Not long before he died on 21 December 1940, F. Scott Fitzgerald recorded himself reading a version of John Keats’ ‘Ode to a Nightingale’.
It’s no surprise that this poem was important to Fitzgerald – it was from ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ that Fitzgerald found the title to his fourth novel, Tender is the Night.
Fitzgerald was in the habit of writing with his copy of Keats close to hand, and occasionally fragments of poems would influence his prose. Compare, for instance, Fitzgerald’s line, ‘He lit Daisy’s cigarette from a trembling match, and sat down with her on a couch far across the room, where there was no light save what the gleaming floor bounced in from the hall’, to one from Keats: ‘But there is no light / save from what heaven is with the breezes blown’.
When his daughter Frances was in university, Fitzgerald wrote her a long letter extolling the virtues of reading and studying Keats: ‘For awhile after you quit Keats, all other poetry seems to be only whistling or humming.’ He called Keat’s poetry ‘unbearably beautiful, with every syllable as inevitable as the notes of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony’, going on to say that he couldn’t read ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ without tears in his eyes.
Fitzgerald deeply identified with John Keats – a handsome young writer proclaimed a genius early in his career, but who came to an untimely and tragic end. That was the story that ran through all of Fitzgerald’s work.
In this recording he seems to be reading from memory, slightly straying from the text in places until the third stanza, where he mixes up the lines and breaks off early. If Fitzgerald’s sultry voice leaves you wanting more, continue reading here:
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-winged Dryad of the trees
In some melodious plot
Of beechen green, and shadows numberless,
Singest of summer in full-throated ease.
O, for a draught of vintage! that hath been
Cool’d a long age in the deep-delved earth,
Tasting of Flora and the country green,
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-stained mouth;
That I might drink, and leave the world unseen,
And with thee fade away into the forest dim:
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 gray 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.
Away! away! 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:
Already with thee! tender is the night,
And haply the Queen-Moon is on her throne,
Cluster’d around by all her starry Fays;
But here there is no light,
Save what from heaven is with the breezes blown
Through verdurous glooms and winding mossy ways.
I cannot see what flowers are at my feet,
Nor what soft incense hangs upon the boughs,
But, in embalmed darkness, guess each sweet
Wherewith the seasonable month endows
The grass, the thicket, and the fruit-tree wild;
White hawthorn, and the pastoral eglantine;
Fast fading violets cover’d up in leaves;
And mid-May’s eldest child,
The coming musk-rose, full of dewy wine,
The murmurous haunt of flies on summer eves.
Darkling I listen; and, for many a time
I have been half in love with easeful Death,
Call’d him soft names in many a mused rhyme,
To take into the air my quiet breath;
Now more than ever seems it rich to die,
To cease upon the midnight with no pain,
While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad
In such an ecstasy!
Still wouldst thou sing, and I have ears in vain –
To thy high requiem become a sod.
Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!
No hungry generations tread thee down;
The voice I hear this passing night was heard
In ancient days by emperor and clown:
Perhaps the self-same song that found a path
Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home,
She stood in tears amid the alien corn;
The same that oft-times hath
Charm’d magic casements, opening on the foam
Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.
Forlorn! the very word is like a bell
To toll me back from thee to my sole self!
Adieu! the fancy cannot cheat so well
As she is fam’d to do, deceiving elf.
Adieu! adieu! thy plaintive anthem fades
Past the near meadows, over the still stream,
Up the hill-side; and now ‘tis buried deep
In the next valley-glades:
Was it a vision, or a waking dream?
Fled is that music: – Do I wake or sleep?
Recording courtesy of the papers of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Princeton University Library.