“In return for your dish of filberts, I have gathered a few Catkins, I hope they’ll look pretty. To J.H.R. In answer to his Robin Hood sonnets.” (122) Thusly does John Keats conclude a short letter to his friend John Reynolds, followed by two poems: “Robin Hood,” and “Lines on the Mermaid Tavern.” Both poems are meant, in part, to serve simply as clever replies to Reynolds’s work; they are witty and thoughtful responses on Keats’s part. Beyond simply responding to his contemporary’s letter, however, Keats has drawn up an interesting piece that stands, solidly, on its own. “Lines on the Mermaid Tavern” feels mildly nostalgic, but Keats adds an unexpected bite of mystery to the familiar subject, establishing by way of certain rhetoric and allusions a sense of mythology and lore to his poem. Keats goes so far as to conjure a comparison of the Mermaid Tavern to Paradise in order to best illustrate the other-worldliness of the old inn. Additionally, his rondeau- repeating the question “what Elysium have ye known…choicer than the Mermaid Tavern?” (469-70) hints at the importance of the place, suggesting that it provided more than heaven could to the poets who ate and drank there.
Keats’s “Lines” could easily take on the tone of one of his odes: dedicatory, sentimental. Keats writes about the Mermaid Tavern in such a way that the resulting poem is less a verse of praise and more of a story; he aims to convey his reverence for the tavern by creating a myth about it, as opposed to blatantly glorifying the place. A master at choosing and arranging (and sometimes creating) words to best explain and describe his ideas, Keats peppers “Lines” with imagery that creates a gauzy scene: “underneath a new-old sign/sipping beverage divine/and pledging with contented smack/the Mermaid in the Zodiac.” (469-70) This passage in particular brings to mind a poet, sipping quietly in a dusky corner: the perfect shadowy hero of a medieval fantasy.
Besides the use of rhetoric to create mystery within “the Mermaid Tavern,” Keats plays with characters from pre-existing legends, alluding to the Robin Hood fable in the first stanza. Partly a response to Reynolds’s poems about the adventurer, Keat’s reference clothes his “poets dead and gone,” giving them form and developing his poem’s inclination towards myth: “drest as though bold Robin Hood/would, with his maid Marian,/sup and bowse from horn and can.” (469) Further mention of anonymous legendary figures and symbols- an astrologer, the Zodiac- mist over “Lines on the Mermaid Tavern” with just enough fairy-tale vernacular to make the tavern’s obvious nostalgic import soften with sensational fog.
Structurally, too, “Lines on the Mermaid Tavern” becomes a story from a verse. A master of elevated forms of poetry (his odes speak for themselves on this point), Keats deviates from his usual eloquence and gets playful with his rhymes. Couplets compose the stanzas of “Lines” and lend a lighthearted air to the poem, imparting a feel almost like that of a nursery rhyme. Rhetorical questions (“what Elysium have ye know…choicer than the Mermaid Tavern?” and “have ye tippled drink more fine/than mine host’s Canary wine,” for example) demand the reader to dream, creating a fable by way of engaging his imagination.
The subject of “Lines” is the Mermaid Tavern, once a popular destination for a circle of Elizabethan writers, including Francis Beaumont, Ben Jonson, and John Fletcher. Keats’s poem partially addresses the “souls of [these] poets dead and gone,” knowingly prying for a comparison that might confirm the tavern’s place in the old wordsmiths’ lives. Not only does Keats manage to make the Mermaid Tavern the subject of a two-stanza legend, but he ably tells his audience just how significant a place it was, comparing its “dainty pies” and “Canary wine” to the “fruits of paradise” and suggesting that, to the poets in question, the Mermaid Tavern was a sort of heaven.
Literary round tables are timeless and ubiquitous, and invaluable to the writers who frequent them. Providing a home base and offering a commune where conversation and ideas are imbibed as much as drink, such havens are often as important to the souls who find respite and stimulation there as a Christian paradise. Keats keenly observes that the Mermaid Tavern was such a place for the Elizabethan dramatists he admired, and leads his reader to the same conclusion as he asks, with an answer already in mind, whether or not the fineries of heaven can compete with the comfort and-most importantly- the sense of place that the Mermaid Tavern provided its regulars.
Perhaps Keats makes no great thematic statement with “Lines on the Mermaid Tavern.” The poem is not socially caustic, nor is it philosophically dramatic. It is first a playful reply to a friend’s letter, although with further reading, is also an example of Keat’s mastery of language and verse form. He uses both, by choosing words and allusions to fill the lines of a poem rhymed in an unusually whimsical form, to create a myth about his subject. Repeated queries as to the outcome of a dining-room comparison between the offerings of paradise and the Mermaid Tavern convey the spiritual importance of the inn to the writers who frequented its corners. Responding to Reynolds’s lines on the Robin Hood tale, Keats writes a little myth of his own, about a real-life legendary place.