The Romantic poet John Keats, considered by many as one of the greatest poets in the English language, has long been the subject of attention from scholars who seek to understand him and poets who seek to emulate him. Bridging these impulses, A Brighter Word Than Bright is neither historical biography nor scholarly study, but instead a biography of Keats’s poetic imagination. Here the noted poet Dan Beachy-Quick enters into Keats’s writingboth his letters and his poemsnot to critique or judge, not to claim or argue, but to embrace the passion and quickness of his poetry and engage the aesthetic difficulties with which Keats grappled.
Combining a set of biographical portraits that place symbolic pressure on key moments in Keats’s life with a chronological examination of the development of Keats-as-poet through his poems and letters, Beachy-Quick explores the growth of the young man’s poetic imagination during the years of his writing life, from 1816 to 1820. A Brighter Word Than Bright aims to enter the poems and the mind that wrote them, to explore and mine Keats’s poetic concerns and ambitions. It is a mimetic tribute to the poet’s life and work, a brilliant enactment that is also a thoughtful consideration.
About the Author
Dan Beachy-Quick is an associate professor of English at Colorado State University. His most recent poetry collection, Circle’s Apprentice, won the 2012 Colorado Book Award in Poetry and was named a notable book by the Academy of American Poets. A graduate of the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop, he has authored several other books of poetry as well as collections of essays and short fiction, including Work from Memory, Wonderful Investigations, and A Whaler’s Dictionary. He has been a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, the PEN Prize in Literature for Poetry, and the Poetry Society of America’s William Carlos Williams Prize, and his work has been supported by the Lannan Foundation. He lives in Fort Collins, Colorado.
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A Brighter Word Than Bright
Keats at Work
By DAN BEACHY-QUICK
UNIVERSITY OF IOWA PRESSCopyright © 2013 Dan Beachy-Quick
All rights reserved.
Young Keats, Weeping Beneath the Desk
Keats's prodigal mother returned to the family when he was an adolescent; his father had died in a riding accident when he was eight. His mother returned, but returned consumptive. Keats took it upon himself to nurse her, this mother whose impulsiveness, whose enthusiasm, he himself so deeply shared and was shaped by. He would hardly let another person give her medicine, so vigilant was he in his duty.
When he returned to school, summer being over, he had hopes his mother would recover. Such was not the case. When the news came, young Keats—too young yet to have any sense of himself as a poet, but in whom the Poet already dwelled—was devastated. This boy who had earned the acceptance of others by being able to beat them into admiration, this fighter, this scrapper, went to the master's desk and bent down underneath it, from which darkness the other boys wept to hear Keats weeping.
The darkness underneath that desk didn't mask his grief, but gave it a maternal housing, as if one could return to the womb of the mother forever gone, and there bewail the terrible fact. The young man crying beneath the desk, weeping there in that darkness, the close-chambers making the sound of his own sorrow echo around him there in that cave underneath the desk's top, becomes for us looking backward an allegorical portrait. The dark enclosure mimics the womb, and in ways the boy could not yet fathom in his grief, his weeping below the desk prefigures a rebirth in which the man will sit before it and write those poems whose long concerns include what the relation of a mortal life is to beings immortal. That desk becomes for the Poet in Keats the solid symbol of all the boy has lost; it marks, too, what he will become. The accurate portrait isn't the boy crying; that boy is hidden. It is a trespass to seek him there, though his schoolmates could hear the echoing sobs, and so, perhaps, can we. The portrait is the desk itself, where forever in the cloistered dark a bereft boy weeps, where in the room's light sit pen and ink and a sheaf of paper waiting to be darkened into song. The portrait is not only the desk, but the classroom; and the building in which the classroom sits, whose front of "the purest red brick" that is "wrought by means of moulds into rich designs of flowers and pomegranates, with heads of cherubim over niches" marks the first bower in which the young Keats finds his mind enclosed.
Let us say that the reader, like the spider, has many eyes. Those eyes see not only that which is immediate, but that which reveals itself only in hindsight, only in time past, and sees that past as immediate, as present. Let's say the reader is a spider with eyes symbolic. Those eyes see the young Keats mourning in the desk's dark cavern; those eyes also see the mature Keats reading at a desk, writing at a desk; those eyes also see that the grief-stricken child, and the poet gleaning from his mind the poem, do the same work at the same time. Some music sobs up into song. Some song digs down and confronts what it also must comfort.
Each morning the Muses sing; in their song, it's always morning. They sing of time, but do not sing in it. Hesiod begins his Theogony in their invocation:
I begin my song with the Helikonian Muses;
they have made Helikon, the great god-haunted
mountain, their domain;
their soft feet move in the dance that rings
the violet-dark spring and the altar of mighty Zeus.
They bathe their lithe bodies in the water of Permessos
or of Hippokrene or of god-haunted Olmeios.
On Helikon's peak they join hands in lovely dances
and their pounding feet awaken desire.
From there they set out and, veiled in mist,
glide through the night and raise enchanting voices ...
It was they who taught Hesiod beautiful song
As he tended his sheep at the foothills of god-haunted
The Muses sing, each day they sing, the story of the creation of the world entire, and sing of those gods whose powers riddle and haunt the world still. The Muses teach the poet his song as he tends his sheep. Perhaps he overhears what is not his to hear, and his own song seeks forgiveness for that trespass even as it seeks recognition; perhaps his mind grew inspired when from his duty he grew distracted, noting the bees so punctual to the waiting clover.
The Muses sometimes "bathe their lithe bodies" in the Hippocrene, that same fountain Keats will—mired so in time, but so heedless of its chain—wish for a "blushful" beaker of to quicken again the dull ache of his numb heart back into inspired life. Keats thirsts for the presence of the Muses. Thirst includes desire, requires it. To awaken to the song the Muses sing is also to "awaken desire" within oneself, and the poet who can hear the god-haunted song the Muses sing finds himself haunted—for desire is a kind of haunting. The desire-haunted poet is one who is capable not only of reaching Helicon's heights, but also of being led astray, following not the Muses as they return up the mountain, but tracing through the gloom those muse-like others who, not singing themselves, create in the poet desire that sings.
Keats feels the threat inside desire's promise—or is it the promise inside desire's threat?—from the onset of his writing poems. In one of his earliest lyrics he writes:
Fill for me a brimming bowl,
And let me in it drown my soul:
But put therein some drug design'd
To banish Woman from my mind.
For I want not the stream inspiring,
That heats the sense with lewd desiring;
But I want as deep a draught
As e'er from Lethe's waves was quaft,
From my despairing breast to charm
The image of the fairest form
That e'er my rev'ling eyes beheld,
That e'er my wand'ring fancy spell'd!
From the earliest poems, Keats feels a crisis within desire—a schism that complicates the very notion of creative work. The poem demands an erotic effort that mimics love's own nature: that it become a desire-haunted region whose end isn't arrival so much as it is pursuit. Love requires lack, that sense of want that makes the one desired not simply a kind of attraction, but more deeply, an existential pull: it is exactly she who seems to promise to fill what in the self is lacking. To "banish Woman from my mind" only deepens that lack, one that requires Lethe's draught so as to forget desire's damage—making emptiness emptier, lack more lacking—and forgetfulness becomes Love's paradoxical realm, where one can observe who one wants without the pain of wanting her. Keats predicts for himself a difficulty from whose Gordian knot he'll never remove himself: he wants to "banish Woman from my mind" only to behold her once again before his "rev'ling eyes." Keats wants the mind's own imaginative matter to leap through forgetfulness back into being, and so by his own forgetfulness—of self and self-history and self-want—return pure, essential, whole. But the Poet in Keats is too deeply attuned to desire's music to believe that any wanting can purify itself of its own erotic nature—a nature that knows that self and other must trespass, must intermingle, must rupture the minor reality of any single self in order to dwell in the more dubious, consummate world. This sense of being is in its very nature desirous and instilling of desire, witness to the erotic other in all her otherness. Hers is also, almost always, an otherness embedded in the mind of the one who loves: the poet, who finds trapped in his mind the image of the lovely being who traps him. It is hard work to be under the spell of the Muse.
When Keats gives Clarke a group of poems to show Leigh Hunt, he seems a little abashed that "the Muse is so frequently mentioned." Almost all of the poems of the time are addressed to a Muse, only some of them Helicon's immortal goddesses. He writes sonnets in honor of those whose company he soon will keep: Hunt, Haydon, Clarke, and his brothers Tom and George. He writes sonnets to those poets he most admires: Wordsworth, Chatterton, Byron, Milton, Spenser. He sings back to Apollo Apollo's own song. Keats calls out to the muses near at hand as fervently as he calls back to the Muses of the old, ongoing world. Those worlds—the Hunt circle, his brothers, and the god-haunted mountains—are not separate worlds for Keats, though it would be foolish to call them one. Keats feels the mythic underlay to life's daily surface, and the poems begin, as soon as he devotes himself to the writing of them, to seek ways to draw those worlds into their curious consummation. Keats knows this himself, knows it keenly. He writes to Clarke in a verse letter:
The air that floated by me seem'd to say,
"Write! thou wilt never have a better day."
And so I did. When many lines I'd written,
Though with their grace I was not oversmitten,
Yet, as my hand was warm, I thought I'd better
Trust to my feelings, and write you a letter.
Such an attempt required an inspiration
Of a peculiar sort,—a consummation;—
The poem is that consummation—the page beneath the words a place of erotic potency, where creative expression reaches completion not in the poet's final utterance, but in the creative reception of the listening other whose attention commingles two minds into one. The poem becomes a work that affirms two lives genuinely intermingled at the very place that mingling occurs. For Clarke and Keats, that place was Clarke's home, where they "revel'd in a chat that ceased not / When at night-fall among your books we got." And those feelings to which Keats trusts are feelings more precise than concepts allow; they are the very stuff of the nerves inspired. For Clarke would walk Keats halfway back to the house where the young man apprenticed to a country doctor; they would shake hands, and then Clarke would return. Keats would listen, he says, to the footsteps until they disappeared. But wait—they haven't disappeared. The Muses have brought him a song through the air, a strange song, but real. Clarke walks on, heard once again through the fact of that silence slowly enveloping him: "You chang'd the footpath for the grassy plain." The foot in the grass is another song, a quieter one, as the Muse of the bent grass knows, than the foot on the hard, weary road; and Keats does not turn homeward until he hears it.
Not only laden with the full-blown flower's scent, the air hums with bees in flight, wending their way from bloom to bloom.
What is more soothing than the pretty hummer That stays one moment in an open flower, And buzzes cheerily from bower to bower?
To imagine fully the world of Keats's poem, a reader must hear the steady drone of the bee's wings in flight. That hum hums beneath many of the poems, predicts the later gnats and their "mournful wail," creates a drone so steady it ceases to be heard even as it is ever present, so ever present it seems almost like silence—a silence one hears.
In classical Indian music, the tambura produces a buzzing drone against which the melody of the raga plays. The drone is present to create the silence needed for the melody to be heard, as if a creative silence must be created within a silence of negation, a blank that does not deny the world, but makes it possible.
Radio telescopes pick up from the very edge of the universe in every direction the earliest evidence of the universe's agony, its coming into being. It sounds like a steady, static buzz. When astronomers add computer-generated color to the finding, the whole universe is surrounded by a creamy beige the color of old, thick paper.
Keats creates within his poems a drone, often bees, sometimes gnats. The drone is not limited to sound. Flowers scent the air unceasingly. The violent critical reaction of Keats's own time to the "Cockney" influence in the poems, their overabundant luxury, failed to see the deep necessity of such sensory saturation. Less virulent forms of the same criticism persist today, a steady stream of dismissing the early poems as the young poet's failing, if still needed, experiments. Such critiques mistake depth for shallowness, mistake a young poet forging the phenomenological base of his poetic for "style." Incipient in Keats, even now in 1816, is the sense that a poem founds a world it also finds. The poem is that world, formed of words and which words reveal. For a word to be heard, it needs silence. To exist, such silence must be heard, must also be created. Keats creates such silence; such silence is the first creative act, and the poems must include in them their own origin, the nothing against which something occurs. This singing silence, this silence that presents itself, comes to greater and greater concern as Keats writes into the fullness of his power. At greatest crisis, this silence becomes silent itself. That silence is the Grecian Urn.
Sacred & Profane
Sometimes I think a poetic presses down upon the poet's mind as does a seal upon the soft wax that closes a letter. Sometimes I think it takes a lifetime for the seal to press down, and with every poem, year after year, the impression presses deeper. The early poems in a poet's life show the shallow edges of a concern that in the last poems will be deeply marked.
That poetic seal promises other meanings. The image on the seal closes from view those words meant only for the recipient's eyes. The image faces all who hold the letter, a public value. But the image keeps secret other words, a sacred value.
It is worth noting that the waxen image must be broken for the letter to be read.
Keats writes two poems to his brother George, one a sonnet and one of much greater length. In both, the young poet expresses—almost naively, so strenuous is their enthusiasm—certain poetic ideals that will only deepen over the course of the coming years. In the sonnet, he writes:
E'en now, dear George, while this for you I write,
Cynthia is from her silken curtains peeping
So scantly, that it seems her bridal night,
And she her half-discover'd revels keeping.
But what, without the social thought of thee,
Would be the wonders of the sky and sea?
Keats wants his brother to know that he has witnessed the goddess even as she discovers the secret of her bridal night. To interpret the image simply as a metaphor of romantic fancy is to dismiss its devotion to imagination's fevered transport. Keats can see, he says, through those veils that keep the moon merely the moon. His work vaults him into sacred glimpses, and the work of the poem is to show how the sacred might show itself forth within the confines of the profane world, how the moon can be moon and Cynthia at once. We see the sacred discovering a secret, Cynthia's "half-discover'd revels" of her bridal night. It is a strange thing to suggest, that there is that which the goddess must herself discover—it is as if in her peering out the curtains, the moon peering out the scant clouds, she steps out of her own godly capacity, omniscience gently dropped away as a wedding dress drops away, to discover what can be found in no other way: the revels of the bridal chamber.
It seems past human nature to turn one's eyes away just as the goddess appears, but Keats does. He says there are no "wonders of the sky and sea" without the "social thought" of his brother. The couplet values the profane, and so the sacred retreats, and the poem ends. But such dichotomy dissatisfies reader and poet both. In the longer poem, Keats returns to similar imagery to speak more confoundingly of his aspiration (an aspiration perhaps only discovered by the writing of the poem that expresses it, and so explanatory of the need to unfold the sonnet's brevity into the later poem's extent):
The sage will mingle with each moral theme
My happy thoughts sententious; he will teem
With lofty periods when my verses fire him,
And then I'll stoop from heaven to inspire him.
Lays have I left of such a dear delight
That maids will sing them on their bridal night.
Keats has exchanged places with the moon. Now he is at height, the atmosphere ethereal his verse has cast him up to, and his own song descends to give melody and words to maidens on their wedding night. The conditions of the sonnet find themselves reversed, and no longer is Keats choosing the social over the sacred. He is seeking instead a way to intertwine opposed realities. Cynthia's wedding night and the earthly maiden's similar revels would all sing the same song. It is the very song that ties them together.
Excerpted from A Brighter Word Than Bright by DAN BEACHY-QUICK. Copyright © 2013 by Dan Beachy-Quick. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF IOWA PRESS.
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Table of Contents
A Note on the Book.................... xvii
FIRST PORTRAIT: Young Keats, Weeping Beneath the Desk.................... 1
Sacred & Profane.................... 12
SECOND PORTRAIT: Apprenticeship.................... 31
The Burden of a Shepherd Song.................... 37
THIRD PORTRAIT: Ascent & Descent.................... 54
FOURTH PORTRAIT: Of Thrushes & Sparrows (A Palimpsest, 1817–1820).......... 84
Of the Odes: A Speculative Context.................... 91
Indolence; or, The First Seen Shades Return.................... 96
Psyche; or, The Wreath'd Trellis of a Working Brain.................... 102
Melancholy; or, The Rainbow of the Salt Sand-Wave.................... 109
Nightingale; or, Fled Is That Music.................... 114
Urn; or, To What Green Altar.................... 124
Autumn; or, Careless on a Granary Floor.................... 130
FIFTH PORTRAIT: Envelopes (Opened & Unopened) & Aeolian Harps.............. 136
The Many Last Months: Imagination's Ambivalence.................... 141
SIXTH PORTRAIT: The Late Flowers.................... 147
LAST PORTRAIT: Of His Hand.................... 149