A Keats Poem for Class Reunions

John Faed, Shakespeare and His Contemporaries at the Mermaid Tavern (1851)

Wednesday

This past weekend I attended my 50th high school anniversary and relived life at Sewanee Military Academy from 1965-69. Some of my former classmates talked of these having been the happiest years of their lives, which brought to mind a poem I learned at SMA while practicing for the regional poetry competition.

In some ways, Keats’s “Mermaid Tavern” is the perfect poem for school reunions.

In the poet’s vision, great Elizabethan authors will never find in Elysium the joy they experienced sitting around Cheapside’s Mermaid Tavern. Those who met monthly in the early 17th century included Ben Johnson, John Donne, John Fletcher, Francis Beaumont, and possibly (although this is disputed) William Shakespeare and Sir Walter Raleigh.  

In Monday’s post I mentioned that Achilles would certainly agree. “Better, I say, to break sod as a farm hand for some poor country man, on iron rations,” he tells a star-struck Odysseus, “than lord it over all the exhausted dead.” Who cares about having one’s name written in the stars if there’s no contact with the earth? Or no drinking?

In his imagination, Keats rectifies the latter problem. If you believe in forever, well you know they have a hell of a poets circle.

The Mermaid Tavern

Souls of Poets dead and gone,
What Elysium have ye known,
Happy field or mossy cavern,
Choicer than the Mermaid Tavern?
Have ye tippled drink more fine
Than mine host’s Canary wine?
Or are fruits of Paradise
Sweeter than those dainty pies
Of venison? O generous food!
Dressed as though bold Robin Hood
Would, with his maid Marian,
Sup and bowse from horn and can.

I have heard that on a day
Mine host’s sign-board flew away,
Nobody knew whither, till
An astrologer’s old quill
To a sheepskin gave the story,
Said he saw you in your glory,
Underneath a new old-sign
Sipping beverage divine,
And pledging with contented smack
The Mermaid in the Zodiac.

Souls of Poets dead and gone,
What Elysium have ye known,
Happy field or mossy cavern,
Choicer than the Mermaid Tavern?
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