The Poet and the Dreamer
by KINGSLEY AMIS
Acquaintance with school examination scripts and with the tastes (or professed tastes) of young people entering the university will suggest that Keats is still the teacher's favourite poet. After all, Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth and the rest of the train require interpretation, textual or ideological: Keats can be read without a glossary and he believed simply in Beauty.
This immediacy of appeal is reinforced by the straightforwardly romantic subject-matter of the verse and by the engaging personality, tragic life and high aspirations of the poet; nobody, it seems unmistakable, was ever more of a poet than Keats. Most adolescents of any sensitivity will respond with an enthusiasm they may still recall when, bloody but unbowed after their struggles with pass degree, diploma, appointments board and head teacher, they in their turn face the task of implanting tolerance for poetry in the twelve-year old mind.
Any favourable attitude towards any verse must be better than none, and yet the results of an early inoculation with Keats may prove an obstacle to further literary development. If Keats is to be the ideal poet, ideal poetry too readily becomes a tissue of affectionate descriptions of nice things interrupted by occasional complaints that the real world is insufficiently productive of those nice things, and if any pupil should wonder what the dales of Arcardy have got to do with him, then the answer is that poetry deals with 'the world of the imagination', i.e. not with the real world.
Those who undertake to break down such a preconception are likely to suffer from conscience trouble. Is it worth the risk of removing one enjoyment and not managing to substitute a 'better'? Might it not be safer to push the chaps on with their Keats and with the poems that can, with whatever distortion, be assimilated to Keats: 'Christabel', 'Oenone', Paradise Lost (first two books only, of course), snippets from The Faerie Queene?
A rational reading of Keats, whatever the long-term result, is initially destructive. An uneasy suspicion of this is discernible even at the height of the cult in the late nineteenth century. Sidney Colvin, noting a 'dissonance' - or, more accurately, a piece of poetical fudging - in the 'Ode to a Grecian Urn,' remarks consolingly that 'it is a dissonance which the attentive reader can easily reconcile for himself: and none but an attentive reader will notice it.' The attentive reader will have little time for Colvin's book, the recent reissue of which, seventy years after its first publication, motivates some depression.
One imagines it already winging its way to the shelves of school libraries, where its adulatory portraiture and innocent assertion of its subject's greatness will inspire another legion of essays maundering about the way 'the poetry seems to throb in every line with the life of imagination and beauty' in that sugary erotic extravaganza 'The Eve of St Agnes'.
Even in his best poems Keats devotes himself too uncritically to 'the world of the imagination.' Even the 'Ode to the Nightingale', though containing passages which must delight the most jaded, is full of frigidities, of appeals to the remote and merely fanciful. What else are the references to hemlock, Lethe, the Dryad (tautologously described as 'of the trees'), Flora, the blushful Hippocrene (seen as a kind of Greek red sparkling Burgundy, and apparently sedimented at that, Bacchus and his pards (brought in to effect a translation into poetese of the unpoetical notion of getting drunk)?
Such entities are, as Jeffrey observed of the subject of 'Hyperion', 'too far removed from all the sources of human interest.' And to string together counters of this kind, to use 'Olympus' faded hierarchy' as correlatives for what are evidently the most passionate feelings, was a favourite procedure with Keats, as can be seen at a glance at the 'Ode to Psyche' or the 'Ode on Melancholy.'
Poetry was for Keats a matter of 'O Poesy', of Apollo, the Muses and inspired bards. This connects with his attitude to the actual business of writing. According Robert Graves (I cannot track this anecdote), Keats used to dress up in poetic robes and laurel crown to encourage the afflatus. And if Apollo did come through on the line with a personal call, the divine message was not to be tampered with; poetry must come as naturally as leaves to the tree. Keats was too intelligent to believe this all the time, but when he revised his verse at all the task was always scamped and he never became a conscientious craftsman. Shoddily worked sonnets would be thrown off and dispatched to friends the same day, to reappear unaltered in print; he knew Endymion needed radical rewriting, but 'I am tired of it' and 'it is not in my nature to fumble' — in other words, to take undue trouble.
Endymion, as the Quarterly Review soon pointed out, was scattered with awkwardnesses forced upon, or rather suggested to, the poet by the exigencies of rhyme. Such faults reappear throughout the whole of Keats' work, partly because of his habit of selecting forms that require several rhymes to the same sound.
These forms were chosen capriciously, without regard to their appropriateness or to his own capacities, on occasion merely because they happened to be used by poets he happened to admire. It was only an admiration for Paradise Lost that eventually took him to blank verse, where common sense might have taken him before 1818. Even the Odes, written for once in original stanza forms, are disfigured by Endymion-like crudities: the 'deceiving elf' of the 'Nightingale', for instance, an incarnation into which 'the Fancy' is recklessly crammed to save having to fumble with the rhyming line, and the two analogous defects of the first stanza - 'emptied...to the drains' (sc. not 'poured down the drain' but 'drained, drunk off') retained to rhyme with 'pains', and 'melodious plot' (so glaringly inappropriate, with its connections with cultivation) retained to rhyme with 'happy lot.'
It is the middle stanzas of the poems — I take it as fairly representing the mature Keats — that its merit chiefly lies, in the unforgettable entrancing picture of the wood itself, and in the poet's confession, of an unwonted sobriety in style, that he finds himself 'half in love with easeful Death.' Here, by chance, there are no technical flaws, and here too, of set purpose, the classical lumber is stowed away.
That English strain which Dr. Leavis rightly notes as a characteristic of Keats at his finest comes to the fore. In addition, the poet is talking about himself, not a Delphic simulacrum of himself, and has something to say about human existence, not a wish-fulfilling caricature of it. But it is only here, and in the induction of the revised 'Hyperion', that Keats fulfilled for more than a line or two his often-made promise to treat of 'the agonies, the strife of human hearts', to become one of those 'to whom the miseries of the world are misery, and will not let them rest.'
To exalt into greatness one whose achievement was actually that of an often delightful, if often awkward, decorative poet may have, as was suggested above, harmful consequences. Any presumption that Keats might in time have become a major artist is cast in doubt by the fact that it is unpromising theories about poetry that derive from defects of character, quite as much as bad influences and the results of illness, which vitiate his existing work.
The kind of writer he might have become is indicated in his letters:
Imagine the worst dog-kennel you ever saw, placed upon two poles from a mouldy fencing. In such a wretched thing sat a squalid old woman, squat like an ape half-starved from a scarcity of biscuit in its passage from Madagascar to the Cape, with a pipe in her mouth and looking out with a round-eyed, skinny-lidded inanity, with a sort of horizontal idiotic movement of her hand: squat and lean she sat, and puffed out the smoke, while two ragged, tattered girls carried her along. What a thing would be a history of her life and sensations!
But that was not the kind of subject that 'a glorious denizen' of Poesy's wide heaven could undertake.
This now strikes me as a rather clever undergraduate essay (pretty good, that is to say, compared with most of the undergraduate essays I remember). I would not want to withdraw or mitigate any of the nasty remarks about Keats' technical shortcomings and their connection with a self-indulgence deeply embedded in his mind and heart, and to this day I find it genuinely curious that anybody should have written (as M.R. Ridley did) a whole volume called Keats' Craftsmanship: surely a candidate for that shortest-books series along with Canadian Wit and Humour, Great Marxist Humanitarians, and The Vein of Humility in D.H. Lawrence.
However, I neglected to celebrate, or took for granted, that tremendous originality and audaciousness which were far beyond any mere 'decorative' quality and, by making poetry personal, so to speak democratized it. When Keats opened the Nightingale ode by writing, 'My heart aches', he was writing about his own heart and nobody else's. Earlier poems in the first person had had the name of some other character invisibly prefixed to them, normally an idealized or anyway carefully trimmed version of the poet, often, indeed, the Poet, which figure does a good deal of talking in Wordsworth's anecdotal and autobiographical verse. Keats' ability to cut through all that — an ability that must have sprung from the same root as his self-indulgence — made it possible for anybody at all to identify with him in the process of reading the poem.
The results of that 'democratization', like others, may not have been altogether happy, but like them, they were inevitable. Whatever the detail of Keats' performance, this achievement is such that no one who has never thought him the greatest poet in the world, no matter for how brief a period, has any real feeling for literature.
Kingsley Amis died in 1995. He is the author of over twenty novels.
"Summer Begs" - Sarah Jaffe (mp3)
"Pretender" - Sarah Jaffe (mp3)
"Vulnerable" - Sarah Jaffe (mp3)
"Better Than Nothing" - Sarah Jaffe (mp3)