In college I studied the great British writers. My area of specialization was Nineteenth Century, and I took a wonderful class in Romantic poetry from delightful Dr. Wolfe, whom I have written about here before. It wasn't long before I fell madly and profoundly in love with John Keats, both the man and his works.
Dr. Wolfe was sympathetically tolerant of my disdain for Wordsworth and my impatience with Byron. I was oddly singular in my staunch defense of Keats, and I'm not entirely certain that it wasn't with me in mind that my professor engaged a certain talented speaker for class one day, a young actor who was performing a one-man show as John Keats over the weekend in nearby Toledo.
The day John Keats arrived in class, I was transfixed. Dr. Wolfe had not said a word about the visit beforehand, so we were all taken completely by surprise. Of course, his dress and his accent were authentic, and he was in command of the finer details of Keats' life and sad death. He gave the class what was likely a relatively practiced lecture/show, an abbreviated but more academic version of his stage play. But one of the things I remembered so well was his voice, especially as he recited for us Keats' Ode to Autumn.
It was a golden, bright day in November, and our classroom had a whole back wall of windows overlooking the courtyard. Every time a breeze blew, a cascade of yellow leaves fluttered down. The dry leaves on the walkways skittered and rustled, and the soft brown smell of Fall was in the air. As John Keats recited the poem, his voice was like a purring cat on a warm lap. "Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,/Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun...". I was lost; for the remainder of the class, I was in the nineteenth century, and John Keats was my companion.
When the time was over, I was incredibly sad. Hoping to prolong it somehow, I stayed behind for a little while, and I walked with the actor, asking a few more questions and getting the name of a great Keats biographer. He was enthusiastic, friendly, and very nice.
Stepping out into the glorious November day, I lifted my face to the obliging sun. Romantic Poetry was my favourite class of the day, and it was such a gorgeous day! I pulled my textbook out of my backpack and sat down on the steps to read, once more, while that voice was still strong in my mind.
Ode To Autumn
Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss'd cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For Summer has o'er-brimm'd their clammy cells.
Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap'd furrow sound asleep,
Drows'd with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cyder-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.
Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,—
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.