Every Good Songwriter Reads Poetry

John Keats, Portrait by William Hilton, after Joseph Severn (National Portrait Gallery, London).

John Keats

And we are here as on a darkling plain Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight Where ignorant armies clash by night

                                   Mathew Arnold, ‘Dover Beach’

Poets don’t get a good rap. The idea of going to a poetry reading is perhaps the least favourite entertainment option available to modern humans. But ask anyone about his or her favourite singer-songwriter and they’ll likely quote you a favourite line or verse. Make no mistake lyrics are poetry – well, good lyrics anyway. And if my recent revelations regarding the plagiarism of songwriters are anything to go by, most songs you admire have probably been ripped off in some way from the poetry of one of the greats. So it is now my sincere contention that every good songwriter should read poetry all the time. Now, I haven’t been reading much of it lately, so I recently picked up the Norton Anthology of English Literature, a tome I read with regularity in my late teens and early twenties. I always considered Mathew Arnold to be a clever chap, so wasn’t surprised to find that on reading his stuff all manner of quality images were dancing about my head. But John Keats was a teenage favourite, so I re-read ‘The Fall of Hyperion: A Dream’. It’s pretty grandiose, which, if you’re anything like me, isn’t a bad thing, and the imagery is spectacular. Check out the opening two stanzas. They’re killer:

Fanatics have their dreams, wherewith they weave  A paradise for a sect; the savage too  From forth the loftiest fashion of his sleep  Guesses at Heaven; pity these have not  Trac’d upon vellum or wild Indian leaf  The shadows of melodious utterance.  But bare of laurel they live, dream, and die;  For Poesy alone can tell her dreams,  With the fine spell of words alone can save  Imagination from the sable charm  And dumb enchantment. Who alive can say,  ‘Thou art no Poet may’st not tell thy dreams?’  Since every man whose soul is not a clod  Hath visions, and would speak, if he had loved  And been well nurtured in his mother tongue.  Whether the dream now purpos’d to rehearse  Be poet’s or fanatic’s will be known  When this warm scribe my hand is in the grave. 

Methought I stood where trees of every clime,  Palm, myrtle, oak, and sycamore, and beech,  With plantain, and spice blossoms, made a screen;  In neighbourhood of fountains, by the noise  Soft showering in my ears, and, by the touch  Of scent, not far from roses. Turning round  I saw an arbour with a drooping roof  Of trellis vines, and bells, and larger blooms,  Like floral censers swinging light in air;  Before its wreathed doorway, on a mound  Of moss, was spread a feast of summer fruits,  Which, nearer seen, seem’d refuse of a meal  By angel tasted or our Mother Eve;  For empty shells were scattered on the grass,  And grape stalks but half bare, and remnants more,  Sweet smelling, whose pure kinds I could not know.  Still was more plenty than the fabled horn  Thrice emptied could pour forth, at banqueting  For Proserpine return’d to her own fields,  Where the white heifers low. And appetite  More yearning than on earth I ever felt  Growing within, I ate deliciously;  And, after not long, thirsted, for thereby  Stood a cool vessel of transparent juice  Sipp’d by the wander’d bee, the which I took,  And, pledging all the mortals of the world,  And all the dead whose names are in our lips,  Drank. That full draught is parent of my theme.  No Asian poppy nor elixir fine  Of the soon fading jealous Caliphat,  No poison gender’d in close monkish cell  To thin the scarlet conclave of old men,  Could so have rapt unwilling life away.  Among the fragrant husks and berries crush’d,  Upon the grass I struggled hard against  The domineering potion; but in vain:  The cloudy swoon came on, and down I sunk  Like a Silenus on an antique vase.  How long I slumber’d ’tis a chance to guess.  When sense of life return’d, I started up  As if with wings; but the fair trees were gone,  The mossy mound and arbour were no more:  I look’d around upon the carved sides  Of an old sanctuary with roof august,  Builded so high, it seem’d that filmed clouds  Might spread beneath, as o’er the stars of heaven;  So old the place was, I remember’d none  The like upon the earth: what I had seen  Of grey cathedrals, buttress’d walls, rent towers,  The superannuations of sunk realms,  Or Nature’s rocks toil’d hard in waves and winds,  Seem’d but the faulture of decrepit things  To that eternal domed monument.  Upon the marble at my feet there lay  Store of strange vessels and large draperies,  Which needs had been of dyed asbestos wove,  Or in that place the moth could not corrupt,  So white the linen, so, in some, distinct  Ran imageries from a sombre loom.  All in a mingled heap confus’d there lay  Robes, golden tongs, censer and chafing dish,  Girdles, and chains, and holy jewelries.

And it gets better. Read the whole poem here.

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photo by: Books18

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