‘Bards of Passion and of Mirth,’ also known as the ‘Ode to Poets’ by John Keats, is an ode published in 1817. However, the original title of the poem was ‘Written On The Blank Page Before Beaumont And Fletcher’s Tragi-Comedy ‘The Fair Maid Of The Inn.’’
As such, Keats indirectly dedicated this poem to Beaumont and Fletcher, two celebrated playwrights of the early 1600s.
Bards of Passion and of Mirth John KeatsBards of Passion and of Mirth, Ye have left your souls on earth! Have ye souls in heaven too, Doubled-lived in regions new? Yes, and those of heaven communeWith the spheres of sun and moon; With the noise of fountains wondrous, And the parle of voices thund'rous; With the whisper of heaven's trees And one another, in soft easeSeated on Elysian lawns Browsed by none but Dian's fawns; Underneath large blue-bells tented, Where the daisies are rose-scented, And the rose herself has got Perfume which on earth is not; Where the nightingale doth sing Not a senseless, trancèd thing, But divine melodious truth; Philosophic numbers smooth;Tales and golden histories Of heaven and its mysteries.Thus ye live on high, and then On the earth ye live again; And the souls ye left behind youTeach us, here, the way to find you, Where your other souls are joying, Never slumber'd, never cloying. Here, your earth-born souls still speak To mortals, of their little week;Of their sorrows and delights; Of their passions and their spites; Of their glory and their shame; What doth strengthen and what maim. Thus ye teach us, every day,Wisdom, though fled far away.Bards of Passion and of Mirth, Ye have left your souls on earth! Ye have souls in heaven too, Double-lived in regions new!
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‘Bards of Passion and of Mirth’ by John Keats questions whether bards, or authors, have two souls, with one residing in heaven and the other living on the mortal plane as people retell their stories.
‘Bards of Passion and of Mirth’ opens with a grandiose apostrophe, or address, to the “bards of passion and of mirth,” understood to be Beaumont and Fletcher, who wrote both comic and tragic plays in the 17th century.
The undefined speaker exclaims that these bards have left their souls on earth with their stories but asks them if they also have another soul that lives in heaven.
The speaker quickly says “yes,” explaining the activities of the bards in heaven as they speak with the sun, moon, and trees and lounge in flower-filled fields. In addition, the speaker explains that the souls of the bards understand languages unknown to human beings as they hear mystical truths in the nightingale’s songs.
Then, the speaker explains how the bards’ souls exist on earth through other people who tell and retell the bards’ stories. Their tales lift peoples’ spirits, teach people how to get to heaven, and spread divine wisdom on earth.
The speaker closes the poem by affirming that, yes, the bards’ souls live both in heaven and on earth, living a double life.
‘Bards of Passion and of Mirth’ focuses on themes such as immortality, mythology, literature, and joy vs. sadness.
The most dominant theme in this poem is that of immortality vs mortality. Keats explores how poets, playwrights, and authors leave their souls on earth embedded in their writing. However, he also believes that authors are exalted and go to heaven. Thus, authors, or bards, must have two souls, both eternal.
Keats looks at heaven through terms and symbols of Greek mythology, stating that the bards’ souls must be “seated on Elysian lawns.” This reference is to the Elysian fields, where the wisest, most remarkable people in Greek and Roman history would go after their death.
At the poem’s root is the idea that an author may live forever through their work. This idea reveals Keats’ deep respect and admiration for literature. However, even more integral is the idea that all authors, or bards, have dual souls living on earth and in heaven. Thus, following Keat’s logic, all bards go to heaven and live an eternal life.
Following the theme of literature, Keats also emphasizes that stories and songs left by bards are invaluable to human beings as they teach people how to live better, happier, and more fulfilling lives.
Context of “Passion and of Mirth”
The bards in this poem are “of Passion and of Mirth,” which means that they tell both sad stories and joyous tales. That interpretation makes sense considering that Keats dedicated the ode to Beaumont and Fletcher, a duo of playwrights who wrote many comedies, tragedies, and tragic comedies together.
However, John Keats was fond of word origins and creating a sense of duality in his poetry. Thus, investigating the etymology of the words “passion” and “mirth” sheds much light on this poem.
The word passion comes from the Latin verb pati, which means to bear, suffer, or endure. A passion is either a duty or a burden that one must endure.
On the other hand, mirth comes from the Old English word myrgð, meaning such things as joy, eternal bliss, salvation, and pleasure. So then, mirth more properly means something like “a joy that lifts one up closer to heaven.”
The relationship between these words makes the poem much more complex, as passion is something that one must carry while mirth lifts a person up. Passion is earthly and lowly in this context, dragging the soul down. On the other hand, mirth is heavenly, uplifting, and fulfilling.
While these words apply to the plays of Beaumont and Fletcher, they also apply to the differences between earth and heaven.
So, the first line of this poem sets up one overarching comparison between joy and sadness and heaven and earth. Many other images and phrases in this poem continue this idea, creating contrast in almost every line.
Form and Structure
The strophe outlines the ideas of the poem. In this case, it raises the question of whether the deceased bards have two souls, with one remaining on earth with their songs and the other residing in heaven. The strophe also goes into the details of what these bards are doing in heaven.
The antistrophe, as the name “anti-” suggests, provides a counterpoint or second perspective on the ideas of the strophe. In ‘Bards of Passion and of Mirth,’ the speaker explains what the bards’ souls do on earth.
The epode provides a summary of the poem, making a final statement. In this case, the epode concludes that the bards discussed in the poem have two souls, each residing either on earth or in heaven.
Additionally, the poem’s first and last four lines mirror each other, as the first four raise a question, and the last four answer the question to provide a full conclusion. This structure creates a cyclical pattern, which is typical of odes.
However, this poem rebels from the structure of the traditional Pindaric and Horatian odes. Instead of mimicking these styles, Keats creates an ode structure that fits his subject.
The first stanza is much longer than the second, emphasizing how grand and eternal heaven is. On the other hand, the antistrophe, which discusses the mortal world, is small and brief, like the “little week” that is a human life.
In addition, the poet places the stanza about heaven above the stanza about the mortal world, which creates verbal imagery, placing earth below the lofty heights of heaven.
Lines 1 – 4
Bards of Passion and of Mirth,
Ye have left your souls on earth!
Have ye souls in heaven too,
Doubled-lived in regions new?
Lines one through four of ‘Bards of Passion and of Mirth’ function as the poem’s introduction, but it is also an invocation.
The unidentified speaker exclaims in an apostrophe, loudly calling out to the titular bards of passion and of mirth. This opening apostrophe invokes the souls of these bards, calling their influence into the poem.
These bards are “of Passion and of Mirth” because they are both tragic and comic writers. However the contrast between passion, as a form of suffering, and mirth, as a form of exaltation and joy, also tee up the listener for the discrepancy between heaven and earth that is yet to come in the poem.
The speaker questions whether these bards also have separate souls that live in heaven, as if they were living double lives.
The combination of the exclamation in the first two lines and the question in the third and fourth lines set the tone for the poem.
While the speaker is inquisitive, they are also speaking loudly, as if completely enthralled in their address to the bards. These features make the speaker seem animated, enthusiastic, and energetic. Coupled with the short, rhythmic lines, this increases the speed of the poem.
Lines 5 – 14
Yes, and those of heaven commune
With the spheres of sun and moon;
With the noise of fountains wondrous,
And the parle of voices thund’rous;
With the whisper of heaven’s trees
And one another, in soft ease
Seated on Elysian lawns
Browsed by none but Dian’s fawns;
Underneath large blue-bells tented,
Where the daisies are rose-scented,
In lines five through fourteen of ‘Bards of Passion and of Mirth,’ the speaker answers their own question and rapidly explains the activities that the bards’ souls do in heaven. The speaker is careful to catalog all sensations the bards experience, examining what they see, hear, feel, and smell.
These bards seem to exist in a liminal state, even in heaven. They hang out with the opposing forces of the sun and moon, existing between the dark and the light.
In heaven, “wondrous,” spectacular fountains make noise while voices as loud as thunder crash around the bards.
However, adding contrast to these overwhelming sights and sounds are “heaven’s trees,” which softly whisper to each other, and the bards.
In line 11, the speaker explains that these whispering threes are on Elysian lawns. Elysium is an interesting addition to Keats’ version of heaven, as it is not Christian. Instead, it is the Classical Greco-Roman version of heaven, where all of the wisest, most famous men go after they die. These men get eternal life, as they have achieved the pinnacle of mortality and thus have escaped the cycle of reincarnation.
Only the fawns, or sacred deer, of Diana graze on the “soft” grass of the Elysian fields in this poem. While Diana is often called the “goddess of the hunt,” she was more commonly praised by the Romans as the primary goddess of childbirth, the guardian of the wilderness, and the protector of dark, spooky places. She was the caretaker of those liminal spaces between light and dark — and those between life and death.
The flowers add color to the scene of heaven, where large bluebells provide partial shade for the daisies, which unlike on earth, have a fragrant scent that smells like roses.
Lines 15 – 22
And the rose herself has got
Perfume which on earth is not;
Where the nightingale doth sing
Not a senseless, trancèd thing,
But divine melodious truth;
Philosophic numbers smooth;
Tales and golden histories
Of heaven and its mysteries.
In lines fifteen through twenty-two, the speaker continues explaining what heaven is like for the bards. While the daisies may smell like roses, roses smell completely different, highlighting how heaven is full of things that mortals cannot understand.
Likewise, in heaven, the bards understand the nightingale’s song as it speaks “divine melodious truth” and “Philosophic numbers smooth.”
Unlike the bards, who tell stories, the nightingale only sings of the truth. They speak of divine geometry, history, and the mysteries of heaven.
In this way, the nightingale functions like the bards do, but on a different level. First, the nightingale speaks truth to the bards, and then the bards tell tales to humans on earth. The bards are a conduit, functioning as messengers between the mortal and heavenly realms.
Yet, without these bards, human beings can only understand a nightingale’s song as a “senseless, trancèd thing” or a meaningless drone of sound. In this way, the speaker implies that the nightingales on earth, too, sing of the mysteries of heaven, but human beings cannot translate the message.
Lines 23 – 35 (Antistrophe)
Thus ye live on high, and then
On the earth ye live again;
And the souls ye left behind you
Teach us, here, the way to find you,
Where your other souls are joying,
Never slumber’d, never cloying.
Here, your earth-born souls still speak
To mortals, of their little week;
Of their sorrows and delights;
Of their passions and their spites;
Of their glory and their shame;
What doth strengthen and what maim.
Thus ye teach us, every day,
Wisdom, though fled far away.
In line twenty-three, Keats creates the beginning of the second stanza, denoting a shift from the ode’s strophe to the antistrophe. In this stanza, the speaker sings of how the bards also have a second soul on earth.
The speaker explains that when the bards died, they left behind their mortal souls to roam the earth.
These souls, a metaphor for the stories the bards told when they were alive, still speak to human beings. They teach people how they, too, can go to heaven, where they will never have to sleep or cloy (sugar-coat) their lives.
Although human beings only live a “little week” compared to the immortal souls of the bards, the bards still teach people morals and how to handle difficult situations.
In lines 31 through 33, the speaker uses anastrophe, or the repetition of a phrase, to explain that the bards’ stories teach people more about sorrow, delight, passion, spite, glory, shame, and the things in life that both strengthen and weaken people.
Thus, the bards’ tales offer people insight into their own lives, offering them a better understanding of both the “passions” and “mirth,” or hardships and joys, that come with being alive.
In lines 34 and 35, the speaker also states that the bards’ stories teach people “Wisdom, though fled far away.” This line references the truth-speaking nightingale of the last stanza, and it further implies that human beings cannot understand what is divine.
However, through the insight of the bards, human beings can at least gain wisdom so that, one day, when their souls get to heaven, they can understand the truth.
Lines 36 – 39 (Epode)
Bards of Passion and of Mirth,
Ye have left your souls on earth!
Ye have souls in heaven too,
Double-lived in regions new!
Lines 36 through 39 make up the last stanza, or epode, of ‘Bards of Passion and of Mirth.’
While it is very similar to the poem’s first four lines, Keats makes two minor changes to the phrasing. Firstly, what was once a question is now an exclamation. Secondly, the poet has changed “Have ye” to “Ye have.”
While these minor changes may seem insignificant, they give the listener more insight into how the speaker feels. By almost entirely restating the first four lines of the poem, it seems like the speaker has spent the entire ode just trying to convince themself that storytelling is a noble and meaningful pursuit. The final exclamation point, too, conveys a tone of celebration, rejoicing, and relief.
Although Keats never specified that he is the speaker in the poem, he likely felt similarly to the speaker when he composed this poem in 1817. This ode was one of the first poems that Keats published after choosing not to pursue his career as an apothecary. It was during 1816 that Keats instead committed himself to becoming a professional poet.
In many ways, ‘Bards of Passion and of Mirth’ seems to be a defense of poetry and a method for Keats to validate his passion for writing.
The meaning of ‘Bards of Passion and Mirth’ is that poets, playwrights, authors, and storytellers can live forever through their words. According to the poem, these bards function as teachers who can help living people learn ways to get to heaven, where they will learn divine truths and live peacefully.
‘Bards of Passion and of Mirth’ is an irregular ode. John Keats believed that originality was the best way to convey emotion in poetry, so he often used traditional poem forms as a template, and changed a few things about them to fit his poem better. Although this poem has three parts like a traditional ode, each stanza varies in size.
The rhyme scheme of ‘Bards of Passion and of Mirth’ is aabbcc….qqrraabb. This poem includes rhyming couplets, which adds depth to the contrast between heaven and earth. In addition, few other odes had ever included rhyming couplets, which makes this poem a leader in the field of original form when writing odes.
‘Bards of Passion and of Mirth’ is about Beaumont and Fletcher a duo of playwrights who wrote comedies, tragedies, and tragic comedies. Fletcher was Shakespeare’s successor as the resident Globe playwright, and he partnered with Beaumont during the reign of King James I. These storytellers, or bards, however, are not the only inspiration for the poem, as Keats may also have been interested in the merit of becoming a poet at the time of composition.
While John Keats’ ‘Bards of Passion and of Mirth’ is an excellent ode from the poet, Keats is most famous for his six odes published in 1819, which show a maturity of style and form that is beyond impressive.
So, if you enjoyed ‘Bards of Passion and of Mirth,’ you will likely enjoy these odes, too:
- ‘Ode on A Grecian Urn’ – an ekphrastic ode dedicated to a Greek urn, or vase
- ‘Ode on Indolence’ – a continuation of ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ about three mysterious figures that he has seen engraved on an urn
- ‘Ode on Melancholy’ – an interesting ode about joy, sadness, and finding ways to pull inspiration from pain
- ‘Ode to a Nightingale‘ – Perhaps Keats’ most famous and critically celebrated poems which explores sadness, melancholy, and death
- ‘Ode to Psyche‘ – a poem with a palpable sense of longing, desire, and love heavily inspired by Greek mythology and culture
- ‘To Autumn‘ – An ode to autumn, focusing on themes of death and rebirth