Keats and King Lear

For the poet, Sundays were not for church, but for Shakespeare.

Early in the winter of 1818, in December, John Keats wrote to his brother George about their younger brother, who had died two weeks before. “The last days of poor Tom were of the most distressing nature”—Tom, the boy whom Keats had nursed through his tuberculosis in Hampstead after George had left with his wife for Kentucky. John and Tom had kept to the house that fall while John worked on his second epic poem and read Shakespeare, writing “Sunday evening, Oct. 4, 1818” next to the phrase “poor Tom” in his folio edition of King Lear. He himself would live just two more years .

“I have scarce a doubt of immortality of some nature o[r] other,” wrote Keats in his letter to George. “[N]either had Tom.” Keats imagined an afterlife with “direct communication of spirit” like that which he felt as he wrote to George and felt he could begin to approach by their reading “a passage of Shakespeare every Sunday at ten o’clock” on either side of the Atlantic. “And we shall be as near each other as blind bodies can be in the same room.” Sundays, not for church, were for Shakespeare.

He wrote a long letter to George the next spring about his ideas of salvation. “The whole appears to resolve into this; that Man is originally ‘a poor forked creature’ subject to the same mischances as the beasts of the forest.” Man could be saved by forming an identity in the face of hardship, through the world’s “vale of Soul-making” and not through any Christian otherworldly “vale of tears.” As Lionel Trilling points out, this is also the story of King Lear, “the history of the definition of a soul by circumstance.” This “tragic salvation” was “the only salvation that Keats found it possible to conceive”: “the soul accepting the fate that defines it.” And as it happens, Keats had introduced his “system of salvation” by slightly misquoting a line of Lear’s in which the king calls Edgar, disguised as poor Tom, a “poor bare, forked animal,” a scene before Edgar says, “The foul fiend haunts poor Tom in the voice of a nightingale.” Keats wrote “Ode to a Nightingale” early that May, shortly after his letter to George.

There are any number of ways to take this unfolding of genius. The stories of Keats’s life all burn brightest as they try to make sense of how his years of studying and suffering and hope found form that spring and summer and fall in the poems by which he is remembered for greatness, the best of the odes and “The Fall of Hyperion.” If the tropes that his story gets told with—tragic suffering, artistic immortality—seem to fit the material without letting it calcify into pious cliché, it’s because Keats thought in these terms with a perfect earnestness that let them shape his world. When he wrote, “Give me new Phoenix wings to fly at my desire” at the end of his “prologue” of a sonnet on King Lear, it was less as a rhetorical device than as a prayer, inseparable from his faith in the “gradual ripening of the intellectual powers … for the purposes of great productions,” with which he prefaced the poem in a letter to his brothers in January 1818.

The rub is that other cliché, inspiration. How much can we hope to explain it, how much to trace the lines of influence onto his work, before we end up drawing all over the poems that we tried to explain? I always want to know where impressions end and genius begins, which is hard to see for Keats because his mind transformed so much matter so fully and quickly. But we can get some sense of his creative flame by tracing the thread of King Lear into the tapestry of his genius and specifically into the poems in which the play asserts itself most vigorously, “Ode to a Nightingale” and its double,   “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” written later that May.

The second poem’s debt to the first is well known, as is that of the poems to the play and even the play’s to that other tragedy of the potential for salvation, the Book of Job. But if the fact of influence is clear, its texture and shape are obscure. The problem, I think, is that scholars and critics have tended to look for allusions that fit with the play as we know it, with the order and literalness of detached understanding, instead of trying to see the play as Keats saw it. He didn’t study Shakespeare: he lived it. Shakespeare was scripture for him, and the scriptures were not; Keats knew them but didn’t revere them. He cited Shakespeare as his highest authority all the time, with the remarkable depth and flagrant inaccuracy of associative and not literal memory. He recalled lines not by and for themselves but as they embodied perspectives, scenes, and whole plots, and recalled all of that as something like revealed truth as spoken by Shakespeare the “Presider,” whom he imagined hovering over him, as he wrote in his letters. I have found dozens of echoes of lines from the play in the poems, from which we can make out a pattern.

The poems are Keats’s version of Tragedy and, taken together, are a version of Shakespeare’s Tragedy. They form a version of the play’s doubled plot, with lines that trace the arc of one half of the plot, the story of Lear and Cordelia, in “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” and the other half, that of Edgar and Gloucester, in “Ode to a Nightingale.” The odes transfigure the characters’ conflicts into the inner conflicts of lyric poetry. They take on the drama’s problems in the abstract. As Lear, the fallen king, despairs over a world “unaccommodated” to him, and Gloucester, fallen gentry, despairs of accommodating himself to the world, “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is about the ways that the world will never accommodate us and “Ode to a Nightingale” about the ways that we try to escape the world and fail, the drugs and arts and other enchantments that leave mortality as it was and always will be. They take us through Keats’s vision of tragic salvation. “Examine King Lear,” he wrote to his brothers a couple of weeks before he sent them his sonnet, pointing out the play’s “Beauty & Truth.”

The Tragedy of King Lear is the story of trust betrayed and reestablished in two families. Cordelia loses the trust of her father when she doesn’t overstate her love for him as her sisters do, and Gloucester, an earl in Lear’s kingdom, comes to mistrust his good son (Edgar) after his wicked son (Edmund) convinces Gloucester that Edgar plans to kill him. As Lear and Gloucester turn some of their children against them out of not malice but unreflective selfishness, Lear’s stemming from vanity and Gloucester’s from shame, they suffer from forms of selfishness according to their ranks—the narcissism of a king and the complacency of minor nobility, egotism and ingenuousness, jealousy and envy. It follows that they respond differently when their betrayals cast them into the wilderness—Lear enraged that the world cannot accommodate him, Gloucester despairing that he cannot reconcile himself to the world. The former is the fall of egotism, the fall of a self that expects and demands too much of the world, whereas the latter is the call for the compromised and compromising self demanded by the world. Edgar takes up the construction of a self for his father, even if what the world demands is deception, while Lear’s concern is what in the world to trust if the beauty on which he had depended could prove to be false.

The odes take on these problems in the abstract, as they concern mortality, the lack of an afterlife, and the human capacity to fall. As in Gloucester and Edgar’s conflict, “Ode to a Nightingale” considers how to adapt oneself to the world, honestly or dishonestly. Its speaker wonders what forms of enchantment could help him to cope with “[t]he weariness, the fever, and the fret” of the human condition—alcohol, poetry, myth. There is no first person in “Ode on a Grecian Urn” but a speaker evaluating a world, albeit one in the condition of a static work of art, immortal and stuck. The question is whether the ideals it evokes are beautiful and true, whether to trust them.

“The foul fiend haunts poor Tom in the voice of a nightingale”: Edgar is acting when he says this, but the madness he feigns (or thinks he feigns) betrays his emotions precisely. He has had to shuffle off his habitual calm to react to his reversal of fortune, and this dissonance between the pain of his situation and his accustomed ease would plausibly haunt him in the way that Keats’s wretchedness infects the beautiful voice of the nightingale, Edgar’s new pain in the voice of his old self. One can see “Ode to a Nightingale” as a kind of monologue of that haunting, with the speaker in his heartache trying to become like the “immortal bird” whose song he listens to. If the visceral experience of reading the poem is of rapture, this shouldn’t obscure the pain that makes the speaker long for rapture in the first place. The speaker even dissembles like haunted Edgar—“’Tis not through envy of thy happy lot / But being too happy in thine happiness,” he says to the nightingale, unable to admit (or to see) any vice in himself—and dwells on the emotions that stoked Edmund’s resentment of Edgar, the “envy” of his “ease” of being legitimate and the “eldest child.”

To get a sense of how the echoes of the play in the odes trace the tragic arcs of the plot—the fathers’ separations from their good children, their reconciliations, their deaths—consider some parallels.

In the soliloquy in which Edgar decides to disguise himself as “poor Tom,” a kind of archetypal woodland beggar and madman, he becomes “of the trees” like the “light-wingèd Dryad of the trees” that Keats describes in the first stanza of “Ode to a Nightingale.” (Edgar escapes in “the happy hollow of a tree”—happy like the “happy lot” of the unseen nightingale—and plans to adopt the “numb’d and mortified bare arms” of “Bedlam beggars”—numb and subdued like the “drowsy numbness” that opens the ode.) When Edgar later finds Gloucester blind and wandering in the forest, Edgar, as Tom, leads Gloucester to what he pretends is the edge of a cliff that overlooks “the murmuring surge, / That on the unnumber'd idle pebbles chafes”—“murmuring” like the “murmurous haunt of flies” in the ode and “unnumber’d” like the “shadows numberless” of the nightingale’s grove. As Gloucester vividly imagines a scene he cannot see, he is in the position of Keats when he “cannot see what flowers are at [his] feet” but unseeingly guesses at a number of them. Keats contemplates suicide after that stanza—“Now more than ever seems it rich to die”—like Gloucester, who despairingly leans over the edge of the cliff he supposes is there.

For all the echoes of Keats’s ode in the pivotal scenes between Edgar and Gloucester, it is when Edgar, feigning madness still, meets mad Lear in the forest that we hear “the foul fiend haunts poor Tom in the voice of a nightingale.” Edgar also mentions in his mock-babble the “hawthorn” and “corn” that appear in the ode and asks—it is unclear who—“Sleepest or wakest thou, jolly shepherd?,” recalling the question that famously ends the ode, “Do I wake or sleep?”

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” the famous phrase near the end of the other ode, likewise has an echo in King Lear, whose first scene is a counterexample. The beautiful flatteries by his wicked daughters are false, but Lear trusts only them. “So young and so untender?” he asks Cordelia. “Tender is the night” in “Ode to a Nightingale,” and the night is treacherous like Cordelia’s sisters, whereas she is, in her own “plain” words, “[s]o young, my lord, and true,” although her father can’t understand her.

Lear’s speeches before Cordelia’s death express the depth of his misunderstanding of her. He imagines the two of them playing as though she’s a child, and imagines their living indefinitely, able to think of her youth and her innocence only in terms of her being a child. He cannot understand the nuance of innocence; he sees her as through a glass, brightly. Likewise, the speaker in “Ode on a Grecian Urn” attempts to make sense of characters about whom his point of view makes it hard for him to know much of anything, since he is aging and mortal and the urn’s figures are timeless. They have the permanent youth Lear imagines and, although it is romantic instead of familial, the endless possessive infatuation. If the ode is a vision of Lear’s wish for himself and Cordelia, of a world in which it would be possible, it also shows the dark side of Lear’s desire: a world that is neither possible nor desirable.

There is an exquisite sadness to the ode’s movement away from its enchantment with the world of the urn, the world of art. After three stanzas largely of rapture, it turns to a sacrifice:

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 drest?

The image is startling in part because of the contrast of brutality and ornateness, in part because the heifer does not “understand the festivities,” as Robert Hass points out. She has “no terror in the eyes,” and in her incomprehension is like Lear and Cordelia on their way to the “sacrifice” that Lear mentions but has no suspicion will actually end in Cordelia’s death. Unlike the rest of the stasis—lovers who will never kiss, maidens ever struggling to escape their pursuers—the death provokes the speaker’s judgment, because the urn has permanently robbed the “little town” of its inhabitants. Without the progression of time, no one can go through pain or tell a story about it. It’s a tragedy of no Tragedy.

Having no one who could tell your story is a way to lose the immortality that art can afford, and this sense of mortality causes the emotional fall of “Ode to a Nightingale,” too. The poet’s enchantments—“Darkling I listen, and for many a time / I have been half in love with easeful Death”—begin to give way when he considers that he won’t hear the bird’s timeless song when he dies: “Still wouldst thou sing, and I have ears in vain— / To thy high requiem become a sod.” Only in life can he feel these enchantments, only with the potential for suffering. The poet says, “Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!” although the poet was.

Originally Published: February 11th, 2015

Adam Plunkett has written about poetry for a number of publications.

  1. February 11, 2015
     Surazeus Simon Seamount

    The most powerful poetry explores the expression of human character in the process of cause and effect that leads to love in comedy and death in tragedy.

  2. February 12, 2015

    "Tom, the boy whom Keats had nursed the boy through his

    Translation, please.

  3. February 12, 2015
     Al de Baran

    "The most powerful poetry explores the expression of human character
    in the process of cause and effect that leads to love in comedy and
    death in tragedy."

    The great lyric poets would find this assertion debatable, to put it

  4. February 13, 2015

    "We try to escape the world and fail, the drugs and arts
    and other enchantments that leave mortality as it was and
    always will be."

    Well said.

  5. February 13, 2015
     Robyn Hode

    Re: "Tom, the boy whom Keats had nursed the boy
    through his

    Translation, please.

    If you can somehow, through long hours of study, piece
    together the meaning of the misprint then perhaps
    poetry is not your thing.

    Try harder.