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Keats: The Myth of the Hero
By Dorothy Van Ghent, Jeffrey Cane Robinson
PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 1983 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
Introduction: The Scenario of the Poems
If one were to set Keats's poems up as a series of slates or lantern slides, each showing only the visual elements of a "plot," and were to run the sequence through in such a way that repeated episodes converged, one would find a single synoptic action or master plot emerging. The plot is pre-literary; it is psychologically anterior to any of the poems in which it appears. It could even be pantomimed. The individual poems could be looked upon as improvisations of thought, dialogue, and music.
The dramatis personae are few and the relationships they may assume with each other are not unlimited. The hero is a gifted young man of a labile, aspiring temperament, torn by conflicting emotions and consumed by ambition. He has a "double" or "anti-self" who is his complete opposite, a serenely powerful being who looks like a statue of Adonis or Apollo. The hero's problem is how to become his double. Three women move through the action. One is a maiden, who may play the part either of sister or bride. The second is a beautiful witch who assumes the mask of the virginal maiden to seduce the hero. The third is a great goddess, associated with vegetation, with the planets of the night sky, and with birth and death. She too may adopt the mask of the maiden. An old man may appear, playing either a benignant or a threatening part. Gods and numina inhabit the woods, sea, air, and underworld where the action takes place. A lofty architectural structure representing a castle, palace, or temple may also be used as setting.
The core of the action is a myth. It is about a fertility daemon who dies, descends into a dark seed-place, and is reborn as the son and consort of the queen-goddess of the world. The most ancient myths were simply sets of directions for the annual enactment of fertility and coronation ritual. The part of the nature daemon was played by the king or chief, who in the strictest practical sense was the daemon, for on him was projected the collective life of the group and the vitality of the food-area on which the group depended. In analogy with the seasonal cycle of vegetation and the death-birth cycle of animals and men, he had to "die" to be reborn as a young man invested with the group-mana of indestructible life. The queen or head-priestess played the part of the earth-goddess from whom all things are born. It was she who gathered up the limbs of her dismembered son and restored him to life. On his return as a youth he married her. It is the liturgy of this story that we shall trace in Keats's poems.
A myth is a collective product, consisting of all its versions. Stanley Edgar Hyman lists the psychological operations in the folk-transmission of myth as:
splitting, displacement, multiplication, projection, rationalization, secondary elaboration, and interpretation — as well as such more characteristically aesthetic dynamics as Kenneth Burke's principle of "completion" or the fulfillment of expectations, in the work as well as in the audience.
These operations, as he points out, are similar to those Freud found in "dream work." The same processes are found in the different versions Keats gave to his basic plot. The death of the hero is elaborated as a descent under the earth, withdrawal into the forest, the consummation of love ("love-death"), a nightmare of becoming petrified, actual murder, and a convulsive ordeal identical with that of birth. The hero is "split" into two characters, the one ecstatic and anguished, who dies over and over again like the mystery god Dionysos, and his Apollonian double, god of light, harmony, symmetry, and order. The sexual magic, food magic, and death magic associated with the queen-goddess allow her to be multiplied as genial earth-mother, Kore of the fields, muse, virgin bride, sexual sorceress, and veiled goddess of death. Each poem is a "secondary elaboration," at the verbal and conscious level, of the nuclear plot.
In tracing these processes and the archetypal or collective figures they manipulate — the personages of the drama, their ritual behavior — we shall be tracing a history of images, for their permutations in Keats's mind as he matured recapitulate their racial history over millennia. Keats was not aware of this history for he was engaged in making it; the emotional tensions of each poem are those of a discovery of the mind made upon itself. He had encountered the chief images of his plot in classical poetry and mediaeval romances, in the works of ancient scholiasts and mythographers and in those of eighteenth-century antiquarians, in fairy tales and fairy lore. But these representations had already undergone ages of psychological processing. Primitively, they were not representations at all, but, as F. M. Cornford says, "a real fact of human experience, namely the collective consciousness of a group in its emotional and active phase, expressed in the practices of primary sympathetic magic." Long cut adrift from their ritual origins, they had been interpreted as "imaginary" figures. The discovery that Keats's poems constantly make is that they are "real." They are real psychical powers focusing desire and anxiety on the critical junctures of life — birth, sex, and death — and their reality is guaranteed by their archetypal character. The myths and legends and ritual circumstance that constantly attracted Keats in his reading were those in which his own interior landscape has been culturally crystallized. Where parts were missing, he supplied them.
His nuclear plot naturally takes the form of a quest and discovery, for it is a venture of the mind into its own hidden resources. Like that primary pattern of adventure which Joseph Campbell has found in myths and fairy tales all over the world, and which he calls "monomyth," the quest has three phases: "separation — initiation — return." This, as he points out, is the formula of rites de passage, puberty rites and rites of initiation into priesthood or into magic brotherhoods, when the candidate is segregated from the tribe and put through severe physical ordeals which, if they are not fatal, so closely resemble a "death" that he comes back a changed person, oriented to a totally new set of relationships in the tribal life. This is also the formula of the fertility daemon's disappearance in winter, his "tearing asunder," and his rebirth in the spring. In the vast number of legends Campbell has assembled, the formula is expanded as follows:
A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.
Under various displacements and projections, the usual pattern in Keats's poems is the separation of the subject-self from the known and rational, its passage over a psychical threshold into a region of dangerous magnetic powers, and its return or attempted return. The return is exceedingly risky and often frustrated. The hero may simply vanish into the dark region of power, as in Endymion, or come back as a spectre, as in "La Belle Dame Sans Merci" and the "Ode to a Nightingale." The poet is compelled to improvise version after version of the adventure in order to find a manageable mode of return, by which the hero's "boon," gained from his experience, will be socially recognizable.CHAPTER 2
The Goddess of Many Names: Endymion
Endymion is a moon-poem. The chief complication of the plot is caused by the moon's appearance in three forms, her planetary form — which is the only one in which Endymion recognizes her — and as two maidens, one golden-haired and one black-haired. In following the plot simply as plot, one has to think of the moon as a separate character from the two maidens, since this is the way Endymion looks upon her. The poem is dominated by women; there are six of them who actively influence the plot, if we include Circe from Glaucus' story. They are the Moon (called variously Dian, Cynthia, Phoebe, and simply Moon), the nameless golden-haired maiden, Endymion's sister Peona, Venus, Circe, and the Indian maid. As for male characters besides the hero, Adonis is encountered in his winter "death" under the earth, and Glaucus, as an old man, accompanies Endymion on his sea-journey.
Since the Moon is the most important female character, she should be considered first. The most lengthy description of her is at the beginning of Book III, and is in two parts, the first part an exordium spoken by the poet, and the second spoken by Endymion from under the sea. The poet addresses her:
O Moon! the oldest shades 'mong oldest trees
Feel palpitations when thou lookest in:
O Moon! old boughs lisp forth a holier din
The while they feel thine airy fellowship.
Thou dost bless every where, with silver lip
Kissing dead things to life. The sleeping kine,
Couched in thy brightness, dream of fields divine:
Innumerable mountains rise, and rise,
Ambitious for the hallowing of thine eyes;
And yet thy benediction passeth not
One obscure hiding-place, one little spot
Where pleasure may be sent: the nested wren
Has thy fair face within its tranquil ken,
And from beneath a sheltering ivy leaf
Takes glimpses of thee; thou art a relief
To the poor patient oyster, where it sleeps
Within its pearly house. — The mighty deeps,
The monstrous sea is thine — the myriad sea!
O Moon! far-spooming Ocean bows to thee,
And Tellus feels his forehead's cumbrous load.
The Moon is the primary symbol of what Endymion is seeking. If the poem is read in terms of mythos, or plot, rather than as allegory, she is a good deal more than "the spirit of essential Beauty." She is a very old and venerable goddess, the "oldest trees" are holy to her; she can make dead things live ("kissing dead things to life"); she governs the geodynamic forces and makes mountains "rise and rise"; the beasts and birds and the creatures of the sea are under her governance; the "monstrous sea," the "myriad sea" is hers, and Ocean himself bows his tidal forehead to her, for she controls the tides.
If Keats had virtually "memorized" Lempriere's Classical Dictionary as he is said to have done, he knew this goddess' many names from Lemprière's frequently repeated lists: Diana, Proserpine, Hecate, Isis, Cybele, Ceres, Rhea, Ops, Magna Mater, Bona Mater, Bona Dea, and so on. An account of her that he had read in The Golden Ass of Apuleius describes her very much as she is described in Endymion:
About the first watch of the night when as I had slept my first sleep, I awaked with sudden fear and saw the moon shining bright as when she is at the full and seeming as though she leaped out of the sea. Then I thought with myself that this was the most secret time, when that Goddess had most puissance and force, considering that all human things be governed by her providence; and that not only all beasts private and tame, wild and savage, be made strong by the governance of her light and godhead, but also things inanimate and without life; and I considered that all bodies in the heavens, the earth, and the seas be by her increasing motions increased, and by her diminishing motions diminished: then as weary of all my cruel fortune and calamity, I found good hope and sovereign remedy, though it were very late, to be delivered from my misery, by invocation and prayer to the excellent beauty of this powerful goddess. Wherefore, shaking off my drowsy sleep I arose with a joyful face, and moved by a great affection to purify myself, I plunged my head seven times into the water of the sea; which number seven is convenable and agreeable to holy and divine things, as the worthy and sage philosopher Pythagoras hath declared. Then very lively and joyfully, though with a weeping countenance, 1 made this oration to the puissant goddess.
"O blessed Queen of Heaven, whether thou be the Dame Ceres which art the original and motherly source of all fruitful things on the earth, who after the finding of thy daughter Proserpine, through the great joy which thou didst presently conceive, didst utterly abolish the food of them of old time, the acorn, and madest the barren and unfruitful ground of Eleusis to be ploughed and sown, and now givest men a more better and milder food; or whether thou be the celestial Venus, who, at the beginning of the world, didst couple together male and female with an engendered love, and didst so make an eternal propagation of human kind, being now worshipped within the temples of the Isle Paphos; or whether thou be the sister of the God Phoebus, who hast saved so many people by lightening and lessening with thy medicines the pangs of Ephesus; or whether thou be called terrible Proserpine by reason of the deadly howlings which thou yieldest, that hast power with triple face to stop and put away the invasion of hags and ghosts which appear unto men, and to keep them down in the closures of the Earth, which dost wander in sundry groves and art worshipped in diverse manners; thou, which dost illuminate all the cities of the earth by thy feminine light; thou, which nourishest all the seeds of the world by thy damp heat, giving thy changing light according to the wanderings, near or far, of the sun: by whatsoever name or fashion or shape it is lawful to call upon thee, I pray thee to end my great travail and misery and raise up my fallen hopes, and deliver me from the wretched fortune which so long time pursued me."
In this account, she is Isis, Ceres, Venus, the many-breasted Diana of Ephesus, and the "terrible Proserpine" with triple face, or the triple Hecate. She is moon goddess, corn goddess, goddess of love, goddess of childbirth, and goddess of the dead. She governs all things animate and inanimate. Her "divine and venerable face" is "worshipped even of the gods themselves." As her whole figure mounts out of the sea, she is seen to wear the crescent moon on her forehead, with blades of corn sprouting out of it, and serpents from the underworld supporting it. Her clothing is of diverse colors, white, yellow, and red, and she is wrapped in the folds of a dark and fearful cloak — "which troubled my sight and spirit sore."
Keats preserves her threefold character in Endymion by having her appear as Moon, as golden-haired maiden, and as the dark-haired Indian maid. As Endymion does not know that these are all the same person, his sense of identity is torn to pieces with guilt for his infidelities ("I have a triple soul!" — "Would I were whole in love!" — "I have no self-passion or identity.") [End. IV.95, 472, 476-77]. He thus achieves his main plot-complication and suspense; and by the same means he is able to preserve the ritual form of the ancient mystery initiations, where the candidate for immortality had to go symbolically through all the spheres of nature, earth, water, and air; for his hero is obliged to seek the goddess in all the realms she rules — in Book II, the underworld, in Book III, the sea, and in Book IV, the celestial regions.
Excerpted from Keats: The Myth of the Hero by Dorothy Van Ghent, Jeffrey Cane Robinson. Copyright © 1983 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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