Wednesday, November 10, 2010

On Dipping into Keats' Letters 8

Of Mountains, Mists and Mystery

Sugar Loaf Mountain, Wicklow
Mountains have always appealed to the mind of humankind.  After all Mount Olympus was the home of the Greek gods.  Also mountains feature in all religions as indeed do other images from nature like sun and sea.  There are many mountains of importance in the Bible like Mount Ararat, Mount Sinai, the Mount of Olives, Mount Calvary etc.  I have already written a sequence of posts on the importance of mountain imagery in the human psyche beginning with this post here: Mountain 1 Mountains also loomed large in the psyche and in the poems of the Romantics.  Here is Keats describing his experience of being on the top of Ben Nevis:
The guide said we had three miles of stony ascent - we gained the first tolerable level after the valley.... and having gained it there came on a Mist so that from that part to the verry (sic) top we walked in a Mist.  The whole immense head of the Mountain is composed of large loose stones - thousands of acres - before we got half way up we passed large patches of snow and near the top there is a chasm some hundred feet deep completely glutted with it - Talking of chasms they are the finest wonder of the whole - [t]hey appear great rents in the very heart of the mountain, though they are not, being at the side of it, but other huge crags arising round it give the appearance to Nevis of a shattered heart or Core in itself - These Chasms are 1500 feet in depth and are the most impressive places I have ever seen - they turn one giddy if you choose to give way to it - We tumbled in large stones and set the echoes at work in fine style. ( Letter to Tom Keats, 3, 6 August, Gittings, p. 146)
It was in this letter to Tom that Keats enclosed the poem I quoted in full in the last post.

The Healing Beauty and Therapy of Poetry:
This morning Poetry has conquered - I have relapsed into abstractions which are my only life - I feel escaped from a new strange and threatening sorrow - and I am thankful for it - There is an awful warmth about my heart like a load of Immortality.  (Letter to J.H. Reynolds, 22(?) September 1818, Gittings, p. 154)
This is exactly what Stephen K Levine means by poiesis which I described in an earlier post here: Keats and Poiesis.  Continuing in another letter in a similar vein on the act of creativity involved in making poems we read:
The Genius of Poetry must work out its own salvation in a man:  It cannot be matured by law & precept, but by sensation & watchfulness in itself - that which is creative must create itself in Endymion, I leaped headlong into the Sea, and thereby have become better acquainted with the Soundings, the quicksands & the rocks, than if I had stayed upon the green shore, and piped a silly pipe, and took tea comfortable advice - I was never afraid of failure; for I would sooner fail than not be among the greatest - But I am nigh getting into a rant. (Letter to J.A. Hessey, 8 Oct., 1818, Gittings, p. 156)
In other words, just as the Easterns inform us, Keats is here contending that awareness is all - once we are aware of our gifts and talents, weaknesses and strengths, we can put them all into use in our human interaction with others. He also sees the creative powers of the imagination as being an expression of courage - of going into unknown places in nature and by doing so going into the unknown spaces of the human psyche or soul.

The Healing Powers of the Imagination:

This paragraph quoted above is directly linked with the content of the immediately preceeding one.  Our imagination is expressed in and through all the creative acts we engage in, and this engagement gives significance and meaning to our lives.  There is also a deep feeling of unity with all of nature:
... my solitude is sublime.  Then instead of what I have described there is a Sublimity to welcome me home - the roaring of the wind is my wife and the Stars through the window pane are my Children. The mighty abstract Idea I have of Beauty in all things stifles the more divided and minute domestic happiness - an aimiable wife and sweet Children I contemplate as a part of that Beauty.  But I must have a thousand of those beautiful particles to fill up my mind.  I feel more and more everyday as my Imagination strengthens, that I do not live in this world alone but in a thousand worlds - Nop sooner am I alone than shapes of epic greatness are stationed around me, and serve my Spirit the office which is equivalent to a king's body guard. (letter to George and Georgiana Keats 14, 16, 21, 24, 31 Oct., 1818, Gittings, p. 170)
This paragraph gives a good insight into what Keats experienced as the creative act of his native imagination.  He experienced much of this in solitude as our friend and mentor Dr Anthony Storr pointed out.  We note Keats' intensity, passion ans total commitment to the trade of poetry.  His imagination is so much "on fire" as it were, that the roaring of the wind through its naturtal elements seems like his wife while the stars at night appear to be the children of his imagination.  Such is his passion for the craft of poetry and so strong is his imagination he believes that he lives in a thousand worlds at the one time.

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