“The Potency of Song” – Professor Michael O’Neill, Durham University
Launching the Keats Festival 2015 on 28 May was the Keats Foundation Annual Lecture, this year delivered by Professor Michael O’Neill of Durham University. “The Potency of Song” traced Keatsian echoes and resonances through the work of poets whose reading of Keats had significantly influenced the development of their own art. Choosing a range of poems spanning Hardy to Heaney, Michael discussed Keats’s influence as a presence that assisted the genesis of their own poetic originality and expression.
The lecture explored these influences in Hardy’s “At Lulworth Cove a Century Back” as well as “The Darkling Thrush”, “Liberty” by Edward Thomas, “Sunday Morning” by Wallace Stevens, Philip Larkin’s “Essential Beauty”, “Large Bad Picture” by Elizabeth Bishop, and Seamus Heaney’s “ The Harvest Bow”. “The Harvest Bow” in particular was a poem that, under O’Neill’s analysis, sang so richly of the influence of the Odes in its imagery, texture, and sound. The line “Gleaning the unsaid off the palpable” not only perfectly summarised Heaney’s own art, as Michael suggested, but is one that also illuminated so much of what is at work in Keats’s poetry. With its echoes of “To Autumn” the line also captures that sense of something always slightly out of reach and Keats’s own acceptance of the mysterious, without “irritable reaching after fact and reason”.
With Keats’s poetry fresh in their minds, guests took glasses of wine out into the garden of Keats House, full of its own echoes of the poet’s life. In the crisp half-light of the early Summer evening and with the flower-beds in bloom, there was the chance for discussion and for reflection on how, much like Hardy’s speaker in “At Lulworth Cove”, we contextualise and engage with Keats in our own time.
Cara Chimirri, Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich