Spring 2021, Volume 30

Memoir by Paul Kareem Tayyar

Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Nightingale

                    At Keats’ House, Hampstead, London


The plum tree that he sat beneath isn’t there anymore. At least I don’t think it is. There are trees, several of them, in the yard, but none of them look like plum trees. Anyway it doesn’t matter. He was here. This sky was the same sky he gazed at after a couple of glasses of wine had delivered the muse. Except that this time she didn’t look like Venus or Aphrodite; she came in the form of a small bird with a voice so beautiful even Edith Piaf would have been jealous.

I walk the entirety of the grounds. I kneel down and smell the flowers. I take photographs of the grass. I listen to the birds singing in the trees. Nothing can ruin the moment. Not the sound of the occasional car passing by on the street. Not the guy talking on his cellphone a few feet away from me who is passionately discussing something involving futures. Not even the fact that Keats died thousands of miles away from his beloved. Because the bird that he heard singing she must have heard too. I wonder if Fanny Brawne ever came to sit under the same plum tree and imagined the bird’s song was a coded message that Keats had sent her. I’ve always figured her favorite line in the poem was “Already with thee! Tender is the night.” She probably understood better than anyone just how true that line was.


The first time I ever read the poem was in an undergraduate seminar at UC Santa Barbara. The professor was a great guy, in his mid-40s, who used to quote Bruce Springsteen lyrics in class and talk about the similarities between Alfred Lord Tennyson and Bob Dylan. Midway through the quarter a colleague of his in the English Department died, and during the next class session he lit a candle for his departed friend, making sure the candle stayed lit for the entirety of the lecture. I don’t remember what we studied that day, but as the years have passed I’ve come to believe it was “Ode to a Nightingale.” Which is why every time someone I love passes away, I go back and read the poem.


Later on that afternoon I go to Abbey Road and have my photograph taken while I cross the street, imagining as I do that I am a member of the band. The fifth Beatle, if you will. The two girls I ask to take the picture have come from Mexico for the sole reason of standing at this exact spot. They have the Abbey Road LP in its original plastic, and when it is my turn to take their photograph, they hold the album between them as they smile. Neither of them can speak English, and I can’t speak Spanish, but it doesn’t matter.

The shorter of the two girls, who has long brown hair and a small gap between her front teeth that reminds me of Lauren Hutton, wears a t-shirt with the lyrics to “Blackbird” screen-printed onto it.

Later on tonight I will dream that I am standing at the edge of the Huntington Beach Pier and watching a nightingale and a blackbird turn pirouettes against the evening sky. I don’t know how to write about it. A moment like that needs a Keats, or a Lennon and McCartney, to do it justice.


I don’t think I’ve ever seen a nightingale. In fact I’m certain I haven’t. They aren’t found in the Americas, the internet tells me, which probably explains it. The most beautiful bird I’ve ever seen is a bluebird, which I’ve seen only a handful of times. The first time I was six years old, and my family had gone to Lake Arrowhead for the weekend. My parents, my grandparents, my aunt and my uncle. One morning I stepped onto the deck of the cabin and there she was, perched on the railing. I don’t know if bluebirds sing. But if they do, maybe they sound like nightingales.


Keats’ House is located in the most beautiful part of the city: Hampstead. It reminds me of parts of San Francisco, especially sections of the Presidio, near the Palace of Fine Arts. When I leave the grounds I cross at the light and enter Hampstead Heath, the local park. Although “local” makes it sound too modest. In fact, it’s larger than Central Park. After a few minutes of walking I take a seat on a park bench to read a small poetry anthology I’d purchased at Foyle’s Bookstore a few days prior. I spend the next hour reading Keats, Byron, Shelley, and John Clare.


Three days later I will be on a train and sitting across from a girl who has a locket of a small bird at the end of her necklace. We are somewhere in Wales. She is going to visit her boyfriend; I am going to see the grave of Dylan Thomas. We’re bored, and begin to make conservation with one another. She wants to know about Los Angeles, and whether I see movie stars every day.

“Of course,” I say, kidding her. “I played tennis with Leonardo DiCaprio last week.”

“How’d it go?” she said, in on the joke.

“I won in straight sets. The guy can’t serve.”

Later on we change the subject.

“What’s been your favorite thing about England so far?” she asks.

“I saw the house where John Keats wrote ‘Ode to a Nightingale’,” I say. “That is tough to top.”

“Fled is that music—do I wake or sleep?” she says.

“You’ve memorized it?” I ask.

“Had to. For school. I picked that one and ‘She Walks in Beauty.’”

“Byron,” I said.

She nods.

“But I like Keats better,” she says, fingering her necklace. “Always have.”


On the cab ride back to my hotel I wonder what else Keats might have produced had he, to quote Yeats, “lived to comb gray hair.” Although it’s a very American thing to consider. The man wrote “Nightingale”, “To Autumn”, “Ode on a Grecian Urn”, Hyperion, and “La Belle Dam Sans Merci.” Yet here I am, still thinking about unfulfilled promise. It reminds me of an article I read years ago where an esteemed political writer emphatically stated that Jimmy Carter had never fulfilled his potential. Apparently being President can still qualify you as an underachiever in my home country.

I stop wondering about what Keats might have done. What difference does it make? What he did write was enough. This isn’t investment banking. A handful of all-time great poems is more than we have any right to expect.


My favorite thing about the poem is the way Keats gives poetry “wings.” I like that. As if a poem is itself a bird, flying from house to house to enchant each reader in his or her turn.

I wonder how many people who lived on Keats’ street also used to listen to that same nightingale.

I wonder if residents could recognize him by his voice, or from the time of evening at which he would always begin to sing.

I wonder how the nightingale died.

I wonder if the nightingale had babies.

I wonder how many of those babies lived.

I wonder if nightingales inherit a back-catalogue of songs, or if they all write their own material.

I bet they write their own material.


I took a class on Keats in graduate school. I didn’t like it. Literary Theory should never be allowed around a poem like “Nightingale.” That’s like letting a Siberian tiger out of his cage at the zoo. Nothing good can come of that for anyone.


Gerard Manley Hopkins had his nightingale. Only it wasn’t a nightingale. It was the Holy Spirit.

Yeats had his nightingale too. 59 of them, to be exact. They were swans though. Swans don’t sing.

Robert Graves’ nightingale was the Goddess. Sometimes she sang. Other times she went silent. Always she undressed in front of him. Sometimes she let him touch her.

Had Coleridge’s Mariner spotted a nightingale instead of an albatross, everything would have been different. You never kill a singing bird.

Shakespeare was his own nightingale. The rest of us are still living inside the world his singing created.


The house L. and I lived in had a back deck that opened onto a ravine. Every morning we’d wake up to the sound of several sparrows singing. They’d start early, usually around 6 or 7 a.m. I’m sure that’s why my dreams in those years constantly involved flying. I’d grow wings and criss-cross the country, flying low above the river at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, circling the peaks of the Grand Tetons, taking a rest by landing on the observation deck at the Empire State Building. I had these great wings too. Big feathered ones, like the kind Warren Beatty has on the poster for Heaven Can Wait.

Other times I’d be in an enormous jet airliner with no roof so that I could reach up and run my hand across the surface of the clouds as we sped past. Or I’d be floating through outer space, like a solitary astronaut in a David Bowie song, thinking of the people that I loved back home.

Birdsong will do that to you. It doesn’t have to be a nightingale’s, either. It can be a host of morning sparrows, unaware that their music can bring more beauty to someone’s world than they will ever know. Or maybe they do know. Who’s to say?


Keats had a way of ending his poems with lines that could haunt you forever. “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know”, from “Grecian Urn.” Or, even more elliptically, “Was it a vision, or a waking dream? Fled is that music:—Do I wake or sleep”, from “Nightingale.”

Keats could not have imagined how wrong he was. The music he heard has never “fled.” In fact, I can hear it now. It’s the kind of melody that would have sounded great as an intro to one of those psychedelic, peace-and-love songs from the late 1960s, something off Rubber Soul, for instance, or as a B-side to “A Whiter Shade of Pale.” George Martin might have played it on a flute. Jerry Garcia could have beautifully re-created it on his electric guitar.

I wish Fanny Brawne had been with Keats in the garden that night. She might have convinced him to dance. Or she could have danced while he watched. Her body like liquid, her hips turning the kinds of circles that Theodore Roethke would later write about in “I Knew a Woman.” Because her presence would have proven to Keats that what he was hearing was no dream. It was as real as the tuberculosis that would kill him less than two years later.


Days later I will look online and realize this might not have been the house at all. There is a place called the Spaniards Inn (also in Hampstead) that may, in fact, have been where Keats sat in the garden and heard the song of the nightingale. For a moment it will bother me. But then the feeling passes. It doesn’t really matter where he heard the nightingale. What does matter is that, because he heard it, we get to go on hearing it, everywhere.




BIO: Paul Kareem Tayyar's most recent book is Immigrant Songs (WordTech, 2019), and his fiction and poetry has appeared in journals such as Alaska Quarterly Review, Brilliant Corners, The Santa Monica Review, and The Writer’s Almanac. He is a Professor of English at Golden West College and holds a Ph.D. in Literature from U. C. Riverside.