Category Archives: keats

First Five Weeks

Note: all of the italicized parts are excerpts from previous things I have written which I have imported for my purposes here.

Yesterday I submitted grades, so now I can start focusing on my lesson planning for next semester. I want to revamp all of my syllabuses (some more than others). I am not yet touching my American Gods class since that one needs to be completely redone.

For the class I am outlining here, I previously started the semester with Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil. Apparently that scared a lot of students, and while only a few dropped, several more panicked about the reading material. Neither of these outcomes were my intention in the least. It is hard to not start with Nietzsche because his work pretty much sets the tone for the rest of the course as I have it currently. However, in light of the reception Beyond Good and Evil got this semester as the opener to the class, I think I have found a way to finagle him later on while I start with Keats instead.

I won’t stray too far from the major odes, Indolence, Grecian Urn, Psyche, Nightingale, Melancholy, Autumn, and Fame. Then go into Eve of St. Agnes. Here is briefly where I will be going with this…

“Keats’ poetry traces his relationship with the imagination from an idealized method of escape to disillusionment. The Odes, beginning with Indolence and Psyche envision the imagination as ripe with possibility.

I am now going to speak of authorial intent, regarded by many as perhaps a taboo subject, except I find it ridiculous to overlook. Keats didn’t write his poetry without intent, nor was it unshaped by his experiences. Otherwise he would never have come up with the concept of the Vale of Soul Making which is strictly reliant upon believing that the trials of experience construct the self through the soul. He didn’t “accidentally” compose anything. Overall his prospects in life weren’t looking so good. His personal life was a mess, everyone around him he cared about was either dying or already dead. He could not marry his love interest. And as for his career, he didn’t really have one. He gave up medicine to become a professional poet/writer, and didn’t exactly receive national acclaim in the beginning. All this before he finds out he has TB.

So it makes perfect sense to see how the imagination, and its power, created an escape. When circumstances became unbearable, he relied on the “wings of Poesy” to transport him into a world full of “moss-lain Dryads” and the “Sylvan historian” telling tales of mirth as he experienced the ultimate concept of beauty within the “untrodden region of [his] mind.”

While he will not be “charioted by Bacchus and his pards,” he nevertheless soon finds that this form of escapism is yet another type of anesthesia, a different method of inebriation, and just as temporary. He likens it to opium as the constant desire for more becomes consuming to the point of losing control. Further, the stark contrast between the imaginary world of art and physical reality becomes even more poignant – and painful. The cycle of addiction to this realm leaves him “forlorn,” and by the end of Nightingale he realizes “the fancy cannot cheat so well/ as she is famed to do.”

And in The Eve of St. Agnes, the once exulted imagination is referred to as a “whim,” akin to a young girl’s fantasy, with the implication towards its fleeting nature and lack of depth.

The innocence of ignorant bliss, dashed off in ecstatic lines, begins to cool, and by the time he comes to Autumn and Melancholy he is disenchanted with the notion of escape, but would rather “glut [his] sorrow on a morning rose,” and find beauty within reality, thorny as it may be. Consequently these poems are considered some of his finest. Contemplating the narrative on an urn, or playing with Psyche in the forest of the mind must come to an end. Much like autumn hints towards closure, his poem deflects a sense of an ending, and rather celebrates said closure, extolling the brilliance the season has to offer.

In his final months, in a last attempt to shake off his TB, he moves to Italy to a small house overlooking the Spanish Steps. As he enjoys their beauty he does not imagine narratives for them, but rather writes to his friends that their sight, as is, suffices.”

I will end this segment with some of Keats’ letters, especially those concerning his views on Wordsworth and Coleridge, paving the way for the following week, where we discuss Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Kubla Khan, Eolian Harp and Christabel.

Kubla Khan and Eolian Harp are enchanting, and provide the “other worldliness” aspect at which Coleridge is amazing, but are nevertheless grounded in a combination of the dream vision and reality, providing the idea of sublime beauty on earth, a conclusion to which Keats also comes to at the end of his works (even though Keats would probably never admit to having similar ideas as Coleridge). Then, a comparative example can be drawn between Christabel and Geraldine from “Christabel” and Madeline from “St. Agnes.” Aside from the obvious plot points, and that they are both narrative poems, both of these works appear to be concerned with defining truth from different perspectives (which should really tell you something about the concept of truth).

Does complacency on Christabel’s, Geraldine’s or Madeline’s behalf detract from how they are viewed during the narratives? I want to trace how each of these character changes if looked at from the first perspective, the victim, and then from the second, the active participant in their fate. In most criticism, agency on their parts is negatively critiqued, with their morality in question. If the truth of their actions has varied perspectives, then so too can their morals be subject to interpretation, highlighting the very prominent possibility that it is not as simple as it is more than often made out to be (yes, I am leading up to Nietzsche).

The most apparent tie in between Coleridge and Nietzsche relies on the questioning of absolutes, like truth, morals, good, bad, etc. However, another idea that would serve here is to bring in Sartre’s concept of intersubjectivity in which he states that “I cannot obtain any truth whatsoever about myself except through the mediation of another,” meaning that how Christabel, Madeline, or Geraldine are regarded is dependent upon who’s gaze is being used, not just within the poems, but from the reader’s perspective as well.

Further I want to look only at Christabel and Madeline, analyzing how each respond to their respective intruders in their bed chambers, with the final argument resting on the fact that each invited the other to their chambers, whether overtly like Chritabel, or solely through subtle implication like Madeline, suffering the consequences of committing betrayal against their families in the process.

It is very difficult to dissociate either from their outcomes, relegating their experiences to fate, as each was in fact an active participant. Madeline fasts through dinner and goes to bed undressed, with her hands behind her pillow, for the sole purpose of hoping to dream of her future husband, and to see him appear before her. She confides in Angela how she dearly hopes it is Porphyro. She follows the instructions, and sure enough he is there. Whether or not she intended for him to be there in the flesh as opposed to her fantasy, is debatable, although I have my own opinions in the matter.

Christabel however, is a very active participant in her own adventure, wittingly leaving her home and venturing into the woods, and then, once coming upon Geraldine, physically carrying her across the threshold of her house into her bedroom, and then inebriating her for various uses. While her agency for the first two hundred odd lines is unquestionable, her complacency thereafter is ambiguous. I personally think she knew exactly what she was doing, and as for whether it is wrong, one must not look at her, but the other characters in the narrative (namely her parents, and Geraldine). I think her agency only becomes questionable when you take Christabel’s apparent confusion into account. She seems genuinely distraught over the scenario that unfolds in her bedroom, which does not preclude her from having created it, but simply not having anticipated the way things would play out.

This is an abridged version of the lecture, where I will spend much more time outlining difficult plot, and drawing the more blatant comparisons, including those in meter and general themes.

Then weeks four and five will be dedicated to Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil since I believe by this point the groundwork for the themes of repentance, truth, beauty, and morality have been set, making his work slightly easier to understand.

I plan on starting with a brief summary of Nietzsche’s life since Beyond Good and Evil can’t really be looked at in a vacuum, and would make the most sense if it is understood how his ideas outlined there have developed over a number of years and through various other works, with a prolonged pause on the Genealogy of Morals, the larger work from which Beyond Good and Evil comes from.

“The problem with defining “good” and “bad” is that it necessarily separates. Or better yet, unnecessarily. The two concept reside down a continuum, but not diametrically opposed. The problem most have in trying to reconstruct this continuum is that they understand it to exist in a straight line, with a finite beginning and end (despite the actual definition of “continuum”). Even those who don’t regard it as having endpoints will still assume that “good” is somewhere towards the right, and “bad” is um… that way (as they point towards the left), with some sort of nebulous space floating around in the middle, serving no other purpose than to separate the two concepts.”

“And that is the first (and perhaps biggest) problem with attempting to understand what each is. In defining them, allocating an orthographic rendering, the idea of these concepts becomes immutable. Yet the concepts do not. Most definitions of “good” or “bad” are vague at best. You see the word, and have some sort of prescribed idea of what it should mean, but everyone creates their own definition. Circumstances shape definitions. Outcomes change definitions. Even the most minute slice of time can be defined as either “good” or “bad,” but the perspective will alter this definition.

Think of past governments, rules, and laws. Do any of them seem unjust today? Downright barbaric? Sure, democracy wasn’t prevalent everywhere, and people didn’t get to vote for their dictators or policies, but how many people questioned them? It is easy enough to judge them, before realizing that the future will judge you. What is deemed morally wrong in our society may be perfectly fine five hundred years from now. Time doesn’t even need to elapse. Cross the globe, and see how others are living , and what they find to be perfectly normal, moral, sanctioned behavior. Judge them if you will, but keep in mind, they will judge right back. And that is the point.

Try to define “good” and “bad,” and you will find as many definitions as there are ways of translating these words. The mere act of trying to define them negates their real existence. As you are looking at them, one in terms of the other, you can’t help but for form the dichotomy in your mind. 

But in trying to search for the truth of these words, it must be remembered that there is no false.” 

“The book ends with an assertion of the difficulty to define anything. Language constantly fails to properly solidify concepts. In fact, the process of attempting to solidify concepts detracts from their purest form that does not conform to absolutes of any kind. Everything exists in a sort of gradient, fluctuating at different points. So to not be able to concisely define Nietzsche but rather rely on a compilation of knowledge from different sources serves to prove this point.”

When we get to Chapter 4, which is not really a chapter, but rather a list of his aphorisms, I will explain each one since more than a handful are ambiguous at best. I will also discuss the implications of the indignant man.

“‘For the indignant man, and he who perpetually tears and lacerates himself with his own teeth (or, in place of himself, the world, God, or society), may indeed, morally speaking, stand higher than the laughing and self-satisfying satyr, but in every other sense he is the more ordinary, more indifferent, and less instructive case. And no one is such a LIAR as the indignant man.’

Here man is depicted in general as amoral, while trying to outwardly demonstrate morality by looking down upon those who openly partake in what is considered sinful behavior – hide your own sin and then judge others to make yourself feel and appear better. 
But I think there is more to it. 
First, an infamous quote by Thomas Hobbes: “… the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.” 
While Hobbes is at the extreme of the spectrum in terms of opinions on man, the general idea remains, especially in conjunction with Nietzsche’s ideas on philosophers who constantly seek truth. 
Nietzsche condemns the majority of philosophers as seekers of truth connected to the greater good, constantly searching out a definite, irrefutable good at the core of humanity, led to believe that this is the only truth and anything else is a false image that needs to either be mediated, remedied, or simply glossed over for some higher meaning. 
As he later states, this is nonsense at its best. 
The indignant men aren’t only hypocritically indignant at others specifically, but rather indignant at the idea that such vices occurs (quite regularly at that). Speech without indignation is not hypocritical in that it allows for an understanding that vice exists, and is not necessarily bad, but simply is. To be indignant is to refute basic human nature. And those who assert an impervious belief in some superior virtuous truth while denying every other state of man, are liars.  
They either can’t see the truth of reality, which is much more in line with Hobbes’s sharp observation, or they purposely obfuscate it, indignant at the idea that it should prevail. 
Further, even those who are not in fact hypocrites, and practically self lacerate themselves in order to live up to the standards of this better good, serve no purpose to the larger humanity as they are unable to function. They are “less instructive” because through their goodness, have learned no life lessons to impart onto others. Mind you, these life lessons need not be on morality or avoidance of vice, but simply lessons in general. Unfortunately, when it comes to such worldly matters, these people are “indifferent,” mainly because they have no answers to offer. 
Which really brings me back to the previous point. Abstaining from offering advice, whether you have any or not, does not negate your conscious knowledge of the situation, which in this case is the human condition, imperfect, flawed, instinctual, etc. Avoidance does not negate awareness. Therefore, ‘no one is such a LIAR as the indignant man.'”

This will lead into the ramifications of having these men live within society, and how morality, as defined by the masses comprises a large part of moral law that has numerous effects on social structuring, namely government. The last chapter discusses the reasoning behind how we define ourselves, specifically those considered noble, and here I can again draw a parallel with Sartre’s ideas (to which we will be returning to later as we read Nausea) and Gramsci’s hegemony that relies on the notion that those in the ruling class are there because society as a whole feels they should be there, further serving their own feelings of self-entitlement. I know this is a little back tracking since both of these men came up with their theories after Nietzsche, and were most likely (at least slightly) inspired by him, but combined I think they really get to the core of Nietzsche’s argument on government, Nobility, and the ruling class.

I have no intentions of discussing Nietzsche’s concepts on eternal recurrence, other than with the statement that he believes one should live a life worth living, because that same life will be lived repeatedly for eternity. I will not subject my students to my Nietzschean exploration of time, history, and general circularity. I want them to understand his concepts in the general sense to the point where they can apply them elsewhere without necessarily getting into the minute nuances of his theories that are beyond the scopes of this course (unless of course they really want to, then they can come to my office hours and we can talk about Nietzsche all day).

At this point I will be assigning a short paper discussing some of the themes thus far (not a very involving paper, but more to make sure everyone understands what is going on).

And so my first five weeks for this class have been accounted for. I am sure you are all dying to know how the next five weeks will unfold, because who doesn’t love reading other people’s syllabuses? Well,  I am still working on it, but here is a hint: there will be Goethe and Chaucer, among other things.

The Everlasting What-If

In reading Keats’ Ode on a Grecian Urn the bittersweet parallel, or better yet, juxtaposition between reality and fantasy becomes apparent. Especially in the second and third stanzas.

Stanzas 2 and 3:

Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Are sweeter, therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear’d,
Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone:
Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave
They song, nor ever can those trees be bare;
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!

Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed
Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu;
And, happy melodist, unwearied,
For ever piping songs for ever new;
More happy love! more happy, happy love!
For ever warm and still to be enjoy’d,
For ever panting, and for ever young;
All breathing human passion far above,
That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloy’d,
A burning forehead, and a parching tongue. 

The everlasting sentiments embellished on the urn emphasize the ephemeral nature of reality, specifically in terms of joy, or the bits of happiness we are privy to. In other words, what we know to be real is only such for a moment.

In the fantasy world on the urn, everything is in a state of forever, and ever, and ever, unchanging, suspended in time, and unreal. Only in art is this possible. But is it beautiful? Maybe some sort of ideal, but… to never change? Trapped in one moment, never experiencing anything else, subsiding on potential? A constant state of “what if…”

The last lines of the poem have been interpreted in dozens, if not hundreds of ways, but I think they address this particular division between reality and some perceived form of the ideal.

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty, – that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

Those lines are inscribed on the urn. But what is beautiful is not the image on the urn, because that is not the truth. On earth we don’t live in a suspended state of reality. Truth on earth, all we know, and need to know, is living, moving forward in time, rife with experience, a wide array of emotions and encounters. Each one is magnificent in its own way. The image on that urn is a vignette of happiness, captured in its prime, plucked from reality at its most ripe point, but never allowed to mature, or fully exist. The potential is never fulfilled.

Leaves fall, seasons change. And each time it is a little different, nevertheless beautiful. Yet if you don’t live life with this knowledge, time will still pass, things will still change, but you will remain stuck in your own fantasy enthralled with how wonderful everything is. You are not living in the moment, but in one moment, blind to how much else you could cultivate that millisecond into if only you just let it pass. As for everything you still want to do and experience, all the questions you have… well there is always tomorrow. Except there isn’t always time, and by the time you realize this, it might just be too late. Then you can eternally exist in a different state of “what if.”

St. Agnes

I have decided to teach some Keats as well. I added a selection of his poems to one of my syllabuses. I am not sure why Keats. I mean, I like him, and surely enough his poems fit into the theme I built for the class, but so do many others. I was sitting at my desk today, reworking my lesson plan, and I thought of Keats’ poem, “The Eve of St. Agnes.” If you care to read it, you can find it on Bartleby here. It is not the only poem of his I will be using. Of course I will go over most of the Odes, and a couple of others (“To Autumn” is one of my favorites), but this one attracted me. I haven’t read it in many years, but from the pieces I did remember it vaguely reminded me of a poem I looked at several months ago from my childhood by M. Eminescu, who happened to be Keats’ contemporary. Rereading Keats’ poem I can see why I had that thought.

The poem works well with the supernatural theme of the course, and in many ways it is concerned with defining truth from different perspectives (which should really tell you something about the concept of truth).
The poem itself is simple enough, drawing on several previous works and myths. The story progresses slowly, and all 42 stanzas are dedicated to a plot that could not have lasted more than a few hours at most.
Yet the way it is written is what makes it so beautiful. The languid movement of plot is essential for taking in every detail. The poem, with its sensual undertones extends into every word. Keats is known for relying on the senses in his descriptions, and here, he relies on sight. Overtly the poem is eroticized through Porphyro’s actions; he sneaks into Madeline’s room, hides in her closet, and watches her undress for bed. Nevertheless, this scene is actually only moderately visual (Keats was asked to censure his original version for publication), and the truly magnificent details are saved for all of the minutia that surrounds Porphyro as he makes his way to the bed chamber, exits the closet, and even as he makes his way around the room while Madeline sleeps. The exotic fruit he sets out on tables around her sleeping frame are far more detailed and colorful than the pale sleeping form (the fruit sounds absolutely delicious in its prime of ripeness, candied and probably fantastic). The chandelier, cobwebs, and even window sill are described in meticulous detail. The poem is transformed into a painting, and the reader sees Porphyro stand still, setting the table for fruit, the unmoving Madeline in “azure-lidded sleep,” and the central piece to this tableau, the stained glass window above Madeline, in colors almost indescribable, yet Keats paints it in words nonetheless.
There are also the parts of the poem the reader doesn’t see. These don’t rely on the senses, and aren’t overtly explained. Yes, this is a very pretty poem, but it also has meaning, interrogating the difference between what is right and wrong. Porphyro is able to make his way into the castle and stealthily hide in Madeline’s closet with the assistance of her maid, Angela. Does Angela not realize what she is doing, or does she not think it is wrong. And is it wrong? Yes, he is sneaking around in her closet while she is getting undressed, but wasn’t the whole point of her doing this so that she may dream of him on St. Agnes’s Eve? Yes, she was expecting a dream as opposed to his real presence, and that contrast is bolded through her reaction in finding him – his real self appears dead in stark comparison to the fantastical dream she is having – but she does not protest or object to his appearance.
If anything is questionable in this poem it is not anyone’s morality. Frankly I am more puzzled by the fruit than anything else. I am unable to discern the reason for the fruit, or why Keats choses to dedicate entire stanzas to their decadent description (aside from bringing me a maddening craving for plums and candied apples all day). Of course I understand the sensuousness and eroticism in the way which the foods are presented, but it still makes little sense. Is he planning a picnic? He even brought his own tablecloth.
The poem ends as it begins, in the cold, but with a difference. While the start is cold and brooding, contrasting the revelers inside the warm castle with the Beadsman and Angela, who for one reason or another refuse to partake in the affair, the cold that ends the poem is merely a shadow of what was; Madeline and Porphyro leave to be wed in the moors, and as the Beadsmand and Angela lay dead and the party ends, it seems irrelevant.
Plenty of critics believe the poem is laden with betrayal. Madeline betrays her parents’ wishes and runs off with Porphyro (who they despise for reasons untold), Angela and Porphyro betray Madeline’s trust by sneaking into her room, and Angela betrays the household. I feel only the last of these is true. Angela betrays her employers by leading their enemy inside. Yet, the myth of St. Agnes’ Eve must be taken into account. The maiden, Madeline, fasts through dinner and goes to bed undressed, with her hands behind her pillow, for the sole purpose of hoping to dream of her future husband, and to see him appear before her. She confides in Angela how she dearly hopes it is Porphyro. She follows the instructions, and sure enough he is there. So what is the problem?
No one argues that they do run off together. Where is the betrayal? Frankly I think this is a matter of logistics. So she got him in the flesh as opposed to merely a dream, but the dream was supposed to profess the future. She had the dream, dreamt of him, woke up, he was there, and they got married. Sounds like a prophecy to me.
Moral of the poem? Morals are subject to interpretation.