Kevin’s Much-Loved Poems–“Ode to a Nightingale,” “Thousand and First Ship,” and “Lamp in the Window”

This continues the series of columns that highlights a much-loved poem and presents other poems that speak to, or resonate with, that poem. This week features “Ode to a Nightingale” by John Keats, written in 1819, almost two hundred years ago. The two related poems are both by F. Scott Fitzgerald: “Thousand and First Ship,” and “Lamp in the Window.”

The Poetry Foundation states “John Keats, who died at the age of twenty-five, had perhaps the most remarkable career of any English poet. He published only fifty-four poems, in three slim volumes and a few magazines. But at each point in his development he took on the challenges of a wide range of poetic forms from the sonnet, to the Spenserian romance, to the Miltonic epic, defining anew their possibilities with his own distinctive fusion of earnest energy, control of conflicting perspectives and forces, poetic self-consciousness, and, occasionally, dry ironic wit. In the case of the English ode he brought its form, in the five great odes of 1819, to its most perfect definition.”

Many feel these five odes are among the finest poems in the English language. Keats’s friend and housemate Charles Brown later recalled a particularly memorable day. A nightingale had built a nest near their house and one morning Keats, who been delighted by the nightingale’s song, sat under a plum tree in the garden and remained there for several hours, composing. He eventually returned with some scraps of paper which, according to Brown, contained the ‘Ode to a Nightingale.’ – See: Further Analysis of “Ode to a Nightingale”  Hear this read aloud at: Audio of “Ode to a Nightingale”

Ode to a Nightingale

by John Keats

My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains
My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,
Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains
One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk:
‘Tis not through envy of thy happy lot,
But being too happy in thine happiness,—
That thou, light-winged Dryad of the trees
In some melodious plot
Of beechen green, and shadows numberless,
Singest of summer in full-throated ease.

O, for a draught of vintage! that hath been
Cool’d a long age in the deep-delved earth,
Tasting of Flora and the country green,
Dance, and Provençal song, and sunburnt mirth!
O for a beaker full of the warm South,
Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene,
With beaded bubbles winking at the brim,
And purple-stained mouth;
That I might drink, and leave the world unseen,
And with thee fade away into the forest dim:

Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget
What thou among the leaves hast never known,
The weariness, the fever, and the fret
Here, where men sit and hear each other groan;
Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last gray hairs,
Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies;
Where but to think is to be full of sorrow
And leaden-eyed despairs,
Where Beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes,
Or new Love pine at them beyond to-morrow.

Away! away! for I will fly to thee,
Not charioted by Bacchus and his pards,
But on the viewless wings of Poesy,
Though the dull brain perplexes and retards:
Already with thee! tender is the night,
And haply the Queen-Moon is on her throne,
Cluster’d around by all her starry Fays;
But here there is no light,
Save what from heaven is with the breezes blown
Through verdurous glooms and winding mossy ways.

I cannot see what flowers are at my feet,
Nor what soft incense hangs upon the boughs,
But, in embalmed darkness, guess each sweet
Wherewith the seasonable month endows
The grass, the thicket, and the fruit-tree wild;
White hawthorn, and the pastoral eglantine;
Fast fading violets cover’d up in leaves;
And mid-May’s eldest child,
The coming musk-rose, full of dewy wine,
The murmurous haunt of flies on summer eves.

Darkling I listen; and, for many a time
I have been half in love with easeful Death,
Call’d him soft names in many a mused rhyme,
To take into the air my quiet breath;
Now more than ever seems it rich to die,
To cease upon the midnight with no pain,
While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad
In such an ecstasy!
Still wouldst thou sing, and I have ears in vain—
To thy high requiem become a sod.

Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!
No hungry generations tread thee down;
The voice I hear this passing night was heard
In ancient days by emperor and clown:
Perhaps the self-same song that found a path
Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home,
She stood in tears amid the alien corn;
The same that oft-times hath
Charm’d magic casements, opening on the foam
Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.

Forlorn! the very word is like a bell
To toll me back from thee to my sole self!
Adieu! the fancy cannot cheat so well
As she is fam’d to do, deceiving elf.
Adieu! adieu! thy plaintive anthem fades
Past the near meadows, over the still stream,
Up the hill-side; and now ’tis buried deep
In the next valley-glades:
Was it a vision, or a waking dream?
Fled is that music:—Do I wake or sleep?

* * *

The title of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, Tender is the Night, published in 1934, and its frontispiece, are taken from this poem. I came across a partial recording of this being read by the novelist: Scott Fitzgerald reads “Ode to a Nightingale” (fragment)

The first poem that resonates with Keats’s poem is “Thousand and First Ship,” written by Fitzgerald in 1936. Fitzgerald seemed ambivalent about his poems—he published them in his Notebooks under the heading “Jingles and Songs.” Unlike the poem that follows, which was published by the New Yorker a year earlier, this poem was rejected by the magazine. Many believe Fitzgerald was considered out-of-step with the politics of his time, a throwback from the Jazz Age. None of his work—not one novel nor any of his nonfiction—was in print at the time of his death.

Thousand and First Ship

In the fall of sixteen
In the cool of the afternoon
I saw Helena
Under a white moon—

I heard Helena
In a haunted doze
Say: “I know a gay place
Nobody knows.”

Her voice promised
She’d live with me there
She’d bring me everything—
I needn’t care:
Patches to mend my clothes
When they were torn
Sunshine from Maryland,
Where I was born.

My kind of weather,
As wild as wild,
And a funny book
I wanted as a child;
Sugar and, you know,
Reason and ryhme,
And water like water
I had one time.

There’d be an orchestra
Bingo! Bango!
Playing for us
To dance the tango,
And people would clap
When we arose,
At her sweet face
And my new clothes

But more than all this
Was the promise she made
That nothing, nothing,
Ever would fade—
Nothing would fade
Winter or fall,
Nothing would fade,
Practically nothing at all.

Helena went off
And married another,
She may be dead
Or some man’s mother.
I have no grief left
But I’d like to know
If she took him
Where she promised we’d go.

* * *

Scott Fitzgerald also published the second poem that resonates with Keats’s poem, a poem about the relationship between Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. After the publication of his first novel, The Far Side of Paradise, Scott convinced Zelda to marry him. After several tempestuous years, Zelda was diagnosed with schizophrenia, possibly suffering from bipolar disorder. She was increasingly confined to specialist clinics, and she and Scott were living apart when he died suddenly in 1940. A video of their photographs is at Short Video with Photos of Scott and Zelda

Zelda died tragically, in a fire at her hospital in Asheville, North Carolina. Press here for a Tribute to Zelda Fitzgerald

Lamp in the Window

Do you remember, before keys turned in the locks,
When life was a close-up, and not an occasional letter,
That I hated to swim naked from the rocks
While you liked absolutely nothing better?

Do you remember many hotel bureaus that had
Only three drawers? But the only bother
Was that each of us got holy, then got mad
Trying to give the third one to the other.

East, west, the little car turned, often wrong
Up an erroneous Alp, an unmapped Savoy river.
We blamed each other, wild were our words and strong,
And, in an hour, laughed and called it liver.

And, though the end was desolate and unkind:
To turn the calendar at June and find December
On the next leaf; still, stupid-got with grief, I find
These are the only quarrels that I can remember.

I find this poem full of sweetness and forgiveness for the chaos of their relationship. The last stanza of this poem, especially the phrase, “To turn the calendar at June and find December,” given the telescoping of their time together, seems particularly moving.