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)

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. 

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

On Dipping into Keats' Letters 1

A picture I took recently in Santry Woods
In my last post I highlighted the astounding similarity between John Keats' concept of "soul-making" and Professor Levine's therapeutic practice of poiesis.   A look at the provenance or origin of this last term would be helpful here. Poïesis is etymologically derived from the ancient Greek term ποιέω or poieo which means "to make".   In fact, the very root meaning, then, of poetry is literally to make or craft or put something together.  This basic meaning has always appealed to me, as it has to many poets who like to see themselves as makers of poems, crafters and fashioners of meaning in word shapes called poems. Basically, this word poiesis is the root of our modern "poetry" and was first a verb, an action that transforms and adds onto the world.  Now, this making is not a technical production at all but rather such poïetic work reconciles thought with matter and time, and, indeed, humankind with the world.  In this sense the poet, the maker and crafter of words in the shape of poems, is a meaning-maker and a sound-maker, too, of course, as the meaning may be in the very sounds as well as in some way transcending those sounds.

I am also quite taken with Martin Heidegger's (1889 – 1976) take on poiesis, described by Levine in the book I mentioned in my last post.  Heidegger refers to it as a 'bringing-forth', using this term in its widest sense almost like a mother in child-birth as it were, though he does not use that Socratic metaphor. However, he explained poiesis in similar biological terms as the blooming of the blossom, the coming-out of a butterfly from a cocoon, the plummeting of a waterfall when the snow begins to melt. The last two analogies, I find wonderfully poetic and deeply insightful, and they underline Heidegger's concept of a threshold occasion, that is, a moment of ecstasis when something moves away from its standing as one thing to become another.  In other words poiesis is all about growth into a new identity - Self or Soul-building as it were.  Enough philosophy or literary criticism or etymology for one post.  Let's do a little excavating in the mines of Keats' letters, and in his poems if something strikes me from these latter.

Gems from the Letters:

My attempt at a Still Life photo, October 2010
John Keats was to die from that dreadful wasting disease of Tubercolosis or T.B., then called by the horrible name of Consumption, which describes well the body being literally consumed or eaten away by the dreadful disease.  John Keats, like another favourite slightly earlier poet, William Blake (1757-1827) was to nurse devotedly a dying younger brother.  Keats nursed his brother Tom (who also died from the dreaded disease and it was probably from him that he contracted the same illness) while the latter poet nursed his younger brother Robert on his death-bed.  Not only were the two of these people great poets, but they were also wonderful human beings.


That John should have suffered from depression in no way surprises me as his parents died all too young when he was a mere boy and as he saw his brother dying a slow lingering death, he began to realise that he, too, had caught the same dreadful disease.  That he was a talented poet and a great and sensitive mind he was very aware, but never in a conceited way.  He was much depessed by the fact that he would not live long enough to write all the poems he wished he could.  Both these facts must have depressed him greatly.

I am reminded of the following poem which he wrote in 1818: "When I Have Fears."  It is an Elizabethan sonnet.  It follows the sonnet convention and has the usual 14-line structure and is written in iambic pentameter and consists of three quatrains and a couplet. It was published (posthumously) in 1848

When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has glean'd my teeming brain,
Before high piled books, in charact'ry,
Hold like rich garners the full-ripen'd grain;
When I behold, upon the night's starr'd face,
Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,
And think that I may never live to trace
Their shadows, with the magic hand of chance;
And when I feel, fair creature of an hour!
That I shall never look upon thee more,
Never have relish in the faery power
Of unreflecting love;—then on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone, and think,
Till Love and Fame to nothingness do sink.

 In a letter to B.R. Haydon on the 11th of May 1817 he writes:
You tell me never to despair - I wish it was as easy for me to observe the saying - truth is I have a horrid Morbidity of Temperament which has shown itself at intervals - it is I have no doubt the greatest Enemy and stumbling block I have to fear.  (Letters of John Keats, ed., Robert Gittings,. OUP, 1987, p. 13)
Deep Affection for his Sister Fanny:

That John loved his sibblings there can be no doubt.  When his parents had died so young he had taken on their care with other relatives.  He writes lovingly to Fanny, is interested in what she is reading, tells her wionderful stories from ancient Greek tales and myths and tells her to tell him what she is reading even if it only runs to only six pages in a week.  (See ibid., p.18ff et passim).

Prefers Italian to French:

In this same letter to Fanny, 10th of September, 1817, he writes:
I wish the Italian would supersede french (sic) in every school throughout the country for that is full of real Poetry and Romance of a kind more fitted for the Pleasure of Ladies than perhaps our own - It seems that the only end to be gained in acquiring french - is the immense accomplishment of speaking it - a most lamentable mistake indeed - Italian would sound most musically from Lips which had b[e]gan to pronounce it as early as french is cramme'd down our Mouths, as if we were young Jack daws at the mercy of an overfeeding Schoolboy. (Ibid., p. 19)
I really like the fact that Keats writes with little regard for punctuation and uses capitals and dashes rather in the way that William Blake also did.

The Worries of the World: The Human Condition:
In this World there is no quiet nothing but teasing and snubbing and vexation - my Brother Tom look'd very unwell yesterday and i am for shipping him off to Lisbon. perhaps I ship there with him.  (To Benjamin Bailey, ibid., p. 28)

Such is the World - and we live - you have surely in a continual struggle against the suffocation of accidents - we must bear (and my Spleen is mad at the thought thereof) the Proud man's Contumely -  for a recourse somewhat human independant (sic) of the great Consolations of Religion and undepraved Sensations, of the Beautiful, the poetrical in all things - O for a remedy against such wrongs within the pale of the World! (Ibid., in another letter to Bailey p. 33) 
These quotations above show a very sensitive soul indeed.  When I first read Coleridge, I said to myself that I would really love to have met him, and the very same sentiments rose in my soul when I first read both the poems and letters of the wonderful sensitive soul John Keats.   I could say the same for William Blake, too, but never of Wordsworth.  I wonder why. The two quotations immediately above show what we may term in modern language an existential bent in Keats' writing or personality, that is, the ability to say what he is actually thinking and feeling in very concrete, human, down-to-earth ways.  In fact, his letters are full of the anxiety and angst we have come to associate with the existentialist school of writers and philosophers.  I also like the fact that his letters are very much a Stream-of-Consciousness affair as he writes as he feels and as he thinks, censoring no thought or no feeling.  He does not want the mere consolations of religion.  He wants more, something of the Beauty of the world which will be somehow immortal.  Our own W. B. Yeats thought along similar lines.  Enough for now.  I tire.

To be continued.

Keats, Poiesis and Psychotherapy

John Keats: Beautiful, Truthful and Tormented Soul

John Keats
Of the Romantic poets two have always enchanted me Samuel Taylor Coleridge  (October 1772 – 25 July 1834) for his wildness of spirit, depth of philosophy and breadth of vision and John Keats (31 October 1795 – 23 February 1821) for his intensity, profundity and his belief in the imagination which for him was nothing short of a religious belief in his deep commitment to it.  Of course, they were two very great poets as well - both masters of style who managed in that great Coleridgean definition of poetry to write "the best words in the best order."  If God existed, a proposition which Keats and most of his contemporaries were sincerely convinced of, this great Being would be little short of Imagination Supreme.  These are my words here, but they are not too far from the truth as I'll show further down in these musings.  Keats and my love for both his poems and letters have caused me to write these few lines here this evening.  He was a  poet who lived in the shadow of death for all of his far too short life - he died in at the age of a mere twenty-five years while the woman he loved and had hoped to marry lived to a ripe old age.

Another reason for my penning these lines here is that I have been reading a wonderful little book entitled Poiesis: The Language of Psychology and the Speech of the Soul (Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 1997) by Professor Stephen K. Levine, Associate  Professor of Social Science at Toronto University and co-founder of The International Expressive Arts Therapy Association (IEATA).  This book caught my eye some few weeks back on Amazon and I literally had to buy it immediately, given its wonderful title which sums up a lot of what I believe about the work of psychotherapy today.  Soul work or Self work, call it what you wish, has always been very dear to me, especially now that I am in that second half of life which, as Jung puts it, is the time when we especially do a lot of soul-searching and meaning-making in our lives. 

My last ten or so posts have been on the history of madness and the historical development of psychiatry, coupled with some posts therein on my own personal experience of clinical depression and how we can learn to survive mental illness.  One of the ways I have survived is through what I call Soul-work or soul-making.  This, in effect, is the efforts of my imagination, shown through my creative activities like writing blogs in three languages, reading widely and more widely still the older I get; writing poems in both Irish and English and managing to get some of them published in journals here and there.  I also engage in meditation on a daily basis.  These, then, are the creative activities inspired by the force of my imagination.  Hence, this is a healing or holistic piece of writing here. It is meant to cheer and inspire; not to sadden and depress.  When I type these sentences, I am in fact soul-making - in other words, I am in fact meaning-making on a Soul or Self  level.  Then, all of this knits in well for me with the letters of one of my favourite poets, John Keats, who himself used that wonderful phrase "soul-making" in his highly influential and widely read wonderful letters.  You will see by my use of superlatives and the close repetition of the same superlative in the one sentence in the foregoing lines that I am an unrepentant disciple of this same poet.  I have even been on pilgrimage to the house in which he died in Rome twice in my life.

Levine in his introduction to the above mentioned book avers that

Stephen K. Levine
The essays and poems in this book were all written for specific occasions.  They retain, I hope, some of the liveliness of their origins, the sense of contact with a living audience.  The dangers in this type of work is that the parts will not cohere, that they will remain fragments of an unwritten whole.  In a sense this is appropriate: a major theme of my thinking is the necessity of fragmentation, the refusal to find prematue solutions that would only cover over differences in a facade of unity.  At the same time I find myself striving always towards integration, motivated by a hope for wholeness and reconciliation.  It is this activity of working through disintegration that I consider to be at the core of the creative and therapeutic processes.  I call this act "poiesis" (following Heidegger's use of the Greek word for poetry), and consider it to be the center of human existence. (Op.cit., p xvi.)
When I read these lines and the first two chapters I was immediately inspired to take down one of my favourite books of all time, viz., Letters of John Keats: A Selection, (OUP, 1987) edited by Robert Gittings.  Why?  Well, because practically everything that is said by Levine in the above quoted paragraph is ably expressed, and in a certain striking sense prefigured, in the prose and poems of an early nineteenth century poet, one John Keats.

Let's read some of Keats' own words here:

I  have been reading lately two very different books, Robertson's America and Voltaire's Siecle De Louis XIV. It is like walking arm and arm between Pizarro and the great-little Monarch.....Socrates Mankind may be made happy-I can imagine such happiness carried to an extreme-but what must it end in?-Death-and who could in such a case bear with death-the whole troubles of life which are now frittered away in a series of years, would the[n] be accumulated for the last days of a being who instead of hailing its approach, would leave this world as Eve left Paradise-But in truth I do not at all believe in this sort of perfectibility-the nature of the world will not admit of it-the inhabitants of the world will correspond to itself. Let the fish Philosophise the ice away from the Rivers in winter time and they shall be at continual play in the tepid de light of Summer.....Call the world if you Please "The vale of Soul-making". Then you will find out the use of the world (I am speaking now in the highest terms for human nature admitting it to be immortal which I will here take for granted for the purpose of showing a thought which has struck me concerning it) I say 'Soul making' Soul as distinguished from an Intelligence- There may be intelligences or sparks of the divinity in millions-but they are not Souls till they acquire identities, till each one is personally itself. I[n]telligences are atoms of perception-they know and they see and they are pure, in short they are God-How then are Souls to be made? How then arc these sparks which are God to have identity given them-so as ever to possess a bliss peculiar to each one's individual existence? I- low, but by the medium of a world like this? This point I sincerely wish to consider because 'I think it a grander system of salvation than the chrystiain religion -or rather it is a system of Spirit-creation-This is effected by three grand materials acting the one upon the other for a series of years. These three Materials are the Intelligence-the human heart (as distinguished from intelligence or Mind) and the World or Elemental space suited for the proper action of Mind and Heart on each other for the purpose of forming the Soul or Intelligence destined to possess the sense of Identity. I can scarcely express what I but dimly perceive-and yet I think I perceive it-that you may judge the more clearly I will put it in the most homely form possible-I will call the world a School instituted for the purpose of teaching little children to read-I will call the human heart the horn Book used in that School-and I will call the Child able to -read, the Soul made from that School and its hornbook. Do you not see how necessary a World of Pains and troubles is to school an Intelligence and make it a Soul? A Place where the heart must feel and suffer in a thousand diverse ways!  (I have copied perhaps too much from this letter as you can see from the above lengthy quotation, but I wanted to give the reader a taste of this real live letter - one can sense the poet literally thinking his thoughts out into language or words on tha page, unmindful of the rules of grammar - just like we all do when we write letters.  As a sort of Romantic soul myself, I regret the fact that we twenty-first-century folk have ceased writing letters to one another and have become far more used to lazy texts and e-mails which somehow lack the passion and imagination and intimacy of the hand-written letter).  See this link for a copy of this most profiound letter on line:  Soul-Making Keats )
I will leave it to the reader to compare both the quotation from Levine and that from Keats, because thay are both about the formation of the Soul in the sense of Soul as Identity or Self rather than as some transcendent or even immanent religious reality. Neither of these authors is talking in theological terms.  Indeed, both are talking in "depth-psychology" terms about identity, self-realization, individuation - use whatever term you please.  Obviously, Keats would have been totally unaware of these terms, which were not even invented during his lifetime.  In a very real sense both these authors are spiritual but not religious.  This is a theme I wish to return to again.  In  my next post I will say a little more about John Keats and his philosophy of life and his theory of "soul-making."

To be continued.