Before I begin this reader-request, I need to say that I’m astonished that anyone actually put this into a search engine. However, here goes the answer…
First off, the poem. I would like to assume that anyone who has got this far has read the poem (unless you’re just browsing, in which case you’re fine), but experience suggests that that might not actually be true for everyone.
So here it is:
GIVE me a golden pen, and let me lean
On heap’d up flowers, in regions clear, and far;
Bring me a tablet whiter than a star,
Or hand of hymning angel, when ’tis seen
The silver strings of heavenly harp atween:
And let there glide by many a pearly car,
Pink robes, and wavy hair, and diamond jar,
And half discovered wings, and glances keen.
The while let music wander round my ears,
And as it reaches each delicious ending,
Let me write down a line of glorious tone,
And full of many wonders of the spheres:
For what a height my spirit is contending!
’Tis not content so soon to be alone.
First off, a little context. This is an album verse — something written for a friend at a party, in the same way that we might gather a group into a corner for a mobile phone picture. If that sounds a crass comparison, it is not. Because — seriously — this is one of the worst poems Keats ever wrote.
So, to analysis.
The subject of this poem is, quite simply, the writing of this poem. It’s a bit like the endless train of would-be songwriters writing songs about how hard it is to write a song. In terms of the lines that actually carry meaning, the poem goes like this:
Give me a … pen … [and something to] lean [on]. Bring me a [notebook]. [Put some] music [on] … and … let me write down [a really good poem] [because I really don’t want to leave yet and be on my own].
For those who have forgotten, the theme is the poet’s approach in the poem which cuts across the subject. In this particular case, the theme is more or less identical to the subject. Keats is writing a poem about writing a poem. There is no more theme than that.
If you read this poem out loud, the rhythm is quite oppressive. You really can’t read it without getting into wilder and wilder flights of lilting, emotional fancy. It starts at a fairly high rhythmic and emotional level, rises and rises, until ‘And half-discovered wings, and glances keen’. In fact, the w hole poem up to that point is punctuated as if it were a single sentence. It loses some momentum after that, dipping in the penultimate line. The rhythmic effect is not unlike Mark Antony’s famous speech in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, ‘Friends, Romans, country men, lend me your ears, I come to bury Caesar and not to praise him. The evil that men do lives after them, the good so oft interred with their bones…’ However, by contrast with Mark Antony’s speech, which is perfectly poised as the fulcrum of the play, and deals with the reputation of one of history’s greatest figures, this poem is simply over-written, self-aggrandising, bombastic.
However, for the sake of something positive, it is interesting to note that the the over-written rhythm lets up in the final two lines, which are the part of the poem which actually has something to say.
The imagery is this poem’s most obvious stylistic feature, and its greatest downfall. We have a welter of epitome, symbol, comparative and metaphor, and a procession of adjectives and adverbs qualifying these already visual and sensual devices.
Give me a [Golden Pen — epitome of fine writing]
[heaped-up flowers — not just flowers, but a huge quantity of flowers]
[tablet whiter than a star — comparative, which functions like a simile on steroids. Keats could have written ‘white like a star’, but he chose to go bigger with ‘whiter than a star’]
[hand of … angel — a symbolic rather than a literal angel]
And so it continues.
This is a poem in which Keats has put as much verbal pressure as possible onto his lines. However, there is no visually or sensually compelling image. We have golden pens, heaped-up flowers, stars, angels, pink robes, wavy hair, the music of the spheres. There is no particular connection between these words. More importantly, we do not get a sense until the very last two lines that Keats even cares about any of the things he is writing. This contrasts very sharply with To Autumn, where the sight, sense and smell of autumn flows out of very line and straight into our minds. Keats here uses words which normally conjure up pictures and memories, but he uses them in such a random, unfocused way that they create no impression whatsoever.
Perhaps that is the problem that the original person (or persons, as it arrived several times) were troubled by when they posed the original question. With so much froth, what is this poem about?
Not all combinations of words mean anything. The lyrics to American Pie have been widely exposited and, even if not everyone agrees on every line, it’s clear that it is full of very literal symbolism (the quartet=The Beatles, Jack Flash=the Rolling Stones, the day the music died=the day Buddy Holly died, etc). By contrast, Stairway to Heaven has been equally widely exposited, but with no agreement on what it means. This is not necessarily a weakness. The lyrics evoke a series of visual impressions and feelings, all of which revolve around the notion of hope. But, by contrast with either of these, Black Lace’s Agadoo has no real meaning at all, although the original French version did have a meaning — it was a song about a fruit seller in Tahiti who played the ukelele.
This is Keats’s Agadoo, not his Stairway to Heaven.
This is a fourteen line, loosely iambic pentameter poem.
The rhyme scheme is: abba abba cdecde
This is the standard pattern for an Italian (rather than Shakespearian) sonnet, and is, for example, identical to the rhyme scheme used by John Milton in On his blindness.
In rhythmic terms, then, this is a sonnet. But only in rhythmic terms. Normally speaking, the first four lines, or quatrain, of the sonnet puts forward a thought, and the second another thought. Together, this octet sets forth a question which is answered by the closing six lines, the sestet. There is no such development in this poem. In fact, there is no development at all. No problem is proposed, until the very final line, and no answer is provided.
To be fair to Keats, we could say that this fulfils all the requirements for the form of a sonnet. However, there is no functional purpose to this form. Modern readers encounter very few sonnets, and are generally unaware of them when they do (unless they count the lines). Readers in the tradition in which Keats was writing would have instantly spotted the sonnet form, even if they could not explain its attributes. The sonnet was as familiar a form to them as a pop song is to us. A pop song goes intro-verse-chorus-verse-chorus-middle eight-chorus-chorus-outro (and, yes, song writers really do talk about ‘outros’ as well as ‘intros’), with possibly an additional verse-chorus pair, and maybe a bridge between the verse and the chorus. There may also be a key change in the final chorus, or the reintroduction of a verse, possibly with an instrumental. This may sound a rather loose form, but we experience so many songs written in this way that we are fully aware of the variations. A song without a middle eight feels like it is missing something. A song which doesn’t repeat its tunes seems strange and disorganised. To many people writing songs, this is the natural way to write. But there have been, in the past, many other ways.
Sonnet readers and writers were in a similar position. So, when there is no question set up in the first quatrain, and no development in the second, and therefore no conclusion in the third, the sonnet feels empty, incomplete.
What is the effect of this poem? Not a great one, I’m afraid. This is by far the weakest poem in the Keats canon. Romantic poets endlessly struggled to give the impression that their poems were works of inspiration, dashed off in the rush of the experience. We know that, for Keats, this was most often not the case: we have various versions of some of his poems, and he was an inspired reviser. This poem genuinely gives the impression that it was written in one go, and that Keats had not thought much about it before he started writing. In fact, we have the distinct impression that he set off with a flourish of verbal brilliance in the hope that he would have found something to write about before he finished. His final line should have been the poem’s beginning: “‘Tis not content so soon to be alone.” Stylistically, this would have chimed much more with “No, no, go not to Lethe…”, “Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness…”, “My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains my sense”. Keats at his best begins with a (relatively) profound thought, and then develops it. This poem hunts around for a purpose, and by the time it has been found, the 14 lines are used up.