March 1, 2023

Greeting Susan Wolfson’s Keats in the Company of Chopin

By Stuart Mitchner

He is the most daring and the proudest poetic spirit of his time.

—Robert Schumann on Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849)

There is something of the innermost soul of poetry in everything he ever wrote.

—Alfred Tennyson on John Keats (1795-1821)

At this time last year I was matching the power and poignance of Chopin’s music with television images of  Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, mothers and children fleeing to Poland, gazing out from rain-streaked train windows. For the past week, I’ve been listening again to Chopin while reading Princeton Professor Susan Wolfson’s A Greeting of the Spirit: Selected Poetry of John Keats (Harvard University Press $35). So, no surprise, I’ve been finding Chopin in Keats and Keats in Chopin.

On Chopin’s seventh birthday, March 1, 1817, Keats published his first book, Poems, which contained “To Kosciusko,” a sonnet celebrating the leader of Poland’s 1794 rebellion against Prussian and Russian rule. It’s possible that one of Chopin’s British acquaintances called the poem to his attention during the U.K. visits of 1837 and 1848. Chopin played the last concert of his life on November 16, 1848, at the Guildhall in London, a benefit for Polish refugees (“my compatriots”). He died a year later in Paris.

“Strange Thunders”

Keats’s first book closes with “Sleep and Poetry,” whose “dark mysteries” and “Strange thunders from the potency of song” remind me of Chopin nocturnes such as No. 13 in C minor. On the question of which poet is “most akin to Chopin,” the Polish Music Center ( posts an essay from 1902 suggesting that Keats “often furnishes passages precisely parallel in ideas and method of expression with those of Chopin” while claiming that the “Greek spirit and imagery” in a passage from Endymion (“O Sorrow, / Why dost borrow”) can be found “in Chopin’s scherzos.”

“Fellowship Divine”

The passage from Endymion that actually offers the most striking evidence of a shared spirit is one Wolfson quotes in full “because its momentum is its vitality, enacting what it describes with accumulating verbal drama.”

There’s no need to search for “precise” parallels between Keats and Chopin, no need for documented proof that the poet shares the composer’s “poetic spirit” in lines from Endymion like “the airy stress / Of music’s kiss” or “that which becks / Our ready minds to fellowship divine, / A fellowship with essence; till we shine, / Full alchemiz’d, and free of space.” The sequence beginning “Wherein lies happiness?” achieves the “musical drama” of Chopin in the nocturnesque mood of “old songs” waking “from enclouded tombs.” Reader/listeners recently immersed in that music can hear intimations of Chopin in references to “a sort of oneness,” a state “like a floating spirit’s,” and “richer entanglements” leading to “the forehead of humanity” and the “orbed drop of light … that is love,” until “Melting into its radiance, we blend, / Mingle, and so become a part of it.” A moment of Chopinesque beatitude follows the “ardent listlessness” felt when love blesses the world “with benefits unknowingly.”

At this point the “momentum” Wolfson mentions begins “enacting what it describes,” which, with apologies to scholars of poetics, moves more fluently and forcefully without the line breaks: “for who of men can tell that flowers would bloom, or that green fruit would swell to melting pulp, that fish would have bright mail, the earth its dower of river, wood, and vale, the meadows runnels, runnels pebble-stones, the seed its harvest, or the lute its tones, tones ravishment, or ravishment its sweet, if human souls did never kiss and greet?”

Blown Away

Among the brightest gems in Keats’s first book is the sonnet “On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer,” his “first great poem,” says Wolfson. In a characteristically lively commentary, she quotes eight lines from Alexander Pope’s translation of Homer, the “gold standard” at the time, then cites George Chapman’s rendition of the same passage, underscoring one line (“The sea had soak’d his heart through”) with the comment, “If you read this out loud,” as did the poet and his friends, “you can hear what blew Keats’s mind” (a “greeting of spirit” from the psychedelic 1960s). After rephrasing Keats’s enthusiasm in the words of a witness who said the reading put the poet “into one of his delighted states,” Wolfson sums up: “Sounding out Chapman, Keats comes to life as a poet.”

Two Ballads

A YouTube blogspot called Chopin With Cherries pairs Keats’s “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” with Chopin’s Ballade No. 2 in F Major, Op 38, superimposing on the screen as the music plays Adam Mickiewicz’s “The Nymph of Lake Switez” in an English translation. Again, you don’t need “precise parallels” to appreciate what the two ballads have in common — instead of a knight “alone and palely loitering,” there’s “a lad so comely and young,” and for “la belle dame” a young maid who seems to be “his sweetheart fair,” except no one knows who her parents are or where she’s from, as she croons “come to me, come … and together we’ll dance on the water’s crystal floor … among visions of ravishment.”

After listening to Chopin’s scoring of the undercurrent of mystery and menace, “the silent air,” the only sound “when the dry twigs rustle and break,” then the sudden winds that “through the deepwood spread,” and “the phantoms seen only in dreams,” I couldn’t help wondering what he might have done with “La Belle Dame,” “Ode to a Nightingale,” “The Eve of St. Mark,” or any of Keats’s masterpieces. But why dream of Chopin’s Keats when Keats has already dreamed his own music in a “fellowship with essence”?

“This Living Hand”

“Ending, Unending,” the last chapter of A Greeting of the Spirit, closes with “This living hand,” a fragment not published until the 1898 edition of the Poetical Works. I discovered it (or it discovered me) in the Odyssey Press edition used by my father in graduate school. At 19, I heard the last line of the fragment — “see here it is, I hold it towards you” — as a reaching out, an invitation, that would haunt me that summer, my first abroad, when I stood in the little room in Rome where Keats died at 26; visited his grave in the Protestant cemetery, reading firsthand the “name writ in water” epitaph; and finally at the Keats house in Hampstead, where I saw letters by his hand and  communed with a black cat on the grounds.

Six years later I typed “This living hand” on a single sheet of paper, along with lines from “Ode to a Nightingale” and “Ode on a Grecian Urn”; the other side of the page was filled with the long “Wherein lies happiness” passage from Endymion, complete with line breaks. The page was folded and unfolded many times during hitchhiking adventures in Europe, the Middle East, and India.

Susan Wolfson closes her beautiful book with the lines from Shakespeare’s Sonnet XVIII that Keats underscored in his copy of the Poetic Works: “When in eternal lines to time thou growest: / So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see, / So long lives this and this gives life to thee.” Wolfson’s final thought on Keats in A Greeting of the Spirit: “Shakespeare’s lines mattered to him more than 200 years on, as his eyes scanned the words and brought them to fresh life.”

Poets of March 1

Chopin is monumental, Keats is monumental — a term that seems too grand for other poets linked by birth and death with the first day of March: Thomas Campion and George Herbert in death; Robert Lowell, Richard Wilbur, Howard Nemerov, and Robert Hass (1941—) by birth. Every time my wife and I go for a walk on the D&R Greenway Poetry Trail, I make a point of stopping by the marker for Howard Nemerov (1920-1991), which displays an excerpt from “A Spell Before Winter” that begins “I speak to you now with the land’s voice.” Nemerov spoke to me one midsummer afternoon in Bloomington, Indiana. I was 17. He was handsome, kind, and funny, and we talked about Keats.

Keats and Keeley

Last year at this time, I quoted “To Pelion,” a poem for the Ukrainian moment, which imagines “the mystery ahead” and “the feeling that you’ll never know / What it is when its time has come.” The poet was Princeton Professor Emeritus Edmund (Mike) Keeley, who died the day before the invasion. That was on February 23, 2022. Only now does the poetry of coincidence hit home: John Keats died February 23, 1821 — two poets breathing their last on the same day of the month  200 years apart, both with an abiding love of Greece.


The Labyrinth exhibit of Cliff Tisdell’s paintings about novelist Carson McCullers, originally scheduled to close February 28, has been extended through March.