Archive for February 2nd, 2015

JK frontispiece

Last time we began looking at Keats’s idea of a ‘pleasure thermometer,’ which Benton, in his paper written in 1966 (Philosophy East and West V. 16 No. 1/2 (1966) pp. 33-47 Copyright 1966 by University of Hawaii Press Hawaii, USA), claims to have found in Endymion.

It is somewhat more complicated even than the idea of steps or rooms that we looked at last time.

It’s interesting that Walter Jackson Bate, as a literary critic rather than a philosophical Zen practitioner, relates to this at least in part through the idea of gradus ad Parnassum. Wikipedia explains:

The Latin phrase Gradus ad Parnassum means “Steps to Parnassus” . . .  The phrase has often been used to refer to various books of instruction, or guides, in which gradual progress in literature, language instruction, music, or the arts in general, is sought.

He also feels (page 334) that the ‘general sense’ Keats now had ‘was of a labyrinth rather than of steps,not least because of the impending darkness of his brother Tom’s deathFor reasons too complicated to unpack fully now I do not see the metaphors of ‘steps’ or of a ‘labyrinth’ as necessarily mutually exclusive: I see them as potentially complementary. The image of steps of course conveys the idea of effortful upward progression well, but a labyrinth captures the mystery of experience and how difficult it is to get our bearings and be sure we are moving in the right direction (see the poem below for my own take on the image of a labyrinth – it doesn’t stand comparison with Keats but it shows part of my own sense of the matter).

In any case, for present purposes, Keats described it, as Benton quotes from a letter of January of that same year, in terms of ‘a regular stepping of the Imagination towards a Truth.’ Keats was ‘certain of nothing but the holiness of the Heart’s affections and the Truth of the Imagination — what the imagination seizes as Beauty must be truth.’

We have been here before with the Kellys’ discussion of Myers ideas of the ‘subliminal uprush’ and their description, quoted in the same post, of the inspired mathematician, Ramanujan, one of whose criteria for deciding if his equations were true was their degree of beauty. In my twenties I had dismissed the declaration in Ode to a Grecian Urn that

‘Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty’; that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

as mere rhetoric given that much that is real in material terms, such as man’s inhumanity to man, seemed to me grotesque and ugly in the extreme, and still does of course. But that is not exactly the truth that Keats is talking about here, but my immature and disbelieving mind had no idea what he was really saying and was too skeptical to bother finding out.

Duncan Wu, in Blackwell’s excellent collection – Romanticism – explains some of its complexity (page 1011):

. . . . it is clear that by ‘beauty,’ Keats means the sensation shared by the poet with the external object into which his consciousness is merged [see below for more on this]. It is to do with the hitherto unknown reality of what it is to share in the existence of the nightingale or the Grecian urn; an imaginative involvement with those things is inherently beautiful and true – in the sense that it is real, rooted in the world of ‘misery and heartbreak, pain, sickness, and oppression.’ There is nothing escapist about any of this; indeed, the great Odes of summer 1819 are permeated with an awareness of death.

How things have changed that I can begin to see this now! I accept that I am still not completely there yet, as my posts about mindfulness are showing, but I think I’m on the way,

The Uncertainty Principle – Keatsian version

And I am now also much more in tune with Keats than was my earlier dogmatic self in another key respect, as my posts on uncertainty testify at length. According to Keats, Benton says, and as I have already quoted in part:

. . . the genuine truth seeker is a man “capable of being in uncertainties. Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.” He defines such a human quality as “Negative Capability.” This quality also involves the loss of self-identity and the submitting of oneself to things.

Benton then puts his finger on where I may be going wrong so often when I’m stuck in my quest mode (and I’ve known this for years since my exploration of Zen in the 70s but often refuse to believe it and push myself in ways I should know are unproductive).

Keats’s epistemology is very like that of Zen. According to Zen, the real is within us, so that “we lack nothing.” No deliberate effort on our part to discover the real within us is required. In fact, deliberate effort is an obstacle, since it involves an act of personal will and thus perpetuates the I-process — which is exactly what must be eliminated if the real is to be apprehended.

It’s important to understand how this differs from quest as Zen describes it:

The whole process of Zen experience therefore involves, at least according to one school of Zen thought, the stages of quest, search, ripening, and explosion, the last stage providing us with insight into the real. The restlessness of the quest stage corresponds closely to the mental condition of Keats’s man of negative capability when his mind is in a state of uncertainty, mystery, and doubt without being irritated by facts and reasoning.

The parallels don’t end there.

Zen also takes much the same attitude toward dogmatism that Keats does, being very independent and admitting “the possibility of a fundamental freedom and a non-conditionment of the mind.” The Zen patriarch Seng Ts’an advised, “Cease to cherish opinions.”

JK 1819

John Keats in July 1819 (image from Walter Jackson Bate’s biography – Hogarth Press 1992)

The Genuine Poetical Character

Benton has much more to say that I hope to come back to when I have explored Keats once more from my current perspective. It looks as though I completely misjudged and underestimated him in the past.

One further aspect of Benton’s perspective which I will quote now points in the direction of greater complexity than I had realized although I am not yet convinced that the exact meaning Keats intended is the same as Benton would like it to be.

He is concerned to emphasise how Keats’s creativity depended upon his loss of self:

In Keats’s view, the genuine poet is a man of a non-egotistical type whose character is opposed to “the wordsworthian or egotistical sublime; which is a thing per se and stands alone.” To Keats, Shakespeare was the exemplar of this non-egotistical type. The “poetical Character itself,” he declares — he means the genuine poetical character — is “not itself — it has no self — it is every thing and nothing — It has no character.” In speaking of it as having “no character,” he means that it has succeeded in extinguishing its own ego or self-identity.

Duncan Wu pins down what this characteristic of Wordsworth’s might be (ibid: page 1011): ‘. . . the tendency of Wordsworth to focus his attention on his own imaginative processes.’

Benton quotes Ode to a Nightingale in support of his point:

In Keats’s Ode to a Nightingale, the nightingale itself appears to be a symbol of the larger Self that is universal and eternal in us. In Stanza VI, Keats contrasts his mortal self with the immortal Self in which he sees he can rest. He says:

Darkling I listen; and, for many a time
I have been half in love with easeful Death,
Call’d him soft names in many a musèd rhyme,
To take into the air my quiet breath;
Now more than ever seems it rich to die,
To cease upon the midnight with no pain,
While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad
In such an ecstasy!
Still wouldst thou sing, and I have ears in vain—
To thy high requiem become a sod.

He goes on and in my view strains his argument to breaking point (but then I would think that as my earlier No-Self post indicates):

And in the next stanza, Keats defines the exact character of the self in relation to the Self: The ego is particular and mortal; the Self is universal and eternal. In his words:

Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!
No hungry generations tread thee down;
The voice I hear this passing night was heard
In ancient days by emperor and clown:
Perhaps the self-same song that found a path
Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home,
She stood in tears amid the alien corn;
The same that ofttimes hath
Charm’d magic casements, opening on the foam
Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.

He concludes:

In this ode, then, Keats’s theme is that the loss of personal identity is a kind of dying, but it is a dying into life when we discover the immortal Self within us. This view is neither Christian nor Platonic. Our immortality does not consist in our retention of personal identity but in the loss of such identity altogether. Such a view fully conforms to that of Zen.

His final conclusion puts me in touch with a nobler version of Keats by far than the one I left behind in my early manhood:

. . . . if . . . romantic self-abandonment is [the norm], then Keats clearly ought to be regarded as an exception to this rule. His particular kind of self-annihilation was not egotistic and solipsistic and an excuse for “the extremest form of romantic self-expansion.” His self-annihilation did not result in the inflation of his personal ego, but in a genuine loss of self-identity and in a discovery of his True Self.

JK life mask v2

Haydon’s Life Mask of John Keats (image from Joanna Richardson’s Folio Society volume)

Imaginative Identification

He adduces far more evidence than I have reproduced here to support his view and I need to re-read Keats carefully once more, both in his poetry and his letters, to make sure that I am still not misreading him in terms of a loss of personal identity. I recognise that as death approached and he grew physically and mentally weaker his capacity for poetry at this highest level diminished. I resonate none the less to the possibility that this loss of ego, even if intermittent, could be the source of both his and Shakespeare’s uncanny capacity to enter into the consciousness of even tiny creatures:

One of the factors involved in the loss of self-identity on the part of Keats’s man of negative capability is his “imaginative identification” with and submission to things. Like the typical Chinese artist with Taoist or Buddhist training, he seeks “harmony with the universe by communion with all things.” Keats himself underwent such an experience on more than one occasion, as he tells us in . . . . his letters. In a letter to Benjamin Bailey, dated 22 November 1817, he discloses that he has come to submit himself to things to the extent that “if a Sparrow comes before my Window I take part in its existence and pick about the Gravel.”

Duncan Wu (op.cit. page 1011) holds a similar view:

Hunt had taught him one important lesson which he was never to relinquish – that it is not the poet’s task to impose a vision or interpretation on the outside world, but to immerse, and lose, the self in what is perceived.

This aspect of his character sheds an even deeper light into the topic of compassion, which has preoccupied me so much and for so long. I have already shared on this blog a moment in Shakespeare of this same remarkable kind. I quoted these lines from ‘Measure for Measure‘ (Act 1, Scene 3, lines 85-88):

The sense of death is most in apprehension,
And the poor beetle, that we tread upon,
In corporal sufferance finds a pang as great
As when a giant dies.

Benton may be right and it would not diminish my new found respect for Keats as a man and a poet if he were, and Keats had a comparable capacity to Shakespeare’s for the reasons Benton gives: Keats, at his best, may be far deeper than I ever thought and I have my dreaming self to thank for that realisation.

I’m not sure this will help me write more poems but it has definitely been a most rewarding journey!


Read Full Post »