- 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.
The opening in this case brings with it the ‘perilous’ and the ‘forlorn’. The earlier invocations of the imagination in the form of a reader by an open window included a window merely painted or a reader finally mocked (because no more than a ‘picture’ or a ‘poor cheated soul’). Here the window truly opens, and there results a loss of self that is perilous and forlorn. I suggested a note of dry reservation in Keats’s letter to his sister. In a letter written in September 1819, after he had composed his last Ode, ‘To Autumn’ (which in effect brought his creative life to an end – in the winter that followed, fatal illness declared itself), there is a comparable but more direct reservation. Keats wrote: ‘Some think I have lost that poetic ardour and fire ’tis said I once had – the fact is perhaps I have.’ This element of serious doubt about himself needs noting, despite the fact – or perhaps even because of it – that it seems to find little reflection in many of the more orthodox Keats studies that have appeared over the last half-century or so. The image or ‘portrait’ of the poet to be found there is essentially of a career more or less exemplary in its development and progression. The writer matures triumphantly but steadily from Sensation into Thought, discovering how to make a true philosopher out of a mere poet, and in some sense a ‘modern’ philosopher too, almost Symbolist in the austerity and extremity of his last poems: one whom fatal illness cut off as he was producing his most perfect and brilliant work, ‘Lamia’, ‘To Autumn’ and ‘The Fall of Hyperion’.
But Keats’s writing life and his personal history (his ‘biography’) are extraordinarily interdependent, and they make together a very much more complicated image than this. The packed brevity and the increasing difficulties of the poet’s three-year writing span give some sense of his struggle to achieve and maintain that sense of the reader by the open window, that balance of inward with outward, of imagined and ‘real’, which forms the character of his best writing: exact feeling fills images from life, ‘And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.’ Everything about the living quality of Keats’s lines suggests how fully dependent their poise is, for all their intense literariness, on the poet’s own nature and the life he actually lived. And everything in Keats’s history similarly suggests that, though reserved and imaginative, he was also an outgoing spirit, sociable and hungry for experience: a London-born and bred man, interested in the world at large as well as possessed of a conscience that reckoned human claims important. When in his last year Keats lets fall in a letter the sentence ‘Upon the whole I dislike Mankind,’ it brings a distressing sense of the sickness of mind that had come to him. It measures, that is to say, the results of the fact that the larger world which Keats thought he so hungered for had, until the minor success of the 1820 volume when he was too ill to write, brought little but opposition to his radically original genius. During the year (1819) in which Keats was writing his Odes, only months after the attacks on him by the Reviews, the world in general seemed first to threaten his continuance of the literary life; then of any professional life (he could not find suitable work); then of his emotional life (marriage depended on earning-power); then of life, simply, as his health failed.
It is the pressure of these circumstances, the natural need for a world that also destroys, which gives to Keats’s work during this supreme but also distraught year its power, scope and complexity: above all, its quality of heroic but hopeless struggle. The more he reforms and refines his work the more his, and its, spirit fails. Fidelity to experience, refusal to let go the hold on a reality at that moment wholly menacing, brought the poet to accept the frightening possibility that he had genuinely lost himself, that he had exhausted (‘perhaps I have’) his creativity. It seems to me to be this possibility that induced the fatal illness, and not illness that simply stopped Keats writing. And there is something in the last poems that seems to betray this defeat, and particularly in the strange deadness of the (however beautiful) ‘Lamia’ and ‘The Fall of Hyperion’. Even ‘To Autumn’ may give pause to a reader. Most mainline criticism tends to accept Robert Bridges’s estimate of this Ode as perhaps the poet’s most perfect work. Among more recent critics, Bernard Blackstone and Harold Bloom have stressed its absolute superiority to the other Odes. Certainly ‘To Autumn’ is flawless, one of the poems in literature that one would least want to raise doubts about. And yet there is something terminal in its perfection. At moments it seems ‘good’ in the way that a child will be called ‘good’, when what is really meant is that its spirit is broken. In the Ode’s perfection is something of defeat. Its first stanza wholly lacks a main verb, being quietly dominated by those suggestive but failing and trailing parts of speech, the present participle and the infinitive; both the second and third stanzas begin with a question in effect rhetorical, whose ironical intonations (‘Who hath not seen thee ... ?’ and ‘Ay, where are they?’) sound a note both withdrawn and concessive; and the poem’s habit of over-running lines sustains a mood of poised weariness, something next door to surrender. ‘To Autumn’ is magnificent poetry, but it is a poetry of losing (‘perhaps I have’) maintained with unshakable control and reticence.
Helen Vendler’s more-than-sixty-page chapter on ‘To Autumn’ is the culmination of her exercise in the close reading of Keats’s Odes; and she follows many modern critics in seeing the poem as itself the culmination of Keats’s own writing life. Wonderfully full and dense with observation as this last chapter is, she does not notice that lack of a main verb in the opening stanza of ‘To Autumn’, just as earlier she does not pause on the word ‘hemlock’ in the ‘Ode to a Nightingale’. The critic’s sense of these two poems dictates, in short, what she finds in them; and that sense is itself dictated by her choice of thesis. This is, with a certain congruence, the argument that the Odes are essentially self-reflective on the part of the poet, ‘a form of intrinsic self-criticism’. This position, too, has its logic, since the Keats of most recent academic criticism is himself a kind of critic, self-reforming by those powers of will and rational judgment always more critical than creative, and making this struggle articulate in his superb letters. Helen Vendler defines her place in this tradition: ‘The complexity of Keats’s reflective and constructive acts is now generally admitted ... we all know now, thanks to a long tradition of criticism, the outlines of Keats’s concerns. But I think we have not yet fully seen Keats’s views on art.’ Her study is concerned with the ways in which the Odes may be said to be ‘views on art’. Moreover, since ‘views’, unlike experience in general, are capable of improvement, of education, the shape of Keats’s career during these months is described as a curve of self-improvement and of self-education. Helen Vendler’s argument is that all the Odes before ‘To Autumn’ are a necessary programme of trial and error, a series of closed avenues by which the learning poet came at last to see his way clear to ‘To Autumn’.
But this progressivist account of Keats’s writing life is crossed and complicated by something quite different. Helen Vendler also sees each of the Odes as, in a sense, both self-sufficient and the focus of everything else in the poet’s writing career. The movement from the first to the last of the major Odes is a movement through time which is only accretive, never destructive; the poet, unlike Louis Philippe, learns everything and forgets nothing; ‘To Autumn’ becomes the focus and fulfilment of everything that is Keats, and (because this is at moments a source-study) of everything that is a good many other writers as well. This last Ode, and Keats’s consciousness, and also the book that Helen Vendler is writing, all together approximate to an image that at one point she turns to examine, Moneta’s ‘hollow brain’ in ‘The Fall of Hyperion’ (on which she adds a chapter to those on each of the Odes): an image in which a single human memory becomes the location of all history itself. In this way Helen Vendler has managed to cross an academic thesis with a Symbolist work of art. She defines what she means by ‘close reading’ as ‘the illusion that one is composing’ the work in question: a definition she borrows from Paul Valéry, who is, with Wallace Stevens, the tutelary deity of the book. The Odes of John Keats is itself certainly and thoroughly ‘composed’; it is thick with often beautiful clarities of perception organised into sometimes compelling coherences of theory; it all co-ordinates, it all – in a sense – works.
But only in a sense. With all its gifts of sensitivity, the book as a whole manages to add to the problems of Symbolism all the problems of an academic thesis – for a thesis this study is, in its intransigence as well as its efficiency. A thesis will all too often rival Symbolism in the stasis it imposes on the nature of its subjects. The more Helen Vendler strives for the ‘ultimate embodiment’ of art in her study (a phrase she uses in her first sentence), the more she reduces Keats to the ‘picture of somebody reading’: for her book, it might be said, gives to the poet only the self-absorption of a reader reading, and not the in fact very different self-knowledge of a writer writing, that power which infuses the image of the reader whenever we meet it in Keats with its light but serious derision. One could say that the critic’s very reverence for the poet, her anxiety to rectify the indignities of history and rewrite his life as a story of consciousness triumphant, is an insistence that endows him with a security and a lifelessness he was never anywhere near possessing. Hers is a study that refuses to accept the risk and the openness of the poet’s own ‘perhaps I have’.
In her introduction the critic defends this procedure as a hostility to the ‘haphazard’ in criticism: ‘It was in fact Keats’s choice of subjects for the odes that originally perplexed me: why did he write on a quality (indolence), then to a goddess (Psyche), then to a nightingale, then on an urn, then on an emotion (melancholy), then to a season (autumn)? The usual critical acounts made these choices all seem relatively haphazard, depending on a nightingale in a plum tree or a visit to Haydon’s studio or a walk to St Cross; but I believe an artist’s choices are never haphazard, though the occasioning motive may seem so.’ The word ‘haphazard’ here could almost be glossed ‘historical’. And the passage makes a useful focus for the difficulties Helen Vendler gets into, throughout her book, in her treatment of the historical.
The Odes of John Keats chooses to make the claims of history seem out-of-date, to set itself within an area of discussion for which the sense of what used to be known as history is meaningless. This decision reduces a complex of problems of very different kinds, ranging from the odd judgment to the plain error. An example of the first is the treatment of other critics. In the first few pages of her book Helen Vendler introduces a substantial list of what she calls the ‘classic studies of Keats’ up to the present day: this manages to leave out what is in my view the best, and certainly the most fructifying, single essay on Keats during this century, John Bayley’s Keats and Reality – a study acknowledged as seminal by two critics (Christopher Ricks and John Jones) whose admirable books declare themselves indebted to it, and whom Helen Vendler does include in her list. Presumably her hostility to Keats and Reality (she disagrees with its author twice and sharply) springs from John Bayley’s attempt to call into being the ‘real’, the externally perceived and historical poet, and to do so in the course of a deliberately unsystematic personal critique.
But this is only a minor problem in what is in fact a much larger intellectual context. Helen Vendler’s antipathy to the ‘haphazard’ is in itself both sympathetic and ‘impossible’ (Keats once remarked, in what is perhaps his most important utterance during this last year of writing: ‘I would mention that there are impossibilities in the world’). Being against the haphazard is justified to the degree that criticism is a system or a science, and must be opposed to the random; the intellect’s job is to find answers, and it has to begin by discovering for itself those areas in which answers are to be found. But insofar as criticism has little point unless devoted to an art contingent on life itself (because in language), then the random or haphazard is not a fault in method but a law of the very subject. The critic’s stress here on the poet’s ‘choice of subject’ can’t help but raise an echo of Johnson’s derisive ‘choice of life’ in Rasselas: it translates, that is to say, a definitively deprived young writer into one of that tale’s protected royal innocents (it seems symptomatic that the critic insists on the ‘ascetic’ nature of the language of ‘To Autumn’ without pausing to distinguish between ‘ascetic’ and ‘half-starved’, which is what, in both an actual and a metaphorical sense, the poet was who wrote it). It is also an interesting fact that, though better-fed, the poet Paul Valéry never chose a subject in his life, he just let them, so he said, turn up. Helen Vendler’s definition of the poet is of a ‘chooser’, and it leaves far too little room for the factor in human life of the unchosen, the choiceless and the unalterably ‘haphazard’ – which is one of the faces of the natural. If the ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ is much better and more interesting than the critic makes it sound (in the Ode Keats ‘continues his inquiries into the nature of art’), this is because it has more power than its critic, first to recognise the paradoxical necessity in life of the haphazard, and then to transform that haphazard into necessity. It is the fidelity of this process that keeps the poem, to use Keats’s only half-mocking image in his letter, ‘fresh’ and ‘well-ventilated’, that preserves for ever all its beautiful ‘silver and Crimson’. Helen Vendler’s Keats is by comparison airless, and perhaps also just a little beautified.
The kind of difficulty that the abjuring of history gets the critic into can be illustrated from one quotation, the opening sentence to her chapter on the ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’: ‘We must presume, since Keats went on after writing the “Ode to a Nightingale” to write the “Ode on a Grecian Urn” (as near a twin to the earlier ode as one poem can be to another) that his experiments in analysing, distinguishing and objectifying his thoughts and feelings about creation, expression, audience, sensation, thought, beauty, truth and the fine arts were still in some way unsatisfactory to him ...’ This is really not unlike the proposition that most people have a second child because they can’t stand the first: an objection to which not merely the logic of the passage makes it vulnerable, but its language. Helen Vendler seizes on ‘twin’ because it momentarily gives emphasis to her argument that one of these Odes is very ‘like’ another: but an obstinate, ineradicable physicality and historicity in the word and what it means make the whole idea unworkable. What can perhaps be done in a Four Quartets (or even, when one comes to think of it, in a twin-laden Comedy of Errors) to prove that a thing both is and is not timeless can scarcely be done in an academic thesis. But this difficulty is intrinsic to Helen Vendler’s whole intellectual position in this study. Every time we reread a literary work, we do so ‘as if’ we had forgotten its true ending; and we are able to do so because human beings are, unfortunately, creatures that forget, just as literary works change and are lost with time. We can never be absolutely certain that Othello might not end happily this time. Helen Vendler is involved in a process rather different. She operates with the benefits of the ‘illusion of composing’, while simultaneously assuming the detached, superior and retrospective advantages of critical judgment, from which position ‘To Autumn’ may be used as a vantage-point to measure the failure of the other Odes to be itself. To try to cross the methods of the scholar and the critic, the critic and the creative writer, in this way, is to enlarge the scope of the study and perhaps to refine the nature of the thesis: yet the book fails, quite extensively, to convince, and it leaves behind an intermittent, almost pervasive sense of wrongness.
That sense of wrongness occasionally becomes both solid and local. The book contains slips or mistaken conjectures which are, considering the fineness and penetration of some of the writing, surprisingly frequent and surprisingly simple. What makes it worth mentioning any of them is the degree to which their occurrence is involved with the rebuttal of the historical, of the ‘haphazard’. Sometimes these are small matters: in discussing the rejected first stanza of the ‘Ode on Melancholy’, Helen Vendler is caught out by the differences of Regency English, or perhaps merely of English English, taking ‘Though you should ...’ to mean ‘You must ...’ instead of ‘Even if you did’. In ‘To Autumn’, Keats’s English climate seems to offer as much difficulty as his subjunctives in the earlier Ode. In analysing the first verse of ‘To Autumn’, the critic pauses over the ‘incidental oddity’ and the ‘puzzling anomaly’ of the fact that, as she sees it, Keats has there reversed the normal pattern of the seasons, so as to follow the autumn harvest by a further spring-like blossoming of flowers (‘to set budding more,/And still more later flowers’) – his reason being (she argues) that to retain the natural sequence of the year would be to allow its fruits to die back into the earth, promising a further spring. And ‘We are emphatically not permitted to see any further season ... One cannot deduce more than the poem allows.’ This may or may not be so. But the argument loses its strength if the critic happens not to perceive that Keats is here ‘first following Nature’, and tracing the natural course of an English autumn: for in England September is the golden month of late flowers. In literary terms, this is the country of Betjeman’s A Few Late Chrysanthemums, or Barbara Pym’s A Few Green Leaves.
The haphazard, that is to say, is a part of the literary. Something in Helen Vendler’s image of the poem collapses with the removal of her conjectures about the poet’s conscious change: Keats becomes again what in a sense he always was, the poet of a changing climate and of transitional phases, subject like many of his countrymen to affliction by melancholy and hope. Two of the most magnificent lines he ever wrote, from his second early sonnet on Homer, derive from just such a sense of changing weather, a sun-and-shadowed climate:
Aye, on the shores of darkness there is light,
And precipices show untrodden green.
In the same way, the image of ‘To Autumn’ shifts with another detail of disagreement. Helen Vendler lists a number of female goddesses as sources for the figure of Autumn. If Autumn is female, and if she requires a source, I suspect that source is more likely to be a figure hardly a goddess at all, but one involved with Keats’s own ‘haphazard’ history of reading and writing – which is to say the Psyche of Apuleius’s Golden Ass (whom it is surprising to find omitted here): a profoundly human and fallible young girl who spends much of her story stumbling tired, pregnant and patient across the countryside in search of her god-husband, and who is helped to find him by the kind creatures and powers of nature. This stress on the merely natural and enduring perhaps helps to explain Keats’s alteration of one word in the last line of his poem:
The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies –
so that the birds were not ‘gathered’ but ‘gathering’. The present participle becomes the most exquisitely disturbing word in the whole serene poem, because of all that it communicates of incipience in time, of the survival of selves beyond the present self, even of open windows looking over perilous seas of hope. One might go still further and speak of a ‘gathering’ quality in the Ode as a whole, reflected in the new rhythm Keats found for its stanzas. Helen Vendler’s is a study perhaps not much interested in poetic rhythm and metre, in themselves the forms through which poetry most lives in time. She does not at any rate mention, for instance, the (to me) extraordinary effect of the change made by ‘To Autumn’ to the ode-stanza as Keats had established it up to this point: the addition of an extra line after his ninth in each verse and rhyming with it as in a couplet. As a result, in each of the three stanzas the poem seems to be slowing to a standstill, to be stopping (on the words ‘cease’, ‘look’ and ‘croft’); then quietly to find the strength to outgo that ending, to overspill into the retrospectively rhyming 11th line, that brings the stanza home: ‘For summer has o’erbrimmed ...’, ‘hours by hours’, ‘And gathering ...’
Precisely because it does so ‘move in time’, embraces history in its process, the structure of a Romantic poem is in no way easy to define. It is on the question of structure that Helen Vendler places her greatest emphasis, perhaps seeing her proposals as the most innovative part of her thesis: ‘If there is any single part of this book that I feel confident about, it is the discussion of the structure of the odes and of the appropriateness to the matter of each ode and to its view of art. These discussions lead to the end point of the book: Keats’s powerful discovery, in the ode “To Autumn”, of a form of structural polyphony, in which several structural forms – each one autonomous, each one pregnant with meaning, each one continued for the full length of the ode – overlap in a palimpsest of effects.’ In a way, the two most interesting words here are ‘polyphony’ and ‘palimpsest’: for their flattening effect as metaphors demonstrates how difficult the critic’s task was in producing what might be called her symbolic unification – and of course how difficult in its turn Keats’s own task was. This quality of flattening, of static simplification into the one-dimensional, also attaches to the solution Helen Vendler offers. She proposes that the Odes may be distinguished one from another by an identification of their structure in terms of what she calls ‘figure’. Thus Keats is evoked as meditating ‘To Autumn’: ‘Will he choose reduplication, as in “Psyche”, or reiteration, as in “Nightingale”?’ These terms might be called ‘consciousness figures’, since they really represent our consciousness of different forms of reduplication in ‘To Psyche’, our consciousness of different forms of reiteration in ‘Ode to a Nightingale’, and so on; and the problem is, as with all readings, that consciousnesses may differ. Conversely, where the terms do work, they have the effect of narrowing the work of art within the sphere of a common agreement. In general, the systematic clarity or quasi-scientific impersonality of these terms may entail tendentiousness: they suggest excess where there may be bounty, or perfection where there may be thinness. Thus the critic condemns a quality Of discreteness in both the ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ and the ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’, and argues from it a superiority in the more evident because more ‘figural’ integrity of ‘To Autumn’. Having called the ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ ‘reiterative’ after some of its tropes, Helen Vendler goes on to find it therefore lacking in necessity: ‘This ode could go on for ever ... Structure is sacrificed here ... the poem risks becoming obvious’; ‘the ode shows signs of improvisation, notably in its passage from a sunlit day to a midnight scene (with no apparent allowance for the passage of time).’ Of the ‘interrogatory’ ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’, similarly: ‘We are shocked ... by the language of the close of the ode ... The language of the close of Urn cannot be entirely assimilated to the language used earlier in the ode, and this is a flaw.’
In fact, all these remarks seem to me untrue, all the criticisms based on false premises. The language of the ‘earlier’ part of the ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ seems to me wholly lacking in the quality of the ‘entirely idyllic’ which the critic attributes to it – a phrase like the extraordinary description of a bride’s state as ‘still unravished’, heralding as it does the plain suggestion of mass rape in the first stanza, needs far more sensitive analysis than it is usually given by critics. But the point at issue is the more general one. Helen Vendler’s terms give her the opportunity to make some initially attractive distinctions between the poems. But by and large they are guilty of the great vice of the Academy – that of applying systematic method in contempt of the true nature of the subject. Where integrity is identified with ‘assimilation’, life must be condemned as ‘improvisation’. These abstracts, moreover, by their denaturing property, assist metaphors like ‘polyphony’ and ‘palimpsest’ in edging the Odes towards a purely visual medium, and away from that auditory factor in them which is at least as important. The Odes demand to be listened to quite as much as to be read; the poet who wrote them was to say regretfully only a few months later that had he had any ambitions surviving, these would have taken him in the direction of composing ‘a few fine plays’.
We get nearer, I think, to this auditory, even dramatic quality in the Odes by remembering a suggestion made in turn by both Garrod and Ridley: that Keats made the stanza used in all the Odes after the ‘Ode to Psyche’ by breaking down the sonnet as he inherited it, primarily from Shakespeare. This idea seems to me to be strongly supported by a sense open to any reader that Keats got himself into decided difficulties with the first of the Odes, the ‘Ode to Psyche’, and then realised from these difficulties that he was in need of some lyric form more public, more resonant and perhaps more dramatic to balance the inward and personal side of his new kind of poem. This matter becomes blurred in Helen Vendler, partly because she follows Blackstone in placing the ‘Ode on Indolence’ first. We don’t in fact know the precise dating of any of the Odes except the last, ‘To Autumn’, although some internal and external evidence supports the generally accepted sequence to be found in both Keats’s major recent editors, Allott and Stillinger: which places ‘Indolence’ after ‘Psyche’, ‘Nightingale’, ‘Urn’ and ‘Melancholy’. The ‘Ode on Indolence’ itself speaks of its season as ‘May’, and we know from the letter to the poet’s brother and sister-in-law that the ‘Ode to Psyche’ was already written in April. Helen Vendler sets this fact aside on the ground that ‘though it was written down as late as May, the experience which gave rise to it is related in March,’ and ‘the core of the ode remains his lassitude in March.’ The March experience is in certain of its details different from the poem; and Helen Vendler’s argument, moreover, makes a distinction that is surely disturbing between ‘written’ and ‘written down’, between the words of a poem and its ‘core’ or ‘experience’. The real problem is, however, that she seems in some curious way to be disagreeing with the poem itself, which makes a Hamlet-like delay and procrastination a part of its very substance. Again, the weakness of the Ode, coming between the power of the ‘Ode on Melancholy’ and the fineness of ‘To Autumn’, perhaps suggests rather a mind tiring more than just beginning; and a part of that weakness is the thinness of a subject limited to the self. The ‘Ode on Indolence’ is an example of what really did happen to Keats when he was confined to a stifling self-consciousness.
It is the ‘Ode to Psyche’, clearly, which is a starting-point; and its intensely personal substance taught Keats his need for a more external model, for a form that would help him more to a public voice than the sensitive Pindarics of Collins were doing. The clue to this is the end, which promises
And there shall be for thee all soft delight
That shadowy thought can win,
A bright torch, and a casement ope at night,
To let the warm Love in!
Startlingly, if understandably, Helen Vendler identifies the poet with Cupid and the ‘Love’ with Psyche: but it is Psyche who, here as in her legend as Apuleius tells it, waits in the dark room for her invisible god-lover, Cupid or Love, to enter. The end of the Ode is wonderfully inward and sensitive, but as a result the poet has helplessly invoked a state of reverie in which the self before the window of reality is all too like a woman awaiting sexual fulfilment: an innocent embarrassment of the kind that Keats often made himself vulnerable to. Hence the recourse to the more safely magisterial tone and stance of the sonnets, which we hear in the later Odes. In Shelley’s ‘Epipsychidion’ an island is described as ‘beautiful as a wreck of Paradise’: one might adapt this fine phrase and say that Keats’s large, grave and extraordinarily influential ode-stanza, which can be heard through a century and more of English poetry from Arnold through Yeats to Larkin, is in itself ‘beautiful as a wreck of the sonnet’. Listened to, Keats’s stanza re-echoes with the cadences of Shakespeare’s sonnet, that survives through the first six lines, troublingly starts to founder, yet discovers in its disintegration a new brief balance and power. In a late poem directed to Fanny Brawne, Keats used the strange and striking phrase ‘live a wreckèd life’ (altered by editors to ‘wretched’, perhaps unnecessarily): it may be that the ‘wreck’ of the sonnet seemed to the poet the right form for the wreckèd life.
So much for the source of the single stanza; to explain the form taken as a whole by the Keatsian ode some extension is demanded. My own view is that the sound of the sonnet-sequence possessed Keats’s imagination. For the music of the Odes is not just a matter of each stanza, repeated: it is rather that each of these Odes gives out, when listened to as a public rhetoric, the special auditory effect of a sequence of sonnets. Arresting as Helen Vendler’s account of the form of each is, it postulates unity as the final ideal; and it does not confront the fact that even the most integrated, ‘To Autumn’, holds discreteness within itself as a vital necessary pulse or rhythm. In this as in every Ode after the ‘Ode to Psyche’, there is a silence, a breaking or a turning-aside between every stanza, as between every sonnet in Shakespeare’s sequence. This is completed and intensified by the different and self-contained substance, and even style, of each stanza, a difference and self-containment as great as it can be without destroying the harmony of the whole. Some essential part of the character and of the beauty of these Odes – especially of the ‘Ode on Melancholy’, the ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ and the ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ – derives from this harmony of differences. This is true of ‘To Autumn’ too, whose quiet and contained quality only intensifies the sense of new beginning with each of its three stanzas. ‘Who hath not seen thee oft?’ and ‘Where are the songs of spring?’ – both questions, abrupt and innovative, tacitly surprise; and the two inter-stanzaic pauses are like crevasses, vital landmarks in the poem’s spiritual geography.
It is interesting that this structure of linked pauses, this holding-together of great autonomous units of creativity (which commemorate, perhaps, the principle of the haphazard in a life lived), occurs formally in the Odes alone; in ‘The Eve of St Agnes’, for instance, the story proceeds evenly, cohesively from stanza to stanza. If the Odes have a ‘story’ to hold us, it must be in their re-creation of the movement of the living mind, remaking itself at every pace forward, so that every new stanza is also a self-losing. We hear something of that loss at the end of the ‘Ode on Melancholy’, perhaps the poet’s most superb and unnerving ending:
His soul shall taste the sadness of her might,
And be among her cloudy trophies hung.
Helen Vendler tries to join this last stanza to that preceding it by taking its sudden and inward opening (‘She dwells with Beauty’) as referring to ‘thy mistress’: but it must surely refer to Melancholy herself. The misunderstanding underlines the risks of the Odes, and thereby adds something to the vertigo of the poem’s ending: which records the sense of enormous difficulty overcome, yet perhaps (‘perhaps I have’) overcome in vain. For it fuses sudden dissolution of the self (in ‘cloudy’) with exhilarated ascendance (in ‘trophies’), the two marrying in the uncertainty of ‘hung’ (as a criminal? Or merely as a picture – ‘of somebody reading’?). The lines, which echo one of Shakespeare’s sonnets, echo something else in Shakespeare less easy to be lucid about. The real life of Shakespeare’s sonnets lies within the silences between each, where the mind may be felt as recouping itself and reforming its fictional inventions – it waits, as it were, in the wings of reality. By imitating this movement, Keats acquires as well a profound potentiality: we feel that every stanza is a journey into art from the shadows of the historical, and back into the silence of the life lived. Lived or died: there is a full Keatsian irony in that ‘cloudy trophies hung’.