Some more thoughts and questions about the Shelley lyrics

found on 'Shelley's Golden Years in Italy'

DVD-front-cover

 

 

 

Paradise of Exiles.

 

  Have a look at 'The boat on the Serchio' (from which the opening lines of the song are taken).

It's a relatively straightforward conversational poem about a day out sailing. Shelley is Lionel, Melchior Ned Williams.

Both were at Eton (lines 79 - 84). But note some typically Shelleyan touches: how closely nature is observed;

the awareness of gothic horror banished by the day (lines 26 - 29) and the distancing from conventional religion (lines 30 - 38).

Note also the final verse describes the landscape between Ripafratta, Pisa and the sea in terms which derive from Shelley's

walking, riding or sailing in the areas. Is there not a closeness of observation that today's car journeys do not give rise to ? 

Plato's influence on Shelley (His 'Theory of Forms') is referred to in the first piece of narrative,

and comes through at the end of 'Paradise of Exiles' in the line 'The One Remains, the many change and pass'

 

Rise Like Lions

 

The Peterloo massacre was a sign of the political tension in the time before the Great Reform Bill of 1832.

Shelley's response came in his Song to the Men of England and also in the Mask of Anarchy,

which he sent to editor friend Leigh Hunt.But Hunt wrote: 'I did not insert it because I thought that

the public at large had not become sufficiently discerning to do justice to the

sincerity and kind-heartedness of the spirit that walked in this flaming robe of verse'.

But is The Mask of Anarchy as inflammatory as Hunt makes out ?

Or does it demonstrate an ambivalence in Shelley, on one hand stoking popular

revolt and on the other fearful of mob violence ?

Does the song 'Rise like lions' which marries lines from the 'Song to the Men of England

with the final verse from The Mask of Anarchy misrepresent Shelley ?

 

Project: Have a look at the stanzas of The Mask of Anarchy (65 - 91) where he advocates

non-violent action to pursue Parliamentary Reform.

Do you think this is good advice ? Give reasons both for agreeing and disagreeing with Shelley.

Citizenship studies perspective:
 
The Peterloo Massacre was a raw and bloody collision between the power of the (unrepresented) urban citizenry
and the old power of the landed classes. What can be seen as impressive in social terms is that over the following 110
years there was a process of give and take which culminated in universal suffrage in 1928. For example, even after
the Reform Bill of 1832 people were still not allowed to create or join unions, and the Tolpuddle Martyrs were charged with
violating the Unlawful Oaths Act and transported to Australia in 1834. However, popular protests brought them back home, and in
subsequnt years working class political energies went into building up co-operative and friendly societies which advanced their interests.
Successive extensions of the franchise during the 19th century, promulgated by both liberal and conservative politicians,
continued to defuse political tensions, and the last voting anomaly fought over by the suffragettes in the early 20th century
was resolved in 1928.
 
In a world where Peterloo-style collisions abound does not this process seem to offer the hope that it might be replicated elsewhere?
But some warn that it is dependent on temperament, and will not take place elsewhere without a willingness to compromise.
 

 

Wild Spirit

 

  Let's take a closer look at the Ode to the West Wind. One effective way of beginning is to divide the poem up into sections,

allocate the sections to people and then read the poem aloud with each person reading their own bit.

Having done this, have a look at the structure. How many lines are there in each stanza ? What does this tell you ?

The poem is divided into five fourteen line stanzas. Each is, in effect, a sonnet - but - it departs from the usual rhyme scheme of the sonnet.

 

Have a look at the rhyming sequence of the stanzas. What has Shelley done ? 

Shelley has combined the sonnet form with the Italian terza rima format. He has in effect realised that

the rhyming sequence of the Shakespearean sonnet form is too static for his subject, the rushing west wind.

Terza rima, by bringing a new rhyme every three lines, conveys a sense of ongoing movement.

So he has combined an Italian verse format with an English form.                                                                      

The basic theme of the poem is, of course, the West Wind. Have a look at each 14 line stanza.

Think of the elements of earth, water, fire and air. Which elements, in which stanzas, does Shelley apply the effect of the wind to ?

Stanza 1 deals with the effect of the wind on the earth; stanza 2 on the air; stanza 3 on water; stanza 4 not on an element but on

Shelley himself; stanza 5 continues with the wind's effect on Shelley but completes the element cycle

by bringing in the final element of fire:   'Scatter, as from an unextinguished hearth Ashes and sparks, my words amongst mankind !'

  This amounts to a technique of extending a theme or metaphor, something Shelley had learned from his recent reading of Spanish writer Calderon de la Barca.

 

Finally, a difficult image from the poem. What do you make of the line '(Driving sweet buds like flocks to feed in air)' (l. 11).

Is this an example of Shelley's impenetrability or slapdash imagery ? Can you work out what it means ?

One Shelley commentator wrote that he never understood this line until he saw a flock of sheep spreading out upwards

on a hill to feed on upland grassland. Shelley is transferring that image to the way that the buds on a tree gradually unfold into the air.

F.R. Leavis famously put Shelley down for slapdash imagery, but maybe this was simply because he did not grasp Shelley's meaning.  

 

Wordsworth's view of Shelley: 'He was the most workmanlike of us all'

 

The Triumph of Life


 Shelley wrote The Triumph of Life in the Casa Magni, writing on large sheets in large handwriting:

the pages are also covered with sketches, sums and calculations

which indicate how he was juggling his accounts. The Triumph of Life sequence also includes other poems

including 'She left me at the silent time - lines written in the bay of Lerici'. As a way of establishing the atmosphere of

The Triumph of Life have a look at this short and relatively simple poem. Who do you think it is about ?
   How do you understand the final image of the fish and the fisher with his lamp ?


  Shelley and Mary were staying at the Casa Magni with their friends Edward and Jane Williams.

Of the fifteen poems known to have been written in 1822 seven were addressed to Jane; Shelley was exploring his friendship with her.

This friendship hovered on the brink of sexuality: in the Triumph, opposite the line 'And fell, as I have fallen by the wayside' (line )

Shelley wrote in tiny letters 'Alas I kiss you Jane'. Another poem begins 'We meet not as we parted' probably referring to the effect

of this kiss and adds: 'One moment has bound the free' referring to the kiss itself.  So the lines written in the bay of Lerici were about

Jane leaving Shelley alone with his thoughts looking out from the balcony over the bay.

The final image reflects on the fact that the fish are lucky to be extinguished in the moment of pleasure

by the fisher with his spear whereas people have to live with the gret of knowing that that pleasure has passed.
  
And on to the Triumph of Life itself... 


Some points: 

  1. The poem is a philosophical search for the sources of meaning in human life, with the poem maintaining that most,even Shelley's admired Plato,fall by the wayside.  As well as the Roman triumph it also draws on Petrarch's 'Trionfi del Morte' (Triumph of Death).'
  2. For the first time in Shelley's work it presents sexuality as a destructive force - previously it had been celebrated - so the way the poem would have been resolved is of great interest.
  3. 'In Shelley's most mature phase he puts ethics at the centre of his project without sacrificing psychology (the task of self-knowledge), politics or history'. Michael Scrivener, Radical Shelley, p. 315.
  4. If Shelley could not find meaning in religious orthodoxies where then did he look for hope ? The next song, Immortal Deity, combines selections from his poetry and prose in an attempt to suggest an answer.
  5. First World War poet Wilfred Owen was greatly influenced by Shelley. His poem 'Strange Meeting' tells of an encounter with a dead soldier and compares to Shelley's account of his meeting with Rousseau in 'The Triumph of Life' (from line 176). Can you see the influence ?                       

 

 Immortal Deity 

 

This selection is an indication of how the Triumph of Life might have ended; it tries to make a unity out of Shelley's many comments

on God and spirituality. He called himself an atheist - 'I took up the word, as a knight took up a gauntlet, in defiance of injustice'

he told Trelawny - and battled mightily with contemporary attitudes to God. He certainly never believed in what he calls here a 'creative god',

ie a protective, caring/angry paternal god, and was consistent in attacking this Judeo-Christian model of God.

The result was that he looked elsewhere for sources of morality - substituting what he regarded as innate qualities of benevolence

and love of justice and liberty that were inherent in people. Of course, these could be overridden, though they would not disappear. 

Think about some examples of when that innate benevolence has broken down; perhaps - Japanese treatment of prisoners of war in WWII;

Nazi persecution of the Jews and others; genocide in Ruanda; the mass murder in New York on September 11th 2001.

What, in Shelleyan terms, has gone wrong? Basically some sort of ideology that prevents any kind of empathy between the

persecutors and their victims has taken over. The Shelleyan humanist morality, which sees the imagination as an important

component in moral behaviour - the conduit by and through which empathy is aroused - has been overridden. 

Consequently, as seen in the above examples, there is no empathy displayed towards the victim. Interestingly enough,

the leader of the hijackers on September 11th, Mohammed Atta, would not converse in any meaningful human way with Americans

when he was learning to fly in Florida. He could not afford to let his ideology be challenged by any hint of an awareness of the

humanity of the people he was planning to murder. 

Immortal Deity: conclusion ... and a question:  One interesting aspect of Shelley is that he doesn't go the way of the materialist;

he was well described by Timothy Webb as 'a humanist with a sceptical and tentative awareness of some higher power'.

Perhaps being a poet and experiencing the mystery of poetic inspiration (which he found explored in Plato's dialogue Ion)

made him suspicious of materialist doctrines. The fragment Immortal Deity, together with the extracts from the Defence of Poetry,

expresses that tentative sense of a spirituality bound up with human potential - ''what men call God' being a kind of spirit of wisdom/justice/liberty/creativity/poetry that can visit anyone'. 


Question: What do you think of this conception of 'what men call God ?'. Do you think it is more or less persuasive

than the traditional (Old Testament) idea of an activist God who intervenes in human affairs ? 

Question : How do you understand Shelley's comment: 'Poetry redeems from decay the visitations of the divinity in man' ? 

Note: Shelley uses the word poetry in a very broad sense: 'Poetry, in a general sense, may be defined to be 'the expression of the imagination'. 
 

Adonais

 

This song may represent the first time that Plato (in verse 1) has ever been put to a backbeat !

Though a philosopher, two epigrams of Plato survive, evidence perhaps of an early desire to be a poet/playwright.

His evident failure to succeed may have been why, in book 10 of The Republic, he proposed banishing poets from his ideal state !

His epigram is a soulful tribute to a lost friend, Stella, who 'gives new splendour to the dead'. The second verse, from Adonais,

plays on the old philosophical notion that perhaps this life is nothing but a dream. The opening lines of Stanza 40 of Adonais are followed

by the two final lines of the poem. Adonais often comes to mind when the young and gifted suffer an untimely death; examples could include Bryan Jones

of the Rolling Stones (Mick Jagger read pieces from Adonais at the concert in Hyde Park), River Phoenix or - the prime contemporary example, John Lennon.

You could see Lennon in Shelleyan terms as an 'unacknowledged legislator' who now 'shines in the heavens like the evening star' having 'touched the world with living flame' (Triumph of Life, line 130).

In his poem A Terre (Being the Philosophy of many soldiers) World War One poet Wilfred Owen referred to Adonais (see stanza 42): 

'I shall be one with nature, herb and stone', Shelley would tell me. Shelley would be stunned. The dullest Tommy hugs that fancy now.

"Pushing up the daisies is their creed, you know'.In other words Shelley's lyrics on death synchronise with today's (western) largely agnostic attitudes

on the existence of the afterlife. What can continue after death though is inspiration and strength for those who remain.

The spoken fragment comes from Shelley's notebook from Lerici, and is significant in that it repeats the central idea from the Ode to the West Wind.

This emphasises the fact that the grim vision from The Triumph of Life, written at the same time as the fragment, is not a final descent into pessimism

on Shelley's part but part of a longer work in which sources for hope in a secular world would have been explored.

The third verse is a reprise of the platonic verse from Paradise of exiles, and the final chorus is from the last line of the Ode to the West wind.

It brings out the link between the Ode to the West Wind and Adonais: at the beginning of the final stanza Shelley wrote

'The breath whose might I have invoked in song/ Descends on me ….' - a reference back to the west wind in Florence'.' Stanza 42 of Adonais

(which Wilfred Owen was referring to) reads:  

'He is made one with Nature: there is heard

His voice in all her music, from the moan

Of thunder, to the song of night's sweet bird;

He is a presence to be felt and known

In darkness and in light, from herb and stone,

Spreading itself where'er that Power may move

Which has withdrawn his being to its own;

Which wields the world with never-wearied love,

Sustains it from beneath, and kindles it above'. 

And continues, in lines originally written for his son William:

'He is a portion of the loveliness

Which once he made more lovely ....' 


Question: How does this attitude towards bereavement strike you ?

 

 

The World's Great Age 


 'This song gathers together Shelley's utopian verses from a variety of sources: as Benjamin's narration makes clear,

Shelley's positive thinking worked over the following century.

So this collection of Shelley lyrics ends with the poet in idealistic mode. He understood the value of a vision, but saw its achievement as

subject to 'the difficult and unbending realities of actual life'. As he put it to Leigh Hunt in the dark days after the Peterloo massacre:

'You know my principles incite me to take all the good I can get in politics, for ever aspiring to something more.

I am one of those whom nothing will fully satisfy,

but who is ready to be partially satisfied by all that is practicable'. Yet - I add after September 11th 2001 - he was also sceptical; after the verses

'The world's great age begins anew' his poem Hellas ends: 


'Oh, cease ! must hate and death return ?

Cease ! must men kill and die ?

Cease ! drain not to its dregs the urn

Of bitter prophecy.

The world is weary of the past

Oh, might it die or rest at last !' 


But the last Act of Prometheus Unbound, from which some of the utopian lines are taken,

was written in Florence after the Peterloo massacre - I think as a gift of hope for the reform movement in Britain.

The picture that emerges is that of someone who had no illusions about humanity and its capacity for wrong but wrote:

'we derive tranquillity and courage and grandeur of soul from contemplating an object which is, because we will it,

and may be because we hope and desire it, and must be if succeeding generations of the enlightened sincerely and earnestly seek it'.

(Philosophical View of Reform) At the same time he was concluding the final Act of Prometheus Unbound with

the same thought, that acts of will and courageous hope are what humanity can look to.


 To suffer woes which Hope thinks infinite;

To forgive wrongs darker than death or night;

To defy Power, which seems omnipotent;

To love, and bear; to hope till Hope creates

Out of its wreck the thing it contemplates

Neither to change, nor falter, nor repent;

This, like thy glory, Titan, is to be

Good, great and joyous, beautiful and free;

This is alone Life, Joy, Empire and Victory.

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 Byroncover

Using the CD 'Lord Byron and the Greek War' and 'Courageous Heart: seven Byronic songs' in the classroom or in private study

Relevant to both the English and History GCSE curricula, the events set out in ‘Lord Byron and the Greek War’ examine Byron’s encounters with the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires. The narration begins with Byron in Ravenna, becoming aware of the local agitation (by the group of aristocrats known as the Carbonari) against rule by the local government acting on behalf of Austro-Hungarian interests (and supported by the local ecclesiastical party). He offers practical support to the Carbonari movement, but their efforts fizzle out and Byron is forced to leave the city.
Later, after moving to Pisa he again has to leave and takes up residence in Genoa, where two emissaries from the ‘London Greek Committee’ persuade him to go to Greece where an insurrection by Greek nationalists had broken out in 1821 (Greece had been under the control of the Ottoman Empire for four centuries). The rest of the narrative tells the story of what happened next ….


Suggestions for creating a 40 minute lesson using the narratives, songs and dialogues in ‘Lord Byron and the Greek War’ and some student participation:

Part One: On the way to Greece.  (20 mins approx.) Introductory: Play the first two tracks from ‘Lord Byron and the Greek War’ and track 3 up to ‘the different Greek forces’ at 2.25  (Total time 4.10) Then have a student read the following commentary for the song ‘Marathon’ - ‘I would do anything for the land which gave Europe its science and its art’ said Byron in Pisa. In Genoa he assisted two German volunteers returning from Greece which rekindled his interest in supporting the Greek insurrection. When two emissaries from the London Greek Committee visited him and asked for help his mind was made up. The lines from his notebook ‘The dead have been awakened ...’ written a month before departure have a Churchillian ring to them, conveying his mental preparation for what lay ahead’


- followed by the song ‘Marathon’ (preferably the shorter later version from ‘Courageous Heart’) which focuses on Byron’s growing commitment to Greek independence. Then play the following short narrative (track 7) followed by a student reading of the introduction to the recreated dialogue between Byron and Lady Blessington – which gives a bit more information about her:

‘Lady Blessington has been described as ‘shrewd and sympathetic’ and her book ‘Conversations with Lord Byron’, from which this dialogue is largely reconstructed, is generally held to be both fair and accurate. Born in humble circumstances in Ireland and sold by her father to a farmer, she had been rescued by an English officer and then had married Lord Blessington. She came to preside over a literary salon in St James’s Square, London, so had witnessed Byron’s years of fame and ultimate fall from grace in London society. A year younger than Byron, she was ‘entrancingly beautiful’ and was dubbed ‘most gorgeous’ after a portrait of her caused a sensation amongst her peers’

Then play the dialogue (track 8 from ‘Lord Byron and the Greek War’ and also found on YouTube here) which has been put together from Blessington’s book ‘Conversations with Lord Byron’ and other sources. Then play the next narrative (track 9) before playing Setting Sail from Genoa, and the narrative on track 11 (to 0.58) which takes Byron to the island of Cephalonia where he was to wait before deciding to go to Missolonghi.


Part Two: Byron in Missolonghi: The last four tracks from ‘Lord Byron and the Greek War’ (20 minutes) Cast of characters: Pietro – Pietro Gamba, brother of Byron’s last girlfriend Teresa Guiccioli and accompanying Byron as his personal assistant William Parry – British engineer and volunteer The Suliotes  - warriors from the Albanian mountains who had joined the Greek provisional government in Missolonghi Ned and Jane Williams – friend of the Shelleys in Pisa; Ned was drowned with Shelley in July 1822.

Play Track 15 from ‘Lord Byron and the Greek War’ where Benjamin Zephaniah tells the story of Byron’s journey from Cephalonia to Greece and the events there between January and April 1924. Follow up with the succeeding tracks (the song ‘Epitaph’ with lyrics from Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, Benjamin’s narration on the impact of Byron’s death and his legacy, and the final song ‘So, we’ll go no more a roving’ which can be played to end or faded out after 1.15 .


Follow up: See Roger Scruton’s analysis of the differing results of the eventual collapse of both the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires in the BBC programme ‘A point of View’  here.


Alternatively, for a two-lesson English class use nearly an hour to play the CD through. It will introduce a number of Byron lyrics and relate them to his life story. If students note anything that interests them these can form the basis for discussion in the rest of the lesson. For further study, students can be referred to additional comments below and for more detail on the songs to the Lyrics and Commentaries page mentioned above.


 Some additional notes on individual tracks to supplement private study:


 Track 1: Byron in Ravenna where he finds himself drawn to the global move to nation states rather than empires.
 Track 2: (Freedom song) See CD notes; compare with the original 3 verse poem.
 Track 3: At the end of this narrative reference is made to Byron’s dalliance in Ravenna before setting off for Pisa. During this period of transition he wrote his diary-like ‘Detached Thoughts’, in which he reflected on his past life and explored a number of issues (Abridged version available in ‘Byron: selected letters and journals’ ed. Peter Gunn  pp. 330-343). What are your impressions?
 Track 4: Lord B. in motion see  Lyrics and Commentary page.
 Track 5: In this resumé of Byron’s experience of Greece and understanding of the political situation there, there is a reference to his poem ‘The Curse of Minerva’, with the comment that it represents the anti-imperialist tradition in British life. Don’t the lines below (220-228) seem to anticipate and welcome the Indian Mutiny of 1857 and condemn what Byron called ‘this mania for collecting colonies’ ?
 

‘Look to the East, where Ganges’ swarthy race

Shall shake thy tyrant empire to its base;

Lo ! There Rebellion rears her ghastly head

And glares the Nemesis of native dead Till Indus rolls a deep purpureal flood And claims his long arrear of northern blood

So may ye perish ! Pallas, when she gave

Your free-born rights, forbade ye to enslave’.
 

Reference to Shelley’s funeral: Trelawny’s account of the death and funeral of Shelley in Records of Shelley, Byron, & the Author is the classic memoir.
Don Juan: Have a look at Don Juan, Canto 6, to see how Byron resumed his poem (in April 1822) after a break of 18 months. Cantos 6 – 17 were written over the next year, the unfinished Canto 17 being started in Genoa in May 1823.


 Track 6: Marathon. Those educated through the British school system in the early 19th century had a far greater exposure to classical literature and history than contemporary students. The classical world formed a common point of reference, and in this song Byron refers to the Battle of Marathon, fought in 490 B.C., when a relatively small contingent of Athenians assisted by slaves fought off a far larger Persian army at Marathon. The event is held to be one of the key battles fought against Persian invaders (the other two were the naval battle at Salamis in 480 B.C. and the battle of Plataea in 479 B.C.) which helped to secure the Athenian experiment in democracy which developed over the 5th century. Byron visited the site of the battle in 1810, no doubt viewing the burial mound of the Athenian dead and genuinely feeling his expressed sentiment ‘Musing there an hour alone/I dreamed that Greece might still be free’. But when the verse was published in Canto 3 of Don Juan he puts it into the mouth of a versifier who, Byron tells us, will modify what he sings according to his audience: ‘In France, for instance, he would write a chanson; In England, a six canto quarto tale; In Spain, he’d make a ballad or romance on The last war – much the same in Portugal….. … In Greece, he’d sing some sort of hymn like this t’ ye:’ (From Don Juan, Canto 3, stanza 86) Thus Byron, in a tactic he employs throughout Don Juan, distances himself from the heroism or nobility of his feeling. 


 Track 8: Lady Blessington dialogue. Can you detect a bitterness behind his flip comments on the English and English high society ?
 Track 9: Byron’s departure is well described in Iris Origo’s book The Last Attachment. Teresa gave Byron a lock of her hair to take with him; after his departure it was found in a desk drawer in his villa in Genoa. What do you think this says about his relationship with Teresa and with women in general ?
 Track 10: The journey to Cephalonia is described in Records of Shelley, Byron, & the Author.
 Track 12: The extent of Byron’s reputation was partly due to his lifestyle but partly due to his poetry, which, Richard Cronin argues, had restored people’s sense of individuality after being bound up in a communal approach to the Napoleonic wars. Do you think the impact of the Beatles in their first years could be attributed to a similar kind of freeing up of individual personalities ?
 Track 14: What do you think of Byron’s approach to religion ? ‘I am attacked from all sides, including from the pulpit’…. Have a look at this attack on him, by the Bishop of Calcutta.
  Byron is: ‘the systematic poet of seduction, adultery and incest; the contemner of patriotism, the insulter of piety, the raker into every sink of vice and wretchedness to disgust and degrade and harden the hearts of his fellow creatures’
  Is Byron right to detect an inner violence in such attacks ?
  Track 15: Byron in Missolonghi. Further reading includes Harold Nicholson’s book The Last Journey.
  Track 16: Do you find Byron’s quasi-humanist approach to the afterlife convincing ?
  Track 17: It is argued that Byron’s intervention in Greece was an example of internationalism rather than colonialism. Do you think this is a model for British foreign policy today ?
  Track 18: What do you think his lyric ‘So, we’ll go no more a-roving’ is about ?
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Using 'John Keats's sublime single' in the classroom or in private study

  

'The strangely encouraging life of John Keats' - why 'strangely encouraging?' Find out how Keats:

  • overcame childhood traumas
  • put those traumas into his creative journey
  • abandoned a potentially lucrative career to be true to his vocation
  • turned himself into a world-class  poet in a three-year period
  • arrived at his achievement through determination and false starts as well as instinctive genius
  • created a body of work that would eventually secure his place as a poet as great as any of his time.

 
 

'To Autumn' - the location

Below pictures of `Keats walk' in Winchester, Hampshire, UK where 'To Autumn' was inspired. Taken at the exact time of year that the poem was written, they show that it was late summer rather than autumn when Keats wrote the work.From the city centre past the cathedral 1. From the city centre past the cathedral
 2. through the cathedral close  (+ 3, + 4) 2. through the cathedral close  (+ 3, + 4)
 
 
  
 Past Jane Austen's house 5. Past Jane Austen's house
 Into the country 6. Into the country
 'Along the river sallows' 7. 'Along the river sallows'
 Towards St.Cross 8. Towards St.Cross
 'Full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn' 9. 'Full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn'
  10. St. Cross meadow and Abbey
 The river at St. Cross 12. the river at St.Cross
 See also this article 'A Keatsian Field Trip' which provides new information on the location of Keats's 'stubble-plain', arguing that  the spot is now to be found under a Winchester car park.
 

Notes on To Autumn

  • Shortly before writing To Autumn he had written: ‘Autumn is  encroaching – for the Autumn fog over a rich land is like the steam from  cabbage water’. Could this down-to-earth image of the fog be the  beginnings of the poem’s famous first line?

 

  • In the song’s spoken      introduction (from a letter of 22/9/1819) Keats says that the poem was      inspired by seeing the setting sun turning the stubble fields red. But      this key image figures almost casually in the final verse – ‘and touch the      stubble plains with rosy hue’. Recent research on the possible location      of the ‘stubble plains’ Keats refers to can be accessed here.
  • To have a look at Keats's manuscript for To Autumn check the Wikipedia entry for To Autumn. I had read that the manuscript evidence indicated that verses 1 & 3 of the poem were written at the same sitting, and that verse 2 was added later, but it does not bear that out. In verse 2 Keats compared the autumn to the various occupations of the Hampshire people he observed around him in Winchester.

 

  • Some say that the reference to the gleaner in verse 2 has a political resonance. Keats was probably aware of prosecutions that had taken place for gleaning after the passing of the 1815 corn laws (they had been denounced in the letters page of the Examiner, which he read regularly). 'By reinscribing the word ('gleaner') into poetry and into the poetic tradition, Keats was making (consciously or not) a claim for the legitimacy of the act of gleaning: he discovered another way of writing politics into poetry, one that, through its silence, exerted a political pressure of presupposition' (Andrew J. Bennett).

 

  • To Autumn was written shortly after the Peterloo massacre, when demonstrators in Manchester calling for the vote for all British men and women had been attacked by yeomanry and cavalrymen. 11 had been killed, 600 wounded. Keats had been in London recently and had witnessed a tumultuous demonstration there greeting the main speaker Henry Hunt and survivors from the event.

 

  • Could the tone of the poem, so full and calm, be a reaction to the political and financial chaos that Peterloo threatened to unleash ? It has been said that Britain at this time was closer to revolution than it had ever been since the Civil War – though memories of that civil conflict were fresher than they are now and very few will have wanted to repeat those days.

 

  • Underlying the poem is the theme of change, but change unfolding peacefully and naturally. Maybe this is Keats’s subliminal political message after Peterloo. He had written once ‘I hope to put something to the liberal side of the question before I die’.

 

  • Rock and pop stars often comment on current political matters. Very often there’s a directness of approach: perhaps Keats’s poem To Autumn shows another way of reflecting such issues ????

On the Shore

  • Keats’s sonnet ‘When I have fears’, titled on the single ‘On the Shore’, is on the theme of untimely death. It was written as a literary exercise, before Keats knew of his fatal infection with tuberculosis, perhaps in response to one of Shakespeare’s sonnets (no 64).
  • The ‘fair creature of an hour’; refers to a girl glimpsed at the Vauxhall gardens in London.
  • The poem reveals Keats's sceptical attitude towards the idea of an afterlife. As a freethinker who refused the consolations of religion even on his deathbed, he could not be satisfied with such predictions, or any other conception of an afterlife. All he can say, confronted with the issue of death ‘before my pen has gleaned my teeming brain’, is that: ‘On the shore, I stand alone and think/Till love and fame to nothingness do sink’.

 
    
The Spanish steps in Rome; Keats died in  the house on the right, aged 25
  
  
    
Keat’s grave (on the left) in the  Protestant cemetry in Rome.    Buried beside him is Joseph Severn, his  artist friend who nursed him in his final  days. The inscription refers to his  instruction that his gravestone should  simply read: ‘Here lies one whose  name was writ in water’.  
 

Using 'The First Fab Four' in the classroom or in private study

'The First Fab Four' adds up to a hopefully enjoyable 45 minutes with the poets and their work. It includes selections from around 20 Romantics lyrics, and two 'narrative songs' which focus on Byron's travels in Italy, and Shelley's death by drowning in 1822.It either can be used for private listening by students, or perhaps can be listened to together as a prelude to discussion.
  
 

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