8 Nov 2022
On viewing the
original manuscript of
‘Ode to a Nightingale’,
Keats House, Hampstead,
200 years later
'Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!'
from Keats' Ode to a Nightingale (1819)
Light-winged pages, you are spread like hands, as if
supplicated by the invisible pins of a lepidopterist’s
craft. This room is dim around you, velvet blinding
the window’s bright eye. Here, where the pad of Keats’
thumb smoothed your joints, are his words and your
music: starry footprints inking staves and notes across
parchment. You are fragile, dear Nightingale, but safe
in your case of glass, incubating your mythology yet.
Captured and recorded – when? and where? – a piped
facsimile of passerine syrinx makes merry, calling to
mind what we have lost. In this house in its garden,
the song remains – but the singer, mortal bird, does not.
Behind the poem...
While my poem borrows some of the language and imagery of Keats’ famous poem Ode to a Nightingale , it goes further by considering it as an object. Seeing the handwritten manuscript at Keats House, I was struck by its fragility: by how this contrasts with the extraordinary longevity of Keats’ words over the past two centuries. I also considered the precarious existence of the nightingale itself – and of many other bird and animal species. In that dim, curtained room, electronic birdsong piped in, I felt I needed to write a response both ekphrastic and ecological.