Blue is the colour. On a lesser known sonnet by John Keats.
We all know the blockbusters – Bright Star and On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer. These are Keats’ Yesterday and Let It Be. But what of his other sonnets? Outside academia they are little known. Yet some are exquisite – and worth committing to memory to pull out on a rainy day. That’s the joy of sonnets. They fit easily into the pocket of the mind. This one is a case in point; on the face of it, an ode to a sunny day, that becomes something more.
Blue! ‘Tis the life of heaven,–the domain
Of Cynthia,–the wide palace of the sun,–
The tent of Hesperus and all his train,–
The bosomer of clouds, gold, grey and dun.
Blue! ‘Tis the life of waters–ocean
And all its vassal streams: pools numberless
May rage, and foam, and fret, but never can
Subside if not to dark-blue nativeness.
Blue! gentle cousin of the forest green,
Married to green in all the sweetest flowers,
Forget-me-not,–the blue-bell,–and, that queen
Of secrecy, the violet: what strange powers
Hast thou, as a mere shadow! But how great,
When in an Eye thou art alive with fate!
It’s a magnificent riff on the theme of blue. Yet unlike Picasso’s melancholy series, this is an ecstatic dance; a burst of joy; a glorious daubing of the colour. You can easily imagine Keats strolling out on the heath, peering up from beneath the brim of his top hat, beneath a basin of pure blue sky. Remarkably, we know the date he wrote it: Sunday, 8 February 1818 – and it was a good omen – because it preceded what was to be London’s longest and warmest summer in years.
The poem’s conceit is simple. It’s a defence of blue – a riposte to lines written by fellow poet J.H. Reynolds, who argued:
dark eyes are dearer far
Than orbs that mock the hyacinthine-bell.
Reynold’s poem is sadly not worth repeating in full. It’s a lightweight thing, too clever by half, and caught up in its own contrariness, making the case for brunette over the blonde (the ‘tresses dusk’ rather than ‘the golden clusters’) and dark eyes over blue.
Keats’ poem transcends its casual origins and becomes a luminous, freshly minted thing in its own right. Perhaps it owes its spontaneity to the speed and circumstances in which it was conjured. In the joy of the game, the spirited sparring between the poets, it has a zest it might not otherwise have had, had he laboured over it in the dark. Perhaps a first draft was dashed off in a moment of good humoured indignation.
The poem is exceptionally vivid, and intensely visual: the brightness of the star is offset by the duller colours of the clouds, which are ‘gold, grey and dun.’ The sonnet has a painterly quality to it, yet unlike a painter, restrained by a single canvas, a poet can transport us from one scene to another. With its jump cuts from sky to sea to forest, it’s more like a short film.
It’s a poem in three parts: first the sky, or, as seen through his extravagant metaphor: ‘the wide palace of the sun.’ The long and open vowel sounds of ‘domain’ ‘and all his train’ give a sense of its epic scale. It’s not so much a sky as a sweeping theatre. The fact that he metaphor-hops from ‘palace’ to a ‘tent’ to a voluptuous woman (‘The bosomer of clouds’) gives you a feel for Keats’ mood – drunken on its endless bounty, struggling to contain it in a single idea. There are a couple of classical allusions – Cynthia is a name for the Greek goddess of the moon, nature and hunters. She was born on the eponymous Mount Cynthus on the sacred island of Delos under those dazzlingly blue skies. Hesperus is the bright evening star.
But then he abandons the idea of the sky altogether. It’s not enough. Next comes the water; oceans and ‘pools numberless.’ Like these, the sonnet overflows, the line endings spilling over. The alliteration of ‘rage and foam and fret’ creates an unstoppable tumult. ‘Ocean and all its vassal streams’ is masterful; the lines themselves coarsing like clear streams through the poem.
Then we’re back on dry land; in the woods, where blue is ‘the gentle cousin of the forest green.’ Its ‘strange power’ here is how it accents the other colours; and where as a shadow of green, has transformative properties. It’s a clever trick. Keats is not trying to out punch his own bombastic phrasemaking with the sea and sky, but instead focuses on the colour’s quieter alchemy. The coy ‘forget me not and ‘the queen of secrecy, the violet’ are small miracles in themselves, which in their miniature perfection are every bit as breath-taking as the sea or sky.
Is the sonnet overblown? Possibly. But Keats is too much an artist to allow his tsumani of metaphors and images to dominate the poem. The focus-pull from the wide shots to the delicacy of those forest flowers shows he’s totally in control of his material.
And then comes the coup de grace. Forget how blue floods nature, and electrifies the world. ‘When in an eye’ it truly comes into its own, bringing humanity to life. It’s a stunning closer; no matter what miracles we find in the natural world, nothing comes close to the miracle of our own existence – brought to life here by the blue of an eye ‘alive with fate.’ There’s a note of vulnerability and transcience here too, that gives it an added poignancy. Our mortality makes the perfect imperfect.
There’s an interesting postscript. Eric Ormsby, in his review of Andrew Motion’s fine biography remarked on Keats’ own eyes:
‘whose exact color none of his friends could later remember but whose flashing vivacity none of them ever forgot.’
Commit this sonnet to memory and bring it out at the beach, or at a picnic that’s been rained off, as a gift from the pocket of your mind. This might be a Keats B-side, but like The Beatles, even his B-sides made mincemeat of the competition.