A brief look at Keat’s Ode to a Nightingale and Coleridge’s Frost at Midnight. What links them to the Romantic tradition?
In a letter to Benjamin Bailey (Nov 1817) Keats wrote ‘I am certain of nothing but of the holiness of the Heart’s affections and the truth of Imagination – what the imagination seizes as beauty must be truth.’ This is an interesting quote as it sums up one view of Romanticism as a reaction to the rationalism of the Enlightenment. Writers, artists, and composers during the Romantic period valued intuition over learning and imagination over doctrine. This is a direct contrast to the earlier Age of Enlightenment which valued both logic and science. The Romantics wanted their work to be for everybody (not just for the educated) and to bring back the spiritual with a new language connected to nature and beauty. It is with this view in mind that I would like to analyse two poems from this period and to demonstrate how their language and content links them as examples of ‘Romantic’ poetry.
In ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ the speaker directs his address to a nightingale as a way of expressing an intense thought and feeling. ‘The first half of the ode shows how the speaker desires to escape the self and its human condition’ (Wolfson, 2001, p.91). Stanza one begins with thudding alliteration – a sense of melancholy. This is reinforced with ‘numbness’, ‘dull opiates’ and ‘sunk’. He is too happy in his happiness and is tipping over into sadness. In stanza two he longs for wine and the sensuous joys of summer. We see this in ‘tasting of Flora’, ‘country green’ and ‘sunburnt mirth!’ In both stanzas the poet is focusing on his own feelings and intuition rather than trying to apply reason and logic. These were important ideas to the ‘Romantics’ who valued nature and spontaneity and the importance of the individual self. Continuing with the analysis, we notice the mood shift in stanza four where he connects with the world of the nightingale and talks of light in both the literal and spiritual sense. This ‘experienced’ enchantment is intensified (in stanza five) with vivid images and references to different sensory experiences. We have sight: ‘white hawthorn’ and ‘pastoral eglantine’, fragrance (or smell): ‘the coming musk rose’, taste: ‘dewy wine’ and lastly hearing: ‘the murmurous haunt of flies on summer eves’. This intensity peaks in stanza six with a moment of complete happiness ‘now more than ever seems it rich to die’. In stanza seven he refers to the bird as a symbol of immortality and links legend, romance, the bible and the timelessness of the nightingale’s song. The repetition of the word ‘forlorn’ interestingly punctures the poem and here the speaker returns grounded to the original place. We are reminded of the important ‘Romantic’ principle of imagination through the elevation of the poets self – the contrast between earth v. heaven and stasis v. movement. In the final stanza the speaker’s soul returns to the earth from its visionary world gentle and dreamy, ending with two questions ‘Was it a vision, or a waking dream? Fled is that music: – Do I wake or sleep?’ which concludes nothing other than ‘the ode itself and its musical fellowship with a vanished nightingale’ (Wolfson, 2001, p.92).
Looking at the structure of the poem we notice the ode is composed of ten line stanzas: a Shakespearian sonnet-quatrain (abab) plus a Petrachan sestet (cdecde). According to Wolfson (2001) ‘this form subscribes to a metrical contract, against which a contrarian poet such as Keats could play the urgencies of passion and impulse. The ode is graceful and free and it is fluidly handled’. It builds to a climax and returns to earth gently. This is a wonderful example of a poem that focuses on the less tangible ‘Romantic’ areas of human experiences.
If we now consider Coleridge’s poem Frost at Midnight. We notice that the overriding concern of the speaker is his relationship with his infant son and his aspiration for him to have a better start in life. We notice ‘the silence of the house is pregnant with preternatural energy’ (Keanie, 2002, p.64) but it is a quality silence ‘the kind of silence that has absolutely nothing to do with loneliness, or emptiness; the kind of silence that actually empowers the consciousness’ (Keanie, 2002, p.64). An interesting ‘Romantic’ platform to begin our analysis of the ideas within the poem.
As with Keats’ ‘Ode to a Nightingale’, nature plays an important part in ‘Frost at Midnight’ and it is used to great effect in the poem. The speaker is acutely aware of what is going on both inside and outside of the cottage. In stanza one he is hyper-aware and dwells on a mixture of intrusive thoughts ‘abstruser musings’ and mix of sensory information ‘inaudible as dreams’ ‘thin blue flame’ and ‘fluttered’. In addition to this the silence is broken twice by an ‘owlets cry’. These are important as they show the poet being both introspective and highly aware of his surroundings. He is using his imagination and internalising, two important ‘Romantic’ ideas. Stanza two is a recollection of his school days. We find ‘stirred’ and ‘haunted’ and ‘wild pleasures’. He also adds ‘supernatural’ qualities to his childhood memories as when he refers to the church bells as ‘sounds of things to come.’ In stanza three he comes back to the present and contrasts his upbringing in the city with images of nature and the sublime. He imagines his child growing up submerged in the awesomeness of nature ‘wander like a breeze/by lakes and sandy shores, beneath the crags/of ancient mountains, and beneath the clouds.’ The poem also has a strong Christian element where nature represents the physical presence of God’s word. We notice this in ‘Himself in all, and all things in himself’. This is important as he links nature with the divine. The final stanza concludes with a message of hope for his child. It is full of optimistic gems from all the seasons. We find ‘summer and greenness’ the ‘robin redbreast betwixt tufts of snow’ and ‘the secret ministry of frost.’
The poem is a verse monologue. It was classed by Coleridge as one of his ‘conversational’ poems. According to Audet (1970) ‘much of the poems success derives from the tension created between the poet’s extreme emotion and his natural, conversational language’. The poem ‘has a restraint and naturalness of language which suits the rather simple events described. To obtain this naturalness, Coleridge has employed a flexible, easy-flowing blank verse’ (Audet, 1970). It is this conversational style that marks it as a truly ‘Romantic’ poem that can appeal to anybody no matter how educated or uneducated. It is full of natural imagery, human instinct and is considered by many to a seminal poem from this period.
AUDET, R.A. 1970. ‘Frost at Midnight’: The Other Coleridge [www] http://www.jstor.org/pss/813517 (6th Jan, 2012)
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KEANIE, A. 2002. Student Guide to Samuel Taylor Coleridge. London: Greenwich Exchange, pp. 62-64.
WOLDSON, S.J. 2001. The Cambridge Companion to Keats. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 90-93.
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