Wednesday, November 19, 2008

`Homage is Due the World'

Guy Davenport’s collection of stories from 1993 has a curious and beautiful title – A Table of Green Fields – taken from a disputed line in Henry V. At the start of Act II, Scene 3, a character named Hostess (probably Mistress Quickly from Henry IV) describes the death of Sir John Falstaff:

“…after I saw him fumble with the sheets and play with flowers and smile upon his fingers' ends, I knew there was but one way; for his nose was as sharp as a pen, and a' babbled of green fields.”

The final phrase has been read as a mishearing of Psalm 23 -- “He maketh me to lie down in green pastures.” We know from Guy Davenport and James Laughlin: Selected Letters that Davenport approved the following passage from the story collection’s dust jacket:

“A constant theme in this book is the transmission of the past as an imaginative act; hence the title, Falstaff’s dying vision of `a table of green fields,’ probably a mishearing of his recitation of the Twenty-third Psalm, corrected by editors to `he babbled of green fields,’ a symbol of all fiction, an art that must be exact about the uncertain.”

Both readings of Shakespeare’s text are emotionally powerful, heightened by the Fat Knight’s death taking place offstage and related by a minor character speaking in the vernacular. Clearly, John Keats was moved by the passage. On the night of Feb. 3-4, 1820, the poet coughed and suffered his “death-warrant” hemorrhage. Trained as a physician, Keats recognized the stain on his sheets as arterial blood and knew his tuberculosis was advanced and almost certainly fatal. Ten days later he wrote in a letter to his friend James Rice:

“…--how astonishingly does the chance of leaving the world impress a sense of its natural beauties upon us! Like poor Falstaff, though I do not 'babble,' I think of green fields; I muse with the greatest affection on every flower I have known from my infancy--their shapes and colours are as new to me as if I had just created them with a superhuman fancy. It is because they are connected with the most thoughtless and the happiest moments of our lives. I have seen foreign flowers in hothouses, of the most beautiful nature, but I do not care a straw for them. The simple flowers of our Spring are what I want to see again.”

The poignancy of Keats’ words can make you weep but it’s the casual brilliance of his poetic linkages that remains astounding. He thinks of his beloved Shakespeare and seemingly the least Keatsian of his characters – “poor Falstaff.” Less than a year from his own death, Keats quotes Sir John’s final words and turns them into a vision of his childhood, then into a transcendent vision of eternal spring. I read “our Spring” to represent his years as a boy, our years as children. And behind that echoes the 23rd Psalm. So much for the slander of Keats the wraith-like ephebe. I’m reminded of a brief essay, “Hegel and Keats,” in Adam Zagajewski’s Solidarity, Solitude. As a Pole, Zagajewski had lived the consequences of Hegel’s odious legacy, and his first paragraph is a witty demolition of the philosopher. Then he turns to Keats:

“If one wants to find someone altogether different from the Prussian philosopher, one must go elsewhere. To John Keats, for example, the poet who died young. Keats believed things exist, that some of them are beautiful. He believed, or rather he simply knew, that the contours of objects are hard. If something is, then it is. Meadows [“green fields”] and forests really exist and our rapture is also no illusion although it cannot last forever. A nightingale concealed in the branches of a tree does not lead Keats to reflections of a theological or historiosophic nature. Keats does not contradict the nightingale and does not cast doubt on its sensual nature, because he hears its song, he is intoxicated and happy.

“Things exist, clouds move slowly across the sky, mountain streams fall in a light foam over the cliffs, the pines sway in the wind, their trunks creaking. Homage is due the world. The song of a nightingale is at once final and ruthless and cannot be undermined, but it also conceals the vague desire to have some other song respond, a poem by Keats, for example.”

1 comment:

Mapeel said...

Visiting Keats's grave in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome is a poignant pilgrimage for any English major. Oddly, it has the wrong death date. He died on Feb.23, and it says Feb. 24.