In Grateful Memory of David McAndrew
The title page of the very old essay that started me off with this Glob, done with a hand-propelled typewriter, ribbon clearly on its way out, which I have scanned and laboriously corrected with the aid of the Optical Character Recognition facility that snuffles away in the maw of my computer, bears the date of the one and only day called, or ever to be called, 7th January 1966. I extracted it from an old brown file where all the essays I wrote while I was undergoing training to be a teacher because I wanted to discover the origins of my Being-familiarity with Zen-thinking – how I managed to take it on board and still think it totally relevant to haiku-writing, at a time when various empire-builders in the haiku world are suggesting that Alan Watts and the early ‘masters’ distorted the course of ‘haiku theory’ for fifty years.
When I wrote the essay, I was two years away from escaping ‘quill-pushing’ in the Income Tax Department of the shortly to be defunct Westminster Bank – I like to think it collapsed when I resigned from it. The daily train journey from Basingstoke to London (the 7.10am steam-hauled carriages arrived at Waterloo at 8.40) gave me plenty of time for reading – I expect it was on several of those journeys back & forth that I read Alan Watts’ The Way of Zen. What was it put me on to it? I have to suppose it was nothing other than an insatiable desire to keep up with the world in all its manifestations; perhaps to find some other spiritual dimension after quitting the skulduggery I was baptised into. I had not long since studied Wordsworth for A Level; had read Walt Whitman long before; had begun calling myself an anarchist – had been thrilled by Herbert Read’s Education through Art. I stopped writing lengthy daily diary entries in 1959 and didn’t take up the Notebook Habit till 24th January 1971 so I can’t check exactly how it happened but somehow or the other I got myself into writing lengthy essays at James Graham College of Education near Leeds in Autumn 1964; it was some kind of bug that’s kept me going right down (or up) to the present moment now. A flow of words. ‘The unworded life is not worth living’, to vary Mr Aristotle!
Re-reading this essay I am somewhat amazed at the flow of it, the way it hangs together, the veering from this to that. I feel sure that I wrote it partly for David McAndrew who was a dedicated Roman Catholic; on one occasion he came to lecture on Ash Wednesday with burnt wood scrapings on his forehead. He also had a strong belief that everything was an invention about which we often exchanged ideas; except God, of course – how could He possibly be an invention? Shades of Descartes.
David wrote ‘VG’ at the end of the essay. He thought it was ‘a convincingly presented argument … though the thesis gives a one-sided picture of Keats’ work – eminently multivarious…’
During the course of sorting through the essay I idly googled ‘David McAndrew’ and found his obituary. I had often thought of trying to contact him but never got round to it. I owe him so much.
What I find really extraordinary about the essay is the way the neurons of my brain do not feel at all put out by the way it wags – the way it takes me back to my short deep relationship with David McAndrew. I could very well have written it last week. I wonder how much this tussle with Keats influenced my thinking which seems to have remained constant for 50 years. The only difference would be that if I had written the essay last week I would have made parallels between Keats & Zen and also been forced to make reference to Gurdjieff: so often going through it word by word, letter by letter in many cases where all the OCR facility could only manage to reproduce gobbledegook like 7igu&& mo”“/Kat &… and so on, I fitted elements of Mr Gurdjieff’s non-systematic system (that I only seriously began to make sense of in 1977) round the ideas in the essay; there is so much overlap. Notably G’s statement that you can only make Being-progress when you understand that you are No-thing going No-where, and the futility of the gad-fly Ambition which I have understood myself – the meaninglessness of money… Then there are the essentially 4th Way notions of ‘disidentification’, ‘External Considering’, deliberate Conscious Suffering to ‘make us feel existence’, a way of becoming fully aware of soul-making, the Food of Pure Impressions, the annihilation of Multiple-I’s in order to take steps towards Meta-I, gaining a balance by getting on a pendulum to discover ‘Third Force’, the reconciliation of opposites, the emergence of a third possibility, living with paradox, the apprehension of true Objectivity, the systematic application of what I call the KUB model, balance through Intellect, Being and Understanding, and so on. It’s all there!
I was building a case against abstractionism in 1966! And here’s the very first time I quoted a haiku and made reference to RHBlyth! And I quote the term ‘self-naughting’ which, without realising that it had been fixed in my brain long ago, I applied to the way Ian McDermott of International Teaching Seminars coped with argumentative members of his NLP sessions in the early nineties. Istigkeit, Suchness, I first came across in Huxley’s Perennial Philosophy when I was about 16. It’s all there is to know.
So, here’s the essay…
John Keats and the Negation of Self (1966)
The practical discipline of the way of liberation is a progressive disentanglement of one’s self from every identification. It is to realise that I am not this body, these sensations, these feelings, these thoughts, this consciousness. The basic reality of my life is not any conceivable object… Alan Watts: The Way of Zen
The argument of this essay has its origin in various passages in Keats’ letters; for instance:-
I scarcely remember counting upon any Happiness – I look not for it if it be not in this present hour – nothing startles me beyond the Moment. The setting Sun will always set me to rights – or if a Sparrow come before my window I take part in its existence and pick about the gravel. (Letter 31)
Here is a more precise analysis of the same idea:-
A poet is the most unpoetical of any thing in existence; because he has no Identity – he is continually [informing] and filling some other Body… he has no self… When I am in a room with People if ever I am free from from speculating on creations of my own brain, then not myself goes home to myself; but the identity of every one in the room begins so to press upon me that I am in a very little time annihilated… (Letter 93)
That Keats is trying to arrive at a direct apprehension of Reality by identifying Self with the manifold phenomena of everyday existence, denying his own self and affirming only an observable activity, a condition of reciprocity, is to be set against the view that Keats is concerned with an analysis of Truth as associated with the Platonic idea of Beauty:-
I have not the slightest feel of humility towards the Public – or to anything in existence – but the eternal Being, the principle of Beauty, and the Memory of Great Men… (Letter 60)
It seems to me that Keats falls back on the use of conventional abstract ideas because the precise explanation of what he is trying to arrive at would involve him in difficulties of expression which probably require concepts coming from a different philosophical tradition; he frequently touches upon something which I shall give a name to.
The starkness of the Platonic formula ‘Beauty is truth, truth, beauty’ at the end of the Ode to a Grecian Urn destroys the ‘quasi-mystical condition of consciousness’ (John Middleton Murry: Keats) Keats gets us to contemplate, through the Urn of his mind, the world and ourselves from both of which all passion has been dissolved away. Keats’ use of the formula is again a collapse into conventional abstraction, an evasion of higher meaning. Middleton Murry suggests that the sense of the poem is that ‘…the beauty of the Real lies in the perfection of uniqueness which belongs to every thing or thought simply because it is…’ On this reading Keats is not referring to ‘the superiority of Art over Nature’ – an idea which is the result of the Western dualistic mode of thinking – the Urn is simply a metaphorical device for isolating a moment of reality for contemplation. In the process of trying to arrest decay, to eternalise an instant of time, Keats manages to achieve the illumination that Truth includes change, entailing sorrow; change is an attribute of the Real.
Do you not see how necessary a World of Pains and troubles is to school an Intelligence and make it a Soul?… And how is the heart to become this Medium but in a world of Circumstances? (Letter 123)
Keats grieves for the desolation of the little town and for the suspended lives of the figures on the Urn of his Imagination. The repetition of the word ‘happy’ in the third section of the poem makes us feel doubtful: there is a ‘cold beauty’ about the poem – happiness is also cold.
Nor is Keats referring to the Platonic superiority of the essences of things over particular phenomena: in the letter of April 18th 1818 he writes about ‘…the innumerable compositions and decompositions which take place between the intellect and its thousand materials before it arrives at that trembling delicate and snail-horn perception of Beauty…’ An abstraction is a shorthand for a million discrete elements, too numerous to list. As Middleton Murry implies, ‘Beauty’ for Keats is a constructed notion rather than an abstract principle.
Plato had it that ‘behind the surface phenomena and particulars which greet our senses are generalisations, regularities and directions of development unperceived by sensation but conceived by reason and thought…’ (Will Durant: Outline of Philosophy). This might seem congruent with Keats’ ‘snail-horn perception’ except that he has doubts about the efficacy of Reason:-
…because I have never yet been able to perceive how anything can be known for truth by consequitive reasoning – and yet it must be. Can it be that even the greatest Philosopher ever arrived at his goal without putting aside numerous objections? However it may be, O for a Life of Sensations rather than of thoughts. (Letter 31)
For Plato, and for the Western philosophical tradition, sensation is the antithesis of reason, but for Keats sensation is a means of adjusting to the organic wholeness of things without resorting to abstractions; there is no need to categorise when you simply absorb sensations; as Keats says ’axioms in philosophy are not axioms until they are proved upon our pulses…’ (Letter 64)
In spite of his idea that we knew the Forms of things before we were born, up in the clouds, Plato had severely practical intentions: he was concerned to devise an intellectual and social system by means of which the uncertainties of chance might be mitigated.
He tries to realise it by defining the establishment of a state which is free from the evils of all other states because it does not degenerate, because it does not change. The state which is free from the evil of change and corruption is the best, the perfect state. It is the state of the Golden Age which knew no change. It is the arrested state. (Popper: The Open Society and its Enemies Vol 1)
Keats seems to have been distressed by the concept of the ‘arrested state’ he portrays in relation to the Grecian Urn; it offends his principle of Negative Capability which perhaps sets him against this particular facet of Platonic philosophy. Negative Capability (Letter 32) is ‘when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable searching after fact and reason’.
Whereas Plato, postulated that the essences of things had some separate objective existence, Aristotle asserted that ‘…universals are subjective notions, not tangibly objective realities; they are nomina not res; all that exists outside us is a world of individual and specific objects, not of generic and universal things…’ (Popper. op cit) Keats’ statement (Letter 53) that ‘every point of thought is the centre of an intellectual world gives him some affinity with this point of view; so probably every mental pursuit takes its reality and worth from the ardour of the pursuer being in itself a nothing…’
In a sonnet Keats intends to be an illustration of his meaning he begins to depart from the ideas of both Plato and Aristotle and to adopt an approach with parallels in the thought of all kinds of mystics:-
He chews the honied cud of fair spring thoughts,
Till, in his soul, dissolved they come to be
Part of himself…
Something other than the philosophy of the West is required to guide us through Keats’ attitude to Self: his way of thinking seems remarkably similar to the Way of Zen. He may well have been familiar with the ideas of Buddhism and eastern philosophy in general; in the letters he refers to the thirty two palaces of Buddhist doctrines, Vishnu, the Hindu god of life, and Zoroastrianism and mentions Brahman cursorily in Endymion. He does not treat directly of these things but it is possible that he imbibed the spirit of Eastern philosophy and religion without formally acknowledging his regard for it. Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy was Keats’ constant reading; Burton makes reference to all kinds of religious and philosophical topics – he may have been Keats’ source.
Murry (op cit), discussing Endymion, draws attention to Keats’ brand of mysticism:-
…the soul contains this seldom discovered ‘cave of quietude’ which has the virtue of receiving into itself and regenerating the whole of the pain-tormented human being… Comparatively few men have made this discovery and those who do are generally called mystics, or more foolish names. But the experience was central to Keats; it belonged to his innermost self…
The concept of the ‘Cave of Quietude’ may be akin to the Buddhist ‘Great Void’: the mind is an emptiness, a space through which thoughts and sensations come and go leaving no trace like stars and planets through space.
In his Zen in English Literature, RHBlyth demonstrates that the essential insights of Zen Buddhism are universal and Keats himself points out that ‘…when a man has arrived at a certain ripeness in intellect any one grand and spiritual passage serves him as a starting-post towards all the two and thirty palaces…’
The Western philosophical tradition involves the notion of fundamental dualities, essences and their reflections, body and soul, self and not-self. One of the Platonic influences on his mind was Wordsworth’s Immortality Ode; Brown recounts that Keats was never tired of repeating it. It is arguable that Keats is trying to escape from its influence.
One of the results of acceptance of the duality of essence and everyday phenomena is that it is imagined that, for example, happiness is something one can seek out and it is part of Wordsworth’s complaint that Joy dissolves as it is sought. Keats also has this:-
…….…It is a flaw
In happiness, to see beyond our bourn –
It forces us in summer skies to mourn,
It spoils the singing of the Nightingale.
At a touch sweet Pleasure melteth,
Like to bubbles when rain pelteth…
In Book 1 of Endymion, Keats asks ‘Wherein lies happiness?’ His immediate answer is couched in Platonic terms:-
…….…In that which becks
Our ready minds to fellowship divine,
A fellowship with essence; till we shine
Full alchemis’d and free of space…
This answer contains a hint of extra-Platonic mysticism, mysteriously changed and out of self, which is developed slightly differently a few lines later:-
A rose leaf around thy finger’s tenderness
And soothe thy lips: hist, when the airy stress
Of music’s kiss impregnates the free winds…
Feel we these things? – that moment have we stept
Into a sort of oneness, and our state
Is like a floating spirit’s…
Keats then suggests that happiness is a complex function consisting of taking hold of ‘a sort of oneness’ with the familiar objects of nature, being set motion by love:
…….…who of man can tell
That flowers would bloom or that green fruit would swell
To melting pulp that fish would have bright sail,
The earth its dower of river, wood and vale,
The meadow’s runnels, runnels pebble stones,
Tone’s ravishment, or ravishment its sweet,
If human souls did never kiss and greet?
When Keats speaks of ‘a sort of oneness’ he hints at the essential difference between dualistic and monistic thinking and the thought of the Hindus and Buddhists who ‘…prefer to speak of reality as ‘non-dual’ rather than as ‘one’, since the concept of one must always be in relation to that of many The doctrine of Maya is therefore a one of relativity: things, facts and events are delineated not by nature, but by human description, and that the way in which we describe (or divide) them is relative to our varying points of view…’ (Alan Watts, op cit) Just as Keats says! ‘…every point of view is the centre of an intellectual world…’
There is, for instance no duality of knower and known. ‘There is not the mind on the one hand and its experiences on the other: there is just a process of experiencing in which there is nothing to be grasped, as an object, and no one, as a subject, to grasp it…’ (Watts, op cit) In Zen the work of art is itself a part of the natural order; the haiku poem sees things in their unique suchness without the need for comment There is no mind to be set apart from the process of perceiving/knowing:-
Long night –
The sound of water
Says what I think.
Keats frequently does the same kind of thing or, rather, achieves the same sort of effect:-
Life is the rose’s hope while yet unblown;
The reading of an ever changing tale;
The light uplifting of a maiden’s veil;
A pigeon tumbling in clear summer air;
A laughing school-boy without grief or care,
Riding the springy branches of an elm.
Infant playing with a skull;
Morning fair, and shipwreck’d hull;
Nightshade with the woodbine kissing
Serpents in red roses hissing…
The individual parts of these extracts are not intended to be taken as metaphorical; metaphor arises where a distinction is made between object of knowledge and interpretation. Keats is presenting us with a sign which just says “Look!” – the action of looking is the only reality here. The ‘I’ does not intrude unless we apply Western dualistic notions.
But, for us, the effort needed to sustain a withdrawal from dualism is rather intellectually exhausting. After Endymion has investigated the wonders of his surroundings in Book II ‘to acquaint himself with every mystery and awe’, he sits down, weary
……….before the maw
Of a wide outlet fathomless and dim,
To wild uncertainty and shadows grim,
There when new wonders ceas’d to float before,
And thoughts of self came on, how crude and sore
The journey homeward to habitual self!
The ‘habitual self’ could well be the role of dualistic thinker Keats seeks to escape, the self he seeks to negate.
The positive result of the negation of self for Keats was that his poetry and intellectual life achieved a sense of direction; paradoxically the true negation of self can lead to the affirmation of Total Reality.
…The divine eternal fullness of life can be gained only by those who have deliberately lost the partial, separative, life of craving and self-interest, of egocentric thinking, feeling, wishing and acting. Mortification or deliberate dying to self is inculcated with an uncompromising firmness in the canonical writings of Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism and most of the other major and minor religions of the world, and by every theocentric saint and spiritual reformer who has ever lived out and expounded the principal of the Perennial Philosophy. But this ‘self-naughting’ is never (at least by anybody who knows what they are talking about) regarded as an end in itself. It possesses merely an instrumental value as the indispensable means to something else. (Aldous Huxley, The Perennial Philosophy)
It is, of course, quite possible that Keats was aware of the seriousness of his illness and therefore thought his life to be of so little importance that he was just prepared to discount himself. In this light, the Ode to a Nightingale is commonly taken to express a straightforward desire for death, but, as Leavis (Scrutiny IV) points out, ‘…when we reread [the Ode] we find that it moves outwards and upwards towards life as strongly as it moves downwards towards extinction; the Ode is, in fact, an extremely subtle and varied interplay of motions, directed now positively, now negatively…’ it seems in an attempt to reach a point of constant equilibrium. The Ode expresses a desire to ‘fade far away, dissolve and quite forget’; the method of forgetfulness, of extracting self from situation, by means of drink is rejected in favour of Poesy and then again it becomes ‘rich to die/To cease upon the midnight with no pain…’ But the nightingale also reminds Keats of immortality and timelessness, and, by implication, of his own timeless nature.
‘…Awareness of the ‘eternal now’ comes about by the same principle as the clarity of hearing and seeing and the proper freedom of the breath. Clear sight has nothing to do with trying to see; it is just the realisation that the eyes will take in every detail all by themselves, for so long as they are open one can hardly prevent the light from reaching them. In the same way, there is no difficulty in being fully aware of the eternal present as soon as it is seen that one cannot possibly be aware of anything else – that in concrete fact there is no past or future. Making an effort to concentrate on the instantaneous moment implies at once that there are other moments…’ (Watts, op cit) It is this excessive concentration on the moment which calls Keats ‘back from thee to my sole self’ – the ‘habitual self’ locked in conventional time and space. Even when Keats was very close to death (Sept 1820) he wrote:-
…I wish for death every day and night to deliver me from the pains, and then I wish death away, for death would destroy even those pains which are better than nothing… (Letter 239)
Perhaps this is the same movement upwards and downwards to which Leavis refers.
Keats was, in fact, ‘convinced that his disease was due to his despondency and his worrying… His illness as he experienced it must have appeared to him to be the effect of the psychological conditions that were its consequence… There is little doubt that even before he first met Fanny the latent seeds of the disease that had been nourished into evil life by the hardships of his walking tour in Scotland were there…’ (Middleton Murry)
On the one hand, then, Keats thought of his illness as temporary and something which could be cured; on the other, he was probably constantly aware that early death was inevitable. This gave rise to ‘the alternations of exaltation with despair… (Middleton Murry) Apart from this inextricable psycho-physical condition, Keats had become absorbed in Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, the basic argument of which is that there is ‘an inbred melancholy in every one of us…’
Keats was also familiar with Dante and would therefore be aware of the ideal and insatiable lover, the Beatrice figure. He sees the love relationship as resulting in an annihilation of self – it is wholly destroyed.
Nor with aught else can our souls interknit
So wingedly; when we combine therewith
Life’s self is nourish’d by its proper pith
And more clearly: –
…You have absorbed me. I have a sensation at the present moment as though I was dissolving… (Letter 160)
This process leads to the recognition of the uniqueness of all things once ‘self-passion’ is eradicated. Middleton Murry writes:-
Love is a faculty of understanding, and unless it enters into and transmutes our knowl edge of fact, we cannot really know. It is not that the fact is changed by Love; but only by Love can it be fully seen, For the presence of Love in knowledge is the evidence that the total, and not merely the partial, man, responds to the total thing.
Keats was intent on discovering an ideal kind of Love. But the seeker after essential beauty is certain to be frustrated. At the point of taking the ideal into his arms Keats finds that the dream always fades away. This is a recurring theme in his poetry and seems to be the most natural point at which a total rejection of idealist philosophy could most naturally have occurred; Keats’ life reflects this process of seeking and fading away.
…..…Straight he seized her wrist;
It melted from his grasp: her hand he kissed,
And, horror! kissed his own – he was alone…
…..…no sooner said,
Than with a frightful scream she vanished:
And Lycius’ arms were empty of delight…’
I had a dove and the sweet dove died;
Why pretty thing! would you not live with me?
I kissed you oft and gave you white peas;
Why not live sweetly, as in the green trees?
It is worth noting that ‘the passion of sorrowing love is imagined or feigned by fancy to be directly creative of beauty…’ (Murry) that is, of the clear perception of the uniquenes of things. It is woes that ‘make us feel existence’. (Endymion)
Keats could be described as a bit of a masochist: he induces sorrow or melancholy for his own psychological sense of balance.
I have two luxuries to brood over in my walks your loveliness and the hour of my death. O that I could have possession of them both in the same minute. I hate the world: it batters too much on the wings of my self-will and I would I could take a sweet poison from your lips to send me out of it. (Letter 139)
Murry says that Keats dreaded in himself the onset of love for a woman lest it would burn him up. ‘If I were to see you today,’ he writes to Fanny, ‘it would destroy the half-comfortable sullenness I enjoy at present into downright perplexities… I cannot bear the pain of being happy: tis out of the question: I must admit no thought of it…’ (Letter 150)
Love is therefore essential for poetry, essential for a life of sensation but its physical consummation is something to be avoided.
These lovers fled away into the storm…
( St Agnes Eve)
… Whenever I find myself growing vapourish, I rouse myself, wash and put on a clean shirt, brush my hair and clothes… then all clean and comfortable I sit down to write. This I find the greatest relief. Besides I am becoming accustomed to the privations of the pleasures of sense. In the midst of the world I live like a hermit. I have forgot how to lay plans for the enjoyment of any pleasure. I feel I can hear any thing… so long as I have neither wife nor child… (Letter 156)
The roaring of the wind is my wife and the Stars through the window pane are my children… (Letter 94)
Suspension of passion is a characteristic of the negation of self in Buddhism: one must specifically not exterminate the passions but must also not let them ‘…flourish untamed. It means letting go of them rather than fighting them, neither repressing passion nor indulging it..’ (Watts) The point at which Keats appears to achieve a kind of balance is in his Cave of Quietude where the divided being of the Seeker after Truth is reborn.
Dark Paradise! where pale becomes the bloom
Of health by due; where silence dreariest
Is most articulate; where hopes infest;
Where those eyes are the brightest far that keep
Their lids shut longest in a dreamless sleep.
The contradictions in this description of the nature of the Cave of Quietude are akin to the ‘puzzle’ explanations of Zen Koans. Its ‘happy gloom’ emerges from ‘…the reality of all inseparable opposites – life and death, good and evil, pleasure and pain, gain and loss – is that ‘in between’ for which we have no words…’ (Watts)
Thus for Keats what’s between pleasure and pain is the condition of equilibrium for which he uses the metaphor of the Cave of Quietude.
Ay, in the very temple of Delight
Veil’d Melancholy has her sovran shrine
The ‘journey home to habitual self’ is always being made and the equilibrium is lost, The self must die in order to realise its life.
Whatever the reason for Keats’ disillusion with the human love relationship, it had an effect on the rest of his life, adding to his general feeling of physical decay.
The life of Zen begins… in a disillusion with the pursuit of goals which do not really exist – the good without the bad, the gratification of a self which is no more than an idea, and the tomorrow which never comes…’ (Watts) Keats sees a certain folly in pursuing an illusory future:-
And for that poor Ambition! it springs
From a man’s little heart’s short fever-fit;’
(Ode on Indolence)
How feverish is the man who cannot look
Upon his mortal days with temperate blood
It is as if the rose should pluck itself
Or the ripe plum finger its misty bloom
But the rose leaves herself upon the briar,
For winds to kiss and grateful bees to feed,
And the ripe plum still wears its dim attire,
The undisturbed lake has crystal space,
Why then should man, teasing the world for grace,
Spoil his salvation for a fierce miscreed?
(2nd Sonnet on Fame)
…what merest whim,
Seems all this poor endeavour after fame,
To one who keeps within his steadfast aim
A love immortal…
But even Love comes to nothing:-
…on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone and think
Till love and fame to nothingness do sink.
Because of his lack of ambition, it seems that Keats made only half-hearted attempts to gain a regular income. His letters show that although he several times decides upon a course of action he never carries through his intentions; his poetry did not pay. He detaches himself from worldly affairs.
I spend no money but it increases my debts. I have all my life thought very little of these matters – they seem not to be belong to me. It may be a proud sentence; but, by heaven, I am as entirely above all matters of interest as the Sun is above the Earth – and though of my own money I should be careless; of my friends I should be spare. (Letter 143)
Linked with the refusal to react to the gadfly ambition, either cause or effect or something of both, is the feeling that Time is unreal, or rather that it does not mean anything to define self by reference to the concept of Time. Keats’ attitude towards Time ranges from the simply not relating himself to a time scale:-
…I never know the day of the month… (Letter 156)
…I have no meridian to date Interests from, or measure circumstances… (Letter 151)
to a complete rejection of time and space which is developed into a thorough-going mystical outlook.
…June 26 – I merely put the date for the sake of it, for there is no such thing as time and space, which by the way came forcibly upon me on seeing for the first hour the Lake and Mountains of Winander… They make one forget the divisions of life; age, youth, poverty and riches; and refine one’s sensual vision into a sort of north star which can never cease to be open lidded and stedfast over the wonders of the great Power. (Letter 71)
According to Alan Watts this is the Hindu attitude towards time and events: ‘Facts and events are terms of measurement rather than realities of nature…’ The invented classification of things & human experience results in its distortion and division into dualities. Keats denies the conventional understanding of the Idea of self in an attempt to escape ‘the perpetual frustration of one trying to catch water in a sieve…’ (Watts) He talks of annihilating Time;-
O that a week could be an age and we
Felt parting and warm meeting every week
Then one poor year a thousand years would be,
The flush of welcome ever on the cheek:
So could we live long life in little space,
So time itself would he annihilate…
(Sonnet to John Hamilton Reynolds)
In the Ode on a Grecian Urn Keats had found a means of immobilising ‘in a frozen moment the beauty of an imagined action’ so that we are enabled to see the world for a moment with a vision from which all passion has been dissolved away – the world of the Eternal Now. The Urn is not a symbol for humanity; it is, as Murry suggests, the urn of Keats’ vision. The human figures in the frozen moment, the real aspect of the vision ‘tease us out of thought’.
‘…The world of suchness is void and empty because it teases the mind out of thought, dumbfounding the chatter of definition so that there is nothing left to be said’. (Watts) For a time we may escape selfhood – become a ‘naked brain’ (Endymion) and, as Murry puts it:-
…All the infinite, the all but total activities of man, conscious or unconscious, which are directed towards the maintenance and assertion of the instinctive will to live, must be put away. Cease they cannot, nor can we make them cease but we must cease to be identified with them. They are the substrate of our vision; without them we cannot see as we desire to see. But when we have become an Eye, the Eye cannot belong to them, or they to it. It sees them with the same utter detachment with which it sees all things else… All is out, there, naked to the contemplation of eternity, of which contemplation we are the momentary instruments…
However, we are always returning to the ‘habitual self’.
The complex nature of Keats’ negation of self derives from psycho-physical causes on the one hand, and from theoretical and ‘religious’ (spiritual) preoccupations on the other; these are, of course, interrelated.
What does Keats have to say about the self as such? In the Preface which was written in 1818 when Keats submitted Endymion for printing he is concerned to preserve his identity as the writer of the poem; the past is to confirm the reality, or support the illusion, of the present self; Endymion can be seen as an attempt to capture the nature of ‘maiden-thought’ before the clouds descend – Keats is already conscious of their existence. By October 1818 (Letter 93) he is writing that the poet has no self, he has recognised, as Watts puts it, that ‘…one’s role or person is simply conventional, and that one’s true nature is ‘no-thing’ and ‘no-body’. A year later he describes Dilke as ‘a Man who cannot feel he has a personal identity unless he had made up his Mind about every thing..’ He goes on to exp1ain what he considers to be the function of the mlnd intent on arriving at Truth:-
…The only means of strengthening the intellect is to make up one’s mind about nothing – to let the mind be a thoroughfare for all thoughts… (Letter 156)
In Endymion Keats asks
…What is this soul then? Whence
Came it? It does not seem my own, and 1
Have no self-passion or identity…
In a letter to George Keats he attempts to answer this and to explain how mind would function in ‘immortality’ – which as I understand his notion, or as I would personally apply it, could mean ‘in a more perfect society’ (‘…I find there is no worthy pursuit but the idea of doing some good for the world…’ (Letter 62) )
…That will be one of the grandeurs of immortality – there will be no space and consequently the only commerce between spirits will be by their intelligence of each other – when they will completely understand each other – while we in this world merely comprehend each other in different degrees – the higher the degree of good so higher is our Love and friendship… (Letter 98)
…Men should be in imitation of Spirits: responsive to each other’s note… (Letter 147)
In practical terms:-
…Men who live together have a silent moulding and influencing power over each other. They interassimulate,.. (Letter 156)
But the vision fades:-
**…it looks like a dream – every man who can row his boat and walk and talk seems a different being from myself. I do not feel in the world. (Letter 240)
Keats’ ambivalent attitude towards life, now optimistic and constructive, now pessimistic and self-destructive, finding a balance in the negation of self, is like the motion of the sea from which he derives much solace:-
The ocean with its vastness, its blue-green,
Its ships, its rocks, its caves, its hopes, its fears –
Its voice mysterious, which who so hears
Must think on what will be and what has been…’
(Sonnet to Brother George)
…In the flowing tide dwellers by the sea see not merely a symbol, but a cause of exuberance, f prosperity and of life, while in the ebbing tide they discern a real agent as well as a melancholy emblem of failure, of weakness and of death… (JGFrazer: The Golden Bough)
Oh ye! who have your eye-balls vex’d and tired,
Feast them upon the wideness of the sea;
Oh ye! whose ears are dinned with uproar rude,
Or fed too much with cloying melody –
Sit ye near some old Cavern’s mouth and brood
Until ye start, as if the sea-nymphs quir’d!
(Sonnet on the Sea)
…moving waters at their priest-like task
Of pure ablution round earth’s human shores…
(Bright Star sonnet)
In The Golden Bough, JGFrazer quotes a Hindu custom, the intention of which ‘…is plainly to guard against the fickleness of fortune and the instability of earthly bliss by focussing on the steadfast influence of the constant star. He points out that the same wish appears in Keats’ last sonnet: ‘Bright star, would I were as stedfast as thou art…’
Keats is here reasserting the self which he has been trying to relinquish. He wishes his individuality to be certain or else he might swoon – immediately – to death.
The point of equilibrium the inexpressible pivotal balance cannot be achieved by conscious effort. Nobody will enter the Cave of Quietude by trying to.
Who strive therefore; on the sudden it is won.
Just when the sufferer begins to burn,
Then it is free to him; and from an urn,
Still fed by melting ice he takes a draught…
The discipline of philosophy will not help either, for
……..Do not all charms fly
At the mere touch of cold philosophy?
Philosophy will clip an Angel’s wings,
Conquer all mysteries by rule and line.’
Nevertheless, Keats ‘…can have no enjoyment in the World but continual drinking of Knowledge…’ (Letter 62) and his philosophical method is based on the maxim: ‘the more we know the more inadequacy we discover in the world to satisfy us – this is an old observation; but I have made up my Mind never to take anything for granted…’ (Letter 98)
Knowledge – the acquisition of ideas and their application – is to Keats a means of approaching the totality of things, the full aspect of which is distorted by any approach from the various arbitrary man-made disciplines of thought – distortion is the result of ‘cold philosophy’ as opposed to another approach Keats seems to have been working out when he died.
…When the Mind is in its infancy a Bias is in reality a Bias, but when we have acquired more strength, a bias becomes no Bias. Every department of Knowledge we see excellent and calculated towards a great whole… (Letter 64)
Philosophical concepts are meaningless unless they can be seen and felt to have real application to the sensational world: ‘Axioms in philosophy are not axioms until they are proved upon our pulses…’ (Letter 64)
In an article in the Listener (2nd October 1958) William Walsh sums up Keats’ ‘development of sensibility’, his attitude towards philosophy as follows;-
…first, a fundamental decision on the side of seriousness and maturity; next the long effort ‘to refine one’s sensual vision’ by acquiring the virtues of the disciplined mind, integrity, generosity, disinterestedness, a clear eye for reality, a scope of reference, a sense of the limitation and the structure of one’s knowledge, energy in effort and patience in waiting, and a calm and balanced humility; then the recognition and acceptance of a mature conception of man…
Out of a humility and open-ended notion of man Keats is able to assert that all men [and women] may be poets – therefore ‘no-selves’, perhaps capable of attaining the complete understanding Keats visualised.
…..…Poesy alone can tell her dreams,
With the fine spell of words alone can save
Imagination from the sable chain
And dumb enchantnent. Who alive can say,
“Thou art no poet – may’st not tell thy dreams?”
Keats adopts a Zen approach to poetry which, it seems, so Watts says, must express ‘… the artist’s own inner state of going nowhere in a timeless moment… Because the world is not going anywhere there is no hurry. One may as well take it easy like nature itself…’
…We hate poetry which has a palpable design upon us – and if we do not agree to put its hands in its breeches pocket. Poetry should be great and unobtrusive, a thing which enters into one’s soul, and does not startle it or amaze it with itself but with its subject… (Letter 44)
Poetry must come ‘as naturally as the leaves to a tree…’ (Letter 51) It creates a filling of the void which is left, after negation of self; it is a mode of regeneration:-
…The genius of Poetry must work out its own salvation in a man; it cannot be matured by law and precept, but by sensation and watchfulness in itself. That which is creative must create itself… (Letter 92)
Keats wishes to abolish the duality of Self and Not-self, to establish what could be called an organic continuity with nature which he achieves most memorably in the Ode to Autumn which is utterly unselfconscious, being concerned with suchness, just-so-ness. It is not until the last line, ‘And gathering swallows twitter in the skies…’, that we are called back to our habitual selves by a sudden awareness of complex movement and of a certain cold brightness where before there was mellowness and warmth, so that the eyes are strained and the momentary glimpse of an ultimate reality is once more dispelled.
Alan Watts: The Way of Zen
John Middleton Murry: Keats
Aldous Huxley: The Perennial Philosophy
KR Popper: The Open Society and its Enemies, Volume 1
Will Durant: Outlines of Philosophy
Cambridge History of English Literature, Vol XII
JGFrazer: The Golden Bough