Wednesday, February 10, 2016

`But Three Steps from Feathers to Iron'

In his invaluable essay “The Prose Sublime,” Donald Justice observes that certain powerful and moving passages (usually taking us by surprise, ambushing us with delight, in my experience) often defy paraphrase and instant comprehension: “Their power is hidden in mystery. There is, at most, an illusion of seeing momentarily into the heart of things -- and the moment vanishes. It is this, perhaps, which produces the aesthetic blush.” A nice echo of Nabokov’s “aesthetic bliss,” defined in his afterword to Lolita as “a sense of being somehow, somewhere, connected with other states of being where art (curiosity, tenderness, kindness, ecstasy) is the norm.” Neither writer is a strict aesthete. What they describe is more than pretty words or words that conform to our predigested opinions. Justice’s “heart of things” and Nabokov’s “other states of being” sound remarkably alike. This is what I read in Keats’ letter to Benjamin Bailey written on March 13, 1818, as he explains to his friend why he did not keep a promised visit:

“I have used it these three last days to keep out the abominable Devonshire Weather - by the by you may say what you will of Devonshire: the truth is, it is a splashy, rainy, misty, snowy, foggy, haily, floody, muddy, slipshod county. The hills are very beautiful, when you get a sight of ’em; the primroses are out, --but then you are in; the cliffs are of a fine deep colour, but then the clouds are continually vieing with them.”

This passage and much of the rest of the letter left me tingling. I’ve read it before, many times, but was surprised again that the real Keats could be funny and playful, unlike the seraphic sprite of legend. No doubt my knowing he was already sick with the consumption that would kill him in less than three years, that his brother Tom would be dead from the same disease in another nine months, and that a year later he would write his great odes – all of that heightens my susceptibility to his words. Their poignancy triggers admiration and gratitude in this reader. How could so young a man (he was twenty-two) muster the wit (and courage) to write like this to a friend? The former medical student even makes a joke about a powerful emetic. As readers, we’d like to think we too could eschew self-pity and carry on rakishly while philosophizing and parodying same. Shakespeare, as usual, is with him:

“As Tradesmen say every thing is worth what it will fetch, so probably every mental pursuit takes its reality and worth from the ardor of the pursuer  -- being in itself a nothing -- Ethereal things may at least be thus real, divided under three heads -- Things real -- things semireal -- and no things. Things real -- such as existences of Sun Moon & Stars and passages of Shakspeare. Things semi-real such as Love, the Clouds &c which require a greeting of the Spirit to make them wholly exist -- and Nothings which are made Great and dignified by an ardent pursuit -- which by the by stamps the burgundy mark on the bottles of our Minds, insomuch as they are able to `consecrate whate’er they look upon.’”

Keats goes on to give Bailey a sonnet the way you and I might give him a coupon clipped from the newspaper. Surely, he's writing of himself with this line: “He has his Winter too of pale misfeature.” The way he slides seamlessly from jokiness to sublimity is an off-handed miracle:

“Aye this may be carried - but what am I talking of - it is an old maxim of mine and of course must be well known that every point of thought is the centre of an intellectual world - the two uppermost thoughts in a Man's mind are the two poles of his World he revolves on them and every thing is southward or northward to him through their means. We take but three steps from feathers to iron.”

Donald Justice writes of a passage in Sherwood Anderson’s novel Poor White, though he might be describing Keats’ letter: “Such a passage seems hardly to bother with understanding at all; it is a passage of unspoken connections, unnameable affinities, a tissue of association without specified relations.”

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