O golden-tongued Romance with serene lute!
Fair plumed Syren! Queen of far away!
Leave melodizing on this wintry day,
Shut up thine olden pages, and be mute:
Adieu! for once again the fierce dispute,
Betwixt damnation and impassion’d clay
Must I burn through; once more humbly assay
The bitter-sweet of this Shakespearian fruit.
Chief Poet! and ye clouds of Albion,
Begetters of our deep eternal theme,
When through the old oak forest I am gone,
Let me not wander in a barren dream,
But when I am consumed in the fire,
Give me new Phoenix wings to fly at my desire.
The poem under study was written in 1818 after the completion of John Keats’s 4,000-line poem Endymion. We are facing a traditional and fixed form of poem as “Sitting Down to Read King Lear Once Again” is an Elizabethan sonnet composed of fourteen lines which are divided up into three quatrains, that is four-line stanzas, and a final couplet -or two lines of verse. The rhyming pattern is abba, cddc, efef, gg as, notably “Lute” (l.1) rhymes with “mute” (l.4), “far-away” (l.2) with “day” (l.3) and “dispute” (l.5) with “fruit” (l.8). Moreover, the lines are iambic pentameters since they contain five iambic feet for instance :
_ / _ / _ / _ / _ /
“O Gol/den-tongued /Romance, /with se/rene Lute!”
Like most of Keats’s poems, this text deals with the speaker’s encounter with something which incites him to meditate and alters significantly his vision of life. It is the perusal of King Lear written by William Shakespeare in 1605 which affects him this time and this is not a first reading judging by the presence of “Once Again” in the title. Keats was a great admirer of Shakespeare. The theme of death, which is one of Keats’s main concerns, is latent in the poem.
This sonnet’s thought can be divided into four parts. Firstly, chivalric romances are praised and put aside. Secondly, the effects they provoke are contrasted with those engendered by the reading of King Lear. Thirdly, the speaker begs Shakespeare and heaven , his sources of inspiration, to help him. Finally, he compares himself to the Phoenix, which has the power to be immortal.
To begin with, the first quatrain opens with the interjection “O” which is by definition used to express strong feelings. Indeed, the poem is charged with lyricism, the two exclamation marks contributing to it among other things. In this way, we are conscious from the beginning that the speaker ‘s rereading of Shakespeare’s tragedy makes him profoundly react.
Then, the term “Romance” refers to medieval romance, a form of narrative which developed in the 12th century and related tales of chivalry and courtly love. Its heroes were idealized and the plot often contained miraculous or supernatural elements such as dragons or monsters fighting for the sake of the heroine. The adjective which qualifies this genre of literature, that is “Golden-tongued”, means that it is wonderfully narrated. Besides, it can be paralleled with “the realms of gold” Keats refers to in the same first line of the sonnet “Upon First Looking into Chapman’s Homer”, the phrase being there a metaphor for books he highly values.
Next, the lute is a stringed instrument, whose music acts as an enchantment on readers and leads them to sweet thoughts.
This first line is basically an apostrophe since the speaker directly addresses “Golden-tongued Romance” thus personifying it.
The “Fair plumed Syren” is praised as well, the poet considering her a royal person -a “Queen”- who “melodiz[es]” (l.3). She is also present in the romance in question. A siren, in Greek mythology, is one of the three sea nymphs, usually represented with the head of a woman and the body of a bird. They inhabited an island surrounded by dangerous rocks and sang so enchantingly that all who heard were drawn near or shipwrecked. The tune produced by the lute can be compared to the bewitching one sang by the siren which irresistibly attracts the poet to like this kind of literature.
But, the lexical field of pleasure including “serene Lute”, “Fair plumed Syren” and “melodizing” among other things is contrasted with more negative phrases such as “wintry day”, “Shut up” and “mute”. This indicates that the poet is willing to wander from the sweet thoughts these readings generate, the “Golden-tongued Romance” being a synecdote for chivalric romances in general.
Moreover, the personification process is extended on line 4 since “Golden-tongued Romance” is addressed as though it was endowed with life and speech. Indeed, “thine (…) Pages” are the book’s. Moreover, the siren is used as a metonymy for the narrative insofar as the poet combines the two on line 4, the predicates “Shut up” and “be mute” referring to the nymph.
Finally, the adjective “olden” alludes to this literature’s ancient existence.
In short, this first quatrain deals with the poet’s liking for medieval romances insisting on their enchanting power. Nevertheless, the latter wishes to dismiss them from his mind. And prosopopeia is aimed at showing that he is deeply affected by his rereading of King Lear. The second stanza is going to contrast images of beauty with what Shakespeare’s tragedy displays.
Next, the second quatrain begins with the poet bidding farewell to pleasant meditations.
But, we should first and foremost put this sonnet back in its context. We can easily presume that it is autobiographic, thus that Keats reveals us his own worries. In 1818, he is aware that he has short time left to live due to the fatal illness he is suffering from, that is tuberculosis. Moreover, we have already realized that he is scared of death, particularly in his “When I have fears that I may cease to be”.
In the second stanza, the lexical field of hell is present through “fierce”, “damnation” and “burn through”. And the predicate “burn through” must be taken both literally and figuratively. On the one hand, it hints at Keats’s future death. On the other, it indicates his agitation facing antagonistic directions as he is torn between hellish visions and sweeter meditations, designated by “damnation” versus “impassion’d clay”. So, “damnation” is a metaphor for the thoughts the reading of King Lear provokes while “impassion’d clay” refers to those generated by chivalric romances.
The word “clay” probably makes reference to the Bible as the sacred book states that God made the human body with this material. So, it symbolizes fecundity and regeneration in other words life. Thus, it is tempting to infer that romances allow the poet to escape from reality whereas King Lear’s tragic fate reminds him of his bad condition.
The second part of the quatrain deals with the poet’s will to concentrate on “Shaksperean fruit” in other words on King Lear itself. While the first stanza introduced his liking for romances, this one gradually leads us to the subject of the poem – i.e. the feelings and thoughts the reading of the tragedy trigger. King Lear is quite a sad story as it deals among other things with consequences of the fatal mistake the eponymous character makes at retirement as he divides his kingdom between two of his daughters Goneril and Regan thinking that the youngest Cordelia is the one who loves him the least. Once he realizes that his trusted girls intend to drive him away, he leaves them.
Cordelia, disowned, became Queen of France. She is informed of the situation and lands on her father’s old kingdom with an army to fight the other girls’. The play ends in a disaster since Goneril, ashamed because unmasked by her husband, who had not known how wicked his wife was, suicides herself after having poisoned her sister Regan, out of a spirit of jealousy. And Cordelia, defeated by her sisters, is hung in prison. Lear dies last, his dear daughter in his arms.
The adjective “bitter-sweet” (l.8) hints at both the pleasure the speaker takes rereading the story and aforementioned sad thoughts. The death of the characters actually reminds him he is to die soon.
To summarize, literature acts as a catalyst on Keats since it makes him meditate. And between the images of beauty romances trigger and the unhappy thoughts King Lear provokes, he finally chooses to concentrate on Shakespeare. The reasons of this choice are going to be given in the third stanza.
The third quatrain begins in the same way as the second, with an exclamation. “Chief Poet!” is a characteristic attributed to Shakespeare. In fact, the speaker aims at emphasizing his admiration for the playwright.
Then, Albion is the name given by elders to Great Britain because of its white cliffs -in Latin albus means white. This is also where King Lear takes place.
And a theme, in a work of literature is an idea that the writer develops or repeats. If we take into account this definition,
“Chief Poet! and ye clouds of Albion,
Begetters of our deep eternal theme!” may mean that Shakespeare and Great Britain are the poet’s inexhaustible inspiration.
Next, the speaker identifies with Lear on line 11. When the latter realizes that what Goneril and Regan really want is to chase him away, he leaves. It is a wild and stormy night and he wanders about the fields half mad with misery. So, lines 11 and 12 allude to that very episode in the tragedy. This is an instance of intertextuality.
In addition, we can perceive the presence of heaven in this stanza. First, the phrase “clouds of Albion” reminds us of that biblical place which is usually imagined as being high up in the sky. And spirits walking on clouds are often pictured. Moreover, the fact that Great Britain is named Albion because of its white cliffs conveys the idea of a bridge between earth and heaven or life and death.
Next, the “old oak forest” is highly symbolical. In many traditions, the oak is a sacred tree which is vested with privileges of heaven’s supreme divinity. It is also considered as an intermediary between earth where it puts its roots and the vault of the sky that it touches with its top. That is probably due to its majestic appearance and because it attracts lightning. So, the “oak forest” can be regarded as a sacred and secluded place, in other words as a kind of sanctuary in which the poet roams waiting for his impending death.
Personification is also used as the subject of the predicate “Let me not wander in a barren dream” is not only “Chief Poet” but also “clouds of Albion”. Keats’s fear to die is perceived in that line and begging the deceased playwright to save him is a way of highlighting his sacredness. Let us remind of Keats’s admiration for Shakespeare.
Therefore, the Elizabethan writer and heaven’s importance are dealt with. They are the source of the speaker’s inspiration and his saviour. The final couplet is about the poet’s yearning to be reincarnated.
Lastly, the legend of the Phoenix is introduced. In ancient Greek and Egyptian mythology, it is a bird. When it felt its death approaching -every 500 or 1461 years-, it would build a nest of aromatic wood, set it on fire and was consumed by the flames. When it was burned, a new phoenix sprang forth from the pyre.
In these two lines, the poet compares himself to the mythical bird endowing himself with the same powers as its own, that is those of resurrection and immortality. Indeed, he is tormented by his impending death and yearns to be immortal, what he achieves in a way since 175 years after his death, he is still much read, valued and studied in universities.
To conclude, it is pensive introspection in the form of lyric poetry on a young man’s impending death. We are made aware of Keats’s visionary experience rereading King Lear. His liking for romances is highlighted nevertheless he chooses to concentrate on Shakespeare’s masterpiece as it makes him think about his worries. Indeed, literature acts as a catalyst for meditation. Finally, we focus on the poet’s fear of death and yearning for immortality.