Saturday, October 3, 2009

Keats, Modernity, Pure Poetry

The movie, Bright Star, is worth seeing as a plausible portrait of the woman, Fanny Brawne, who had the honor of being loved for a short time by a very great poet. Such a portrait is worth having; unfortunately, that is about all the makers of this movie have seen fit to give us:  you would never know, from this movie, that Keats had transformed himself into a thoroughly professional poet by force of will as well as talent by the time he met Miss Brawne (November 1818); or that he had been thinking through the process as well as the theory of this extraordinary make-over in wonderfully fluent, witty, playful, brilliant letters—lots of them. If you really want to know something about Keats himself and the modernity of his mind, you can begin by reading his letters—a resource that this movie makes little use of, not surprisingly, perhaps, since none of Fanny Brawne's letters to Keats survive, and his to her were written near the end of his short life.  

The most striking characteristic of Keats as a letter-writer is the direct, lucid, unpretentious simplicity of his style—the style of man who never stops thinking for himself, and never falls back on ready-made or conventional ideas; a man who has no religious or political opinions to defend, a man without side, or party, or dogma and knows it. Such a style requires a certain kind of intellectual and moral stability, or patience, or virtue: a negative capability he calls it in a famous letter to his brother George (12-28-1817). In the midst of some sort of dispute or disquisition with a friend of his (Dilke), he says, "several things dovetailed in my mind, & at once it struck me, what quality went to form a man of achievement especially in literature & which Shakespeare possessed so enormously—I mean Negative Capability, that is when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason . . . ." 

A little less than a year later (10-27-1818), he shows that he understands very well what it means to be a negatively capable poet:

“As to the poetical character itself (I mean that sort of thing which, if I am any thing, I am a member; that sort distinguished from the wordsworthian or egotistical sublime; which is a thing per se and stands alone) it is not itself—it has no self—it is everything and nothing—it has no character—it enjoys light and shade; it lives in gusto, be it foul or fair, high or low, rich or poor, mean or elevated—it has as much delight in conceiving an Iago as an Imogen. What shocks the virtuous philosopher, delights the chameleon poet. It does no harm from its relish of the dark side of things any more than from its taste for the bright one; because they both end in speculation. A poet is the most unpoetical thing of any thing in existence; because he has no identity—he is continually in for—and filling some other body—the sun, the moon, the sea and men and women who are creature of impulse are poetical and have about them an unchangeable attribute—the poet has none; no identity—he is certainly the most unpoetical of all God’s creatures. If then he has no self, and if I am a poet, where is the wonder that I should say I would write no more? Might I not at that very instant have been cogitating on the characters of Saturn and Ops? It is a wretched thing to confess; but is a very fact that not one word I ever utter can be taken for granted as an opinion growing out of my identical nature—how can it, when I have no nature? When I am in a room with people if I ever am free from speculating on creations of my own brain, then not myself goes home to myself: but the identity of every one in the room begins so to press upon me that I am in a very little time annihilated—not only among men; it would be the same in a nursery of children: I know not whether I make myself wholly understood: I hope enough so to let you see that no despondence[dependence?] is to be placed on what I said that day.”

But what kind of poetry might we expect a negatively capable poet without a fixed identity to write? That was a question that no one, including Keats, had ever asked and yet by the spring, summer and fall of 1819 Keats had practically answered it with the pure poetry of the great odes, and in particular the Ode to Autumn, which I print here not because it is necessarily the greatest of Keats' odes but because it so perfectly demonstrates its own perfection and purity:

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eaves run;
To bend with apples the mossed cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For Summer has o'er-brimmed their clammy cell.

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reaped furrow sound asleep,
Drowsed with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers;
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cider-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings, hours by hours.

Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,--
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir, the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The redbreast whistles from a garden-croft,
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

What is 'pure poetry'? Poetry without moral or religious or political content, poetry in which the poet virtually disappears, poetry which like music is essentially about itself:  modern poetry, or rather the poetry of a few modern poets, like Eliot and Stevens and Frost, in a few poems; the poetry that Baudelaire was searching for in 1852 (and not finding) in his reading of Edgar Allen Poe. (See my posting of 7-11-08, "Baudelaire and E. A. Poe")

Coleridge may have written one of the great pure poems in English when, it seems, he accidently composed 
Kubla Kahn— and was so dumfounded by what he had done that he concocted a really stupid story to account for it, about an opium dream and some fellow from Porlock who had interrupted it. Here's the poem which, it seems to me, is about nothing but itself.

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan

A stately pleasure-dome decree :

Where Alph, the sacred river, ran

Through caverns measureless to man

Down to a sunless sea.

So twice five miles of fertile ground

With walls and towers were girdled round :

And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,

Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree ;

And here were forests ancient as the hills,

Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.

But oh ! that deep romantic chasm which slanted

Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover !

A savage place ! as holy and enchanted

As e'er beneath a waning moon was haunted

By woman wailing for her demon-lover !

And from this chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething,

As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing,

A mighty founrtain momently was forced :

Amid whose swift half-intermitted burst

Huge fragments vaulted like rebounding hail,

Or chaffy grain beneath the thresher's flail :

And 'mid these dancing rocks at once and ever

It flung up momently the sacred river.

Five miles meandering with a mazy motion

Through wood and dale the sacred river ran,

Then reached the caverns measureless to man,

And sank in tumult to a lifeless ocean :

And 'mid this tumult Kubla heard from far

Ancestral voices prophesying war !

The shadow of the dome of pleasure

Floated midway on the waves ;

Where was heard the mingled measure

From the fountain and the caves.

It was a miracle of rare device,

A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice !

A damsel with a dulcimer.

In a vision once I saw :

It was an Abyssinian maid,

And on her dulcimer she played,

Singing of Mount Abora.

Could I revive within me

Her symphony and song,

To such a deep delight 'twould win me,

That with music loud and long

I would build that dome in air,

That sunny dome ! those caves of ice !

And all who heard should see them there,

And all should cry, Beware ! Beware !

His flashing eyes, his floating hair !

Weave a circle round him thrice,

And close your eyes with holy dread,

For he on honey-dew hath fed,

And drunk the milk of Paradise.

So much for pure poetry. But we can't be true to the modern, myriad minded genius of Keats if we leave it at that; Keats himself refused to do so. 

Keats had begun writing an epic poem about one of the ancient pre-Homeric gods, Hyperion, after he had finished with Endymion; it hadn't gone well and he put it aside. Sometime during the fall of 1819, he took a look at his Hyperion fragments and made something radically new out of them. This too he finally abandoned but not before he had taken a new look at what it means to be a poet in the modern world. The poem is in the form of a dream vision, in which the poet-dreamer enters a strange temple and begins to climb the stairs leading to the altar; only to be told, in no uncertain terms by the priestess who is also the goddess of memory, that he is nothing but a dreamer, and therefore worthless: "none can usurp this height," she says, "but those to whom the miseries of the world are misery, and will not let them rest.  All else who find a haven in the world, where they may thoughtless sleep away their days, if by chance into this fane [temple] they come, rot on the pavement" before this altar. 

So there, says Keats (in effect) is the choice that the modern artist faces: perfection of the life or perfection of the work. One or the other, you can't have both. By that time, he had already chosen the latter and despite his short life and meagre opportunities, made (as W. B. Yeats says) "luxuriant song."






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