Poetry and Poets: October 2005 Archives

Ghent to Aix

To say that the man is an unabashed admirer of Browning would be to damn with faint praise. The poem is a marvel of rhythmic regularity. What is most interesting is that there are points at which the rhythm is subtly shifted as it would be in any natural ride.

No one has ever, so far as I know, criticised _Ghent to Aix_ adversely except Owen Wister's Virginian; and his strictures are hypercritical. As Roland threw his head back fiercely to scatter the spume-flakes, it would be easy enough for the rider to see the eye-sockets and the bloodfull nostrils. Every one has noticed how a horse will do the ear-shift, putting one ear forward and one back at the same moment. Browning has an imaginative reason for it. One ear is pushed forward to listen for danger ahead; the other bent back, to catch his master's voice. Was there ever a greater study in passionate cooperation between man and beast than this splendid poem?



I sprang to the stirrup, and Joris, and he;
I galloped, Dirck galloped, we galloped all three;
"Good speed!" cried the watch, as the gate-bolts undrew;
"Speed!" echoed the wall to us galloping through;
Behind shut the postern, the lights sank to rest,
And into the midnight we galloped abreast.
Not a word to each other; we kept the great pace
Neck by neck, stride by stride, never changing our place;
I turned in my saddle and made its girths tight,
Then shortened each stirrup, and set the pique right,
Rebuckled the cheek-strap, chained slacker the bit,
Nor galloped less steadily Roland a whit

'Twas moonset at starting; but while we drew near
Lokeren, the cocks crew and twilight dawned clear;
At Boom, a great yellow star came out to see;
At Duffeld, 'twas morning as plain as could be;
And from Mecheln church-steeple we heard the half-chime,
So Joris broke silence with, "Yet there is time!"

At Aershot, up leaped of a sudden the sun,
And against him the cattle stood black every one,
To stare through the mist at us galloping past,
And I saw my stout galloper Roland at last,
With resolute shoulders, each butting away
The haze, as some bluff river headland its spray:

And his low head and crest, just one sharp ear bent back
For my voice, and the other pricked out on his track;
And one eye's black intelligence,--ever that glance
O'er its white edge at me, his own master, askance!
And the thick heavy spume-flakes which aye and anon
His fierce lips shook upwards in galloping on.

By Hasselt, Dirck groaned; and cried Joris, "Stay spur!
Your Roos galloped bravely, the fault's not in her,
We'll remember at Aix"--for one heard the quick wheeze
Of her chest, saw the stretched neck and staggering knees,
And sunk tail, and horrible heave of the flank,
As down on her haunches she shuddered and sank.

So, we were left galloping, Joris and I,
Past Looz and past Tongres, no cloud in the sky;
The broad sun above laughed a pitiless laugh,
'Neath our feet broke the brittle bright stubble like chaff;
Till over by Dalhem a dome-spire sprang white,
And "Gallop," gasped Joris, "for Aix is in sight!"

"How they'll greet us!"--and all in a moment his roan
Rolled neck and croup over, lay dead as a stone;
And there was my Roland to bear the whole weight
Of the news which alone could save Aix from her fate,
With his nostrils like pits full of blood to the brim,
And with circles of red for his eye-sockets' rim.

Then I cast loose my buffcoat, each holster let fall,
Shook off both my jack-boots, let go belt and all,
Stood up in the stirrup, leaned, patted his ear,
Called my Roland his pet-name, my horse without peer;
Clapped my hands, laughed and sang, any noise, bad or good,
Till at length into Aix Roland galloped and stood.

And all I remember is--friends flocking round
As I sat with his head 'twixt my knees on the ground;
And no voice but was praising this Roland of mine,
As I poured down his throat our last measure of wine,
Which (the burgesses voted by common consent)
Was no more than his due who brought good news from Ghent.

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Keats and Philosophy

| | Comments (2)


Eve Tushnet, who I have somehow managed to overlook for all this time makes a post on poets and philosophy, with which I must take some small exception. (And as I'm far too lazy to e-mail, I figured I would just do it here.) My exception has to do with the particularly example of John Keats whom, she avers, has no "philosophical spine" to his poetry.

I would argue on the contrary that of all the Romantic poets he is, perhaps the most philosophical. For one example, in "Ode on a Grecian Urn" Keats "breaks" the famous platonic triad with his "Beauty is truth, truth beauty. . ." Goodness, as Mae West might say, has nothing to do with it. If this isn't a philosophical foray, I'd be hard-pressed to identify one.

Further, as can be sensed in a great many of Keats's poems, he is ardently a supporter of a philocophical aesthetic of intense experience. Even should that experience be painful, it should be completely embraced and indulged in. He referred to our present life not as "this vale of tears," but as "this vale of Soul-Making." If one reads "To Autumn" one is almost overwhelmed by the sense of ripeness and abundance overflowing the poem--a rich sensory overload. So, too, with "La Belle Dame Sans Merci" one is inundated with the lethargy also made famous in "Ode to a Nightingale."

In the Letters, one gets a much fuller sense of Keatsian philosophy. Indeed, his philosophy is so robust and so rigorous, it occasionally threatens to overrun his poetry. (For an example, take the fifth excerpt on this page, often used as an introductory read to the "Ode to Psyche.")

Now, that all being said, one might legitimately ask the question as to whether Keats's is a coherent or viable philosophy--which is quite another matter.

Contra Ms. Tushnet, I think nearly every poet writes out of a very strong philosophical melieu. I agree with her essential premise in that when I encounter a poet who has little or no world view--one who seems to be playing with words for the sake of play--I might momentarily be amused, but there is no "there there"--nothing to return to--the well is dry, with a thin sheen of water to deceive us that there is a depth to plumb.

In reading Keats's thought and philosophy, one must be careful not to overlooks the idea of negative capability as defined in one of Keats's letters to his brothers, George and Thomas Keats.

I had not a dispute but a disquisition, with Dilke on various subjects; several things dove-tailed in my mind, and at once it struck me what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in Literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously - I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason-Coleridge, for instance, would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half-knowledge. This pursued through volumes would perhaps take us no further than this, that with a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration.

While one might disagree with what he has to say, it undoubtedly constitutes a core or pillar of his philosophy. (If you google negative capability, you'll find a plethora of articles are arguing about what Keats actually meant when he used the term "negative capability."

Ms. Tushnet writes, "Keats, on the other hand, strikes me as a talented poet severely weakened by a tendency to lushness in absence of philosophy. (And this weakness of Keats in turn weakened Anne Carson's interesting mess, The Beauty of the Husband.)" I think what may be more to the point is that Keats's poetry is weakened (for some readers, not for me) by his philosophy which emphasizes lushness, or the primacy of experience as "soul-formative." I do think the statement holds true for some of Keats's poems. I've always thought "To Autumn," though lovely, was almost over-the-top in its "lushness" and its insistence on the sensory experience. That said, perhaps I should allow you to decide for yourselves. Without further ado:

To Autumn
John Keats

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eaves run;
To bend with apples the mossed cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For Summer has o'er-brimmed their clammy cell.

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reaped furrow sound asleep,
Drowsed with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers;
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cider-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings, hours by hours.

Where are the songs of Spring? Aye, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too--
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir, the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The redbreast whistles from a garden-croft,
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

In sum, I think it fine not to care for the poetry of Keats. I would disagree. However, I don't think it is his lack of philosophy that makes the poetry weak, if it is so perceived. In fact, it may be the very essence of his philosophy that contributes to perceived weaknesses.

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This page is a archive of entries in the Poetry and Poets category from October 2005.

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