Leaping headlong into the sea Janusian of light-and-shade.
After the drama of Endymion, Keats seems to have felt liberated from the prison of "single-mindedness," now dedicating all his energies to the theme most characteristic for his great poetry: the drama of the heart's dialogue with reality. In this dialogue, Keats set for himself a few "Axioms," whose "Centre," he was aware, is remote, as he confessed in the letter to his editor, John Taylor, dated 27 February 1818:
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 reader breathless instead of content: the rise, the progress, the setting of imagery should like the Sun come natural to 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. (Keats 1975: 69-70)
In sum, therefore: 1) poetry must work by a surprizing use of "fine excess"; it must not strive after "Singularity"; it should be the striking expression of the Reader's "highest thoughts," making him feel that by reading he also remembers the words he is just in the course of reading; 2) poetic beauty must never be offered "half way," it must come out whole, thus the reader being left "breathless"; the rise, the progress and the setting of imagery must unfold naturally like the course of the Sun: it must shine and it must set soberly, although magnificently leaving the reader in twilight richness; 3) poetry should emerge naturally, like tree leaves.
Endymion was in this sense for Keats a "pioneering" work, whereby he created a type of "solar" poetry, i.e. one guided by the principle of the Sun's natural cyclicity, grounded in the pentarhythm:
1) emergence; 2) ascent; 3) reaching the zenith; 4) descent; 5) disappearance.
Richard Woodhouse confessed in this sense (in an undated note, perhaps late 1819 or 1820) that the poet repeatedly stated he could never get down to the task of writing if he was not "full of ideas," thoughts surrounding him "in troops," from which he would select the best. The moment he felt paucity of ideas (though not necessarily of images), he immediately stopped, awaiting for a more felicitous moment:
He has repeatedly said in convers[atio]n that he never sits down to write, unless he is full of ideas--and then thoughts come about him in troops, as tho' soliciting to be acc[ounte]d & he selects--one of his Maxims is that if P[oetry] does not come naturally, it had better not come at all. [T]he moment he feels any dearth he discontinues writing & waits for a happier moment. [H] e is generally more troubled by redundancy than by a poverty of images, & he culls what appears to him at the time the best.-He never corrects (Woodhouse is not referring to alterations made in the actual process of writing the first draft), unless perhaps a word here or there sh[oul]d occur to him as preferable to an expression he has already used-He is impatient of correcting. & says he would rather burn the piece in question & write ano[the]r or something else--"My judgment," (he says), is as active while I am actually writing as my imagin[atio]n. In fact all my faculties are strongly excited, & in their full play--And shall I afterwards, when my imagination is idle, & the heat in which I wrote, has gone off, sit down coldly to criticize when in Poss[essio]n of only one faculty, what I have written, when almost inspired[?]"--This fact explains the reason of the Perfectness, fullness, richness & completion of most that comes from him. (Richard Woodhouse, note; cf. Rollins 1948i: 128-129; apud Bate 1963: 234)
As far as Keats's certainties are concerned, these are stated in the letter to Benjamin Bailey, dated 22 November 1817: 1) the sanctity of the Heart's affections; 2) the truth of the Imagination: what the latter perceives as Beauty must be truth--regardless of whether it existed before or not; all Passions are sublime (like Love), creative of essential Beauty; Imagination is like "Adam's dream": the latter woke up from dreaming and discovered that the dream came true; 3) his fervent wish regarding the existence rather of a life of feeling than one of reason: "O for a Life of Sensations rather than of Thoughts." Since this is a pristine document describing Keats's ideas at their most genuine, we quote here more fully:
I am certain of nothing but of the holiness of the Heart's affections and the truth of Imagination-What the imagination 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 of essential Beauty-In a Word, you may know my favorite Speculation by my first Book [Endymion, I, 777ff] and the little song I sent in my last [O Sorrow]-which is a representation from the fancy of the probable mode of operating in these Matters-The Imagination may be compared to Adam's dream-he awoke and found it truth. I am the more zealous in this affair, because I have never yet been able to perceive how any thing can be known for truth by consequitive reasoning-and yet it must be-Can it be that even the greatest Philosopher ever arrived at his goal without putting aside numerous objections? However it may be, O for a Life of Sensations rather than of Thoughts! It is "a Vision in the form of Youth," a Shadow of reality to come--and this consideration has further conv[i]nced me for it has come as auxiliary to another favorite Speculation of mine, that we shall enjoy ourselves hereafter by having what we called happiness on Earth repeated in a finer tone and so repeated-And yet such a fate can only befall those who delight in sensation rather than hunger as you do after Truth--Adam's dream will do here and seems to be a conviction that Imagination and its empyreal reflection is the same as human Life and its spiritual repetition. But as I was saying--the simple imaginative Mind may have its rewards in the repeti[ti]on of its own silent Working coming continually on the spirit with a fine suddenness--to compare great things with small--have you never by being surprised with an old Melody--in a delicious place-by a delicious voice, fe[l]t over again your very speculations and surmises at the time it first operated on your soul[?]-do you not remember forming to yourself the singer's face more beautiful tha[n] it was possible and yet with the elevation of the Moment you did not think so[?]-even then you were mounted on the Wings of Imagination so high--that the Prototype must be hereafter-that delicious face you will see-What a time! I am continually running away from the subject-sure this cannot be exactly the case with a complex Mind-one that is imaginative and at the same time careful of its fruits-who would exist partly on sensation partly on thought-to whom it is necessary that years should bring the philosophic Mind-such an one I consider your's and therefore it is necessary to your eternal Happiness that you not only drink this old Wine of Heaven, which I shall call the redigestion of our most ethereal Musings on Earth; but also increase in knowledge and know all things. (Letter to Benjamin Bailey, dated 22 November 1817; Keats 1975: 36-37)
For Keats, the poetic imagination thus tended to be ontological/creative; its fruit--the finest/ highest thoughts generated by and thus also forging the "philosophic Mind"--would, once created, ever stay close to the creator, as "old Wine of Heaven" that he can drink again and again, while his knowledge increases towards omniscience. In the latter idea we can clearly identify the condition attributed to Apollo, who is transformed by universal pain and knowledge into a paragon of beauty (lastly identifiable with Chatterton, the angelic poet; see infra). As he confessed in the letter in which he introduced the concept of "Negative Capability" (that addressed to George and Tom Keats, dated 21/ 27? December 1817, written after he viewed Benjamin West's painting called Death on the Pale Horse), the purpose of any art had to be "intensity," whereby dissonances (disagreeables) "evaporated" because they were closely connected to Beauty and Truth--King Lear being in this sense a relevant example. Bate (1963: 243) explains the phenomenon of "evaporation" of disagreeables as being caused by the (Janusian/differential) fusion between object (the observed) and the mind/ subject (the observer), which is when Truth and Beauty "spring simultaneously into being," beginning to approximate each other, outer reality being thus "awakened" unto Truth. Bate (1963: 244) argues here that, at Oxford, Keats had read and been influenced by--in his notion of "intensity"--William Hazlitt's essay titled On gusto, in which this human quality (enthusiasm) signified the stimulation of the imagination by whose agency an almost complete (and, we should add, Janusian) identification took place between subject and object, hence deriving the very vitality of artistic expression. One of the effects of this imaginative stimulation was that sensory data--coming from the senses of sight, hearing, touch, taste, and smell--were not presented separately or in a fragmented manner: the impressions coming from a sense stimulted by affinity those coming from another sense--in what we could call a multiple Janusian process. This involves complex mani-directional synesthesia: sight through touch, hearing through sight, touch through taste, sight through taste, taste through smell, smell through sight, hearing through smell, hearing and smell through touch, taste and hearing through smell, and any other possible combinations of the physical senses, taken by twos or threes or fours, etc. The vector through shows that a sense is made more vivid through another sense--e.g. "the solid roar" (cf Hyperion, II, 7): this is a hearing-through-touch synesthetic process. Hence derives the play of impressions and the coalescence of sensory perceptions in Keats's Janusian art, which in this respect, Bate believes, excels in the poetry of the last three hundred years--with one notable exception, we should add, namely Thomas Chatterton, who introduced synesthesia in English literature with unsurpassed power.
In this respect, there is no doubt that John Keats learned the Janusian art of synesthesia partly also from Chatterton, if not principally from him (in this sense, key influences in Keats are "oficially" recognized as being Chatterton, Shakespeare, Milton, Spenser and Leigh Hunt; see also Bate 1963: 18, 33ff, 40, 53, 76, 128ff, 305ff, etc.), and it is possible that the idea that poetry must contain always dense, rich "ore" originates from the extremely dense verse we meet in Chatterton, although Keats's reference is to Spenser. Here is a relevant fragment from the famous letter to P. B. Shelley, dated 16 August 1820, in which this notion appears in the context of Keats's talking of his imminent journey to Italy to save his own life:
There is no doubt that an english winter would put an end to me, and do so in a lingering hateful manner, therefore I must either voyage or journey to Italy as a soldier marches up to a battery. My nerves at present are the worst part of me, yet they feel soothed when I think that come what extreme may, I shall not be destined to remain in one spot long enough to take a hatred of any four particular bedposts. I am glad you take any pleasure in my poor Poem;-which I would willingly take the trouble to unwrite, if possible, did I care so much as I have done about Reputation. I received a copy of the Cenci, as from yourself from Hunt. There is only one part of it I am judge of; the Poetry, and dramatic effect, which by many spirits nowadays is considered the mammon. A modern work it is said must have a purpose, which may be the God-an artist must serve Mammon-he must have "self-concentration," selfishness perhaps. You I am sure will forgive me for sincerely remarking that you might curb your magnanimity and be more of an artist, and "load every rift" of your subj'ect with ore [cf. The Faerie Queene, II, vii, 28, 5]. The thought of such discipline must fall like cold chains upon you, who perhaps never sat with your wings furl'd for six Months together. And is not this extraordina[r]y talk for the writer of Endymion? whose mind was like a pack of scattered cards-I am pick'd up and sorted to a pip. My Imagination is a Monastry and I am its Monk -you must explain my metap[hysi]cs to yourself. I am in expectation of Prometheus every day. (Letter to P. B. Shelley, dated 16 August 1820; Keats 1975: 389-390)
In this context, Ackroyd managed to capture very well the essence of Chatterton's poetic mode, to whom he attributes the following verses:
My syllables, the remnants of antiquity Will come back as shadows for posterity. Let this my song bright as my vision be As everlasting as futurity. (Ackroyd 1993: part III, 14)
Here the synethesia ("song bright") is of the hearing-through-sight type. For Keats--as for Chatterton before--it was not enough to just "look at" a landscape, you had to feel it. For Keats, the descriptions of nature offered by Chaucer possessed enthusiasm (gusto), because they rendered the very sensation of air, the coolness or moisture of the earth; in Titian's use of colours, similarly, there was "gusto," because the heads painted by him seemed to "think," and the bodies --seemed to "feel." Likewise, Keats showed that a melodious passage in poetry could reach a (Janusian) fusion between "sensual and spiritual" (see Blake's imagination as "spiritual sensation," decodable in modern psychological terms as a Janusian process; cf. Letter to Dr. Trusler, dated 23 August 1799; Blake 1979: 794), wherein each of the two simultaneously expands and asserts itself by agency of the other. In other words, Keats saw in synesthesia a key for making art live fully. In this sense, Fogle (1964: 42) discerned in Keats's Janusian fusional device an even deeper purpose, namely to make manifest in poetry his "intuitive sense of the Oneness of things," "of the intimate kinship of man and nature," "of the relationship between widely separate and dissimilar phenomena." One of the best examples of Keats's synesthetic differential (i.e. Janusian) fusions is to be met in Isabella (49, 391-392), in the final verse of the fragment below the synesthetic unity being of a sight-through-hearing-through-taste type:
Fair reader, at the old tale take a glance, For here, in truth, it doth not well belong To speak:-O turn thee to the very tale, And taste the music of that vision pale. (Keats 1994: 207; cf. also Fogle 1964: 47)
The "intuitive sense of the Oneness of things" is indeed a general idea associated with romanticism: the theory of the unity of being, which may have been derived from, among other possible sources, the philosophical system of George Berkeley (his idealistic/ spiritual monism) (see Preda 2005).
Spirit and matter in Keats thus tend to fuse differentially, forming mixed paradoxical material-spiritual compounds. In this sense, in the review On Edmund Kean as a Shakesperian actor (1817), Keats showed the following:
The spiritual is felt when the very letters and points of charactered language show like the hieroglyphics of beauty;-the mysterious signs of an immortal freemasonry! ... To one learned in Shakespearean hieroglyphics,-learned in the spiritual portion of those lines to which Kean adds a sensual grandeur: his tongue must seem to have robbed "the Hybla bees, and left them honeyless." (apud Bate 1963: 245)
Keats, therefore, may allude here to the fact that certain of Shakespeare's texts are embued with spiritual, half-covert symbolism, that in the final analysis resembles the texture of "hieroglyphics." Keats also spoke of a "hieroglyphic visioning" overflowing in a special passage in Hazlitt's volume The characters of Shakespeare s plays, in the chapter on King Lear. Hazlitt commented here as follows:
We see the ebb and flow of the feeling, its pauses and feverish starts, its impatience of opposition, its accumulating force when it has time to recollect itself, the manner in which it avails itself of every passing word and gesture, its haste to repel insinuation, the alternate contraction and dilatation of the soul. (apud Bate 1963: 262)
On the margin of this text and referring to the italicized words above (which in manuscript he underlined), Keats made the following memorable annotation: "This passage has to a great degree hieroglyphic visioning."
Keats's Negative Capability can be understood precisely as a hieroglyphic mode of the soul: that mode in which the soul--by contracting and dilating (as Hazlitt showed)--perpetually opens to the dimension of mystery, which otherwise is a hindrance, an obstacle (the "burden of the Mystery"). The "Mysterious doors" opened by Pan (the Hermetic poetic imagination) seem to be precisely "the hieroglyphics of beauty," which represent the mysterious scaffolding of the "immortal free-masonry" (the cosmos and man/ the macro- and the micro-cosm): to have Negative Capability was equivalent for Keats with having the keys of access towards "universal knowledge" (principally esoteric in nature). The Shakespearean ideal of "disinterested action," of which Keats came to be aware from Hazlitt's writings, became the keystone of his ultimate thinking under the form of Negative Capability as the high power to lose one's ego in what is greater than oneself (transcending the self), and in the final analysis the high power to totally empathize with the whole of the cosmos (in a total Janusian process), which has an inherently hieroglyphic structure. This hieroglyphic structure means that the dimensions of existential mystery can never be entirely sounded, so that hieroglyphic strata will for ever come to light, as the quest after the existential truth keeps on advancing. This is the ideal of the poet for Keats: The Man of great Negative Capability as a powerful sea-shouldering whale sounding the unfathomable depths of creation to then rise out of the waves with poetic intimations about the unfathomables of truth. Hazlitt's Essay on the principles of human action (1805) was for Keats among the most relevant in the formation of his concept of negative capability. Here Hazlitt refuted Hobbes's notion that self-love was the main source of every human action: instead, it was argued that the human mind possessed a "natural disinterestedness" (as stated in the subtitle) (Bate 1964: 62). This reversal (from self-love to love-of-others, from an egocentric mode to an allocentric mode) was in keeping with Keats's own revaluation of Hobbes's image of Leviathan, which he had adopted for himself in talking about his need for poetry which had tended to attain cosmically "monstrous" proportions, he thus becoming a "poetic" Leviathan, both a devourer and a creator of poetry, a wallower in the ocean of the hieroglyphic poetic modes.
Keats's central ideas regarding the ideal of the man of negative capability appear in a letter to J. H. Reynolds, dated 19 February 1818:
Now it appears to me that almost any Man may like the Spider spin from his own inwards his own airy Citadel-the points of leaves and twigs on which the Spider begins her work are few and she fills the Air with a beautiful circuiting: man should be content with as few points to tip with the fine Webb of his Soul and weave a tapestry empyrean-full of Symbols for his spiritual eye, of softness for his spiritual touch, of space for his wandering[,] of distinctness for his Luxury-But the Minds of Mortals are so different and bent on such diverse Journeys that it may at first appear impossible for any common taste and fellowship to exist between two or three under these suppositions-It is however quite the contrary--Minds would leave each other in contrary directions, traverse each other in Numberless points, and [at] last greet each other at the Journey[']s end-An old Man and a child would talk together and the old Man be led on his Path, and the child left thinking-Man should not dispute or assert[,] but whisper results to his neighbour, and thus by every germ of Spirit sucking the Sap from mould ethereal[,] every human might become great, and Humanity[,] instead of being a wide heath of Furse and Briars with here and there a remote Oak or Pine, would become a grand democracy of Forest Trees. It has been an old Comparison for our urging on-the Bee hive-however [,] it seems to me that we should rather be the flower than the Bee--for it is a false notion that more is gained by receiving than giving-no[,] the receiver and the giver are equal in their benefits-The f[l]ower, I doubt not, receives a fair guerdon from the Bee-its leaves blush deeper in the next spring-and who shall say between Man and Woman which is the most delighted? Now it is more noble to sit like Jove tha[n] to fly like Mercury-let us not therefore go hurrying about and collecting honey-bee like, buzzing here and there impatiently from a knowledge of what is to be arrived at; but let us open our leaves like a flower and be passive and receptive-budding patiently under the eye of Apollo and taking hints from every noble insect that favors us with a visit-sap will be given us for Meat and dew for drink-I was led into these thoughts, my dear Reynolds, by the beauty of the morning operating on a sense of Idleness. [...] I will not deceive myself that Man should be equal with jove-but think himself very well off as a sort of scullion-Mercury or even a humble Bee. (Keats 1975: 65-67; cf. also Bate 1963: 251-252)
Therefore the ideal of the Man of great Negative Capability is a combination between the image of: 1) a passive flower blossoming with patience and receptivity, under the eye of Apollo --this is equivalent to a passive Jupiter being served on his throne; 2) an active bee humbly collecting honey--equivalent to a subservient active Mercury; 3) an active-passive spider spinning by agency of the web of his soul a heavenly tapestry of symbols (for the spiritual eye), softness (for the spiritual touch), space (for the spiritual journey) and distinctness (for spiritual abundance); 4) a sea shouldering whale exuding a Janusian powerfulness kept in reserve (this last image was most likely always with Keats).
What strikes most in the fragment above is Keats's understanding of the nature of the human mind: "Minds would leave each other in contrary directions, traverse each other in Numberless points, and [at] last greet each other at the Journey [']s end." This means that man's mind is a kind of divine spark (the "germ of Spirit"), whose life (and so whose time) is decoded as the temporal floating through symbols, ideas, images, spaces, essences inside an infinite divine ocean which is the universal mind (the "mould ethereal"), out of which all life-sap is springing for the human minds to feed themselves on in order to reach spiritual greatness. At the beginning of the mental journey, two minds can start in opposite directions, but at the journey's end (at the end of earthly life), they are bound to get to the same starting point--the universal mind, the universal source, the fountainhead of transcendental universals--only for them to start over, a new life, a new existence, for ever renewed, as in Blake's cycle of Orc going on forever, through birth, life, death, regeneration. This condition of the mind then explains the fundament of the individual mind, as infinitely diverse on earth, but paradoxically, nevertheless, having a unique common source to which all arrive at journey's end, when the "fellowship with essence" (announced by Keats in Endymion, I, 779) reaches its zenith bringing a "happiness" that is felt to be an empathic openness to things, "a sort of onness with them" (cf. Bate 1963: 181; see infra Keats's concept of the "vale of soul-making").
Moreover, Bate (1963: 322) underlines that in 1818 Keats reached a vision on history as "a process in which the changes that take place are fundamental": men and their accomplishments had to be regarded in relation with the age to which they belonged, so that for instance Milton's philosophical thought, although strong like that of Wordsworth, still could no longer be fully adopted, because it belonged to a past age. In other words, history moves forth irresistibly and irreversibly, the old paradigm being inevitably always defeated by new revolutions in thinking, by new and fresh forms of expression and understanding. What is more, Keats observed that even the "mightiest Minds" were subjected to a "mighty providence," so as to be made to serve the present time of each age. He thus realized that the past was in a very real way somehow shut down for us: one could not go back in time in order to write exactly as Milton or Shakespeare had written. From all these new understandings derives a major consequence: Keats understood now that he was a modern poet and could not be otherwise--he could not avoid the poetry contemporary to him which focused on inner life more than anything else. Keats concluded that poetry maybe had to move on the path not so much of Milton and Shakespeare, as on that of Wordsworth, who, although he was the expression of the "egotistical sublime," still "could make discoveries" through "dark Passages" that were spreading from the "Chamber of Maiden-thought," i.e. that mysterious inner space full of doors inside the psyche. Here is the relevant fragment in the letter in which these crucial ideas occur:
I compare human life to a large Mansion of Many Apartments, two of which I can only describe, the doors of the rest being as yet shut upon me-The first we step into we call the infant or thoughtless Chamber, in which we remain as long as we do not think-We remain there a long while, and notwithstanding the doors of the second Chamber remain wide open, showing a bright appearance, we care not to hasten to it; but are at length imperceptibly impelled by the awakening of the thinking principle--within us-we no sooner get into the second Chamber, which I shall call the Chamber of Maiden-Thought, than we become intoxicated with the light and the atmosphere, we see nothing but pleasant wonders, and think of delaying there forever in delight: However among the effects this breathing is father of is that tremendous one of sharpening one's vision into the heart and nature of Man-of convincing one's nerves that the World is full of Misery and Heartbreak, Pain, Sickness and oppression-whereby This Chamber of Maiden Thought becomes gradually darken'd and at the same time on all sides of it many doors are set open-but all dark-all leading to dark passages-We see not the ballance of good and evil. We are in a Mist-We are now in that state-We feel the "burden of the Mystery." To this point was Wordsworth come, as far as I can conceive when he wrote "Tintern Abbey" and it seems to me that his Genius is explorative of those dark Passages. Now if we live, and go on thinking, we too shall explore them. (Letter to J. H. Reynolds, dated 3 May 1818; Keats 1975:95)
This vision of life is in keeping with Keats's thoughts expressed in the letter to J. H. Reynolds (dated 19 February 1818), where he speaks of the human minds as "leaving each other in contrary directions, travers[ing] each other in Numberless points, and [at] last greet[ing] each other at the Journey[' ]s end": the cosmic background of the universal mind is like an infinite-storied "Mansion of [infinitely] Many Apartments," each apartment being the space of a mind, while the mansion is the infinite universal mind itself. Traces of Egyptian thought seem here to linger in Keats's imagination of nested reality (see supra, the ba inside the ka inside the khat inside the beqet), but also his notion of imagination as a Janusian process/force (i.e. mind looking inside and outside simultaneously, thinking and feeling at the same time). Bronowski brilliantly tackled precisely the crucial notions implied in Keats's description above of human minds "travers[ing] each other in Numberless points"--showing that the key to human understanding of anything is the coherent unity of the reality that mankind itself constructs from generation to generation from the already-givens of existence:
The great unifying thoughts are knots where the laws cross one another and are held together: the thought that all matter is alike, or that earthly space runs beyond the stars, or that there is a physical continuity from one generation to the next. We come to take these crossing places for granted, and forget how long it took to make these concepts. Yet it is they that give the unity: the concepts of matter, of space, of evolution and inheritance. They are the links and the critical joints in the whole structure of our understanding. And they are not self-evident: mass, energy, mind, the nervous system, the ecology of cell and enzyme: these were not obvious to Aquinas and ready to be shuffled into laws by the first gifted mathematician. On the contrary, just as the laws unite the facts, so the concepts of science unite its laws into an orderly world which hangs on those bold knots in the network. (Bronowski 2008: 139)
From Bronowski's perspective, Keats is precisely the kind of man who never took the "crossing places for granted"; in fact, he was aware, maybe more than any other poet of his generation, of the importance and inescapable nature of "Janusian" realities: truth and beauty constituted for him such a Janusian binary, a reality with simultaneously two faces, one true, one beautiful, yet forming a single coherent unity. The same with everything else: light and darkness, richness and poverty, life and death were such inescapable Janusian binaries.
It is thus not surprizing that Bate states--with regard to Keats's evolution in the period after he finished writing Endymion--that he was now beginning to "fuse" with the main future currents of poetic thought of both the 19th and the 20th century, the course taken by these being due in part to Keats himself. What Keats did in fact was to fundamentally carry out to completion the synesthetic revolution started in the 1760s by Thomas Chatterton.
The turning point: Hyperion
The turning point which marks off Keats's entry on his new poetic orbit is the year 1818--considered by Bate (1963: 388) as being the most productive year in Keats's life, unequalled in its intense creative richness by any other year in the life of any other poet in the past three hundred years (with maybe one exception --we should add, that of Thomas Chatterton)--, when Keats wrote Hyperion, a poem in which Bate considers that the English poet was making a dynamic quality leap, reaching a new level of writing, defined by an immense wealth of styles, similarly unequalled in the same period of time (with the exception just mentioned, that Bate does not refer to). Bate (1963: 388) underlines that this poem appeared in a period in which Keats had already been immersed, for about a year and a half, in the study of Shakespeare and, more recently, of Milton, both powerful authors, whose works had to be approached by Keats, as he full well knew, if he wanted to free himself and be able to reach the hights of poeticalness found in masterpieces like King Lear or Paradise lost.
Keats thus came to hauntingly ask himself the memorable question that reminds us of the animistic-naturalistic spirituality of Amerindians:
Why should we be owls, when we can be Eagles? (Cf. Letter to J. H. Reynolds, dated 3 February 1818; cf. also Bate 1963: 296, 327, 388).
In this context, he had decided to "break" with Wordsworth's and Hunt's style, and was desperate about the fact that "there was now nothing original to be written in poetry" any more. This situation explains why a majestic, severe, "Titanic" idiom, as that of Paradise lost and King Lear, was extremely attractive for Keats.
The first two books of Hyperion (the first 748 verses) Bate (1963: 393) qualified as majestic:
No English poem of any length since Milton-complete or fragmentary-begins with more maj'esty and sureness of phrase than Hyperion.
Keats managed thereby to make, in an incredibly short period of time, a stylistic leap unrivalled in world literature, a genuine "tour de force in style," reaching a unique poetic expression, words flowing inevitable and without cease, maintained in a strong, rich, controlled, simultaneously Miltonic and non-Miltonic, rhythm. Byron himself, although in general very critical against Keats (because he disliked Pope), admitted that the fragment of Hyperion "seem[ed] actually inspired by the Titans, and [was] as sublime as Aeschylus" (apud Bate 1963: 409). Edward Young in this sense had promoted the poetry written in "blank" verse as a divine, paradisiacal language:
Blank is a term of diminution; what we mean by blank verse, is, verse unfallen, uncurst; verse reclaim'd, reinthron'd in the true language of the gods. (Young 1759: 60)
The theme of the fall of the Titans was quite suited for such poetic idiom that may remind one of the Egyptians' "words of power" (the hekat, the ur-heka). The topic chosen here was the evolution of human conscience from generation to generation (Titans versus Olympians), Keats being firmly convinced that the effect of knowledge was always formative. This unfolding of poetic forces was in agreement with the "sculpturesque" ideal of Keats's poetry, which, as the "supreme of power," had to be half-dormant and righteous ("half slumb'ring on its own right arm"), as he had announced in Sleep and Poetry (1817).
Hyperion refers precisely to the crucial importance of knowledge, viz. the overwhelming knowledge as regards the natural, inevitable change in the cosmos and as regards the inherent loss in the processes of change, with which Keats had gotten accustomed with difficulty and much suffering no less than from the age of eight (when he lost his father). Bate (1963: 394) shows that Saturn, the king of Titans, becomes for Keats a new king Lear, who is fallen and even more epic, and who struggles helplessly against the injustice of the situation. All the Titans in this poem are conceived of by Keats almost like some Egyptian colossi (Bate 1963: 398), who, however, do have a tendency to be human (as is well known, many of the Egyptian gods were represented as theriomorphisms, i.e. animal-gods, or as therianthropic entities, i.e. animal-men). The poem, which was left a fragment, had the mission to become a protest by which the poet should be able to support the possibilities of uniting the old with the new. Bate (1963: 401ff) concludes that Keats's poetry aspired to become a union between process (kinesis) and stasis--or what Keats called (Miltonic) "stationing," the power suspended in temporary rest (Bate 1964: 157) and to emphasize the process of expansion and amplification of human conscience throughout history (Bate 1963: 586). In this context, a special precept was by far the most important in Keats's idealistic thought: namely the idea according to which human evolution had to lead to the correspondence between beauty and power, but also between beauty and truth: the most beautiful had also to be the most powerful, and beauty had to be regarded as truth.
The Egyptian Maat
It is possible (even if Bate does not mention it) for Keats's idea concerning the correspondence between truth and beauty--expressed most clearly in Ode on a Grecian urn--to have at least two origins, besides the letter he had received from Richard Woodhouse, dated 21 October 1818 (in which appears the idea of the "fair forms of truth beauty & purity"):
1) The Egyptian term maat signifies "truth," "that which is right/true," "law," "order," but also "beautiful truth"; "twice true"; the "scale of balance"; "righteous judge"; "with true/honest heart"; "really true"; "truly mysterious"; "the goddess of truth, law, order" (cf. Budge 1991: 164-165).
This first acceptation regarding the correspondence between truth and beauty (through the concept of "beautiful truth"/maat) may have reached Keats by its connection with P. B. Shelley's famous sonnet entitled Ozymandias (1817). The title represents the Greek name of Ramses II (1304-1237 BC), or Ramses the Great, known also as the "King of Kings" (cf. Diodorus Siculus), who is traditionally believed to be the Pharaoh of the exodus of Israel out of Egypt, having reigned for sixty seven years. His guardian deity was the Sun-god Ra, and at birth he received the name of "Ramesses," meaning most likely "Son of Ra" [cf. Egyptian mes = "child," "offspring"; mesu or mesesiu = "children"; Budge 1991: 185; this term most probably derives from the Sumerian mes or mesh = "young man," "prince," "son," deriving itself from me = "endowment," and usu = "strength"; cf. Halloran 2006: 174; it is interesting to observe that Egyptian has a term for "power," user, similar to the Sumerian usu, see infra; Sitchin--2007, 2008 - translated the Sumerian mesh as "proliferation," which is not far from the Egyptian meaning of mes = "offspring"].
Subsequently, Ramses II became pharaoh and so adopted "throne names": User-maat-re (Power and Beautiful Truth of Ra) or Setep-en-re (Chosen by Ra); or both: User-maat-re Setep-en-re (Egypt. user = "to be strong," "strength," "power"; "strong"; useru = "powers," "mighty beings" human or divine; cf. Budge 1991: 114; maat = "to see," "to look upon," "to observe"; "eye" or "eyes"; maat Ra = "eye of Ra"; "right eye of Ra"; cf. Budge 1991: 160-161; setep = "to choose"; "chosen"; "to cut"). The Greeks rendered Ramses II's throne name User-maat-re by the term Ozymandias, and this is the name by which the Biblical pharaoh of Exodus became known in the West.
2) Keats may have alluded to the Renaissance feminine Nude, which as allegory (of the supreme beauty of woman/creation) signified in the last analysis "truth."
Bate (1963: 410) notes that, from Hyperion on, Keats's poetry was to become a Janusian convergence of intensity and reserve, masterfully substantifying Keats's sculpturesque ideal, a reason for which this poetry continued to fascinate entire generations of readers from the Victorians and up to the present, Keats's most characteristic marks being "empathic imagery" the "Shakespearean in-feeling," "disinterestedness," the projective mind, the total openness towards reality and temporal evolution, the Negative Capability and the ontological-poetic organicist chameleonic character, the essential and intrinsic use of contrasts and contraries (the latter especially present in the thematic structure of three of the odes, those dedicated to The Nightingale, The Grecian urn and Melancholy).
Keats used "synesthesia" more than any other of his English, French or German contemporaries, and almost as much as the writers who were to write seventy years later. Still, there is a difference: by synesthesia Keats aimed not so much at replacing a sense by another, but rather at "substantiating" a sense by another, in order to give it even more depth (Bate 1963: 411).
In The fall of Hyperion, Keats struggled on with the mythical theme, this time bringing forth in a coalescent system religious elements originating from medieval Christianity, Judaism, Graeco-Roman Antiquity, Egyptian and Druidic culture, in an attempt to universalize the religious quest with its deep mystery. Bate (1963: 591) observes that in this new fragment Keats anticipated more intensely than almost any other major poem of the 19th century--certain phenomena currently associated with existentialism. Keats anticipates, however, also elements belonging to abstract, formal, non-human art, and of symbolism. In The fall of Hyperion Keats plunged into the labyrinth that started from the "Chamber of Maiden-thought," which we ourselves create by always adding to it each and every thought arising in our mind (Bate 1963: 592).
The creative process appears as the immense effort to enter the "chambers" of Moneta's brain (this is the Roman name for Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory and the mother of the Muses, who appears in the first version of Hyperion), which becomes a new symbol for the poetic imagination--Pan in Endymion and in Hymn to Pan: the "dread opener of the mysterious doors / leading to universal knowledge" (cf. Bate 1963: 596), therefore the awesome portal to the eternal universals.
Bate (1963: 600) shows that Moneta from The fall of Hyperion for Keats became the symbol of the "Burden of the mystery," she inevitably--although maybe unconsciously and inadequately--being associated with Christ taking upon himself the sins of the world. The poet--staying near Moneta--receives more understanding, and knowledge in him grows precisely as it had grown in Apollo when the latter had stood near Mnemosyne, in Hyperion.
In this sense, a significant symbolic decryption was reached in recent criticism: namely, according to Roe (2012: 214), the difficult rite of passage depicted in the final episode of Hyperion--where the new Sun god of the generation of the Olympians entered eternal life after being purified through the fire of immense suffering caused by universal knowledge (freely accepted, suffering led to a spiritual beauty commensurate with the suffering that was principally caused by universal knowledge)--for Keats represented the "golden reincarnation of Chatterton" in the young god Apollo. That this important interpretation may be correct is indicated by the fact that Keats spoke of Thomas Chatterton as:
1) "the most English of poets except Shakespeare" (cf. Endymion; Keats 1900: 65; cf. also Cook 2013: 9; and Roe 2012: 220), and so he was a perfect candidate for the image of the ideal poet suffering for the sake of beauty and thus penetrating the deepest truths of creation; and
2) the "dear child of sorrow--son of misery" (cf. Sonnet to Chatterton; Keats 1994: 285), this image having in time become the haunting vision of the angelic poet suffering the wrongs of the world, to which he freely offers his broken heart.
Herbert Croft, one of Chatterton's best biographers, had described the boy-poet as a young "Apollo"--a metaphor Keats may have thus adopted directly from Love and madness (1780), through it immortalizing Chatterton as Apollo in Hyperion, a universal symbol of the Sun-poet conquering the world by his initiational death brought about by infinity of suffering flowing from an endless understanding and infinite knowledge of the drama of creation, the pain and the knowledge growing in him thus purifying him and bringing him from the infinite inner spiritual realms an infinite beauty. Here we should remember the essential passages in the memorable speech that Oceanus addresses the fallen Titans in Hyperion, showing them that change in the Universe is natural and implacable:
"O ye, whom wrath consumes! who, passion-stung, "Writhe at defeat, and nurse your agonies! "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. Great Saturn, thou "Hast sifted well the atom-universe; "But for this reason, that thou art the King, "And only blind from sheer supremacy, "One avenue was shaded from thine eyes, "Through which I wandered to eternal truth. "And first, as thou wast not the first of powers, "So art thou not the last; it cannot be: "Thou art not the beginning nor the end. "From Chaos and parental darkness came "Light, the first fruits of that intestine broil, "That sullen ferment, which for wondrous ends "Was ripening in itself. The ripe hour came, "And with it light, and light, engendering "Upon its own producer, forthwith touch'd "The whole enormous matter into life. "Upon that very hour, our parentage, "The Heavens and the Earth, were manifest: "Then thou first-born, and we the giant-race, "Found ourselves ruling new and beauteous realms. "Now comes the pain of truth, to whom 'tis pain; "O folly! for to bear all naked truths, "And to envisage circumstance, all calm, "That is the top of sovereignty. Mark well! "As Heaven and Earth are fairer, fairer far "Than Chaos and blank Darkness, though once chiefs; "And as we show beyond that Heaven and Earth "In form and shape compact and beautiful, "In will, in action free, companionship, "And thousand other signs of purer life; "So on our heels a fresh perfection treads, "A power more strong in beauty, born of us "And fated to excel us, as we pass "In glory that old Darkness: nor are we "Thereby more conquer'd, than by us the rule "Of shapeless Chaos. Say, doth the dull soil "Quarrel with the proud forests it hath fed, "And feedeth still, more comely than itself? "Can it deny the chiefdom of green groves? "Or shall the tree be envious of the dove "Because it cooeth, and hath snowy wings "To wander wherewithal and find its joys? "We are such forest-trees, and our fair boughs "Have bred forth, not pale solitary doves, "But eagles golden-feather'd, who do tower "Above us in their beauty, and must reign "In right thereof; for 'tis the eternal law "That first in beauty should be first in might: [...] "That it enforc'd me to bid sad farewell "To all my empire: farewell sad I took, "And hither came, to see how dolorous fate "Had wrought upon ye; and how I might best "Give consolation in this woe extreme. "Receive the truth, and let it be your balm." (Hyperion, Book II, 173-229; Keats 1994: 267-269)
The idea that "first in beauty should be first in might" and that beauty and truth are correlated (more knowledge meant more beauty) may have been worked out by Keats under the influence of Edward Young's following thoughts (Oceanus's entire speech quoted above seems to have been written under the sign of the fragment below, like a response of sorts):
What glory to come near, what glory to reach, what glory (presumptuous thought!) to surpass, our predecessors? And is that then in nature absolutely impossible ? Or is it not, rather, contrary to nature to fail in it? Nature herself sets the ladder, all wanting is our ambition to climb. For by the bounty of nature we are as strong as our predecessors; and by the favour of time (which is but another round in nature's scale) we stand on higher ground. As to the first, were they more than men? Or are we less? Are not our minds cast in the same mould with those before the flood? The flood affected matter; mind escaped. As to the second; though we are moderns, the world is an antient; more antient far, than when they, whom we most admire, filled it with their fame. Have we not their beauties, as stars, to guide; their defects, as rocks, to be shunn'd; the judgment of ages on both, as a chart to conduct, and a sure helm to steer us in our passage to greater perfection than theirs? And shall we be stopt in our rival pretensions to fame by this just reproof? (Young 1918: 12)
Young realized, by turning temporal logic upside down, that the people in the present in fact live on a planet which is older than it was when the "ancients" populated it; this may entail, from a Keatsian viewpoint, that we at this present time may be more justified in expecting more glory, more beauty, more perfection, more truth, than was reached by the ancients themselves before or after the Flood. From Apollo's perspective, because he is born after the Titans, in the newer generation of the Olympians, he himself inhabits a more ancient Earth, which carries much more knowledge in itself of the drama of the ages that elapsed while the Titans had been rulers. By Apollo's freely accepted encompassment of this knowledge of the drama of creation, the more truth in him will de decoded, in accordance with the total Janusian (imaginative-artistic) process, as just as that much more beauty. And since Oceanus observes that whoever is greater in beauty should also be greater in power, Keats finds here a brilliant way to justify change in the Universe--whoever suffers more by knowing and empathizing with more things and beings (which, in the last analysis, means feeling more the life and the death present in any moment in the Universe and defining the states of being in all of reality), they will deserve more the supremacy in power. Young seems to have realized something similar, just as Newton had done: the more time elapses, the more knowledge and wisdom can and will be attained by people, because, as people sit on the "shoulders of giants," from the increasingly "higher ground" they will have access to a greatness that will be itself higher and higher reaching closer and closer the unfathomable truths of creation. The only requirement seems to be the courage to accept the truth of the matter, namely that the Universe, as it advances through time, expands the vastness of sufferance, so whoever accepts such knowledge will be the greater "martyr," so the greater beauty will thus inextricably be connected with them in the universal Janusian process. Perhaps why Blake's disciples called themselves "the (Shoreham) Ancients" (mainly: Samuel Palmer, Edward Calvert, George Richmond) can be better understood in this context, although the acknowledged reason for which "the Ancients" adopted that nickname was the group's "regard for primal simplicities of art and living" (Gaunt 1991: 150). In this sense, Palmer is recognized for his "visionary" and "archaizing" imagination (Bindman 1985: 179), by which the past and the future "differentially" fused to create a tensed unity (as in any Janusian process). He is thus known to have believed in the existence of a "Valley of Vision" inside the human mind (a potential, intermediate world, looking simultaneously towards the remote past and the remote future), whereby, by the agency of nature, man could look into the (remote) future, because he had revived in his mind simultaneously the contents of the (remote) past (so, for instance, Palmer was interested in getting a glimpse of the time of the Second Coming). Nature for Palmer could thus be "the gate into the world of vision" (cf. Bindman 1985: 179), the latter itself an intermediary world set between the present and the real future, and in his own version of the phenomenon, loaded with the archaic. Perhaps the "Ancients" saw themselves in these terms because they realized (like Young) that they were populating a world which is even older than it was when the former Ancients lived on earth.
Moreover, in a letter addressed to J. H. Reynolds, dated 21 September 1819, in which he confessed that the autumn (which is the object of the ode To Autumn he had just written) is the season with which he always associated Chatterton, Keats commented in connection with the boy-poet the following:
He is the purest writer in the English Language. He has no French idiom, or particles like Chaucer-'tis genuine English Idiom in English words. I have given up Hyperion-here were too many Miltonic inversions in it. [...] English ought to be kept up. (Keats 1975: 292; cf. also Elfenbein 2008: 82; Bush 1967:172)
Thus, the "purest writer" in English was a fit choice for the hero covertly impersonating Apollo, in the Greek pantheon avowedly the most beautiful god.
As for Keats's reason for which he associated Chatterton with autumn, Roe (2012: 142) observes relevantly:
That doomed genius had outfaced oblivion, and his memory continued to flourish like leaves budding under autumnal sun.
In a different interpretation (Bloom & Trilling 1973: 556 ns), by associating Chatterton with autumn and the ode dedicated to autumn, Keats maybe in fact was compelling himself to remember the young poet who had died before having had the time to "[gather] in the harvest of his poetry."
There is an additional special reason for which Keats felt such affinity towards Chatterton: it is known that in the last months of his life, the boy-poet, seeing that in London he could not earn by his pen enough money to make ends meet by himself, was pushed by despair to an extreme idea --namely to sail away to the shores of Africa and work there aboard a ship as a surgeon's assistant; he may have got the idea by reading reports on the trade with African slaves that then was becoming increasingly more prosperous (Wilson 1869: 293). Of course, because he did not have a license in medicine, Chatterton's last dream collapsed. Keats, who was in a financial situation just as desperate, must have been struck by the similarity. What is more, Keats did have a license allowing him to practise as a surgeon and apothecary (he passed his examinations at Guy's Hospital in July 1816; cf. Bate 1963: 43), but had chosen not to do so, thus sacrificing his entire possible medical career for the sake of poetry. Chatterton's tragedy and medical aspirations must have made Keats reverberate so much, that the latter came to dedicate to Chatterton's memory the poems Endymion (1818) and Sonnet to Chatterton, in the latter proclaiming that Chatterton was "among the stars of highest Heaven," "sweetly sing[ing]" "to the rolling spheres," and being "above the ingrate world and human fears" (Keats 1994: 285; Keats 2001: 8; see also Coote 1995: 22). Roe's identification of Chatterton as Apollo--the Sun god, called by Keats in Ode to Apollo the "great God of Bards" (Keats 1994: 287)--in Hyperion may thus be quite correct and in keeping with Russell's (1908) calling Chatterton "the poet for poets"--a metaphor adequate for Keats, too. The boy-poet was indeed a major influence for many of the romantics:
Coleridge studied Chatterton attentively and repaid part of what he learned in one of the most beautiful poems in the language. Blake yearned over him; Shelley understood and loved a spirit so much akin to his own; Keats sat at his feet, dedicated Endymion to his memory, and took from his works one of the most celebrated and beautiful of his pictures [compare Keats's "Hymn of Apollo" with Chatterton's ^Ella]; Wordsworth knew what the voice meant and paid it the tribute of his tears and of a deathless sonnet; [...] Rossetti brought wreath after wreath for his unknown shrine. Of all the poets that have sung in English this is most truly the poet for poets; [...] the seeds of much of the splendid modern growth appear in his poems, not elsewhere. (Russell 1908: 249-250).
The reference in this quote is to Coleridge's poem entitled Monody on the death of Chatterton (1794), about which Coleridge stated he had worked on "for the whole of his life as a poet" (apud Stewart 2008: 68). This is without a doubt the longest poem (165 lines in the final version published in 1834) written by a romantic as a reaction to Chatterton's death, and by its haunting musical force it is comparable with Percy Shelley's Adonais (495 lines), which was written as a response to John Keats's death, and in which Shelley also refers to Chatterton.
As in Keats's works, in Chatterton's we find many metrical patterns masterfully controlled namely 57 patterns only in the Rowley poems: from Chaucer and up to Chatterton the only poet comparable in this respect is Robert Herrick. In Chatterton's case we are dealing with constructions that resemble word-pictures and word-symphonies (Russell 1908: 250-251, 253) what we indeed can synthesize by the notion of poetic "sympho-painting." Ker (1913: 268-269) offers a key explanation regarding this special force of Chatterton's to work with a poetic language endowed with a special "music":
[...] Chatterton was a poet, with every variety of music, seemingly, at his command, and with a mind that could project itself in a hundred different ways-a true shaping mind. Nothing in Chatterton's life is more wonderful than his impersonality; he does not make poetry out of his pains or sorrows, and, when he is composing verse, he seems to have escaped from himself. His dealing with common romantic scenery and sentiment is shown in [...] Elinoure and Juga; he makes a poetical use of melancholy motives, himself untouched, or, at any rate, undeluded.
Therefore, it would appear that Chatterton possessed what Keats was to define as negative capability characterizing the selfless, impersonal "camelion Poet." In his letter to Richard Woodhouse, dated 27 October 1818, Keats explained this phenomenon of highest importance for an understanding of his high creativity:
It is a wretched thing to confess; but is a very fact that not one word I ever utter can be taken for granted as an opinion growing out of my identical nature--how can it, when I have no nature? When I am in a room with People if I ever am free from speculating on creations of my own brain, then not myself goes home to myself: but the identity of every one in the room begins [so] to press upon me, that I am in a very little time an[ni]hilated--not only among Men; it would be the same in a Nursery of children: I know not whether I make myself wholly understood; I hope enough so to let you see that no dependence is to be placed on what I said that day. (Keats 1975: 158)
Maybe it is not by chance that, in Chatterton, Keats remarked a "native music" that was defining for his "northern" language, i.e. his "pure" English dialect (apud Hewlett 1970: 273), which he could modulate freely according to his will in numberless ways. Keats forged and refined his own poetic idiolect precisely by being engrossed in the study of Chaucer's Middle English and the study of the "fantastic archaisms" found in the work of Chatterton (cf Gigante 2011: 265), who became iconic for the romantics as "the marvelous boy," the "sleepless Soul that perish'd in its pride," ending in "madness," as Wordsworth (2008: 262) memorably put it in Resolution and independence (43-49):
I thought of Chatterton, the marvellous Boy, The sleepless Soul that perished in its pride; Of Him who walked in glory and in joy Behind his plough, upon the mountain-side: By our own spirits are we deified: We Poets in our youth begin in gladness; But thereof come in the end despondency and madness.
Indeed the very fact that Keats dedicated Endymion to the memory of Chatterton was interpreted by "sentimentalists during the half century after Keats's death" as a "prescient identification" (Bate 1963: 40).
The power to take the depth of things nimbly
Compared with what happens in Hyperion, in the situation described in The fall of Hyperion there is a crucial difference: here the accent is laid on a certain quality of (esoteric) knowledge--the immediate empathic capacity to "take the depth/of things as nimbly as the outward eye/can size and shape pervade" (Bate 1963: 600). In other words, here we are dealing with a knowledge that looks like a spontaneous "ontography," an instantaneous "psychography" of the depths of being, a sudden deep insight into the inner realm of things, a vigorous, fluid hyperempathy, akin to that announced by Wordsworth in Tintern Abbey, the latter being, however, more elaborated in comparison with the spontaneous force announced by Keats.
Here is how Wordsworth described the activation of this visionary force by which we enter the living essence of reality, thus the "burden of the mystery," which so preoccupied Keats, being relieved through a "fellowship with essence":
[...] that blessed mood, In which the burthen of the mystery, In which the heavy and the weary weight Of all this unintelligible world Is lightened:-that serene and blessed mood, In which the affections gently lead us on, Until, the breath of this corporeal frame, And even the motion of our human blood Almost suspended, we are laid asleep In body, and become a living soul: While with an eye made quiet by the power Of harmony, and the deep power of joy, We see into the life of things. (Tintern Abbey, 38-49; Wordsworth 2008: 132-133)
Paths to the creative valley of soul-making
After he suspended the writing of the Poem Hyperion and after writing The Eve of St. Agnes, according to Bate (1963: 456) what happened with Keats is something that one encounters only in the greatest poets: every new poem written by him brought along naturally a new style for that poem (see the great odes, each of them different in certain ways, then Lamia and The fall of Hyperion). For instance, the style of the poem The Eve of St. Mark anticipated the style that after half a century was to become characteristic for the Pre-Raphaelites (with their interest in "single pictures" and the "poetry of clean-cut tableau"; cf. Bate 1964: 3) and, later yet, for the imagists of the 20th century (led by Amy Lowell, who wrote a 2-volume Keats biography, published in 1925), the latter being attracted to the qualities of this poem with its "chaste, fresh, simple" style and "April-like cleanliness," reminding us of the painting and tapestry of the late Middle Ages, as well as of the octosyllabic couplets of Chaucer (Bate 1963: 455). D. G. Rossetti considered the fragmentary poem The Eve of St. Mark as being of the same rank with La belle dame sans merci and the best prototype for the poetic stylistic ideal of the Pre-Raphaelites.
The great period of Keats's maximum literary productivity--which lasted for five months started, as noted by Bate (1963: 472), at 21 April 1819 with the writing of the ballad La belle dame sans merci and of the remarkable pages on the "Vale of Soul-Making" in a long letter addressed to George and Georgiana Keats (finished at 30 April 1819). Keats found here a metaphor for the world, which was no longer a "Valley of Weeping" or "Mourning," but a valley endowed with a "schooling" mission. Keats aspired to create a "System of Soul-Making," a "system of Salvation," based on the idea that the people as divine "sparks" or "intelligences" (an idea of Orphic/ Hermetic origin) become Souls only when "they acquire identities," when "each one is personally itself." This condition of personality, of course, was against the grain when compared with his theory of the impersonality of the poet as the carrier of negative capability. The intelligences per se, he now thought, were only "atoms of perception," sparks from the very essence of God, but which had not yet passed through the School that the world is, instituted with the purpose to teach the men-children to read the "human heart," which Keats called the "horn Book" (or "hornbook")--reminding us of Friedrich Holderlin's idea that he was a disciple of the "school of the heart." Thus, "the Child able to read" this book was precisely the Soul forged in this School (the world) by the force of the "horn Book," i.e. man's heart. The "World of Pains and troubles" had the mission to "school" the Intelligences in order for them to become Souls, by virtue of the Heart being "the Minds Bible," "the Minds experience," "the teat from which the Mind or intelligence sucks its identitiy." Keats showed that just as people's lives are different, likewise do people become--accordingly different souls, God creating the immense diversity of beings from his own essence (the initial sparks), by agency of worldly suffering which is felt by man's heart in thousands of different ways. Man was thus forged by "circumstances," which were nothing else but "touchstones of his heart," that is the "proovings of his heart," the "alterers of his nature," its "alterations," its "perfectionings." Intelligence received an Identity and became a Soul, Identity being made by the "medium of the Heart," the Heart itself becoming a "Medium" by means of the "world of Circumstances." Here is the famous passage exploring this foundational concept Keats had formed of reality by 1819:
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. Intelligences 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 are these sparks which are God to have identity given them--so as ever to possess a bliss peculiar to each one's individual existence? How, 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 chrystain [sic] 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! Not merely is the Heart a Hornbook, it is the Minds Bible, it is the Minds experience, it is the teat from which the Mind or intelligence sucks its identity-As various as the Lives of Men are-so various become their souls, and thus does God make individual beings, Souls, Identical Souls of the sparks of his own essence-This appears to me a faint sketch of a system of Salvation which does not affront our reason and humanity-I am convinced that many difficulties which christians labour under would vanish before it-There is one wh[i]ch even now Strikes me-the Salvation of Children-In them the Spark or intelligence returns to God without any identity-it having had no time to learn of, and be altered by, the heart-or seat of the human Passions-It is pretty generally suspected that the chr[i]stian scheme has been copied from the ancient persian and greek Philosophers. Why may they not have made this simple thing even more simple for common apprehension by introducing Mediators and Personages in the same manner as in the hethen [sic] mythology abstractions are personified? Seriously, I think it probable that this System of Soul-making--may have been the Parent of all the more palpable and personal Schemes of Redemption, among the Zoroastrians, the Christians and the Hindoos. For as one part of the human species must have their carved Jupiter; so another part must have the palpable and named Mediator and saviour, their Christ, their Oromanes and their Vishnu-If what I have said should not be plain enough, as I fear it may not be, I will put you in the place where I began in this series of thoughts-I mean, I began by seeing how man was formed by circumstances-and what are circumstances?-but touchstones of his heart-? and what are touch stones ?-but proovings of his heart?--and what are proovings of his heart but fortifiers or alterers of his nature? and what is his altered nature but his soul?-and what was his soul before it came into the world and had These provings and alterations and perfectionings?-An intelligence-without Identity-and how is this Identity to be made? Through the medium of the Heart? And how is the heart to become this Medium but in a world of Circumstances ?-There now I think what with Poetry and Theology you may thank your Stars that my pen is not very long winded-(Letter to George and Georgiana Keats, dated 14, 19 February, 12-30 April, 3 May 1819; Keats 1975: 249-251)
One observes in this theory on the "Vale of Soul-Making" the emphasis laid by Keats on the fact that man is the unique result of a complex equation, in which the fundamental terms form a quaternary:
1) God as the creator of the divine sparks out of his own essence--hence reaching greatness (high creativity) could not occur in any other way than by a "fellowship with essence."
2) the divine sparks, i.e. the intelligences, the "atoms of perception."
3) the temporal world as multidimensional, and even virtually infinite-dimensional, matrix of experience (if we consider as dimensions the complex events from each unique human life), by whose mediation the unique characteristics of the human Soul were minted/stamped/sealed.
4) the human Soul as uniqueness resulting from the interaction between the divine sparks (the intelligences), the human heart ("the Minds Bible") and the temporal events (the "School" of the world, which for Keats meant especially the school of suffering), by virtue of which the intelligences were receiving identity (generated by the medium of the heart), thus becoming unique human Souls.
The most important element in this cosmoanthropic equation seems to be the human soul's uniqueness resulting from the interaction of spirit (the sparks) with matter (the temporal world), which reminds us of a similar emphasis laid subsequently by Margaret Fuller: the uniqueness of the human being. Also, the equivalence Keats postulated in the letter quoted above between "intelligences" and the "sparks of the divinity" may have been suggested to him by Edward Young, who in his (pre-)romantic manifesto titled Conjectures on original composition urges his fellow beings to reconnect to "the stranger within," the "spark of intellectual light and heat" inside the human mind and heart, and so allow genius rise like the sun (the latter idea reminds us of Keats's solar concept of poetic creation, cf. supra):
[D]ive deep into thy bosom; learn the depth, extent, bias, and full fort of thy mind; contract full intimacy with the stranger within thee; excite and cherish every spark of intellectual light and heat, however smothered under former negligence, or scattered through the dull, dark mass of common thoughts; and collecting them into a body, let thy genius rise (if a genius thou hast) as the sun from chaos; and if I should then say, like an Indian, Worship it, [...] Reverence thyself. [...] This is the difference between those two luminaries in Literature, the well-accomplished Scholar, and the divinely-inspired enthusiast; the first is, as the bright morning star; the second, as the rising sun. (Young 1759: 53-55)
From this perspective, history, with its infinite temporal oscillations, has a dominantly creative, formative purpose or direction: the temporal experience, by generating creation and destruction--both implying suffering--creates potentially infinitely numerous ontological uniquenesses or singularities: the human souls. This is a cardinal theory in Keats's thought, since by it the young poet had found a way to justify suffering and evil in the cosmic and earthly battle for life, in which life is surrounded on every side with death and deadly dangers.
On the other hand, Bate (1963: 478, n. 15) believes that the major source for the ballade La belle dame sans merci was provided to Keats by Spenser's The Faerie Queene (I. ii): the episode in which the Red Cross Knight is seduced by Duessa (among others, a symbol of the created world's duality, resulting from its Fall from Heaven). In the poem Lamia Keats, however, was to consciously approach a neo-classic verse pattern, adopted mainly from Dryden, the topic being provided by Robert Burton's Anatomy of melancholy (1621) (Bate 1963: 470, 543). Here is the story Keats read in Burton's book in its larger context (he printed at the end of the poem, as a note to the last line, the fragment quoted here starting "Philostratus in his fourth book" and ending "in the midst of Greece"), so that we may get a glimpse into the larger picture that lingered in his mind regarding love between a supernatural (a lamia/serpent-woman) and a natural being (man):
Such pretty pranks can love play with birds, fishes, beasts:/("Coelestis aestheris, ponti, terrae claves habet Venus,/Solaque istorum omnium imperium obtinet.")/and if all be certain that is credibly reported, with the spirits of the air, and devils of hell themselves, who are as much enamoured and dote (if I may use that word) as any other creatures whatsoever. For if those stories be true that are written of incubus and succubus, of nymphs, lascivious fauns, satyrs, and those heathen gods which were devils, those lascivious Telchines, of whom the Platonists tell so many fables; or those familiar meetings in our days, and company of witches and devils, there is some probability for it. I know that Biarmannus, Wierus, lib. 1. cap. 19. et 24. and some others stoutly deny it, that the devil hath any carnal copulation with women, that the devil takes no pleasure in such facts, they be mere fantasies, all such relations of incubi, succubi, lies and tales; but Austin, lib. 15. de civit. Dei, doth acknowledge it: Erastus de Lamiis, Jacobus Sprenger and his colleagues, &c. Zanchius, cap. 16. lib. 4. de oper. Dei. Dandinus, in Arist. de Anima, lib. 2. text. 29. com. 30. Bodin, lib. 2. cap. 7. and Paracelsus, a great champion of this tenet amongst the rest, which give sundry peculiar instances, by many testimonies, proofs, and confessions evince it. Hector Boethius, in his Scottish history, hath three or four such examples, which Cardan confirms out of him, lib. 16. cap. 43. of such as have had familiar company many years with them, and that in the habit of men and women Philostratus in his fourth book de vita Apollonii, hath a memorable instance in this kind, which I may not omit, of one Menippus Lycius, a young man twenty-five years of age, that going between Cenchreas and Corinth, met such a phantasm in the habit of a fair gentlewoman, which taking him by the hand, carried him home to her house in the suburbs of Corinth, and told him she was a Phoenician by birth, and if he would tarry with her, "he should hear her sing and play, and drink such wine as never any drank, and no man should molest him; but she being fair and lovely would live and die with him, that was fair and lovely to behold." The young man a philosopher, otherwise staid and discreet, able to moderate his passions, though not this of love, tarried with her awhile to his great content, and at last married her, to whose wedding, amongst other guests, came Apollonius, who, by some probable conjectures, found her out to be a serpent, a lamia, and that all her furniture was like Tantalus's gold described by Homer, no substance, but mere illusions. When she saw herself descried, she wept, and desired Apollonius to be silent, but he would not be moved, and thereupon she, plate, house, and all that was in it, vanished in an instant: "many thousands took notice of this fact, for it was done in the midst of Greece." Sabine in his Comment on the tenth of Ovid's Metamorphoses, at the tale of Orpheus, telleth us of a gentleman of Bavaria, that for many months together bewailed the loss of his dear wife; at length the devil in her habit came and comforted him, and told him, because he was so importunate for her, that she would come and live with him again, on that condition he would be new married, never swear and blaspheme as he used formerly to do; for if he did, she should be gone: "he vowed it, married, and lived with her, she brought him children, and governed his house, but was still pale and sad, and so continued, till one day falling out with him, he fell a swearing; she vanished thereupon, and was never after seen." "This I have heard," saith Sabine, "from persons of good credit, which told me that the Duke of Bavaria did tell it for a certainty to the Duke of Saxony." One more I will relate out of Florilegus, ad annum 1058, an honest historian of our nation, because he telleth it so confidently, as a thing in those days talked of all over Europe: a young gentleman of Rome, the same day that he was married, after dinner with the bride and his friends went a walking into the fields, and towards evening to the tennis-court to recreate himself; whilst he played, he put his ring upon the finger of Venus statua, which was thereby made in brass; after he had sufficiently played, and now made an end of his sport, he came to fetch his ring, but Venus had bowed her finger in, and he could not get it off. Whereupon loth to make his company tarry at present, there left it, intending to fetch it the next day, or at some more convenient time, went thence to supper, and so to bed. In the night, when he should come to perform those nuptial rites, Venus steps between him and his wife (unseen or felt of her), and told her that she was his wife, that he had betrothed himself unto her by that ring, which he put upon her finger: she troubled him for some following nights. He not knowing how to help himself, made his moan to one Palumbus, a learned magician in those days, who gave him a letter, and bid him at such a time of the night, in such a cross-way, at the town's end, where old Saturn would pass by with his associates in procession, as commonly he did, deliver that script with his own hands to Saturn himself; the young man of a bold spirit, accordingly did it; and when the old fiend had read it, he called Venus to him, who rode before him, and commanded her to deliver his ring, which forthwith she did, and so the gentleman was freed. Many such stories I find in several authors to confirm this which I have said; as that more notable amongst the rest, of Philinium and Machates in Phlegon's Tract, de rebus mirabilibus, and though many be against it, yet I, for my part, will subscribe to Lactantius, lib. 14. cap. 15. "God sent angels to the tuition of men; but whilst they lived amongst us, that mischievous all-commander of the earth, and hot in lust, enticed them by little and little to this vice, and defiled them with the company of women": and to Anaxagoras, de resurrect. "Many of those spiritual bodies, overcome by the love of maids, and lust, failed, of whom those were born we call giants." Justin Martyr, Clemens Alexandrinus, Sulpitius Severus, Eusebius, &c., to this sense make a twofold fall of angels, one from the beginning of the world, another a little before the deluge, as Moses teacheth us, openly professing that these genii can beget, and have carnal copulation with women. (The Anatomy of melancholy, Part. 3, Sec. 2, Mem. 1, Subs. 1; Burton 1850: 446447)
What strikes one in the stories above is the fact that the supernatural beloved, once discovered as being out-of-this-world, soon vanishes without a trace for ever. This image of the beloved vanishing for ever will haunt Keats in his real life, in the unhappy relation he had with Fanny Brawne (see infra).
In the period in which he wrote Lamia, Keats was convinced that any good poem had to be a "search after truth" (cf. Bate 1963: 547), a notion that may have been inculcated into his mind after being long familiar with Burton's masterpiece, in which Paracelsian thought occupies an important place--in this sense, even in the quotation above Paracelsus is mentioned, this time as a "great champion" of the idea that such third-degree meetings between ethereal spirits, manifested ad hoc substantially, and humans have indeed taken place and keep on occurring, since reality is populated with an infinity of spirits residing in an infinity of worlds. The latter idea in fact, as we mentioned before, may have been the source for Keats's feeling that "I do not live in this world alone but in a thousand worlds" (cf. Letter to George and Georgiana Keats, dated 14, 16, 21, 24, 31 October 1818). "Paracelsian" imagination may have pushed him in that very direction. Otherwise, it seems very plausible that the concept above of poetry as "search after truth" is derived from his notion of genius as the vast idea that was driving all his life powers towards accomplishing his dream of poetic greatness and intensity aimed at the giant task no less than of reaching salvation by poetry, through man. Salvation had to have had in Keats's mind something essential to do with the truth-beauty binary: poetry was a search after truth, and since art and imagination were Janusian forces, their purpose was the archetypal Janusian process: truth-and-beauty, beauty-and-truth in simultaneity, autonomous, powerful, at rest, yet forming an indestructible unity.
In this context, it is crucial to observe that for Keats art itself had a Janusian quality, meaning that it was directed simultaneously both towards illusion and towards reality (Bate 1963: 550) thus both towards an absence of truth (error) and towards truth. Therefore art in his view was a "Janusian process": not a synthesis--as was already traditional with romanticism in the sense that after the Hegelian thesis and antithesis, these fuse into synthesis--but rather a convergence of the two poles (illusion and reality, non-truth and truth) into one unity, in which the poles keep their functions and natures and integrity as separate realities, which nevertheless are held together by the energy of the "Janusian process": the occurrence in simultaneity of both autonomous phenomena, in this case, non-truth (error) and truth. (For details on the "Janusian process" see at least Rothenberg 1999; in this sense, as indicated before, romanticism is essentially defined as a doctrine seeing the foundation of reality in what Emily Dickinson 1961: 691--called "finite infinity," or interfinitude, reality as grounded in the two incommensurate orders of finitude and infinity; see for details Stroe 2004).
Keats's grappling with this notion of art (as floating midway between reality and non-reality, and thus looking in both directions simultaneously) can be discerned in his letter to Benjamin Bailey, dated 13 March 1818, in which he speaks of three distrinct cases, namely reality, semireality and non-reality ("Nothings"), the latter being susceptible to be made great on one condition--that the creator be passionate about his creation, that the created work be full of "gusto." The problematic and most mysterious region here was the intermediate one, of semireality (this is close to the notion of "intermediate beings"):
You know my ideas about Religion-I do not think myself more in the right than other people and that nothing in this world is proveable. I wish I could enter into all your feelings on the subject merely for one short 10 Minutes and give you a Page or two to your liking. I am sometimes so very sceptical as to think Poetry itself a mere Jack a lanthern to amuse whoever may chance to be struck with its brilliance--As Tradesmen say, everything is worth what it will fetch, so probably every mental pursuit takes its reality and worth from the ardour of the pursuer--being in itself a nothing--Ethereal thing[s] may at least be thus real, divided under three heads--Things real--things semireal--and no things--Things real--such as existences of Sun, Moon & Stars and passages of Shakespeare-Things semireal, such as Love, the Clouds &c, which require a greeting of the Spirit to make them wholly exist--and Nothings, which are made Great and dignified by an ardent pursuit--Which by the by stamps the burgundy mark on the bottles of our Minds, insomuch as they are able to "consec[r]ate whate'er they look upon." [...]--it is an old maxim of mine and of course must be well known that every point of thought is the centre of an intellectual world--the two uppermost thoughts in a Man's mind are the two poles of his World. He revolves on them and everything is southward or northward to him through their means--We take but three steps from feathers to iron. Now, my dear fellow, I must once for all tell you I have not one Idea of the truth of any of my speculations--I shall never be a Reasoner because I care not to be in the right [...]. (Keats 1975: 73-74; see also the comments of Bate 1963: 550-551)
It is extremely relevant that this Janusian phenomenon of truth-non-truth in simultaneity seems to have been best understood by one of the greatest popularizers of science and literature in the 20th century, Jakob Bronowski. Here is how he defined truth as a Janusian process (of a factlaw /real-unreal/true-illusory binary):
What science observes, what science predicts has all the shortcomings of fact. The facts supply the signal for the future, but the signal is necessarily uncertain and its interpretation against the background of the irrelevant will be inaccurate. The prediction which we base on the signal must be a statistical one. It does not read the future, it forecasts it; and the forecast has meaning only because we couple it with its own estimate of uncertainty. The future is as it were always a little out of focus, and everything that we foresee in it is seen embedded in a small area of uncertainty. It is the human situation and the situation of science. We do not contemplate the facts without error [...].
We cannot define truth in science until we move from fact to law. And within the body of laws in turn, what impresses us as truth is the orderly coherence of the pieces. They fit together like the characters in a great novel, or like the words in a poem. Indeed, we should keep that last analogy by us always. For science is a language, and like a language, it defines its parts by the way they make up a meaning. Every word in the sentence has some uncertainty of definition, and yet the sentence defines its own meaning and that of its words conclusively. It is the internal unity and coherence of science which give it truth, and which make it a better system of prediction than any less orderly language. (Bronowski 2008: 134, 136)
The volume Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St. Agnes, and other poems--published on the 1st or 3rd of July 1820, and which contained the fragment-poem Hyperion (included at the express request of the editors)--is, otherwise, in Bate's view in many ways the most remarkable book of poetry edited in a single volume in the past one hundred and fifty years by any poet in world literature.
The shady sadness of a dying poet: facing the great divorcer
The final period of Keats's life is described by Bate in detail in the last parts of his biography. He summarizes the essential facts regarding the beginning and nature of his initial illness as follows:
There is little doubt that, from mid-September  throughout the next month, the tuberculosis of the lungs that was to prove fatal to him had seriously begun (or suddenly moved into an active stage), bringing with it periods of immense fatigue and some feaver. [...] [H]e was almost penniless and facing such heavy demands. Keats's medical history has been carefully studied throughout the last forty years in the hope of dating the onset and stages of tuberculosis. The Victorians tended to assume that it began in the later winter of 1819-1820, just before the sever hemorrhage Keats had on February 3, 1820. Because relatively little was known of Keats's life in September and October of 1819, the sentimental notion was spread that Keats abandoned any intention of doing other work (and even gave up writing poetry) because his attraction to Fanny Brawne sapped his will: that [...] he was content to give up everything in order to go back to Hampstead and linger, as it were, near her doorstep. [...] Beginning with Amy Lowell in 1925, the pendulum swung the other way. With [...] very limited medical support, she concluded that Keats's illness was dual: [...] laryngeal tuberculosis [...] (March to May, 1818)-hence the sore throat; and tuberculosis of the lungs was only a later development, in the autumn and winter of 1819. It was Miss Lowell's argument that gave rise to the impression, which still lingers, that Keats was ill with tuberculosis throughout the most important part of his creative career. This has since been effectively denied by Sir William Hale-White in what is certainly the most detailed and authoritative study of the subject. [...] Most important, laryngeal tuberculosis is a very late--as well as rare-development: tubercle bacilli, coughed from the lungs, become caught in the larynx. But there is no history of such prolonged coughing [...] before the appearance of the sore throat; and had tuberculosis of the lungs developed this far by the summer of 1818, when the sore throat suddenly began, Keats would never have been able to walk and climb, as he did throughout the Scottish tour. [...] [H]oarseness and even loss of voice are typical in laryngeal tuberculosis, and Keats never showed any symptom of this sort. [...] [H]is sore throat seems to have virtually disappeared during his last year of life. Chronic tonsilitis, catarrhal infection, or inflammation spreading from the teeth to the throat-an ailment less romantic than tuberculosis-was a far more probable cause of Keats's recurring sore throat. Hale-White, stressing the likelihood of an infection spreading from the teeth, reminds us that the first serious onset of the sore throat was accompanied by the severe toothache that Keats mentioned, together with his sore throat, in his letter to his sister (August 19, 1818). [...] The probability is that Keats had caught tuberculosis of the lungs [from his brother Tom, next to whom he had been daily] before December 1, and that it began moving into an active stage by early September, 1819. (Bate 1963: 614-616)
On 3 February 1820, when returning from London, Keats had a severe hemorrhage in the lungs, nearly suffocating and the while having only thoughts of Fanny Brawne, his fiancee, to whom he wrote next day the following emotional lines:
Dearest Fanny, I shall send this the moment you return. They say I must remain confined to this room for some time. The consciousness that you love me will make a pleasant prison of the house next to yours. You must come and see me frequently: this evening, without fail-when you must not mind about my speaking in a low tone for I am ordered to do so though I can speak out. Yours ever sweetest love,-J Keats. (Letter to Fanny Brawne, dated 4 February 1820; Keats 1975:353)
The treatment that Keats was administered was downright barbaric, as pointed out by Bate (1963: 637):
The treatment by George Rodd and later by Dr. Bree was of course the reverse of what would be prescribed. Whenever Keats lost blood, they opened a vein in his arms and removed still more blood. He was put on a starvation diet that radically weakened him even further. [...] [B]leeding, for almost any disease, had been a universal practice for three thousand years; and severe restriction of diet was especially common in the period from 1760 to 1830. Bree [...] told not only Keats but Brown [...] that Keats's illness was ultimately nervous and that the cure lay in rest-in avoiding any excitement and [...] any work on poetry. Brown [...] discouraged Keats not only from writing poetry but even from seeing Fanny Brawne, whose presence [...] added further excitement.
It appears that Keats accepted both the diagnosis (nervous disorder) and the cure (elimination of all excitement) suggested by Dr. Bree, but strongly suspected that he had now been infected with consumption, since it was a disease his familiy members had suffered from. This means that from now on Keats dropped all efforts to even think about poetry, the only exception in this sense being a few revisions he worked during springtime. Also, he dropped all debates on the attraction of death as the "easfulness" bringer. His perception of beauty was dramatically changing under the pressure of the sickness--there is a strong sense that forcefully nearing the end of one's life has the effect to filter out many webs of deception and illusions:
I have not been so worn with lengthen'd illnesses as you have, therefore cannot answer you on your own ground with respect to those haunting and deformed thoughts and feelings you speak of. When I have been or supposed myself in health I have had my share of them, especially within this last year. I may say that for 6 Months before I was taken ill I had not passed a tranquil day-Either that gloom overspread me or I was suffering under some passionate feeling, or if I turn'd to versify that acerbated the poison of either sensation. The Beauties of Nature had lost their power over me. How astonishingly (here I must premise that illness as far as I can judge in so short a time has relieved my Mind of a load of deceptive thoughts and images and makes me perceive things in a truer light)-How astonishingly does the chance of leaving the world impress a sense of its natural beauties on us. Like poor Falstaff, though I do not babble, I think of green fields. I muse with the greatest affection on every flower I have known from my infancy-their shapes and colours [are as] new to me as if I had just created them with a superhuman fancy-It is because they are connected with the most thoughtless and happiest moments of our Lives-I have seen foreign flowers in hothouses of the most beautiful nature, but I do not care a straw for them. The simple flowers of our sp[r]ing are what I want to see again. (Letter to James Rice, dated 14, 16 February 1820; Keats 1975: 359)
It is interesting to note that the same effect of making reality more transparent and lacking deception was, in theory, accomplished by romantic irony: a detachment from the immediate reality that was supposed to give one luminous clarity of vision. Since Keats is known to have had a fundamentally empathic personality, this kind of detachment from himself must have already been like a second or even primary nature to him (Bate--1963: 648--calls this his "instinctive empathy"). Therefore, the disease did in fact only strengthen the more what was already dynamically there--yet a Keats that was totally cut off from the poetic mode seems unthinkable, if we consider that he gave up everything for poetry. Indeed, his last letters stand proof that his mind pondered poetically (if only shyly so, given the medical advice to not strain himself mentally in any way) on his situation on the verge of death, while his fiancee became more and more aware of the seriousness of his condition:
My dearest Fanny, I slept well last night and am no worse this morning for it. Day by day if I am not deceived I get a more unrestrain'd use of my Chest. The nearer a racer gets to the Goal the more his anxiety becomes, so I lingering upon the borders of health feel my impatience increase. Perhaps on your account I have imagined my illness more serious than it is: how horrid was the chance of slipping into the ground instead of into your arms-the difference is amazing Love-Death must come at last; Man must die, as [Justice] Shallow says; but before that is my fate I feign would try what more pleasures than you have given so sweet a creature as you can give. Let me have another op[p]ortunity of years before me and I will not die without being remember'd. Take care of yourself dear that we may both be well in the Summer. I do not at all fatigue myself with writing, having merely to put a line or two here and there, a Task which would worry a stout state of the body and mind, but which just suits me as I can do no more. Your affectionate J. K- (Letter to Fanny Brawne, dated March 1820; Keats 1975: 368)
My dearest Girl, In consequence of our company I suppose I shall not see you before tomorrow. I am much better today-indeed all I have to complain of is want of strength and a little tightness in the Chest. I envied Sam's walk with you today; which I will not do again as I may get very tired of envying. I imagine you now sitting in your new black dress which I like so much and if I were a little less selfish and more enthusiastic I should run round and surprise you with a knock at the door. I fear I am too prudent for a dying kind of Lover. Yet, there is a great difference between going off in warm blood like Romeo, and making one's exit like a frog in a frost-I had nothing particular to say today, but not intending that there shall be any interruption to our correspondence (which at some future time I propose offering to Murray) I write something! God bless you my sweet Love! Illness is a long lane, but I see you at the end of it, and shall mend my pace as well as possible. J-K (Letter to Fanny Brawne, dated March 1820; Keats 1975: 370)
To eternally see love eternally vanishing
The letters to Fanny Brawne left the impression in general criticism that the girl was a "chronic flirt" or, otherwise, that Keats was "almost paranoid" in the more advanced phases of his love affair (Bate 1963: 646). A consequence of the illness (including the paranoia or not) was a heart disorder, for which Dr. Bree gave Keats some medicine to deal with a racing pulse; the poet soon discovered that he could just as well not take the medicine, since no effect was visible (Bate 1963: 642).
In his final months, Keats left for Rome in order to look for a milder clime, being accompanied by the painter Joseph Severn. In one of his last letters to Fanny Brawne we see a despondent man, visibly collapsing physically and mentally, reluctantly talking about his having to leave England, and about how deadly painful Fanny's flirting with other men was to him; he expected from her to respond to him with the whole of her heart, with "a crystal conscience," which she did not, it would appear from the despairing tone in Keats's voice of the brokenhearted:
My dearest Girl, I have been a walk this morning with a book in my hand, but as usual I have been occupied with nothing but you: I wish I could say in an agreeable manner. I am tormented day and night. They talk of my going to Italy. 'Tis certain I shall never recover if I am to be so long separate from you: yet with all this devotion to you I cannot persuade myself into any confidence of you. Past experience connected with the fact of my long separation from you gives me agonies which are scarcely to be talked of. [...] I am literally worn to death, which seems my only recourse. I cannot forget what has pass'd. What? nothing with a man of the world, but to me deathful. I will get rid of this as much as possible. When you were in the habit of flirting with Brown you would have left off, could your own heart have felt one half of one pang mine did. Brown is a good sort of Man--he did not know he was doing me to death by inches. I feel the effect of every one of those hours in my side now; and for that cause, though he has done me many services, though I know his love and friendship for me, though at this moment I should be without pence were it not for his assistance, I will never see or speak to him until we are both old men, if we are to be. I will resent my heart having been made a football. You will call this madness. I have heard you say that it was not unpleasant to wait a few years-you have amusements-your mind is away-you have not brooded over one idea as I have, and how should you? You are to me an object intensely desireable-the air I breathe in a room empty of you is unhealthy. I am not the same to you-no-you can wait-you have a thousand activities-you can be happy without me. Any party, any thing to fill up the day has been enough. How have you pass'd this month? Who have you smil'd with? All this may seem savage in me. You do not feel as I do-you do not know what it is to love--one day you may-your time is not come. Ask yourself how many unhappy hours Keats has caused you in Loneliness. For myself I have been a Martyr the whole time, and for this reason I speak; the confession is forc'd from me by the torture. I appeal to you by the blood of that Christ you believe in: Do not write to me if you have done anything this month which it would have pained me to have seen. You may have altered-if you have not-if you still behave in dancing rooms and other societies as I have seen you-I do not want to live-If you have done so I wish this coming night may be my last. I cannot live without you, and not only you but chaste you; virtuous you. The Sun rises and sets, the day passes, and you follow the bent of your inclination to a certain extent-you have no conception of the quantity of miserable feeling that passes through me in a day.-Be serious! Love is not a plaything-and again do not write unless you can do it with a crystal conscience. I would sooner die for want of you than-Yours forever J. Keats. (Letter to Fanny Brawne, dated 5 July 1820; Keats 2001: 532-533)
That Keats struggled to ward off the day he would go away maybe for ever to Italy to try to recover from his illness, is apparent from his last letter to his fiancee, in which he decides that exile in solitude is for him the solution if he cannot be with Fanny; he almost cries for death as the only remedy for his pain of being separated from his beloved, which renders the world gloomiest (in his feeling that he cannot be happy either away or next to his beloved, Keats resembles Fr. Holderlin, who majestically and poetically "demonstrated" that pure love is pure suffering being away, being close to one's beloved was equally hellish):
My dearest Girl, I wish you could invent some means to make me at all happy without you. Every hour I am more and more concentrated in you; every thing else tastes like chaff in my Mouth. I feel it almost impossible to go to Italy-the fact is I cannot leave you, and shall never taste one minute's content until it pleases chance to let me live with you for good. But I will not go on at this rate. A person in health as you are can have no conception of the horrors that nerves and a temper like mine go through. [...] The last two years taste like brass upon my Palate. If I cannot live with you I will live alone. I do not think my health will improve much while I am separated from you. For all this I am averse to seeing you-I cannot bear flashes of light and return into my glooms again. I am not so unhappy now as I should be if I had seen you yesterday. To be happy with you seems such an impossibility! it requires a luckier Star than mine! it will never be. [...] If my health would bear it, I could write a Poem which I have in my head, which would be a consolation for people in such a situation as mine. I would show some one in Love as I am, with a person living in such Liberty as you do. Shakespeare always sums up matters in the most sovereign manner. Hamlet's heart was full of such Misery as mine is when he said to Ophelia: "Go to a Nunnery, go, go!" Indeed I should like to give up the matter at once--I should like to die. I am sickened at the brute world which you are smiling with. I hate men and women more. I see nothing but thorns for the future--wherever I may be next winter, in Italy or nowhere, Brown will be living near you with his indecencies--I see no prospect of any rest. Suppose me in Rome--well, I should there see you as in a magic glass going to and from town at all hours,--I wish you could infuse a little confidence in human nature into my heart. I cannot muster any--the world is too brutal for me--I am glad there is such a thing as the grave--I am sure I shall never have any rest till I get there. At any rate I will indulge myself by never seeing any more Dilke or Brown or any of their Friends. I wish I was either in you're a[r]ms full of faith or that a Thunder bolt would strike me. God bless you--J. K- (Letter to Fanny Brawne, dated August 1820; Keats 1975: 385-386)
In this sense, we may wonder how much this love affair hasted sturdy Keats's death by weakening the more (mostly mentally) his already shaky health and his will to fight to live. In the letter quoted above a sense of suffocation and helplessness is clearly perceptible in Keat's tone. This condition of his may have been quite close to the symptoms in depressive mania (or manic depression): the feeling of being "buried alive," of being a "caged tiger" (Jamison 1999: 104, 111, 112), a trapped creative Leviathan. This terrible disorder implies a Janusian "simultaneity-of-opposites" (Shneidman 1999: 90): manic depression implies the appearance of mixed states, i.e. "the simultaneous occurrence of both depressive and manic symptoms." (Jamison 1999: 111) In other words, light and darkness mix forcefully, chaotically, as if in a Blakean forced marriage of heaven and hell (see for details on this phenomenon Stroe 2013). Among its manifestations, the following are prevalent: violent desperation, terrible energy, inner restlessness, fearful agitation, suffocating horror and pain mixed with savage exultation, thoughts of suicide.
Thus, Keats now sees the world in darkest colours, as the "brute world," the "too brutal world," from which he wishes himself begone: "I should like to die"; "I wish [...] that a Thunder bolt would strike me."
In a letter in which he considers his own death openly--the world around him darkening increasingly the more, he obsessively reiterates his death wish ("I wish for death every day and night") as the only salvation in front of the tormenting pains of the soul, but then changes his mind ("then I wish death away"), clinging to the very pain he wants gone in the first place thus spiralling away between two pulsations, a deeply depressive one, and a mildly manic one, which is like a last despondent anchor to life. (This seems to be a bipolar symptom, the depressive pole being caused by his impossible situation, the mild manic pole being triggered by his weak hope that still lingers somewhere in the depths of his soul).
The reason for this anchor is stated abruptly (almost in an anti-Buddhistic outburst of consciousness; observe in this sense that Buddhists search for Nirvana--lit. "no wind" precisely as the cessation of all pain together): "pains [...] are better than nothing." The while we witness that the image of Fanny haunts him still, never to leave up to the end--becoming a kind of magic elfin presence whose silhouette is "eternally vanishing," and thus making him a wretched hopeless brokenhearted fully tasting the increasing absence of love as the ultimate nightmare. Because the pain is so unbearable, he begins to blend Janus-like the boundaries of reality and illusion, life seeming a bad dream from which any time now he should expect to wake up:
I wish to write on subjects that will not agitate me much--there is one I must mention and have done with it. Even if my body would recover of itself, this would prevent it--The very thing which I want to live most for will be a great occasion of my death. I cannot help it. Who can help it? Were I in health it would make me ill, and how can I bear it in my state? I dare say you will be able to guess on what subject I am harping--you know what was my greatest pain during the first part of my illness at your house. I wish for death every day and night to deliver me from these pains, and then I wish death away, for death would destroy even those pains which are better than nothing. Land and Sea, weakness and decline are great separators, but death is the great divorcer for ever. When the pang of this thought has passed through my mind, I may say the bitterness of death is passed. I often wish for you that you might flatter me with the best. I think without my mentioning it for my sake you would be a friend to Miss Brawne when I am dead. You think she has many faults--but, for my sake, think she has not one--if there is anything you can do for her by word or deed I know you will do it. I am in a state at present in which woman merely as woman can have no more power over me than stocks and stones, and yet the difference of my sensations with respect to Miss Brawne and my Sister is amazing. The one seems to absorb the other to a degree incredible. I seldom think of my Brother and Sister in america. The thought of leaving Miss Brawne is beyond everything horrible--the sense of darkness coming over me--I eternally see her figure eternally vanishing. Some of the phrases she was in the habit of using during my last nursing at Wen(t)worth place ring in my ears--Is there another Life? Shall I awake and find all this a dream? There must be; we cannot be created for this sort of suffering. [...] you will never be so unhappy as I am. I should think of-you in my last moments. I shall endeavour to write to Miss Brawne if possible today. A sudden stop to my life in the middle of one of these Letters would be no bad thing for it keeps one in a sort of fever awhile. Though fatigued with a Letter longer than any I have written for a long while it would be better to go on for ever than awake to a sense of contrary winds. We expect to put into Portland roads tonight. (Letter to Charles Brown, dated 30 September 1820; Keats 1975: 393-394)
What is certain is that Keats left this world with much bitterness, oppressed by helplessness and dispair, far away from home, family friends and beloved, but still animated by his wish to be surrounded by as many books as possible--because from the very beginning these had been for him associated with all that is immortal--being now for him the only support, the only hope and faith and acting on him like a "charm" (Bate 1963: 695). In this sense, Joseph Severn read to Keats in this last period especially from the volumes of Jeremy Taylor entitled Holy living and Holy dying (other volumes included The pilgrims progress and Don Quixote; cf. Bate 1963: 691-692). The closer he got to the hour of his death, the more he desired to die, and the more his psyche spiralled through deep depressive states and abrupt repeated returns to his normal mild self: Even as Keats entered his final month, Severn was struck by the extent to which this "elastic" capacity of heart and interest was still alive. For there, much of the time, lay Keats "desiring his death," as Severn wrote on January 25-26, "with dreadful earnestness--the idea of death seems his only comfort." (Severn, who had rarely been out of their rooms the past six weeks, and had often sat up for three nights together, suffered now from complete "heaviness of mind-no power of thinking." [...]) But Keats, even on his deathbed, was continually changing ("the strangeness of his mind every day surprises me--no one feeling or one notion like any other being"). Only a few days before this, he had been through with sympathy--through with idealism, with books, with concern of any sort. But suddenly there was a quiet moment when he became his former self, and there was a return of that "sensibility for every one save his poor self." [...] Keats kept "wanting to say something or have something done every minute in the day." (Bate 1963: 692)
Feverish agitation and bipolar oscillations from an attitude dismissive of everything to an attitude of his normal self thus seem to have defined his last days of life. A week or two before he died, Keats left instructions to Joseph Severn according to which on his grave only the following inscription, with no name in it, was to be allowed:
Here lies one whose name was writ in water. (apud Bate 1963: 694)
It was a last expression of Keats's modesty, who perhaps felt he was like a drop of water in the infinite Sea of life and death, light and shade, now going back to the roots, tasting the all-surrounding death, embracing pain with one last energy of will. Additionally, a strange piece of information regarding Keats's physiological condition on the verge of death was pointed out by Bate (1963: 642):
[H]is lungs, when the autopsy was performed a year later, were found to be entirely gone--the physicians wondered that he could have lived at all during his last month or two.
The fact is resumed in a different context, that of the description of the last words that Keats seems to have spoken in Severns's presence:
Severn--I-lift me up--I am dying--I shall die eas-y-don't be frightened--be firm, and thank God it has come! (apud Bate 1963: 696)
Severn commented on what he immediately afterwards did:
I lifted him up in my arms. The phlegm seemed boiling in his throat, and increased until 11, when he gradually sunk into death--so quiet--that I still thought he slept. (apud Bate 1963: 696)
Bate (1963: 696) then disclosed again the dramatic details related to the poet's death--the enigma of Keats's survival in the last two months of his life:
Either Severn or more probably Dr. Clark arranged for a man to come on Saturday to take casts of the face, hand, and foot; and what was almost certainly the death mask survives in copy. Then on Sunday Dr. Clark, a Dr. Luby, and an Italian surgeon "opened the body," as Severn later told John Taylor. "They thought it the worst possible Consumption--the lungs were intirely [sic] destroyed--the cells were quite gone." The physicians "could not conceive by what means he had lived these two months." (apud Bate 1963: 696)
Keats, the ehtereal elfin presence, possibly fed in these two months on such mental/spiritual energies as supported his very rickety physical structure beyond the temporal limit considered by physicians as normally possible in such cases. At this time, Keats seems indeed to have literally had a paradoxical life-into-death experience--hence the normal amazement of the physicians: he became a sort of walking dead man, living, although dead. We may wonder whether the strong influence coming from Paracelsian and Hermetic doctrine actually helped him survive in such a deadly terminal physical condition (sheer strength of faith is known to have such powers whereby man can transcend his physical limitations).
He had had the same kind of experience emotionally, in his love relationship. Strangely enough, he had described an experience (strongly mental, emotional, and physical in nature) in his poetry that had a reversed effect (not death, but life): at the end of the poem Hyperion (composed in late 1818, published in 1820), Apollo (alias Chatterton in this first version; and alias Keats himself in the second version of Hyperion) is deified by knowledge he derives from looking into Mnemosyne's silent face (the infinitely deep memory of all time, of all history since the foundation of the world), and thus, because this knowledge implies also feeling all the pain of creation since the first beginning, Apollo shrieks with anguish, convulses, and "die[s] into life," therefore has a genuine death-into-life experience:
"[...] I can read "A wondrous lesson in thy silent face: "Knowledge enormous makes a God of me. "Names, deeds, gray legends, dire events, rebellions, "Majesties, sovran voices, agonies, "Creations and destroyings, all at once "Pour into the wide hollows of my brain, "And deify me, as if some blithe wine "Or bright elixir peerless I had drunk, "And so become immortal."-Thus the God, While his enkindled eyes, with level glance Beneath his white soft temples, stedfast kept Trembling with light upon Mnemosyne. Soon wild commotions shook him, and made flush All the immortal fairness of his limbs; Most like the struggle at the gate of death; Or liker still to one who should take leave Of pale immortal death, and with a pang As hot as death's is chill, with fierce convulse Die into life: so young Apollo anguish'd: His very hair, his golden tresses famed Kept undulation round his eager neck. During the pain Mnemosyne upheld Her arms as one who prophesied.-At length Apollo shriek'd;-and lo! from all his limbs Celestial (Hyperion, Book III; Keats 1994: 278-279)
In order to enter the fascinating, but tragic, universe of the life of this great English poet, the biographic method used by Bate in this emotion-filled volume--and which represents an exemplary model of how one should write a "total," integrated biography--involved a permanent advance of the fleeting point of the present of Keats's life at one time, accompanied by a permanent and accumulative pendulation of the attention of the biographer between the spaces from the left (the past) and from the right (the future) of this fleeting point of Keats's present at one time.
In other words, by always situating himself in a punctual present of Keats's life, Bate always anticipates certain elements that are to take place in the future of Keats, and then he returns to Keats's present only to plunge further back in time, reminding the reader of some key elements from Keats's past which have special relevance for the present moment that was being discussed at a certain moment. The result is fascinating: the impression that time gains space in a harmonic and pulsating way, as in an unfathomable labyrinth, by creating in the fleeting point of the present moment a dense and multidimensional living network of references to the whole of the poet's life. Bate the narrator of this life marked off so deeply by tragedy thus reaches the rank of a narrator who once in a while seems omniscient, being thus able to unravel some of the deepest enigmas surrounding the destiny of this English poet.
Although so young, like a genuine Ancient, Keats managed to change the face of world literature by writings that sometimes seem to express voices buried in time that rise directly from the ancient mythical worlds of the Titans, bringing back the primordial language, or at least a hint, a trace of what that language might have sounded like at those mythical beginnings.
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Mihai A. Stroe
University of Bucharest
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|Title Annotation:||p. 158-184|
|Author:||Stroe, Mihai A.|
|Publication:||Romanian Journal of Artistic Creativity|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2015|
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