A Day in May

I heard the actor Samuel West reading Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale” on Poetry Please (Radio 4) the other day.  I thought it was a beautiful reading, reminding me how great a poem it is, and revealing completely new aspects to it.  I realised, for the first time, certain similarities the poem has with “Kubla Khan”, the great poem by Coleridge.

I’m not going to print out the Keats poem here – it’s universally available in anthologies and online – I just want to  briefly mention links between it and my poem “A Day in May”.  Keats was, of course, sadly too familiar with sickness and ill-health.  One of the main strands in the “Ode” is the contrast between the world of delight conjured up by the nightingale’s song, and “The weariness, the fever and the fret . . . Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies . . .”  There is an idyllic section, in the fifth stanza: “. . . flowers are at my feet . . . The grass, the thicket, and the fruit-tree wild . . . And mid-May’s eldest child, The coming musk-rose, full of dewy wine, The murmerous haunt of flies on summer eves.”

Recently recovered from a bout of illness myself, I wanted – like Keats – to contrast the self-obsessive world engendered by sickness with the delights of the natural world that are only accessible to the healthy.  I also wanted to use the month of May as a symbol of rebirth and renewal.  It so happens that I was born in May, and I intended to allude to that, as well.  I came to the conclusion, however, that it was pointless to try to shoe-horn such a reference into the poem, when it seemed to work perfectly well without it.

A Day in May:

A new day to encounter; a new day in May.
After weeks of deluge, a hazy blue sky.
Fleecy, cotton wool clouds scud by,
adorning the heavens, delighting the eye.
Laughter of children; new-born lambs play.
A new day to encounter; a new day in May.

When in sickness, poor health, you cannot see life’s wealth.
Can only see what sickness discloses of the self.
Can only cry, with the sad tears of a clown,
whose stuttering act is breaking down.
Can only live a life overladen with fear.
Rumblings and ravings are all you can hear.

So now, post-sickness, it is so good to stare:
the brightening firmament, the seeds in the air.
So good, to breathe freely; watch swallows on high
cavort, ‘neath those cotton wool clouds in the sky.
On a day of such bounty, not much you can say.
Just smile, be thankful, for a new day in May.




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