Four Seasons fill the measure of the year;

Shakespeare famously told of the seven ages of man, and here is Keats simplifying man’s time span down into four seasons, and cramming it all into a sonnet. Each season is neatly encapsulated in one stanza. To make this analogy work, you have to start with the season of Spring, which of course, departs from the calendar year, which starts in winter.

The Human Seasons


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.

From <>

So now we know – Spring is the time of lusty action; summer of contemplation; autumn of introspection; and winter of approaching mortality. This is both intuitively appealing and also sufficiently flexible that all can adapt it to their own circumstances (50 is the new 20 etc…). The irony of course is that Keats himself never got much beyond Spring, setting the template for a Romantic poet by dying in his mid-20s.

The Poetry Dude

It keeps eternal whisperings around

Here is a nice sonnet from Keats on the sea, its mysteries and its healing powers for the psyche. This explains why people are drawn to the sea-shore, to listen to the lapping of the waves, feel the sea breeze wafting across their faces and gaze out at the far horizon which seems to have no limits. This poem is a good companion piece to his “Sonnet written on the top of Ben Nevis”, posted here on June 21, 2015, in which we get a similar appreciation of the mountains.

On the Sea

It keeps eternal whisperings around
Desolate shores, and with its mighty swell
Gluts twice ten thousand caverns, till the spell
Of Hecate leaves them their old shadowy sound.

Often ’tis in such gentle temper found,
That scarcely will the very smallest shell
Be moved for days from whence it sometime fell,
When last the winds of heaven were unbound.

Oh ye! who have your eye-balls vexed and tired,
Feast them upon the wideness of the Sea;
Oh ye! whose ears are dinned with uproar rude,

Or fed too much with cloying melody, –
Sit ye near some old cavern’s mouth, and brood
Until ye start, as if the sea-nymphs choired!

From <;

The first four lines evoke the remote mystery of the sea, its loneliness and desolation, as its tides swell into remote caverns, and then recede, as if under the spell of witchcraft, Hecate being the Greek goddess of witches and magic. But the second four lines move into a more comforting tone, with the sea in gentle mood, hardly disturbing a tiny shell on the beach, from where it had been deposited in some recent storm. The final six lines exhort the reader to watch, listen to and meditate on the sea as a restful and positive antidote to the stresses and strains of everyday life. Tired eyeballs find relief and the sound of the waves can bring joy, just as if they were beautiful and melodious sea-nymphs.

So let’s go to the sea…

The Poetry Dude

Nature withheld Cassandra in the skies

Poetry is often said to be untranslateable simply because the depth of context, nuance, linguistic effects, rhyme, alliteration and reference can never be satisfactorily matched in another language. The great exception I have previously highlighted on this blog with several posts is Ftizgerald’s translation of the “Rubai’Yat of Omar Khayyam”, which was a very free translation, capturing the intent of the original while greatly adapting the vocabulary and emphasis.

Today’s poem matches up two of the masters of verse from different cultures. It is Keats translating Ronsard. But there is a big clue in the title – the original Ronsard poem was a sonnet, yet counting the lines of Keats’ version I only get to twelve. What happened to the rest? This just illustrates the perils and challenges of translating poetry.

Translated From A Sonnet Of Ronsard

Nature withheld Cassandra in the skies
For more adornment a full thousand years;
She took their cream of Beauty’s fairest dyes,
And shap’d and tinted her above all Peers:
Meanwhile Love kept her dearly with his wings,
And underneath their shadow fill’d her eyes
With such a richness that the cloudy Kings
Of high Olympus utter’d slavish sighs.
When from the Heavens I saw her first descend
My heart took fire, and only burning pains
They were my pleasures — they my Life’s sad end;
Love pour’d her beauty into my warm veins…

John Keats

From <;

It is a mythological subject – the great beauty Cassandra being formed to perfection by the Gods over a thousand years or more, in particular the goddess of love imbuing her with seductive charms which caused the Gods themselves to swoon. Then finally Cassandra is allowed to come to earth to set the poet’s heart on fire, such that he expires with the exquisite pain of love.

The hyperbole is striking throughout the poem, and when pushed so hard, I always wonder whether the poet was serious or just writing tongue-in-cheek. But however you want to take it, I find the poem entertaining, and the connection with Keats’s great predecessor Ronsard is fascinating. Even giants can stand on the shoulders of giants.

Since writing the above, I pulled my battered copy of Ronsard’s poems off the shelf to look for the original. I think this one is the closest, but you will see that Keats’ translation is very free.

Nature ornant la dame qui devait
De sa douceur forcer les plus rebelles,
Lui fit présent des beautés les plus belles,
Que dès mille ans en épargne elle avait.

Tout ce qu’Amour avarement couvait
De beau, de chaste et d’honneur sous ses ailes,
Emmiella les grâces immortelles
De son bel œil, qui les Dieux émouvait.

Du ciel à peine elle était descendue
Quand je la vu, quand mon âme éperdue
En devint folle, et d’un si poignant trait

Le fier Destin l’engrava dans mon âme,
Que, vif ne mort, jamais d’une autre dame
Empreint au cœur je n’aurai le portrait.


Pierre de Ronsard.
From <;

So, its two for the price of one today

The Poetry Dude

Read me a lesson, Muse, and speak it loud

This is a lovely sonnet from Keats, not only because of its language and the poetic linkages between the real and the imagined, but because it feels strongly grounded in real experience. Keats must have climbed Ben Nevis, I think in order to have written this. (Ben Nevis is the highest mountain in Scotland, so it is far from being a Sunday afternoon walk in the park to get to the top).
Despite the title, I doubt that Keats wrote the whole poem in finished form while he was sitting at the top of the mountain, although I may be wrong. He probably jotted down the basic ideas and images he wanted to use and finished it off later, perhaps sitting in the bar of his hotel with a dram of whisky to warm up his bones and stimulate his creative powers.
Anyway, here is Keats on what it was like for him to be at the top of Ben Nevis.

Sonnet. Written Upon The Top Of Ben Nevis

Read me a lesson, Muse, and speak it loud
Upon the top of Nevis, blind in mist!
I look into the chasms, and a shroud
Vapourous doth hide them, — just so much I wist
Mankind do know of hell; I look o’erhead,
And there is sullen mist, — even so much
Mankind can tell of heaven; mist is spread
Before the earth, beneath me, — even such,
Even so vague is man’s sight of himself!
Here are the craggy stones beneath my feet,–
Thus much I know that, a poor witless elf,
I tread on them, — that all my eye doth meet
Is mist and crag, not only on this height,
But in the world of thought and mental might!

John Keats

From <;

So, sitting at the top of the mountain, the poet feels close to his Muse, the source of his inspiration, despite the fact that the summit is shrouded in mist. The Muse will surely speak in a loud voice in this place. In fact the first half of the sonnet uses the mist as an extended metaphor for human ignorance of hell, looking down below, and heaven, looking up. The mist both inspires and obscures and while being an actual, realistic feature of the mountaintop landscape, it also comes to symbolise man’s ignorance of his world, his faith and himself. All he is really sure of are the actual stones on which he has walked – ie the present moment. The poet pictures himself as a “poor witless elf” just putting one foot in front of the other, on the mountain as in life, with no clear vision of where he is going, where he has been or what it all means.

So moments like this can reveal larger truths about experience and the human condition.

This is a worthy contender if there is a competition for best poems written or conceived at the top of mountains.

The Poetry Dude

A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:

This must be one of Keats’ most famous poems, and I am guessing pretty much everyone is familiar with the opening line, even if they are not sure where it comes from. But Endymion? That reference is maybe a bit less familiar these days, and even in Keats’ own time I wonder how many readers got it. So the homework assignment for readers of this blog today is to find out who or what was Endymion. Enjoy.

A Thing Of Beauty (Endymion)

A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its lovliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.
Therefore, on every morrow, are we wreathing
A flowery band to bind us to the earth,
Spite of despondence, of the inhuman dearth
Of noble natures, of the gloomy days,
Of all the unhealthy and o’er-darkn’d ways
Made for our searching: yes, in spite of all,
Some shape of beauty moves away the pall
From our dark spirits. Such the sun, the moon,
Trees old and young, sprouting a shady boon
For simple sheep; and such are daffodils
With the green world they live in; and clear rills
That for themselves a cooling covert make
‘Gainst the hot season; the mid-forest brake,
Rich with a sprinkling of fair musk-rose blooms:
And such too is the grandeur of the dooms
We have imagined for the mighty dead;
An endless fountain of immortal drink,
Pouring unto us from the heaven’s brink.
John Keats

From <;

This truly a glass half-full, count your blessings, uplifting, optimists kind of poem. Keats acknowledges the despondence, gloomy days, unhealthy ways and dark spirits but knows that we can and should look on the beauties of the world, nature in all its glory and take joy and inspiration from just opening our eyes and seeing the wonders of the world. Let us all, every day wake up and wreath our flower band of optimism to bind us to the earth.

The Poetry Dude

Souls of Poets dead and gone,

I usually think about the English Romantic poets – Byron, Keats, Coleridge, Shelley Wordsworth etc. – banging on about antiquities, nature and the mysteries of the soul, but, from today’s poem at least, it seems that Keats also liked a night down the pub, maybe with a pint and a pie, perhaps a game of darts or dominoes and a crack at chatting up the barmaid. Here is his tribute to his local boozer, the Mermaid Tavern.

Lines on the Mermaid Tavern

Souls of Poets dead and gone,
What Elysium have ye known,
Happy field or mossy cavern,
Choicer than the Mermaid Tavern?
Have ye tippled drink more fine
Than mine host’s Canary wine?
Or are fruits of Paradise
Sweeter than those dainty pies
Of venison? O generous food!
Drest as though bold Robin Hood
Would, with his maid Marian,
Sup and bowse from horn and can.

I have heard that on a day
Mine host’s sign-board flew away,
Nobody knew whither, till
An astrologer’s old quill
To a sheepskin gave the story,
Said he saw you in your glory,
Underneath a new old sign
Sipping beverage divine,
And pledging with contented smack
The Mermaid in the Zodiac.

Souls of Poets dead and gone,
What Elysium have ye known,
Happy field or mossy cavern,
Choicer than the Mermaid Tavern?

From <;

Yes, the beginning and the end of the poem do refer to poet’s souls and their usual preference for bucolic or pastoral surroundings, but the comparison comes down in favour of the tavern, better in every way than the charms of nature. It is the tavern that provides the best wine, the best pies, the most food of all sorts, and fig to serve Robin Hood and Maid Marion.

The second stanza transforms the appeal of the Mermaid into something more universal, by imagining the inn-sign being blown away and ending up somewhere in the stars, where the poets could gather and enjoy a drink together. Presumably this would be a meeting place for the dead poets from all times who would compose more poems in praise of the Mermaid Tavern from their heavenly vantage point.

The Poetry Dude

After dark vapours have oppressed our plains

Here is a sonnet from John Keats, the leading English poet of the romantic age in the early nineteenth century. Spring comes after winter, calm comes after the storm, joy comes after despair, but all is part of the natural cycle – these, I think are the themes to be found in this beautiful poem.


Sonnet: After Dark Vapors Have Oppress’d Our Plains

After dark vapors have oppress’d our plains
For a long dreary season, comes a day
Born of the gentle South, and clears away
From the sick heavens all unseemly stains.
The anxious month, relieved of its pains,
Takes as a long-lost right the feel of May;
The eyelids with the passing coolness play
Like rose leaves with the drip of Summer rains.
The calmest thoughts came round us; as of leaves
Budding — fruit ripening in stillness — Autumn suns
Smiling at eve upon the quiet sheaves —
Sweet Sappho’s cheek — a smiling infant’s breath —
The gradual sand that through an hour-glass runs —
A woodland rivulet — a Poet’s death.

From <’d-Our-Plains&gt;

The first eight lines seem to describe the coming of spring after a long winter, with the rebirth of nature and the clearing away of the oppression of the dark and dreary season which has passed. This can be read both literally and metaphorically of course, as an affirmation that moods change and light inevitably follows darkness.

The final six lines of the poem emphasise contentment and calm contemplation brought about by the change of season, these lines have almost a Buddhist feel to them, and make me imagine reading them in a Zen garden in the midst of tranquility and the casting aside of worldly cares.

The poem finishes with reminders of the inevitable passage of time, using the images of sand running through the hourglass and the stream running through a wood, and enigmatically announces the Poet’s death as part of this natural cycle of life and death, decay and rebirth. There is no sense of sadness at this outcome, it is just part of the natural order of things and is a positive way to contemplate our deaths without regret, fear or despair.

The Poetry Dude