Friday, November 07, 2014

Rally For Thanksgiving: Something Romantic

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.

image credit


  1. You shame me. I remember so little from my undergrad English Lit classes. I remember the quirks of the profs more than the content they foisted upon us.

    I will say that I, too, found the romantic poets to be tedious, but their poetry was so easy to understand that I put up with them. Easy to get an "A." ;-)

  2. Oh gosh, I do remember well falling in love with a subject, a poem or a story. The one I remember the most was James Joyce, The Dubliners, which absolutely captured my heart. Thank you for sharing this beautiful poem, and your remembrance of that specific day in your life.

  3., it was my pleasure.
    I have several colleagues who are equally enthralled with Joyce's "The Dubliners" and have passed the passion on to students, who are charmed completely by it. I suppose it's time I actually read the thing myself, once and for all, rather than bits and pieces, commentary and criticism. Better late than never!

    Also, I value your opinion and take to heart our similar tastes in so many things; I am not going to be surprised when I like it too.

    Ally Bean--I think you misread me. I loved my Romantic Poetry class and, despite my slight irritation at a couple of the poets, I to this day love the Romantics and their work, generally. It was a body of writing that had such an outpouring of emotion and expression of nature's gifts, and the use of imagery is sometimes quite breathtaking.

    It's such a shame that you had to take British Lit in your undergrad and couldn't take what you were truly passionate about. I remember having to take a colonial American literature course because I was closed out of a Shakespeare course. I didn't feel that the content was "foisted upon" me, but I did feel horribly bored every day. Anne Bradstreet, Plimouth Plantation, Benjamin Franklin...I thought I'd stab myself in the eye. I think my deep-seated dislike of Franklin was cemented that year!

  4. I can recite most of the first verse from memory. Mind you, I am stuck on some of the Victorians, too.

  5. Mary G--Oh, me too, me too.

  6. Ah, you will have to forgive me. I hated the Romantic poets, the only one I could tolerate was Shelley, and then only slightly.

    The Colonial literature class was fairly boring as well, but it was better than those damn Romantics.

    I had some truly uninspiring literature teachers in college, I had only two that stand out in my memory as being enthusiastic about their own classes.

  7. Gina--Teachers can make the biggest difference, can't they? I always worked hard to Sell It every day.

    I had limited love for Shelley, I have to say. I found him pithy in the extreme, and his lousy personal life did not endear him to me. But "Ozymandias" is a magnificent poem, and it does him credit to this day.

    You can hate the Romantics all you want to; I never take matters of taste personally, or at least I try not to. We have loads of other things in common to keep us chummy!

  8. As an accounting major I had limited exposure to literature in college. I did take an Appalachian literature class that was pretty interesting. Although what I remember most was arguing that maybe the writer was really just talking about a railroad & it wasn't a metaphor - of course I was wrong. Young & foolish - ha!

  9. Bug--Well, in poetry you're usually pretty safe in realizing that the poet is almost never just talking about the thing the poem seems to be about. That's why it's a poem; although I would argue that Billy Collins might be the exception.

    (He was George W. Bush's choice for Poet Laureate, if that gives you a glimmer of a clue.)


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