EMAIL the Man!
The poem "On Sitting Down to Read King Lear Once Again" by John Keats is a sonnet about Keats’ relationship with the drama that became his idea of tragic perfection, and how it relates to his own struggle with the issues of short life and premature death. Keats uses the occasion of the rereading this play to explore his seduction by it and its influence on himself and his ways of looking at himself and his situation in spite of his negative capability.
From the first few lines Keats alludes to the great romances of the previous ages as opposed to William Shakespeare’s great tragedies. While it could be discerned that Keats is referring to his poem Endymion: A Poetic Romance, the underlying meaning of the lines remains. Keats writes "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." (Lines 1 - 4). Keats here is shutting out the idyllic romantic notions he cannot at this time cling to due to the ever present spectre of death that hangs above him. Keats forsakes the romantic here leaning instead toward the tragic, which is what he perceives his short life to be. In these opening lines Keats seems to be a desperate, and morose storyteller who forbids himself the taste of the ideal, regardless of how strong a pull romance has for him. Keats is forced to command the romance to "Shut up thine olden pages and be mute!" (4) in order to pull himself away from it. This shows not only the strong attraction romance holds for Keats, but also Keats’ recognition of the Romance as a personified thing he can converse with and bid "Adieu!" (5). The use of the word "Syren" (2) in reference to Keats’ personified Romance further illustrates that this Romance (be it a general reference to romances he enjoys reading, or a reference to his own Endymion) is nearly irresistible and could lead him with its song to a fate worse than death for Keats, that being fading out of existence and memory, and thus ceasing to be.
The second quatrain gives the reader the insight of the reasons why he must pull himself away from the pull of the Romance and focus on the tragedy. Keats writes "once again, the fierce dispute/ Betwixt damnation and impassion’d clay/ Must I burn through," (5 - 7). This shows that while tragedy, in this case King Lear, may not be as attractive as the "fair plumed Syren" (2) he forsakes, it is much more necessary for Keats to "burn through" (7) tragedy in order to concentrate on his own impending mortality. As Keats forces himself to "burn through; once more humbly assay/ The bitter-sweet of this Shakesperian fruit" (7 - 8) Keats is faced with that that is bitter (his knowledge of his mortality), and that that is sweet (his learning how to become immortal). In the line "Chief Poet! And ye clouds of Albion." (9) it can be seen that Keats addresses both Shakespeare and England as if both were friends were friends as dear, all be they of different qualities, as the Syren of romance. Keats’ use of the term "Albion" (9) identifies England in the terms used in an earlier time by the ancient Kelts. As King Lear is set in Keltic Britain we can see which piece of "Shakesperian fruit" (8) Keats is bearing here. Line 10 proceeds to identify the Bard and England as "Begetters of our deep eternal theme" (10). While it could be easy to explain that line 10 is a mere statement of Keats’ patriotism to his mother country, which Keats would see as unending, and her greatest writer, further dissection shows that Keats sees England as his "eternal theme" (10), that being the place in which his remains will be interred eternally. Also the chief poet, being William Shakespeare, has achieved (and has granted) by Keats’ lifetime the very immortality that Keats writes of in so many of his poems. Lines 11 - 14 show Keats’ wish, in the form of a plea to England and to Shakespeare, to attain the immortal existence in memory that he seeks in his life and in his poetry. He alludes to this by writing "When through the old oak Forest I am gone…" (11), which is a representation of his journey through life placed in the context of an oak forest image (either an allusion to King Lear or to the romance of Endymion which he was working on at the time of the writing of this poem). "Let me not wander in a barren dream" (12) could be an allusion to Lear’s stupefied wanderings after being dethroned and humiliated, but it is probably also a use of imagery to describe his lack of desire to wander through the afterlife unaccompanied by those who live, but to accompany the living within their memories. The ending couplet uses the image of the Phoenix whose death brings new life. "When I am consumed in the fire,/ Give me new Phoenix wings to fly at my desire." (13 - 14) reinforces Keats’ need to live to live on past his inevitable youthful death in the only way he knows how, through his writing.
Keats, in "On Sitting Down to Read King Lear Once Again", chooses to entice the reader with images of beauty that misleads the poet from his primary duties (shown here as the Syrens) being set aside for the more paramount need of pensive introspection in the form of lyric poetry on a young man’s impending death. He shows that to achieve his best destiny he must write for his memory. Allusions to King Lear and the classical image of the Phoenix accomplish this for him along with symbols from ancient England. While his pleas for life may have seemed in vain at the time it is clear that Keats has succeeded in accomplishing the transition of the Phoenix into immortality, as Keats still lives on over one hundred seventy five years after his death in his poetry and our memories
ON SITTING DOWN TO READ KING LEAR ONCE AGAIN by John Keats
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 (5) 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! (10) 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 END 1816