John: On how Keats's To Autumn influenced a poem from World War I

George: Byron's approach to Islam as seen in his life and writings

Leigh: (to come)

Percy: Shelley and John Lennon compared 




Resonating in World War I:

Keats's 'To Autumn' and Wilfred  Owen's 'Spring Offensive'

Every autumn weather forecasters in Britain quote the line ‘Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’ from Keats’s great poem ‘To Autumn’.

This essay assesses its influence on a poem written in a battle zone in 1917.

In 1917 one of Wilfred Owen’s junior officers, John Foulkes, who incidentally had no idea that Owen was a poet, quoted a piece of Keats’s work to him and noticed how his face ‘shone with wonder and delight’. Unknowingly, he had touched a sweet spot for Owen. The late scholar of Wilfred Owen’s life and work Dominic Hibberd called him ‘the last great heir to the Romantics’, and though he also noted that Owen thought Shelley a ‘greater genius’ than Keats, with a conception of the social role of the poet that would sustain him in the trenches, it was Keats rather than Shelley whose influence can be traced in what Hibberd described as Owen’s ‘last and best war poem’, ‘Spring Offensive’.

 Owen had absorbed Keats’s work in his late adolescence, and Hibberd’s assessment is that ‘Keats taught him how to use the sound of words and the shapes of poems’. My contention is that ‘Spring Offensive’ draws on the atmosphere and words of Keats’s ‘To Autumn’, to evoke a scene of beauty poised on the brink of hell. It was not that Owen had a copy of ‘To Autumn’ open in front of him as he wrote ‘Spring Offensive’, but the subconscious influence I would argue is clear.

 That very situation of ‘Spring Offensive’ recalls ‘To Autumn’, for the scene that Keats conjured up in his poem, the Hampshire landscape around Winchester, is also trembling on the brink of destruction. Winter will sweep in and, we all know, put an end to the warm tranquil landscape Keats was describing. It was poised, like the soldiers in ‘Spring Offensive’ on the brink of change.

 Owen’s poem begins with an image of ease: having walked up a long valley some of the soldiers ‘carelessly sleep’ (‘on a half-reaped furrow sound asleep’ - Keats) . On the march through the ‘warm field’ (‘until they think warm days will never cease’ – Keats ) ‘the buttercup had blessed with gold their slow boots coming up’(‘conspiring with him how to load and bless’ - Keats) and now, on the ridge, the soldiers who did not sleep looked back on the valley and saw ‘the long grass swirled by the May breeze’.

 ‘In a wailful choir the small gnats mourn’ wrote Keats in To Autumn; the grass that the soldiers look upon is ‘murmurous with wasp and midge’ and though ‘the summer oozed though their veins/Like an injected drug for their bodies’ pains’ ‘(Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours ….. Drowsed with the fume of poppies’ -Keats) they know this cannot last. ‘Sharp on their souls hung the imminent line of grass’; the ridge over which they would have make their attack and leave their temporary haven of warm restfulness behind is beckoning ominously.

 There are other echoes from Keats: The men who look back over the valley (‘Marvelling they stood’ seem like ‘stout Cortez’ looking for the first time on the Pacific in Keats’s On first looking into Chapman’s Homer). And a fragmentary line in Spring Offensive - ‘they breathe like trees unstirred’ – as well as the entirety of the poem’s first three stanzas - recall for me the deep stillness evoked in the opening lines of Keats’s ‘Hyperion’:

 Deep in the shady sadness of a vale

Far sunken from the healthy breath of morn,

Far from the fiery noon, and eve’s one star,

Sat gray-haired Saturn, quiet as a stone,

Still as the silence round about his lair;

Forest on forest hung about his head

Like cloud on cloud. No stir of air was there,

Not so much life as on a summer’s day

Robs not one light seed from the feather’d grass,

But where the dead leaf fell, there did it rest.’

 The soldiers, one could say, were in that kind of suspended zone, it’s the same kind of atmosphere, and is, I would say, an importation of a tone and ambience originating in Keats’s work into the midst of a battle zone in 1917.

 'They remained there

 ‘Till like a cold gust thrills the little word

 At which each body and its soul begird

 And tighten them for battle’…..

 The order has come, and

‘Soon they topped the hill, and raced together

 Over an open stretch of herb and heather

 Exposed. And instantly the whole sky burned

 With fury against them; earth set sudden cups

 In thousands for their blood…..’

  And so Keats’s hidden destructive winter is brought into play by Wilfred Owen. He goes beyond Keats, or realizes the hidden and implicit element of To Autumn, and leaves him behind at that point.

But he has used him, I would argue, to great effect, creating a hugely poignant contrast between images drawn from Keats relating to warmth, rest, peace, tranquillity and natural bounty and the hellish realities of the First World War.



Byron and Islam


Lord Byron still rightly commands continuing fascination as the 'poster boy of the Romantics', the prototype rock star with that complex and colourful love life, the poet whose 'Don Juan' was cited by Bob Dylan as an influence. But there's another aspect on Byron - his engagement with Islam - that is currently almost completely unnoticed, but certainly worth discussion.

For Byron, throughout his life - from his boyhood reading to his deathbed when he was declared 'an enemy of the Porte' by the Sultan in Istanbul - had possibly the closest relationship with Islam that any classic British poet has achieved. The connection certainly ran deep, and at a time when relations between the West and Islam have become one of the hottest topics around, this aspect of Byron's life and thought undoubtedly provides perspectives, thought-pieces, maybe even directions for us today.

Perhaps a good place to start is with Byron, in 1810, in Athens under Ottoman rule, taking his evening ride down by the sea. Talking to Shelley's cousin Tom Medwin in Pisa he told how he had 'observed a crowd of people moving down to the shore, and the arms of the soldiers glittering among them. ..I thought I could now and then distinguish a faint and stifled shriek. I dispatched one of my followers to enquire the cause of the procession. What was my horror to learn that they were carrying an unfortunate girl, sewn up in a sack to be thrown into the sea ! I did not hesitate as what was to be done. I knew I could depend on my faithful Albanians, and rode up to the officer commanding the party, threatening, in the case of refusal to give up his prisoner, that I would adopt means to compel him. He did not like the business he was on - or perhaps the determined look of my bodyguard - and consented to accompany me back to the city with the girl, whom I soon discovered to be my Turkish favourite. Suffice it to say, that my interference with the chief magistrate, backed by a heavy bribe, saved her; but only on condition that she immediately quit Athens'.

The girl had been sentenced to death by the Turkish ruler of Athens for acting in a sexually free manner - possibly with Byron himself. The story supports the comment that 'Lord Byron could never be the idle spectator of any calamity', but also reveals his courageous opposition to the inhumanity that can arise from the application of Islamic law.

Let's immediately contrast this with another Byronic encounter with Islam, this time from the realms of his imagination, in the final cantos of Don Juan, written about eighteen months before his death. Byron's appreciation of the vitality of peoples and nations has been pointed to as a fundamental quality of his life and work; this emerges in his treatment of Russian/Turkish warfare in Canto XIII of the poem. The final stanza ends with the victory of Russian forces, and the poem's hero left alone with an orphaned Muslim girl. What Byron wrote displays a sorrow at the eradication of Islamic culture, and an empathy with the sole survivor:

'The Moslem orphan went with her protector,

For she was homeless, houseless, helpless.

All Her friends, like the sad family of Hector,

Had perished in the field or by the wall.

Her very place of birth was but a spectre

Of what it had been; there the muezzin's call

To prayer was heard no more.And Juan wept

And made a vow to shield her, which he kept'.

The empathy in those lines reveals the depth of his humane engagement with Islam - why else would Juan weep? It demonstrates his refusal to demonise other groups, the impulse that is the primary force behind ethnic cleansing.

In his childhood, as mentioned above, Byron's imaginative life was kindled by boyhood reading about the East, including a history of the Ottoman Empire. He recalled later: 'it was the first book that gave me pleasure when a child; and I believe it had much influence on my subsequent wishes to visit the Levant, and gave, perhaps, the oriental colouring which is observed in my poetry'. Certainly an engagement with Islamic thought can be seen in his first collection of poetry Hours of Idleness. His poem 'To Eliza' records a frank disagreement with aspects of Islamic theology, and is worth considering in full:

Eliza, what fools are the Mussulman sect,

Who to women deny the soul's future existence!

Could they see thee Eliza, they'd own their defect,

And this doctrine would meet with a general resistance.


Had their prophet possess's half an atom of sense

He ne'er would have woman from paradise driven;

Instead of his houris, a flimsy pretence,

With woman alone he had peopled his heaven.


Yet still, to increase your calamities more,

Not content of depriving your bodies of spirit,

He allots one poor husband to share among four!

- With souls you'd dispense; yet this last, who could bear it?


His religion to please neither party is made;

On husbands most hard, to the wives most uncivil;

Still I can't contradict, what so oft has been said,

'Though women are angels, yet wedlock's the devil'.


In a society trying to treat all cultures with respect, Byron's post-Enlightenment boldness is startling - from 'what fools are the Mussulman sect' to 'Had their prophet possess'd half an atom of sense....' I can hear the charge of 'Islamophobia' already, but I'm not so sure. Personally I wouldn't attack people's ideas by calling them fools, but this brutality of the mind (or frankness) is a part of western life, and certainly an inheritance of the Enlightenment; it is a tradition that people from Islamic backgrounds cannot expect their ideas to be exempt from.

Salman Rushdie put it well when he wrote: 'to attack people's ideologies or belief systems is not to attack the people themselves. This is surely one of the foundation beliefs of a free society. Citizens have the right to complain about discrimination against themselves, but not about dissent, even strongly worded impolite dissent, from their thoughts. There cannot be fences erected around ideas, philosophies, attitudes, or beliefs'. In the end 'To Eliza' makes genuine and legitimate criticism of an aspect of Islamic thought (and how delightful is the description of the houris who motivate suicide bombers as a 'flimsy pretence'): 'Islamophobia' consists of ethnic cleansing, racist attacks, demonisation of whole populations.

Again, his refusal to demonise Muslims emerges at the end of his life in Missolonghi in during the War of Independence.. Thinking back to his visit to Turkey he said 'he used to like the Turks when amongst them', and in Missolonghi he freed twenty five Turkish prisoners with a letter to the Turkish governor of Patras, asking that any Greek prisoners falling into Turkish hands be treated 'with humanity; more especially since the horrors of war are sufficiently great in themselves, without being aggravated by wanton cruelties on either side'. Elsewhere he wrote: 'when the dictates of humanity are in question I know of no difference between Turks and Greeks' - a perception that despite the long history of animosity between the two countries does sometimes come to the fore  - as when Turkey was devastated by earthquakes and Greeks responded with sympathy and practical help.

He'd also noticed in his time in Turkey that religions have a common ethical core. He once said he'd encountered as much, if not more, day-to-day decent neighbourly conduct while in the Muslim East as he met with in Christian Britain, and maybe this is the key to the integration of Islamic peoples into western societies. Whatever genuine intellectual differences and attitudes exist, hopefully day-to-day practical humanity will, in the end, carry the day.

When the National Portrait Gallery's exhibition on Byron opened in 2002 there was a significant amount of comment on how little Byron's work is known - students of English literature apparently graduate without knowing a word of his work. But now, with Britain getting into its stride as a multicultural society - but still encountering difficulties of integration - it seems to me that Byron's poetry offers a potentially fruitful ground to explore. His Eastern Tales - The Giaour, The Corsair, The Seige of Corinth, The Bride of Abydos - as well as parts of Childe Harolde and Don Juan, display a familiarity and engagement with Islam that is probably unparalleled in English poetry. Perhaps as proof of the lack of attention paid to them in educational circles, I'm only just starting to get familiar with them myself. But already it is obvious that they could form the basis for something useful - a potential meeting place for those from Western and Islamic cultures.

Jan 30 2011


(to come)






Through a Shelleyan lens: The life (and death) of John Ono Lennon


John Lennon once wondered whether he would be compared to George Formby or Leonardo da Vinci, thereby acknowledging the two possible poles of  his reputation: popular entertainer through to immortal artist. Given the continuing interest in him, the question of his reputation and how  he will come to be seen has a clear pertinence.

What I want to do is cross the well-established (and voluminous) literature on the nineteenth century poet Shelley with the burgeoning and  increasingly serious-minded discussion of John Lennon's life and work. As an admirer of Shelley I have long been intrigued both by the striking  similarities in their respective lives and the way that Shelley's thinking on the social role and personal dynamics of poetry illuminates Lennon's life.

To do this is to cut across the mental categories we build for ourselves, so I must plead for more indulgence than once granted to me when I  proposed a connection between Lennon and Shelley. The very idea was ludicrous I was told: the immortal Shelley and that drug addicted Lennon !

Actually that was not a very happy attempt at creating a distinction between the two, for laudanum (opium dissolved in brandy) was freely  available in Shelley's era and though the records of his use of it are scanty -  restricted to Thomas Love Peacock's description of his  reliance on it during the turmoil of his separation from Harriet and his new love for Mary Godwin - an educated guess would be that he  consistently used it (at the very least) as a pain killer during his attacks of nephritis. And the comment was hardly fair to John Lennon;   he may have used different drugs at different times of his life but he consistently broke the hold that any managed to gain over him and  cannot be considered to have had an addictive personality.

Most admirers of Shelley would uphold his relevance to the contemporary world:   thinking perhaps, of lines from The Masque of Anarchy when  freedom was snuffed out in Tiananmen Square or remembering lines from Adonais at the death of some loved figure. Shelleyans would uphold his  insights into artistic processes and  creativity and see them borne out in the modern world. To look at John Lennon through his eyes - though  this cuts across time, generations, 'high' and 'low' culture and (curse this British class system) class - is therefore not so outlandish as  it might appear.

However, it requires a sense of history and of the movement of culture to see through their differing artistic media and appreciate the  connection of spirit that the two share. Shelley was a highly literate writer who drew on a wide range of sources - from the myths and philosophy  of Ancient Greece to the social theorists of the French Revolution to the most recent theories in the fields of geology and zoology. Lennon was an  intellectual working in a field which has usually prided itself on its unintellectual nature.  "Don't know much about history .... don't know  much about biology ..." the song proclaimed:  pop/rock music aimed for the lowest common denominator - a fact that Lennon in his last interviews  said he found frustrating at times.  There were subtleties he could not express in his medium.

Yet their different art forms - poetry and rock/pop - are not mutually exclusive. (It could indeed be argued that the poetic impulse in society  is now, to a large degree, expressed in popular music).  John Lennon certainly drew on the same kind of inspiration that has always informed the  finest poetry. This can be demonstrated by looking at the model of poetic creativity that Shelley put forward in his 'Defence of Poetry', and  comparing it to how John Lennon saw his muse.

Lennon distinguished between what he called 'craftsman' writing and what he saw as pure inspiration. He described how he had written 'Across the  Universe':  lying in bed one night with his wife Cynthia - who was talking ... and talking ... and talking ... suddenly the first line came to  mind.  He described it as being seized by something which would not let him go and would not let him sleep until he had gone downstairs and  completed the lyric.  It began, in a pleasingly tangential manner, with the line: 'Words are flowing out like endless rain into a paper cup .....'

The similarity with Shelley's thinking on poetic inspiration is obvious. "A man cannot say 'I will write poetry'. Not even the greatest poet  can say it, for the mind in creation is as a fading coal, which some invisible influence, like an inconstant wind, awakens to transitory brightness".  Like Lennon, who talked at length about the creative impulse in his final interviews, Shelley saw 'the toil and perspiration recommended by critics'  as secondary. He conceded however, that 'though the origin of poetry is native and involuntary, it requires severe labour in its development'.

So there is this core connection between the two, relating to their experience of the creative impulse.  In the realm of their social and political  thinking there are also striking similarities.  On religion:  for Lennon Christianity would 'vanish and shrink' while for Shelley 'Faiths and Empires  gleam/Like wrecks of a dissolving dream'.  They both expressed a sense of political frustration and a desire for greater individual freedom, Lennon  calling for 'Power to the people' and Shelley issuing his ringing call: 'Rise like lions after slumber'.  Both supported women's rights as a matter  of principle, with virtually identical thoughts on her status: for Lennon 'Women are the slaves of the slaves' while Shelley had asked 'Can Man be  free if Woman be a slave ?'

They both abandoned their first wives for a partner who fulfilled the Shelleyan definition of true love - a love that went beyond sex and was a  'thirst for communion not merely of the senses but of our whole nature, intellectual, imaginative and sensitive'. (The comparison, incidentally,  reveals that the passing of divorce laws in the intervening period enabled the deserted twentieth century Cynthia to do what the nineteenth century  Harriet could not:  begin her life anew).

Both had utopian aspects to their work and realised the value of putting forward a vision  - Lennon in Imagine and Shelley in the final Act of  Prometheus Unbound, Hellas and other works. This relates to something we can see fairly clearly about Shelley but only dimly about Lennon:  their  role as 'unacknowledged legislators', Shelley's formulation that poets were ultimately more influential than 'reasoners'.  They anticipated  movements in consciousness and in society and established them in people's minds. But they did this in a curious way - not by overt preaching  but by bringing pleasure through their work, which, however, went on to have a social and moral impact.  'Poetry strengthens the moral nature  of man like exercise strengthens a limb'.

This poetic model, put forward in Shelley's 'Defence of Poetry', (compare to Keith Richards comment that the fall of communism in Eastern Europe  might have had more to do with rock n roll than most people realise) helps to explain the relationship between Lennon's place in the business of  'entertainment' and what may come to be seen as the high seriousness of his role as 'unacknowledged legislator'.

For an artist like this there is a tension between instruction and pleasure. Lennon's song Imagine can be seen as working because art and  politics were perfectly combined: his album 'Some Time in New York City' on the other hand failing because the politics overwhelmed the artistry.   It was a tightrope Shelley walked as well, though he would claim, when faced with the complaint that he had too great a 'passion for reforming  the world', that 'didactic poetry is my abhorrence'.

'Poets are the antenna of the race' John Keats wrote, and Shelley can be seen as a poet who picked up on the social changes of his era - such  as the increasing energy available to humanity at the dawn of the industrial revolution and the increased demand for democratic rights in the  emerging urban society.  Similarly Lennon picked up on the changes in twentieth century society - the world as a 'global village' as seen in  NASA's photographs and the accompanying feeling that humanity could and should evolve away from warfare - and used them in his art.

Those are the large brush  similarities to which attention can be drawn but there are others - smaller, quirkier, but perhaps no less revealing.   They both picked up influences from outside, or rather, we find tiny mundane things of life sparking off some train of creativity.  One example  of this in Shelley's work is the manner in which his poem 'Swellfoot the Tyrant' (a porcine satire on the marital difficulties of the British  royal family) was suggested:  reading one of his poems aloud to some friends on the balcony of a house in the village of San Giuliano di Pisa  (which overlooked the village market square) he had been interrupted by the increasingly riotous noise of pigs in the square.

A corresponding example from Lennon's work was the way his song 'I am the Walrus' came about - the melody of the first line being based on the  sound of an ambulance siren heard in the distance.  And it is, incidentally, astonishing to find the idea expressed in the first line of the song  ("I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together") almost exactly echoed in a line from Shelley's prose:  "The words I and you and  they are grammatical devices invented simply for arrangement, and totally devoid of the intense and exclusive sense usually attached to them".

Another significant intellectual equivalent is 'All you need is Love' (Lennon)/'Love is .... the sole law which should govern the moral world'  (Shelley).  But there is something else to be found in their works that is even more significant. Both of them referred their audiences back to  one of their key lyrics, lyrics that had expressed something central about themselves as artists.  It may seem odd to compare Lennon's 'Strawberry  Fields Forever' with  Shelley's 'Ode to the West Wind' but they have a common  root:  both were written at times of personal crisis or uncertainty.  Shelley, in the autumn of 1819, faced ferocious attack from reviewers, a domestic crisis due to the loss of his children and, in the Peterloo Massacre,  the apparent death of his democratic political ideals. Lennon, with the Beatles touring days just ended, was going through a kind of crisis of  identity - where was he to go from here ?

The lyrics confronted these situations and as an expression of their importance were later overtly pointed out:  'I told you about Strawberry Fields'  said Lennon on the White album;  'The breath whose might I have invoked in song' wrote Shelley in Adonais.  They both looked back to childhood,  Shelley remembering how he could seemingly outrun the wind - 'when to outstrip thy skyey speed/Scarce seemed a vision' and Lennon recalling youthful  days in the garden of the Strawberry Fields home in Liverpool. 'When I was a boy, everything was right' was how he had expressed it elsewhere.

Both lyrics restored a kind of confidence and cleared the way for future creative work: Lennon going on to work on Sergeant Pepper and Shelley  completing Prometheus Unbound. They were examples of artistic renewal;  hence Shelley's scribbled  quote from Euripides in his notebook under  the finished poem:  'By virtuous power, I, a mortal, vanquish thee a mighty god !'

There are those today who look for political motives behind both Shelley's and Lennon's early deaths: the Italian authorities contriving to ram  his boat (it was found with its bow stove in) or the CIA somehow managing to eliminate Lennon. There is not a shred of evidence to support these  theories, yet their deaths do have certain more subtle things in common.

On the back cover of Double Fantasy John and Yoko are pictured on the pavement outside their Dakota home, very deliberately looking out towards  Central Park. The symbolism is clear:  they are looking out to the world, ending the isolation of the previous years. Similarly, at the time of  Shelley's death, he was in the process of engagement with the world, setting up a journal as a literary and political mouthpiece.  It was on a  journey connected with it that he was drowned, like Lennon having his life cut short, his work left unfulfilled.

It is in Adonais, Shelley's elegy for Keats, that one can find a poetic reading of John Lennon's puzzling, almost accidental death. The  physical facts of his death in the dark doorway of the Dakota seem to find expression there:  'when he lay pierced by the shaft which flies  in darkness'.  Then, 'he went, unterrified, into the gulf of death; ('Death is getting out of one car into another' - Lennon) but his clear  Sprite (spirit) still reigns o'er earth' - not an exaggeration when his phrase 'Give Peace a chance' now regularly appears on politician's  lips. The murderer (Shelley had been told that Keats had been hastened to his death-bed by cruel reviews) is 'the noteless blot on a remembered  name', but as for the poet - 'from the contagion of the world's slow stain he is now secure' being 'part of the loveliness he once made more  lovely'.  That final touch might seem over-sentimental to a modern reader, but there is nothing sentimental in the final ominous image of Adonais,  with which Shelley provides an image of the poet, not dallying among flowers, or as Keats put it, being some 'pet lamb in a sentimental farce',  but as someone driven out to sea by the very wind (of inspiration) that, in the Ode to the West Wind, he had welcomed unreservedly.

'The breath whose might I have invoked in song Descends on me; my spirit's bark is driven Far from the shore, far from the trembling throng Whose sails were never to the tempest given .... I am borne darkly, fearfully, afar .....'

What Lennon's death confronted the post-war generation with was exactly this (previously unsuspected) perspective - the perils of the poetic life.  The poem concludes with a deliberately pointed compliment to Keats:

...While burning through the inmost veil of heaven The soul of Adonais, burning like a star Beacons from the abode where the eternal are'.

Shelley, in opposition to the critics of the age who had sneered at Keats and his work, was placing him in his pantheon of the great and illustrious  dead. The question is then, will a similar process occur in the case of John Lennon ? Will he come to be seen - as the parallels between them suggest -  as a poet in the Shelleyan mould, not just a simple rock n' roller but an 'unacknowledged legislator' who 'touched the world with living flame' ?   Though no one can be sure of the judgement of posterity, it is certainly a strong possibility.

'He was a morning star amongst the living Now that his spirit is fled He shines in the heavens like the evening star He gives new splendour to the dead'.



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