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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

19 June 2020

Re-reading Keats, Malcolm Guite finds the world around him re-enchanted

I HAVE been re-reading the odes of Keats — or perhaps I should say “re-chanting” them. I know them by heart, anyway, though I love to see them on the page, especially in a finely printed book, and, even as I read them, I can’t help chanting them out loud; for part of their power is in the very way they sound: delicious and mellifluous, to be tasted on the palate, like the claret that Keats loved.

Indeed, re-chanting them really means re-enchanting them, and then, with the spell of these poems, re-enchanting the world around us. The world is always somehow richer and more vivid when you’re reading Keats, and not only while you’re reading, but for a long while afterwards. You never really know how tender is the night until you read the “Ode To a Nightingale”, and wander out afterwards and see for your self “the Queen-Moon . . . on her throne, Clustered around by all her starry fays”.

But the ode that has particularly entranced — or re-entranced — me recently is the “Ode on Melancholy”, and, once more, I find that lockdown brings an old poem into new focus. Perhaps there is always some undertow of melancholy in all of us, but we feel it all the more in the midst of this world-sorrow. The question is, what to do with it? How to manage it? And here, Keats comes to our aid; for his advice is neither to over-indulge nor to ignore it, but to bring it to beauty. So he begins his ode with the memorable warning:


No, no, go not to Lethe, neither twist

Wolf’s-bane, tight-rooted, for its poisonous wine.


You must not let the dark things become:


A partner in your sorrow’s mysteries;
For shade to shade will come too drowsily,
And drown the wakeful anguish of the soul.


His advice, instead, “when the melancholy fit shall fall”, is this:


Then glut thy sorrow on a morning rose,
Or on the rainbow of the salt sand-wave,
Or on the wealth of globed peonies. . .


And he is right. Many people have found on their solitary walks that it is the rich beauty of the world around them, flowering in all its glory, indifferent to our sorrows and yet soothing them, which brings healing and lifts the spirit.

St Paul got there before Keats, of course, with his helpful advice in Philippians: “Whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things”; for everything we take into our minds remains there for good or ill, and to have a mind well stocked with the images and memories of beauty is to have language and resources that no isolation can remove.

But Keats goes further: he recognises that the intimations of mortality, which are also offered by the morning rose, are precisely what make its beauty so poignant and intense; that melancholy and beauty are not so far from one another — that, indeed, they dwell together:


She dwells with Beauty — Beauty that must die;

And Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips
Bidding adieu. . .


It is no mere escapism that we should need sometimes in these sad days to revisit “the very temple of Delight”; for it is given to us in this world that we should taste joy and sadness together.

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