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.

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!

On Dipping into Keats' Letters 6

Keats the Existentialist

A Warning Note: The Danger of Reading Back into History:

One is often loathe to use anacronisms, but in the case of Keats we certainly can read existential or existentialist themes in his Letters and to call him an existentialist is, of course, in no little sense true.  I remember writing an article entitled Leabhar Iób agus Litríocht na Díchéile for Iris Leabhar Mhá Nuad way back in 1986 or so.  That article emanated from a series of lectures I gave in Gaelic on the subject of The Book of Job and the Literature of the Absurd.  The Professor who gave me the theme to explore, Rev. Professor Máritín Mac Con Mara, M.S.C., M.R.I.A, a scholar who possessed two Doctorates. had then enlightened me to the fact that the Old Testament, while being religiously inspired literature, was also full of human longings, sufferings and passions and that it thereby contained both existential and absurdist themes.  He asked me to pursue these ideas for my lectures.  Since then I have learnt to spot such themes in ancient, medieval and pre-modern literature.  However, as a good philosopher and, I hope, a fairly rigorous thinker, I am wary of ascribing more modern motivations to these early writers.  Yet, human yearnings and themes are both universal and boundless with respect to time, though the insights of various sciences both pure, social and psychological have added a much deeper understanding to the human quest since these authors first wrote their thoughts down on paper.

Emigration to America:

In a letter to Benjamin Bailey, dated 21, 25 May, 1818, Keats writes that his brother George had been "out of employ," which is a lovely phrase for the sad reality of what we now term "unemployed" or "jobless."  This letter reads like a letter or e-mail anyone of us would write to a friend in these harsh economic times.  Let us listen now to the poet's words: [being unemployed] has weighed very much upon him, and driven him to scheme and turn things over in his Mind. the (sic) result has been to emigrate to the back settlements of America, become farmer (sic) and work with his own hands after purchacing (sic) 1400 Acres of (sic) the American Government. (Letters of John Keats, Gittings, p. 97)
Depression mixed with Anxiety or Angst:

In this same letter he talks about being quite depressed, and to be suffering from what he terms "the pain of existence" (Ibid., p. 97)  Could one pick a more existential phrase?  Let's listen to the young poet once again:

However I am now so depressed that I have not an Idea to put to paper - my hand feels like lead - and yet is is and (sic) unpleasant numbness it does not take away the pain of existence. (Ibid., p. 97)
The only comfort the poet sees now is that of "throwing oneself on the charity of one's friends." (ibid., p. 98)  That Keats had a great number of friends and that he had a great capacity for establishing friendships goes almost without saying.  I have always marvelled at the levels of intimacy reached in the letters of the 17th, 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, especially between men who seemed to have done most of the writing.  Of course, society had not deemed it fit during those centuries to educate the fairer sex to the standards that it educated its male counterpart.

Suffering and Loss and Love of Family:

I have two Brothers one is driven by the "burden of society" to America the other (sic), with an exquisite love of Life, is in a lingering state - my love for my Brothers from the early loss of our parents and even for earlier Misfortunes has grown into an affection "passing the Love of Women"... Life must be undergone and I certainly derive a consolation from the thought of writing one or two more Poems before it ceases...(Letter to Benjamin Bailey, 25-27 June 1818, ibid., p. 99-100)
In this letter one can feel his heartfelt love for his family, and he does also mention his love for his sister Fanny to whom he also wrote many letters.  However, one can feel his deep existential angst at the pain of life in the words and phrases: "Misfortunes," "Life must be undergone" and how one brother is "in a lingering state" of health while the other is "driven" to America.

Keats the Walker/Hiker:

 Robbie Burns 1759 –  1796
Like many of the other Romantic poets, Keats loved going on walking tours.  He went on a walking tour of the Lake District, Scotland and Northern Ireland June 25th - August 6th 1818 and you may view a short video of what is called his Northern Walking Tour at this link: Keats' N W T.  On reaching the tomb of Robbie Burns Keats penned a sonnet:


The town, the churchyard, and the setting sun,
The clouds, the trees, the rounded hills all seem,
Though beautiful, cold - strange - as in a dream
I dreamed long ago, now new begun.
The short-liv’d, paly summer is but won
From winter’s ague for one hour’s gleam;
Through sapphire warm their stars do never beam:
All is cold Beauty; pain is never done.
For who has mind to relish, Minos-wise,
The real of Beauty, free from that dead hue
Sickly imagination and sick pride
Cast wan upon it? Burns! with honour due
I oft have honour’d thee. Great shadow, hide
Thy face; I sin against thy native skies.
This poem appears in a letter he wrote to Tom Keats, the brother whom he nursed on his deathbed and from whom he caught TB also, dated 29 June, 1,2 July, 1818.  The line "all is cold Beauty; pain is never done" is exceedingly stark and moving.  John Keats  knew that his young life would be snuffed out early enough.  After all he had trained as an apprentice Doctor and was a fully qualified apothecary.  Once, like Tom before him, he had begun to spit up blood, to knew all too well that his days were numbered.

John Keats died when he was only twenty-five, an age at which Wordsworth had still not begun to write the poems for which he is known today. The brevity and intensity of Keats's career are unmatched in English poetry. He achieved so much at such a young age that readers have always speculated about his potential had he lived to reach artistic maturity.  That his letters are filled with such profundities and rich insights into all facets of human life as I have outlined in this and previous posts is a fact that also beggars credulity.  That such a young man could have achieved such depth of character, insight and skill is surprising.  Yet how much of his profundity was deepened and sharpened by the shadow of his own imminent death which hung over him like a shadow?  Some insights into to his life can be accessed here: JK.