I remember sitting in an English garden more than thirty years ago reading John Keats’s last great ode, “To Autumn”, which he wrote in September 1819. The poem is only three stanzas of eleven lines each, and I had already read it many times. But I had not made much headway with it, and I sat down that morning determined to see if I could understand it more fully. I didn’t make it very far before I felt like I was missing out. In lines three and four of the first stanza, Keats describes how autumn and the sun are conspiring together “to load and bless / With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run”. I could visualize the fruit vines running round the eves of a house, but it seemed clear that there was something else going on, something beyond the external.
The breakthrough came when, as I repeated the line over and over again, I realized that saying the words and what the words were saying reinforced one another, that the physical act of pronouncing the words “With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run” produced a twisting and turning (of mouth and sound) that was like the vines themselves, as they twisted and turned round the eves. Keats had produced, I now realized, a remarkable coherence of content and form, of sight and sound. Thomas De Quincey would say that this is style, not as “the dress of thoughts”, but as “the incarnation of thoughts…each co-existing not merely with the other, but each in and through the other” (his italics). De Quincey borrowed this insight from William Wordsworth, and described it as “by far the weightiest thing we ever heard on the subject of style”.
Teaching poetry means thinking a lot about the relationship between structure and meaning, between style and content. Talking about the poetry of Keats in particular almost invariably leads me to The Beatles. There are, it seems to me, all kinds of connections to be made between him and them. But the one I come back to most often is that in both Keats and The Beatles there is astonishing creative growth in a very short period of time. Keats’s entire poetic career is only six years long, and virtually all his greatest work is produced in a single year, from the autumn of 1818 to the autumn of 1819. There are seven years between The Beatles first album (Please, Please Me, 1963) and their last (Let it Be, 1970), and while their greatest work may be said to span three or even four of those years, there are only two years between, say, With the Beatles (1963) and Rubber Soul (1965), or between Help! (1965) and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967). There are just twenty-three months, for example, between when they recorded “You’re Going to Lose that Girl” and when they recorded “A Day in the Life”.
There are many Beatles songs in which the structure of the music deepens the emotion of the lyrics, but nowhere is this more evident than in “Yesterday”. As is well known, McCartney alone is responsible for the song, which he recorded a few days before his twenty-third birthday, and which in 1999 was voted the best song of the twentieth century (in a BBC Radio 2 poll). The lyrics themselves are quite straightforwardly melancholic. The singer was involved in a relationship that did not work out. Now he longs for yesterday, for the time when love seemed “such an easy game to play”, before he said “something wrong” and she left without saying why.
There are several ways in which the music itself intensifies these lyrics, but I think the most significant one is that the verses (“Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away” or “Suddenly, I’m not half the man I used to be”) are only seven bars long, rather than the usual eight bars. It is hardly noticeable at first, but as the song sinks in, it starts to become clear that there is “something wrong”. The verses are ending before we expect them to. They are over – as it were – too soon. But of course this is exactly what McCartney is saying about “yesterday”. It comes “suddenly”, just as the second verse comes suddenly, and a full bar before we anticipate it. Our expectations as listeners have been upended, just as the singer’s hopes for the future have been upended. “Yesterday” haunts us for a number of reasons, but one of them is because – both lyrically and melodically – something is missing.
None of this is to claim, of course, that McCartney sat down and said, “I am going to write a seven-bar phrase because that will create a sense of longing, and this is a song about longing”. But it is to say that when a Keats poem or a Beatles song lodges itself in our mind and stays there for decades, it is probably because it is working on several different levels, and that the structure and the meaning are playing off one another in ways that augment the impact of both. As I sat that morning in the English garden and finally moved past “the vines that round the thatch-eves run” to the end of the first stanza, and then slowly through the remaining two, I started at last to feel like I was making progress in understanding Keats’s poem.