John Keats' "In drear nighted December"

Updated on April 15, 2018
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

John Keats

Source

Introduction and Text of "In drear-nighted December"

Each stanza of Keats' poem consists of eight lines; the rime scheme is unique and must be counted over the entire poem to appreciate the technical skill employed: ABABCCCD AEACFFFD GHGHIIID. The reader will note that the final words in each stanza rime, an unusual touch that enhances the mood of the poem by unifying its suggestions. The rhythm also contributes to the melancholy of the poem.

(Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

In drear-nighted December

In drear-nighted December,
Too happy, happy tree,
Thy branches ne’er remember
Their green felicity—
The north cannot undo them
With a sleety whistle through them
Nor frozen thawings glue them
From budding at the prime.

In drear-nighted December,
Too happy, happy brook,
Thy bubblings ne’er remember
Apollo’s summer look;
But with a sweet forgetting,
They stay their crystal fretting,
Never, never petting
About the frozen time.

Ah! would ‘twere so with many
A gentle girl and boy—
But were there ever any
Writh’d not of passed joy?
The feel of not to feel it,
When there is none to heal it
Nor numbed sense to steel it,
Was never said in rime.

Reading of Keats' "In drear nighted December"

Commentary

John Keats' poem, "In drear-nighted December," dramatizes the constancy of things in nature—a tree and a brook—while showing how differently the human heart behaves.

First Stanza: Musing on a Tree

In drear-nighted December,
Too happy, happy tree,
Thy branches ne’er remember
Their green felicity—
The north cannot undo them
With a sleety whistle through them
Nor frozen thawings glue them
From budding at the prime.

The speaker begins by addressing a "Too happy, happy tree." He muses on the tree's memory as he assumes that the tree does not recall summer, a time of green leaves. He asserts that the branches likely do not remember their "green felicity." The speaker thus asserts that the green leaves were the cause for happiness in the tree. Without the leaves, the tree should possibly lose its happiness or its felicitous state of greenness.

The speaker then asserts that it does not matter the bitterness of winter, in spring those same branches will once again start to bud and again produce that happy greenness of leaves. The cold "north cannot undo them," and the ice that freezes them cannot destroy their creative abilities. Their happiness does not depend upon things they may lose.

Second Stanza: Musing on a Frozen Brook

In drear-nighted December,
Too happy, happy brook,
Thy bubblings ne’er remember
Apollo’s summer look;
But with a sweet forgetting,
They stay their crystal fretting,
Never, never petting
About the frozen time.

The speaker then converses with the frozen brook. Just as the tree did not recall its own better condition in summer, the brook also does not remember its summer state. And like the tree, it is a "happy, happy brook." The "bubblings" of the brook forget about summer and happily go on bubbling even through winter through the ice, never complaining "[a]bout the frozen time."

The brook continues to flow without complaint, without disturbing it surroundings with melancholy. It continues its only occupation, and the human speaker interprets such persistence as happiness.

Third Stanza: Philosophizing on Possibility

Ah! would ‘twere so with many
A gentle girl and boy—
But were there ever any
Writh’d not of passed joy?
The feel of not to feel it,
When there is none to heal it
Nor numbed sense to steel it,
Was never said in rime.

Finally, the speaker begins to philosophize his musing to the possibility of human beings behaving as the tree and brook in winter in the face of their melancholy times when they must endure loss. The speaker through a rhetorical question suggests that humans do not confront their times of loss with evenmindedness. They "writhe" when their joy passes them by.

The speaker then proffers the strange and inaccurate claim that poetry has not been composed on the issue of how it feels "To know the change and feel it, / When there is none to heal it, / Nor numbed sense to steal it." The speaker, no doubt, is suggesting that no solution to the problem is commonly noted, that there is no earthly remedy for the loss of "passed joy." But, of course, poetry is filled with melancholic ponderings of such sadness.

Life Sketch of John Keats

John Keats' name is one of the most recognizable in the world of letters. As one the most accomplished and widely anthologized poets of the British Romantic Movement, the poet remains a marvel, having died at the early age of 25 and leaving a relatively scant body of work. That his reputation has grown more stellar through the centuries attests to the high value placed on his poetry. Readers have come to recognize that Keats works are always enjoyable, insightful, and pleasantly entertaining.

Early Years

John Keats was born in London, October 31, 1795. Keats' father was a livery-stable owner. His parents both died while Keats was still a child, his father when Keats was eight years old, and his mother when he was only fourteen. Two

London merchants took up the responsibility of raising the young Keats, after being assigned to the task by Keats' maternal grandmother. Thus Richard Abbey and John Rowland Sandell became the boy's principal guardians.

Abbey was a wealthy merchant dealing in tea and took on the main responsibility for Keats' rearing, while Sandell's presence was fairly minor. Keats attended the Clarke School at Enfield until he was fifteen years old. Then guardian Abbey ended the boy's attendance at that school so that Abbey could enroll Keats in medical study to become a licensed apothecary. Keats, however, decided to forgo that profession in favor of writing poetry.

First Publications

Lucky for Keats, he became acquainted with Leigh Hunt, an editor of influence at the Examiner. Hunt published Keats' two most widely anthologized sonnets, "On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer" and "O Solitude." As Keats' mentor, Hunt also became the medium through which the Romantic poet gained acquaintance with the two most important literary figures of that period, William Wordsworth and Percy Bysshe Shelley. Through the influence of that literary royalty, Keats was able to publish his first collection of poems in 1817, at the young age of 22.

Shelley recommended to Keats, likely because his young age, that the young poet should hold off on publishing until after he had amassed a more sizable collection of works. But Keats did not take that advice, perhaps out of the very fear that he would not live long enough to amass such a collection. He seemed sense that his life would be short.

Facing the Critics

Keats then published his 4000-line poem, Endymion, only a year after his first poems at been brought out. It appeared the Shelley's advice has been spot on when critics from the two most influential literary magazines of the period, The Quarterly Review and Blackwood’s Magazine, immediately attacked the young poet's herculean effort. Although Shelley agreed with the critics, he felt obliged to make it known that Keats was a talented poet despite that work. Shelley likely went too far and blamed Keats' worsening health issues of the critical attacks.

In the summer of 1818, Keats engaged in a walking tour in the north of England and into Scotland. His brother Tom was suffering from tuberculosis, so Keats retuned home to care for his ailing sibling. It was around his time that Keats met Fanny Brawne. The two fell in love, and the romance influenced some of Keats' best poems from 1818 to 1819. Also during this time, he was composing his piece titled "Hyperion," which is a Milton influenced Greek creation story. After his brother died, Keats ceased working on this creation myth. Later the next year, he took up the piece again, revising it as "The Fall of Hyperion." The piece remained unpublished until 1856, some 35 years after the poet's death.

One of Most Famous British Romantics

Keats published a further collection of poem in 1820, titled Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St. Agnes, and Other Poems. In addition to the three poems that make up the title of the collection, this volume includes his incomplete "Hyperion," "Ode on a Grecian Urn," "Ode on Melancholy," and "Ode to a Nightingale," three of his most widely anthologized poems. This collection received great praise from such literary giants as Charles Lamb, and others, in addition to Hunt and Shelley—all wrote enthusiastic reviews of the collection. Even the incompleted "Hyperion" was eagerly accepted as one of the finest poetic achievements of British poetry.

Keats was now very ill with tuberculosis in its advanced stages. He and Fanny Brawne had continued to correspond, but because of Keats' ill health as well as the considerable time it took for him to engage his poetic muse, the two has long considered marriage an impossibility. Keats physician recommended that the poet seek a warm climate to alleviate suffering from his lung disease, so Keats relocated from cold, wet London to the warmth of Rome, Italy. The painter, Joseph Severn accompanied Keats to Rome.

Keats is one of the most famous names in the British Romantic Movement, along with, William Blake, Anna Laetitia Barbauld, George Gordon, Lord Byron, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Felicia Dorothea Hemans, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Charlotte Turner Smith, and William Wordsworth, despite Keats' dying at the young age of 25 years. The young poet succumbed to tuberculosis, the disease that had plagued him for several years, in Rome on February 23, 1821. He is buried in Campo Cestio, or the Protestant Cemetery or the Cemetery for Non-Catholic Foreigners.

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