The Death of John Keats

January 25, 2010

 

The death of John Keats attracts our attention because of its unjust prematurity. Keats had only emerged into his poetic brilliance a few years before his end, and he waxed more prolific as his death neared, with his last two years being the zenith of his literary creation. His life’s untimely truncation has been a thing of much projective wondering, as the poet had achieved by the age of 25 more than England’s greatest poets—Chaucer, Milton, and Shakespeare—had commensurately accomplished by that age. We are thus tempted to extrapolate—what would have become of the prodigious Keats had he lived? Unfortunately, these questions will forever remain in the realm of the speculative. We can, nevertheless, look at Keats’ death itself and consider how he spent his last days and words.

Keats’ descent into infirmity began during his walking trip around England’s Lake District, Scotland, and Ireland in 1818. Upon his return, the first signs of tuberculosis (then “consumption”) were ailing him, and the affliction having previously claimed some of his family members, Keats understood the symptoms as foreboding portents. By 1820, Keats was coughing up blood from lung hemorrhages, and he thus sought the more temperate and salubrious air of Rome with his friend Joseph Severn.  They took up residence near the Spanish Steps and focused on Keats’ repose and recovery. Keats’ physician, Dr. John Clark, bled Keats and recommended a very abstemious diet. Keats was miserable during this time and referred to his life as a “posthumous existence.” He constantly asked for opium or laudanum (opium dissolved in alcohol) to ease the pain or to take in large doses for suicidal purposes. Keats eventually died on the 23rd of February, 1821, in the arms of his friend Severn, who noted that Keats died slowly and peacefully, as if he had fallen asleep.  Keats is buried in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome with the epitaph that he requested during life: “Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water” and some other brief words, added by friends despite his request against them. In the same cemetery are the ashes of Percy B. Shelley, Keats’ friend and the composer of the best known elegy for Keats, “Adonais.”

 

Keats was a prolific and beautiful writer of letters. During his last days, his letters to Fanny Brawne, the woman for whom he felt enormous passion and composed his poem “Bright star, would I were as stedfast as thou art,” express his undying love for her and his distress at being “recommended not even to read poetry much less write it.” The majority of the letters he sent from Rome are directed towards Fanny (I counted 12 out of 21 total), extolling her beauty and informing her about his life and reviews (many negative) of his poems. One letter to P.B. Shelley declines an invitation from him to travel in England, with Keats remarking that “an english [sic]winter would put an end to me, and do so in a lingering hateful manner.” In Keats’ last known letter, he ends his beautiful epistolary prose by saying to his friend Charles Brown, “I can scarcely bid you good bye even in a letter. I always made an awkward bow.”

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William Blake, Part Two

January 22, 2010

The depth of Blake’s thought and his frequently desultory, diabolic vision is made more fully manifest in a reading of some of his works beyond Songs of Innocence and Experience. In fact, Songs can be illuminated and cast in different lights (or perhaps different hues of darkness) after grasping a larger portion of Blake’s vision.

In Marriage of Heaven and Hell, which draws its title from and satirizes a Swedenborgian composition, Blake expostulates on his philosophy, insisting that the Christian notions of the Devil and Hell are in fact beneficial components of human existence. To Blake, these demonic forces are merely Energy, and this Energy is bodily passion, desire incarnate, and even the forces of carnal temptation. To follow these Energies is good, Blake argues, and to deny them is only possible for those in whom they are already tragically debilitated from having heeded Reason, or Jesus Christ. The density and magnitude of Marriage is impossible to encapsulate here, but a few other Blakean philosophies are worthy of note: Blake was not a dualist, and he excoriated the belief that the soul and body could be separated. Blake composed what he termed the “Proverbs of Hell,” memorable of which are the following (quoted):

The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.

He who desires but acts not breeds pestilence.

All wholesome food is caught without a net or a trap.

The nakedness of woman is the work of God.

You never know what is enough unless you know what is more than enough.

Improvement makes straight roads, but the crooked roads without improvement are roads of Genius.

Where man is not nature is barren.

All deities reside in the human breast.

Visions of the Daughters of Albion and The Book of Urizen were difficult to comprehend because of the incessantly created neo-appellations, favorites of Blake, and the near complete disintegration of his prose. Although I am certain more erudite scholars than I have extracted meaning from the disjointed words, the scope of my Romantic survey does not presently warrant such a thorough investigation for that knowledge.

In a letter written to the Reverend Dr. Trusler, Blake begins to expound on the importance of the imagination, a clear harbinger of the later Romantics to come. In the last few poems I read, including “The Mental Traveller,” I was once again frequently outwitted by an elusive meaning, although some of the dark imagery (including that of rape and aging) remains fresh in my mind.

Blake is a fascinating poet. His absolute defiance of convention is frequently refreshing but at times too baffling or convoluted to be meaningfully interpreted or lived. His position at the beginning of the period we call Romanticism seems well placed to me, as the importance he places upon the imagination, in conjunction with his radical politics imbued with spirituality, have all the seeds that ultimately will characterize the period and the works of the authors within it.

William Blake, Part One

January 16, 2010

We begin our sweeping tour of the Romantics with William Blake, a character of magnitude and spiritual profundity.

William Blake was born in 1757 in London. He made his living as a printer, and using a method unique to him, he produced hauntingly beautiful prints that adorn much of his (and others’) poetry. Blake was a follower of Emanuel Swedenborg, a Swedish theologian. When Swedenborgian thought began to be institutionalized in religion, however, Blake came to despise it and all codified spirituality.

In “All Religions Are One,” Blake makes a semi-philosophical argument detailing his belief that all religion ultimately derives from Poetic Genius.

Songs of Innocence, published in 1789, contains multiple poems, all quite brief, that were intended for children but that contain deeper meanings worthy of adult meditation. They are remarkable for their terse verses and delightful rhymes. Notable within this compilation are many poems, including “The Lamb,” a poem that queries a lamb about its etiology, to which the response is that the Lamb of God made the lamb. In “The Little Black Boy,” Blake expounds poetically upon his theory that we all, regardless of skin color, are spiritually homogeneous and capable of loving each other. “The Chimney Sweeper” is a moving poem about the young children forced into severe labor conditions that kill many of them prematurely, nevertheless releasing them into a more blissful sphere above. Finally, in “On Another’s Sorrow,” Blake delineates the human empathetic quality, noting that the woe of another person frequently leads to a commiserative sentiment in she who hears about that woe.

Songs of Experience, published in 1794, provides a set of poems that are in dialogue with the previous poems and not merely categorically against them. Many of the poems in Songs of Innocence have counterparts in Songs of Experience. “The Tyger” provides the conversational contrast to “The Lamb,” and it asks the reader if the same god made both the gentle lamb and the ferocious tiger. “The Garden of Love” mentions that in place of a beautiful field of verdant grass and blossoms, a chapel now stands that has “Thou Shalt Not” inscribed on its door and a graveyard surrounding it. The poem to me seems disdainful of organized religion and subtly implies that worship of god through nature and individually is preferable to the systematizing occurrences that Blake sees happening. “London” is a beautiful poem describing the weakness, woe, and mental captivity of the Englanders.

Blake writes with a simple diction, yet his poems contain a tremendous force to them. The eccentricity of his mind is more visible in his works that invent fantastically named people and places; his poetry, on the other hand, is prophetic, sometimes didactic, and powerful in its simplicity.

Introduction to Romanticism

January 13, 2010

The beginning of my study in Romanticism causes an almost uncontainable ebullience. This period of literary (and other) history contains such an enormous amount of wisdom and material that I know even a somewhat deeply piercing study of it will ultimately only be a skim. Nevertheless, here I dive!

As many of my readings suggested, there exists much difficulty and contention in the classification of the “Romantic” period. In Romanticism: An Anthology, 3rd edition, Duncan Wu, the general editor, states in his introduction that the term “romantic” would not have been received favorably by those whom we currently believe to fall under that label, as the then disparaging definition meant something fanciful or inconsequential (although Coleridge used it in his Biographia Literaria  to describe the subject matter of some of his poems published in Lyrical Ballads ). Wu showed how the Romantics were not aligned either in age or explicit ambition, and that those deemed Romantics themselves were not openly united or founded for a particular, undisputed cause. In order to trace the origin of “Romantic” thought, therefore, Wu searched for some cultural impetuses that would have led to a new era in literary history. Of chief importance were the French and American revolutions, upheavals that questioned the notion of authority and who philosophically deserved to possess it. In England, the rise of cheap newsprint and the transportational ability of a more mobile media also led to a change in the demographics of the literate and the reading. In an ultimate attempt to unite the Romantics, Wu states that they were defined as a group for being religious mavericks, political liberals or radicals, and optimists about human nature and its ability to transcend.

In A Companion to Romanticism, edited by Duncan Wu, multiple essays highlighted, once again, the peculiarity of this period and the difficulty in classifying it. In “Romanticism: The Brief History of a Concept,” Seamus Perry demonstrates that much definition of the period has been logically cyclical; it presupposes a canon, extrapolates generalities from that canon, and then applies those common themes as the criteria for what makes a canonical Romantic author. Perry notes that, although there did exist certain schools of literature (the Lake School and the Cockney School, for example), the term “Romantic” was not used to describe these authors during their existence and only found wide acceptance posthumously. Eventually, however, Romanticism came to be classified for its idealism, egotism, and primitivism. Similarly, a redefinition of nature, changing from a belief in nature embodying the public ideal to nature as a subjective abstraction, marks the Romantics.  Ultimately, Perry affirms that we need to recognize both the similarities and differences between and among the Romantic writers, realizing that try as we might to destroy the seemingly-obsolete and potentially misleading term, Romanticism is in fact a useful appellation for organizing and understanding this period of time and creation.

In his essay entitled “Preromanticism,” Michael J. Tolley outlines some of the authors and the trends that eased the transition between Augustan neoclassicism and the Romantic era. In multiple authors, including Collins, Warton, Johnson, Chatterton, and Gray, Tolley points out the emerging importance of sensibility and the beginning of what would ultimately burgeon as personal, emotive poetry.

The case for the Enlightenment origins of much of Romanticism is made cogently in “Beyond the Enlightenment: The Philosophical, Scientific and Religious Inheritance” by Peter J. Kitson. In this brilliant essay, Kitson outlines some of the defining features of the neoclassical outlook that either informed a pre-existing tenet or impelled a new look in Romanticism. The Enlightenment, Kitson shows, intended to codify nature and humanity; numerous treatises appeared aiming at such a task, including things such as the Systema Natura of Linnaeus and Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith. The Enlightenment’s obsession with the senses and empiricism led to the philosophies of John Locke and Isaac Newton. Ultimately, such empiricism led to deeply entrenched skepticism, as embodied in David Hume. Romanticism and its surrounding events challenged these Enlightenment notions but borrowed from them, as well. Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason supplanted Hume in placing understanding not upon sensory objects themselves but rather within the human mind. William Blake rejected empiricism and instead proposed his radically spiritual and apocalyptic vision for humanity. Later Romantics would build on these ideas, and many of them became Christians of a diverse sort, from Coleridge’s semi-pantheistic understanding of religion to Shelley’s repudiation of it but need for something beyond a merely sensory epistemology.

These readings fascinated me; if nothing else, they demonstrated to me how interconnected literature is. I feel as though I would have a much stronger understanding of Romanticism and its origins if I had a more extensive background in Neoclassicism. Of course, my backpedaling would not stop there, as all literary generations derive something (if merely reaction) from their predecessors, meaning my study should really begin at the incipience of writing itself (what a task!). Nevertheless, I already feel as though I have a much deeper understanding of the origins of Romanticism than I did a year ago. The general cohesion but frequent disparity among the Romantics seems highly sensible to me now, and I finally understand the myriad elements that precipitated the rise of the new, subjective movement. Reading the theory and criticism of Romanticism has led me to desire nothing more than to dive into the writings of the Romantics themselves! I can hardly wait.

Russian Formalism

January 13, 2010

The school of formalism originated in Russia in the second and third decades of the 20th Century. As the name clearly denotes, of primary concern to formalism is the form of literary art over New Criticism’s concern for interpretation of inherent meaning. A question of much concern for formalists regards literariness and the qualities that differentiate literary from non-literary writing. In their attempt to answer this question, the formalists procured the tenable thesis that poetic language is that which defamiliarizes a word or language generally via literary devices, such as rhyme, repetition, and imagery. They also concluded that literary language derives its power from nuanced, secondary, tertiary and ambiguous meanings, whereas non-literary writing strives for lucidity and exactitude of meaning.

While formalist theories applied well to poetry, narrative fiction presented an obstacle, as rhyme and meter, among other tropes, are far less frequent among fictional writing. The answer was produced by Boris Tomashevski: narrative fiction contains a straightforward story of what happened (the fabula) that is told in a particular manner and with a distinct chronological order that thus defamiliarizes language (the syuzhet). In this manner, non-poetic forms of literature were inducted into formalist theory.

Because formalist theory attempted to systematically chart the science of literature and its creation, it sought generalizations and axioms. One such literary law was the theory that new genres develop over time in a broad means of defamiliarization. Just as a literary figure (such as an unrhymed stanza in poem of heroic couplets) calls linguistic attention to itself, so do new genres attempt to thwart the unconscious complacency that slowly builds over time within an extant genre.

Realizing that literary devices do not necessarily defamiliarize inherently, formalists came to recognize that the function of a poetic device has everything to do with its textual placement. Hyperbole is only powerful, for example, if the rest of the literature is not replete with it. The notion of literariness relating to foreground and background therefore emerged.

An ultimate notion, proposed by Roman Jakobsen in the late 1950s, proposed that the law of literariness was in fact the linguistic ability to relate various types of words. For example, where two words belong to the same category (human nouns such as “Ma” or “brother”, temperature adjectives such as “warm” or “freezing”, etc.) the poet will join the words to purposefully create unity among them. Alliteration and rhyme create phonetic unity; juxtaposition, parallelism, and inversion create the unity of idea, and so forth.

A Dose of Theory

January 13, 2010

I decided to splurge this year as I bought my books required for my semester coursework–I bought a book that is for a class I won’t take for another semester or two. The course is the only one in which undergraduates at my university are exposed to literary theory, a fact which to me is shameful and poorly planned. Loving theory and criticism as I have begun to do (not for previous lack of passion but rather lack of any form of exposure), this book has been a fascinating read. The following is a précis of the first chapter.

The book, cited in MLA format, follows:

Bertens, Hans. Literary Theory: The Basics. 2nd Ed. New York: Routledge, 2008.

Chapter 1: Reading for Meaning: Practical criticism and new criticism

The chapter begins by mentioning Matthew Arnold, a British Victorian poet whose “Dover Beach” and a few others poems I read for my class with Dr. Nye in Spring 2009. Arnold believed that poetry would replace religion, that in literary works humans could strive for and reach the best that human culture and life has to offer. Bertens used this introduction to segue into a discussion of the notion of liberal humanism, that each individual is a subject relatively free to be reasonable and free to make informed, personal decisions.

From there, Bertens begins to discuss the principle tenets of Practical Criticism (the United Kingdom iteration) and New Criticism, the United States equivalent. Claiming American-born and England-residing T.S. Eliot as one of the primary exponents of this school, Bertens shows how Eliot’s ideas about the primacy of poetic meaning and the flaw of overly emotive poetry (which led to his development of the objective correlative) ultimately led Cambridge theorists I.A. Richards and F.R. Leavis to found “practical criticism.” In the United States, “new criticism” was the equivalent, the principle difference being the importance the new critics placed upon the form of the literature. The most salient attribute of both schools of criticism is the interpretation of the artwork for its intrinsic meaning. A poem or piece of literature, for such theorists, is self-contained and should provide a truth universal to humankind. The poem can be interpreted independently of knowing anything about the author or the culture in which it emerged. These schools of thought led to the notion of “close reading,” a manner of scrutinizing a literary work within itself to identify the ways that its art operates (literary tropes, forms, etc.) and its meaning emerges.

The chapter concludes by explicating the link between literary studies and cultural studies/social critique, a seemingly enormous jump (especially considering the specialization of the academy). Essentially, because literary critics considered themselves the intellectual and cultural elite during the time of the Practical and New Criticisms, the jump from safeguarding civilization to interpreting and critiquing it was not a strenuous one. It is thus that both English and American literature programs include such a vast array of social and cultural commentary, education, and critique, both in their publications and pedagoguery.

This chapter has me primed and left wanting for more. As school begins, I know that my dispensable time to use in abstruse theory texts will wane. Nevertheless, the conciseness and importance of this one warrants its continual occupation in my schedule, a place where I expect it will consistently appear.

This post signifies the offical incipience of my road on the path to greater literary and linguistic excellence. As a student of literature who intends to continue such a course throughout the duration of my life, I implement this blog as a journal of my progress and protractions, my pleasures and pains. Of primary importance to this blog is the recording of my pathway along the the road to taking the GRE Subject Test in Literature, a task that I will undergo (likely) in October of this year. A secondary, concomitant goal is to document my general increase in literary knowledge, a task that will greatly aid me in graduate studies. A third and incidental achievement will be to enhance my ability to write quickly and pithily about such literature. If more goals or powers are developed in conjunction with the composition of this blog, I will cease delineating them here for fear of boring my already waning-in-interest reader.

Although I initially intended to lay out a design and begin to structure a course of systematic study, I find my mental prowess lacking tonight. I took the general GRE this morning, and being the anxious fellow that I am, last night was a restive one for me, yielding a total of around 4 hours of sleep. A (seemingly) long and (relatively) successful test day, coupled with a poor night of sleep, have led to the most pleasant of torpors that I am now experiencing. Thus, I save such tasks for the morrow, a day that I hope brings renewed energy and the return of the mental vitality that will be necessary to complete the task.

Though I expect to attract no readers other than my best of friends, a lad creating a similar blog, I welcome any peripatetic (used in the electronic sense, of course) wanderer to join me on my odyssey. May the pathway through (around, above, behind and prepositionally otherwise) the literature be a bountiful and rewarding one for us all!