Notes on Keats: 2014 (2nd Draft)

Keats, and what the phantasmagoric has to offer in coherence/complexity- the phantasmagoric being a mode of the visionary- Keats' phantasmagoric approach in "Nightingale" argues for the manifest complexity/density of mere subjectivity, and this argument is a critical commonplace in relation to Romanticism, but lifted into a kind of textual ether by a dazzling array of polarities, swimming in and out of textual focus. They all vie for predominance, generating friction which gives off an intense visceral heat, heightened by melopoeiac/prosodic mastery, into a sense of the text as a juggernaut or conflagration, an intense, sustained, and burning moment. This is the unique province of major high art consonant poetry over prose. The momentary nature of the lyric poem- maximum coherence/maximum complexity as an inspiration, in and out, and over- has, as its principle, and as Keats noticed himself, intensity as its signature virtue against prose and other forms of literature. Why the Odes establish Keats as an almost peerless lyric poet is that when a phantasmagoric edge is added to cognitive-affective intensity, the lyric poem creates a map of creative cognitive consciousness which prose, for all its expansive objectivity and perspective adumbration, cannot.

Phantasmagoric vistas, the romanticism of extreme momentary intensity- in short, genuine poetry- the principle to achieve these effects is inclusion, movements towards things (material and cognitive) and embraces of them. Wordsworth enacts the same textual process, even in his semi-objective Prelude. Prose writers are compelled by other imperatives- yet, genuine cognitive ascension towards profound understanding and solid principles is more fulfilled by the objectivity of the non-romantic plain glance. Ultimately, the two approaches don't need to negate each other- the 60-40 advantage I give to objectivity and prose (especially in relation to philosophy and science) owes to the inaccessible nature of real intensity in the human world, and the Odes especially are such rare birds that they cannot age completely gracefully over the larger, more imposing realities of human life as they manifest, and permanently so, and as consciousness ages towards understanding of sense past sensibility and the allure of the momentary and its phantasmagoria.


 The ultimate edge Keats holds over Wordsworth- of strangeness, odd proportions, the uncanny, intriguing semantic juxtapositions, "heavenly prosody"- is especially apparent once the limitations of Wordsworth's system have defined themselves against textual systems which exceed it. The chiasmus of nature (natural forces) and the mind of man- how nature, once perceived in the most purified light (as, perhaps, a set of principles), imposes heightened cognition, understanding into distilled reason- must fall, once the acknowledgment is made that Wordsworth's system is just another mode of Romantic (at least semi-adolescent, in its projected narcissism) escapism. The escapist valve is towards a subjectively held and maintained psycho-affective transcendence, which the rigorous demands of human society, its labyrinthine, ineluctable complexities could easily disperse into the nothingness of raw sensibility again. The antithesis: an impulse towards understanding and distilled reason not merely as an escape, but as transcendence-via-direct engagement, not seeking understanding in the otherness of natural forces, or pronouncing facile, half-understood blessings on a human continuum falsely linked to natural forms employed as intoxicants. These forms subsist at a distance from human systematic reasoning, or attempts at such.

The manner in which Keats intoxicates himself (and the extent to which his intoxication is a simultaneous movement towards ecstasy and agony, fulfillment and denial, consummation and abandonment) is more grounded in human reality- especially, the confrontation between the human mind and physical mortality. The nature-cocaine Wordsworth imbibes is too much about living forever/eternal life- despite evident technical mastery and a prosaic style fluid, limpid, and complex enough to place the Prelude in proximity to Keats' Odes, Wordsworth's simplified thematic dynamics, and what about human reality is forced by his own systematic fronts to escape notice, relegates him to a position beneath Keats, whose textual bravery and boldness exceed his. Moreover, there are few angles from which the Odes do not appear strange- their formal-thematic angularity and balance of finely crafted and misshapen textual elements render them interesting for reasons past their vaunted Romantic passion, sincerity, and object-animating prosody. In other words, to understand Keats' Odes by the Kantian cognitive model (sensibility-understanding-reason) is to get caught on each level by a kind of camouflage which hides how the circuitry is connected, how it coheres to impose an impression of depth, solidity, inevitability, and formal gorgeousness.

Thus, the Odes for me are strangely fascinating and enduring- no less systematic than the Prelude, but the inscrutability of whose system makes the Odes seem to torque or twist each time they are encountered. That sense- that the Odes themselves have a manner of being sentient, evincing sentience- is unique in the canon of English-language poetry. It also has a way of making the Odes a kind of last word in poetic avant-gardism- because the Odes have inhering in them this strange, vibrant, oscillating light of change/dynamism, they cannot leave the cutting edge, no matter who then or later was or is cast up as standing in an aesthetic position of extremity and innovation. The contradiction- the Odes are largely about disappearances (on physical and metaphysical levels), yet they refuse to disappear- is their principle, and then the compelling power of strangeness, the glory/gorgeousness of the misshapen.


 Keats' "Negative Capability" has become a lit-crit commonplace, so that scholars and readers forget the richness of its significations. To balance psycho-affective polarities without "irritably grasping after reason" (or principles, in the Kantian sense, which specifically suggests deductive reasoning and its sobriety, against the aesthetic) is one cognitive level Negative Capability accounts for; but the other question (which the Odes answer) is how polarities might be expressed in text in a negatively capable fashion. To achieve this end in the most spectacular possible fashion, Keats has recourse to dialects of sense/sensibility, initiated from a subjective stance of acknowledgement of the darkness of physical extinction, while maintaining affective vivacity in relation to his own psycho-affective processes- all the data being processed finds worthwhile and illustrative objective correlatives in what Keats opens textually. Keats' objective correlatives in the Odes- his nightingale, Grecian Urn, autumn, melancholy, and the rest- have a way of jolting his textual gambits up from sensibility to understanding and then (importantly, by induction rather than deduction) distilled/principled reason, not initially grasped for but floated up to gracefully and artfully.

The time/space coordinates projected by Keats onto his Odal objects create dynamic tensions which torque and transform depending on any given reader's subjectivity- the succession of vignettes in "Nightingale," in particular, create a warped sense of temporal textual succession, in which a succession of disappearances is enacted (the poet, the nightingale, the song, the state of consciousness and entire sensibility which illuminated the succession as a landscape, a forest scene), so that conventional space/time coordinates are replaced as the eruption of time zones is followed by dissolution of the same; and the conceptions which arise from this enactment, animated by the Odal objective correlatives, have to do with an essential mutability inhering in the congealed formal matter of Keats' subjectivity, which it is the unique province of major high art consonant poetry to reveal. This breach in time/space coordinates is explosive, spectacular, compulsively demonstrative; in short, Romantic; and that, the demonstration of psycho-affective mutability potentialities, is what Romanticism at its best brings to the philosophical table, against the conceptually grounded stability of the higher echelons of (philosophic/scientific) prose, their vistas onto human collectives.

The lyric poet, Adorno writes, is self-posited against society; and defines himself in relation to the entire human continuum of types which he is not; isolated by his (or her) capacity for mutability (on psycho-affective levels) and cognitive boundary-dissolution (into, presumably, transcendental realms once conventional frameworks are eliminated), but also ossified into a kind of stunted adolescence by his (or her) inability to view things plainly, and discern profound truth from illusion. That's why, though Keats' textual bravery exceeds Wordsworth's, and his confrontations with mortality are affecting, his appeal still lies in this inducement, often via prosody, of states of intoxication. If textual truth accords with textual beauty (to follow Grecian Urn through), Keats must fare relatively poorly next to philosophic prose, whose concerns and efforts wear more comfortably over long periods of time. Through this textual strainer, Keats' apogee of intoxication is assimilated and the central Romantic fallacy pierced through- that the dissolution of boundaries, psychic and otherwise, is commensurate with a kind of enlightenment, aesthetic or otherwise.

Adam Fieled       6-24-16


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