10 May 2008

Tender Is the Night

Walking home from a drink with a friend tonight, I started thinking about Keats; it's still early spring here, and the night is indeed tender, hence the thoughts.  I was thinking about "Ode to a Nightingale," and the line in the third stanza in which Keats bemoans the fact that "youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies."  This is always taken as a reference to his brother Tom, who had died of TB just a little while before.  Anyway, thinking about that line made me think, as thinking about Keats always does, of my favorite bit of Keats, from "Ode on a Grecian Urn," where he says to the youth chasing the maiden, "Bold lover, never, never canst thou kiss, / Though winning near the goal - yet, do not grieve; / She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss, / For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!"  And walking through the cool of this tender Arkansas night, I realized that I've been teaching those lines wrongly to my students for three years.  I tell them that Keats loves this moment, and all such moments (because he does like these "just before moments"), because these are the moments in which you anticipate, in which the thing you are anticipating has not yet come and so exists in its extreme of impact:  in this case, because at this moment of anticipation you are still to have your first kiss, and once you have it you'll never have that first again, nor will you have that extreme delighted anticipation.  He loves these moments, I tell them, because, in this delay, the moment of delight both exists and is still to come. 

But I see now that Keats loves these moments because the moment of delight has not yet gone. It's not that you still have your bliss to look forward to.  It's that you're delaying the fading, the inevitable loss.  Youth always grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies, whether or not it has TB: it ages.  But if you never, never kiss, then you delay the moment when the maiden leaves, or grows less fair, or the youth dies, or ceases to love.  There's no achievement, but that means there's no inevitable loss, or pain, either.

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