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"The splendid poetry of John Keats",
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This review is from: The Great Poets: John Keats (Audio CD)
My review of the poetry of John Keats does not cover all the poems on this cd. Instead I prefer to focus my review on just one of Keats poems: `Ode on a Grecian Urn'.
I have assumed customers reading this will have some knowledge of Keats's writings, either from reading his poems and letters, or studying modern critical commentaries and contemporary reviews. This review however, is not meant, nor should be seen, as a long critical literary analysis, nor an academic essay of Keats as a poet or his poetry. Instead I have taken from contemporary commentators and critics their ideas and thoughts, and set them out in a fairly simple form of commentary. I hope this approach will not detract from our understanding of the poem, but enhance our enjoyment of it.
The CD Recording.
The majority of recorded poetry when performed by professional actors, gives the impression the recording has been produced with a radio audience in mind, and these selective poetry readings of Keats are no different. Four professional actors were employed to read the poetry of Keats by Naxos, the recording label. Samuel West has been given the task of reciting the bulk of Keats's poetry, sixteen of the twenty four poems, including sonnets and some odes are read by himself. Including, with Sarah Woodward, they recite the long narrative poem, `The Eve of St. Agnes', which lasts for just over twenty six minutes. Michael Sheen reads, the `odes': `To Autumn'; '... to a Nightingale' ; '... on Melancholy' and '... on A Grecian Urn'. Simon Russell Beale reads just one poem, `There was a naughty boy'. All twenty four poems are recited in just under seventy minutes.
The recordings are handled adeptly and resonant with the poems chime; particularly the poems recited by West:`Wherein lies happiness?'; and in the sonnet, `Bright Star!' and `Deep in the shady sadness of a vale'. Michael Sheen's, recordings of the odes -with the exceptions of, `to a Nightingale'; `To Autumn'- however, while atmospheric, comes with a slight echo that hangs in the back ground, as if they had been recorded in a confined space -some vault, a cellar perhaps; the readings are forward and close, drawing the listener in.
Why Poetry should be read out loud.
My principal aim in this review is to encourage the listener to reread Keats's poems for themselves. Out loud; daunting to anyone perhaps, but nevertheless a pleasurable experience. A point also made by Stephen Fry, "...Among the pleasures of poetry is the sheer physical, sensual, textual, tactile pleasure of feeling the words on your lips, tongue, teeth and vocal cords."(1)
Secondly, When read out loud it's possible with temper, to find the measure of rhyme, the pace of rhythm and the implied metaphor. Similarly its possible to form different ideas about the nature of a poem, or have those ideas re-enforced as to the poem's essence and meaning. Keats poetry has meant many different things to different people.(2) A viewer of visual art for instance, like the reader of poetry creates his or her own impressions, filling gaps and imposing meaning.
The Review (a commentary).
`Ode on a Grecian Urn' was probably written in May 1819. It is one of several odes composed at the height of Keats creative output during the late summer of 1818 and August 1819. Keats was familiar with the writings of the classical world; the ode reflects this fascination with Greek art and culture. It is highly probable Keats would have visited the British Museum to see the Portland vase, the Townley vase and the Elgin Marbles; his visits would have fired his creative imagination to write.(3) The Urn is partly Keats's own invention, and partly a composite drawn from his reading about, and viewing of, classical art. The urn Is funerary.(4) It is a contrast between art and life.
The poet in addressing a Grecian urn, `Ode on a Grecian Urn', the poem contains five stanza's, he reflects upon the images contained thereon, which unlike reality are eternal. The ode as presented to us appears timeless; its description is enjoyed by the participants on the vase, by the poet in his concentration on the urn, and by the reader absorbed in Keats poem. (5)
Commentators and critics have over a hundred years gazed in puzzlement, as well as argued over, what the urn is supposed to represent given the many ambiguities and therefore, paradoxes. However they all seem to be in agreement with the general themes which run through the poem. They are art, the function thereof and its relation to life, beauty and time and mortality.
Andrew Motion, himself a working poet and biographer of Keats, Sees Keats poetry as often inseparable from the life he led or witnessed. Motion's biography usefully relates Keats life to the intellectual and political world of the time. Motion is unequivocal the urn is a representation of the past. Motion's observations are particularly useful, for they add a not unlike critical dimension to the reading of Keats poetry. Motion as poet, and before as Poet Laureate, refers to the ode as, "alternating between hymn and argument and introducing two voices to dramatise its dialectic".(6)
In the first half of the first stanza:
Thou still unravish'd 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-fring'd legend haunts about thy shape
Of deities or mortals or both,"
The first four lines are both metaphorical and paradoxical.(7)
The speaker may look on the urn as a bride of quietness, a child of time, and a teller of pastoral tales.
Motion's reading of the first stanza, "likens the Urn as an embodiment of isolation. Its subtle subjectivity is a kind of social historical loneliness, its ambiguities are outward signs of withheld insecurities"-themes he says appear in the first line of the poem.(8)
Stanza 2, alternates between the beholder and object, reader and text of.
Keats use of punctuation and repetition even exclamations; tools of rhetoric, add to the tone and feel of the poem. For example the word 'happy' is used six times in the third stanza.
"Ah happy, happy boughs! That cannot shed
Your leaves, nor ever bid the spring adieu;
And, happy melodist unwearied,
For ever piping songs for ever new;
More happy love! more happy, happy love!"
This use of repetition Marian Cox believes, conveys a desperation of desire for and envy of happiness, creating an illusion of spontaneity and a sense of flux.(9)
The last lines to the fifth and final stanza are the two most perplexing and most debated lines in Keats poetry. They read as follows,
`Beauty is truth, truth beauty', - that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
How do we read the two lines above? What do they actually mean? Alternative meanings can be created by moving or removing the inverted commas.
Cox provides over twenty different interpretations as to the message above, such as one below:-
"" Truth can only be experienced empirically through the senses, through intense experience, not through statements of fact or proved propositions." "I have never yet been able to perceive how anything can be known for truth by consecutive reasoning"" (letter to Bailey, 22 November 1817). (10)
Another critic, John Strachan, asks, are both lines addressed to man by the urn? Or are the words after 'Beauty is truth, truth beauty' addressed by the poet to the urn? Or by the poet to the reader? The case however, remains unsettled and each reading has critical validity.(11)
In closing, I hope I have been able to provide the listener/reader with some further insight into the ideas held by commentators and critics when assessing the poetry of Keats. There is in the poems of John Keats, a richness of the metaphor, ambiguity and paradox. Keats was an extraordinarily young man with great promise; his poetic development was astonishingly rapid. Yet the shortness and difficulty of his life, Fatherless at eight, nursing his Mother, he was to become motherless at fourteen, and his brother Tom, during their fatal illnesses bestowed on Keats an immediate experience with death; the loss of close family adds poignancy to a study of his poetry.
1) Stephen Fry. `The Ode Less Travelled' (Introduction) p. XXIII
2) Glennis Byron York Notes on `Selected Poems John Keats'. p.6
3) John Strachan: Edited. `The Poems of John Keats': A sourcebook p.150-151
4) Ibid., p.151; Marian Cox `The Poetry of John Keats'. p.52
5) Cox ibid., p.54
6) Andrew Motion ``Keats' A Biography'. p.389
7) Byron. p.39
8) Motion. p.392
10) ibid., p.56-58 Point Number 15, Lists twenty four different interpretations to the message, `Beauty is truth.'
11) Strachan. p. 152-153
Glennis Byron. John Keats York Notes Advanced. (2003)
Charlotte Carstairs: `Longman Literature Guides: York Notes on Selected poetry John Keats'. (1983)
Marian Cox `The poetry of John Keats AS/A Level Student Text Guide'. (2004)
Evert and Rhodes `Approaches to Teaching Keats's Poetry'. (1993)
Garrod H.W. Edited, `Keats Poetical Works'. (Reprinted 1978)
Andrew Motion `Keats A biography'. (1997)
John Strachen Edited by, `The Poems Of John Keats A Sourcebook'. (2003)