Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Written on a Summer Evening - John Keats

With apologies to my "readership" for a long lay-off, I return to my poetry theme with John Keats "Written on a Summer Evening". What I like about this poem is that it manages to say two completely different things at once.


The church bells toll a melancholy round,
Calling the people to some other prayers,
Some other gloominess, more dreadful cares,
More harkening to the sermon's horrid sound.
Surely the mind of man is closely bound
In some blind spell: seeing that each one tears
Himself from fireside joys and Lydian airs,
And converse high of those with glory crowned.
Still, still they toll, and I should feel a damp,
A chill as from a tomb, did I not know
That they are dying like an outburnt lamp, -
That 'tis their sighing, wailing, ere they go
Into oblivion -that fresh flowers will grow,
And many glories of immortal stamp.


The poem is a sonnet, quite traditional in form and on the face of it presents no great complexity.

In the first quatrain (four lines), we are presented with the "gloomy" and "melancholy" tolling of the bells that is in distinct contrast to the summer's evening on which the poem is written. The bells draw people out of their homes to perform an apparently arid and sterile ritual that is devoid of much joy.

In the second quatrain, the speaker muses on the curious aspect of human nature that allows people to be persuaded to give up the pleasures of the fireside and intellectual conversation to take part in this.

But in the sestet (last six lines) there is an apparently defiant resolution. The bells are only ringing because religion is dying. Soon humanity will be free of it. In its place something much better and much more beautiful will grow: an image that quite clearly draws out the idea of flowers growing in the church graveyard.


No doubt one could remark on the bravery and individualism that would have been required to write a poem like this in the 18th century. But that is not the point of the poem to my mind.

What I think this poem is about is the conflict between the brash self assurance of the (young) writer writing on a summer's evening and the certainty that his life will end and the uncertainty of what there is beyond that life.

When you are young and in the summer of your life, it is easy to scoff at organised religion. But the strong imagery of, and direct references to, death reminds us that one of the reasons people have a religious belief is that it offers some explanation of what happens after death. So, when the speaker makes his bold assertions in the sestet that organised religion is going to die, you get the slight sense that he is trying to convince himself. Behind the bombast and anti-religious rhetoric of the young man, you get the sense of the older man asking "What happens after death? What happens if these guys are right after all?"

This is a poem that seems to me to be saying two completely different things at the same time.


  1. I like the idea of this as a poem with two quite different meanings. Another interpretation is that the listener has a classical sensibility and is observing the gloomy, fishy chuch that has replaced the sublimities of Lydian worship. The speaker comforts himself reflecting that the church will in its turn be obliterated, by the passage of time that brings forth flowers and "many glories" that attend on some new system of belief or knowledge - perhaps the "naturalist" science that so interested poets of Keats's generation.