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Sing Sweet Nightingale but with Keats

By Alexander Clevewood Ng

I commenced this series of blog posts with the famous line, ‘Bright star, would I were as steadfast as thou art?’ The line that renders, in one way or the other, John Keats the most recognisable poet from the Romantic Period. Whenever literary critics mention the phrase ‘Romantic Period’ or ‘Romanticism’, lay people are prone to associating it with valentine notions of pure love and infatuation. This is a gross, albeit entertaining, misconception. ‘Romanticism’ refers to a literary period spreading from 18th to mid-19th centuries, characterised by literary energies being channelled into innovation and experimentation. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein deviates from the religious adage that the human body was sacred, and forewarned the potential adverse consequences of technological advancement. Keats, the focus of this blog article, has expressed his unquenchable sanguineness in elegant prose, establishing him as one of the most eminent figures in English literature.

My affection for Keats, to put it as neutrally as I could, borders on obsession. I read my first poem by Keats, Bright Star, when I was at the crisp age of 13 years. He has stayed with me ever since. His literary touch caresses the battered crevices of my soul and relieves it from all its impurities. To Autumn and Sleep and Poetry are several of his seminal works, exuding such a brimming sense of happiness that illuminates the most adamant pessimist. The fragrant odours of the autumn foliage, admixed with the buoyant rays of the imp-esque sun, contrive to drown the ardent reader in their perennial felicity. However, the most controversial of all Keats’ poems is also, in my personal opinion, his best: Ode to a Nightingale.

 The reputation of its being one of Keats’ most poignant masterpieces cannot be wholly attributed to semantic constructions such as ‘deceiving elf’ and ‘plaintive anthem’, but the fact that optimism and exuberance, are so close, yet so far. As the nightingale departs, this temporary distraction – its song of cheer gracing the listener’s animus – vanishes into thin air. The looming darkness once again rears its ugly head, its grotesque contours engulfing the horizons that have once presented themselves as a shining beacon of hope. Nothing but a hapless mirage accompanied by an agonising wave of disillusionment. A possibility imagined, a reality struck. Nothing trumps the mercilessness of having inebriated you with the promise of heaven, only to withdraw it from your eyes and fling you to the rotting depths of the ghoulish abyss.

 Alternatively construed, maybe the beauty of Keats is not in his optimism, but in his ability to embellish it with a thin film of melancholic glimmer.

Sing Sweet Nightingale but with Keats

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