In previous iterations of my “Birth of the Modern” course, I would early on offer Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale” as an example and guide to some seminal ideas about the imagination, ideas whose influence lasted beyond Romanticism to shape modern thought.
Part of what Keats does in the poem is to anatomize forms of death and partly prefigure some of the concerns I’ve tried to describe in my previous posting. Initially the poem speaks of a suicidal state – “as though of hemlock I had drunk” and “Lethe-wards had sunk” – spurred by the nightingale’s “happy” and “melodious” music, for art can make ordinary life seem a sort of dying, “a drowsy numbness.” The poem then portrays a drunken state and the yearning for “a draught of vintage” and “purple-stained mouth” – “That I might drink, and leave the world unseen, / And with thee fade away into the forest dim” – in order to escape “the weariness, the fever, and the fret” here, where death reigns over the old, the young, and also beauty and love. But beyond the implacability of those forms of death, Keats seeks a sanctuary in the “viewless” realm of art – of the nightingale’s music he hears and of poetry – where there is no light and “tender is the night.” This dark sanctuary is simultaneously at a remove, a sort of dying away from ordinary life and a revelation of potentially transformed life, for here in the “embalmed darkness, he “senses” the both sacramental and sensuous images of fertile nature, where even “the murmurous haunt of flies” is hallowed and redeemed. At this peak of “ecstasy,” presenting and absorbing the transcendent richness art can achieve, the poem contemplates death by suicide, for now “more than ever seems it rich to die,” yet that willed death is rejected: “Still wouldst thou sing, and I have ears in vain – / To thy high requiem become a sod.” In the face of each of those earthen forms of death – suicide, the blotted mind of drunkenness, the weary grinding down of lives that cannot “keep” – “No hungry generations tread thee down,” for art embodies the possibility of an autonomous state of being, one that transcends the cycling of time and space, of “ancient days,” entering into and transforming “the sad heart of Ruth” and, as we saw, even “the haunt of flies.” The end of the poem acknowledges how difficult it is to sustain that autonomous transformation achieved by art and the music of the nightingale, how words can “toll me back from thee to my sole self,” to his ambiguous and leftover existence. The “Romantic agony” is just this struggle to sustain let alone achieve vision. The existence one finds oneself in is constantly on the border between blindness and vision, between death and life: “Do I wake or sleep?” The Complete Poetry and Selected Prose of John Keats
The difficult autonomy of art is on the mind not only of Keats and the Romantic poets, but also of writers and thinkers later in the nineteenth century and in the modern period. Verlaine, for example in “Art Poétique,” imagines an art departing from and “vaguer” than French classical art. In such an art, “Nuance alone links / The dream to the dream,” and there is “Music again and always! And let your verse be the thing in flight,” for ambiguity must always be sustained through suggestion, connotation, and implication. “Take eloquence and wring its neck.” It is not only in the foreboding romantic agony that aesthetic autonomy dwells but also in the ironic lightness of Verlaine’s symbolist manifesto, in his momentary and sensuous ambiguities: “all the rest is literature.” Baudelaire Rimbaud Verlaine: Selected Verse and Prose Poems
In my next post, I’ll try to suggest the modern shifts or breakthroughs in thinking about art, about society, and about the psyche, achieved by Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud.
About the arts and ideas - on my novels and literature, music, and art
My newly completed novel is The Fall of the Berlin Wall, about musicians and particularly the intense, irrepressible daughter of the legendary pianist featured in my previous novel Hungry Generations, now fifteen years after those events. My 2015 novel, The Ash Tree, was published by West of West Books in conjunction with the April 24, 2015 centenary of the Armenian genocide; it's about an Armenian-American family and the sweep of their history in the twentieth century - particularly from the points of view of two women in the family.
There are three other novels of mine, One is Pathological States, about a physician's family in L.A. in 1962, which is as yet unpublished. Another is Hungry Generations, about a young composer's friendship in L.A. with the family of a virtuoso pianist, published on demand by iUniverse. A Burnt Offering - a fable (a rewriting and expansion of my earlier Acts of Terror and Contrition - a nuclear fable) is my political novella about Israel and its reactions to the possibility of a war with Iran (with the fear that it will be a nuclear war).
[These blog posts are, of course, copyrighted.]
[These blog posts are, of course, copyrighted.]