Saturday, September 20, 2008

"Ode on Melancholy" (and other poems) John Keats

Keats the word drunk searched for resonance among vowel sounds which might give him an echo of his inner self. He sounded the empty coffin of his early death with patient knuckles, listening to the dull resonances given off by his certain immortality.

Lawrence Durrell

In my youth (cue mournful viols) Keats was that archetypal ‘poet’: boring, irrelevant, self -consciously archaic (Spenser’s baleful influence), crushingly conventional, and too wordy by half. On the page his poems bristled with references to Greek mythology, allegorical figures and Italian medieval literature. Unreadable.

However, the secret of Keats lies in getting him off the page, and onto one’s body. It is when you learn Keats by heart, and speak him aloud from memory, in the way that musicians perform, that his true genius reveals itself.

As a tubercular, Keats was obsessed with his breath, and this obsession often appears overtly in the poems:

…to take into the air my quiet breath…
…full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing…
…all breathing human passion far above….

As singers, actors and orators know, the vowel is what carries the voice; it is the vowel that vibrates the whole sounding chamber of the skeleton and carries the voice across distances. Keats, perhaps more than any other poet in the language apart from Shakespeare, achieves a perfect balance of vowel and consonant. His vowels enact on a phonetic, physical level the imagery of the words and bring his poetry into the realm of the sung, the incanted, a fact which does not reveal itself in reading silently from the page.
In this line from the Sonnet to Sleep:

And seal the hushed casket of my soul

the ‘ee’ sound in seal is created by squeezing the space in the mouth creating a long coffin-like place under the hard palate. In this line from the Ode on Melancholy:

And drown the wakeful anguish of my soul

notice how the same rhythm, and diction has been subtly altered, using an ‘ow’ sound in drown, creating a wide open space in the mouth, tongue flattened and pushed to the sides, as the mouth fills with breath, or the pressure of water. ‘Ow’ is, of course, a cry of pain, as ‘oh’ is a keen of sorrow, and these two vowels alternate with distressing frequency at the beginning and end of the first stanza, contributing to its anguished mood:

NO, no, go not to Lethe, neither twist
Wolfs-bane, tight-rooted, for its poisonous wine;
Nor suffer thy pale forehead to be kiss’d
By nightshade, ruby grape of Proserpine;
Make not your rosary of yew-berries,
Nor let the beetle, nor the death-moth be
Your mournful Psyche, nor the downy owl
A partner in your sorrow’s mysteries;
For shade to shade will come too drowsily,
And drown the wakeful anguish of the soul.

Keats is also capable of astonishing spiritual maturity. Throughout his life he wrestled with depression – his poverty, the savage rejection of his poetry by the literary establishment, the premature deaths of his immediate family, his own declining health and impending early death, about which he was more clear-sighted than his friends and doctors, his unrequited love and virginity - certainly gave him cause. This depression is present in his verse in the form of a Lear-like nihilism. In the first stanza alone of the Ode on Melancholy, negative forms appear nine times in as many lines. However, he is always clear about his own cure for depression: an absolute commitment to the contemplation of beauty:

…Yes! In spite of all/Some shape of beauty moves away the pall/From our dark spirits. …
…Thou, Silent Form, does tease us out of thought, as doth eternity…

Sometimes he is able to move away the depression by active thought:

Then on the shore/Of the wide world I stand alone and think/Till love and fame to nothingness do sink.

achieving a kind of Buddhist suspension of the anguish of the self. At others it is tortured and torturing thought itself which is the cause of the depression:

Where but to think is to be full of sorrow/And leaden eyed despairs

Although he sometimes comes close to the tortured consciousness of Milton and Dostoyevsky, he nonetheless always affirms the cosmic Yes!, which he finds in the active contemplation of beauty, whether in the ephemerality of nature, or the permanence of art.

I find this hugely consoling and miraculous, that this 20 year-old apprentice apothecary can sound his vowels across the centuries and teach me how to live with my self as I speak his words. It is the highest, holiest, most healing magic.

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