Thursday, October 18, 2007

Week 09 W. Wordsworth, Samuel T. Coleridge, J. Keats

Notes on Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Keats

General Notes on William Wordsworth’s “Preface to Lyrical Ballads, 1802” (645-68).

According to Wordsworth, our response to nature grounds elemental passions such as love. Language is the medium for the communication of these passions. City life destroys the link, and urban language cannot reestablish it. The poet’s language mediates between nature and the emotions based upon nature. That is why poetry is vital: poets can still feel and express the link to nature and so can help us reestablish it. Through their efforts, we can feel the link to nature anew, and reaffirm the power of our own minds because of the pleasure we take in art. The aim is to regain emotional health for the individual and to regenerate a sense of community.

Romantic poets represent and bring order to their own and others’ passions in a skillful manner, so they are not primitivists or solipsists. As we’ll see, meter is part of the poet’s craft, and it allows for the establishment of a distancing effect from raw emotion that might otherwise not rise above “gross and violent” stimulation. Craft helps the poet attain the proper meditative or reflective effect of poetry. A healthy mind is capable of being stimulated without immediate sensory experience—that’s a point Kant was determined to convey while explaining the basis for aesthetic judgment.

Wordsworth assumes that there is a general human nature, which is an eighteenth-century idea. But nature isn’t just an external standard; we are nature, and of course “reason” isn’t as important as the bedrock of humanity, the passions. To these we can always return, at least if we have the proper mediator and the right language as our guide.

Unlike the scientist, the poet must identify with rural humanity and with everyone else. He is “a man speaking to men.” Poetry is therefore intersubjective, and it reveals unified human nature as the basis for a united human community. Scientific knowledge is analytical, individual, objective; poetic knowledge gives common pleasure and universalizes and synthesizes experience. As Shelley will say later, we must “imagine that which we know.” Poets have the “courage” (Shelley’s term) to help us do this. They have the boldness to set deep culture against the mere public opinion of the day. That will be a critical and artistic task from the Enlightenment and Romantic period onwards.

1. The preface is a manifesto in an age of manifestoes, a revolutionary age. But this is a different kind of manifesto in that Wordsworth says social transformation comes after a renewal of the individual’s imagination and of a purer language tied to the primary, universal human emotions. Wordsworth is offering us a declaration of the poet’s power.

2. What is a poet? A poet is “a man speaking to men.” His imagination and need for self-expression are kindred to those of his fellow beings, but greater. Poets are in full, pleasurable contact with nature, their own thoughts, and their own feelings. Moreover, they can achieve the tranquility necessary to select and reorder those thoughts, feelings, and situations. When they do that, they are able to reveal the universal, orderly quality of readers’ thoughts and feelings. There is a common human nature, and poets are best able to express it because they experience it most fully.

3. What is poetry? Well, it is expression. It is “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings recollected in tranquility.” It is certainly not an imitation of an action, as Aristotle would have us believe, nor is it likely to serve up Samuel Johnson’s tulip without the numbered streaks. Poetry is a concrete expression of the poet’s thoughts and feelings. This idea is genuinely new, at least in its intensity.

4. Wordsworth does not advocate direct self-expression or primitivism. Only by reordering their thoughts and feelings can poets present them to us as universal; only by selecting language and situations carefully can poets accomplish their task: to reveal and express the universal primary passions and tendencies of humankind. They need to make available to us the things in our common nature that bind us into a spiritual and emotional community.

How should poets compose and how should they select their materials? They should avoid neoclassical diction, which makes arbitrary connections between words and things and which tends to prop up an hierarchical class structure. Poets (if they follow Wordsworth’s advice) make a selection of language really used by ordinary people, choosing rustic, yet dignified language that is in touch with the “permanent forms of nature” and with the primary passions that have nature as their source.

5. Here we see the social dimension of Wordsworth’s claims about the poet and poetry. He opposes the destructive, analytic methods and effects of science and technology to the healing and unifying method and effects of poetry. Poets are “the rock of Defense for human nature”—they are prophetic figures and healers who unify fragmented, alienated, isolated individuals into a regenerated community. The Industrial Revolution, which involves urbanization, mechanization, and the accumulation of capital, has a dehumanizing effect upon individuals, reducing them to a state of what Wordsworth calls “savage torpor,” in which only “gross and violent” excitement satisfies.

Only the poet can attain the tranquility necessary to the composition of poetry. So this fuller human being is the catalyst of individual and communal regeneration. The poet is the key to social transformation. On this point, Raymond Williams claims that the effect of capitalism and technology was to marginalize, specialize, and commodify the act of writing poetry. Adam Smith, the main proponent of early capitalism, said that one day we would pay people to do our thinking for us; it makes sense to say as well that one day we would pay people to do our feeling for us.

Poets offer a religion of nature as an answer to the crisis of authority. They will serve as high priests in this religion of nature. Wordsworth plays something like this role in “Tintern Abbey” for his sister Dorothy. That poem is about two individuals—social and political transformation presuppose transformation in the sensibility and consciousness of individuals.

It has sometimes been said (notably by M. H. Abrams) that Wordsworth’s “Preface” to Lyrical Ballads displaces the revolutionary ideals of the French and recontextualizes them in a theory of poetics. Thus, “Liberty” becomes the freedom to express oneself freely and to reject the system of mimetic conventions prevailing in 18th-century poetry. Some would say that this amounts to middle-class individualism. “Equality” means that the poet may choose a common language from rustic incidents and thereby convey universal emotional states. “Fraternity” might be evoked when the poet writes in a vivid state of sensation and expresses a common human nature grounded in emotions that supposedly transcend politics, culture, and history. There is, in this view, a permanent human nature.

Page-by-Page Notes on William Wordsworth’s “Preface to Lyrical Ballads, 1802” (645-68).

648. At the outset, Wordsworth takes a scientific stance, claiming that his poems are experimental. Wordsworth aims to clear away perceptual deadwood and get to the most elementary passions and to the essential relationship between humanity and nature, between one human being and another. Just as Sir Francis Bacon aimed to brush off the cobwebs of scholastic theology to allow for concentration on the actual processes of nature, Wordsworth aims to clear away the false language and thought of the Eighteenth Century so that his audience can reconnect to the passionate element of their existence.

649-50. The poet aims to convey pleasure. Wordsworth implies that arguments about language amount to arguments about social regeneration. He says that he has selected rural life and speech because it is a safer repository for the essential passions of the heart. In rural speech, the link between the natural world and human manners is most purely expressed. We might say that language mediates between the passions and nature, which is partly a sign system for human emotions. As Wordsworth says, the goal is to reestablish the link between the primary laws of human nature and the beautiful and permanent forms of nature. He is by no means solipsistic in his poetics, but rather identifies the poet with rustic people and through them with all people.

651. At this point, Wordsworth says that poetry is “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.” But he modifies this statement when he says that “our continued influxes of feeling are modified and directed by our thoughts.” Repetition and habit play a large part here, and so we find common ground between David Hume and Wordsworth. Moreover, Wordsworth follows John Locke’s ideas of association; that usage is important because it allows the poet to suppose he is methodizing the passions and linking his own with others’ feelings. Representing feelings is more valuable than simply experiencing them.

652. “The feeling therein developed gives importance to the action and situation....” We find in Wordsworth an expressive theory of poetics as opposed to a mimetic one. “A multitude of causes....” The phrase “savage torpor” refers to the degrading effects of urbanization and the beginning of the industrial revolution. Technology and urbanization make us passive, killing the synthesizing power of the imagination and deadening our capacity to feel without “gross and violent stimulants.” Raymond Williams the cultural critic would suggest that the anti-industrial solution the romantics offer is an effect of the problem—poets stood to become merely specialized workers, so they hit back with the notion that their “specialty” really has universal and general significance; it should not, therefore, be marginalized or dismissed. On 652, Wordsworth offers a prophecy about the inherent powers of mind and the permanent therapeutic power of nature. He plays John the Baptist here, and is a romantic optimist in emphasizing the universality of our feelings.

654. “There neither is, nor can be, any essential difference between the language of prose and metrical composition.” Elsewhere in the Preface this remark finds its fullest significance, but it’s worth suggesting here that Wordsworth’s statement must hold for him because he has been saying all along that poetic language is itself at the root of all that is worthwhile in ordinary, rustic speech. There can’t be an infinite or unbridgeable gap between the two, or a difference in kind as opposed to a difference in degree or intensity. Language mediates between the passions and nature; nature is a sign system of passions.

655. “What is a poet? To whom does he address himself? And what language is to be expected from him?” The poet is “a man speaking to men.” The poet has a more lively sensibility, greater tenderness and enthusiasm, knows his own passions and volitions, feels more connected to an external nature, and has a more comprehensive soul. Wordsworth defines imagination as a power to be affected by absent things. In sum, the poet is able to express thoughts and feelings more powerfully than most people. So poets are 1) fuller and purer human beings; 2) connected to their own and to others’ passions and to nature; 3) gifted with a powerful imagination and expressive capacity to convey universal passions; 4) craftsmen who can and reorder their own feelings and thoughts into a pleasurable and intelligible whole or story.

656. “Aristotle, I have been told, hath said, that poetry is the most philosophic of all writing....” Poetry conveys the best kind of knowledge in the best way. The object of poetry is “truth general and operative.” In other words, its object is truth most closely tied to deep human nature. The poet conveys universal truth born of pleasure and carried into the hearts of others by passion. Poetry is “the image of man and nature,” and it links man and nature meaningfully. Poetry gives pleasure to the entire person, not to specialized elements of a person. Later, Wordsworth asserts this idea again when he discusses poetic truth in comparison to utilitarian, scientific truth, which actually turns out to be more remote than we had thought. The poet conveys a universal truth of the human heart, of feelings derived from unspoiled human nature in contact with an equally unspoiled natural realm. In sum, Wordsworth makes transhistorical claims about human nature.

657. “The poet writes under one restriction only....” Here science is contrasted with poetry. On the link between knowledge and sympathy, Wordsworth says that pleasure helps achieve this link. Pleasure comes from perceiving and feeling the harmony between humanity and nature, their mutual adaptation. Science, by contrast, dissects things and seeks remote truth as its object. The poet binds us into an expressive community by means of passion that conveys intuitive and pleasurable knowledge, while the scientist keeps us divided and subject to perpetual delay in achieving social harmony. Poetry delights us with its kind of knowledge because that knowledge flows from the depths of human nature.

658. “The knowledge both of the poet and the man of science is pleasure....” Again, science versus poetry is Wordsworth’s theme. We might contrast Sir Francis Bacon’s idea of science as future amelioration with Wordsworth’s more immediate promise of prophetic insight. The poet is almost a priest, erasing the consequences of original sin. Is this unfair to science? Well, Wordsworth probably refers more to a tendency than to specific practices, or to so-called pure science. What he offers amounts to a religion of nature. The artist is the high priest of that religion. At times, Wordsworth writes like a pantheist, praising “a sense sublime of something far more deeply interfused, whose dwelling is the light of setting suns.”

659. “Among the qualities which I have enumerated....” The poet more promptly feels in absence of external excitement and is able to express feelings more promptly. This is only a difference in degree, not in kind. The poet conveys passions arising from moral sentiments and animal sensations; the poet derives these things from contact with nature and from his or her own emotions.

660. Wordsworth refers to “the tendency of meter to divest language in a certain degree of its reality....” Meter meets the need for restraint and distance. Wordsworth does not seek to convey extreme emotion or raw events. For both the poet and the reader, poetry is a meditative act. Meditation requires the bracketing out of noise, focusing intensely on some specific place or thing, and calling to mind what is associated with that place or thing or person. The point is to reorder thoughts and feelings and attain clarity, which moral and emotional clarity, Meyer Abrams suggests, constitutes “the affective resolution” of the greater romantic lyric.

661-62. “I have said that poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility: the emotion is contemplated till by a species of reaction the tranquility disappears, and an emotion, kindred to that which was before the subject of contemplation, is gradually produced, and does itself actually exist in the mind.” On this page, Wordsworth discusses the mental process leading to composition. The poet contemplates an emotion such as love, gratitude, hope, loss, etc. (as on 659) in tranquility. Then, a new and kindred emotional state arises, at which point mental composition begins. Later, when the poem is committed to writing, readers may go through a similar process, one that takes them from tranquility to a state of deep, genuine emotion. But in keeping with Wordsworth’s meditative scheme, neither the poet nor the reader experiences only raw and chaotic passion. Instead, while composing the poet is in a “general state of pleasure,” and the goal is to provide the reader with an “overbalance of pleasure.” How to do that? Well, meter generates a degree of distance from unprocessed reality and raw feeling, and its regularity gives us a sense of “similarity in dissimilarity.” This sense, says Wordsworth on 661, is the spring of all mental activity. His view of meter may recall Aristotle’s comments about mimesis: we can enjoy a representation of things that would cause us emotional pain in real life. Again, poetic composition is a species of meditation: the poet may experience vivid emotions, but restraint, ordering, reflection, and selection are vital if the poem is to produce in readers an “overbalance of pleasure” instead of simply stirring up chaotic feelings.

In general terms, meditation requires a combination of freedom and discipline. A person must bracket out “noise” while focusing intently upon some specific place, thing, or event and calling to mind the thoughts and feelings associated with it from past experience. The aim is to deal constructively with these thoughts and emotions; it is to achieve moral clarity and enlightenment. In some species of meditation, aside from attaining clarity, working through problems, and so forth, there may occur a passage to or intuition of a state not conveyable in words: perhaps a kind of ekstasis or sublimity. There are elements of this latter kind of meditative experience in Wordsworth, moments when, as in “Tintern Abbey,” one may feel “a sense sublime of something far more deeply interfused, / whose dwelling is the light of setting suns.” That poem is what Meyer Abrams calls a “Greater Romantic Lyric,” and as such it follows a three-part structure that resembles the stages of Ignatius of Loyola’s meditative technique in his Spiritual Exercises. The first is “composition of place,” in which t he meditator or “exercitant” thinks about some personally or theologically significant location, with the goal of achieving the calm necessary to focus the mind on some spiritual problem that needs resolution. The second consists in the examination of the spiritual predicament that has been recalled to mind thanks to reflection on the place; and the third is what Abrams calls the “affective resolution,” which in Loyola and Wordsworth, in their respective ways, amounts to an affirmation of spiritual faith and hope for the future.

His ideas resemble St. Ignatius of Loyola’s theory of meditation in The Spiritual Exercises. ( ) We begin with the composition of place. The origin of poetry is emotion recollected in tranquility. We contemplate past emotions until a new emotion is produced and composition begins, says Wordsworth. Then, the reader will contemplate the poet’s new emotion in tranquility, and the cycle continues. So poetry involves meditative states and the ordering or reordering of emotions. Again, that is why meter is important: it alleviates pain and chaos in the contemplation of real emotions and events.

663. “I put my hat upon my head, / And walk’d into the Strand, / And there I met another man / Whose hat was in his hand.” Indeed! Snorts the inestimable Dr. Johnson at his own delightful parody of Thomas Percy’s “The Hermit of Warkworth.” But Wordsworth wants us to take note of the real problem here: it isn’t so much that we are dealing with a poem that’s bad because its language is too ordinary; it is that the parody isn’t a poem at all because, in spite of its being of regular meter, its subject matter is too trivial to deserve expression in verse. It leads nowhere—well, nowhere except the Strand, anyhow.

664. “I have one request to make of my Reader, which is, that in judging these Poems he would decide by his own feelings genuinely, and not by reflection upon what will probably be the judgment of others.” This is an appeal to avoid being co-opted into accepting the prevailing aesthetic tastes, be they aristocratic and effete or melodramatic and vulgar. It’s common nowadays to lament that criticism has become an industry that does little good for poetry and the arts, but the truth is that such arguments have been leveled against criticism in some form or another since ancient times. And certainly in the English context, Alexander Pope was already well attuned to the problem of ignorant, arrogant, bloviating critics who nonetheless threatened to rob the public of any chance at achieving good taste, while Sir Philip Sidney and Dr. Johnson justly excoriate the absurd “illusionist” premises of some neoclassical critics.

666. “[T]he first Poets . . . spake a language which, though unusual, was still the language of men…. [T]heir successors . . . became proud of a language which they themselves had invented, and which was uttered only by themselves; and, with the spirit of a fraternity, they arrogated it to themselves as their own.” Wordsworth goes on to suggest that such clannishness is then extended to the gullible readership, which is thereby flattered into believing it has been offered membership in an exclusive club, a religion of poetic puffery. He condemns this sort of “personality cult” tendency as prideful and disunifying, as opposed to the kind of poetry he advocates. The concern that language will assert its autonomy from the world of men and things is an ancient one, of course, and it runs all the way forwards to the British empirical philosophers Wordsworth himself must have studied. Sir Francis Bacon, in particular, writes cogently in his scientific treatises about the way language sets “Idols” of various kinds in our path whenever we try to understand the workings of nature.

Notes on Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Page-by-Page Notes on Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Statesman’s Manual (668-74).

673. Allegory turns upon keeping two points of comparison distinct; it wields abstractions, and is no more than extended metaphor. An example from chivalric romance: the poet may allegorize a demonstration of virtue as “a knight slaying dragons.” This satisfies mechanical understanding, which in our mental capacity is most closely tied to sensory data. Even metaphor, considered as a mere literary device, is mechanical. By contrast, Coleridge says, symbolic language participates in the reality it renders; it is not something separate from reality. A symbol allows us to discover universal meaning in a particular representation. In fact, “representation” is not strictly the right word—symbolic language doesn’t merely represent something universal or spiritual; it is part of the universal to which it refers. Coleridge’s key example is Jesus’ remark that “the light of the body is the eye.” The eye here is both material and spiritual at the same time.

674. The phrase “I am”—implies that our self-positing is a divine mystery. It seems that Coleridge is adapting the philosophical notions of Immanuel Kant and Friedrich Schelling to his present critical needs. The mind plays an active role in construing what we term reality, and this ability is a divine gift. Symbolic language, as Coleridge describes it, honors that gift. Language works like nature; it creates organic, living unities. As John Milton says in “Areopagitica,” a book is “a living thing.”

Page-by-Page Notes on Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria (674-82).

675. Regarding the precision required of poets, we can see that Coleridge’s schoolmaster the Reverend James Bowyer is the patron saint of formalism. Coleridge does not care about the author’s cleverness but rather about the unity of the poem itself. He’s against the C18 emphasis on “wittiness” because such wittiness demands the kind of language that calls attention to itself as ornamentation. Evidently, Coleridge believes symbolic utterances participate in reality without defacing or otherwise leading us away from reality.

676-77. The primary imagination is the miracle of consciousness itself—human consciousness involves self-consciousness: “I see a tree.” If I posit a tree, first I must posit the “I” that sees the tree. Coleridge says that this act is a finite repetition of God’s pure and continual act of self-consciousness. (As God says to Moses, “I am who am.”) As subjects, we are aware of ourselves confronting an object. The tree is an object of our experience; being human involves synthesis of subject and object.** We constitute raw data into intelligible forms, making them correspond to our mental categories. In this basic sense, imagination is the creative, synthesizing power that operates in all perception. We continually create the intelligibility we discover. Fancy is more limited to sensory data. Fancy is dead; it is too dependent upon the laws of association, as set forth by David Hartley, Thomas Hobbes, and John Locke. We—that is, our will and imagination—are not the concentrated effect of nerve impulses, fluids, synapse-firing, imprints on gray matter, and so forth. To overemphasize memory and fancy is to deemphasize free agency until human beings are determined by external forces (or by internal forces that might as well be external since they are characterized as mechanical.)

**Postmodern theorists might say that we are thereby always doing something to something else, incorporating it by means of language and self-consciousness. Still, if such incorporation is inevitable, it comes down to “table manners”—perhaps how we incorporate something makes all the difference.

676. “Secondary imagination” is apparently Coleridge’s term for the poetic imagination. It is a purposive, directed “echo” of the primary imagination. The poet is used by and uses imagination to create symbolic meaning systems. Poetic imagination “dissolves, diffuses, and dissipates in order to re-create.” Wordsworth’s “Lucy Gray” and “Solitary Reaper” exemplify symbolic treatment of a given character. A symbol is not just one word or a mere device—it is a mode of language in its own right. Wordsworth’s secondary imagination breaks up, conjoins, and reconciles disparate categories of perception, feeling, and experience—the “Lucy Gray” lines, “a violet by a mossy stone / half hidden from the eye / fair as a star when only one / is shining in the sky do exactly that with respect to our ideas about Lucy, violets, and stars. We wouldn’t ordinarily put them into a meaningful relationship, but Wordsworth does so without hesitation.

In the above poem, the poet has made free choices; as Coleridge would say, the secondary imagination coexists with the conscious will. This does not necessarily mean that the source of poetry is consciousness, but rather that this power operates alongside of the conscious will. The esemplastic power (the imagination) generates complex unities but does not simply cancel distinctions—good symbolic language depends upon dynamic tension between a word and its contextual neighbors. What goes on in the poet’s imagination explains such poems as “Lucy Gray”—the poet brings together and synthesizes ideas, emotions, and sensory perceptions, and integrates them into an organic whole. Lucy is a star, a violet, and just Lucy all at once, and not simply in a mechanical way. The poet’s imaginative act generates this Lucy-star-violet, and we, as well, can understand and feel what Coleridge would call “multeity in unity.”

Further comments—in speaking of the primary imagination, Coleridge says it posits pure being. As repetition and re-seeking, it is linked with the basic human capacity to perceive and bring order to an otherwise chaotic world of sense data. Rhetorically, Coleridge is elevating our sense of humanity’s status perhaps to an even higher level than that posited of the Renaissance “man the microcosm,” since in Coleridge’s partly Schelling-based view, the mind is fundamentally creative. Coleridge cultivates a sense of mysterious communion drawn from the Bible, the Scholastic notion of community, and German Idealism. God says that he simply is. Being is mysterious, and so is our power of perception: the harmony between our minds and the world is mysterious. If secondary imagination is poetic imagination, it answers a need—it responds to the threat posed by quotidian habit and stale perception (cf. Nietzsche “On Truth and Lying in an Ultramoral Sense” on this matter), and it gives us a chance to “make it new” perpetually. The imagination makes possible a permanent revolution in consciousness. Mystery and belief in the supernatural are a meeting ground between Wordsworth and Coleridge, although they start from a different place to get there.

677. Notice the phrases “lethargy of custom” and “film of familiarity.” The secondary imagination helps to counter the threat posed by daily habit, which leads to stale perceptions and thoughts. We turn everything into an abstraction, a category, “other people’s convictions,” perceptions, and feelings. Coleridge makes one of the first in a long line of arguments against “mass culture” as something dehumanizing. Poetry is revolutionary with regard to perception—it shakes up the mind. It reorganizes minds so that they perceive and think themselves and the world differently, and to some extent more democratically and ecumenically. We may even, as Wordsworth promises, “see into the life of things.”

680. What is a poem? It is “that species of composition, which is opposed to works of science, by proposing for its immediate object pleasure, not truth; and from all other species . . . it is discriminated by proposing to itself such delight from the whole, as is compatible with a distinct gratification from each component part.” So a poem is a living, complex entity. If you cut a branch from the tree, the tree isn’t whole anymore, and the branch has lost its purpose.

681. The poet is the person who can, by creative imagination, produce the poetry alluded to above. A poet is a unified person who “brings the whole soul of man into activity.” Imagination of this sort demonstrates the potential for the harmonious operation of our faculties: sensory perception, feeling, reason or intellect, willpower, will not be at odds when we are engaged with a poem; all will be exercised in a productive way. Imagination may be what Coleridge calls in the Biographia Literaria the esemplastic power or the power that “makes things into one,” but that same power doesn’t cancel differences to arrive at some indeterminate lump of oneness. Instead, it “Reveals itself in the balance or reconciliation of opposite or discordant qualities.” Our “Lucy Gray” example in the Wordsworth section is a fine illustration of imagination at work in creating symbolic language: Lucy, the star, and the violet don’t lose their identity but instead gain something by being related to one another so vitally. Coleridge’s “Dejection: an Ode” offers a negative illustration in which the poet’s imagination isn’t harmonizing the natural world with his own subjective experience and emotional state. He remains isolated, and can create no order because his “genial spirits fail” and he can only “see, not feel,” how beautiful nature’s eternal forms are. Also on 681, symbolic language is said to remain true to the creative and imaginative process; it registers the “life” in which alone “nature lives.” It does not render the world as externality, and does not imitate it or distort it, but brings home to us the power of the primary and secondary imagination.

Final Comment. Coleridge disagrees with Wordsworth on the idea that we must get back to nature. He does not agree with the idea that rustic life is purer than city life. Only a philosopher (or at least an educated person) could benefit from close contact with nature. Nature, like trade, narrows the mind, and we quickly become impervious to its charms. Moreover, while Wordsworth relies a great deal on habit and meditation, Coleridge’s concept of imagination seems more dynamic and active, and his idealism is more thoroughgoing than that of Wordsworth’s “wise passiveness,” which implies a high degree of openness to the power of external things and the sensations they provide. (Walter Pater’s essays on these two men in Appreciations make this distinction aptly.) Coleridge opposes the materialist concept of experience, and he applies his point of disagreement with Wordsworth very broadly—only cultivation makes us capable of experiencing nature and truly appreciating the difference between consciousness and self-consciousness.

It is true that both poets offer a touch of the meditative and the mystical, but Coleridge privileges the philosophy of self-consciousness over Wordsworth’s rustic “wise passiveness.” As for poetic diction, rustic language is tied too closely to narrow, particular things. Philosophical language is superior because it flows from “reflections on the acts of the mind itself.” (See the Everyman edition of Biographia Literaria 197.) As for the effect of this kind of philosophical poetry, the audience would perhaps imbibe some of the benefits of reflection from their superiors and religious instructors.

Edition: Leitch, Vincent B., ed. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. New York : Norton, 2001. ISBN: 0393974294.

Notes on Selected Letters by John Keats, from the Norton Anthology of English Lit., Vol. E, 8th. edition. (Not all of these are assigned.)

“To Benjamin Bailey. The Authenticity of the Imagination, Nov. 22, 1817.”
“What the imagination seizes as Beauty must be truth—whether it existed before or not.” Here is perhaps the meaning of that famous line in “Ode on a Grecian Urn” about the oneness of beauty and truth. Keats is suggesting that we live by what our imagination produces, first and foremost, just as surely as Adam “awoke and found [his dream] truth.” In this sense, I suppose, imagination might even be prelapsarian, something not subject to the Christian doctrine of the Fall.

“O for a Life of Sensations rather than of Thoughts!” This statement marks Keats’ way of being a romantic poet as different from the ways of Wordsworth, Coleridge, or Shelley. It isn’t even so much what he says here as what most of us will take as the tone or attitude of his statement, especially when combined with the vision of an earth-like paradise that follows the remark: “we shall enjoy ourselves here after by having what we called happiness on Earth repeated in a finer tone and so repeated.” There doesn’t seem to be a tone of wistfulness here, but rather a palpable excitement—maybe it is possible to come close to this ideal life of sensuous and sensual delight, the feeling seems to run.

For someone we think of as a tragic youth, Keats shows a remarkably sunny, even dispassionate quality in the second half of this letter: “I scarcely remember counting upon any Happiness—I look not for it if it be not in the present hour—nothing startles me beyond the Moment. The setting sun will always set me to rights—or if a Sparrow come before my Window I take part in its existence and pick about the Gravel.” And further, “I sometimes feel not the influence of a Passion or Affection during a whole week.” So much for Wordsworth’s ideas about the key role of the deepest passions in life. Keats is as happy as a lizard skipping around on a warm day, or a bird hunting for treats. What other Romantics consistently agonize over—their desire to escape from the curse of human self-consciousness—Keats suggests he is able to rid himself of, at least to a satisfying extent and for short periods. It seems to me that his attitude shows an understanding of nature’s power to draw us out of ourselves, and a healthy disregard for our need to come back to ourselves in some exalted or improved fashion. Nature, he says, simply “set[s] me to rights.”

“To John Hamilton Reynolds. Wordsworth’s Poetry, Feb. 3, 1818.”

“We hate poetry that has a palpable design upon us—and if we do not agree, seems to put its hand in its breeches pocket. Poetry should be great & obtrusive, a thing which enters into one’s soul, and does not startle it or amaze it with itself but with its subject.” Keats simply doesn’t care for poetry that is mostly self-expression, especially if it calls attention to itself as such: Byronism, the Wordsworth of The Prelude (had Keats or the public known of this epic since it wasn’t published until 1850, after the author died), etc. This is rather an extreme statement since a fair amount of poetry is moral or has some design on us, yet pleases many: Milton’s Paradise Lost, for instance, is both deeply imaginative and yet determined to convey the author’s religious convictions. And John Bunyan is didactic, but no slouch as a writer of fiction. Understood generously, however, Keats’ remark makes good sense: we come to art expecting to be set free, liberated from harsh necessity or stultifying doctrine, not preached at.

“To John Taylor. Keats’s Axioms in Poetry, Feb. 27, 1818.”

I like Keats’ axiom that poetry should “strike the Reader as a wording of his own highest thoughts, and appear almost a Remembrance.” This suggests that poetry is all about our highest aspirations—it speaks to desire, but not in a condescending way. The author and reader are very close together, in this view, and the latter has a creative role to play in the after-making of the poem. Then, too, there’s a sense on this page that poetry is not so much good for inculcating feelings of sublimity or maddening suggestiveness or mystery as of spreading sunshine into our very being: “Its touches of Beauty should never be half way thereby making the reader breathless instead of content.” That’s a fine thought. No need to make it an all-encompassing model, but an excellent idea all the same.

“If Poetry comes not as naturally as the Leaves to a tree it had better not come at all.” It’s easy to interpret this as a silly pronouncement reducing to, “never revise.” But that’s perhaps not what Keats means. He may mean the remark in something like a Coleridgean sense: a poem is like a living being; it grows organically from successive and interrelated acts of imagination. In other words, one shouldn’t write poetry “by the rules” any more than one should paint by numbers and expect to be considered a great artist.

“To John Hamilton Reynolds. Milton, Wordsworth, and the Chambers of Human Life, May 3, 1818.”

Keats says he is able to describe only two chambers in life’s “Mansion of Many Apartments.” The first is the “infant or thoughtless Chamber,” and the second is the “Chamber of Maiden-Thought.” The latter is initially delightful, all light and atmosphere, but in this Chamber we also learn much about the “heart and nature of Man,” which causes us to become fixated on the world’s high quotient of “Misery and Heartbreak, Pain, Sickness, and oppression.” On the whole, at this stage we cannot see our way clearly; there seems to be no way out of our dark confusion, and we are caught up in the unhappy rhythms and dilemmas and burdens of life. Keats recalls Wordsworth’s line about “the burthen of the mystery” from “Tintern Abbey.” On the whole, Keats uses the distinctions he has made to praise Wordsworth, but only because that later poet’s depth is given him by the times in which he lives. Milton was a man of his era, and so is Wordsworth.

“To Richard Woodhouse. A Poet Has No Identity, Oct. 27, 1818.”

“As to the poetical Character itself . . . it is not itself—it has no self—it is every thing and nothing—It has no character—it enjoys light and shade; it lives in gusto, be it foul or fair, high or low, rich or poor, mean or elevated. It has as much delight in conceiving an Iago as an Imogen. What shocks the virtuous philosopher, delights the camelion poet.” Evidently, Keats would more or less agree with Oscar Wilde that “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book.” Art isn’t a species of moral discourse; art is simply art, something that is bound to “end in speculation” rather than action. And again, art isn’t primarily self-expression for Keats; it isn’t about shoring up our morals or our sense of self. It is about exploring our relation to objects, to the world beyond our solitary selves.

“To George and Georgiana Keats. The Vale of Soul-Making, Feb. 14 – May 3, 1819.”

Keats opposes moral abstractions of any sort: he construes life not as a “vale of tears” as in traditional Christian thought, but instead as a “Vale of Soul-Making,” where the main thing is to learn about the human “heart.” This line of thinking is in part a call for an almost pagan “openness to experience”: he writes that “Though a quarrel in the streets is a thing to be hated, the energies displayed in it are fine.” We may be reminded of Imlac’s remark in Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas, “To a poet nothing can be useless.”

“To Percy Bysshe Shelley. Load Every Rift with Ore, Aug. 16, 1820.”

Keats seems to be saying to Shelley regarding his play The Cenci, “more rich matter, more drama, and less morality, please.” Keats says an artist must, in a sense, serve not God (purpose) but Mammon – the particular needs of the work of art at hand. The Cenci is a play with an exciting Renaissance subject, so it should honor those qualities.

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