On the night of December 30, 1816, Keats sat beside the fire on a cold British winter’s night with friend and fellow poet, Leigh Hunt. They heard the chirping of a cricket that must have sounded similar to a grasshopper in summer. They agreed to a contest: each would write a sonnet that night on the theme of “The Grasshopper and the Cricket” and compare results.
Keats’s result is below. Several things enchant me about this story. Keats was 21 at the time, the rough age of our students at Sage. He lived in a world in which the options for friendly evening entertainment were more limited than in ours. He and Leigh Hunt could not listen to music at home unless they played the instruments themselves. There were no movies, television, social media, or video games. They could read or play cards—or, in this case, write a sonnet.
The contrast is a reminder of how much our pace of interaction and our sensory stimuli have changed in two centuries. Today’s students are bombarded by commercial entities competing for “mindshare.” We take multi-tasking for granted, even though we know it reduces our efficiency and clarity of thought. I would not characterize Keats’s era as superior to ours; that would be simplistic and nostalgic. But moments that make us reflect on aspects of our current existence that we take for granted are valuable keys to understanding the present.
Still, in many ways, the sentiment of Keats’s poem speaks to us. Our commercial, technological and information overloaded world has not freed us from the seasons or the weather and their effect on us. The winter still reminds us of the power of nature and the enduring cycling of the seasons, and the coming of the New Year still encourages us to reflect on past and future.
Here’s what Keats came up with on that cold night by the fire:
On the Grasshopper and the 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.
Keats uses the Italian (or Petrarchan) sonnet form, dividing the fourteen lines into an octave and a sestet (an eight-line and a six-line section). Here the eight-line piece imagines the grasshopper in summer; the six-line conclusion invokes the winter cricket. The conceit is that, to a drowsy listener by the fire, the sound of the winter cricket reminds the listener of the summer grasshopper and he briefly believes he is back in the lazy summer of long days.
A simple enough idea. What connects the two sections is a line repeated with slight variation. It is one of those one-in-ten-thousand poetic lines: “The Poetry of earth is never dead,” echoed later as “The Poetry of Earth is ceasing never.”
Like many great moments in poems it presents an idea that is not original but very familiar. Who has not noticed the beauty of nature enduring through seasonal changes? The tree in your yard that is covered with flowers in the spring, lush with green in summer, brilliantly colored in autumn, and a jagged black silhouette in winter.
I appreciate the sentiment this time of year in the lovely little urban gardens at Sage, designed to provide different kinds of seasonal beauty. Stunning in fall, elegant in winter. See the pictures of two of the gardens Virginia Stowe (RSC ‘65) gave in honor of her grandchildren.
But Keats does not write “the beauty of nature is always with us.” Instead, he uses a metaphor and speaks of “the poetry of earth,” which ties the beauty of nature to the composition of his own poem. Indeed, Keats is decidedly not a nature poet; he is more interested in the imagination. Even his famous nightingale is a means to escape the world that surrounds him into one he imagines. And, in this simpler poem, the poem and the poet’s imagination are powerful enough to briefly transform winter into summer.
A true Romantic poet, Keats echoes Wordsworth who described the sensations of eye and ear in terms of what they “half create , and what perceive.” His poem creates a spark that crosses the century from his brief life to ours. In between his very different era and our own, the seasons have turned two hundred and two times, and generations have shuddered against the cold in England and in New York. And through it all, poetry and imagination have offered comfort when the frost has wrought a silence.
As 2018 comes to an end, may the richness of nature, poetry and your imagination keep you warm through the winter nights. Happy Holidays and Best Wishes for the New Year!