Tag Archives: literature

‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ by John Keats

Thou still unravished bride of quietness,
Thou foster child of silence and slow time,
Sylvan historian, who canst thus express
A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme:
What leaf-fringed legend haunts about thy shape
Of deities or mortals, or of both,
In Tempe or the dales of Arcady?
What men or gods are these? What maidens loath?
What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?

Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endeared,
Pipe to the spirit dities of no tone.
Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave
Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;
Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal—yet, do not grieve;
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss
Forever wilt thou love, and she be fair!

Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed
Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu;
And, happy melodist, unweari-ed,
Forever piping songs forever new;
More happy love! more happy, happy love!
Forever warm and still to be enjoyed,
Forever panting, and forever young;
All breathing human passion far above,
That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloyed,
A burning forehead, and a parching tongue.

Who are these coming to the sacrifice?
To what green altar, O mysterious priest,
Lead’st thou that heifer lowing at the skies,
And all her silken flanks with garlands dressed?
What little town by river or sea shore,
Or mountain-built with peaceful citadel,
Is emptied of this folk, this pious morn?
And, little town, thy streets for evermore
Will silent be; and not a soul to tell
Why thou art desolate, can e’er return.

O Attic shape! Fair attitude! with brede
Of marble men and maidens overwrought,
With forest branches and the trodden weed;
Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity. Cold Pastoral!
When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty”—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

This poem has had an enormous impact on my life since I first read it. It has given me a great amount of pleasure (and still does). I don’t want to do a detailed analysis because it would be such a long blog and nobody would read it. I just want to talk about the final two lines, which are probably the most famous words that Keats ever wrote.

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty”—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

I think the most obvious, surface explanation of this is something like: if beauty is truth, then, if art is not based on truth to a certain extent, then how can beauty exist in art? It’s the idea that art must contain aspects of reality in order to be beautiful and sublime.

But there is also a deeper, philosophical meaning to it which relates, I think, to how we reach Truth. How we find truth, how do we recognise it, and what is its source? For Keats, logic was not the answer. He did not believe that Truth could be reached by consecutive reasoning. He believed that since one can argue anything (logic can be applied to reasoning that does not lead to Truth) then Truth must come from some other source. That other source might be Beauty. As Keats wrote in a letter in 1817, “What the imagination seizes as beauty must be truth”.

I think that “Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty” is also connected to Keats’ views about the nature of poetry. He wrote that “if poetry does not come as naturally as leaves to a tree then it had better not come at all.” He described poetry as an “experience beyond thought” — the music or Beauty of the poetry contains Truth just as much as the meanings of the words. It makes sense that this kind of Truth is more trustworthy, because we have an innate understanding of what is beautiful, whereas logic can easily hoodwink us and have us believe falsehoods.

Keats wrote that poetry was best to be understood “through the senses”, and that is certainly true of this poem — it is a symphony of words and rhythm. For me, the meaning is almost secondary.

If you look at the beginning of the poem, there is a link to all of this. Keats describes the urn (which represents Art is all its forms) as a “still unravish’d bride”, “foster-child” and “Sylvan historian”. This mysterious opening allows us to understand that the urn is beautiful (an “unravish’d bride”) and knowledgeable (a “Sylvan historian). So art can be a source of both beauty and truth… and this of course foreshadows famous last lines of the poem.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘The Night-Wind’ by Emily Bronte

In summer’s mellow midnight,
A cloudless moon shone through
Our open parlour window,
And rose-trees wet with dew.

I sat in silent musing,
The soft wind waved my hair:
It told me Heaven was glorious,
And sleeping Earth was fair.

I needed not its breathing
To bring such thoughts to me,
But still it whispered lowly,
‘How dark the woods will be!

‘The thick leaves in my murmur
Are rustling like a dream,
And all their myriad voices
Instinct with spirit seem.’

I said, ‘Go, gentle singer,
Thy wooing voice is kind:
But do not think its music
Has power to reach my mind.

‘Play with the scented flower,
The young tree’s supple bough,
And leave my human feelings
In their own course to flow.’

The wanderer would not leave me;
Its kiss grew warmer still –
‘O come,’ it sighed so sweetly;
‘I’ll win thee ‘gainst thy will.

‘Have we not been from childhood friends?
Have I not loved thee long?
As long as thou hast loved the night
Whose silence wakes my song.

‘And when thy heart is laid at rest
Beneath the church-yard stone,
I shall have time enough to mourn
And thou to be alone.’

This is one of my favourite poems by Emily Bronte. I am a little bit obsessed with her work as you will have gathered if you read my previous blog about No coward soul is mine.

The Night-Wind is hypnotically sensuous in its language, with the “soft wind” waving the speaker’s hair, its voice whispering “lowly” about “how dark the woods will be”. I think my favourite part is when the Night-Wind says, “The thick leaves in my murmur/ Are murmuring like a dream” — it is so evocative of a natural world that is wild and brimming with life, or “instinct with spirit”, as Bronte writes.

I love the dark, mysterious atmosphere that surrounds this entity or force called the Night-Wind. There is a common theme running through much of Emily Bronte’s work — both in her poetry and, I think, in Wuthering Heights — of the force of nature and the mystical connection that can be felt with it. There is something almost pagan about this poem, as there is certainly something pagan about Wuthering Heights. In that novellove is presented as a sort of religion. In the novel, love is dark and destructive but also all-pervading and eternal. God and Beauty in nature is of course a theme common to the works of Romantic poets such as Wordsworth or Coleridge, but for me Emily Bronte goes further — or at least deeper and darker — than those poets. This is why Emily Bronte’s poetry fascinates me so much: her poems might be in many ways immature (I don’t want to use the word naive because I don’t think Emily was naive) but there is something wild and dark and spiritual about them that is incredibly powerful. And, of course, there are absolutely nothing immature about Wuthering Heights. 

There are different versions of this poem. The one posted above is Emily’s original version. However, Charlotte Bronte (Emily’s sister) edited The Night-Wind after Emily’s death. In Charlotte’s version, the final stanza reads as follows:

And when thy heart is resting
Beneath the church-aisle stone,
I shall have time enough for mourning,
And thou for being alone

Charlotte edited much of Emily’s poetry after her death. This particular correction is the most important one that Charlotte made to this poem, and I think it reflects her own grief at the death of her sister. For example, the changing of “church-yard” to “church-aisle” is significant because Emily Bronte was not buried in the church-yard, but beneath the aisle in Haworth Church. Also, I feel like the way Charlotte has changed the verbs from the infinitive to the present continuous (i.e. “laid to rest” becomes “resting”, “to mourn” becomes “mourning” and “to be alone” becomes “for being alone”) demonstrates how her grief has now become Charlotte’s ongoing and bleak reality. Poor Charlotte outlived both Emily and Anne Bronte, and was the only sister to marry, though she also died before she could have children.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘Kubla Khan’ by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree :
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.
So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round :
And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,
Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree ;
And here were forests ancient as the hills,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.

But oh ! that deep romantic chasm which slanted
Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover !
A savage place ! as holy and enchanted
As e’er beneath a waning moon was haunted
By woman wailing for her demon-lover !
And from this chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething,
As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing,
A mighty fountain momently was forced :
Amid whose swift half-intermitted burst
Huge fragments vaulted like rebounding hail,
Or chaffy grain beneath the thresher’s flail :
And ‘mid these dancing rocks at once and ever
It flung up momently the sacred river.
Five miles meandering with a mazy motion
Through wood and dale the sacred river ran,
Then reached the caverns measureless to man,
And sank in tumult to a lifeless ocean :
And ‘mid this tumult Kubla heard from far
Ancestral voices prophesying war !
The shadow of the dome of pleasure
Floated midway on the waves ;
Where was heard the mingled measure
From the fountain and the caves.
It was a miracle of rare device,
A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice !

A damsel with a dulcimer
In a vision once I saw :
It was an Abyssinian maid,
And on her dulcimer she played,
Singing of Mount Abora.
Could I revive within me
Her symphony and song,
To such a deep delight ‘twould win me,
That with music loud and long,
I would build that dome in air,
That sunny dome ! those caves of ice !
And all who heard should see them there,
And all should cry, Beware ! Beware !
His flashing eyes, his floating hair !
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread,
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.

When I was 18 I wrote half a very bad and naive novel in which the hero died, and this hero’s epitaph consisted of the last two lines of this poem. I mention this embarrassing anecdote simply because the fact that I chose these lines to sum up my hero’s life demonstrates what in incredible impact this poem had on me at that time. When I first read Kubla Khan I couldn’t believe its beauty and had to read it again and again. And another thing that happened, and that happens with all my favourite poems, is this: I felt the need to read it aloud. I feel like that is the sign of a poem that I will keep: one that I want to read aloud.

I think that perhaps it is the pure music of this poem that has made it so famous and enduring. And then there is also the story. The story is one with which Coleridge prefaced his poem, asserting that he wrote Kubla Khan upon waking from an opium-induced sleep. He supposedly had a dream about Kubla Khan and when he woke up this beautiful verse simply poured out of him, without strain or effort (I know, I don’t believe him either.) Then poor Coleridge was interrupted by a visitor at the door, and this broke his flow of poetry. So, he could not finish the poem. This is why, in his poetry collection, Kubla Khan is categorised as a Fragment. I think the “damsel with a dulcimer” part and beyond is the post-interruption part of the poem. Up until this point you have this incredibly rich description of the fictional land of Xanadu with its “sacred river”, its “caverns measureless to man” and the “forests ancient as the hills”. Then the latter part of the poem seems to be the poet grasping frantically in the dark for the “vision once [he] saw”, which he cannot recover.

If only the poet could “revive within [himself]” the “symphony and song” of his vision, he could write the most glorious, heavenly poetry, in fact, he would “build that dome in air,/ That sunny dome! those caves of ice!” This unattainability of a vision which has come from some source uncontrolled by the poet (i.e. the Muse?) is a very Romantic notion.

But it is the last part of the poem that I love the most — the part where Coleridge tells us what he would do if he could only recreate the magnificence of his vision. When he says, “And all who heard should see them there” it makes me think that Coleridge longs to recreate what he has seen so faithfully that readers would physically “see” the vision for themselves. Then there is that couplet I love so much:

And all should cry, Beware ! Beware !
His flashing eyes, his floating hair !

I just adore the drama of these words, the delicious rhyme setting you up for the crashing finale:

Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.

This weaving a circle round him thrice brings to mind the idea of ritual for me, and that “holy dread” reinforces it. There is certainly something holy or sacred about this poem — about all great poems. The poet who can recreate his visions is one to be revered, one to ritualise (haven’t we made some sort of ritual or religion of our greatest authors? Shakespeare? Criticising Shakespeare is like blasphemy, even to people who have never heard one of his poems or plays.) The final two lines — my poor hero’s epitaph — express, in my opinion, the awe we can feel before the works of great artists, poets and musicians. Heaven is occasionally attained in art — by those blessed artists who have “drunk the milk of Paradise” — and when it is, it leaves us in a slightly dazed state, not quite sure where we are anymore. As a final thought I will say that that I think the last lines of this poem are akin in tone to those of Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale: “fled is that music: – do I wake or sleep?”

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh