Away! Away! for I will fly to thee,
Not charioted by Bacchus and his pards,
But on the viewless wings of Poesy,
Though the dull brain perplexes and retards…
–from Ode to a Nightingale
I have definitely dawdled and procrastinated on this review of the Barbarian Press’ latest treasure, Fancy: 8 Odes of John Keats. Maybe it makes more sense to call it indolence since that is one of the subjects of Keats’ Odes. And unfortunately not because of the “evenings steep’d in honey’d indolence” of which Keats speaks. The business of life has been keeping me from writing but not from reading: I have read and re-read this beautiful, slim volume two or three times since I received it. The poems are masterpieces. We all already know that; whether or not they are to our taste.
But first, a side note. One thing that I have been thinking about a lot lately in my reading is intersection: that “place or point where two or more things come together.” Much of my reading lately has been guided by intersection. As a gift upon completing a 200-hour yoga certification, I was given a copy of Stephen Cope’s The Great Work of Your Life: A Guide for the Journey to Your True Calling. Cope is writing about the necessity of relentlessly pursuing your dharma, your calling, and he uses the examples of ordinary people juxtaposed with well-known people. What is dharma? He gives many views of it, some of the best being:
Every man has a vocation to be someone: but he must understand clearly that in order to fulfill this vocation he can only be one person: himself.
–Thomas Merton (Epigraph)
People actually feel happiest and most fulfilled when meeting the challenges of their dharma in the world, when bringing highly concentrated effort to some compelling activity for which they have a true calling.
Dharma is the essential nature of a being, comprising the sum of its particular qualities or characteristics, and determining, by virtue of the tendencies or dispositions it implies, the manner in which this being will conduct itself, either in a general way or in relation to each particular circumstance.
–René Guénon, from his “Introduction to the Study of Hindu Doctrines”
And in that amazing book of dharma, the Bhagavad Gita, Cope relates that Krishna tells the hero Arjuna to “Look to your dharma!” and that “It is better to fail at your own dharma than to succeed at the dharma of someone else.”
The reason I bring this up is that Keats is one of the well-known people Cope uses as an example of someone recognizing and giving themself up joyfully to their dharma. Intersection! He points out that after recognizing his dharma to be a poet, and before he even considered himself one, Keats first simply took on the persona, following W.H. Auden’s belief that “human beings are by nature actors who cannot become something until they have first pretended to be it.” By the final years of his short life, Keats was fully realized in his dharma, stating “I look upon fine phrases like a lover. Poetry is all I care for, all I live for.” Cope writes that:
These were the months during which he wrote the so-called “Four Odes of May”–On Indolence, On a Grecian Urn, To a Nightingale, and On Melancholy–which would forever seal his reputation. In these odes Keats reached his own ripeness as a poet, “For these few weeks,” says Ward, “he stood at a point of perfect balance, confident in his ability to meet the future, able to contemplate his past with calm, and rejoicing in the beauty of the season, the joy of an answered love, the delight of a mastered craft–the themes of the odes as well as his incentives to writing them.”
These poems sealed his reputation, yes, but not in his lifetime: Keats died without knowing if the world valued what he had to offer but with the satisfaction of meeting his dharma. Needless to say, I highly recommend this book for those interested in Keats. Cope uses other writers like Whitman, Frost, and Thoreau as examples also, as well as others like Corot, Beethoven, Susan B. Anthony, Harriet Tubman, and Gandhi. You might find the story of some of your heroes there.
Fancy is the Sails, and Imagination the Rudder.
–John Keats, in a letter to Benjamin Bailey, 8 October 1817
The standard edition I am reviewing here is one of the sweet little books that Barbarian Press does so well. Fancy is a joy to read partly because of its size and partly because of the craft that went into it. According to the Barbarian Press website it was produced in the same format as the 2003 The Eve of St. Agnes, which I have not seen. But I am quite familiar with the Press’ books of poetry, having reviewed here The Seasons, Venus and Adonis, and The Tamarind Wood and with 21 Small Songs, The Blue Roofs of Japan, Between Rainfalls, and Rumour of a Shark waiting in the wings for a review. While I love to have ALL the poems of poets I like and have my share of huge “collected” and/or “complete” trade editions, it’s nice to have these slim volumes that can be devoured in one sitting or savored over a short respite from the world. This one would almost fit in a pocket if one were bold enough to carry such a treasure that way. As usual, the design is spot-on and elegant. Andy English’s illustrations perfectly fit the feel of the Romantic poets and the use of descending type-size and colored ink at the start of each poem makes it hard to stop reading.
The excerpts from Keats’ letters that introduce each poem are enlightening and illuminating companions to the poetry, bringing a personal feel to each and giving the reader a greater glimpse at the man who wrote them.
Upon flipping through the book for the hundredth time, my eye fixed on the illustration opposite the colophon, and all I could think of was Crispin with a glass of wine, his typesetting done, watching Jan print up the pages.
Let, then, winged FANCY find
Thee a mistress to thy mind…
AVAILABILITY: Fancy was printed in an edition of 130 copies, of which 90 are the standard state reviewed here, and 40 the deluxe state reviewed on Books and Vines. I believe that some of the standard editions are still available direct from the press.