Penguins on Parade: Keats!
Some Penguin Classics, as we’ve noted a couple of times, are at least as much about the edition as they are about the work itself – and sometimes this can be a bit problematic. Take the poetry of John Keats, for example. Obviously, he needs to be welcomed into the Penguin Classic line, but how? Penguin made one easy decision for its modern line: have two volumes. The slimmer one, the more undergraduate-friendly one, can be a “selected poems” thing and eschew the longer, more frightening pieces Keats wrote in his meteoric short career; this might deprive young readers of their first encounter with the sublime “Endymion,” but at least it doesn’t guarantee they’ll run screaming into the arms of Billy Collins and never look back. For those readers willing to take the plunge, Penguin can produce a full-dress “Complete Poems” that’ll include everything – but that brings us back to the question of editions.
When it comes to Keats, there are really only two candidates: Jack Stillinger’s 1978 edition brought out by the Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, and John Barnard’s 1973 edition, originally incorporated into the old “Penguin English Poets” series. Barnard’s book got the nod, and it’s his edition that serves as the Penguin Classic complete Keats. He and Stillinger are both remorselessly thorough when it comes to their mini-book of End Notes. When Barnard gets to the famous “Ode to a Nightingale,” he unlimbers his forensics kit and gets straight to work:
the true, the blushful Hippocrene – a periphrasis for wine. ‘Hippocrene’ is a fountain in Boeotia, near Mount Helicon, sacred to the muses” (Lempriere), and hence the fountain of inspiration. Keats may be playing on the difference between ‘blushful’ (red) wine and the colourlessness of water, but Baldwin, p. 49, says ‘… the waters of [Hippocrene] were violet-coloured, and are represented as endowed with voice and articulate sound.’
Readers are permitted to doubt the need for such elaborate clarification, especially when it comes to the shorter, more passionately intense poems Keats wrote … or at least the need for such blocks of clarification to be part of a Complete Poems (as opposed to separate, as in Helen Vendler’s fantastic The Odes of John Keats). True, Keats’ abundant classical references now need ample footnoting, since young 21st century readers are as unfamiliar with Lempriere as they are with jogging or eating meat. But I’d like to think (perhaps delusionally, but even so) that “Ode to a Nightingale” needs no help to weave its spell over any reader – especially over any reader who’ll take the time to read it out loud:
My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains
My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,
Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains
One minute last, and Lethe-wards had sunk:
‘Tis not through envy of thy happy lot,
But being too happy in thine happiness,
That thou, light-winged Dryad of the trees,
In some melodious plot
Of beechen green, and shadows numberless,
Singest of summer in full-throated ease.
O for a draught of vintage! That hath been
Cool’d a long age in the deep-delved earth,
Tasting of Floa and the country-green,
Dance, and Provencal song, and sunburnt mirth!
O for a beaker full of the warm South!
Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene,
With beaded bubbles winking at the brim,
And purple-stained mouth,
That I might drink, and leave the world unseen,
And with thee fade away into the forest dim-
Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget
What thou among the leaves hast never known,
The weariness the fever and the fret
Here, where men sit and hear each other groan;
Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last grey hairs,
Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies;
Where but to think is to be full of sorrow
And leaden-eyed despairs;
Where Beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes,
Or new Love pine at them beyond to-morrow.
Away! Away! For I will fly to thee,
Not charioted by Bacchus and his pards,
But on the viewless wings of Poesy,
Though the dull brain perplexes and retards.
Already with thee! Tender is the night,
Clustered around by all her starry Fays;
But here there is no light,
Save what from heaven is with the breezes blown
Through verdurous glooms and winding mossy ways.
I cannot see what flowers are at my feet,
Nor what soft incense hands upon the boughs,
But, in embalmed darkness, guess each sweet
Wherewith the thicket, and the fruit-tree wild –
White hawthorn, and the pastoral eglantine;
Fast fading violets covered 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.
Darkling I listen; and, for many a time
I have been half in love with easeful Death,
Called hi 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.
Thou wast 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
She stood in tears amid the alien corn;
The same that oft-times hath
Charmed magic casements, opening on the foam
Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.
Forlorn! The very word is like a bell
To toll me back from thee to my sole self!
Adieu! The fancy cannot cheat so well
As she is famed to do, deceiving elf.
Adieu! Adieu! Thy plaintive anthem fades
Past the near-meadows, over the still stream,
Up the hill-side; and now ‘tis buried deep
In the next valley-glades:
Was it a vision, or a waking dream?
Fled is that music – Do I wake or sleep?
Of course, if those readers are feeling self-conscious, they can always opt for listening to Benedict Cumberbatch read it out loud. He probably does a slightly better job of it anyway: