A Reading of ‘The Mermaid Tavern’ by John Keats

By Christopher Nield
Christopher Nield
Christopher Nield
July 9, 2008 Updated: October 10, 2018

The Mermaid Tavern

Souls of Poets dead and gone,
What Elysium have ye known,
Happy field or mossy cavern,
Choicer than the Mermaid Tavern?
Have ye tippled drink more fine
Than mine host’s Canary wine?
Or are fruits of Paradise
Sweeter than those dainty pies
Of venison? O generous food!
Dressed as though bold Robin Hood
Would, with his maid Marian,
Sup and bowse from horn and can.

I have heard that on a day
Mine host’s sign-board flew away,
Nobody knew whither, till
An astrologer’s old quill
To a sheepskin gave the story,
Said he saw you in your glory,
Underneath a new old-sign
Sipping beverage divine,
And pledging with contented smack
The Mermaid in the Zodiac.

Souls of Poets dead and gone,
What Elysium have ye known,
Happy field or mossy cavern,
Choicer than the Mermaid Tavern?

 If William Blake saw eternity in a grain of sand, in this poem John Keats finds “Elysium,” or heaven, in the local bar. We might imagine that the Mermaid Tavern was his usual watering hole in London, but in fact it had burned down centuries before in the Great Fire. So why does Keats evoke its name rather than, say, the Dog and Duck or the Green Man?

The Mermaid Tavern existed in the era of that great matriarch Queen Elizabeth I, and was located east of the old St. Paul’s Cathedral on Friday Street. What made it so mythical was that here the Friday Street Club would meet, a group founded by sonneteer and seafarer Sir Walter Raleigh (who may have glimpsed a few sirens in his travels) and which attracted such literary giants as Ben Jonson, John Donne, and even William Shakespeare himself. Legend has it that Jonson and Shakespeare would often be seen pitting their wits over a pint.

Epoch Times Photo
“Shakespeare and His Friends at the Mermaid Tavern,” 1851, by John Faed. A fanciful 19th-century depiction of Shakespeare and his contemporaries. (Public Domain)

This is in no way a serious poem but a piece of froth written by a poet on holiday from melancholy. And, indeed, in the wonderfully quotable opening lines, Keats gently satirizes the rhetoric of his own Romantic generation, who sought redemption from city chatter in the quietude of nature. No, he says, neither “happy field” nor “mossy cavern” can measure up to the humble and irrepressible delights of an ordinary bar, where all human life congregates.

I am reminded of a pub I pass each day just west of the new St Paul’s: Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese. This is a warren of ancient cellars and spiral staircases leading up to mysterious upper rooms. It was here that W.B. Yeats attended the Rhymer’s Club in the 1890s—a group of writers and painters who no one else would listen to. In America, such bohemian meeting places in New York and San Francisco have kept the creative spirit alive despite the mockery of the times. Ultimately, artistic inspiration and practical wisdom come from engagement with the unpredictable street and not from being removed in a penthouse apartment.

Perhaps it was the proximity of the Thames that led to the Mermaid Tavern being named so, but in the poem the mermaid assumes a symbolic significance. As a dual creature existing on land and sea, she suggests transformation. She is the muse. As the eternal barmaid, she is always ready to give a friendly smile—and a stern rebuke for anyone misbehaving. Mermaid, barmaid … The wordplay also leads to Maid Marian, Robin Hood’s trusty sidekick in his quest to steal from the rich and help the poor. Here folk heroes become immortal.

Here tall tales are told, like the day the tavern’s sign disappeared. As Keats tells it, an astrologer was sought, who through some kind of mysterious divination with a quill pen and a sheepskin (today it’s called writing), located the missing mermaid among the stars, carousing with the souls of old poets. The rhyme of “smack” (meaning kiss) and “Zodiac” brings together the naughty and the numinous in a wryly humorous way.

As light and breezy as a midsummer’s day, Keats’s poem contains some marvelous phrases. To “sup and bowse from horn and can” are words we instantly want to taste on our tongue, like a fine vintage. “Bowse” means to drag, and so evokes the almost voluptuous pleasure of sipping one’s chosen poison with slow, lingering patience. We know it hits the spot. “Horn and can” collapses time, showing how our drinking rituals link us with the Vikings of yore, and even the Stone Age.

Is there a Mermaid Tavern for us today? Do we sit beneath its beneficent genius as we sip coffee, read the paper, and talk with friends in Starbucks? (Its logo is, after all, a mermaid.) Maybe Starbucks and its ilk are too corporate for such a comparison; the Mermaid Tavern is too magical to be a brand. It is the Friday feeling of the soul. It is that place we go to after work where, as the theme song to the TV show “Cheers” tells us, everybody knows our name.

John Keats (1795–1821) was an English poet who died of tuberculosis at the age of 25. He is famous for such poems as “Ode to a Grecian Urn” and “La Belle Dame Sans Merci.”


Christopher Nield
Christopher Nield