« Architeuthis Live and in Person | Main | What I'm Actively Reading »

October 3, 2005

Keats and Philosophy


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.

Posted by Steven Riddle at October 3, 2005 10:05 AM

Trackback Pings

TrackBack URL for this entry:


To bend with apples the mossed cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;

Or by a cider-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings, hours by hours. (I wonder if this was after he had nursed his dying brother who suffered from tuberculosis).

The apple tree, cooperating with its friend, the sun, surrenders its luscious fruits, its garments, in order to be born again. Keats' "To Autumn" causes me to weep in my heart. He was perhaps prophesizing his own death in this poem. I love that he stated philosophy will clip an angel's wings and accused Newton of unraveling the rainbow. I agree with him!

Posted by: psalm 41 at October 3, 2005 3:22 PM

Dear Psalm 41,

Thank you. I concur with all that you say. But being a creature of paradox, as most of us are, Keats is considered one of the most philosophically embued of the Romantic poets. Ironic, hein?

Personally, I love Keats, even this overripe poem (or perhaps better said, especially) and I hadn't brought to it some of the conclusions you suggest here. It certainly does color the poem.



Posted by: Steven Riddle at October 3, 2005 4:51 PM

Post a comment

Remember Me?

(you may use HTML tags for style)

Please enter the security code you see here