It’s nearing the end of the year, finals are over, papers are due, but we’re literature majors here, so of course the only thing that matters is the symbolism of winter. The year is dying and ready to sleep forevermore — bringing in its death a spark of new life, new possibilities, and the mass cultural/capitalistic orgy that is the Christmas season. Parting with the cynicism, however, I decided that rather than construct coherent argument, I would instead remember a moment from one of my Romanticism courses and muse on the experience.
You see, last fall, near the end of the semester my Professor, Dr. Catherine Ross, had us read several poems by John Keats. The class was around three hours so we had to fill up the time with discussion. We read the standards, of course — The Eve of St. Agnes, Ode on a Grecian Urn, Ode to Psyche, and To Autumn — but the poem that made the deepest impression upon me was Ode to a Nightingale.
Now anyone that knows me eventually learns that I’m an emotional man. Ever since I was five it was known that I was a crier to the point that the boys in my grade had abandoned any and all hope of picking on me because they were too afraid that they would make me cry and the girls and/or teachers would chastise them for it. As I’ve grown I’ve managed to develop the typical “masculine façade” in which emotion, apart from anger, is never demonstrated in public…but that’s all a lie and I cry because I’m sensitive. As such if a novel, poem, film, etc possesses a scene designed to inspire any kind of emotion I cry. Recently I saw the film Inside Out, the latest Pixar film, and as such I’ll be properly hydrated sometime by mid-March.
At this point the reader is wondering what my emotional state has to do with Romanticism. Well calm down, I’m getting to it.
Dr. Ross had us break up into groups to discuss the poem stanza by stanza, and after a few minutes each group shared their perspective and marvelous moment occurred. All of us in the room began to really hear the song of the nightingale, but more important we began to understand the man John Keats.
I doubt that many of the Romantic scholars that frequent this page have no understanding of the life of John Keats, but to the casual reader the life of this poet is one of tragedy, or, at least supreme loss. Keats was the oldest son of four children and he lost both of his parents by the age of eight, and while his family was looked after for a time he became the principal guardian of the family, eventually studying to be an apothecary. He never practiced this profession, and in fact his real passion lay in writing poetry. He achieved some success; however, his time was often spent caring for his brother who suffered from tuberculosis, a disease which he eventually contracted himself. Keats became aware of his malady, and much of his poetry would then dwell on the notion of the end of life, and in the year 1821 he died at the age of twenty five.
There’s a moment in Ode to a Nightingale that struck me while I sat on the floor of the classroom listening to Dr. Ross reading it to us:
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.
When I read those lines, and heard my professor read them I was struck because I was twenty-five years old, and a man my own age when he died had written them. In the beginning of this sensation there was a twinge of jealousy coupled with my usual self-deprecatory attitude (I’ll never be that good and my entire life has been a complete waste, that kind of malarkey). This sensation was brief and a deeper more profound emotion consumed me.
Lately I’ve become more and more aware that the characters in films, television, novels, poems, etc. are all younger than I am. Where before there was a kind of identification because I was a kid, or a young adult, or a teenager, or a kid in his early twenties, now I’m shaking my head or groaning when I hear a character reveal their age. It may be a cliché but I find at age twenty-six that my life hasn’t truly started yet, or in the very least I have yet to really feel I’ve come close to the sensation that I am encountering and living life rather than simply aspiring to it…to which my therapist bursts through the door and yells PROGRESS! I note, though, that I am no longer simply growing annoyed that I’m getting older, and my back hurts more than it used to (seriously when did that start), I’m finding myself more and more concerned for the characters because often they have no idea what lies ahead of them. But that’s only the beginning. Watching and reading the news I hear more and more about young soldiers, younger than me, going to war, defending their country. I read more and more about attacks across the country, and people younger than myself dying. I read of terrorist bombers blowing themselves up in the name of god they barely have yet begun to understand. I find myself day by day finding myself an older man in a world of young men and women.
Listening to the poem I heard a young man my own age talking of death, almost wishing to die at that glorious moment at the zenith of the bird’s song, and he spoke, no, he sang those words with a clarity that could only come from an honest recognition of personal mortality. I can’t and couldn’t imagine being dead because I was and am still immortal. It’s the fate of young men to feel that life will go on and the body will not age or fall to illness or damage — and yet Keats did. The man was surely one of the greatest poets since Shakespeare, and only at the age of twenty-five was he already recognizing the finality of “the sod.”
I began to cry. It was not a loud weeping sob that distracted from the class, and in fact it probably appeared to be what’s now known as “the single man tear,” but I cried for John Keats because at that moment I mourned for the life he should have had.
He should have gone on, continued to publish poetry. He should have married or at least had a few fun years of chasing girls. He should have lived to see the rise of empire and written poetry about Victoria, and England, and Empire. He should have lived to find the woman, or man, who completed him and then spend the rest of his life with them. He should have been able to grow old and see the new breed of young men entering and producing great literature.
But what relevance does my weeping have to do with progressing the study of Romanticism?
Everything in fact because there are few, if any, opportunities in our contemporary educational system that would allow for such a moment. There are many that will go their entire lives without having a moment of profound empathy, and even fewer that will be brought to tears simply by reading a poem in a classroom. It may just be because I’m sensitive, but I don’t believe that. I cannot.
Instead I believe it has more to do with a moment earlier in the week in which I’d managed to steal a few moments away to myself and sit by the ponds that divide my university and read Ode to a Nightingale for class. There’s a small flock of ducks that swims about and at times a Great Blue Heron can be seen gliding patiently through the shallow water in hopes of snapping up a frog or small Bluefin. The leaves were mostly gone, but there were a few lingering skeletons clinging to the branches. I opened up my anthology of poetry and read, listening to the mockingbirds and cardinals singing.
I remember the emotion of watching the wind push the little pond about and hearing the birds and another passage sealed itself on my memory:
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.
Two men that had never met were known by one another as I sat on the emerald painted picnic table by the pond, and then later that evening during class. For a moment I recognized the luxury of birdsongs and remembered why it was so precious to me. I knew another mind and recognized a similar sensation.
I have dreamed up a life that I, and the rest of my generation, might be, to quote one of my favorite songs, the “Kings and Queens” of a new age, and that we might show a new kind of potential that didn’t exist before. Cynicism is settling in as I’m watching more and more of my friends sacrificing their dreams for compromise and comfort.
But no matter. The ideas and dreams still linger like songbirds’ melodies. Keats in just one stanza unified the human experience, for while mankind may dream up visions and plans, in the end it all passes away, and what truly lives on is the wonder of the natural world. Kings and laymen have heard the song of the Nightingale, which for the record is one of the most complex and intricate of bird songs, and there is a beautiful thought as we come close to the end of another year.
Academia should not only be about the production of papers, attending conferences, and pushing interpretations of works simply for the sake of personal position. Studying literature is about encountering another mind as an “other,” but then bridging the divide and recognizing a similar emotion and/or idea. Having moments in the classroom when students begin to see the words as more than simply an amalgamation of images they have to find the meaning in so they can make an “A” on the test is everything because it begins the educational experience. These moments will most likely be few and far between for many of us that go on teach, but in my own experience teaching even if only one student has such a moment it’s worth it.
Another year. I’ve written more papers, read more books, accumulated more knowledge, and as I get ready to graduate in the spring I keep looking back to Ode to a Nightingale and crying for a man I never knew, if only for a few moments, and I remember why I wanted to be an English major. The words we write and the moments we take to teach, much like the song of birds, are ephemeral but they reverberate through space and time and maybe, just maybe, they will echo into the days we’ll never see.
Thank you for listening.