Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

10 May 2019

Malcolm Guite savours two great odes, written 200 years ago

ON MAY DAY, I was out walking in warm sunshine up Rivey Hill with our two greyhounds, George and Zara, ascending a grassy track towards the high ridge and then down through the delicious shade of the greenwood, carpeted with bluebells and fresh with the tender green of newly opened leaves.

For a person habituated to the flatlands of Cambridge, it’s wonderful to have a hill at all, and I rested on the bench at the top to gaze down at Linton, nestled in its fold in the Granta Valley. May has come in already rich and full: “Everything is in delightful forwardness: the violets are not withered before the peeping of the first rose,” as Keats wrote to his brother George on a similarly fine day in early May.

Keats has been much in my mind as April turned to May this year, for it was exactly 200 years ago, as April turned to May in 1819, that the finest blossom of his poetry, in that annus mirabilis, miraculously unfolded, and the two great odes, the “Nightingale” and the “Grecian Urn”, flowered into being — not the “transitory blossom” of the hedges “white with May”, as T. S. Eliot named them, but a flowering that turned eternal, even as it lamented transience.

I am savouring those odes again on their anniversary days, and, likewise, all the rich letters he wrote alongside them. While I was ascending the hill on 1 May 2019, Keats, on his 1819 May Day, was writing to his sister: “O there is nothing like fine weather . . . and, please heaven, a little claret-wine cool out of a cellar a mile deep — with a few or a good many ratafia cakes — a rocky basin to bathe in, a strawberry bed to say your prayers to Flora in . . .”

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His words in the letter echoing the verse he’d begun to sketch out the day before:
 

O, for a draft of vintage! That hath been
Cool’d a long age in the deep-delved earth,
Tasting of Flora and the country green...
 

Keats’s house-mate, Charles Brown, was generous with his wine, but never can generosity with the transient have been so rewarded with the permanent, or such a compliment paid to a host on his cellar and its contents, as when the claret carried up from the damp little cellar in the house at Wentworth Place became that immortal “draft of vintage”, and a basement in Hampstead became the archetype of all cellars: dark and cool “in the deep delved earth”.

I say “never”, but that’s not quite true; for, as we enjoy our Eastertide eucharists, in this season of recovery, we do indeed continually exchange the transient for the permanent, and enjoy a draft of vintage full of far more than “the warm south”, for it is full of Life Himself.

This time last year, I was asked by my friend Lancia Smith to write a spring blessing for her online journal Cultivating, and it came out like this, with a nod not to Keats, but to Shelley:

Spring

With each unfolding seed, with every spring,
He breathes the rumour of his resurrection,
As birdsong calls your hidden heart to sing.
So may this season be his benediction,
To lift your love, and bid your prayer take wing,
To thaw your frozen hope, to warm your mind,
For spring has come! Can Heaven be far behind?

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