Books: Cultural Amnesia — John Keats |
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John Keats (1795–1821) exemplifies the difference between the past and yesterday. Wordsworth and Coleridge are in the past. Even Browning, who came later and who in so many ways was a prototype of what we call the modern, is still in the past. But Keats, like Byron, is just yesterday. Every modern poet is obliged to have a view on Keats, as if he were part of the living competition. Sometimes an adverse view is even more packed with cherished information than an approving one. (Collected in his deliberately provocative book What Became of Jane Austen? And Other Questions, Kingsley Amis’s essay on Keats is a fine example of the critical attack that brings out every virtue.) A searching critique of Keats could be built up just from what he wrote about himself, especially in his Letters, collected into a book which outstrips even Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet as a document that goes to the centre of the poetic life. Keats’s observation on the unnecessarily high quality of Shakespeare’s “bye-writing” is an example of how the young writer could bring to the examination of language the same analytical intensity with which he examined the world. It was a quality he shared with Pushkin: their lives overlapped, but they didn’t know about each other. They might, however, have shared the one mind when it came to precocity of technique, the technique beyond technique, the technique that includes every modulation of the natural speaking voice; and with both it is necessary to remember that they died at the beginning of their careers, not at the end. The forbearance that we bring to Shelley; the astonishment that we bring to Büchner and Radiguet; the sense of being robbed by fate that we bring to Masaccio and Bizet; we must bring all these things to Keats, or miss the full point about the arbitrary fate that leaves us thinking of him as a promise only partially fulfilled. We should also remember that Keats, like Chekhov and Schnitzler later on, was trained in medicine at a time when medicine could not yet cure tuberculosis: he lived and died, that is, in a time when it was normal for talent to be killed at random. In the modern age we don’t regard that as normal, even when it is common. Hence our outrage when it happens, and the permanent indignation with which we find it so much harder to come to terms than our ancestors did with mere regret.

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Nothing is finer for the purposes of great productions than a very gradual ripening of the intellectual powers.

COMING FROM KEATS, the remark was either generous or nervous. On any objective estimate, he was a prodigy: and a prodigy not just on the level of raw verbal talent, but in the breadth and reasonableness of his mind. (There is a striking contrast here with Shelley, who was rarely reasonable even when brilliant.) Given all the qualities at a young age, it would have been large of Keats to envy the plodders who acquire them, if at all, only over time. Or it would have been large of him had he known how blessed he was. But perhaps he thought he wasn’t, in which case he was being jumpy. We tend to think he was jumpy, because we tend to believe Byron had something when he mocked Keats for letting bad reviews get to him: the mind, that very fiery particle ... snuffed out by an article. (Because the rhyme clicked, the barb stuck: a couplet, like a caricature, can set the terms of discussion far into the future.)

But nobody who lacked a solid inner artistic confidence could have written the Odes. When I was first in London, a fair copy in Keats’s best hand of the “Ode to a Nightingale” was on display in a glass cabinet in his house. His best hand was a thing of sculptural beauty, like Petrarch’s, Rilke’s or Rimbaud’s. Though the ink looked barely dry, the ode might as well have been chiselled into a slab of marble. Lack of confidence was not his problem. He would just have liked to live, thrive and grow wise. There is no good reason to believe that he would not have gone on developing: there are reasons, but they are all bad. Kingsley Amis left that consideration of Keats’s possible future development aside, as if it didn’t matter. Not normally prey to obtuseness, Amis should have taken warning from a previous example. F. R. Leavis had done the same for Shelley, with plainly ludicrous results, because the unastonishing conclusion of Leavis’s essay was that Shelley was not as good as Shakespeare. A Swiftian method of textual comparison was used to establish this. Leavis’s owlish judgement obviously meant nothing without a consideration of whether Shelley, had he lived, might not conceivably have got a bit better. Amis at least conceded that Keats’s initial charm was Shakespearean in its buttonholing melodic effect. Amis, indeed, said that no English reader could know much about poetry who did not think at some time in his life that Keats, because of the initial impact of his verbal music, was the greatest poet in English after Shakespeare. But Amis definitely meant that it had to be an early time in the reader’s life: that an enthusiasm for Keats was a callow enthusiasm, because the poetry was callow poetry. Even if Amis was right on the point, it is hard to see why Keats’s poetry, had he lived, should not have grown more mature. Keats might have had everything, but he still needed time. He knew that within himself. Only twenty-six years old, he died knowing it, and should surely be granted the validity of his own insight. Today’s young tourists of a literary bent, when they pass, on the Spanish Steps in Rome, the window of his last resting place, are being granted an insight into the fearful realities of a world without antibiotics.

Degas said he was more interested in talent at forty than in talent at twenty. We think the remark good because of our general conviction that anyone who credits himself with a vocation should prove it by staying the course. Keats’s remark fits into that view, so it, too, wins our approval. But in fairness we should not forget the artists who reached such an intensity and complication of achievement at an early age that we can think of them as fulfilled even if they died young. Masaccio and Seurat are the two clearest cases in painting. In literature the French seem to specialize in the phenomenon of the nonpareil prodigy: during the Revolution they had André Chénier, whose neo-classical measures were certainly the complete product even if he himself was not, and in modern times they had both Radiguet and Alain-Fournier. The German language boasts the most amazing literary prodigy of all: Büchner, whose Dantons Tod sums up the lifetime’s political experience of a man sixty years older than its author—Burckhardt might have written its last act. In music, Mozart and Chopin were old stagers compared with Schubert and Bellini, dead at thirty-one and thirty-three, respectively. Speculation about what Schubert and Bellini might have done had they lived can continue for ever, but despite Alfred Einstein’s warning that we ought not to think of the brilliant young dead musicians as in any way complete, we do in fact think of them as complete artistic personalities: we don’t think, “Well, that was a beautiful piece from the man who one day would have been Schubert” or “What a pity that “Prendi l’annell’ti dono’ betrays none of the restrained coherence that a fully developed Bellini might have given it.” We think of them, that is, in the same way as we think of Rimbaud, who lived out his life; but who, as an artist, really was frühvollendet, to use Einstein’s word—completed early. The question is whether Keats would have been the same: a prodigy who, had he lived, would have gone no further. Surely our only reason for entertaining that notion is that he was so very, very good, and we find it uncomfortable to contemplate how rich his career might have been had he been allowed to live it through. It might have realigned the whole history of English literature by giving it a second apex: a turn-up for the books.

There is also the consideration that when we go back even so short a distance as to the early nineteenth century—only a few generations—we have already moved out of our time, the time of arbitrary premature death from politics, and entered something even more frightening by our standards, the time of arbitrary premature death from disease. The American philosopher Charles Pierce, in the title of his best-known book, had a phrase that captured the resulting dilemma: Values in a Universe of Chance. Looking back to the long pre-modern human era when life was valued at a pin’s fee, we should be careful, as critics of the arts, not to take with us our sense of a reasonable expectation of health and longevity. We need to cultivate a feeling for the suddenness and randomness of God’s wrath, because it is almost certainly true that the urge of genius towards artistic coherence was in reaction to exactly that. With Keats, though the age of preventive medicine was arriving—as a physician, he would have been part of it—we are still in that old continuity. When we see, as his powers of evocation make us bound to see, the mental picture of his nymph’s filmy clothes sliding down her body on the Eve of St. Agnes, we are seeing the living body with such intensity because of the intensity with which he saw dead bodies in the dissecting room. The dark knowledge behind his light moments was once the constant background radiation behind all creative life. As Louis MacNeice said of the ancient world, “It was all so unimaginably different, and all so long ago.” But we have to imagine it, or else lose our grip on the past. What we need is a trick of the mind, unobtainable with any known drug, by which we can imagine how it must have felt when the only possible way to view reality without the benefit of religious faith was to despair. Imagining that, we will find it easier to realize why Lucretius committed suicide, although even harder to believe that he should have composed the presciently realistic De rerum natura before he subtracted himself from the game of chance whose full arbitrariness he had so bravely faced. Many poets before Keats had caught his tone of realism, but he sustained it, and one of the most remarkable of his many precocities is that he intensified it, all the way to the end. The end came too soon and much of his realism was veiled in romance, but underneath the romance he saw things as they were, and wrote them down as if to record the texture of life were his deepest compulsion. He probably felt the same way about dying, but he could no longer lift his pen.