Saturday, January 23, 2016

`A Kind of Spiritual Yeast in Their Frames'

“It is unfortunate: men should bear with each other; there lives not the man who may not be cut up, aye, lashed to pieces, on his weakest side. The best of men have but a portion of good in them - a kind of spiritual yeast in their frames, which creates the ferment of existence - by which a man is propelled to act, and strive, and buffet with circumstance.”

Keats at his best – usually in his letters – is an unlikely contraption for manufacturing metaphors. He thinks metaphorically, like Shakespeare. He perceives likeness (“a sensitive leaf on the hot hand of thought”) where others see little or nothing. In a letter to his friend Benjamin Bailey written on this date, Jan. 23, in 1818, he describes the bickering between John Hamilton Reynolds and the notoriously hotheaded painter Benjamin Haydon, and between Haydon and Leigh Hunt. Instead of dismissing their childishness and moving on, as you and I might, Keats salvages something of worth from the unpleasantness. He borrows the chemical language of fermentation and makes a metaphor. The good in man (“spiritual yeast”) enables him to strengthen, mature and withstand life’s troubles ("the ferment of existence"). In 1815-16, Keats took two classes in chemistry while training as a doctor at Guy’s Hospital, and he seems to have been fond of the image. In his preface to Endymion: A Poetic Romance (1818) he writes:

“The imagination of a boy is healthy, and the mature imagination of a man is healthy; but there is a space of life between, in which the soul is in a ferment, the character undecided, the way of life uncertain, the ambition thick-sighted: thence proceeds mawkishness, and all the thousand bitters which those men I speak of must necessarily taste in going over the following pages.”

During Keats’ life, the OED reports, ferment also meant “agitation, excitement, tumult.” The metaphor is complete. Agitation coexists with a chemical process turning sugar and yeast into sustenance. Keats devotes both passages to the never guaranteed process of maturation, growing up. At age twenty-two, Keats at least writes like a paragon of equanimity: “Before I felt interest in either Reynolds or Haydon, I was well-read in their faults; yet knowing them both I have been cementing gradually with both.”

[A digression: Keats often surprises readers with his unexpected but carefully weighed choice of words: “cementing,” an excellent verb. This gift for appropriate oddity of vocabulary he shares with, of all poets, Philip Larkin.]

Near the conclusion of his letter to Bailey, Keats casually mentions two significant events: “My Brother Tom is getting stronger but his Spitting of blood continues. I sat down to read King Lear yesterday, and felt the greatness of the thing up to the writing of a Sonnet preparatory thereto - in my next you shall have it.”

Tom Keats would die of tuberculosis at age nineteen on Dec. 1, 1818. A little more than two years later, the same disease would kill the poet. The sonnet Keats mentions we know as “On Sitting Down to Read King Lear Once Again.” He returns, as in the letter, to human conflict unresolved:

“Adieu! for once again the fierce dispute,
Betwixt damnation and impassion'd clay
Must I burn through; once more humbly assay
The bitter-sweet of this Shakespearian fruit.”

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