Why There are so Many Meanings (II)
Why There are so Many Meanings (II)
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter continues the discussion on the reasons for the diversity of interpretations for any complex literary piece. It tackles the other half of the reader–work transaction—the actual body of work—with particular focus on its authorship. The author’s actual intent is usually ambiguous and practically unrecoverable, which is exemplified in John Keats’s comments on his practice of “intentionless spontaneity” in his compositions. Nevertheless, to exclude the author in determining the meaning of his work would render the interpretation incomplete. Also, the author’s hand in the creation of the work is “visible” in the many little cues that exist throughout the text of any manuscript. Thus, the “reader-response-based theory of multiple interpretation” proposed in the previous chapter is further enriched with the inclusion of the author and the text as major elements. The remaining section discusses Keats and the various indicators of meaning embedded in the poem’s text.
IBEGAN THIS STUDY BY ARGUING (in the first two sections of chapter 1) that authorial intention is for all practical purposes unrecoverable, that texts have no meaning in themselves, and that therefore the readership end of the transaction—representing each individual reader and, at the same time, all the readers collectively—becomes the only possible locus of meaning. This sequence of thinking is partly theoretical, but for Keats is empirically demonstrable as well, and is supported by the poet’s statements about intentionless spontaneity in composition, “Negative Capability” and other qualities of the ideally selfless author, and the picking-and-choosing process of ordinary reading, as well as by Keats’s own relative egolessness in both his life and his poetry (see the third section of chapter 4).
I would not, however, carry this still-fashionable “death-of-the-author” tendency so far as to propose that Keats did not write The Eve of St. Agnes and the other poems attributed to him. On the contrary, I wish in this chapter to complete a circle by suggesting that the materials from which each reader’s interpretive constructions take shape are, to some large degree, already in the text waiting for the reader to come along and, further, that it is the author of the text who put them there. It may seem regressive to return to the text and the author after making so much of the reader in the preceding four chapters, but I think it is entirely possible to have a reader-response-based theory of multiple interpretation that includes the text and the author as significant elements.
Let me refer back to my use (at the beginning of the second section of chapter 4) of the opening stanza of The Eve of St. Agnes to illustrate the text’s excess of potential meaning. There are so many stimuli of idea and image in the stanza—I listed thirty-seven for a start, most of them readable in several different ways—that the reader cannot; possibly absorb and respond to all of them and (p.98) therefore has to construct the meaning of the stanza (or of the individual lines or words) from a selection of details. I am interested now in emphasizing that it was Keats who wrote these lines, imagining and setting down all those details at the beginning of the poem, as well as the several thousand others in the rest of the stanzas that follow. Keats need not have intended any of the particular meanings that we construct on the basis of his text. But he did create the text, and we would have no meanings at all without his authorship.
The Idea of Incongruity
My principal argument concerning Keatsian authorial complexity involves a notion of comic misfittingness, and I shall begin with three epitomizing examples in the form of a joke, a poem about Byron, Shelley, and Keats as the Three Stooges, and a typically zany passage from one of Keats’s letters.
Here is the joke:
Two fishermen are out in the middle of a reservoir in a rented boat, catching fish hand over fist, pulling them in as fast as they can get their lines back in the water.
“This is a great place to fish. Don’t you think we should mark the exact spot?”
“Sure, I’ll put an X right here on the side of the boat.” (Marks an X on the side of the boat.)
“That’s a stupid thing to do, that’s dumb. [Pause.] What if we don’t get the same boat?”
This will sound like something from a stand-up comedian on television. In fact I have appropriated it from a piece by my colleague Mike Madonick that appeared a few years ago in Cimarron Review. In Madonick’s telling, the fishermen are literary theorists named Jacques and Harold. As their dialogue continues, the two decide that the fish they have caught are not real fish at all, merely linguistic constructs.
I use the joke to introduce the basic idea of incongruity. Everything funny has a central element of incongruity: something does not fit with something else. In Madonick’s joke, the first incongruity is the idea of marking the spot with an X on the side of the boat. There is a second incongruity when the other fisherman thinks putting an X on the boat is stupid for the wrong reason: they might not get the same boat next time. When we add the implied identities of the fishermen—two of the most famous literary theorists of our time—the result is a still more complicated set of incongruities. Why would these two be out fishing together? Why would they say such dumb things?
The poem about Byron, Shelley, and Keats as the Three Stooges is by Charles Webb, who teaches writing at California State University at Long Beach. This was the final poem read at the concluding session of a Keats conference held at the Clark Library in Los Angeles in April 1995. It begins as follows:1
- (p.99) Decide to temper Romantic Sturm und Drang with comedy.
- Keats shaves his head;
- Shelley frizzes out his hair;
- Byron submits to a bowl-cut.
- My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains
- My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,
- Keats sighs, his head stuck in a cannon.
- Eternal Spirit of the chainless Mind!
- Brightest in dungeons, Liberty!
- Byron shouts, and lights the fuse.
- O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn’s being,
- Thou, from whose unseen presence the leaves dead
- Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing,
- Shelley booms, and drops a cannonball on Byron’s toe.
The poem continues with further slapstick intermingled with famous lines from the three poets, until—Webb says—
- Until they die, too young, careening
- Into immortality covered with flour, squealing,
- Drainpipes on their heads—which explains why
- For many years, the greatest poems
- In English have all ended Nyuk, nyuk, nyuk,
- And why, reading She walks in beauty like the night; We are as clouds that veil the midnight moon;
- Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
- You may feel ghostly pliers tweak your nose,
- And ghostly fingers poke the tear ducts in your eyes.
When Webb showed this poem to Beth Lau, his colleague at Long Beach, she referred him to a similarly ludicrous passage about “T wang dillo dee” from the last of Keats’s journal letters to his brother and sister-in-law in America. Here is the passage, written on 17 January 1820. Keats is describing his social life and the people he has seen lately:
I know three people of no wit at all, each distinct in his excellence. A, B, and C. A is the soolishest, B the sulkiest, C is a negative—A makes you yawn, B makes you hate, as for C you never see him though he is six feet high. I bear the first, I forbear the second, I am not certain that the third is. The first is gruel, the Second Ditch water, the third is spilt—he ought to be wip’d up.…T wang dillo dee. This you must know is the Amen to nonsense. I know many places where Amen should be scratched out…and in its place “T wang-dillo-dee,” written. This is the word I shall henceforth (p.100) be tempted to write at the end of most modern Poems—Every American Book ought to have it. It would be a good distinction in Saciety. My Lords Wellington, Castlereagh and Canning and many more would do well to wear T wang-dillo-dee written on their Backs instead of wearing ribbands in their Button holes—How many people would go sideways along walls and quickset hedges to keep their T wang dillo dee out of sight, or wear large pigtails to hide it.…Thieves and Murderers would gain rank in the world—for would any one of them have the poorness of Spirit to condescend to be a T wang dillo dee—”I have robb’d in many a dwelling house, I have kill’d many a fowl many a goose and many a Man,” (would such a gentleman say) but thank heaven I was never yet a T wang dillo dee”—Some philosophers in the Moon who spy at our Globe as we do at theirs say that T wang dillo dee is written in large Letters on our Globe of Earth—They say the beginning of the T is just on the spot where London stands. London being built within the Flourish—wan reach[es] downward and slant[s] as far a[s] Tumbutoo in africa, the tail of the G. goes slap across the Atlantic into the Rio della Plata—the remainder of the Letters wrap round new holland and the last e terminates on land we have not yet discoverd. However I must be silent, these are dangerous times to libel a man in, much more a world. (Letters 2:245–47)
At the conference in Los Angeles, Webb read this passage from Keats’s letter first, then recited his poem about the Three Stooges, adding “T wang dillo dee” at the end:
- You may feel ghostly pliers tweak your nose,
- And ghostly fingers poke the tear ducts in your eyes.
- T wang dillo dee.
Thus, the celebration of Keats in Los Angeles concluded with a tweaking of the nose, tears in the eyes, and “T wang dillo dee.” Everyone was delighted.
I wish to focus for a moment on why everyone was delighted. Why do such fundamental incongruities as the young Romantics as the Three Stooges and Keats’s ridiculous excursus on “T wang dillo dee” give people so much pleasure? At the same Los Angeles conference the day before, I had delivered a paper on multiple interpretations of The Eve of St. Agnes (the origin of parts of chapters 3 and 4 in this book). When I heard Webb’s poem in connection with the passage from Keats’s letter, I thought I understood better than I had before why there are so many different and contradictory meanings in Keats’s poems and why these differences and contradictions are received as attractive rather than disturbing or displeasing. Just as with the joke about the fishermen, the poem about the Three Stooges, and “T wang dillo dee,” we seem to enjoy situations in which things do not fit together.
I wish to relate this comic misfittingness to some of the incongruities in Keats’s best-liked poems. There are many general names for the phenomenon: difference, division, disjunction, disharmony, contrariness, and so on. Whatever name we give (p.101) it, it is the extreme opposite of the concept of unity formerly so central in our critical activity. And it is initially the authorship rather than the reception that is thus disuniñed. In The Eve of St. Agnes, in effect, the authorship side of the transaction—successively, as described in the next section, the multiple authorship of Keats and his collaborators, a conglomerate of multiple Keatses (plural), and finally, and most important, the complex character of “multiple Keats” (singular)—creates incongruities that the readership side, by the ordinary processes of selection and unification, then partially puts together in whatever various ways it can. These “various ways,” amounting to a different one for each individual reader, are the multiple readings of chapters 3 and 4; the materials on which they are based are the products of the complex authorship described in this chapter.
Now that we know the principal facts of composition and publication, the most readily understandable source of internal opposition creatively implanted in the text of The Eve of St. Agnes may be the conflict between Keats and his helpers, his friend Richard Woodhouse and his publishers (who were also his friends, of course) John Taylor and J. A. Hessey. All had the same long-range goal—to help get Keats permanently established “among the English Poets”—but they did not agree on the best practical means of attaining that goal. What can be recovered of the details of their collaboration has already been set forth in chapter 2. In essence, Keats in his revised manuscript text added elements of realism, irony, and skepticism, especially in the more explicitly physical account of Porphyro and Madeline’s lovemaking in lines 314–22 and the earlier details that wryly prefigure this in the stanza inserted at 54/55. Then Woodhouse and the publishers rejected some but not all of the revisions, producing for the first printed text a composite of original and revised versions and, to an extent, a conflict of original and revised intentions.
To progress to the next source of opposition and focus more exclusively on the nominal author of the poem, we have to consider Keats’s chameleonlike changeability as a “poetical Character.” Everybody is familiar with the poet’s variety and versatility and therefore with the idea of multiple Keatses. Several Keatses were on view in 1995 at the Houghton Library, the Grolier Club in New York, the Dove Cottage Museum in Grasmere, and elsewhere: the Keats of the poetry drafts, produced, as he told Woodhouse, as if by magic; the Keats of the boldly inscribed fair copies; the Keats first known to the public in the magazines and the three original volumes; posthumous Keats, in his character as creator of the one hundred poems first published after his death; the personal Keats seen in the privacy of his surviving letters; Keats as beloved friend at the center of what we now call the Keats Circle: the Keats of the various portraits; and Keats the artistic collaborator, providing materials for subsequent nineteenth- and twentieth-century book designers, printers, and binders who created so many beautiful printings of his poems.2
(p.102) These are just the most obvious types represented by the manuscripts, books, and memorabilia in the bicentennial exhibitions. We can add many more Keatses both from traditional criticism and scholarship over the years and from poststructuralist theory more recently: Aesthetic Keats, the champion of art for art’s sake; Sensuous Keats, the burster of Joy’s grape, with or without cayenne pepper on his tongue, and the creator of some of the most palpable imagery in all of English poetry; Philosophic Keats, the describer of the vale of soul-making, for example, and life as a mansion of many apartments; Theoretical Keats, the formulator of negative capability and chameleon poetry; Topographical Keats, the well-traveled tourist who wrote a sonnet while dangling his legs from a precipice at the top of Ben Nevis; Theatrical Keats, the theatre reviewer and unproduced playwright; Intertextual Keats, including Spenserian Keats, Leigh Huntian Keats, Shakespearean Keats, Miltonic Keats, and Dantesque Keats (this is a sublisting that could be extended almost indefinitely). There are also Political Keats, especially in his early poems and letters, but through the rest of his career as well; Radical Keats, which is a sharper focusing of Political Keats: Vulgar Keats, the only canonical male Romantic poet besides Blake who did not attend a university and the one with the lowliest upbringing; Cockney Keats, a more specific tag deriving from this same lowly upbringing, plus the Cockney School articles in Blackwood’s and, 180 years later, Nicholas Roe’s latest investigations (see especially Roe’s John Keats and the Culture of Dissent); Suburban Keats, a variant of the preceding produced by the research of Elizabeth Jones (“The Suburban School,” “Keats in the Suburbs”); Effeminate Keats, first in the contemporary reviews of his own time and now in the criticism of Susan Wolfson, Marjorie Levinson, and others;3 Masculine (even macho) Keats; Consumptive Keats, the one who dies so movingly and heroically every time we read a biography or make our way to the end of the letters.
The list could go on and on. But these multiple Keatses remain a random sampling of single Keatses—now one, now another, according to the approach, the method, the occasion, and the texts at hand. Here I am interested in something still more complicated.
“Multiple Keats” (singular) in the heading of this section stands for an internal complexity in our poet constituted primarily by self-division—a sort of unresolved imaginative dividedness between the serious and the humorous, the straight and the ironic, the fanciful and the real, the high-flying and the down-to-earth, the sentimental and the satiric, the puffed up and the deflated. It manifests itself in many places, both in biographical anecdote and in Keats’s writings—and in the poetry, both in the frivolous pieces tossed off for immediate amusement and in the most serious efforts that Keats hoped would earn him a place among the English poets. One way of representing this self-division is by referring to various kinds of comedy: the antic, the zany, the farcical, the ridiculous—for example, the illustrations of comic incongruity with which I began this chapter.
Somebody in the North American Society for the Study of Romanticism (NASSR) user group recently raised the question of whether Keats had a sense of humor, and responses poured in to such an extent that one got the idea there were hardly any letters and poems in which Keats was not in some way being (p.103) funny. Think of the hundreds of passages in the letters involving puns, practical jokes, self-mockery, and comic description. Everyone has his or her favorite examples. One of mine occurs in the last of the letters that Keats wrote during his walking tour in the summer of 1818 to Georgiana Keats’s mother, Mrs. James Wylie, on the 6th of August (Letters 1:358–59):
Tom tells me that you called on Mr Haslam with a Newspaper giving an account of a Gentleman in a Fur cap, falling over a precipice in Kirkudbrightshire…. I do not remember [any fur cap] beside my own, except at Carlisle—this was a very good Fur cap, I met in the High Street, & I daresay was the unfortunate one.
At this point, Keats invokes a bit of classical mythology to explain the newspaper account he has invented. The Three Fates, seeing two fur caps in the North, threw dice to eliminate one of them, and so the other fur cap, the one at Carlisle, went over the precipice and was drowned. But then Keats imagines that it would not have been so bad if he himself had been the loser, provided he had been only half drowned:
Stop! let me see!—being half drowned by falling from a precipice is a very romantic affair…. How glorious to be introduced in a drawing room to a Lady who reads Novels, with—”Mr so & so—Miss so & so—Miss so & so. this is Mr so & so. who fell off a precipice, & was half drowned[.”] Now I refer it to you whether I should loose so fine an opportunity of making my fortune—No romance lady could resist me—None—Being run under a Waggon; side lamed at a playhouse; Apoplectic, through Brandy; & a thousand other tolerably decent things for badness would be nothing; but being tumbled over a precipice into the sea—Oh it would make my fortune—especially if you could continue to hint…that I was not upset on my own account, but that I dashed into the waves after Jessy of Dumblane—& pulled her out by the hair….
Just six weeks before Keats wrote this, Georgiana had left London to settle in America with her new husband, Keats’s brother George. Emigration in those days was a serious disruption of family relationships; in most cases, the family members who stayed behind never again saw the ones who departed. Keats in this letter offers condolences to Georgiana’s mother as if her daughter had died: “I should like to have remained near you, were it but for an atom of consolation, after parting with so dear a daughter…. I wish above all things, to say a word of Comfort to you, but I know not how. It is impossible to prove that black is white, It is impossible to make out, that sorrow is joy or joy is sorrow.” It is at this point in the letter that, without any transition whatsoever, Keats launches into his account of the gentleman in the fur cap falling over a precipice in Kirkcudbrightshire.
This kind of oscillation, between seriousness and hilarity, pervades the letters and is indeed one of their chief attractions to readers. Even in his last known letter, written from Rome two and a half months before he died, when he was (p.104) already leading what he called a “posthumous existence,” Keats mentions punning: “I ride the little horse,—and, at my worst, even in Quarantine, summoned up more puns, in a sort of desperation, in one week than in any year of my life.” He ends this letter with a poignantly comic gesture: “I can scarcely bid you good bye even in a letter. I always made an awkward bow” (2:359–60).
Many poems and passages are openly funny: the early lines about Keats’s trinity of women, wine, and snuff; the sonnet celebrating the grand climacteric of Mrs. Reynolds’s cat; the whimsical self-description beginning “There was a naughty boy”: the lines about the cursed gadfly; the lines about the cursed bagpipe; the silly dialogue between Mrs. Cameron and Ben Nevis; the Spenserian stanzas making fun of his friend Charles Brown; the extended self-parody in The Jealousies. The comedy in these pieces regularly depends on incongruous juxtaposition, as in the overthrow of expectation with a punch line. It is characteristically Keatsian to put together things that do not, themselves, go together.4
Keats wrote about this juxtaposing of contraries in the well-known lines that begin “Welcome joy, and welcome sorrow” and are sometimes printed under the heading “A Song of Opposites”:
- Welcome joy, and welcome sorrow,
- Lethe’s weed, and Hermes’ feather,
- Come to-day, and come to-morrow,
- I do love you both together!
- I love to mark sad faces in fair weather,
- And hear a merry laugh amid the thunder;
- Fair and foul I love together….
Keats often juxtaposes the comic and the serious in poems that are not primarily funny. The opening of the fragmentary Calidore—”Young Calidore is paddling o’er the lake”—could be an early (as Keats would say) smokable example, if we remember that the poet almost always took an ironic view of chivalric trappings. At the time of the early poetry-writing contests, it is easy to imagine Keats challenged to write a length of rhymed couplets following from the opening, “Young Calidore is paddling o’er the lake.” In fact, he wrote 162 lines before coming, still plotless, to a halt.
Take the phrase “0 bliss! / A naked waist” toward the end of the second book of Endymion, sometimes cited to illustrate Keats’s bad taste or judgment. Endymion has been wandering from cave to cave underground until he arrives at a bower and finds
- The smoothest mossy bed and deepest, where
- He threw himself, and just into the air
- Stretching his indolent arms, he took, 0 bliss!
- A naked waist: “Fair Cupid, whence is this?” [Endymion asks]
- A well-known voice sigh’d, “Sweetest, here am I!”
- At which soft ravishment, with doating cry
- They trembled to each other. (2. 710–16)
(p.105) That “Sweetest, here am I!” is pure Chaucer, like something lifted from Troilus and Criseyde.5 Keats is recounting a passionate episode in the poem, with detailed physical description; but even though the narrator gets extremely worked up over the proceedings—he has to stop to invoke Helicon and the Muses—there is no question about the intentionally comic mixture of irony and literary allusion in “0 bliss! / A naked waist.…‘Sweetest, here am I!’”
Another comic example from the same poem comes in the middle of book 4, when Endymion is in bed with his newly beloved Indian maiden and his heavenly love Phoebe rises and glares down on the couple:
- O state perplexing! On the pinion bed,
- Too well awake, he feels the panting side
- Of his delicious lady. He who died
- For soaring too audacious in the sun,
- When that same treacherous wax began to run,
- Felt not more tongue-tied than Endymion….
- Ah, what perplexity!…(4. 439–47)
There are the grotesque images of the dream or nightmare at the beginning of the verse epistle to John Hamilton Reynolds:
- Things all disjointed come from north and south,
- Two witch’s eyes above a cherub’s mouth,
- Voltaire with casque and shield and habergeon,
- And Alexander with his night-cap on—
- Old Socrates a tying his cravat;
- And Hazlitt playing with Miss Edgeworth’s cat….
This ridiculous set of allusions leads into one of Keats’s most serious considerations of the dangers of overinvesting in visionary imagination. In The Eve of St. Mark, another serious poem exploring the pros and cons of imaginative investment, similarly grotesque images adorn both the ancient volume that Bertha reads and the fire screen across the room. The earlier description ends anticlimactically with angels and mice; the latter passage has, among its “many monsters,” not only mice again but several kinds of bird and, at the end of the list, the traditional enemy of both mice and birds, a fat cat.6
Shorter passages of incongruous images and wording, probably there for the value of the incongruity, include Porphyro’s Pink Panther-like tiptoeing across Madeline’s bedroom to check whether she is asleep and the redness of Hermes’s blushing ears when, in the first paragraph of Lamia, he thinks of the beautiful nymph he is pursuing. An early writer on the humor in Lamia remarks, “There are many other parts of the body which can be described as turning red when the tone is serious—the cheeks, the forehead, the throat, all these can burn with dignity. But not the ears. Red ears are funny” (Dunbar 19). In The Fall of Hyperion, Keats depicts himself and the goddess Moneta, standing side by side, as “a stunt bramble by a solemn pine” (1. 293).
(p.106) It does not require a major critical leap to go from local incongruities to more serious mismatches central to our experience of the most important poems. Chapters 3 and 4 have highlighted some of the more obvious ones pervading The Eve of St. Agnes: Porphyro is the hero of the poem, an ardent lover, a Prince Charming to the rescue, Madeline’s future husband, and at the same time is associated with images of sorcery, voyeurism, cruel seduction, and rape; Madeline is the beautiful heroine, the belle of the ball, Sleeping Beauty, a pious Christian, Porphyro’s bride, and at the same time is a foolish victim of both Porphyro’s stratagem and her own self-deception.
There are statements and situations of doubtful compatibility everywhere in Keats’s good poems. Consider the speaker’s musing about death in the sixth stanza of Ode to a Nightingale:
- Now more than ever seems it rich to die,
- To cease upon the midnight with no pain,
- While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad
- In such an ecstasy!
The richness of this thought is immediately nullified by the realism of mortal extinction: “Still wouldst thou sing, and I have ears in vain— / To thy high requiem become a sod.” Consider the fourth stanza of Ode on a Grecian Urn: a lovingly described procession of townspeople move toward some green altar—so far, so good—but then one realizes that these people will never reach their destination, they will never go back to the place where they came from, and their “little town” will be desolate “for evermore.” Or take the lines about the happy/ frustrated lovers two stanzas earlier in the same poem:
- Bold lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
- Though winning near the goal—yet, do not grieve;
- She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
- For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!
(On one hand…on the other.…These lines do not need to be paraphrased.) In the ode To Autumn we read, first, a series of statements about how beautiful the season is; then we realize that all this beauty is dying; and finally (perhaps), if we put these two contrary notions together, we understand that death is somehow beautiful.
At this point it might seem that I am approaching dangerously close to the old New Criticism of forty and fifty years ago—the “mystic oxymoron” of Kenneth Burke, for example, and “oxymoronic fusion” of Earl Wasserman. Well, why not? We learned to read from the New Critics, and we constantly use New Critical methods in the privacy of our classrooms and personal reading. Maybe “mystic oxymoron” and “oxymoronic fusion” arc not such bad terms for the authorial and textual complexity that I am trying to describe.
One effective illustration of Keatsian authorial complexity is a sort of Keats map that starts with a horizontal line separating two realms in opposition: an actual world below the line and a contrasting ideal world above the line (see the precursor diagram included below on page 109). I have explained this (in the introduction to John Keats: Complete Poems xvi-xvii, among other places) as a “simplified cosmography” of the poems, where the two realms can stand for many related pairs of oppositions: earth and heaven, for example, mortality and immortality, time and timelessness, materiality and spirituality, the known and the unknown, the finite and the infinite, waking and dreaming, realism and romance, the natural and the supernatural—all prominent in the poems by Keats that readers and critics continue to find the most interesting.7
Endymion provides an archetype of the basic structure. For much of its four thousand lines, the hero is torn between his passion for the literally otherworldly goddess of the moon and his human responsibilities—to his sister, to the people whom he is supposed to be governing, and (in book 4) to the Indian maiden whom he falls madly in love with—in the sublunary world of Latmian reality. The division between ideal and real realms is hinted at in the opening lines of book 1 (“bind us to the earth” in line 7 and the image of the lamb straying beyond familiar surroundings to join “the herds of Pan” in lines 68–79), becomes more prominent in the Hymn to Pan (lines 232 ff., especially 293–302) and the depiction of the old shepherds’ “fond imaginations” about heaven (lines 360–93), and is central to the narrative thereafter. Endymion is introduced as in a “fixed trance…Like one who on the earth had never stept” (lines 403–4), The events that follow are regularly plottable above and below (and occasionally on) the line separating the two worlds. Endymion’s fervent renunciation of dreams in book 4 (lines 636 ff.), a last desperate attempt to resolve his internal conflict, is a rejection of the ideal realm. And then he is rewarded with eternal bliss in the upper region after all, as the supposedly human Indian maiden reveals that she is his moon goddess in disguise.
Each of the other major poems participates to some degree in this structural scheme. In The Eve of St. Agnes, Madeline’s dream world is easily alignable with the values, tendencies, and images of the ideal realm, while Porphyro, Angela, Madeline’s kinsmen, and the storm are a basic contrasting reality. In The Eve of St. Mark, the ideal is represented by the centuries-old life of St. Mark that Bertha is engrossed in and the reality by her situation in the darkening room and the images of the town and its inhabitants outside her window. In La Belle Dame, there is the fairy world to which the knight is attracted and then the real world that he has returned to upon awakening on “the cold hill’s side.” The supernatural world of the nightingale is played off against a kind of reality that the speaker says the nightingale has never known: “The weariness, the fever, and the fret / Here, where men sit and hear each other groan” (and so on through the whole of stanza 3 of the ode). The timelessness of life imagined on the Grecian urn repeatedly implies a contrasting world of process where trees shed their leaves, pipers get tired and stop piping, and lovers grow old but do, after all, become lovers. The unreality of Lamia’s “purple-lined palace of sweet sin” and the reality of “the noisy world” of Lycius’s native city, which he cannot quite forswear (2. 27–33), are another pair of the same sort of opposites. In To Autumn, the focus is almost consistently on the here and now, but the opening of the third stanza—”Where are the songs of spring?”—is a significant reminder of what, in philosophical terms, the here and now is being contrasted with.
Materials of the Keats Map
IDEAL (world)—above the line
REAL (world)—below the line
Madeline and her dream (ideal love)
Porphyro, the storm (physical love)
The legend of St. Mark
Bertha and the town
La Belle Dame’s grot
The cold hill’s side
“Here, where…” (world of hungry generations)
Tempe, Arcady, urnly life
Process, passion, death
Lycius, the streets of Corinth
Songs of spring
Cottage farm, surroundings, in autumn
These are just a handful of examples. Other Keats poems can be related to the same basic structure: the poet’s glimpse of otherworldly glories in the epistle To My Brother George; the upward flight of the charioteer in Sleep and Poetry; the bursting of mortal bars and soaring of the wandering spirit in I stood tip-toe; dissatisfaction with “see[ing] beyond our bourn” in the epistle to Reynolds; the murdered Lorenzo’s separation from humanity in Isabella; the fear of being trapped “Beyond the sweet and bitter world” in There is a joy in footing slow; the “terrible division…when the soul is fled / Too high above our head” in God of the meridian; the bright star “in lone splendor hung aloft” in sharp contrast to “earth’s human shores” down below; and so on.
Clearly Keats thought in such spatial terms, and so, of course, have numerous other writers. Wordsworth in The Prelude makes such a division in emphasizing the real-world interests of the youthful proponents of the French Revolution:
- Not in Utopia,—subterranean fields,—
- Or some secreted island, Heaven knows where!
- But in the very world, which is the world
- Of all of us,—the place where, in the end,
- We find our happiness, or not at all! (11. 140–44)
In many shorter works, he plays things remote, exotic, invisible, otherworldly, against “the common growth of mother-earth” (Peter Bell, with its high-flying/ down-to-earth prologue, is an especially good example). Tennyson’s The Lady of Shalott can be put on the Keats map—Shalott is both physically and symbolically (p.109) above the line, Camelot below—and so can Yeats’s Sailing to Byzantium: the realm of sensual music that is “no country for old men,” the poet’s Ireland of the 1920s, is the here and now below the line, while Byzantium, two thousand miles to the east and fourteen centuries into the past, is the ambiguous ideal above. Wallace Stevens’s Sunday Morning repeatedly plays an upper realm (“Jove in the clouds,” “paradise, “ “imperishable bliss, “ “isolation of the sky”) against the reality of “our perishing earth.” These are just four among hundreds of possible examples.
In Keats’s poems there is frequent shuttling between the lower and upper regions, as his human characters—Endymion, Madeline, Bertha, the knight at arms, the speakers in the odes, Lycius in Lamia—attempt imaginatively to transcend their mortal world of mutability, natural process, and death, seeking another realm, most often of gods or fairies, where the condition of timelessness, they hope, will solve all those human problems. But except perhaps in Endymion, the attempt to escape mortality in these poems never succeeds. Something is wanting in the ideal, or the would-be escapist, being a native of the real world, learns that it is not possible to belong permanently in the ideal. So the metaphorical excursion concludes with a descent back to reality.
I have diagramed this structure of excursion and return many times in the classroom:
In print, back in the critical dark ages of the 1960s (see the second section of chapter 3), I used it to help inculcate a simplified view of what I thought was the principal moral and philosophical content of the poet’s work taken altogether:
[Keats’s] significant poems center on a single basic problem, the mutability inherent in nature and human life, and openly or in disguise they debate the pros and cons of a single hypothetical solution, transcendence of earthly limitations by means of the visionary imagination.…Keats came to learn that this kind of imagination was a false lure, inadequate to the needs of the problem, and in the end he traded it for the naturalized imagination, embracing experience and process as his own and [humanity’s] chief good. His honesty in treating the problem and his final opting for the natural world, where all the concrete images of poetry come from and where melodies impinge on “the sensual ear” or not at all, are what, more than anything else, guarantee his place “among the English Poets.” (Hoodwinking 100)
I would not any longer seriously propose so simple a description to cover so complex a body of thinking, feeling, and writing as Keats and his poetry represent. But still (as on the present occasion) the diagram and the map can be used to make a point about the poet’s authorial complexity.
(p.110) The map, in my more recent understanding of the matter, is a frame for pairs of oppositions that, intentionally or not, Keats never in fact resolves in the poems. They do not cancel one another, and one of a pair does not finally win a conflict at the expense of the other. In every case, they are not so much ambiguities of an either/or division, where the meaning at first is uncertain but later is cleared up, as they are disparate elements in a continual both/and impingement and jostling of contraries. They constitute, to refer back to the beginning of this chapter, a sustained incongruity, a misfittingness that, as represented by the map, is cosmic as well as comic. And Keats manages to keep these components steadily in conflict while at the same time creating a sense that somehow the tensions are resolved.
These statements are admittedly quite abstract, and acceptable documentation would take much more space than I have available. I shall select two shorter pieces, La Belle Dame sans Merci and Ode on a Grecian Urn, to exemplify the typical conflicting spatial deployments in Keats’s mature poems.
La Belle Dame is a narrative with a beginning (“I met a lady”), a middle (‘And there she lulled me asleep’), and an end (“And I awoke and found me here”) in which we are never actually told what happens.8 It is cast in the form of a ballad, with a questioner who speaks the first three stanzas and then presumably stays to hear the protagonist’s reply, which fills the remaining nine stanzas. The crucial question of the poem—and of anybody’s individual reading of the poem—is posed at the beginning and then repeated in the fifth line: “0 what can ail thee, knight at arms.” The knight’s well-detailed response, concluding “And this is why…,” seems at first a reasonable answer to the question. But it turns out to be no answer at all, because the events of the knight’s story are entirely symbolic and the poem never explains the symbolism. Here, then, is another famous instance when the reader must supply significant meaning and the critical closure.
In his encounter with la Belle Dame, the clearly mortal knight crosses a boundary into a different world from his own. La Belle Dame is of another order: a “fairy’s child,” who sings a “fairy’s song,” provides exotic food (“roots of relish sweet…honey wild, and manna dew”), speaks “in language strange,” and dwells in an “elfin grot.” The two are mutually captivated; the knight provides gifts, sets her on his horse, “And nothing else saw all day long,” while she responds with looks of love, moans, sighs, and a tender “I love thee true.” In her “elfin grot,” they make love—a reasonable interpretation of the “kisses four” followed by sleep. But then, “Ah! woe betide,” the knight has a dream of “horrid warning”: a company of death-pale kings, princes, and warriors declare to him, “La belle dame sans merci / Hath thee in thrall.” At this point he awakens and finds himself on “the cold hill’s side,” the initial setting of the question-and-answer dialogue (though not, presumably, the setting of the knight’s story, since he originally met la Belle Dame, he says, “in the meads,” a different kind of topography).
We have, in terms of the Keats map, an actuality of the knight’s mortality, his solitariness and inactivity, and a barren autumn landscape (the withered sedge, with no birds singing, at both the beginning and the end of the poem), and then a contrasting world of strange beauty, enticement, lovemaking, but also nightmare and, if we can believe the kings and princes, thralldom. One common (p.111) understanding of the story is that the knight is another of Keats’s visionary protagonists who opted for the practically unattainable—union with a beautiful creature from another world—and now suffers the consequences. In this reading, la Belle Dame is the antagonist, a merciless enchantress who will add him—perhaps already has added him—to her collection of ruined kings, princes, and warriors. It would seem better, on the Keats map, to stay below the line.
But what basis, exactly, is there in the poem for such a reading? Illustrators of the poem, rather than focus on the wretched knight “alone and palely loitering,” most often depict a handsome young man and a beautiful woman gazing adoringly into each other’s eyes. Can the artists be getting their idea of the story from some other source? Actually many of the details of the knight’s condition—“alone,” “palely loitering,” “haggard,” “woe-begone”—come from the questioner in the first three stanzas, as do the description of the barren surroundings (no sedge, no birds) and the knight’s deathly complexion, pictured in terms of a lily, “anguish moist and fever dew,” and a fading rose. Perhaps it is the speaker of these lines rather than the knight who is having a problem with reality; perhaps the crucial question should be not what ails the knight but, instead, what ails the questioner.9
Similarly, the notion that the knight is “in thrall” comes not from the knight’s own experience of thralldom but from the utterance of the kings, princes, and warriors of the knight’s “latest dream.” This dream, which vaguely parallels the “Ancestral voices prophesying war” in Kubla Khan in providing critics with grounds for discovering a political theme (something about the demise of chivalry and feudal aristocracy), is a hideous spectacle of “Pale warriors, death pale” and “starv’d lips…With horrid warning gaped wide.” It is not, at face value, a reliable source concerning the knight’s relationship with the lady. In the knight’s own account, which occupies most of the poem, it was a beautiful and promising love match, and the only problem is that he fell asleep, had a nightmare, and woke up alone. Perhaps he hopes for another meeting with his lady. Perhaps his experience has been a dream from beginning to end (and the nightmare a “dream within a dream,” as in Endymion 1. 633). Perhaps, in his “loitering,” he will make up a story for any questioner who happens by!
Old-school biographical critics—those who read Lycius, Lamia, and Apollonius as standing for Keats, Fanny Brawne, and Charles Brown—have interpreted La Belle Dame as an allegory involving Keats and Fanny Brawne (or, more abstractly, Keats and love), and also as being about Keats and tuberculosis (Keats and death). Later writers have tended to focus on categorical differences between the knight as mortal and la Belle Dame as nonmortai, and between the real world of the cold hill’s side and the romance world of the lady’s “elfin grot,” sometimes taking la Belle Dame as a symbol of visionary imagination and the knight as a Keatsian hoodwinked dreamer. But there are (and have been) many other interpretive possibilities.
The point here, in connection with the Keats map as an illustration of Keatsian complexity, is that the two sides of the opposition—real world, fairy world—are presented as having both positive and negative qualities almost simultaneously. In the present real world of the poem (regardless of who is reporting), the knight (p.112) is alone, loitering, woebegone, apparently ill, and the surroundings are bleak and unmusical (though an oddly countering sense of autumnal fulfillment—a separate critical problem in itself—is conveyed in the references to the squirrel’s granary and the completed harvest). But it is also in the real world—”in the meads”—that the knight met and fell in love with la Belle Dame, and where there were flowers, not withered sedge, for him to fashion into the garland and bracelets that he mentions. The fairy world into which he is drawn—at some (conveniently) unspecified point in the proceedings—seems, for a while at least, to be totally pleasurable, a matter of songs, strange food, strange language, and lovemaking. The knight’s pleasure comes to an abrupt end with his bad dream and subsequent awakening. But the dream, which is never explained, does not really negate the romantic experience. It would be perfectly reasonable (and not just visionarily romantic) for the knight to wish to repeat it, just as Keats’s readers in fact repeat it every time they read the poem.
In Ode on a Grecian Urn, the hypothetical romance world above the line is the ancient Greece of “Tempe or the dales of Arcady.” separated from the speaker of the ode by even more miles and centuries than Byzantium is from Yeats’s speaker. It stands in obvious and pointed contrast to the speaker’s own modern world of process and mortality. On the painted surface of one side of the urn, the piper’s melodies are imagined to be unheard and therefore sweeter; the piper never tires; the lovers, pursuing and pursued, never age or lose their beauty (“She cannot fade…For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!”); the “happy” trees never shed their leaves (it is eternal spring); everything is “far above” the passionate experiences of living humans like the speaker, who are subject to “a heart high-sorrowful and cloy’d, / A burning forehead, and a parching tongue.” On the other side of the urn, a sacrificial procession of priest, heifer, and townspeople is stopped forever en route to some green altar; they will neither reach their destination nor go back to whatever town they came from (though the heifer will be saved from sacrifice, and the people, just like the lovers earlier in the poem, will not age or die). These latter images, too, are different from life in the real world, where such a procession would continue to its destination, and then everybody would return home.
There is perhaps a greater density of opposites in this poem than in any other of comparable length in all of British literature. The first image, “still unravish’d bride,” immediately evokes the unstated counternotions of violence and sexual fulfillment in “ravished” bride; “quietness” implies a contrary noisiness; “foster-child” makes one think of natural child. Pairings of this sort are a principal element of the ode’s structure and very shortly are made explicit in such phrases as “deities or mortals,” “men or gods,” “pursuit…escape,” “Heard…unheard,” “sensual…spirit,” and so on to the paired abstractions brought together in the urn’s message of the final two lines, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty….” What is important, for present purposes, is the near balance of pluses and minuses accorded to both sides of these pairs. Throughout the poem, in the phrases just quoted and in the larger oppositions connected with time (below the line) and timelessness (above), they tend to get the speaker’s, and the poem’s, approval and disapproval almost equally.
(p.113) Older critics—for example, the American New Humanists of the 1920s—tended to read the poem as an unequivocal celebration of the timeless world of art, and they censured Keats for the supposed Romantic escapism that such celebration implied. Then the New Criticism exerted its influence, and readers began to notice (just as the speaker, being a clever reader, had noticed all along in perhaps half the lines of the poem) that the art world has its drawbacks as a hypothetical alternative to the human world: the piper cannot stop playing; the lovers can never finally kiss or make love; the trees are confined to a single season; the permanent halting of the sacrificial procession leaves an unseen “little town” forever “desolate.” Some critics took these misgivings, especially the speaker’s somber comments concerning the silence and desolateness of the abandoned town in the last three lines of the fourth stanza, to signify the poet’s rejection of the ideal: the urn in the final stanza, now a “Cold Pastoral,” is only a work of art after all, a “tease” just like eternity itself, somehow “a friend to man,” but not of much practical help, for the concluding aphorism about beauty and truth really makes very little sense.
But both kinds of critical rendering—pro-ideal (therefore escapist), pro-reality (therefore skeptical of the ideal)—are necessarily one-sided, the products of the selection and unifying processes that I described in chapter 4. Rather, the urn, like the ideal that it represents, is both admired and gently pitied throughout the speaker’s musings. Readers do not keep returning to the ode to learn that life in the real world is preferable to life on an urn (or vice versa). Rather, they are repeatedly drawn to the spectacle of the sensitive speaker’s uncertainties in the face of these oppositions. At any point, a resolution could go either way, and they read and reread, I think, to see how the conflict will conclude each time anew. There is also, in all these poems (not just the Grecian urn ode), the attraction that, although both worlds on the Keats map always have serious shortcomings—the problems of the real world can never be made to go away, and the ideal alternative is never Anally a solution—Keats continues to strike readers as upbeat rather than pessimistic in his attitudes toward both life and art, the real and the ideal, in his poetry. It would be a nice piece of criticism to explain how, as an artist, he manages to do this.
It should by now be obvious how The Eve of St. Agnes can fit on the Keats map. Madeline’s dream sets her apart, Beadsman-like, from the reality of her surroundings, and her associations with religion, superstition, and chastity and her beauty and delicacy are further connections with some kind of ideal above the line. Her bedchamber is on an upper floor, literally as well as symbolically above the lower part of the castle where Porphyro and Angela are working out the details of a stratagem. And that stratagem, with the rest of the action that proceeds from it, puts Porphyro, through much of the narrative, in a realm of reality below the line and contrasts with the saintly purity of Madeline above. How this works out at the end—whether Madeline raises Porphyro to her upper world or Porphyro brings Madeline down to his lower, and whether (in either case) the result is a happy or a less happy outcome—is left finally, as I have been arguing all along, to the individual reader. Most of the fifty-nine readings surveyed in chapter 3 represent opinions that can be put on the map, one way or another.
(p.114) So the individual reader determines the indeterminate, as it were. But Keats is the genius who created these complexities of contradictory materials out of which reader after reader constructs the meanings. In the case of The Eve of St. Agnes, he produced a poem about love, sex, marriage, magic, imagination that works, imagination that does not work, poetry, religion, language problems, and several kinds of politics; a poem about a young man whose ardor is tinged with selfishness and deceit; a poem about a young woman whose saintly qualities are mixed up with silly behavior; a happy poem that is framed by bitter cold and death and has a conclusion in which we are not sure what is concluded. These are some of the superabundant starting materials of many different ways of reading The Eve of St. Agnes. They add up, in the various reckonings, to a poem that readers cannot stop reading and that seems a little different each time a reader reads it, even if the reader has been reading and teaching it for forty years. It is no insignificant achievement for a poet who stopped writing entirely at the age of twenty-three.
(1) . Charles H. Webb, “Byron, Keats, and Shelley.” 1 am much obliged to the author for permission to quote from the version read at Los Angeles.
(2) . Some of this is recorded in John Keats, 1795–1995, with a Catalogue of the Harvard Keats Collection; the Grolier Club’s John Keats: Bicentennial Exhibition, September 19-November 22, 1995; and the Grasmere catalogue by Robert Woof and Stephen Hebron.
(3) . See in particular Wolfson’s “Feminizing Keats” and “Keats and the Manhood of the Poet” and Levinson’s Keats’s Life of Allegory.
(4) . The most useful criticism on this topic is Martin Halpern’s “Keats and the ‘Spirit that Laughest.’” One of the earliest pieces on the poet’s comic spirit is Ferdinand Reyher’s 1915 tribute, “The Humor of Keats.”
(5) . Compare especially, for likenesses in tone, Chaucer’s stanzas recounting the lovers’ first sexual union (Troilus and Criseyde 3. 1303 ft), which include the tender question that they repeatedly (“ful ofte”) address to one another: “0 swete, / Clippe ich yow thus, or elles I it meete?” (1343–44)—“0 sweet, do I embrace you thus, or am I dreaming?” In “Keats and Chaucer,” F. E. L. Priestley is mainly concerned to point out Chaucerian echoes in Isabella and The Eve of St. Agnes, but he cites several parallels between Troilus and Endymion.
(6) . One could append here a lengthy note on the pervasiveness of grotesque, even slapstick, humor in serious poetry. For a handful of examples specifically involving animals from the work of two of Keats’s most serious contemporaries, consider Wordsworth’s “horse that thinks,” the smartest character in The Idiot Boy, who plays an important role in the joyful reunion at the end of the poem (Johnny’s mother almost knocks him over); the “rough terrier of the hills” in the early lines of the fourth book of The Prelude, who helps Wordsworth compose his poetry; and Coleridge’s “toothless mastiff bitch” at the beginning of Christabel, who with uncanny chronometrical precision utters four short howls for each of the preliminary quarter hours and sixteen howls (four for the final quarter plus twelve for the hour) at the stroke of midnight. Each of these is pointedly linked with serious thematic matter—Betty Foy’s love for her idiot son, one of the Prelude-speaker’s epiphanic experiences in nature (concluding with “a breath-like sound, / Quick as the pantings of the faithful dog, / The off and on companion of my walk,” 4. 185–87 in the 1850 text), and the first of several significant references to Christabel’s dead mother.
(7) . The Keats map originated in a graduate seminar a decade ago as the byproduct of an attempt to create a Keats lexicon listing recurring words and phrases in the major poems and sorting them into five categories: ideas, events, images, characters, and places. The ideas category—themes, motifs, concerns, matter—included most of the oppositions of abstractions that critics repeatedly refer to (time versus permanence, mortality versus immortality, pain versus pleasure, and so on). The events category—plots, situations, narrative structures—highlighted the various journeys, quests, and encounters in the poems. The images section—tropes, figures, symbols—was packed with terms having to do with visions, dreams, nightmares, fairies, magic, narcotics, religion, nature (and much else). The most interesting feature of the characters category (heroes, enchantresses, dreamers, gods, goddesses, priests, and so on) was the recurrence of mismatches between a mortal, usually male, and some kind of immortal, usually female (a goddess or a fairy). The places category, which included the medieval or classical past, hidden sites such as the nightingale’s forest, and ideal realms, led us on to the Keats map.
(8) . I am here reading and quoting the earlier of the two basic versions of La Belle Dame, that of the extant manuscripts by Keats, Brown, and Woodhouse, but my comments apply as well to the later version published in Leigh Hunt’s Indicator. 10 May 1820. In this and the next six paragraphs, I draw on parts of my brief discussion of La Belle Dame in “Reading Keats’s Plots” (de Almeida, Critical Essays 88–102).
(9) . Wolfson (Questioning Presence 296–300) relates La Belle Dame to Wordsworth’s technique of “a perplexed questioner and a voice trying to answer” in the Lyrical Ballads, especially The Thorn. The question-answer situation in We Are Seven may be an even better example, if we do not wholly accept the adult questioner’s account of the reality debated in that poem. In La Belle Dame, it is true that the knight repeats some of the questioner’s words almost verbatim in the final three lines; but this can be read, if one wishes, as an ironical, perhaps even taunting, echo. There is a substantial literature on the open-endedness of La Belle Dame. Along with Wolfson’s discussion, I especially recommend Anne Mellor’s three pages in English Romantic Irony 93–95.