The Song of Night’s Sweet Bird

Mural painting of nightingale from Pompeii

Mural painting of nightingale from Pompeii

Spiritual Sunday

This past week, while teaching Percy Shelley’s elegy about John Keats (Adonais), I told my students about how lines from stanza 42 grace my eldest son’s gravestone. In today’s post I use the poem to explore where Justin is or in what state he now exists.

Here are the lines we used:

He is made one with Nature: there is heard
His voice in all her music, from the moan
Of thunder, to the song of night’s sweet bird;
He is a presence to be felt and known
In darkness and in light, from herb and stone…

I’ve told the story of how we placed a bench by the gravesite so that friends, students, and other visitors could look into the trees and out over the St. Mary’s River (where Justin drowned) and feel his presence. And of how, in the months and years that have followed, people have continued to bring offerings to the gravesite. At first they brought sprigs of heather and small stones but now they bring oyster shells. These in turn attract children, which is thoroughly appropriate since Justin loved kids and got along very well with them.

But the poem is more than a Wendell Berry-esque vision of our remains becoming part of the cycle of life (as in his poem “Testament,” which I comment on here). The sweet bird that Shelley mentions is the nightingale to which Keats wrote his famous ode. Shelley is saying that we now see nightingales through the lens of Keats’ poem. Or to quote him directly, we hear Keats’ voice in “the song of night’s sweet bird.”

There is yet more. The poem continues on to tell us that Keats’ presence is:

Spreading itself where’er that Power may move
Which has withdrawn his being to its own;
Which wields the world with never-wearied love,
Sustains it from beneath, and kindles it above.

Shelley’s “Power” appears to be his version of the universal soul that Wordsworth talks about in Intimations of Immortality. Wordsworth says that we come into life “trailing clouds of glory…from God who is our home” and that “our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting.” As Shelley sees it, however, the Spirit doesn’t simply sit passively there waiting for us to return but is continually banging on the door of materiality, trying to get in. Here’s the next stanza in Adonais:

He is a portion of the loveliness
Which once he made more lovely: he doth bear
His part, while the one Spirit’s plastic stress
Sweeps through the dull dense world, compelling there
All new successions to the forms they wear;
Torturing th’ unwilling dross that checks its flight
To its own likeness, as each mass may bear;
And bursting in its beauty and its might
From trees and beasts and men into the Heaven’s light.

In this vision, the “dull dense world” checks the flight of “the one Spirit.” It can’t entirely resist it, however, as the Spirit manages to do some shaping of material forms, “torturing th’unwilling dross…to its own likeness.” Whether trees or beasts or men,” all things are shaped by the Spirit in accord with their own inner potential and burst into beauty. Or into colors, as Shelley puts it in a later stanza:

The One remains, the many change and pass;
Heaven’s light forever shines, Earth’s shadows fly;
Life, like a dome of many-colour’d glass,
Stains the white radiance of Eternity,
Until Death tramples it to fragments.

Justin was certainly open to the Spirit—“many-color’d glass” is not a bad way of describing who he was—and when he died he was striving to make contact with “the One.” I didn’t entirely like the way he was doing it as he was looking to fundamentalist Christianity to help him open up. But I honored his search and he never succumbed to the narrow judgmentalism that I see in far too many fundamentalists. He was drawn more to ecstatic experience.

Here’s how poetry comes into the picture. Keats sought to shape the unwilling dross of language to capture this Spirit. (Other artists use music, dance, painting, sculpture, etc.) Keats was as successful as any poet has been, asking in the concluding lines of his nightingale ode, “Was it a vision, or a waking dream? Fled is that music:—do I wake or sleep?” In his articulation, he was able to show us that unwilling dross does not get the last word.

Put another way, when we read Keats’ poetry we get a glimpse of the divine. Here’s Shelley describing how “the last clouds of cold mortality” are “consumed” when Keats’ poetry “beams” on him. It is as though his poetry is a mirror in which we see reflected “the fire for which all thirst”:

That Light whose smile kindles the Universe,
That Beauty in which all things work and move,
That Benediction which the eclipsing Curse
Of birth can quench not, that sustaining Love
Which through the web of being blindly wove
By man and beast and earth and air and sea,
Burns bright or dim, as each are mirrors of
The fire for which all thirst; now beams on me,
Consuming the last clouds of cold mortality.

To bring this back to Justin, Shelley sensed the Spirit from which my son came and to which he returned and helps us feel that Spirit through his words. The magic of poetry is that it tortures resistant words to give up a glimpse of the transcendent.

My father’s upcoming memorial service will be filled with poetry. It will make his presence present.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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