Archive for John Keats

On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer

Posted in Poetry, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on October 26, 2016 by telescoper

This very famous and very wonderful sonnet, considered the highlight of Keats’s first volume of poetry, was written on this day in October 1816 and is thus exactly 200 years old.  It was originally a gift for his friend, Charles Cowden Clarke. The two men had spent an evening reading George Chapman’s superb 17th century translation of the Iliad and Odyssey. Here is the original hand-written version (which I got here)

chapman

And here’s a more legible version:

Much have I travell’d in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-brow’d Homer ruled as his demesne;
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star’d at the Pacific–and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise–
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

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Ode on Indolence

Posted in Poetry with tags , on June 19, 2011 by telescoper

Since I’m too lazy this Sunday to do anything too strenuous, I thought instead I would post the poem that was read to us on Friday morning. Appropriately enough it’s the Ode on Indolence, written around 1819 by John Keats. The opening epigram is actually from the New Testament (Matthew 6: 28-29), which, in the King James version I have, reads

28. And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin:

29. And yet I say unto you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.

The poem isn’t just about being lazy, of course. It’s actually about the importance to the creative mind of having time for restful contemplation, i.e. just sitting and thinking about things. Call it meditation if you like. I’m sure that’s essential for artists and poets, but I also think we scientists need it too although finding time to think is increasingly difficult when you’re on a treadmill designed to mass produce “research outputs” for assessment by the factory bosses…

‘They toil not, neither do they spin.’
I
One morn before me were three figures seen,
     With bowed necks, and joined hands, side-faced ;
And one behind the other stepp’d serene,
     In placid sandals, and in white robes graced ;
They pass’d, like figures on a marble urn,
     When shifted round to see the other side ;
          They came again ; as when the urn once more
Is shifted round, the first seen shades return ;
     And they were strange to me, as may betide
          With vases, to one deep in Phidian lore.
II
How is it, Shadows ! that I knew ye not ?
     How came ye muffled in so hush a mask ?
Was it a silent deep-disguised plot
     To steal away, and leave without a task
My idle days ? Ripe was the drowsy hour ;
     The blissful cloud of summer-indolence
          Benumb’d my eyes ; my pulse grew less and less ;
Pain had no sting, and pleasure’s wreath no flower :
     O, why did ye not melt, and leave my sense
          Unhaunted quite of all but—nothingness ?
III
A third time pass’d they by, and, passing, turn’d
     Each one the face a moment whiles to me ;
Then faded, and to follow them I burn’d
     And ach’d for wings because I knew the three ;
The first was a fair Maid, and Love her name ;
     The second was Ambition, pale of cheek,
          And ever watchful with fatigued eye ;
The last, whom I love more, the more of blame
     Is heap’d upon her, maiden most unmeek,—
          I knew to be my demon Poesy.
IV
They faded, and, forsooth ! I wanted wings :
     O folly ! What is love ! and where is it ?
And for that poor Ambition ! it springs
     From a man’s little heart’s short fever-fit ;
For Poesy !—no,—she has not a joy,—
     At least for me,—so sweet as drowsy noons,
          And evenings steep’d in honied indolence ;
O, for an age so shelter’d from annoy,
     That I may never know how change the moons,
          Or hear the voice of busy common-sense !
V
And once more came they by ;— alas ! wherefore ?
     My sleep had been embroider’d with dim dreams ;
My soul had been a lawn besprinkled o’er
     With flowers, and stirring shades, and baffled beams :
The morn was clouded, but no shower fell,
     Tho’ in her lids hung the sweet tears of May ;
          The open casement press’d a new-leav’d vine ,
     Let in the budding warmth and throstle’s lay ;
O Shadows ! ’twas a time to bid farewell !
          Upon your skirts had fallen no tears of mine.
VI
So, ye three Ghosts, adieu ! Ye cannot raise
     My head cool-bedded in the flowery grass ;
For I would not be dieted with praise,
     A pet-lamb in a sentimental farce !
Fade softly from my eyes, and be once more
     In masque-like figures on the dreamy urn ;
          Farewell ! I yet have visions for the night,
And for the day faint visions there is store ;
          Vanish, ye Phantoms ! from my idle spright,
     Into the clouds, and never more return !

 


The Human Seasons

Posted in Poetry with tags , , on December 30, 2010 by telescoper

Four Seasons fill the measure of the year;
There are four seasons in the mind of man:
He has his lusty Spring, when fancy clear
Takes in all beauty with an easy span:
He has his Summer, when luxuriously
Spring’s honied cud of youthful thought he loves
To ruminate, and by such dreaming high
Is nearest unto heaven: quiet coves
His soul has in its Autumn, when his wings
He furleth close; contented so to look
On mists in idleness–to let fair things
Pass by unheeded as a threshold brook.
He has his Winter too of pale misfeature,
Or else he would forego his mortal nature.

by John Keats (1795-1821)


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A Sonnet of Significance

Posted in Poetry, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on August 3, 2010 by telescoper

Inspired by Dennis Overbye’s nice article in the New York Times about the plethora of false detections in physics and astronomy, and another one in Physics World by Robert P Crease with a similar theme, I’ve decided to relaunch my campaign to become the next Poet Laureate with this Sonnet (in Petrarchean form) which I offer as an homage to John Keats. I’ve slavishly copied the rhyme scheme of one of Keats’ greatest poems, although I think I’ve made all the lines scan properly which he didn’t manage to do in the original.  Nevertheles, I’m sure that if he were alive today he’d be turning in his grave.

Much have I marvell’d at discov’ries bold
And many gushing press releases seen
But often what is “found” just hasn’t been
(Though only rather later are we told).
Be doubtful if you ever do behold
A scientific “certainty” between
The pages of a Sunday magazine;
The complex truth is rarely so extolled.
So if you are a watcher of the skies
Or particle detection is your yen,
Refrain from spreading rumour and surmise
Lest you look silly time and time again.
Two sigma peaks – so you should realise –
Are naught but noise, so hold your tongue. Amen.

Bright Star

Posted in Biographical, Poetry with tags , , on December 7, 2009 by telescoper

After spending the best part of the day ploughing through a succession of tedious jobs and wasting most of my lunch break trying to cope with a recalcitrant IPod, I came home with a brain completely drained of any bloggable material. However, picking up the paper instead of switching the television on proved to be a good move. It reminded me that I went to see the film Bright Star a couple of weeks ago. Since yesterday’s post was in poetic vein a quick post about it would seem to be in order, although I’ve never attempted a movie review on here before.

Directed by Jane Campion, Bright Star is a film about the life of John Keats (played by Ben Whishaw) and his passionate infatuation with the girl next door, a young lady by the name of Fanny Brawne (Abby Cornish). This romance inspired Keats to compose some of the most famous  love letters ever written in the English language. Keats’  letters were published in the 1870s (long after his death in 1821 at the aged of 25) but the other half of the correspondence – the letters written by Fanny – are lost. This is a problem for literary historians, who don’t really know what to make of her, but a boon for the dramatist, who has the chance to create a character from scratch unfettered by too many preconceptions. What emerges is a dignified, slightly eccentric and highly fashion-conscious heroine who makes stylish hats and frocks while her admirer is scribbling his verses. There’s more sewing in this film than in any other I’ve ever seen. The clothes look great, if a bit anachronistic. It’s a costume drama with a difference. Overall, in fact, the film looks gorgeous. The photography is just stunning – it has been a very long time since I last saw anything so beautiful on the big screen.

Keats once described Fanny as “beautiful, elegant, graceful, silly, fashionable and strange”. I think Abby Cornish conveys all of that. But at other times he was less flattering, calling her

ignorant – monstrous in her behaviour, flying out in all directions, calling people such names that I was forced lately to make use of the term Minx – this I think not from any innate vice but from a penchant she has for acting stylishly.  I am however tired of such style and shall decline any more of it.

Of course he did no such thing. Keats’ friend Charles Amitage Brown thought Fanny was an interfering flirt and American critic  Richard Henry Stoddard said “She made him look ridiculous in the eyes of his friends”.  There’s no way of knowing what she was really like – it’s always hard for outsiders to understand other people’s obsessions anyway – but in the movie she is definitely a bit prickly at times.

By contrast with Fanny’s perky glamour, Keats himself is a drab, introspective, almost ghostly figure. His brother dies of tuberculosis – the disease which will shortly get him too. His descent into poverty and illness is exacerbated by the terrible critical reception that greets his poetry. The only thing he really has to cling to is his relationship with “The Minx” which is beautifully portrayed, their growing intimacy only gradually revealed. Much of their dialogue is taken, word for word, directly from Keats’ letters but somehow it doesn’t sound stilted. Their passion is restrained, but keenly observed.

The title of the movie is actually taken from that of one of Keats’ poems. Written in 1819, a year after he met Fanny, this expresses a desire to withdraw from the shifting uncertain world of change and enter a world of timelessness where he can be with his beloved for all eternity.

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.

Keats himself died just a couple of years after writing this, although I doubt that his death from tuberculosis amounted to the kind of blissful rapture he suggests in the last two lines.

Walking back home afterwards, it struck me that  if you didn’t know anything about Keats and Fanny Brawne before watching the film, you would think it was Fanny who was the “Bright Star” of the title. During his lifetime there was never any suggestion that John Keats would ever – even in death – acquire a reputation as one of the greatest poets in the English language.  His work was never popular in his lifetime and was pretty universally reviled by critics too. In poetry as well as in science, it is well nigh impossible to know what is going to last. Only time will tell.

On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer

Posted in Poetry, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on November 19, 2008 by telescoper

As a present to those who appear disgruntled by my comments about exoplanets here and there, this is from John Keats:

 

Much have I travell’d in the realms of gold,
    And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
    Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
    That deep-brow’d Homer ruled as his demesne;
    Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
    When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
    He star’d at the Pacific–and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise–
    Silent, upon a peak in Darien.
 

This famous sonnet was written in October 1816 and is considered the highlight of Keats’s first volume of poetry. It was originally a gift for his friend, Charles Cowden Clarke. The two men had spent an evening reading George Chapman’s superb 17th century translation of the Iliad and Odyssey.

Please note lines 9 and 10. I’m sure they capture the excitement of discovery although Keats probably wasn’t using the correct IAU nomenclature. I’m not sure about the bit about being “silent” either.