Saturday, February 26, 2011

Genuineness and the Immortal Poet: My Love of Keats

The other night our lodger (who was suffering puke flu courtesy of my children) picked out my Bright Star DVD to console himself. Bringing him up some ginger tea, I remarked "Oh Bright Star-- I can't watch that."

For those of you who don't know, Bright Star is a film about John Keats and his romance with one Fanny Brawne, cut short by the poet's tragic demise from consumption at the age of just 25. My parents picked out this DVD for my birthday present last year because for years and years I have been saying that someone (preferably me) ought to make a film about it. (This harks back to my days when I thought film-acting was the career for me). Had I been the one to produce such a film, it may have affected a kind of catharsis.

I discovered John Keats quite by chance one summer. Mum offered to buy each of us a book to take on our summer holiday. Browsing the classics section (already in love with Shakespeare), I picked out a 2-dollar Dover Classics volume of John Keats' Lyric Poems. I think, looking back, that the initial appeal of this volume was the attractive light blue cover and the name of the poet which conjured up some image of a wise old poet with a white beard. I opened it and read the first few lines of "I stood tip-toe." I felt immediately overwhelmed with deja-vu--instantly transported in that experience we call sublime. It felt uncannily familiar (and yet not so uncanny), as though it were almost written by me. I flipped to the back and read the brief biography detailing his short, tragic life. Sold. (What can I say? I was 16 or so-- tragedy had a special appeal to me.) I was immediately infatuated.

What began that summer, (probably the first summer in which there was a Shakespeare-shaped hole because I had gotten too old to participate in Bard on the Beach's Young Shakespeareans Program), was a romance with John Keats that has produced a delicious, enduring ache. An ache I don't have time for and need to avoid for the sake of being a useful, sensible human being.

Keats' was instrumental in my switch from Theatre to English Literature as a post-secondary focus. At first his tragic life story merely aroused a sort of longing and pity of the sort that can only be manifested in the hormonal tempest of a 16 year-old female, and encourages infatuation. But when that settled, and I was able to take a more sober and educated approach to his poetry, it was his relative innocence and optimism, and most importantly his genuineness which held lasting appeal. His "philosophy" was unpolished and his verse somewhat immature (and occasionally just plain cheesy). But I liked this better than the appalling self-importance and sophistication of the other Romantic poets. Here was a man laying himself open completely to you in all his imperfection and asking you to love him.

Anyone who has done a degree in English Literature will tell you that genuineness is not what we do. We play at philosophy and psychology, at theory and politics (all of which are sometimes indistinguishable), but genuineness is right out like "5" in Monty Python's Book of Armaments. I shall count myself worthy of my time at college if I can say confidently at the end of it that I had lobbed my academic work (The Holy Hand-Grenade of Antioch) at the Foe, who being Naughty in His Sight, shall snuff it.

I did have two excellent and very different profs for Romantics. One was a (now old-fashioned) traditional academic type in his 50s. He taught from the text and his secondary sources were mostly contemporary-- if he brought up any. And he was a badass Anglican. The other was a young academic, an atheist (almost certainly), who taught from mostly modern critical sources, (Freud, Benjamin, Zizek, Lacan), and then applied his theories to the poems I had loved for years. His idealism was endearing and he was much more engaging in a classroom. He had himself, and allowed his students, some measure of genuineness, but he marked you higher if his genuineness was compati
ble with yours. And being an atheist, he never agreed with me of course. What these two profs had in common was a passion for the philosophical theory that comes as part of studying post-enlightenment literature, which always went against the grain for me.

For me, the value of Keats' poetry was not in the philosophy behind it (of which there certainly was some), but in the man who produced the poems and so came to life in them. Whereas with Shakespeare the appeal of the poetry was about the people it created (and allowed me to create on stage), with Keats, it was about the man who created the poetry and who the poetry recreated for me. Keats, unlike his Romantic predecessors and peers, talked philosophically now and then but he loved practically.

Now, by 'practically' I mean simply 'realistically' and 'in practice' as opposed to 'idealistically' since idealism seems to be characteristic of much modern philosophy (that I have come across). Philosophers of this kind spout all kinds of nonsense about how no one is really 'free,' by which they mean that no one is free to be a scoundrel without consequence-- as if this were some great and shocking revelation. And their idealism is really a sort of fatalism which imagines happiness and joy to be an aesthetic pleasure derived from pretending we like this vale of tears--cuz it's the only thing we got and we ain't gonna change or get out of it-- except by aesthetic snobbery or rebellion.

'Freedom' in the mind of any sensible human being, means freedom of creativity--that is to say, we count it as an unjust restriction of our freedom when our creative faculties (physical, verbal, artistic, or spiritual) are limited. The modern philosopher tends to rely on these kinds of restrictions (while pointing out their inescapability) to manage their idealistic approaches to modern life-- which often involves a kind of intellectual snobbery (often called aesthetics).

Keats played at such philosophy like his contemporaries, but he was not such a fool as to become its slave. In the end, he loved Fanny (and everything else which claimed his affection) far beyond his poetry and not a bit because it fit in with any of his Romantic ideals-- or because he could indicate a high and mighty reason or explanation for it. Ultimately he was not really concerned with anything's idealistic virtue of the kind men like to philosophise about. Just its simple, homely, domestic genuineness.

Now, Keats' genuineness (and affection for genuineness) has, for me, kept alive that ache which I first felt on opening that 2-dollar Dover Classic. It has led me to his house in London more than twice and all the way to Rome and to his grave. It has survived the dreadful theorising and philosophising of my academic studies and encouraged me in my own pursuits, both domestic and artistic. That ache, an absence of that man himself-- or more accurately what his genuine humanity revealed, has been my quiet companion through many years.

I cannot relive the pain of his untimely death through film more than once because it will turn me into a sighing adolescent, unable to let go of the delicious tragedy of it all. I have mourned him from the moment I knew him in his poetry because he is gone and he was genuine and his genuineness made him familiar to me. The loss is keen because there always seemed more of him to lose. But mourning must have an end--as Freud observed so insightfully. Otherwise it becomes melancholy and in Hamlet's poor case, madness.

His poems I can come back to time and again because they are the man himself alive and whole, unpolished and imperfect. To me he has achieved that immortality of spirit which his contemporaries so desired, and he came by it honestly, by real love, by genuineness, as do all the saints.