Somebody reading

Barbara Everett

  • The Odes of Keats by Helen Vendler
    Harvard, 330 pp, £15.70, February 1984, ISBN 0 674 63075 0

Perhaps as a result of the lingering Symbolist inheritance, the aesthetic notion of most potency at present is the idea that the work of art is in some sense about itself. Even in the fine arts, apparently most in love with the visible world, the great painter will be said to paint himself in every portrait. The exquisite old lady reading in a pool of light holds the stillness of Rembrandt himself as he paints, and Velasquez looks back at us through the eyes of a court dwarf. This self-involvement may all the more readily be found in literature since most poets tend to be experts on themselves. Outgoing and unegoistic as he was, Keats shows himself in his letters to be endlessly articulate on himself and his writing, and the poems, too, can be read as something like works of criticism. Many critics see ‘On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer’ as the earliest evidence of Keats’s genius, and the sonnet treats with Renaissance magnificence that peculiarly modern subject, the poet as reader of poetry. Or again, the remarkable fragment which, only two and a half years after the sonnet, marked the beginning of Keats’s last and ‘living year’, ‘The Eve of St Mark’, could easily be re-titled ‘Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman Reading’: so suggestively inward and original is its image of a young person wholly absorbed in a poem, one chilly spring evening in a small country town, where she sits by the window in an old house trying to catch the dying light

With forehead ’gainst the window pane ...
  All was silent, all was gloom,
Abroad and in the homely room;
  Down she sat, poor cheated soul,
And struck a lamp from the dismal coal,
  Leaned forward with bright drooping hair,
And slant book full against the glare.
  Her shadow in uneasy guise
Hover’d about, a giant size ...

It’s hard to be surprised that ‘The Eve of St Mark’ was never finished, or to be much interested in guesses as to how the story would have gone on, when the poem seems to fulfil itself in this portrayal of a young reader. There may well be an interesting gloss on the poem, which helps to confirm this sense of it, in a letter written by the poet only a few weeks later. The Keats brothers’ younger sister, Fanny, lived separate from them in the house of their guardian, but was faithfully kept in touch with by John: who here writes cheerfully promising to get his sister anything she would like, barring ‘livestock’ – always better and more kindly left in its natural environment:

– though I must confess even now a partiality for a handsome Globe of gold-fish – then I would have it hold 10 pails of water and be fed continually fresh through a cool pipe with another pipe to let through the floor – well ventilated they would preserve all their beautiful silver and Crimson – Then I would put it before a handsome painted window and shade it all round with myrtles and Japonicas. I should like the window to open onto the Lake of Geneva – and there I’d sit and read all day like the picture of somebody reading.

Casual as this is, it turns into a virtuoso exercise in the use of the conditional tense; and the final flick of irony is like a lightning flash. The happiness of goldfish and the happiness of young readers (whether Fanny or John, who perhaps meet in the heroine of the earlier poem) are alike a dream, a ‘picture’ cut off, like the existence of so many unfortunate domestic creatures, from the sources of life.

In true Symbolism the concept of a world limited to self-reflection led to Mallarmé’s well-known utterance: ‘Mon art est un impasse.’ That Keats, too, knew about impasse, however, does not make him the first of the Symbolists. The letter suggests how far from simple self-involvement any form of self-portrayal may be in the work of a major artist; self-portrayal may, in fact, be the most direct route to the dismissal of self-absorption. In an earlier letter Keats had said in passing: ‘There is something else wanting to one who passes his life among Books and thoughts on Books.’ That judgment, and the irony in ‘the picture of somebody reading’, touches and colours the beautiful image of the girl in ‘The Eve of St Mark’. However tenderly delineated, the romantic young reader is also found ‘dark/Upon the legend of St Mark’; her eager strained gaze leaves her ‘dazed with saintly imageries’, and a ‘poor cheated soul’; and as she stoops abstractedly to her book she is mocked by the great shadows of herself that gesture behind her. Peacock invented the name, for philosopher-poets like Coleridge, ‘Flosky’ or philoskios, ‘lover of shadows’. It is from the artist in person that we may find the greatest uninterest in art in general, and the most intent capacity to treat his own self in his work with unilluded detachment. The really striking thing about a great painter’s portraits (to return to the fine arts) is not the degree to which they look like the artist, but the degree to which they don’t. All vision is limited by the imprisoning self. But the great portrait can make it seem that for an instant the impossible has happened, and the painter has got outside, into the ‘real’. The old lady and her book and the light that joins them are there, and if she is (as she is) in some elusive sense like Rembrandt, then the strongest likeness is to that part of the painter which by its attentiveness becomes free: free, that is to say, of itself. In something like the same way, the intense existence of Velasquez’s court dwarfs depends on the differing perspectives contrived by the artist – sometimes, like himself, they seem smaller than a mastiff, sometimes larger than their King and Queen; and these perspectives release them from the indignity of their normal social selves.

A Keats poem too may have liberating perspectives. The ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ is much liked by most people who read any poetry at all, yet it is not obvious why it is a great poem; nor is it obvious how it manages not to suffer from the intense romantic egoism its substance seems to involve. The answer, I think, is a matter of its creation of perspectives on the self like those that open up a great portrait or self-portrait. The Ode may begin with the clamorous self, the self that ‘aches’ and is ‘emptied’ and has ‘sunk’, but it ends somewhere surprisingly far and farther out. The clue to this movement (which is confirmed as well as threatened by the flight of the bird at the end) is the odd striking word dropped into the Ode’s second line, the word ‘hemlock’. It was, I believe, because the poet so needed this particular word for an opiate that he allowed himself to half-quote an earlier half-line of verse, ‘like as if cold Hemlock I had drunke’ (from Marlowe’s version of an Ovidian comic lament for sexual impotence), only doubtfully to his purpose, but rememberable as having used this particular noun. Keats wanted it for reasons that can be discovered simply by quoting the word experimentally in public. From most reasonably literate people it will produce one of two automatic responses: either ‘Keats’ or ‘Socrates’. Keats himself mentions Socrates in the long journal-letter written to his brother and sister-in-law in America during the spring of 1819 (when both ‘The Eve of St Mark’ and the letter to Fanny were also written), the letter that concludes with the first of the Odes, ‘To Psyche’: the poet refers in it to Socrates as being one of the only two cases (the other being Jesus) he happens to know of, of what he calls ‘hearts completely disinterested’.

The word ‘hemlock’ moved into the Ode because it carried with it the whole context of the undeserved death of Socrates. And, as the letter makes plain, the death of Socrates served in its turn as a motif for a burden of feeling which was already a vivid fact in the poet’s consciousness, and which was to weigh on him almost unendurably during his last embittered and angry year of life: the sense of existential injustice. It seems clear that to Keats as his life darkened the theme of the unjust rewards of selflessness became both a simple personal misery and a more impersonal moral outrage. In this Ode, that double sense is both an intensity and a largeness – both a ‘selfness’ and a ‘selflessness’. As soon as the note is struck, in the opening lines, of a suffering miserably and frankly personal –

My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains
  My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk –

the poem begins to extend and purify itself by association with the not-self, the ‘other’, the far-off and classic case of injustice endured. The Ode moves at ‘hemlock’ from the egoism of pain to the concept of some good outside the self. It starts seeking to justify (in an almost Miltonic sense), in terms of a reality represented by the poisonous if natural plant hemlock, that equally natural truth grasped by the human imagination: its inalienable possession of some innocent, primary and bird-happy state, the thing that

    In some melodious plot
Of beechen green and shadows numberless
  Singest of summer in full-throated ease.

The strength of the ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ is its power to reconcile – obliquely and naturally, as its shadows suggest sun – two primary human facts, all that is focused in ‘hemlock’, on the one hand, and in the bird’s song, on the other. Its logic works by rejection and a kind of attrition: but a sumptuous and benign rejection and attrition (‘I cannot see what flowers are at my feet’) that brings the searching imagination to its true end in sympathy. Poetic happiness finds out where it belongs, which is, oddly but naturally, with unhappiness, in company with those who are sad or deprived, who resemble the poet only in the fact that they too gave attention to the bird’s song:

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.

It is at this point that the poet achieves a going-out comparable to that of the great portraitist: the Ode moves beyond the bounds of the romantic-personal and translates self into other selves. In the distance bridged between ‘hemlock’ and ‘emperor and clown’ (and Socrates was, among other things, a kind of emperor and clown) misery becomes conscious of its human context, and writes itself a history. In the Old Testament Ruth it finds a satisfyingly human and specific symbol (she was merely obdurately kind to her mother-in-law): but her name means ‘pity’, and her tears, like rain, bring on a harvest, however alien. It is therefore not very surprising that Keats closes his stanza with an image easy to think of as peculiar to him, one of windows opening.

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