Spencer

Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!’:
The Afterlife of Keats in the Poetry of Anne Stevenson

In the seventh stanza of John Keats’s ‘Ode to a Nightingale’, the speaker both laments the evanescence of human life, and celebrates the enduring nature of the art inspired by, and created as a stay against, that very transience. The speaker imagines that the ‘plaintive anthem’ of the nightingale, that ‘immortal Bird’, has been, and will continue to be, heard throughout the ages:1

 

Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!
No hungry generations tread thee down;
This voice I hear this passing night was heard
In ancient days by emperor and clown:
Perhaps the self-same song that found a path
Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home,
She stood in tears amid the alien corn;
The same that oft-times hath
Charm’d magic casements, opening on the foam
Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.
(II.61-70)

 

[T]hat music’, we are told, will continue to sound long after the passing of the speaker’s ‘sole self’: ‘Still wouldst thou sing, and I have ears in vain / To thy high requiem become a sod’, he praises (ll.59-60). Keats, then, recognised that through his art the poet might achieve an immortality of sorts, a transcendent flight upon ‘the viewless wings of Poesy’ far above the cruel ravages of ‘Death’ and ‘palsy’ (ll.33, 53, 25). The poet leaves behind his work as a bequest to subsequent generations to be read, re-read, reinterpreted, reworked, and reinvigorated. This is a persistent idea in poetry, for example in W.H. Auden’s 1939 poem, ‘In Memory of W.B. Yeats’, where he suggests that, ‘The words of a dead man / Are modified in the guts of the living’ (ll.22-23), a visceral, even disquieting image that perhaps owes something to Keats’s ‘hungry generations’.2 Whereas Keats suggests that these ‘hungry generations’ might prevent the endurance of the ‘immortal Bird’, Auden suggests that ‘the guts of the living’ as the very means of the poet’s survival.

Anne Stevenson is a poet acutely attuned to the complexities of the relationships that exist between the textual bequeathals of the ‘dead’ and the literary endeavours of the ‘living’. Stevenson’s poetry, particularly her later work, teems with the ghosts of poets past. In the final section of Poems 1955-2005, titled ‘In Memoriam’, we find elegies for fellow poets who were also close friends or acquaintances, for example, Elizabeth Bishop, Frances Horovitz, Michael Standen, and Harry Fainlight, but also elegies for those poets with whom Stevenson shared (or shares) a purely textual, rather than a personal, relationship, for example, Sylvia Plath. Peter Sacks notes that in Ancient Greece the right to inherit was closely linked to the right to mourn, and that ‘ancient law prevented anyone inheriting unless he mourned.’3 The function of elegy is two-fold, then: to channel the negative psychic energy of mourning into the ‘placid, authentically organised currents of language’, and to stake one’s claim as a poet worthy to mourn the deceased and perhaps even to assume their recently vacated position.4 The writing of an elegy is thus a means of self-placing; of avowing allegiances, declaring debts, and revealing ambitions.

Stevenson’s elegies demonstrate an intelligent alertness to the ethical as well as aesthetic convolutions of the genre. In ‘Invocation and Interruption (i.m. Ted Hughes)’ (2000), the ghost of Hughes, a ‘Gigantic iron hawk / coal-feathered like a crow’, intones:

 

The underworld was always a metaphor,
the life after life in which poets
are remade by their interpreters.
(ll.24-26)5

 

Though the poem presents itself as a struggle for control between the elegist and the elegised subject, any loss of authority is a feint on the poet’s part. Even the most vehement of Hughes’s protestations (‘And don’t tell me who I was!’, ‘And still I’m… | an invention of my own imagination’ (ll.52, 62-63), are the elegist’s own words ventriloquized through the figure of the dead poet. Though the title ‘Invocation and Interruption’ suggests uncertainty as to whether this ‘shade’ has been invoked or has appeared unbidden, neither is the case. In revealing that the underworld is nothing but a ‘metaphor’, Hughes’s ghost undermines the possibility of his own existence. He is a figment of the poet’s own imagination, not invoked but created.

  1. John Keats, ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ in The Complete Poems, ed. by John Barnard, 3rd edn. (London: Penguin Books, 1973; repr. 2003), lines 75 and 61, p. 346. []
  2. W. H. Auden, ‘In Memory of W.B. Yeats’ (1939), Collected Poems, ed. by Edward Mendelson (New York: Random House, 1976), p. 197. []
  3. Peter Sacks,The English Elegy: Studies in the Genre from Spenser to Yeats (Baltimore and London: John Hopkins University Press, 1985), p. 37. []
  4. Sacks, p. 14. []
  5. Anne Stevenson, ‘Invocation and Interruption (i.m. Ted Hughes)’, Poems 1955-2005 (Tarset, Northumberland: Bloodaxe Books, 2004), p. 389. []

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