Along the way in my education, I gained an affection for the poetry of Keats. Something about how he handled the language spoke to me. When I was in graduate school, I took a course on the Romantic Poets of England, and purchased a volume of the complete works of Keats for the class. I had previously only dealt with selections from his work.
One of his more notable pieces is a sonnet Keats wrote about being at the top of Ben Nevis in Scotland. In 1818, in the month of June, Keats had been on a tour of Scotland (and Ireland and the Lake District) with a friend. Ben Nevis, as the highest peak in the British Isles, was even then a tourist destination.
The peak of Ben Nevis stands at 4,411 feet above sea level, in the Lochaber area of the Highlands, near the town of Fort William. Most of them use the Pony Track from Glen Nevis in order to reach the top.
I had encountered Keats’ sonnet about Ben Nevis when I was an undergraduate. So I wasn’t surprised to find it in the volume.
WRITTEN ON TOP OF THE BEN NEVIS
Read me a lesson, Muse, and speak it loud
Upon the top of Nevis, blind in mist!
I look into the chasms, and a shroud
Vapurous doth hide them – just so much I wist
Mankind do know of hell; I look o’erhead,
And there is sullen mist, – even so much
Mankind can tell of heaven; mist is spread
Before the earth, beneath me, – even such,
Even so vague is man’s sight of himself!
Here are the craggy stones beneath my feet, –
Thus much I know that, a poor witless elf,
I tread on them, – that all my eye doth meet
Is mist and crag, not only on this height,
But in the world of thought and mental might!
As I thumbed through the volume at the beginning of that graduate semester, I had paused and enjoyed the sonnet. I’d then moved on – for after all I did have an assignment to read for the class. However, my attention was snagged by another poem about Ben Nevis. And when I read it, I gained a new appreciation for Keats as a writer. The sonnet had of course been written about the majesty and beauty of the mountain. But this one displayed a complete tongue-in-cheek humor about tourism at the Scottish landmark.
So…. Here for your amusement —
BEN NEVIS : A DIALOGUE
A poem by John Keats
There was one Mrs. Cameron of 50 years of age and the fattest woman in all Inverness-shire who got up this Mountain some few years ago, true she had her servants, but then she had her self. She ought to have hired Sisyphus, “Up the high hill he heaves a huge round, Mrs. Cameron.” ‘Tis said a little conversation took place between the mountain and the Lady. After taking a glass of Whiskey as she was tolerably seated at ease she thus began,
Upon my Life Sir Nevis I am pique’d
That I have so far panted tugg’d and reek’d
To do an honour to your old bald pate
And now am sitting on you just to bate,
Without your paying me one compliment.
Alas ’tis so with all, when our intent
Is plain, and in the eye of all Mankind
We fair ones show a preference, too blind!
You Gentle man immediately turn tail,
O let me then my hapless fate bewail!
Ungrateful Baldpate have I not disdain’d
The pleasant Valleys, have I not madbrain’d
Deserted all my Pickles and preserves
My China closet too, with wretched Nerves
To boot, say wretched ingrate have I not
Left my soft cushion chair and caudle pot.
‘Tis true I had no corns, no! thank the fates
My Shoemaker was always Mr. Bates.
And if not Mr. Bates why I’m not old!
Still dumb ungrateful Nevis, still so cold!
Here the Lady took some more whiskey and was putting even more to her lips when she dashed it to the Ground for the Mountain began to grumble, which continued for a few minutes before he thus began,
What whining bit of tongue and Mouth thus dares
Disturb my slumber of a thousand years?
Even so long my sleep has been secure,
And to be so awakened I’ll not endure.
Oh pain, for since the Eagle’s earliest scream
I’ve had a damn’d confounded ugly dream,
A Nightmare sure. What Madam was it you?
It cannot be! My old eyes are not true!
Red-Crag, my Spectacles! Now let me see!
Good Heavens Lady how the gemini
Did you get here? O I shall split my sides!
I shall earthquake,
Sweet Nevis do not quake, for though I love
Your honest Countenance all things above
Truly I should not like to be convey’d
So far into your Bosom, gentle Maid
Loves not too rough a treatment gentle Sir,
Pray thee be calm and do not quake nor stir
No not a Stone or I shall go in fits
I must, I shall, I meet not such tid bits,
I meet not such sweet creatures every day,
By my old night cap night cap night and day
I must have one sweet Buss, I must and shall:
Red Crag!, What Madam can you then repent
Of all the toil and vigour you have spent
To see Ben Nevis and to touch his nose?
Red Crag I say! O I must have them close!
Red Crag, there lies beneath my farthest toe
A vein of Sulphur, go dear Red Crag, go
And rub your flinty back against it, budge!
Dear Madam I must kiss you, faith I must!
I must Embrace you with my dearest gust!
Block-head, d’ye hear, Block-head I’ll make her feel
There lies beneath my east leg’s northern heel
A cave of young earth dragons, well my boy
Go thither quick and so complete my joy
Take you a bundle of the largest pines
And when the sun on fiercest Phosphor shines
Fire them and ram them in the Dragon’s nest,
Then will the dragons fry and fizz their best
Until ten thousand now no bigger than
Poor Alligators, poor things of one span,
Will each one swell to twice ten times the size
Of northern whale, then for the tender prize,
The moment then, for then will Red Crag rub
His flinty back, and I shall kiss and snub
And press my dainty morsel to my breast.
Block-head make haste!
O Muses weep the rest,
The Lady fainted and he thought her dead
So pulled the clouds again about his head
And went to sleep again, soon she was rous’d
By her affrighted servants, next day hous’d
Safe on the lowly ground she bless’d her fate
That fainting fit was not delayed too late.
But what surprises me above all is how this Lady got down again.
I was utterly charmed by the comedy of the fleeting romance between the mountain and the matron. How many tourists indulge in ecstasies over landscapes? And how would they react if the landscapes responded to such extravagant raptures? There is simply inherent comedy in the idea of a mountain wanting to hug a visitor.