Keats Looks on the Bright Side of Death

By Robert Pinsky on 4.20.09

A numbness that pains; a happiness that is too happy; feeling half in love with death; an exile that is familiar: the conflicted feeling Keats evokes is no mere verbal paradox, but a profound reality of human consciousness: “Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird.”

The bird’s ancestors sing the same song, says Keats, all the way back to Biblical times; no hungry generations of descendants, eager to make their own songs, avid for their own consciousness, tread down the nightingale.

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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
     Cooled a long age in the deep-delved earth,
Tasting of Flora and the country green,
     Dance, and Provencal song, and sunburnt mirth!
O for a beaker full of 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 grey 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,
          Clustered 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 covered 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,
Called him soft names in many a mused rhyme,
     To take into the air my quiet breath;
Now more than ever seems it sweet 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 heard 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
     Charmed 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 famed to do, deceiving elf.
     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?

To be a human “sole self,” in this poem’s terms, is to be “born for death”—that is, born to take part in the cycles of hunger and learning, of listening though in the dark, of being pained by numbness, tempted by death, even called it “sweet names,” but all the time knowing that to cease means becoming deaf “a sod.”

For me, there’s a sense in which “being born for death” is not entirely negative: it means being born for an enterprise in time, reaching back to the people who invented language, the English language, the names for plants and birds, all the poetry and science that—because we are born for death—we learn and transform and pass on to the hungry ones that come after us.

The evidence is that Keats wrote this poem in a few hours one morning after breakfast sitting outside near where a nightingale had made its nest.

topics: Essential Pleasures