Saturday, October 30, 2010

On Dipping into Keats' Letters 3

The Arts and Intensity:

Death on a Pale Horse, Benjamin West, RA (1738 – 1820)
I suppose if the Romantics were anything, they were intense. The word "intense" conjures up someone who feels deeply about certain things.  To be called "intense" in this sense is a compliment.  In the same letter to his brothers George and Tom Keats, where he describes his critical theory of Negative Capability, he also makes interesting comments on the arts:

I spent Friday evening with Wells & went the next morning to see Death on the Pale Horse.  It is a wonderful picture, when West's age is considered; But there is nothing to be intense upon; no women one feels mad to kiss; no face swelling into reality.  The excellence of every Art is its intensity, capable of making all disagreeables evaporate, from their being in close relationship with Beauty & Truth - Examine King Lear & you will find this exemplified throughout; but in this picture we have unpleasantness without any momenmtous depth of speculation excited, in which to bury its repulsiveness... (Gittings, OUP., p.42)
So, the arts have the capacity to link us with Beauty and Truth, two great abstractions and virtues that are important in Keatsian philosophy of the arts, among which the art of poetry is numbered.  Keats' greatest poem is his wonderful Ode on a Grecian Urn, which I remember studying many years ago at school.  I remember liking it when I first heard it read and when I re-read it many times later.  Indeed, I still like it, but like many critics and even ordinary readers, one finds that it is very much a paradoxical poem - perhaps that is what makes it so wonderful in the first place.  Read the Wiki article on this famous ode and you will get some inkling of the many contrary views taken of its content, and especially it implications with respect to the meaning of the Keatsian aesthetic that "Beauty is Truth and Truth Beauty," whatever this assertion may possibly mean.  See this link: WIKI Ode on. However, I liked especially the insights of Mr Charles E. Gould, Jnr. with respect to this debate available at this link here: Book Source Magazine

On Poetry

On the 3rd of February 1818, Keats wrires to J.H. Reynolds and declares:
Poetry should be great and unobtrusive, a thing which enters into one's soul, and does not startle it or amaze it with itself but with its subject - How beautiful are the retired flowers!  How would they lose their beauty were they to throng into the highway crying out, "admire me I am a violet!  dote upon me I am a primrose!... (Gittings, OUP., p.61)
On the 27th of the same month he writes to John Taylor and amongst other news he outlines his axioms for the craft of poetry:
In Poetry I have a few Axioms and you will see how far I am from their Centre. 1st I think Poetry should surprise by a fine excess and not by Singularity - it should strike the Reader as a wording of his own highest thoughts and appear almost a Remembrance - 2nd. its touches of Beauty should never be half way, thereby making the reaer breathless instead of content: the rise, the progress, the setting of imagery should like the Sun come natural natural (sic) too (sic) him - shine over him and set soberly although in magnificence leaving him in the Luxury of twilight - but it is easier to think what Poetry should be than to write it - and this leads me on to another Axiom.  That if Poetry comes not as naturally as the Leaves to a tree it had better not come at all.  (Gittings, OUP., p. 69-70)

On Sickness and Knowledge

My father's grave.  Taken October 2010
It has been said often that one could write a book on the Romantics and their illnesses.  Come to think of it, I believe several have already been written on the topic.  John Keats shares a lot with one modern poet in Gaelic literature here in Ireland, viz., Seán Ó Ríordáin - both wrote from out the depths of their own individual illnesses; in fact they both had TB from which they both died.  Both these geniuses of poets distilled their poems from their very souls, and their souls were in fact fashioned in the crucible of suffering and sickness.  In the follwing excerpt from a letter to J. H. Reynolds on 3 May, 1818 we get an insight into John Keats' philosophy of life, as well as into his musings on how to come to greater wisdom and knowledge, and as a result, of course, digest this knowledge and wisdom and shape it into poems:

In regard to his genius alone (Keats is referring here to Wordsworth, about whom he had mixed feelings) - we find what he says true as far as we have experienced and we can judge no further but by larger experience - for axioms in philosophy are not axioms until they are proved upon the pulses: We read fine -------- things but never feel them to thee (sic) full until we have gone to the same steps as the Author.... until we are sick, we understand not; - infine, as Byron says, "Knowledge is Sorrow"; and I go on to say the "Sorrow is Wisdom" - and further for aught we can know for certainty! "Wisdom is folly."  (Gittings, OUP., p.93)

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