Monday, September 24, 2012

`There Is a Dogged Beauty in the World'

Think of literary tradition as an endlessly echoing sequence of chords, almost but never quite resolving. Listen to one and hear the others, even retrospectively. In Milton’s Comus (1634) we read these lines: 

“This evening late by then the chewing flocks
Had ta'n their supper on the savoury Herb
Of Knot-grass dew-besprent, and were in fold,
I sate me down to watch upon a bank
With Ivy canopied, and interwove
With flaunting Hony-suckle, and began
Wrapt in a pleasing fit of melancholy
To meditate my rural minstrelsie…”

Beautiful, yes, hinting at Keats almost two centuries later, but in those lines we hear echoes of Oberon’s flower-filled speech to Puck:  

“I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine.” 

I looked it up: In Comus, scholars have identified thirty-two allusions to Shakespeare. Of the fourteen plays and “The Rape of Lucrece,” the most frequently echoed is A Midsummer Night’s Dream, written some forty years earlier. Now the dyad becomes a triad: Almost ninety years after Comus, in 1819, Keats writes in “Ode to a Nightingale”: 

“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.” 

The bank is gone but the flowers remain. In an early draft, Keats writes “sweetest” wine, but changes his mind and substitutes “dewy.” It’s lighter and more evocative, and helps camouflage the allusion to Shakespeare’s “sweet musk-roses.” With Geoffrey Hill’s Scenes from Comus (2005), I had hoped for a tetrad, but that was too optimistic. I did find this: 

“There is a dogged beauty in the world,
Unembarrassing goodness, honesty unfazed.” 

Of course, Hill being Hill, he follows with this: 

“There’s also the corruptor, the abuser,
The abused corrupted in accepted ways,
The ways of death, the deadliness of life.” 

So too, Keats follows “summer eves” with this in his next stanza: “for many a time / I have been half in love with easeful Death.”

1 comment:

Bruce Floyd said...

I don't know whether Keats was "half in love with easeful death" because he thought death a release from the vexations of life ("Where but to think is to be full of sorrow") or because he himself longed for an easeful death, one free of suffering. He was a young man; perhaps he had a romantic view of death. In his sonnet "Bright Star . . ." he imagines himself "Pillow'd upon my fair love's ripening breast," where he hopes to lie there "forever" or either "swoon to death." How could he have known he'd die at age twenty-five?

His death was an agonzing and protracted one, so harrowing it's hard to read about his last days. His death in that little room in Rome, his death chamber just above the Spanish Steps, was ugly and sordid.

Most of us want to cry out at the injustice and unfairness at the death of this young poetic genius, but to whom or to what do we cry? Fate or Chance or whatever you want to call it has no ears as it grinds mindlessly and inexorably. Keats's letters reveal he knew as much, but I don't know how much comfort the truth gives a man during a long and painful death.