Watercolor, Katherine Plymley, 1804, Death's-head hawk moth, caterpillar and adult
First we have to learn how to notice what poems do—by studying exemplary ones, naturally enough. In the hyper-organized learning environment of a college or university course, with its schedule, deadlines, inevitable terminus, we have only the time and the appropriate institutional space for learning some of the craft. Learning the art—in the sense of possibilities of spirit, of feeling, of voice, of one’s own individual purpose—is more solitary, as it must be.
So last week I spent far too little time on my favorite stanza, perhaps, in all of Keats. It supremely exemplifies… not depth of feeling; and not only the intensity and sensuousness of his way of articulating perception and feeling at once; nor the ideas of Romanticism that he in particular so vividly deepened. It exemplifies spectacularly developed craft that for his era—and like Schubert, nearly his exact contemporary, he went beyond what those before him could do in English, and for later readers he has remained in the position of the most artful. The stanza exemplifies, in particular, the way Keats’s thinking moves by means of images and sounds.
The stanza is the first one of his “Ode on Melancholy,” written in May of 1819. This poem of—and addressed to—a feeling is luxuriantly figurative, rhythmic, sonorous. I have written briefly about its rhymes elsewhere, but I want to look at them, or rather listen to them again here, because I am feeling keenly how little of this I was able to get to in our class discussion on Friday, April 9:
No, no, go not to Lethe, neither twist
Wolf’s bane, tight-rooted, for its poisonous wine,
Nor suffer thy pale forehead to be kissed
By nightshade, ruby grape of Proserpine.
Make not your rosary of yew-berries,
Nor let the beetle, nor the death-moth, be
Your mournful Psyche, nor the downy owl,
A partner in your sorrow’s mysteries;
For shade to shade will come too drowsily,
And drown the wakeful anguish of the soul.
(I can’t make this annoying blog software preserve the indentation of lines 2, 4, 6, 7, 9, and 10—visual markers that suggest certain relations among phrases and figures and that mark the rhyme scheme of ABABCDECDE.)
To rhyme “twist” with “kiss” suggests clearly enough, beyond what the first sentence actually says explicitly, that the metaphoric kiss of this mood or state of being is crooked, not straight, and is even perverse. This kiss is a token of and an invitation to melancholy, sadness, gloominess, anger, annoyance, dejection, mournful reverie (even to the extent of being self-contradicting and pleasurable, like Shakespeare’s “sweet sorrow”). It also suggests moods that shade into what was formerly called melancholia, which we call depression. This kiss is not for the lips—which are a metonym for the sensual pleasure of the body as a whole—but for the forehead—a metonym for the mind, the spirit. So one of the first movements of thought in the poem is fulfilled by this rhyme. This is my emphasis: the rhyme itself does part of the thinking.
Keats’s second line prepares for the word “wine” with the second syllable of a startling plant name: “Wolf’s bane… poisonous wine.” (The English language feasts on names.)
(And of course on plant names in general, and flower names, herb names, place names, names of hand tools, and much more. In Coleridge’s notebooks a few pages in particular, from December 1800, have remained in my thought for decades–long lists of the names of wildflowers, in the hand of the woman he pined for, Sara Hutchinson—Wordsworth’s wife’s sister; Kathleen Coburn’s editorial notes of the notebooks say that these lists are “transcribed from the Index to [someone's copy of] the standard botanical reference book of the day: William Withering An Arrangement of British Plants (1796)” and that by March 1801 both Coleridge and Wordsworth had their own copies of this book. English feasts on names, and poets feast on English.)
The OED quotes from 1656, W. Coles’s Art of Simpling—”The Oyntment that Witches use is reported to be made..of the Juices of Smallage, Woolfsbaine and Cinquefoyle.” A friendly herb this is not. Yet it leads by sound to “wine.” An ancient poetic device—a phonetic similarity that expresses a semantic opposition, like “last but not least”—gives the opposition more force. Let us neither have bane not (poisonous) wine. Keats now turns not water into wine but wine into poison. I should also mention the wonderfully emphatic effect created by Keats’s five speech stresses in succession, all fitted perfectly, of course, into his iambic pentameter lines: “twist / Wolf’s-bane, tight-rooted…”
Then comes that twisted kiss, and the wolf’s-bane and implicit witches have led, also implicitly, to “nightshade,” yet another poison, and one that names a darkness that metaphorically is the state of melancholy itself. And only then comes the grape—we arrive guided by Keats through sounds and images and ideas. The mood is dark; but the poet surely exults in the pleasure of composing it.
In this poem, in fact, Keats seems at first to be our psychopomp—an ancient Greek word meaning the mythical figure who guides the souls of the dead to the underworld—for in this poem Keats begins with the worst, most corrosive proximity: of melancholy with death. Yet the poem is a performance, not real death; and anyway, by the end of the poem there will be beautiful flowers and a beautiful mistress, and bees and joy, and melancholy of a dangerous intensity will turn simply to regret, to gorgeously conveyed sorrow, that the happiness of a moment, of youth, of life itself, cannot last.
And from the grape in line four the poem moves to Proserpine, the Roman version of Persephone. (In either guise, she has appeared often in poetry.) She rules the under-kingdom of the dead (the psychopomp leads the souls of those who have died to that realm) for the half-year when she is required by the logic of myth to remain with Hades—Pluto, to the Romans, having also been called Plouton by the Greeks (who associated him not only with death but also with wealth). In Greek mythology wine is associated with Dionysos, and bread (wheat) with Demeter (the mother of Persephone.) Keats rearranges the association between wine and a god, moving it from Dionysos to Persephone—and this is evidently not a good thing, since the wine is now poisonous because instead of being a liquid of life it is by association a liquid of death (since it is made from the “grape” of nightshade rather than from the good grapes of the vineyard).
An ancient yew
More associations follow—Keats makes rich use of metonyms here rather than metaphors. Here’s a rosary of yew berries in line 5. But rather than a rosary of the usual sort, which might be used to pray for mercy and rescue and help and as a way of giving thanks and worshiping, this is a rosary of death. In England, yew trees are associated with black magic; with the English longbow, used in warfare and made of yew—thus with death in battle; and with cemeteries. Yew trees can live for more than a thousand years. (Thomas Hardy’s poem “Transformations” begins, “Portion of this yew / Is a man my grandsire knew”; he imagines that the roots have drawn the buried dead back into the air as a branch, as a nearby rose bush may have done. Hardy atypically makes the graveyard a scene of a modest, everyday, unwitting resurrection that has little to do with his pessimism—except that this good little resurrection is all there is.)
And the rhyme word, “berries” points in two directions—back toward the nightshade, whose fruit is not at all “grapes” but berries—that is, the right word appears after it has been absent where we expected it to be, and so it completes the thought that “grape” had started by its not having been the right word.
It takes so long to draw out the movement of thought the way I am doing, discursively, yet the poem achieves it rapidly by metaphor and metonym, by rhythm and phonetic repetitions… One returns to read the passage again and the poem makes everything happens at once again, more richly for having been studied.
So—praying for or even to death… and now we move by association to the beetle. A creature of the ground, although some of them, like some strange spirit from under the earth, are able to extend wings from under their carapace and fly. And the death-moth. One of my students on Friday had to point out to me—since I was moving so fast I had not even done all my own homework, and I am forgetful on top of that—that there is a species called the death’s-head hawk moth which has on its back a figure uncannily resembling a human skull. And moths are creatures of (here, metaphoric) darkness, not day. So Psyche, the soul (led from its dying human being down to the underworld by a psychopomp, a psyche-guide) is mournful here, whereas in Greek mythology she is the sun-loving butterly.
And now the poem leads us to the owl. (Either this word was pronounced “ole,” or alternatively “soul” in line 10 was pronounced “sowl” by Keats and fellow cockneys, for this rhyme to be heard fully. I don’t happen to know which it was, but somebody probably does.) The progress of images is beetle (flying? not?); moth; and its implicit opposite—the butterly; and finally a bird. But… a fierce night bird with uncanny voice and silent flight. And what does it eat? The mouse. (I won’t stop again when I get there, but we can hear the rhyme for the absent word “mouse” in the word “drowsily” which will come at the end of line 9; and the vowel sound is also repeated as downy shifts its consonants and becomes drowsy, as the repeated sounds lead the thinking onward, one word and idea flowering into another; and then “drowsy” transforms itself into “drown“!)
The end-rhyme pair “owl” and “soul” have now shown us that the soul of the melancholy person is a night bird that avoids daylight and the sensuous pleasure of daytime sight—especially color. And those little berries—nightshade, yew—end up rhyming with “mysteries”; the physical (and metaphorical or metonymic) rhyming with the abstract and metaphysical. One can only sigh. Here phonemic similarity leaps us from one category of thing (concrete) to another (abstract), and produces in itself yet another movement of thought.
Well, the poem doesn’t end by attaining happiness. (Please take a look at the whole poem!) It approaches happiness in stanzas two and three, but only to lament that they are absent, and in any case, transient. Beauty dies. Pleasure (here, implicitly, metaphorically, the nectar sipped by bees) turns to poison (yet another!). The baneful kiss of stanza one becomes a kiss of farewell in stanza three; and in that stanza another lovely train of association leads—very straightforwardly but with such pleasurable deftness—from lips to mouth to tongue to palate and the sense of taste.
The poem is about an ugly mood; the poem is beautiful. A “meta” antithesis.
I have not “unpacked” everything, as people often say of close reading. (As if the poem were a suitcase with contents. No, the poem is suitcase and contents as one marvelously intricate thing. It contains itself, and it is both right-side in and inside out at the same time, showing everything about itself to the eye that can see it. Not as a spatial entity but as something unfolding in time, as it creates sequences of sounds, rhythms, component shapes of its structure, ideas, feelings, mental images….)
The profusion of Keats’s imagination has exhausted me!
And what does the poem say?—nothing very complicated, nothing new, something perhaps painful to acknowledge but not difficult to grasp. What is complicated in this poem, and new, and graspable if one gives one’s attention to how poetry works (or at least to some of the many ways in which poetry works—”works” is a wholly inadequate word, here), and what is begging for due acknowledgment and even honor, is the way Keats moves the thinking of the poem from beginning to end. One can learn how to see all this; and learn how to imitate it to some extent; and complicate and extend one’s ability to think-with-words-used-poetically. The process of such learning does not end, even in the long lives of poets who have been, or are, physically luckier than Keats.