Saturday, October 08, 2005
On the Grasshopper and Cricket
The poetry of earth is never dead
When all the birds are faint with the hot sun,
And hide in cooling trees, a voice will run
From hedge to hedge about the new-mown mead;
That is the Grasshopper's – he takes the lead
In summer luxury – he has never done
With his delights; for when tired out with fun
He rests at ease beneath some pleasant weed.
The poetry of earth is ceasing never;
On a lone winter evening, when the frost
Has wrought a silence, from the stove there shrills
The Cricket's song, in warmth increasing ever,
And seems to one in drowsiness half lost,
The grasshopper's among some grassy hills.
"The poetry of earth is never…" As opposed to the poetry of man, which succumbs occasionally. But like the messiah (to Christians), we live in the hope of its return.
For a reason I'll reveal later, Keats selects a grasshopper to represent the poetry of earth, whose voice runs "from hedge to hedge about the new-mown mead." Keats next asserts that the grasshopper takes "the lead in summer luxury," and is "never done with his delights." "When tired out with fun," he rests "at ease beneath some pleasant weed."
What we have here is an anthropomorphized grasshopper imagined as frolicsome, with circumstantial evidence given in support. I can no longer hide that this is not a deep poem, but I found it too pleasant to ignore. Besides, is it better that our insects go unimagined?
This is an Italian-style sonnet, the first eight lines for one idea, the last six for a responding thought. The English sonnet – three fours rounded off with a couplet (think Shakespeare) – is more argumentative and single-minded. Keats's responding six starts out by reprising his theme:
"The poetry of earth is ceasing never;"
Way cool. His proof is that even in winter you will hear a cricket chirping in the stove, and as it does so you will drowsily hear the echo of the summer grasshopper.
It may be childlike to ascribe purely human impulses to nature, and to think that the highest compliment we can pay to flowers and insects is to imagine them to be like ourselves. But what else but ourselves are we likely to start out with as a basis for comparison? Wordsworth in another poem writes:
"And 'tis my faith that every flower
Enjoys the air it breaths."
The romantics cared and thought a lot about our connection to nature, which true to their label they romanticized. But it is possible to include more than nature and humanity in the equation, and find a higher purpose in this intimation we feel of emotion or at least of some shared sense of yearning between ourselves and the trees. Here's Wordsworth again:
"If this belief from heaven be sent
If such be nature's holy plan
Have I not reason to lament
What man has done to man?"
Well, I started out with Keats and wound up 20 years earlier with Wordsworth, but it's all good. Wordsworth asserts that the intimation of a connection to nature is a divine gift, not to be taken for granted. And his argument is that it is because of this divine gift that we "lament what man has done to man." Presumably, if this belief were not from heaven sent, humans would not have reason to lament such inhumanity. And so it is that our childlike, imagined identification with nature - really our identification of nature with ourselves - has a moral role to play.
I start our reading Keats and Wordsworth and end up asking myself questions about how we're treating our farm animals, and the moral effect that turning our heads from the plight of chickens and pigs (those two especially) in chicken and pig factories is having on ourselves.
Keats wrote his poem on a bet, or as a parlor game, a sonnet competition with Leigh Hunt, who suggested the bug-based title. Mozart and Haydn played a game like that, each trying to write a piano composition the other couldn't play, reducing each other to hitting treble keys with their noses as their hands remained occupied at the far ends of the keyboard.
How do our parlor games compare?