Sunday, November 20, 2005

Keats, the Romantic who was not

Nick chose Keats' Grecian Urn as his poem of the week a while back and I commented on my appreciation of Keats' letter-writing and particularly one to his friend Bailey. Keats was a feisty kid and even in his twenties, as old as he got, he wrote about getting into at least one fight. He also liked to use sexual slang in bantering with his brother and guys he wrote to. He wasn't your typical image of the Romantic poet neuresthenic, hyper-sensitive, verging on campy or fey. He looked up to his uncle the Officer, hero of naval engagements with Napoleon's fleet and might himself aimed at a military career if his guardian had not steered him otherways.

To me that makes more wonderful his choice of poetry to express his growing sense of self in all its mutability and uncertainty. Wonderful too his practically magical command of language and the intense use he made of the limited educational opportunities that were given him.

As I said in my comment, There was much pain in his life, but though his letters contain much that is sad, he doesn't indulge himself in self-pity and his poetry is the opposite pole from the ego-centered confessional variety so popular in my lifetime. He cared for his tubercular brother and described his own agony and Tom's at his horrid death, the while he rarely let on how serious were his own symptoms.

Though he was tenacious in following his own muse, he didn't make grand claims for poetry or ART. Though a Romantic, he was not a didactic one; a critic of his Augustan predecessors, but by example, not polemic.

His prose has great charm. His written correspondence is often in phrases and run-on sentences linked by dashes. His conversational letter writing seems much like the style used by many of today's bloggers and emailers.

In writing Bailey he says:
I am sometimes so very sceptical as to think Poetry itself a mere Jack a lanthen to amuse whoever may chance to be struck with its brilliance. As Tradesmen say every thing is worth what it will fetch, so probably every mental pursuit takes its reality and worth from the ardor of the pursuer - being in itself a nothing - Ethereal things may at least be thus real, divided under three heads - Things real - things semireal - and no things. Things real - such as existences of Sun Moon & Stars and passages of Shakspeare. Things semi-real such as Love, the Clouds &c which require a greeting of the Spirit to make them wholly exist - and Nothings which are made Great and dignified by an ardent pursuit - which by the by stamps the burgundy mark on the bottles of our Minds, insomuch as they are able to "consecrate whate'er they look upon".
This is worth reading a few times over. He staked his life on poetry; endured poverty and sacrificed greatly for his art -- he and his work were ridiculed in the most respected periodicals of his day, and despite this determined perseverance, he could say he wasn't at all sure he was right. He's witty in dissecting the real, semi-real, and unreal, but not trivially so. "Nothings which are made Great and dignified by ardent pursuit" is meant to be funny, but I think it's also deadly earnest. He knew the powers of his own creative ability.

After giving Bailey a new sonnet, he goes on:
Aye this may be carried - but what am I talking of - it is an old maxim of mine and of course must be well known that every point of thought is the centre of an intellectual world - the two uppermost thoughts in a Man's mind are the two poles of his World he revolves on them and every thing is southward or northward to him through their means. We take but three steps from feathers to iron. Now my dear fellow I must once for all tell you I have not one Idea of the truth of any of my speculations - I shall never be a Reasoner because I care not to be in the right, when retired from bickering and in a proper philosophical temper
I am struck by these thoughts: "every point of thought is the centre of an intellectual world," the "uppermost thoughts in a Man's mind are the two poles of his World," "three steps from feathers to iron." They aren't transparent, and aren't meant to be. He knew "Nothings," not as fancy, not ornament, not frivolity, but the emptyness which is the creative center of intellect. And he knew well the antithetical elements of life.

For me he stands out from his peers in his recognition of the paired nature of what we generally think of as negative and postive experiences. As he put it in the sonnet on Melancholy, we cannot know what we mean by pleasure unless we have experience of unpleasure, of pain. The same with beauty and its opposite, of self-regard and compassion, of optimism and pessimism, belief and skepticism.

This foundation of dicotemy is most striking in his sense of emptyness and fullness, particularly within himself. He said his "poetical Character" was "every thing and nothing." He meant he could overcome his own egoism (rejecting "the wordsworthian or egotistical sublime"). He could enter into other beings and things (giving as examples "the Sun, the Moon, the Sea").

All this suggests both a full acceptance of the paradoxes that are abundant in human life and the mastering of a technique for coping with them. I think it's certain he was not influenced by Eastern religion or philosophy, yet the way he lived his life and approached his art have much of these belief systems and practices in them.

Dwell a moment on every point of thought as the center of the intellectual world, or the acceptance of polarities, or the emptying out of self. All these are Eastern in orientation.

His genius is so much the greater, as I see it, for the innovation of this way of life in his time and place.

1 comment:

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Commenting onthe Keats article, Nov. 20, 2005: Fascinating! I can't believe you didn't get any feedback on criticism as good as this was! I bookmarked your blog and will return to read in the archive!