Sunday, February 28, 2016

The poetry of John Keats

When I think of William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge today, what springs to mind is how their politics reflected their poetry. Wordsworth was 19 and Coleridge 17 when the French Revolution broke out. It was in their youth, in other words, that France underwent the Fall of the Bastille and the execution of the monarch. The youthful idealism that greeted the former incident – so full of promise in its vision for the future, free of injustice – couldn’t survive the shock of the latter event, after which the Revolution congealed into a harsh political actuality that England and Europe had to combat.

What happened to Wordsworth and Coleridge during this time was inevitable: lost initially in their youthful ardour over the Revolution, they regressed to jingoism and conservatism in later years. This was to be seen most in Wordsworth: when in his early poems he could write of his sympathy for the downtrodden, in later years (particularly in the period in which he wrote “England”, “The Excursion” and the sonnets on the English Church) he reversed that sympathy. He was no longer contemplating on poverty and injustice as though they could only be “resolved” by overthrow of tyranny. He wrote of them as inevitable, as finding resolution only through an almost mystical tranquillity (“She sleeps in the calm earth, and peace is here”).

Contrast these two against Lord Byron and Percy Shelley (who were born after them), and you will realise how easy it is to categorise their poetry in the face of what happened in France. The latter two weren’t born during the Revolution. They were the “children of the Revolution”, so to speak, which meant that they didn’t take the usual route idealists took before recapitulating. They were born of the Revolution, and hence in their hands the personal was closely intertwined with the political. In the end, they became heretics and rebels (“And tyrants and slaves are like shadows of night / In the van of the morning light”).

It’s difficult to compare John Keats with either of these poets, particularly when we consider that he was a contemporary of Byron and Shelley. He was the youngest in their generation (Shelley was three years older than him). And yet, to my mind, Keat’s best poetry shares some affinity with Wordsworth, particularly in the latter’s idealisation of nature and beauty. The irony of course is that Keats was no Wordsworth when it came to the ideology he articulated through those poems of his, and in this regard he is more at home with Byron (more than Shelley, I should add, for Shelley could at times give into political rhetoric, which almost never happened with Byron).

For my O/Levels I had to learn the poetry of John Keats. We were prescribed some nine or 10 poems by him, all of which stayed with me for their intense, almost beatifying, view of nature and beauty. To this day I can remember lines from these poems – “Ode on Melancholy”, “To Autumn”, and of course, “Endymion” – and perhaps that was meant to be.

We never learnt to read and understand “Hyperion” or the poems he wrote as tribute to Leigh Hunt. Not that this meant I overrated Keats then: when I read the Hunt poems today and think back on Keats the lover of Nature, I don’t see that much of an incongruence.

I think Keats’ great achievement as a poet was his intensely poignant vision of the world. That vision, as far as I can understand, was never marred by political rhetoric or sympathy. There’s no doubt that what comes out in his two poems on Leigh Hunt, for instance, is anger against his jailers. But look closer: far from using Hunt’s imprisonment as a means of venting out frustration against the political order of his day, what Keats achieves is something else:

Minion of grandeur! think you he did wait?
  Think you he nought but prison walls did see,  
  Till, so unwilling, thou unturn’dst the key?        
Ah, no! far happier, nobler was his fate!  

Keats’ idealisation of Hunt here seems to me to undermine the reality of his imprisonment. A critic can argue that this was in line with Hunt’s strength of will even when punished – Jeremy Bentham found him playing battledore when visiting him in prison – but this is not really congruent with Keats’ elevation of that punishment as an apotheosis of his maturity as social critic (“In Spenser’s hall he strayed, and bowers fair”). I may be wrong in this, but that is how I continue to view his two Leigh Hunt poems.

Notwithstanding that however, he was without a doubt a nonconformist. He had a fairly liberal education: Nicholas Roe, in “Everyman’s” anthology of his poetry, has written that Enfield School, which the young Keats attended, was important for “transmitting to Keats the dynamic intellectual life of English dissent”. Roe does his utmost to overturn the popular view of him as a romantic shrouded in enigma, a poet more concerned with beauty and nature than with social reality, and to his credit he does make a good point when highlighting the political allegory in “Hyperion: A Fragment”.

But what is it in “Hyperion” that merits such a comparison, really? To find out for myself I read it, and I came across these lines:

“Shut up your senses, stifle up your ears,
“My voice is not a bellows unto ire.
“Yet listen, ye who will, whilst I bring proof
“How ye, perforce, must be content to stoop:
“And in the proof much comfort will I give,
“If ye will take that comfort in its truth.
“We fall by course of Nature’s law, not force
“Of thunder, or of Jove.

The speaker of these lines (as the poet articulates them) is Oceanus, the God of the Sea. “Hyperion” (which Keats never completed) is about the overthrow of one order by another. The Titans are soothing their sorrow in the aftermath of their fall to the Olympians. Some of the Titans want to rebel, but Oceanus is the voice of reason here: not only must the old order pass to the new, but they must accept it as a historic eventuality. Roe must have seen in this an affirmation of revolution, especially at a time when portraying dethroned monarchs was “regarded in Britain as potentially an incitement to revolution”.

But I read these lines differently. “Nature’s law” presupposes a preconceived (and divinely ordained) history, a passage from the old to the new which maintains the same basic structure that sustained the old. Call it “parliamentary democracy”, call it a “coup”, to me the overthrow of the Titans was nothing more or less than a violent overthrow of one set of gods by another.

I am of course not suggesting that for Keats the most valid “overthrow of tyranny” was one which sustained the same political base (which by the way is what pretty much goes for democracy today!), but I do believe that Keats’ conception of history as an organic process of change followed by order is not in line with Roe’s reading of the poem. This is what imputes fresh nuances of meaning to Keats, and marks him out as probably the most idiosyncratic, atypical poet among the Romantics.

Not that he was an outsider to them. In his work we see that same Romantic idealisation of beauty and nature, because of which his poetry is often classed as “escapist”. That classification is crass, though. To consider Keats’ high regard for beauty (back when the chief quality of the Romantics was, yes, their high regard for beauty!) as “escapist” is to read his work wrongly. His masterpieces – which for me were his odes and tributes to such abstractions as Indolence, Beauty, Melancholy, and Art – are marked out well by the intermingling of substantive reality and aesthetic delight. It is here that his real genius is to be found, and not (as is claimed by critics who clamour to read the political in his poetry) in “Hyperion”.

Consider, for instance, these lines from “Ode to a Nightingale”

Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget
                                What thou among the leaves hast never known,
The weariness, the fever, and the fret
         Here, where men sit and hear each other groan;
Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last gray hairs,
         Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies;
                Where but to think is to be full of sorrow
                        And leaden-eyed despairs,
         Where Beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes,
                Or new Love pine at them beyond to-morrow.

Here’s the motif that defines the intensity of his poetry: his constant yearning for tranquillity and solace in the face of personal tragedy (his brother died of tuberculosis, and he himself would succumb to it at the age of 25). This is what critics class as “escapist” in terms of imagery – the juxtaposition of the “weariness” and “fever” of mortal man with the immortal song of the nightingale, as well as the mortality of Beauty in the face of human suffering – but in my opinion they can equally be classed as the anguish of a heart beset with personal tragedy, which is reflected in the tragedy of the world.

To consider this as his strength is to consider Keats’ defining marks – his use of pastoral imagery, metaphor, and personification – as leading to a never-ending search for tranquillity. Wordsworth never faced this problem, because in his later years he could (thanks to his reactionary political beliefs) afford to offer an easy way out: a contemplation of the mystical and the pastoral (which Regi Siriwardena rightly called “inertia”). That is what I’d consider as “escapist”, and not Keats’ sustained quest for solace.

He weakened a little, in my opinion, when he deviated from his meditations on pain and pleasure. To be more specific, when the experience he brought out was inadequate when compared with the form. I can think of one poem here specifically, the first of his I ever learnt: “La Belle Dame Sans Merci”. What we relate to in that poem is the knight and his harrowing ordeal. But the quickness of that ordeal – which some critics may read as contributing to its shocking appeal – leads to disappointment. We know the woman isn’t who she is when we hear these lines:

And there she lulled me asleep,     
  And there I dream’d—Ah! woe betide!   
The latest dream I ever dream’d
  On the cold hill’s side.

I saw pale kings and princes too,   
  Pale warriors, death-pale were they all; 
They cried—“La Belle Dame sans Merci    
  Hath thee in thrall!”

We’re made to believe that it is this sudden experience that frightens and turns him to despair, when in the next verse we are told that

I saw their starved lips in the gloam,        
  With horrid warning gaped wide,
And I awoke and found me here,   
  On the cold hill’s side.

But the suddenness of that experience (“And I awoke and found me here”) and the economy with which Keats relates it deprive the poem of any subtlety or colour. Call me a cynic, but when I read these lines now, I can’t understand why the knight should be disappointed or saddened, whether at the woman’s transformation or at the fact that his love for her wasn’t returned. Keats’ use of imagery is sparse, almost austere, and that deprives it of vitality. I rate it personally among his weaker work.

I must conclude (and confess) that at the time I first read Keats I was an incurable romantic, and that is what endeared his (better known) poetry to me. 10 years later, I find that position unchanged: regardless of whatever political beliefs he may have held, Keats was and is the poet we all look to when beset with personal tragedy, not because contemplation affords escapism, but because in that contemplation we realise that suffering and mortality are eternal, and that the quest for eternal(ised) abstractions like beauty may never end.

I was thankful then. I am thankful now.