Friday, October 29, 2010

On Dipping into Keats' Letters 2

Gate into Garden, St Anne's Park, Oct 2010 
There are certain books to which I return again and again and Letters of John Keats is one such book.   In this post I wish to continue by highlighting themes from his letters that struck me.

The Imagination:

The Romantic Movement was an international one which highlighted all the senses and the importance of the experience of the the individual subject writing his/her poems.  One gets a surfeit of the first person pronoun in much Romantic literature.  Nothing could have been of more importance to the Romantic writer in general or poet in particular than the power of the Imagination.  If Samuel Taylor Coleridge was the philosopher supreme of the Imagination (a word I specifically capitalise here), then John Keats was its priest or prophet:
O I wish I was as certain of the end of all your troubles as that of your momentary start about the authenticity of the Imagination.  I am certain of nothing but of the holiness of the Heart's affections and the truth of the Imagination - What the Imagintion seizes as Beauty must be truth - whether it existed before or not - for I have the same Idea of all our Passions as of Love they are all in their sublime, creative and essential Beauty.... The Imagination may be compared to Adam's dream - he awoke and found it truth. (letter to Benjamin Bailey, 22 Nov, 1817., Letters, pp. 36-37) 
I am interested in the way Keats capitalises certain words like Imagination, Beauty, Passions and Love, but never the word truth.  It is obvious that he found those capitalised words of great importance to his personal philosophy of life and to his own personal view of poetry and literature.  It is interesting also that he uses the noun "authenticity" when he describes the very power of the Imagination.  One could be forgiven the anachronism of attributing an existentialist bent to his philosophy of  the Imagination.  In these posts I have been highlighting the healing power of the Imagination in both literature and in psychotherapy.  I have outlined this paralellism most especially in the post immediately prior to this one.  Not a psychotherapist from Freud through Jung to Hillman would contradict this thesis.

Negative Capability 

I love the struggle of these intertwined trunks
I have written about the power of opposites many times in these posts - see this link here Opposites Still PointSamuel Taylor Coleridge was besotted with the idea of what he termed "the reconciliation of opposites," while Carl Gustave Jung was also most intrigued and taken by the power of these polar opposites, their dynamic interaction and interplay, and the eventual integration of both which he was to see as essential to becoming whole - a word he loved and a word much quoted by Jungian therapists. Our own Nobel winning Laureate, the great W.B. Yeats spoke of the existence of conflicting antinomies.  For him, these antinomies or polar opposites (Good and Evil, Peace and War etc) are just there. Contraries exist but, he said, ‘I had never put the conflict in logical form, never thought with Hegel that the two ends of a see-saw are one another’s negation.’ (See the review of Yeats and Violence by Michael Wood in the Irish Left Review at Review by Seán Sheahan .

John Keats comes up with his own singular and peculiar take on the polarity of such opposites.  This is where he coins a totally new literary term called "Negative Capability":

Browne and Dilke walked with me & back from the Christmas pantomime.  I had not a dispute but a disquisition with Dilke on various subjects; 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 man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact and reason - Coleridge for instance would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of Mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half-knowledge.  This pursued through Volumes would perhaps take us no further than this, that with a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration. (Letter to George and Tom Keats,  17, 27? December 1818, Letters, ed Gittings., p. 43)
For Keats a sense of Beauty somehow transcends all opposites and, indeed all suffering.  Now remember that this was no mere thought or even intuition on the poet's part, because this young man had suffered much in his life, had nursed his dying brother and also knew that he, too, had caught the horribly contageous diseas of TB and would also die at a very young age.  Consequently, he writes not alone from deep poetic insights and intuitions, but also from a deep encounter with the polar opposites, the antinomies, the contradictions and the sufferings meted out to us humans as part of our very condition in being mortal. 

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