Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘John Keats’

02 SEPTEMBER, 2013

F. Scott Fitzgerald Reads John Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale”

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“Was it a vision, or a waking dream? Fled is that music: — Do I wake or sleep?”

F. Scott Fitzgerald may be the source of some timeless wisdom on the theory of writing and a feisty literary idealist, but he was also a man of uncommon sensitivity to the living fabric of language. In this chillingly beautiful recording, Fitzgerald reads John Keats’s 1819 classic “Ode to a Nightingale,” found in the indispensable The Oxford Book of English Verse (public library) — enjoy:

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?

Complement with Keats on “negative capability” and the art of remaining in doubt and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s heartening advice to his young daughter.

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03 MAY, 2013

The Mansion of Many Apartments: John Keats’s Metaphor for Life

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“An extensive knowledge is needful to thinking people — it takes away the heat and fever.”

On May 3, 1818, John Keats — beloved poet, porridge-master, proponent of “negative capability” as the root of creativity — wrote to his friend John Hamilton Reynolds, an aspiring-poet-turned-lawyer, who would later introduce Keats to his future publisher. Found in Selected Letters of John Keats (public library), the long missive discusses the poetry of Wordsworth and Milton, ambling into a broader meditation on the meaning of life, which Keats explores through an unusual, poignant metaphor in the second half of the letter:

I compare human life to a large Mansion of Many Apartments, two of which I can only describe, the doors of the rest being as yet shut upon me — The first we step into we call the infant or thoughtless Chamber, in which we remain as long as we do not think — We remain there a long while, and notwithstanding the doors of the second Chamber remain wide open, showing a bright appearance, we care not to hasten to it; but are at length imperceptibly impelled by awakening of the thinking principle — within us — we no sooner get into the second Chamber, which I shall call the Chamber of Maiden-Thought, than we become intoxicated with the light and the atmosphere, we see nothing but pleasant wonders, and think of delaying there for ever in delight: However among the effects this breathing is father of is that tremendous one of sharpening one’s vision into the nature and heart of Man — of convincing one’s nerves that the World is full of misery and Heartbreak, Pain, sickness and oppression — whereby This Chamber of Maiden Thought becomes gradually darken’d and at the same time on all sides of it many doors are set open — but all dark — all leading to dark passages — We see not the balance of good and evil. We are in a Mist — We are now in that state — We feel the burden of the Mystery.

Earlier in the letter, Keats considers the role of knowledge in shaping our experience of life’s mystery:

Every department of knowledge we see excellent and calculated towards a great whole. … An extensive knowledge is needful to thinking people — it takes away the heat and fever; and helps, by widening speculation, to ease the Burden of the Mystery… The difference of high Sensations with and without knowledge appears to me this — in the latter case we are falling continually ten thousand fathoms deep and being blown up again without wings and with all [the] horror of a bare shouldered Creature — in the former case, our shoulders are fledge, and we go thro’ the same air and space without fear. This is running one’s rigs on the score of abstracted benefit — when we come to human Life and the affections it is impossible how a parallel of breast and head can be drawn…

Pair with other notable reflections on the meaning of life by Leo Tolstoy, Henry Miller, Anaïs Nin, and some of the twentieth century’s most celebrated luminaries.

Thanks, Ryan

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01 NOVEMBER, 2012

The Art of “Negative Capability”: Keats on Embracing Uncertainty and Celebrating the Mysterious

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On the art of remaining in doubt “without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.”

Romantic poet John Keats (October 31, 1795–February 23, 1821) endures as an icon of literary creativity. In a letter to his brothers, George and Thomas, found in John Keats: Selected Letters (public library) and dated December 21, 1817, Keats uses the phrase that has come to be the single most emblematic phrase of his entire surviving correspondence, even though he only makes mention of it once: “Negative Capability” — the willingness to embrace uncertainty, live with mystery, and make peace with ambiguity. Triggered by Keats’s disagreement with English poet and philosopher Coleridge, whose quest for definitive answers over beauty laid the foundations for modern-day reductionism, the concept is a beautiful articulation of a familiar sentiment — that life is about living the questions, that the unknown is what drives science, that the most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious.

Keats writes:

Several things dovetailed in my mind, & at once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in Literature & which Shakespeare possessed so enormously — I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason — Coleridge, for instance, would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half knowledge. This pursued through Volumes would perhaps take us no further than this, that with a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration.

In the introduction to Selected Letters, Jon Mee writes of the letters themselves as a meta-embodiment of “Negative Capability”:

The provisionality of the correspondence might be taken as a triumphant demonstration of negative capability, recording Keats’s ability to project himself into different roles and live in a state of creative uncertainty, but these letters also seem to express a deep sense of insecurity, which frequently took the form of a desire to escape the fever and the fret of the life around him.

Perhaps Christoph Niemann was right, after all, in asserting that insecurity is essential to creativity.

All of Keats’s surviving letters to his family and friends are available as a free ebook.

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