Saturday, December 28, 2013

`He Doesn't Beat His Fists on the Table'

Keats dated the most famous letter in literary history “Hampstead Sunday / 22 December 1818,” but scholars, noting the poet’s practice of composing journal letters for days and weeks, writing as time and inspiration permitted, and also weighing internal evidence in the text and a certain propensity for carelessness with dates (Dec. 22 was a Monday), have concluded that the Negative Capability portion of the letter to his brothers George and Tom was composed on this date, Dec. 28, in 1817. The footnotes in Hyder Edward Rollins’s two-volume edition of the Letters (1958), printed in a smaller typeface than the text, occupy almost twice as much space. Here is Keats writing at age twenty-two: 

“I had not a dispute but a disquisition, with Dilke on various subjects; several things dove-tailed in my mind, and at once it struck me what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in Literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously -- I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason -- Coleridge, for instance, would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half-knowledge. This pursued through volumes would perhaps take us no further than this, that with a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration.” 

The passage is customarily read as embracing poetic openness and rejecting closed systems of thought. The poet, in a sense, is all potential, at least while writing poetry. He  projects himself into the sensibilities of others. His imagination is sympathetic. He is not theory-driven. Not for him the “egotistic sublime.” In a letter the previous month to Benjamin Bailey, Keats says “Men of Genius…have not any individuality, any determined Character.” Keats told his friend Richard Woodhouse that he could enter into the nature of a rolling billiard ball and experience “a sense of delight from its own roundness, smoothness, volubility, & the rapidity of its motion.” This is brilliant and provocative and utterly contrary to Romantic dogma, which remains the militant default mode for most writers, trapped in the small prison of self. Even Keats’ rejection of dogma is undogmatic – and charming. He says in his next sentence to Bailey: “But I am running my head into a Subject which I am certain I could not do justice to under five years Study and 3 vols octavo…” Of course, he didn’t have five years. He was dead in little more than three. 

That Samuel Beckett so treasured Keats and Dr. Johnson is a marvelous reproach to his more avant-garde admirers. In a 1930 letter to his friend Thomas McGreevey, Beckett writes: “I have been doing a little tapirising & reading Keats, you’ll be sorry to hear. I like that crouching brooding quality in Keats – squatting on the moss, crushing a petal, licking his lips & rubbing his hands, `counting the last oozing, hours by hours.’ I like him the best of them all, because he doesn’t beat his fists on the table. I like that awful sweetness and thick soft damp green richness. And weariness. `Take into the air my quiet breath.’” 

The editors of The Letters of Samuel Beckett 1929-1940 (Cambridge University Press, 2009) gloss “tapirising” as Beckett’s take on the French tapir, academic slang meaning “private pupil.” Beckett misquotes a line from “To Autumn” (“Though watchest the last oozing hours by hours”) and correctly quotes from “Ode to a Nightingale”:I have been half in love with easeful Death, / Call'd him soft names in many a mused rhyme, /  To take into the air my quiet breath.”

1 comment:

R.T. said...

Keats and Beckett! Wonderful! Thank you for sharing. My fondness for both authors has been redoubled with this new knowledge.