John Keats, “Bards of Passion and of Mirth”

Bards of Passion and of Mirth
John Keats

Bards of Passion and of Mirth,
Ye have left your souls on earth!
Have ye souls in heaven too,
Double-lived in regions new?
Yes, and those of heaven commune
With the spheres of sun and moon;
With the noise of fountains wond’rous,
And the parle of voices thund’rous;
With the whisper of heaven’s trees
And one another, in soft ease
Seated on Elysian lawns
Brows’d by none but Dian’s fawns
Underneath large blue-bells tented,
Where the daisies are rose-scented,
And the rose herself has got
Perfume which on earth is not;
Where the nightingale doth sing
Not a senseless, tranced thing,
But divine melodious truth;
Philosophic numbers smooth;
Tales and golden histories
Of heaven and its mysteries.

Thus ye live on high, and then
On the earth ye live again;
And the souls ye left behind you
Teach us, here, the way to find you,
Where your other souls are joying,
Never slumber’d, never cloying,
Here, your earth-born souls still speak
To mortals, of their little week;
Of their sorrows and delights;
Of their passions and their spites;
Of their glory and their shame;
What doth strengthen and what maim.
Thus ye teach us, every day,
Wisdom, though fled far away.

Bards of Passion and of Mirth,
Ye have left your souls on earth!
Ye have souls in heaven too,
Double-lived in regions new!

Comment:

The bards have left their souls on earth? Usually we say that when a body dies, the soul separates and goes to another realm.

But whatever is integral to the soul is here on earth for the “bards.” So the speaker asks if they also have souls in heaven, and then unhesitatingly answers his own question “yes.” One has good reason to be suspicious of the rest of the poem given how quickly that answer is pronounced.

Still, there is an ordering. The souls of heaven are receptive (“commune”) to three earthly things: the visible motions of the heavenly bodies, the noise of water rushing, and all of human speech. It sounds vaguely Biblical, and it is, in that the end of creation is man. But the souls of heaven also exist in heaven. In heaven, trees “whisper,” the “fawns” explore, and there are at least three sorts of flowers. Some flowers define the limits of the place; some are found on earth, but better there; some are completely undefinable with only earthly experience. Heaven is a realm of knowledge, earth that of myth (no wonder speech was “thund’rous”). The nightingale sings “truth.”

So who exactly are these “bards of passion and of mirth?” Are we talking about poets here? “Regions new” – the undiscovered country, philosophy as exploration of the New World – looms large. These bards sound awfully hedonistic, but “never slumber’d, never cloying” points us in the direction of the truest joy. Fine, but isn’t “Thus ye live on high, and then / On the earth ye live again” pointing at something problematic? It’s like their immortality depends on our half-knowing; the bards deal in things that are sort of true, not entirely true. Why should we respect their love of knowledge, if they’re in a realm when they know everything? Why not just appeal directly to that realm?

The answer is that unless you receive direct visions from God every single waking and sleeping moment in your life, then you’re depending on a “bard” of a sort to get to truth. The bards are not dishonest, in a sense: they’re somewhere, they’d like you to be that place, they have souls left who are willing to work with you to get there. Those other souls who teach are on earth, but are heavenly inspired. There is something heavenly, knowledge of our condition, that is proclaimed on earth with a bit more clarity, since it is in a sense beyond our perspective:

Here, your earth-born souls still speak
To mortals, of their little week;
Of their sorrows and delights;
Of their passions and their spites;
Of their glory and their shame;
What doth strengthen and what maim.

“Passions and their spites” is central, whether this is a list of 3 or a list of 5. If a list of 9, “spites” is the center. These bards are those of “passion” and “mirth,” and the latter can’t be emphasized enough. Often in my studies the question of whether Socrates is a hedonist comes up. I think the question is stupid as all hell, but there are serious scholars who advance this line of thought. I wish it were true, it would make my life a lot easier. A “double-lived” existence in “regions new” means I’ll be lucky if I can track just one object the “bards” have discovered over the course of my life, let alone discuss how that object’s discovery in heaven corresponds with its discovery on earth.

1 Comment

Leave a Comment