This Poet Never Gets Old

August 28, 2018

Curtis Fox: This is Poetry Off The Shelf from The Poetry Foundation. I’m Curtis Fox. This week, this poet never gets old. I think we’re going to hear a lot more about John Keats. In the spring of 1819, almost 200 years ago, the young English Romantic poet wrote his six famous odes: “Ode to the Grecian Urn”, “Ode to Indolence”, “Ode to Melancholy”, “Ode to the Nightingale”, and “Ode to Psyche”. It remains one of the greatest explosions of lyric genius in literary history. Keats was only 24, and he would die a year later. On this podcast we’re going to hear shorter poems Keats wrote, and I’m joined by Benjamin Voigt. Ben wrote a primer for our website; “John Keats 101” it’s called. And he joins me now from McAlester College where he teaches. Hi Ben.


Benjamin Voigt: Hi.

Curtis Fox: So John Keats is one of the most famous poets in English language, he ranks right up there with Shakespeare, but I have an awkward question for you.


Benjamin Voigt: Oh boy.


Curtis Fox: Yeah. In 2018 with our world in crisis, ecologically and politically, why should we read John Keats? Make the case for reading him today, if you would.


Benjamin Voigt: The case for Keats. I think there are many reasons to read him. Namely his absorption by the culture means that his ideas and Romanticism’s influence in general is just everywhere. In particular, I think his idea of negative capability comes up a lot in poetic discourse, but also more broad cultural ones.


Curtis Fox: It comes up everywhere. I’ve seen it in political discussions. It pops up regularly these days, ‘negative capability’. Explain what it is a bit for us.


Benjamin Voigt: I actually have the letter here where he defines it. It’s a funny term because it is so broadly used now, but he kind of just coined it in passing in a letter to his brothers. It’s basically a sentence in that letter that’s been taken up in all kinds of ways. If you’ll allow me, I’ll read that and then can talk a little bit about it too. In this letter, he’s talking about a disquisition that he had with a friend of his, and he talks about several things dovetailing in his mind, and then is struck by this idea. “The quality that went to form a man of achievement, especially in literature, in which Shakespeare possessed so enormously. I mean negative capability, that is when a man is capable of being in a certainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason”. We live in a time of serious uncertainty about politics, ecology, so the capability of living in that condition, not succumbing to it and not presupposing our own ideas about what those uncertainties might be. Without resorting to political rhetoric, without leaning on old ideas of received ideas of different kinds, rather being receptive to the challenges, the doubts, the mysteries he’s talking about here. Sorting through them, sitting with them, and then poetry sort of dealing with their emotional aspect.


Curtis Fox: To me it seems poetry is the perfect vehicle for negative capability; of holding a lot of things in one’s mind at the same time. A lot of ambiguities, a lot of double meanings, a lot of feelings all packed into the same verbal space. It seems to me also that reading poetry can be a good way to train the mind in negative capability, no?


Benjamin Voigt: I think that’s definitely true. The poems that we’re going to look at today, two sonnets, you see him meditating on things that are concerning to him. Mortality and art in different ways.


Curtis Fox: Let’s get to one of them. This is a sonnet called “On Seeing the Elgin Marbles”. Ben, the Elgin Marbles from the ancient Parthenon in Athens now sit in the British museum, but when Keats first saw them they had just been brought to England by Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin.


Benjamin Voigt: That’s correct. He went and visited them at least once, I think maybe several times, with his friend the painter Benjamin Hayden.


Curtis Fox: So it was a big deal when these marbles arrived in England. They were just freshly arrived. That’s a bit of background to the writing of this sonnet, but the sonnet itself barely refers to the Elgin Marbles except in the title. What else would be good to know when we hear it?


Benjamin Voigt: He wrote this poem in 1817 I believe. It was on the earlier end of his admittedly very short career. I don’t think he himself was ill at the time, but he was someone who’d always been worried about his own mortality. Maybe in part because of his family history; his father died when he was young, his mother died when he was young, he cared for people who had tuberculosis. Death was more of a part of every day life. So I think that is informing this poem, though of course contemporary readers were looking for signs of his own understanding of his own demise or something like that.

Curtis Fox: That’s kind of irresistible from our point of view. Let’s hear it. Our reader here in the studio with me is Cindy Kats.


Cindy Kats:

My spirit is too weak—mortality

   Weighs heavily on me like unwilling sleep,

   And each imagined pinnacle and steep

Of godlike hardship tells me I must die

Like a sick eagle looking at the sky.

   Yet ’tis a gentle luxury to weep

   That I have not the cloudy winds to keep

Fresh for the opening of the morning’s eye.

Such dim-conceived glories of the brain

   Bring round the heart an undescribable feud;

So do these wonders a most dizzy pain,

   That mingles Grecian grandeur with the rude

Wasting of old time—with a billowy main—

   A sun—a shadow of a magnitude.


Curtis Fox: That was “On Seeing the Elgin Marbles”. I’d like to go through this very short poem bit by bit. Cindy, can you read the first five lines again?


Cindy Kats:

My spirit is too weak—mortality

   Weighs heavily on me like unwilling sleep,

   And each imagined pinnacle and steep

Of godlike hardship tells me I must die

Like a sick eagle looking at the sky.


Curtis Fox: Ben, the poet announces he’s either sick or he’s fearing his own death, and feeling his own death like sleep coming on. But what does he mean by “each imagined pinnacle and steep / of godlike hardship tells me I must die / Like a sick eagle looking at the sky”. What do you make of that?

Benjamin Voigt: Well it’s a strange series of lines that add up to complex image. We end on “Like a sick eagle looking at the sky”, which apparently originates a belief held at that time that eagles could look at the sun directly without doing any damage. But I think there’s contemporary echos of Eagle eyes being sort of keen. Though he’s a sick eagle, so in this retrospective look of him we’re going to think about his own sickness or the sickness of his family or what not. But I think we can read it less literally than that, and take more from it. He’s looking at this sculptural freeze, this thing made of marble, he’s seeing a topographical map of hardship in his life to come and as a reminder that he’s not going to survive it.

Curtis Fox: That’s an odd response to the Elgin Marbles I have to say. Perhaps because they’re so ancient, and the people they were modelled on were all dead it gives him a feeling of mortality? It’s unclear why he has such a strong sense of mortality from the images of the Elgin Marbles.


Benjamin Voigt: That’s true, it’s a strange response. He describes it later in the poem, can we go to later?

Curtis Fox: Yeah, let’s go to the next three lines. Cindy, can you read those? It’s one full sentence.


Cindy Kats:

Yet ’tis a gentle luxury to weep

   That I have not the cloudy winds to keep

Fresh for the opening of the morning’s eye.


Curtis Fox: The morning’s eye seems to be the sun, right? And he’s comparing himself to the eagle.


Benjamin Voigt: He’s comparing himself to the eagle or he’s comparing himself to the sky itself, that he doesn’t feel as fresh as he would like to be. He says “a gentle luxury to weep” and we have that “yet” that’s sort of turning the argument a little bit. He feels to weak, but it’s a luxury of his to imagine this coming hardship and mortality.


Curtis Fox: Let’s hear the last six lines of the poem where he basically puts his internal conflict right in front of us.


Cindy Kats:

Such dim-conceived glories of the brain

   Bring round the heart an undescribable feud;

So do these wonders a most dizzy pain,

   That mingles Grecian grandeur with the rude

Wasting of old time—with a billowy main—

   A sun—a shadow of a magnitude.


Curtis Fox: Now I have to confess that I lose the thread of this poem in those last six lines. I’m hoping that you’ll be able to explain it to me a little bit, Ben.


Benjamin Voigt: The brain and the heart are in conflict. The brain is he knows he’s going to die, and the heart is the position: well, I don’t want to die! I don’t want to imagine myself in this vertiginous way, this dizzy way of being a historical subject bound to time, that’s temporal, that’s not going to last. That’s where I see the central conflict of the poem; that indescribable feud being that knowledge of one’s own death brought about by looking at something very old and grand, that how can I measure up to this ancient thing, this alien object, when I have to deal with, as he puts it here, “the rude wasting of old time”.


Curtis Fox: We talked about negative capability a few minutes ago. How would you identify the negative capability in this poem, “On Seeing The Elgin Marbles”.


Benjamin Voigt: Negative capability in this poem I think is his attempt to navigate the indescribable feud, to reckon with that dizzy pain. His mortality that he understands in a new way upon seeing these ancient marble freezes. I think this poem is an interesting one because it doesn’t reach after some sort of neat, tidy meaning, some sort of conclusion. In fact, it does quite the opposite. It crumbles at the end. It turns into a list of images that might express the vastness of historical time, of the eye’s inability to understand the sublime.


Cindy Kats:

So do these wonders a most dizzy pain,

   That mingles Grecian grandeur with the rude

Wasting of old time—with a billowy main—

   A sun—a shadow of a magnitude.


Benjamin Voigt: He describes negative capability as capability of not engaging in what he calls irritable reaching after fact and reason. This is a poem where it’s about expressing a certain amount of feeling, thinking about that feeling or articulating that feeling, but not trying to dispel it necessarily.


Curtis Fox: Let’s turn now to another sonnet, which may have been the last poem Keats ever wrote. It’s called “Bright star”. What can you tell us about this one, Ben?


Benjamin Voigt: It’s also one that’s thinking a lot about mortality, though in a less abstract way, less about one’s individual relationship with a broad sweep of time or one’s capacity to make a lasting impression on history. More about mortality in terms of love, desire in the interest in staying on earth in a relationship.


Curtis Fox: Give us a little biographical context to this poem since it was probably the last poem he ever wrote. Tell us what was going on at this time.


Benjamin Voigt: There’s some debate amongst scholars for what I recall about when the poem was written. 1819, 1819, somewhere in there. Could be one of the last poems he wrote. But this is more toward the end of his life, closer to it, when he was probably thinking about mortality in a more personal, biographical way.


Curtis Fox: Yeah, he had tuberculosis and he probably saw that he was going to die of it. Let’s hear it. Cindy?


Cindy Kats:

Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art—

         Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night

And watching, with eternal lids apart,

         Like nature's patient, sleepless Eremite,

The moving waters at their priestlike task

         Of pure ablution round earth's human shores,

Or gazing on the new soft-fallen mask

         Of snow upon the mountains and the moors—

No—yet still stedfast, still unchangeable,

         Pillow'd upon my fair love's ripening breast,

To feel for ever its soft fall and swell,

         Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,

Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,

And so live ever—or else swoon to death.


Curtis Fox: So Ben, there’s the duality of two things held in opposition in that last line; to live forever and or swoon to death. It’s kind of a hackneyed rhyme, death and breath, but it works I think, especially when you consider that John Keats had tuberculosis.


Benjamin Voigt: Yeah, and the second half of that rhyme is sort of a surprise thing to rhyme with, because up until that point it’s sort of been about steadfastness, and then suddenly we have a swooning to death at the end. Maybe that’s one of the ways it earns that rhyme.


Curtis Fox: Getting back to that idea of negative capability, where do you see it in “Bright star”?


Benjamin Voigt: I see it as him holding or thinking through what it would mean to be steadfast. To be unchangeable. He starts there, for this wish he’s addressing to something unchangeable, the North Star maybe. Then realizing no, I don’t want to be all of the things associated with that steadfastness. I don’t want to be alone. A certain amount of steadfastness, unchangeableness would require that in certain ways; would require a hermit like life or a priest like devotion to purity and apartness in some ways. Being eternal would leave you alone in some ways. He decides that he doesn’t want certain aspects of that, but would still like to be enduring because it would mean he’d get to stay here on earth alongside his beloved in the poem, the “her” in the poem, possibly Fanny Brawn. So he’s thinking through, what does it mean to be with someone, to be in a romance when that romance is necessarily going to end? He’s wrestling with this throughout the poem, and I think he finally, through the poem perhaps, leads to a certain amount of acceptance of the possibility of death.


Cindy Kats: Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,

And so live ever—or else swoon to death.


Curtis Fox: That last line, “And so live ever — or else swoon to death”, those two very different things, that’s a demonstration of negative capability in one line, I would say.


Benjamin Voigt: Yeah, it has this dash, this mid line pause that gives them equal weight. I think he finally permits that idea of death to enter the poem explicitly, though it’s been in the background of it the whole time, because he’s imagined some of the costs of being eternal and what he’d miss out on if he really were like this bright star, if he really were that distant. You can’t have one without the other, he thinks in this poem.


Curtis Fox: “Bright Star” was the name of a movie about Keats by Jane Campion a few years ago. Anybody see this?

Benjamin Voigt: I did, but it’s been a long time.

Cindy Kats: I actually saw it fairly recently.


Curtis Fox: Cindy, you saw it recently?


Cindy Kats: I happened to, yeah.

Curtis Fox: Really? I haven’t seen it. Ben, what’d you think of it?


Benjamin Voigt: I liked it but I think I saw it when I came out which was a long time ago.


Curtis Fox: And Cindy?

Cindy Kats: A lot of time with film it’s where you are when you come to it. I was quite board I must say. It’s a problem with … It’s Romantic, it’s beautiful, but the poets in film are always so anemic and wimpy.


Curtis Fox: Yeah, poets don’t come off in film very well I think in general. Somebody as archetypal as John Keats, I think that’s quite a Darian thing to take on. I said we weren’t going to go into the Odes, but several years ago we recorded the actor Michael Stuhlbarg reading “Ode on a Grecian Urn”. I thought we’d go out on that with our commentary. Ben, thanks so much.


Benjamin Voigt: Thank you.


Curtis Fox: Thanks Cindy.

Cindy Kats: Thank you.

Curtis Fox: Now here’s Michael Stuhlbarg reading “Ode on a Grecian Urn” by John Keats.


Michael Stuhlbarg:

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 of both,

               In Tempe or the dales of Arcady?

       What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?

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 endear'd,

       Pipe to the spirit ditties 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,

               For ever 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, unwearied,

         For ever piping songs for ever new;

More happy love! more happy, happy love!

         For ever warm and still to be enjoy'd,

                For ever panting, and for ever young;

All breathing human passion far above,

         That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloy'd,

                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 drest?

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."


Curtis Fox: That was “Ode on a Grecian Urn” by John Keats by Michael Stuhlbarg. You can read Benjamin Voigt’s “John Keats 101” on our website, where you’ll find other primers he’s written and thousands of poems. We love getting emails with your comments and suggestions, email us at [email protected]. The theme music for this program comes from the Claudia Quintet. For Poetry Off The Shelf, I’m Curtis Fox. Thanks for listening.

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