A Few Considerations of a Vast Topic

La conscience de soi est une nouvelle modalité du savoir, c’est un savoir de soi, un retour de la conscience depuis l’être-autre.
-- French Wikipedia on Hegel

During the nineteenth century, the figure of Hamlet underwent a shift from being the central character in one of Shakespeare’s most ambitious and exciting plays to being, far more than any of Shakespeare’s explicitly “poet” characters, an emblem of the poet—“lisant,” as Mallarmé put it, “dans le Livre de lui-même” (reading in the Book of himself). What Hamlet represented to Mallarmé was man confronting his “inner life.” He burns with what Wordsworth called “that inward eye / Which is the bliss of solitude.”

I think the central issue of Romanticism is the issue Rousseau calls “conscience de soi”: self consciousness. The poetry reaches far back into Christian modes of “confession,” as in Saint Augustine, and attempts to find ways in which “consciousness,” “inwardness” can be brought to light. This poetry includes both the intense desire for self-consciousness (as in Wordsworth) and the fear of it (as in Keats’ “Lamia”). What does selfhood taste like? How can one describe “soul”? There is also of course the demonic aspect of selfhood—its manifestation as a powerful “underground,” as in Baudelaire or even Jack Kerouac (“the subterraneans”). One thinks of Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, whose terrifying self-awareness brings him to the anguished point of admitting his primal crime: “With my crossbow / I shot the albatross.”

I agree with Paul de Man (a mentor of mine at Cornell) that “What sets out as a claim to overcome Romanticism often turns out to be merely an expansion of our understanding of the movement” and that Modernism—despite its frequent explicit rejection of Romanticism—is in fact a thorough-going example of it. In general Romanticism marks the shift from thinking of poetry as a “craft” (and of the poet as “maker”) to thinking of it as a provoker of consciousness, even a creator of consciousness.

From a historical point of view, the notion that poetry is the expression of the “hidden self,” of a “deeper” consciousness, was initially liberating: the sense that we each had an “inner” life that was different from our “outer” life, our life with people, and of poetry as expressing that inner life. Wordsworth could make “the growth of a poet’s mind” his primary subject; Thomas de Quincey could make dreams his. Yet the notion of exactly what constitutes an “inner” life becomes extremely complicated during the 20th century. Various people (Freud among others) discover that some parts of “the mind” are completely unaware of what other parts of “the mind” are doing. The “inner life” of the 20th century is divided, complex, multiple—and what we think we believe, what we assert with our “egos,” may well be colored by feelings and drives of which we are unaware. How can artists assert a fullness of mind? How can we allow those unrecognized areas of the mind to speak alongside the areas we recognize?

If poetry is particularly the domain of the “inner life,” then it is precisely not the domain of the I. The notion that poetry is the domain of the I comes from the ideology of individualism—a term whose etymology insists that we are “not divided.” If we are individuals, then of course we are most authentic when we speak from the point of view of our individuality, from the point of view of our I. But what if the I is in fact multiple, divided, full of many contradictory elements not all of which are even recognized? What if the I is not the unity that the word I presupposes it to be? What sort of poetry is generated by such a conception of the “inner life”? What was the “Romantic” stance about such matters?

The “inwardness” professed by the Romantics has many sources, but one of the most important is Shakespeare’s plays. The many radical contradictions that haunt a play such as Hamlet suggest a consciousness at home in incoherence. Keats’ Ode on a Grecian Urn is not usually read in that way, but I think it’s possible to do so.

Keats begins with desire, sexuality: “Thou still unravished bride....” The violence implied by the word “ravished” is immediately “quieted,” however, with an abstraction about quietness: “...bride of quietness.” In the second line, “foster child”--a phenomenon of our world--is balanced against the abstractions “silence and slow time.” Each stanza--an Italian sonnet minus a quatrain--has a feeling of great formality: one expects abstractions and elegance from such forms, and Keats supplies them in abundance. Nothing is terribly “real” in this deliberately artificial context.

The assertion that the urn can “express...A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme” is a graceful compliment—the sort of “flowery” compliment one might pay to a woman one wishes to interest, not something anyone takes to be quite true. Something of the same thing can be said of Keats’ “deities or mortals”: we understand that these are literary or “artistic” figures—figures, not people—though the sexuality of “still unravished” is now given greater emphasis: “What maidens loth? / What mad pursuit?...What wild ecstasy?”

The second and third stanzas gave us light paradoxes which are not meant to be thought of too deeply or challenged in any way. Are “unheard” melodies sweeter than “heard melodies”? What is an unheard melody anyway? Keats assures us with a cliché: an unheard melody is something addressed “not to the sensual ear” but “to the spirit.” Again, we are not to question too much. We are in some sort of vague version of idealism—some sort of conception in which the “ideal” is to be preferred to the “real.” And the urn seems to express that idealism. Nothing is ever consummated—we are still in the realm of the “unravished bride”—but, on the other hand, desire is never quenched. Such a state, Keats argues lightly, is better than a situation in which consummation occurs. Had the scene on the urn presented forever an image of Blake’s “gratified desire,” Keats’ poem would have been profoundly altered: instead of perpetual desire we would have had perpetual orgasm—a state which is not so easily identified with “idealism.” Doesn’t Keats have a body?

He does, and it surfaces a few lines later. He attempts to put the best face possible on his assertion about the desirability of a state of perpetual sexual frustration by linking it to a state of eternal springtime—a state of paradise, though not quite the paradise of Genesis. He remains in a Classical context: “Ah, happy, happy boughs! That cannot shed / Your leaves, nor ever bid the spring adieu….” The “happy melodist” reminds us of the “shepherd” of pastoral poetry—the kind of thing both Spenser and Milton wrote. Yet the moment “human passion” is mentioned, the poem suddenly takes on a quality it has not had before. These lines are not fanciful, artificial or playfully paradoxical; they are utterly real:

That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloyed,
A burning forehead, and a parching tongue.

That “burning forehead” and “parching tongue” might well be characteristics of a frustrated lover, though they also suggest human diseases with which Keats was certainly familiar. It is as if the poet’s own sexual frustration, which he has been attempting to disguise as idealism, suddenly bursts forth in the form of bodily illness.

But like the earlier phrase “foster child,” the lines’ touch of reality is only momentary; the poem is not yet ready to take on such questions. In relief perhaps, Keats turns to another side of the urn and attempts to regain the balance and control of the opening lines:

Who are these coming to the sacrifice?
To what green altar, O mysterious priest,
Lead’st thou that heifer lowing at the skies…?

Yet, coming after assertions of intense bodily distress, the word “sacrifice” and the heifer’s noisy “lowing at the skies” have overtones they would not have had under other circumstances. Doesn’t disease cause the “sacrifice” of people? Wasn’t Keats, who had been trained as a doctor, aware of such sacrifice? The feelings of desolation, of pain and sacrifice which have entered the poem almost against the poet’s wishes suddenly have a new place to express themselves. The town the people leave—which isn’t even represented on the urn—is suddenly seen not merely as empty but as desolate:

And, little town, thy streets for evermore
Will silent be; and not a soul to tell
Why thou art desolate, can e’er return.

“Death,” says Hamlet, “is “the undiscovered country from whose bourn / No traveler returns.” Death (and perhaps a reference to Hamlet) has suddenly entered Keats’ poem: “not a soul to tell / Why thou art desolate, can e’er return.” The artificiality of the paradise Keats was trying to describe protects us against death. Yet that paradise utterly shatters against the actual presence of death in the poem—a presence which both we and Keats know to the bone and which is linked to sexual frustration, itself a kind of death.

To paraphrase Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale,” the word “desolate” “is like a bell / To toll me back from thee to my sole self”—to the very mortality the poet has been trying to escape by writing the poem. “The fancy,” he complains in the Nightingale Ode, “cannot cheat so well / As she is famed to do.” What began as simple description—this is what is on the urn, it’s only a description—has suddenly turned upon him and revealed the very sources which the poem existed to evade. Keats didn’t know why he was writing the poem, and the poem’s language is now telling him something about his own consciousness—manifesting conscience de soi. He has nowhere to go but back to a confrontation with the urn as a whole—with this enigmatic thing which, like Poe’s raven, has brought him news of his own death.

In the last stanza the urn is called a “silent form,” though in the concluding lines it “speaks”: “thou say’st.” Perhaps the most telling phrase of the stanza is “Cold Pastoral!” At this point the urn is almost a tombstone, something which extends beyond the life of the humans who constructed it and extends as well into the midst of “other woe / Than ours.” If it is “a friend to man,” it is also cold, like stone, lacking human warmth.

My own feeling about the line, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty”—or part of my feeling about it—is that the statement is spoken entirely by the urn, and that Keats is addressing the urn when he says, “That is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” Humans, who suffer and die like the lowing “heifer,” have very different modes of knowledge. For the urn, “beauty” and “truth” can be identical because the “truth” expressed there is of a limited, artificial sort—something which evades the “truth” of mortality: “Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed / Your leaves….”

Such a “truth” is by no means comforting since a good deal of the poem is devoted to demonstrating its limitations—even its inadequacy. Yet the lines, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty—that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know,” sound as though they ought to be comforting. Keats’ designation of the urn as “a friend to man”—as opposed to a “Cold Pastoral!”—now becomes important. Surely a “friend” would not attack us: it would offer us comfort in our misery. The concluding lines of the poem are not only, as Paul de Man remarked, “gnomic” but deliberately evasive. There is no comfort against mortality; it is a stark fact which cannot be avoided—and there is nothing in the poem which suggests the possibility of a blissful afterlife. The poem is without comfort of any kind. And yet: the concluding lines don’t “know” that. We are given a “moral” which is in fact not the moral of the poem at all—and it allows us, in its deception, to exit without tears or anger. Beauty, truth—how nice to think that they are identical, and how nice not to have to think anything more about it.

I am suggesting here that Keats’ method is to some extent to abnegate control as he writes his poem: he is writing “Ode on a Grecian Urn” as a kind of field in which various things may happen—opening a space in which various possibilities arise. In doing so, he is radically shifting contexts. What results is a kind of rich incoherence in which various incompatible positions are all expressed—but none so emphatically that we are forced to choose one as opposed to the others. As Keats writes his poem, the words he selects lead him into contexts which are different from the one in which he began—and, instead of trying to control this tendency and to force the words back into the original context (as one might in prose), he simply allows it to happen.

Is it any wonder that he had such a profound effect on Charles Olson?

[The foregoing is the prequel to an eight-part series on Poems for the Millennium, volume 3, prepared by Jack Foley for presentation on Cover to Cover, his longrunning program on KPFA-FM (Pacifica Radio) in San Francisco. The full list of readers includes Bill Berkson, e.e. cummings, Diane Di Prima, Jack & Adelle Foley, Katherine Hastings, Michael McClure, Michael Palmer, Jeffrey Robinson, Jerome Rothenberg, Leslie Scalapino, Alfred Lord Tennyson, and Walt Whiman. Show times are consecutive Wednesdays from 3:00 to 3:30 p.m. beginning on April 14, for which a detailed listing of program contents will be presented here at a later date. ]

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