Transcript - To a Lady seen for a few Moments at Vauxhall
Time's sea hath been five years at its slow ebb,
Long hours have to and fro let creep the sand,
Since I was tangled in thy beauty's web,
And snared by the ungloving of thine hand.
And yet I never look on midnight sky,
But I behold thine eyes' well-memory'd light;
I cannot look upon the rose's dye,
But to thy cheek my soul doth take its flight.
I cannot look on any budding flower,
But my fond ear, in fancy at thy lips
And hearkening for a love-sound, doth devour
Its sweets in the wrong sense. Thou dost eclipse
Every delight with sweet remembering,
And grief unto my darling joys dost bring.
Insights, themes and ideas for interpretation
Published posthumously, this is in so many ways the quintessential Romantic poem.
Written in sonnet-form, and tinged with bitter-sweet nostalgia, the poet reflects tenderly (though at first also rather ruefully) on a brief encounter 5 years earlier - a glimpse from afar of a woman in Vauxhall Gardens, a place in 18th and 19th century London of entertainment and romantic liaison, mostly in an outdoor setting.
The poet realises that brief as it was, he still cannot forget the lady. He cannot look at the starry sky without recalling her eyes. He cannot look at the rose without being reminded of her cheek. He even admits, a little self-mockingly, to becoming confused, mixing up the senses and imagining a budding flower might speak a love sound to his ‘fond ear.’
With a final touch of helplessness, he concludes that the memory is so intense and so precious that it overcomes all his current delights and can only bring ‘grief’ to his present joys.
Many people even today can relate to these sentiments – having perhaps had a crush on someone at one time or another, and often in youth. Sometimes the very distance and remoteness of the object of ones admiration lends the feeling a special intensity than endures in the memory, often for a lifetime. But it takes a poet sometimes to put it into words - and so helps us comprehend.
It is one of those impulses that was very much celebrated during what is known as the Romantic Era - being found in writing, in music, in all of the arts - and the passionate, reflective Keats was the ultimate voice of those times.
Present joys might be more clearly defined and tainted with the cynicism of experience. But a fanciful, unfulfilled encounter from the past can, if we choose, remain always ideal and perfect. The notion of the superiority of thought to material things, or of feelings to the dullness of the physical ‘here and now’ is alluded to, as well.