Of the major figures of the Harlem Renaissance, Countee Cullen had the clearest links—formally, stylistically, and spiritually—to the heritage of British Romanticism and above all, to the work of Keats. In terms of thematic material, Cullen mines some of the same territory as other great early 20th-century American neo-Romantics such as Hart Crane and Wallace Stevens, although Cullen is stylistically the most conservative of the three. Cullen’s elegy to Keats, which was published in his first volume, Color (1925), rehearses Romantic poetic conventions by apostrophizing the late poet as an embodiment of both lyric creativity and the beauty of nature.
Self-consciously traditional in its form (rhymed iambic tetrameter), the poem is framed as an utterance that cannot be contained: “I cannot hold my peace, John Keats / There never was a spring like this; / It is an echo, that repeats / My last year’s song and next year’s bliss” (1-4). As Wordsworth did in “Tintern Abbey,” Cullen ties the external scene—the seasons and the landscape—to the poet’s mental topography, with a poetic subjectivity defined temporally by its relationship to a remembered past and an anticipated present. The depiction of Keats as “[p]oor, troubled, lyric ghost,” follows a received tradition, beginning with Shelley’s elegy “Adonais,” which saw Keats as a tragic, fragile figure whose commitment to ideals of truth and beauty could not survive encounters with a degraded world. The obvious connection between Keats, who died in early adulthood, and the fleeting, evanescent beauty of spring, underlines the poem’s next lines: “Spring never was so fair and dear / As Beauty makes her seem this year” (9-10). The adjective “dear” adds an ambiguous note; spring may be dear in the sense that it is to be cherished and held close, but also perhaps in the sense that it is costly, and requires sacrifice from those who seek communion with her.
In the second stanza the speaker positions himself as weak in the face of the beauty of spring: “helpless” in its “toil” like a “lamb that bleats / To feel the solid earth recoil / Beneath his puny legs” (12-15). In the tradition of Romantic lyrics like Coleridge’s “Frost at Midnight” and Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind,” nature performs labor and asserts agency: it issues a “call to those who love her,” and “for her sake/All things that slept are now awake” (15-16, 23-24). The transformation of the natural world is described with a characteristically Keatsian lushness of sensual, even erotic, imagery that simultaneously play on several different senses: “dogwood petals cover / [Spring’s]” breast (17-18), the “white gulls…kiss her cheek” (19-20), and “white and purple lilacs muster / A strength that bears them to a cluster / Of color and odor” (21-23). The diction and imagery call to mind Keats’s great pastoral ode “To Autumn,” as well as the famous line that “[t]he poetry of earth is never dead” from “On the Grasshopper and the Cricket.” The end of the stanza returns to direct address to the interlocutor: this same energy of spring now awakening the natural world, the speaker suggests, should awaken him and Keats as well: “[a]nd you and I, shall we lie still, John Keats, while Beauty summons us?” (25-26).
The next lines invert this relationship between the natural world and the departed poet, as Keats’s spirit is transformed into a source of the earth’s life force: “[s]omehow I feel your sensitive will / Is pulsing up some tremulous / Sap road of a maple tree (27-29). This subtle, seemingly effortless transition actually references one of Romanticism’s most vexing problems: whether poetry (or the individual consciousness) reflects the natural world, or whether it is the poet’s subjectivity that invests Nature with meaning. Keats’s “[w]ild voice” causes the tree’s leaves to “[g]row music as they grow,” suggesting a seamless unity between natural creation and artistic creation (30-31). Keats’s poetry enacts a final triumph of life over death; it is a “harp that grieves / For life that opens death’s dark door” (31-32). Yet these lines retain a haunting ambiguity. The harp “grieves” for life precisely because it is closed off from it.
Cullen gives us Keats the poet as midwife to a sublime moment of union with nature: “[t]hough dust, your fingers still can push / The Vision Splendid to a birth” (33-34)—lines eerily reminiscent of one of Keats’s briefest, most enigmatic, and most disturbing poems, “This Living Hand, Now Warm and Capable.” Though Keats can no longer write poetry in tangible books, his poetic labor carries on in the form of “grass in the hush / Of the night on the broad sweet page of the earth” (35-36). For all the major Romantic poets, books and nature were privileged spiritual resources that shared a kind of unity as modes of revelation; in Wordsworth’s The Prelude, for instance, they are the two great teachers in the formation of the poet’s character. By continuing to write poetry as though embodied in the earth’s regenerative processes, Keats has gained a kind of immortality.
Yet that immortality needs a third mediating figure, the speaker, to bring it into being. Keats / nature’s labor depends upon an observer, to recreate the act of poetic creation through a sympathetic exercise of the imagination. This is underscored in the final stanza, which binds the speaker to Keats against an external world that is deaf to his power. “They say” that Keats is dead, “but I who hear your [Keats’s] full insistent cry” in the natural world “know John Keats still writes poetry” (37-40). The close of the poem pans out to the external setting; we now see the speaker staring down at the ground, wondering at the beauty of nature in a kind of dizzy rapture informed by Keats’s poetry: “my head is earthward bowed / [t]o read new life from your shroud” (41-42). The act of “read[ing] new life” furthers the metaphoric equivalence of books and nature; Keats’s poetry, and the speaker’s open-hearted reception of it, enables the access to the new life that transforms and revivifies the speaker’s consciousness. The speaker’s attitude towards nature is reverent, like a pilgrim, “earthward bowed.” Here, the “troubled ghost” of Keats functions much like Dorothy Wordsworth as the silent interlocutor of “Tintern Abbey,” a fellow “worshipper of nature” who mirrors the speaker’s reverence; though, unlike “Tintern Abbey,” the speaker’s interlocutor takes the role of teacher rather than student.
This spiritual appreciation for the earth is again defined against outsiders who prosodically pass the speaker by: “Folks seeing me must think it strange / That merely spring should so derange / My mind,” not realizing “that you, John Keats, keep revel with me, too” (43-46). Keats and the speaker are positioned within a circle defined by a shared appreciation for poetry, beauty, and the wonders of nature, which seems irrational from an outside perspective. The ambiguity of Cullen’s use of “derange” creates an interpretive puzzle for the reader—is this the speaker’s own self-description, with “derangement” as a kind of romanticized holy madness that gives access to deeper truths, or is he ventriloquizing the censorious judgments of the outside “They”? The speaker, Keats, and now the poem’s reader share an implied awareness, denied to the “Folks seeing” the speaker. Because we have access both to the Romantic poetic tradition and to Cullen’s reworking of that tradition, we understand that it is not “merely spring” that has this effect on the speaker’s mind. Rather, the phenomenon of spring in the poem is a product not only of the material environment but of the literary tradition that lends it affective meaning, and of the historical reception, transmission, and transformation of that tradition. Indeed, in a sense “spring-time” seems less a literal season tied to a physical space (e.g., Keats’s the very different environment of mid-1810s suburban London or mid-1920s New York City), than it is a structure of feeling produced through a cycle of poetic creation and recreation.
Both thematically and formally, “To John Keats” reads as a self-conscious reworking of many of the central preoccupations of high British Romanticism. It seems strangely uncoupled from its historic occasion. This is especially striking when one notes that it was published in a collection provocatively titled Color, which included notable meditations on race, American racism, and the relationship between the African heritage and African American culture (“Near White,” “Incident,” and “Heritage,” to name some of the most famous.) Just as “Heritage” underscores Cullen’s vexed and complicated relationship to Africa as a cultural signifier, “To John Keats” locates Cullen’s poetry in relationship to a white, European literary culture—although “To John Keats” elides explicit consideration of this connection, while “Heritage” foregrounds it. Cullen pointedly addresses Keats, like Cullen an “outsider” (though marked by class rather than race), as a fellow “Poet” in the title of the elegy, and the two “keep revel” together at its close. In positing a spiritual and intellectual unity between the speaker and Keats—one that excludes others (“They,” “Folks”), presumably of all races and nations, who have not been exposed to Keats or lack appreciation for him—Cullen authorizes his own identity as a poet within the mainstream, post-Romantic English literary tradition.
It would be a mistake to reductively overread the implicit racial politics in the poem; after all Cullen’s love for Keats was an abiding and pervasive influence on his poetry. At the same time, though, it is worth considering whether politics lurks in the margins of this seemingly apolitical poem. In the Romantic tradition from which Cullen is writing, “spring” and “new birth,” not to mention the “Vision Splendid,” all have overtones of political reform and/or revolution (e.g., the new birth in Shelley’s “England in 1819.”) At the close of “Ode to the West Wind,” Shelley famously apostrophizes the wind as a “trumpet of a prophecy” and asks “if winter comes, can spring be far behind?” The “Vision Splendid” Keats’s poetry helps to birth may be a sublime vision of natural beauty, but as critics of Romanticism since M.H. Abrams’s Natural Supernaturalism has reminded us, visions of transformation through communion with nature have often served as a site for displaced and frustrated political hopes. On second reading the striking repetition of the declaration “I cannot hold my peace” lends the poem an intriguing complexity, suggesting some external force or internal compulsion restraining him from speaking, that he is only able to overcome, seemingly involuntarily, by means of Keats’s poetry as reflected in changes in the physical environment. Subtextually, perhaps it is Keats’s poetry, and Cullen’s ability to locate himself within a received (white) literary tradition that authorizes his own poetic voice. And this voice, like Shelley’s in “Ode to the West Wind,” has the potential to become an instrument of political liberation.