The latest release from Barbarian Press is a handsome book of poetry titled Fancy: 8 Odes of John Keats. The work contains all five of the ‘Great Odes‘ from Keats (Ode to Psyche, Ode to a Nightingale, Ode on a Grecian Urn, Ode on Melancholy, To Autumn), as well as three others: Ode on Indolence (which is similar to the Great Odes in form and was written in 1819, along with the others), Bards of Passion and of Mirth, and Fancy, from which this book takes its title.
John Keats (1795–1821) is one of the greatest and most influential of all English poets, despite his life being tragically cut short by consumption at 25 years of age. He was hugely unappreciated during his life, with it being estimated that only about 200 copies of his works sold in his lifetime! Crispin Elsted of Barbarian Press elaborates on this, telling us that as Keats was dying, he believed himself to have been a failure. It was his friends that helped that conclusion to be ultimately proven wrong. Mr. Elsted writes:
It was largely through the championship of friends, especially Shelley, that his work was kept in the public eye. Here is Shelley in Adonais, his great elegy for Keats:
He is made one with Nature: there is heard
His voice in all her music, from the moan
Of thunder, to the song of night’s sweet bird . . .
Later, Tennyson, Swinburne, Arnold, and Rossetti held him up to their own generations, and by the mid-Victorian period, forty years after his death, Keats was considered one of the greatest poets in the language.
Of all the English Romantic poets, it is probably Keats who comes first to mind when readers think of the period. He is, with John Clare, the most directly sensual and the least complex of the Romantics, and while much of our understanding of Romantic spirit and thought comes from the writings of the first generation of Romantic poets, particularly Wordsworth and Coleridge, it is Keats’ poems which embody for most readers the essential spirit of the period. He has neither Byron’s acerbity and satirical edge nor Shelley’s political and social pleading. His poetic landscape, unlike Wordsworth’s English countryside, is more a neo-classical ideal, with a whiff of Poussin. His ambit is not the spirit itself, but the senses, and the spiritual resonance the senses draw from nature and art.
Here are some samples from this edition, the first from ‘Fancy’:
Ever let the fancy roam,
Pleasure never is at home:
At a touch sweet Pleasure melteth,
Like to bubbles when rain pelteth;
Then let winged fancy wander
Through the thought still spread beyond her:
Open wide the mind’s cage-door,
She’ll dart forth, and cloud ward soar.
From ‘Bards of Passion and of Mirth‘:
Bards of passion and of mirth,
Ye have left your souls on Earth!
Have ye souls in heaven too,
Double-lived in regions new?
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.
Almost all of ‘Ode to a Nightingale‘ is quite quotable, especially when he pines ‘O for a drought of vintage‘ or thinks of ‘beaded bubbles winking at the brim‘ (this is Books and Vines after all!), but who can forget his words of the inevitability of decay and death:
Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget
What thou among the leaves hast never known,
The weariness, the fever, and the fret
Here, where men sit and hear each other groan;
Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last grey hairs,
Where youth grows pale, and specter-thin, and dies;
Where but to think is to be full of sorrow
And leaden-eyed despairs;
Where Beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes,
Or new Love pine at them beyond to-morrow.
‘Ode on a Grecian Urn‘ is English perfection (though perhaps ‘To Autumn‘ surpasses?)! Art itself, represented by the urn, is timeless, speaking through the ages via infinite beauty that transcends our finite existence. As Keats says:
Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Eventually getting to his most famous lines:
‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty, — that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’
Lastly, from ‘Ode on Melancholy‘, Keats famously equates pain and pleasure, they are simply inseparable:
She dwells with Beauty — Beauty that must die;
And Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips
Bidding adieu; and aching Pleasure nigh,
Turning to poison while the bee-mouth sips:
Ay, in the very temple of Delight
Veil’d Melancholy has her sovran shrine,
Though seen of none save him whose strenuous tongue
Can burst Joy’s grape against his palate fine;
His soul shall taste the sadness of her might,
And be among her cloudy trophies hung.
In short, Keats, especially through his Great Odes, nearly perfects that to which poetry strives (especially Romantic poetry). Helen Vendler, no stranger to Books and Vines readers through her always magnificent introductions to various Arion Press publications, called the Odes “a group of works in which the English language finds ultimate embodiment.”
What greater way to enjoy works of such importance than through an edition published by Crispin and Jan Elsted? The edition is designed in the same format as the 2003 Barbarian Press edition of The Eve of St. Agnes (review by Books and Vines here), and like Eve is also illustrated by the English master wood engraving artist Andy English. Like his work in Eve, here Mr. English provides just the right scale and depth of imagery to complement and enhance the words of Keats without distracting from the emotional flow of the poems. The design and execution of the press work is marvelous. The text is printed in Poliphilus and Blado with Poliphilus Titling for display. Each poem starts with a colorful larger splash of wording, reminding me of Barbarian’s Pericles. I find the use of color and text sizing a masterful way of exciting one’s mental state in preparation of the words to follow (see especially Sample Text #3 – Ode to Psyche and Sample Text #5 – Ode to a Nightingale as examples of what I am trying to convey). The paper is mouldmade Zerkall Book White which has a creamy warmth and substance. The edition is published in two states: a regular bound in quarter green silk with decorated paper, and a Deluxe bound in quarter orange morocco with decorated paper. The Deluxe comes slipcased with a portfolio of proofs of the fifteen text engravings signed and numbered by Andy English. The edition is limited to 90 regular state and 40 Deluxe, with 10 copies hors commerce.
It is very true that works from Barbarian Press do not last long, so those with interest should act quickly. The price is C$430 for the Regular and C$625 for the Deluxe.
About the Edition
- Designed and hand-set by Crispin Elsted
- Printed by Jan Elsted
- Text printed in Poliphilus and Blado with Poliphilus Titling for display
- Printed in various colours with black on Zerkall Book White mouldmade paper
- Sixteen engravings by Andy English printed from the wood
- Regular is bound in quarter green silk with decorated paper, numbered 1 – 90
- Deluxe is bound in quarter orange morocco with decorated paper, numbered I – XL, and slipcased with a portfolio of proofs of the fifteen text engravings signed and numbered by Andy English
- 7″ x 5″, 88 pages
- Published in an edition of 140 copies, 90 as Regular state, 40 Deluxe, with 10 copies hors commerce
- Price: C$430 for regular, C$625 for Deluxe
Pictures of the Edition
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