Sunday, November 07, 2010

On Dipping into Keats' Letters 7

The Beauty of Nature

I took this photo in Santry Woods, Oct 2010
The beauty of nature was always, and indeed still is, a subject or theme of Romantic writing, be that prose or poetry.  I have already alluded to the fact that S.T. Coleridge and William Wordsworth both did many long walks in the Lake District and elsewhere.  That the young London-born Keats would at some time in his life head for Cumbria and do a long walk through the Lake District, up into Scotland and thereafter over to the North-Western corner of Ireland and then back down through Scotland again is not at all surprising for a soul of such deep Romantic passion as that of this young poet.  I have already referred to his rather confusing aesthetic, adumbrated in those paradoxical lines from Ode on a Grecian Urn that "beauty is truth and truth beauty."  What these lines may mean is an enigma that has baffled many scholars of English literature and many wise critics of poetry in the English language.  However, in a letter to his brother Tom from the Lake District in Cumbia, dated 25-27 June, 1818, he writes of the beauty of nature thus:

What astonishes me more than anything is the tone, the colouring, the slate, the stone, the moss, the rock-weed, or, if I may so say, the intellect, the countenance of such places.  The space, the magnitude of mountains and waterfalls are well imagined before one sees them; but this countenance or intellectual tone must surpass every imagination and defy any rememberance.  I shall learn poetry here and shall henceforth write more than ever, for the abstract endeavour of being able to add a mite to that mass of beauty which is harvested from these grand materials, by the finest spirits, and put into etherial experience for the relish of one's fellows.  I cannot think with Hazlitt that theser scenes make man appear little.  I never forgot my stature so completely - I live in the eye; and my imagination, surpassed, is at rest. (The Letters of John Keats, Gittings, p. 103)
The Irish versus the Scots:

Keats was astounded at the poverty and filth of Irish people in comparison to the relative comfort and cleanliness of the Scots.  He calls the Irish by the nickname "Paddies."  One wonders how old this nickname is and who first used it - a subject of a future post perhaps!  Be that as it may, let us listen to Keats describing the Irish:

On our walk in Ireland we had too much opportunity the worse than nakedness, the rags, the dirt and misery of the poor common Irish - A Scotch cottage, though in that sometimes (sic) the smoke has no exit but at the door, is a pallace (sic) to an Irish one.   (Letter to Tom Keats, 3,5,7,9, July 1818, Gittings, p. 119)

Sonnet on top of Ben Nevis: 


Read me a lesson, Muse, and speak it loud
Upon the top of Nevis, blind in mist!
I look into the chasms, and a shroud
Vapurous doth hide them - just so much I wist
Mankind do know of hell; I look o'erhead,
And there is sullen mist, - even so much
Mankind can tell of heaven; mist is spread
Before the earth, beneath me, - even such,
Even so vague is man's sight of himself!
Here are the craggy stones beneath my feet, -
Thus much I know that, a poor witless elf,
I tread on them, - that all my eye doth meet
Is mist and crag, not only on this height,
But in the world of thought and mental might!
This is a powerful sonnet which Keats wrote to his brother Tom from the top of Ben Nevis.  The letter is dated 3, 6 August 1818.  (See ibid., pp 145-148)  I will leave it to you the reader to ponder this wonderful and profound poems.  No words of mine could elucidate it.  Encounter the mist and the mystery that is at the heart of humanity with Keats on the top of Ben Nevis by slowly pondering the above lines!

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