Keats, Negative Capability, and the Turn (part 1 of 3)

29 08 2009


John Keats loved the poetic turn.

Perhaps this goes without saying.  Countless significant poets love turns, employing turns beautifully and strategically in their poems.

But it’s especially important to acknowledge Keats’s love of the turn because of how it stands as a challenge to something else Keats is much more famous for valuing in poetry: negative capability.

A number of the details of Keats’s life and work point to the importance of the turn for him and his poetry.

Keats loved humor.  Even Keats’s most famous biographer Walter Jackson Bate, a biographer who does not emphasize Keats’s humor, acknowledges that Keats possessed an “efforvescent humor.”  And humor thrives on the turn–jokes, as combinations set-ups and punch lines, almost are archetypes of structure and surprise.   Turns, as we will see, occur throughout Keats’s oeuvre, including, of course, his light verse.

The techniques required for the successful deployment of humor are not foreign to more serious poetic undertakings.  As noted in this blog’s Turned onto Turns: Comments on Structure, M. L. Rosenthal notes in The Poet’s Art,

Pleasure, play, wit, comedy: it is hard, offhand, to think of these words, or concepts, in relation to deeply serious poetry.  The connection, in fact, may be the most difficult thing about any art for people to grasp (apart from being attuned to the medium itself if its values—color, bodily movement, spatial balancings, currents of tonality, dynamics, and so on—are unfamiliar).  Much of the character of poetry as an art, rather than as a mere statement of ideas or personal expression, depends on this quality of formal play.  This quality militates against sentimentality (the demand for unearned emotional response) and other sorts of false eloquence.  It provides the distancing that allows a poem to build itself as an organic construct in its own right.”

What Rosenthal calls “formal play,” I might prefer to call “structural play,” but regardless of terms, the deeper truth remains: there is less of a distance between vital comedic and vital serious poetry than might appear at first glance.  Such closeness is made clear in Keats’s oeuvre in many places, but I’ll point here to just two.

In the letter Keats sends to his friend Benjamin Bailey on March 13, 1818, Keats reveals how important the turn is to him in a way that is both serious and witty.  In the list of “Things real, things semi-real, and no things” he lists in this letter, the real things Keats names are: “existences of Sun Moon & Stars and passages of Shakespeare.”  Much more than either a simple enumeration of what for Keats is substantive or yet another Keatsian celebration of the stellar Shakespeare, this list of real things importantly is a demonstration of what for Keats is a substantial reality: the surprising poetic turn.  That is, not only are those heavenly bodies real, and not only is Shakespeare’s writing also real in addition to them, but, we must understand, the surprise which Keats creates–and which we feel when we, after being lulled by the rote listing of the astronomical bodies, recognize the thrilling incorporation of the seemingly out of place “and passages of Shakespeare”–also is very real.  Keats is being serious and lovely here, of course, but he’s also being witty.  He certainly deploys the structural strategies of the joke (set-up and punch line), and in deploying these strategies he’s also pointing to how real such a strategy (and its effects) is (and are) for him.

Keats’s letters are filled with such turns.  In “Multiple Readers, Multiple Texts, Multiple Keats,” (in Romantic Complexity: Keats, Coleridge, and Wordsworth), Keats scholar Jack Stillinger states that the “oscillation between seriousness and hilarity, which we find throughout the letters, is one of their chief attractions to readers.”  According to Stillinger (and I agree wholeheartedly–I’ve included it as the only letter in Voltage!, my list of poems with great turns), one of Keats’s funniest and greatest letters is his letter of August 6, 1818, to Mrs. James Wylie, the mother-in-law of Keats’s brother George.  George and his wife Georgiana have emigrated to the United States, leaving Mrs. Wylie bereft of their company, and Keats, also away (on a walking tour), writes a letter to Mrs. Wylie that begins in tones of utmost seriousness about how he wishes that he could be a comfort to her in her loneliness.  Keats writes,

“It was a great regret to me that I should leave all my friends, just at the moment when I might have helped to soften away the time for them….I should have liked to remain near you, were it but for an atom of consolation, after parting with so dear a daughter…I wish above all things, to say a word of Comfort to you, but I know not how.  It is impossible to prove that black is white, It is impossible to make out, that sorrow is joy or joy is sorrow…”

At this point in the letter, Keats suddenly breaks from this train of thought.  (The break is inscribed in the letter with a very long dash.)  He in fact turns to give an account of his walking tour, an account which is a comic tour de force.  For the rest of the letter, Keats is silly, absurd, and ribald.  (If you haven’t, do read the letter–you won’t regret it.)  Keats famously says that the Grecian Urn “dost tease us out of thought,” but this also is exactly what Keats is attempting to do with this letter: to tease Mrs. Wylie out of her own loneliness.  And it’s hard to imagine Keats not succeeding in his endeavor at least to some extent.  It’s hard to imagine Mrs. Wylie not smiling or laughing at Keats’s lovely, friendly buffoonery; it’s hard to imagine Mrs. Wylie not being transported, if only for a moment, from what one could only imagine to have been her real sorrow.

Even given the above evidence, that turns are real things for Keats, however, is most evident in his sonneteering, an aspect of Keats’s work I plan to explore in the next part of this series of posts.  For now, though, I want to close with a speculation: we also can see the importance of the turn in Keats’s poetic work in the places where he is confounded by a turn.  Most famously, this occurs in the fragments of Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion.  Each of these poems breaks (and so becomes and is abandoned as a fragment) right where a major turn is taking place: where the new god Apollo comes onto the scene.

It’s understandable that Keats did not succeed in making this turn: this is a tough turn to make, perhaps even an impossible one.  That is, while it is possible to represent the old gods (of power, identity, and rhetoric), or to describe a scene between narrator and muse, it’s quite another matter to sort out how to represent a new god who somehow signifies a whole new manner of expression and artistry.  (As a number of critics have pointed out, Keats succeeds in taking this turn by giving up these two planned epics and taking up the task of speaking in the new way in his Odes.)

But it’s not insignificant that Keats’s epics stopped where they did.  That they stopped at a major turn underscores the fact that Keats as poet strove to take turns.  He worked to make the turn occur, even trying to greatly rewrite Hyperion into The Fall of Hyperion.  And when the turn did not take shape, the poem was left by Keats as an unfinished fragment.

Successful turns abound in Keats’s oeuvre just as they do in the oeuvres of so many great poets.  But even where unsuccessful, these efforts toward making turns reveal Keats’s great interest in the turn as a vital part of what makes great poems.

To be continued…