Genius (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1963; 1979 paper), pp. 507-508.

  2. 2

    Keats the Poet (Princeton University Press, 1973), p. 337.