Monday, August 29, 2011

`A Grand Democracy of Forest Trees'

“The green leaf and the sere
Hang side by side.”

The summer-long drought has turned a green city brown. In “White Oak” (Poems Old and New 1918-1978), Janet Lewis distills in ten words what I see out the window. Trees in Houston are two-toned. The leaves on three post oaks in a nearby park are the color of cardboard, and while some possess remarkable recuperative powers, these brown giants look ready for the wood-chipper. Another source of anxiety is hurricane season. With parched roots and the ground like old brick, heavy winds topple trees like kindling.

“Sere” is a Keatsian word (as are “descry,” “tinct” and “pallid”). In “Endymion” he writes:

“… so that a whispering blade
Of grass, a wailful gnat, a bee bustling
Down in the blue-bells, or a wren light rustling
Among sere leaves and twigs, might all be heard.”

That’s the Keats I favor, the poet of specificity and detail, not the mellifluous sprite of folklore. This heartier, hardier Keats I find most often not in the poems but the letters. On Feb. 19, 1818, he begins one to his friend John Hamilton Reynolds like this:   

“I had an idea that a Man might pass a very pleasant life in this manner - Let him on a certain day read a certain page of full Poesy or distilled Prose, and let him wander upon it, and bring home to it, and prophesy upon it, and dream upon it: until it becomes stale - But when will it do so? Never –”

In his “distilled Prose,” Keats wanders with purpose. There’s a whimsy, wit and erudition reminiscent of Sir Thomas Browne’s, but suffused with friendly confidences, as we would expect of a letter to a friend. Follow the serendipitous path Keats traces in his letter to Reynolds to this happy crescendo:

“Man should not dispute or assert but whisper results to his neighbour and thus by every germ of spirit sucking the sap from mould ethereal every human might become great, and Humanity instead of being a wide heath of Furze and Briars with here and there a remote Oak or Pine, would become a grand democracy of Forest Trees!”

1 comment:

Laura Demanski said...

Ah, very much the same gnats and bees we meet in "To Autumn." Though "bustling" doesn't appear there, it's strongly implied. And when the single gnat becomes a choir in the later poem, "wailful" really comes to life. Fascinating to see his observations evolve.