KEATS IN THE BOTANIC COTTAGE
by Thomas Hoskyns Leonard
Auburn-haired Katrina turned on the hot water urn in the farmhouse-style kitchen at the top of the exotic Royal Botanical Gardens in fair Embro, and grey-haired Tonya arranged her brownies, still warm, onto two large white plates.
Katrina opened a cardboard box containing twenty copies of The Odes of Keats. “Isn't this cosy? It will be interesting to see how many locals turn up.”
Tonya took a peek at Ode on a Grecian Urn. “Only five in the Scottish Poetry Library on Tuesday morning, I'm afraid. They were members of the Dumbiedykes knitting group and they all came armed with their needles.”
A swarthy, middle aged man, shabbily dressed and with the air of an ex-heavyweight boxer appeared in the sunlit doorway. “Is this the Open Door poetry group? I'm Seth from down by the Water of Leith, and I enjoy the occasional ditty.”
“Haven't I seen you wandering around the Royal Circus?” inquired Tonya.
Seth chuckled. “I've certainly seen you hanging out in the Opium coffee shop. They don't call me the Stalker of Stockbridge for nothing.”
What a warped sense of humour, deliberated Katrina. But I do hope that he's joking!
A group of eight further elderly ladies trooped into the Botanic Cottage kitchen, followed by an energetic young man in a cap and carrying a red and black patterned flag. “I'm Callum,” he announced, with a token wave of his flag, “and I'm here from Industrial Workers of the World.”
The newcomers ensconced themselves, with Seth, around the large, square, wooden table, and Katrina and Tonya dutifully served the coffee and an occasional tea. The Botanic Cottage events manager, a charmingly camp man called Tarquin, popped through a side door and handed around the treats. Seth gave him a look of disdain, and swallowed a throat lozenge instead. A lady with a gold tooth and horn-rimmed glasses smiled, and Seth gave her the glad eye.
“Welcome to Open Door,” announced Katrina. “Let's start of by turning to page 7 and reading Ode to a Nightingale, a stanza at a time. As an experiment, we'll pause for discussion between each stanza. Would you like to get the ball rolling, Tarquin, and then we can keep on rolling clockwise around the table.”
Tarquin blinked, and blinked again. “A delightful turn of phrase, Katrina. Well, here she blows:
My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains
My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,
- Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains
- One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk:
- 'Tis not through envy of thy happy lot,
- But being too happy in thine happiness,
- That thou, light-wingèd Dryad of the trees,
- In some melodious plot
- Of beechen green, and shadows numberless,
- Singest of summer in full-throated ease.”
- “Wot's a Dryad?” asked a huge ogre of a gentleman with a frizzy beard, who'd just stumbled in.
- “A Dryad is a nymph of oak trees, though not of trees in general,” replied a determined-looking pensioner wearing a Hibs scarf, who was studying for her Masters In Creative Writing at Napier.
- Seth sniggered at that. “That's funny. I met one by an elm tree in the Hermitage of Braid only last week.”
- “Anyroads,” opined a retired librarian from Pilton, with a nervous glance at Seth's enigmatic countenance, “this stanza is a work of art. It puts Andrew Motion and many of the repetitive poets of the modern era to shame.”
- “Wot's Lethe-wards?” slavered the ogre with the frizzy beard, slurping his coffee.
- “Really!” exclaimed a prosperous lady in a mongoose coat. “Everybody knows that the Lethe is a river in Hades, and nothing to do with our rotten Leith.”
- “And if you drink from it you'll forget where the Hell you came from,” enjoined Katrina, with an unusual grimace. “Let's move on to the next stanza. Gwendylene?”
- “Thank you,” said the once leading Midlothian poet Gwendylene McClarsach, clearing her nostrils. “I memorised this verse off by heart when I was studying for my standards at Beeslack High:
- O for a draught of vintage! that hath been
- Cool'd a long age in the deep-delvèd earth,
- Tasting of Flora and the country-green,
- Dance, and Provençal song, and sunburnt mirth!
- O for a beaker full of the warm South!
- Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene,
- With beaded bubbles winking at the brim,
- And purple-stainèd mouth;
- That I might drink, and leave the world unseen,
- And with thee fade away into the forest dim.
- “I spend my summers in Provence,” said a grim-faced lady with a high class English accent. “Menton is absolutely spiffingly exquisite.”
- “I prefer Catalonia,” said Callum, reaching for his flag. “It's where the anarchists put paid to the fascists before they were annihilated by the Stalinists. What's more----.”
- “I do love the line 'with beaded bubbles winking at the brim',” interrupted a lively lady, who was visiting from Carstairs for the day, “though I believe that it originates in the eleventh century poem Fine Wines of Donegal by the Irish monk Flann Mainistreach.”
- “I can vouch for that,” agreed Tarquin, with an ingratiating smile. “It's in all probability a complete coincidence, of course.”
- “Horse's feathers!” snarled the guy with the frizzy beard.
- Katrina coughed, with the mildest of splutters. “Next stanza please, Violet!”
- Violet, a prim lady in a business suit, sniffed, and began without further ado:
- Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget
- What thou among the leaves hast never known,
- The weariness, the fever, and the fret
- Here, where men sit and hear each other groan;
- Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last grey hairs,
- Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies;
- Where but to think is to be full of sorrow
- And leaden-eyed despairs;
- Where beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes,
- Or new Love pine at them beyond to-morrow.
- Seth took a gulp of his coffee. “Now it's getting morbid,” he choked. “I'm getting pissed off with this Keats.”
- “I agree,” said a tall, gaunt lady in a leather coat, as if she was about to swish an imaginary dominatrix whip. “Keats is boring and outmoded. Can we read something by Douglas Dunn instead?”
- “Keats was lucky to die young,” declared Tarquin, adjusting his crimson cravat. “If poets grow old, like Auden grew old, then they invariably die bored to tears.”
- “Away, away!” chanted Callum. “For I will fly to thee,
- Not charioted by Bacchus and his pards,
- But on the viewless wings of Poesy,
- Though the dull brain perplexes and retards.”
- “Would you fancy a walk through the Chinese gardens afterwards, darling?” whispered Seth.
- “Maybe as far as the pagoda,” replied Tonya, with a giggle.