Wednesday, October 27, 2010

On Dipping into Keats' Letters 1

A picture I took recently in Santry Woods
In my last post I highlighted the astounding similarity between John Keats' concept of "soul-making" and Professor Levine's therapeutic practice of poiesis.   A look at the provenance or origin of this last term would be helpful here. Poïesis is etymologically derived from the ancient Greek term ποιέω or poieo which means "to make".   In fact, the very root meaning, then, of poetry is literally to make or craft or put something together.  This basic meaning has always appealed to me, as it has to many poets who like to see themselves as makers of poems, crafters and fashioners of meaning in word shapes called poems. Basically, this word poiesis is the root of our modern "poetry" and was first a verb, an action that transforms and adds onto the world.  Now, this making is not a technical production at all but rather such poïetic work reconciles thought with matter and time, and, indeed, humankind with the world.  In this sense the poet, the maker and crafter of words in the shape of poems, is a meaning-maker and a sound-maker, too, of course, as the meaning may be in the very sounds as well as in some way transcending those sounds.

I am also quite taken with Martin Heidegger's (1889 – 1976) take on poiesis, described by Levine in the book I mentioned in my last post.  Heidegger refers to it as a 'bringing-forth', using this term in its widest sense almost like a mother in child-birth as it were, though he does not use that Socratic metaphor. However, he explained poiesis in similar biological terms as the blooming of the blossom, the coming-out of a butterfly from a cocoon, the plummeting of a waterfall when the snow begins to melt. The last two analogies, I find wonderfully poetic and deeply insightful, and they underline Heidegger's concept of a threshold occasion, that is, a moment of ecstasis when something moves away from its standing as one thing to become another.  In other words poiesis is all about growth into a new identity - Self or Soul-building as it were.  Enough philosophy or literary criticism or etymology for one post.  Let's do a little excavating in the mines of Keats' letters, and in his poems if something strikes me from these latter.

Gems from the Letters:

My attempt at a Still Life photo, October 2010
John Keats was to die from that dreadful wasting disease of Tubercolosis or T.B., then called by the horrible name of Consumption, which describes well the body being literally consumed or eaten away by the dreadful disease.  John Keats, like another favourite slightly earlier poet, William Blake (1757-1827) was to nurse devotedly a dying younger brother.  Keats nursed his brother Tom (who also died from the dreaded disease and it was probably from him that he contracted the same illness) while the latter poet nursed his younger brother Robert on his death-bed.  Not only were the two of these people great poets, but they were also wonderful human beings.


That John should have suffered from depression in no way surprises me as his parents died all too young when he was a mere boy and as he saw his brother dying a slow lingering death, he began to realise that he, too, had caught the same dreadful disease.  That he was a talented poet and a great and sensitive mind he was very aware, but never in a conceited way.  He was much depessed by the fact that he would not live long enough to write all the poems he wished he could.  Both these facts must have depressed him greatly.

I am reminded of the following poem which he wrote in 1818: "When I Have Fears."  It is an Elizabethan sonnet.  It follows the sonnet convention and has the usual 14-line structure and is written in iambic pentameter and consists of three quatrains and a couplet. It was published (posthumously) in 1848

When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has glean'd my teeming brain,
Before high piled books, in charact'ry,
Hold like rich garners the full-ripen'd grain;
When I behold, upon the night's starr'd face,
Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,
And think that I may never live to trace
Their shadows, with the magic hand of chance;
And when I feel, fair creature of an hour!
That I shall never look upon thee more,
Never have relish in the faery power
Of unreflecting love;—then on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone, and think,
Till Love and Fame to nothingness do sink.

 In a letter to B.R. Haydon on the 11th of May 1817 he writes:
You tell me never to despair - I wish it was as easy for me to observe the saying - truth is I have a horrid Morbidity of Temperament which has shown itself at intervals - it is I have no doubt the greatest Enemy and stumbling block I have to fear.  (Letters of John Keats, ed., Robert Gittings,. OUP, 1987, p. 13)
Deep Affection for his Sister Fanny:

That John loved his sibblings there can be no doubt.  When his parents had died so young he had taken on their care with other relatives.  He writes lovingly to Fanny, is interested in what she is reading, tells her wionderful stories from ancient Greek tales and myths and tells her to tell him what she is reading even if it only runs to only six pages in a week.  (See ibid., p.18ff et passim).

Prefers Italian to French:

In this same letter to Fanny, 10th of September, 1817, he writes:
I wish the Italian would supersede french (sic) in every school throughout the country for that is full of real Poetry and Romance of a kind more fitted for the Pleasure of Ladies than perhaps our own - It seems that the only end to be gained in acquiring french - is the immense accomplishment of speaking it - a most lamentable mistake indeed - Italian would sound most musically from Lips which had b[e]gan to pronounce it as early as french is cramme'd down our Mouths, as if we were young Jack daws at the mercy of an overfeeding Schoolboy. (Ibid., p. 19)
I really like the fact that Keats writes with little regard for punctuation and uses capitals and dashes rather in the way that William Blake also did.

The Worries of the World: The Human Condition:
In this World there is no quiet nothing but teasing and snubbing and vexation - my Brother Tom look'd very unwell yesterday and i am for shipping him off to Lisbon. perhaps I ship there with him.  (To Benjamin Bailey, ibid., p. 28)

Such is the World - and we live - you have surely in a continual struggle against the suffocation of accidents - we must bear (and my Spleen is mad at the thought thereof) the Proud man's Contumely -  for a recourse somewhat human independant (sic) of the great Consolations of Religion and undepraved Sensations, of the Beautiful, the poetrical in all things - O for a remedy against such wrongs within the pale of the World! (Ibid., in another letter to Bailey p. 33) 
These quotations above show a very sensitive soul indeed.  When I first read Coleridge, I said to myself that I would really love to have met him, and the very same sentiments rose in my soul when I first read both the poems and letters of the wonderful sensitive soul John Keats.   I could say the same for William Blake, too, but never of Wordsworth.  I wonder why. The two quotations immediately above show what we may term in modern language an existential bent in Keats' writing or personality, that is, the ability to say what he is actually thinking and feeling in very concrete, human, down-to-earth ways.  In fact, his letters are full of the anxiety and angst we have come to associate with the existentialist school of writers and philosophers.  I also like the fact that his letters are very much a Stream-of-Consciousness affair as he writes as he feels and as he thinks, censoring no thought or no feeling.  He does not want the mere consolations of religion.  He wants more, something of the Beauty of the world which will be somehow immortal.  Our own W. B. Yeats thought along similar lines.  Enough for now.  I tire.

To be continued.

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