Review of Robert Gittings and Earl Wasserman.

[Review of Robert Gittings, John Keats: The Living Year, Earl Wasserman, The Finer Tone: Keats' Major Poems, Newel F. Ford, and The Prefigurative Imagination of Keats. Queen's Quarterly 41.4 (1954-5): 561-4.]


The first two of these books represent two entirely different approaches to Keats’s major work.  Mr Gittings’ book is largely a biographical reconstruction with some illumination of the poems from his biographical discoveries; Mr Wassermann’s book is a direct interpretation of some of the poems in the perspective only of Keats’s letters and poetical canon.  Each has its own virtues and its own kind of defects.

Mr Gittings concentrates upon the year within which Keats wrote almost all the poems for which he is reckoned among the major poets.  By reconstructing in detail everything that happened in this year, he hopes to show “for the crucial point in nearly every episode . . . the evidence of a new or of an unobserved fact”.  Mr. Gittings is not satisfied with the earlier explanations for Keats’s extraordinary vitality in that one year: ill-health and his love for Fanny Brawne have both been exaggerated, he feels, and the claim that he was working out successfully his own scheme of poetry and philosophy has been over-rationalized.

Much is made of two aspects of Keats: the vivid, almost obsessive, clarity of his reading and its immediate (rather than recollected) day-to-day influence upon his poetry; and his morbidity of temperament, especially in regard to women.  About the literary influences, Mr Gittings has some valuable things to say: the successive use of Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy based upon Keats’s own marked copy; the Miltonism of Hyperion which he traces to Wordsworth’s Excursion, Cary’s translation of Dante, and Milton’s Nativity Ode rather than to Paradise Lost; the various influences of Leight Hunt, Chatterton, and Dryden.  These are all in some degree new, and give a more convincing, because more complex, picture of Keats’s mental activity than has previously been offered.  The only defect here is the unwarrantable assurance with which Mr Gittings dates composition by the date of reading (and vice versa) – unwarrantable because it assumes that Keats’s powers of recollection were strictly limited to little more than a day or two, and that verbal parallels presuppose that Keats had a copy of the earliest text before him when writing.

The most spectacular feature of the book is the biographical discoveries.  Mr Gittings finds that the “Bright Star” sonnet was composed in its first form in October 1818, before his first meeting with Fanny Brawne, and that it crystallizes an actual amatory encounter with (that previously shadowy) Mrs. Isabella Jones.  The poem “Hush, Hush” records the happy consummation of this relationship, and the Eve of St Agnes was written within the sphere of that same experience and at Isabella Jones’s explicit suggestion.  Many of the details of the Eve of St Agnes are shown to be derived from the Vicars’ Hall at Chichester Cathedral, from a volume of engravings of the Campo Santo frescoes, and from the consecration services of the chapel in Stansted Place which Keats attended.  The Eve of St. Mark, though it preserves some details of Isabella Jones’s Gloucester Street rooms, marks the sudden collapse of her fructifying influence.  Mr Gittings’ account of Keats’s relations with Fanny Brawne shows a tangled, uneasy relation that is neither the standard version of love at first sight nor “that monstrous thing, Returned but unrequited love”.  On the biographical side this book is original, stimulating, and important; there is valuable information about literary influences; but the few excursions into elucidating the poems are shallow and unrewarding.  The account of the one miraculous year is a detailed and careful piece of reconstruction.  It may be, however, that in the end the mundane Keats stands a little in the light of Keats the poet.

Mr Wassermann’s book is a series of “readings” (in the New Criticism sense of the word) of five of Keats’s poems: The Grecian Urn, La Belle Dame, The Eve of St. Agnes, Lamia and Ode to a Nightingale.  “My main intention”, he says at the end of an explanatory foreward, “is to unfold the richness . . . within Keats’ major poems by probing beyond their verbal level and seeking to learn both how their poetry qualifies the surface meaning and what the poetry, as distinct from merely verbal content, states in itself.”

The reading of the Ode on a Grecian Urn sets the pattern for all the others.  The closing lines of the poem (“Beauty is Truth etc”), he says, do not summarise the poem, but serve “only a subordinate functional part of the grammar of images”.  The key to Keats’s meaning is his underlying sense of paradoxical essence; and settling for Kenneth Burke’s unlovely phrase “mystic oxymoron”, Mr. Wassermann proceeds to analyse the poem in terms of its rhythmic movement and the patterns of clarity and diffusion in its images.  The argument is worked out in great detail and with compelling if tortuous insistence.

Although the ode is a symbolic action in terms of an urn, its intrinsic theme is that region where earth and the ethereal, light and darkness, time and no-time become one; and what the symbolic drama ultimately discovers is the way in which art (the urn) relates man to that region.  For the bourne of heaven is the outermost limit of the imagination after it has left naked the materialistic brain, which tries to seize everything in a clear, and therefore   merely earthly, conception.  Moreover, this area where mortal and immortal become one without destroying each other is the goal that almost everywhere conditions Keats’ values and poetic perceptions to such a degree that his poetry must be read in the light of the ontology its oxymoronic nature implies.

He cites Keats’s doctrine of the Pleasure Thermometer – a programme of becoming in which, by three successive stages of empathy, the soul advances towards “a sort of oneness”, the mysterious core of being.  By tracing this scheme through the pattern of images, Mr. Wassermann finds that the Ode culminates in the third stanza in an approximately Eucharistic act; the “oxymoronic nature of heaven’s bourne” is there delineated in the fusion of the temporal and atemporal.  In this state Beauty is Truth and Truth is Beauty; but Keats does not make the assertion at this point.  The poem now moves in a counter-direction; the oppositions which were fused, separate out again in the fourth stanza so that it becomes clear that in this world Beauty is not Truth and Truth is not Beauty.  At the end the poem has conveyed the knowledge that in art, an insight into heaven’s bourne is always available; and to know this is the height of earthly wisdom, imparting new meaning and purpose to earthly existence.

The same procedure is advanced upon the other poems and a similar pattern discovered.  La Belle Dame, St. Agnes Eve, and Lamia are thus found to be really more “serious” than they are usually recognized to be, and the Nightingale Ode is sharply contrasted to the Urn as chaos to cosmos, the workings of art to the work of art.  As the same pattern is detected – the successful or unsuccessful advance up the stages of the Pleasure Thermometer, the reiteration of the vision of heaven’s bourne and the oxymoronic state – one gets a little suspicious.  Although the analysis is sensitive and well-sustained – and certainly anybody who can hold his attention upon the book will find much illumination and profit – I felt discouraged that all this drama of syntax and grammar of motive, subtle and engaging though it was, destroyed completely my own sense of the strenuous human drama in Keats’s mature poems; for I cannot see these poems as a succession of variations upon the same theme.  May they not perhaps represent a great progress on Keats’s part from one crisis to another, as he clarifies, faces and exorcises one heresy of living only to be confronted with another even more subtle.

The reading of the Urn is much the best.  Although in the end Mr. Wassermann seems to lose his thread and to the reader’s surprise ends with the standard unsatisfactory conclusion that Keats is asserting that “Art is the thing”, the contrast drawn between the Urn and the Nightingale is extremely interesting and well worked out.

Although it is rather late to review the third title, it should be noticed because it provides an alternative to all the transcendentalist-Platonic-idealist interpretations of Keats’s “theory of beauty”.  Keats uses some of his crucial terms – “essence”, “truth, “happy”, “immortal” – in a highly individual sense; when these are examined with care in their various contexts, they are found to support a scheme not commonly ascribed to Keats.  On the evidence of Letter 31 and Endymion, Mr. Ford proposes that in Keats’s view the Imagination prefigures the ultimate perfection for man.  The function of Imagination is not to discern essences transcending the mundane world, but to make – prefiguratively – a heaven out of actual heightened experience.  Imagination makes the dream from which we shall awake to an empyreal reality, the dream being a prefiguration of that heaven; for Keats, heaven is not a supersensuous but a superior sensuous realm.  Endymion, then, is not to be read as an allegory but simply as a celebration – though groping and imperfect – of physical love.  Keats’s confidence in the prefigurative power of imagination relaxed as his sense of the tragedy of life deepened; but to the end it persists and can be traced through the work of his great year.  This thesis, though pursued with rather tedious exhaustiveness, is convincingly worked out and should help to place Keats criticism at a substantial and relevant starting-point.