KEATS’ LAST NIGHTINGALE: message from France #2

The simplest things are right in front of you, and then you suddenly realize what they mean and it breaks your heart.
I especially admire writers when they can pull this off-- ,at the climax of ”Manon of the Spring”; Raymond Chandler in “Farewell My Lovely” or “The Long Goodbye”when things that appear unconnected suddenly tie back together; Fitzgerald in “Gatsby”; a few others.

So sometimes life itself quietly whispers, “Do you get it now, stupid?”

I might not be ready for something, the first time I read it; I tried reading “Gatsby” when I was 18, didn’t get it, fell in and out of love with the rich girl across the river when I was 20, dreamed of literary success (my own green light at the end of the dock), and now that I’ve had my ass handed to me by the American Dream, I think I’m starting to “get” Gatsby.
Poems have a way of creeping up on you like that.

I’ve been listening to my first nightingale for the past week now. I’m awake between one and three in the morning, local time, and the little creature—they call it “rossignol” here—is singing its heart out. Last night there were two, one answering the other from a little further up the mountain.

Of course I’ve read Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale” before; John Keats is my partner’s favorite poet. “My heart aches…” I like the leopards pulling Bacchus’ chariot. All true lungers, from Doc Holliday to asthmatic Proust, have some fellow feeling for Keats coughing out his tuberculosis. Rumpole of the Bailey, contemplating a glass of Pommeroy’s Chateau Thames Embankment, speaks of “a draught of vintage! that hath been/ Cool’d a long age in the deep-delved earth”… And when greeted with unimportant news, such as the cover story of “People” magazine, we are wont sarcastically to say “Now more than ever seems it rich to die.”

What is unsaid in the poem—the simple thing that escaped me until now—is that the bird is singing in the center of the night, when Keats is the only one who hears her, probably having coughed himself awake. He might as well be alone in the world, no one to hear or coax him back to sleep-- and the ecstacy of the birdsong so indifferent to “the weariness, the fever, and the fret/ Here, where men sit and hear each other groan”.

Further up the road, just outside the village limits, the boar hounds are all yelling at something moving on the dark mountain. Twenty hounds baying like the call of the Questing Beast, or Cavall, the great hearted dog of King Arthur. In Scotland and Northern England that’s the sound of the Gabriel Hounds, carrying off the souls of children lost in infancy.

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 past, 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 Flora 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 gray 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,
And haply the Queen-Moon is on her throne,
Cluster’d 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 hangs upon the boughs,
But, in embalmed darkness, guess each sweet
Wherewith the seasonable month endows
The grass, the thicket, and the fruit-tree wild;
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.

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.

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.

Forlorn! the very word is like a bell
To toil me back from thee to my sole self!
Adieu! the fancy cannot cheat so well
As she is fam’d 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?

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