Keats to the Rescue

Portrait of English Poet John KeatsYears ago, I invited my former student, Paul Edward O’Brien, to introduce a unit on poetry to jaded high school seniors. It was springtime, and they were sick of school — sick of their childhoods. To most of them poetry was the language arts equivalent of a math problem.

Paul, an oncologist by profession and actor by avocation, majored in English at Harvard, taught freshman composition there during a sabbatical from med school, so he is a man of science and of letters. The old-fashioned word “dashing” does him justice, so I thought a swashbuckling evangelist for poetry might at least hold their attention. Maybe even convert one.

He began by quoting “Who Goes with Fergus” and explained how he fell in love with the poem without even having any idea what it meant. He told the students at one point that “Poetry can be your friend, your companion, help you in times of need.”


* * *

Last Monday, with about three-and-a-half hours of sleep and feeling something very close to despair, I stumbled into my first period class of sophomores to discuss John Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale.” The poem had been slated for this day on my syllabus before I had received some very disturbing news, and it’s not necessarily a poem I would choose to teach right now given what is going on in my life.

I started the class by asking students to close their eyes and for three minutes and attempt to remember vividly a time when they’d been blown away by nature – overawed by a breath-taking vista or a ferocious thunderstorm or an encounter with a wild animal. I asked them to try to conjure images – sights, sounds, smells and then to capture those images with words.

Once I saw that all their eyes were shut, I closed mine as well and thought of last summer when my wife Judy and I sat at a picnic table on top of Mount Mansfield in Vermont.

. . . behind us clouds rush over the summit, revealing a patch of blue sky. A waterfall of light pours through the opening and cascades down the side of the summit, progressively devouring shadows. Actually, the light’s more like lava because a waterfall is always pouring forth, but this light is creeping, shimmering its way down, illuminating boulders and green growth . , ,

Instead of reading their responses, they shared them orally. One, nighttime in Oxford, England, green-green-green night grass and a profusion of stars. Another, atop a mountain with fog blanketing below, except for a rectangular opening, like a window, through which he could see the sloping vegetation below. A third, the sound of water rushing over river rocks during a night of utter solitude.

I asked them to articulate their emotional responses. Virtually everyone agreed egos tended to disappear in the face of their experiences. No one thought, “How cool that I’m experiencing these wonders,” but the wonders themselves took precedence over the perceiver.

I tied their experiences to Romanticism and explained in the ode Keats is trying to escape his anguish via nature and imagination.

We then turned to the poem itself, that beautiful meditation on death, suffering, attempted escape, the failure of the imagination, among other things.

I’ve given up having students read poems out loud in class; I read them myself for the sake of fluidity.

So I started the first stanza, and as I did, sunlight flickered across the page underscoring, as it were, the delicacy of the verse, the ephemera of poor Keats’s rapidly disappearing days. I tried to keep my voice steady.

My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains

My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,

Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains

One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk:

‘Tis not through envy of thy happy lot,

But being too happy in thine happiness,—

That thou, light-winged Dryad of the trees

In some melodious plot

Of beechen green, and shadows numberless,

Singest of summer in full-throated ease.

Keats was suffering from depression. His beloved brother Tom had died of TB the summer before, and TB’s first symptoms were beginning to manifest themselves in him.

I asked the students to identify the tone using the first line: “aches” “numbness,” “pain.”

“What is hemlock? I asked. “Opiate?”   “Lethe?” “Dryad?”

I had trouble with the third stanza in that I feared if I might start to weep.

Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget

What thou among the leaves hast never known,

The weariness, the fever, and the fret

Here, where men sit and hear each other groan;

Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last gray hairs,

Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies;

Where but to think is to be full of sorrow

And leaden-eyed despairs,

Where Beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes,

Or new Love pine at them beyond to-morrow.

The sunlight flickering shadows from the trees outside the window upon the words of the poem was quite beautiful.

John Austen's Hamlet

John Austen’s Hamlet

“Dissolve.” I recited Hamlet’s first soliloquy. “O would this too too solid flesh melt/And dissolve itself into a dew. . .” I explained Hamlet’s sad situation, his father’s death his mother’s marrying his uncle within a month.

This is true misery, I said; Hamlet and Keats long for vaporization, demolecularization, surcease of sorrow, absolute disappearance.

We discussed the slowness of the lines – the caesuras – how those commas make the reader hesitate, to limp along with “the weariness, the fever, and the fret” . . . where palsy shakes a few, sad, last gray hairs.”

The sunlight flickering on the page. The sound of my own voice reading the words.

I was not alone. I had the students, of course, but also Hamlet, Keats, those old immortal friends, to help me get through those miserable moments. No, not alone, and paradoxically, I felt keenly alive, felt something like joy by the time it was time to let them go.


Packing for Mars


You may have been asked what one book you would want to have with you if you were stranded on that proverbial desert island, you know, the one with ever ripening fruit falling from the trees and bacteria-less fresh water bubbling from springs and handy flint lying around for sparking palm frond fires, an island where you could kick back and be sedentary rather than spending all day searching for edible grub worms.

desert island

My suspension of disbelief won’t allow it. I’ve found a better hypothetical opportunity for selecting a limited library, a trip to Mars. According to Tom Kizzia of the New Yorker, NASA is prepping astronauts for a Martian mission, a voyage that would take them “a hundred million miles from home, no longer in close contact with mission control.”

“Staring into the night for eight monotonous months,” Kizzia asks, “how would they keep their focus? How would they avoid rancor or debilitating melancholy?”

Lauren Leveton heads NASA’s Behavioral Health and Performance program, and if I were to be chosen for the 3-year round trip to Mars (because of planetary motion, you’d be stuck on the surface for months), I’d love for her to allow me to bring three hardback bound books, ancient non-electronic artifacts with paper pages that turn and can be annotated with a sturdy #2 pencil. She might begin by telling me to choose one poem, one novel, and one play. As much as I love non-fiction, I would want works that recreate the Earth and its denizens as vividly as possibly, which means dramatization.

The Poem

Of course, you’d want an epic, something worthy of your own journey, and the obvious candidates the Iliad, Odyssey, and Aeneid leap to mind; however, I don’t read Linear B Greek or Latin, so I have to rule those three out. My poem must be in English, so nothing’s lost in translation, and the obvious choice seems to be Paradise Lost, which contains all time and space, justifies the ways of God to men, describes not only Eden’s earthly paradise but also many an exotic non-mythical locale in ravishingly beautiful baroque language. Also.he’s managed to embed much of the Bible and Greek mythology into the mix. You get as much of pre-18th century human history as possible in a mere 10,000 lines.

Dig this epic simile that vivifies the number of fallen angels rolling on the fiery seas of Milton’s hell:

[Satan] stood and call’d

His Legions, Angel Forms, who lay intrans’t

Thick as Autumnal Leaves that strow the Brooks

In Vallombrosa, where th’ Etrurian shades

High overarch’t imbowr; or scatterd sedge

Afloat, when with fierce Winds Orion arm’d

Hath vext the Red-Sea Coast, whose waves overthrew

Busiris and his Memphian Chivalry,

While with perfidious hatred they pursu’d

The Sojourners of Goshen, who beheld

From the safe shore their floating Carkases

And broken Chariot Wheels, so thick bestrown

Abject and lost lay these, covering the Flood,

Under amazement of their hideous change.

dore # 2

The brilliance and beauty of these lines amaze, the fallen angels compared to fallen leaves, then floating sedge on the Red Sea, the setting where Moses escaped the Pharaoh’s army, who like the Fallen Angels dared defied Yahweh.

But no, it’s not Paradise Lost I’m packing but Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself :

The smoke of my own breath,

Echoes, ripples, buzz’d whispers, love-root, silk-thread,

crotch and vine,

My respiration and inspiration, the beating of my heart, the

passing of blood and air through my lungs,

The sniff of green leaves and dry leaves, and of the shore and

dark-color’d sea-rocks, and of hay in the barn,

The sound of the belch’d words of my voice loos’d to the

eddies of the wind,

A few light kisses, a few embraces, a reaching around of arms,

The play of shine and shade on the trees as the supple boughs


The delight alone or in the rush of the streets, or along the

fields and hill-sides,

The feeling of health, the full-noon trill, the song of me rising

from bed and meeting the sun.

Every time I read it, it makes me come more alive, and I absolutely love its catalogues. Walt would remind me of the cities farther and farther away on the out, closer and closer on the way back:

The blab of the pave, tires of carts, sluff of boot-soles, talk of

the promenaders,

The heavy omnibus, the driver with his interrogating thumb,

the clank of the shod horses on the granite floor,

The snow-sleighs, clinking, shouted jokes, pelts of snow-balls,

The hurrahs for popular favorites, the fury of rous’d mobs,

The flap of the curtain’d litter, a sick man inside borne to the


The meeting of enemies, the sudden oath, the blows and fall,

The excited crowd, the policeman with his star quickly

working his passage to the centre of the crowd,

The impassive stones that receive and return so many echoes,

What groans of over-fed or half-starv’d who fall sunstruck or

in fits,

What exclamations of women taken suddenly who hurry

home and give birth to babes,

What living and buried speech is always vibrating here, what

howls restrain’d by decorum,

Arrests of criminals, slights, adulterous offers made,

acceptances, rejections with convex lips,

I mind them or the show or resonance of them — I come and I


And also he’d be right there in the capsule with me:

Speeding through space, speeding through heaven and the


Speeding amid the seven satellites and the broad ring, and

the diameter of eighty thousand miles,

Speeding with tail’d meteors, throwing fire-balls like the rest,

Carrying the crescent child that carries its own full mother in

its belly,

Storming, enjoying, planning, loving, cautioning,

Backing and filling, appearing and disappearing,

I tread day and night such roads.

song of myself

The Novel

No time wasted here. Despite Faulkner’s great achievement, it’s Joyce’s Ulysses, which brings to life the human condition like no other work I know. I can shoot the rapids of Stephen Dedalus’ consciousness, or Leopold Bloom’s, or his wife Molly’s. I can walk the vivid streets of Dublin, day and night. I can adjust to and savor each new style as Joyce shifts from one episode of the Odyssey.


The Play

Although I virtually have it memorized already, I’d bring along my old pal, the Danish Prince. He’s a lonely sort, and as Harold Bloom says, the most intelligent human ever. I suspect I’d prefer his company to my fellow astronauts, technical folk who remind me of camp counselors, and Hamlet is a worthy companion for Walt and Leopold and plays no small role in Ulysses. And, yes, the poetry!

Uh-oh, Dr. Leveton has informed me I can take only one!

Given the above, which one would you choose?

Freud, Jung, Hamlet, and Joyce

A Finger Puppet Play in One Act

freud pyschoanalyzes Hamlet










Scene One : The castle at Elsinore.

Enter Hamlet moping

Hamlet: O, would this too, too solid flesh melt

and resolve itself into a dew.

O, how weary stale and flat seem to me

All the uses of this world. Fie on it. Fie!


Goddamn it! What a rogue and peasant slave am I!


The night sky that wheels above us,

That brave o’er hanging firmament,

That majestic roof fretted with golden fire,

Why it appearth no other thing to me

than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors.


O, to be or not to be that is the question.

O, to sweat and groan under a weary life.


Fie on it. Fie.

But soft! Methinks

I hear that most pernicious woman

whose name is frailty.


Enter Gertrude:


Gertrude: Hamlet, O Hamlet.

Hamlet: Yes, mother.

Gertrude. O Hamlet, cast thy nighted color off and

let me giveth thee a sponge bath.

Hamlet: O mother, you know I have that appointment

Today with Dr. Freud.

Gertrude: I had forgot. Cancel it, love.

Hamlet: You knoweth what a procrastinator

I be. I shall go to the appointment.

Gertrude: Well giveth your mother a little kiss,

my love, before thou leavest.


Scene Two: Dr. Freud’s Offices.

Freud and James Joyce engaging in “the talking cure.”

Freud: Keep Going, Mr. Joyce. Get it Out

Joyce: Well, you know or don’t you kennet or haven’t I told you every telling has a taling and that’s the he and the she of it. Look, look, the dusk is growing!

Freud: Very well then, Mr. Joyce I’ll see you next time.

Joyce: By the way, Doc, to say that a great genius is half-mad, while recognizing his artistic prowess, is worth as much as saying that he was rheumatic, or that he suffered from diabetes. Madness, in fact, is a medical expression to which a balanced critic should pay no more heed than he would to the accusation of heresy brought by the theologian, or to the accusation of immorality brought by the public prosecutor. Good Day

exit Joyce

Freud: His Inflated ego is furthered pathologized by anal expulsiveness. What is that last book of his Finnegan’s Wake by a vast shit explosion? Anna!

Enter Anna Freud.

Anna: Yes, Father?

Freud: Whose next?

Anna. He calls himself Hamlet, Hamlet the Dane.


Scene Three: Hamlet and Freud’s session

(Hamlet lying on the psychiatric couch)

Freud: Enough about your mother. Tell me about this step father of yours.

Hamlet: O villain, villain, smiling, damned villain! Bloody, bawdy villain!

Remorseless, treacherous, lecherous, kindless villain!

Freud: So I take it you do not like this man.

Hamlet: I should have fatted all the region kites

With this slave’s offal.

Freud: My son, it’s quite clear that you suffer from an Oedipal complex, that you are fixated in the phallic stage.   Our work is done here. That will be 500 marks.

Hamlet: You joketh. That’s it? I want another opinion.

Freud: Very well. Anna!  Bring in Dr. Jung

Enter Jung.

Freud: Dr. Jung, this young man wants to kill his father.

Hamlet: Stepfather!

Freud: To kill his father so he can be with alone with his mother, which obviously denotes the Oedipal complex.

Jung: I’ve been thinking, Herr Mentor, that you over-emphasize the sexual component in mental illness. I have a slightly different take.

Freud: I dare you! How dare you! Contradict me!

They fight.

Scene Four: Hamlet alone on the Battlement.


I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

I do not think that they will sing to me.

I have seen them riding seaward on the waves

Combing the white hair of the waves blown back

When the wind blows the water white and black.


We have lingered in the chambers of the sea

By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown

Till human voices wake us, and we drown.

The rest is silence.

Enter Joyce doing a jig

Joyce: If others have their will Ann hath a way. By cock, she was to blame. She put the comether on him, sweet and twentysix. The greyeyed goddess who bends over the boy Adonis, stooping to conquer, as prologue to the swelling act, is a boldfaced Stratford wench who tumbles in a cornfield a lover younger than herself.

End here. Us then. Finn, again! Take. Bussoftlhee, mememormee! Till thousandsthee. Lps. The keys to. Given! A way a lone a last a loved a long the


The End.