Saturday, November 20, 2010

On Dipping into Keats' Letters 10

Stones, Donabate, October 2010
I suppose it is about time that I brought this series of reflections on Keats' letters to a conclusion - at least for the moment.  Reading such literature should convince us that there are more things to life than the sheer materialism and greed that swept this wee country like a tsunami during the era of the mythical Celtic Tiger.  There are many other concerns to which we must give our attention like the world of simple and decent values.  By this I mean such values as altruism, care for the environment, care for one's own spiritual and moral well-being as well as that of others; care for each other, for the less fortunate; a commitment to education in its broadest meaning, to our own physical and mental health and indeed to that of the society to which we belong and an on-going conviction that self-development in the most holistic sense possible is also about the development of our society and indeed of our environment at large.  There actually is nothing selfish about self-development.  The opposite in fact is the case.

Lessons from the Letters:

(i) Keats was convinced of the value of establishing good and decent relationships with others.  Not one letter expresses derogatory, belittling, contemptuous or pejorative sentiments about others.  His letters are always an effort to build up and establish relationships.

(ii) It's very hard to find a prevailing air of negativity or even deep depression, though at times he does express some morbid feelings, but never to an overwhelming extent.  If he expresses such feelings it is always in the frank and open sense of sharing how he actually feels as his correspondents would have wished him to.  For a man who died so young - at the age of a mere 25 years - from a disease he knew had killed his brother Tom and would slowly and surely kill himself he remained remarkably up-beat and positive in his correspondence.  Add to that the fact that young Keats had trained as a medical doctor and knew all too well that his days were numbered when he spat up blood on his pillow.

(iii) There is great self-belief, self-confidence and self-esteem shown in his letters.  Let us as readers bask in them.  Here was a poet rejoicing in his own gifts, literary and poetic, nay, rejoicing in the fact that he was a gifted and good human being.  That belief in ourselves must come before we truly believe in others is an an essential prerequisite of good personal and interpersonal development to my mind.  Needless to say, Keats and other literary and even non-literary characters of his era would not have used these phrases and terms which were coined in the more recent years of self-help.  I have already adverted to the fact that one letter sounded like modern pop psychology insofar as it appeared that the young poet was rehearsing what we today term "positive tapes" in his head.

(iv) Keats' letters underpin a main contention of this writer, viz., that creativity is an essentially healing act, an act of "soul-making" in the poet's very own phrase.  This is exactly what Stephen K Levine means by poiesis which I described in an earlier post here: Keats and Poiesis.

(v) The importance of solitude in the development of the poetic imagination, and indeed its vital importance to the development of the human Soul or Self
Horse, Malahide, November 2010

(vi) The healing power and inspiration of nature.  If one were to state this in another way, one might say that the Romantics were early Greens or Ecologists, committed to Gaia long before ever James Lovelock dreamt up the word or the concept.  A linked theme would be that of the importance of the walking tour in mountainous areas.  Such external journeys also mirrored the internal spiritual journey of the artist or poet.

(vii)  The existential themes in his Letters - suffering and angst, the pain of existence.  These are always, as I have said above, seen as being able to be alleviated somewhat through artistic and creative expression.  Such sentiments are honest, frank and open, but never depressingly overwhelming.

(viii) Keats' theories of Knowledge, Beauty and Truth are all linked artistically and indeed existentially (I use this word in a decidedly anachronistic fashion as I have explained elsewhere in these posts) in his mind.

(ix) Negative Capability : I have written about the power of opposites many times in these posts. Samuel 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.'  The way Keats puts this healthy tension of polar opposites is: "Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact and reason..." (Letter to George and Tom Keats, 17, 27 December 1818, Letters, ed Gittings., p. 43)

(x) I will finish this post with the sheer wonder Keats had about all of existence and the very wonder of his very own mind.  There is possibly no better way to finish.  I am reminded of the wonder that our own native poet Patrick Kavanagh had about all of nature and life about him a century or more later in the following wonderfully inspiring words from Keats' pen::

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 amiable wife and sweet Children I contemplate as part of that Beauty, but I must have a thousand of those beautiful particles to fill up my heart.  I feel more and more every day, as my Imagination strengthens, that I do not live in this world alone but in a thousand worlds - No sooner am I alone that shapes of epic greatness are stationed around me... (Letter to George and Georgiana Keats 14, 16, 21, 24, 31 October, 1818, Gittings, p. 158.)

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