Saturday, November 20, 2010

On Dipping into Keats' Letters 10


Stones, Donabate, October 2010
I suppose it is about time that I brought this series of reflections on Keats' letters to a conclusion - at least for the moment.  Reading such literature should convince us that there are more things to life than the sheer materialism and greed that swept this wee country like a tsunami during the era of the mythical Celtic Tiger.  There are many other concerns to which we must give our attention like the world of simple and decent values.  By this I mean such values as altruism, care for the environment, care for one's own spiritual and moral well-being as well as that of others; care for each other, for the less fortunate; a commitment to education in its broadest meaning, to our own physical and mental health and indeed to that of the society to which we belong and an on-going conviction that self-development in the most holistic sense possible is also about the development of our society and indeed of our environment at large.  There actually is nothing selfish about self-development.  The opposite in fact is the case.

Lessons from the Letters:

(i) Keats was convinced of the value of establishing good and decent relationships with others.  Not one letter expresses derogatory, belittling, contemptuous or pejorative sentiments about others.  His letters are always an effort to build up and establish relationships.

(ii) It's very hard to find a prevailing air of negativity or even deep depression, though at times he does express some morbid feelings, but never to an overwhelming extent.  If he expresses such feelings it is always in the frank and open sense of sharing how he actually feels as his correspondents would have wished him to.  For a man who died so young - at the age of a mere 25 years - from a disease he knew had killed his brother Tom and would slowly and surely kill himself he remained remarkably up-beat and positive in his correspondence.  Add to that the fact that young Keats had trained as a medical doctor and knew all too well that his days were numbered when he spat up blood on his pillow.

(iii) There is great self-belief, self-confidence and self-esteem shown in his letters.  Let us as readers bask in them.  Here was a poet rejoicing in his own gifts, literary and poetic, nay, rejoicing in the fact that he was a gifted and good human being.  That belief in ourselves must come before we truly believe in others is an an essential prerequisite of good personal and interpersonal development to my mind.  Needless to say, Keats and other literary and even non-literary characters of his era would not have used these phrases and terms which were coined in the more recent years of self-help.  I have already adverted to the fact that one letter sounded like modern pop psychology insofar as it appeared that the young poet was rehearsing what we today term "positive tapes" in his head.

(iv) Keats' letters underpin a main contention of this writer, viz., that creativity is an essentially healing act, an act of "soul-making" in the poet's very own phrase.  This is exactly what Stephen K Levine means by poiesis which I described in an earlier post here: Keats and Poiesis.

(v) The importance of solitude in the development of the poetic imagination, and indeed its vital importance to the development of the human Soul or Self
Horse, Malahide, November 2010

(vi) The healing power and inspiration of nature.  If one were to state this in another way, one might say that the Romantics were early Greens or Ecologists, committed to Gaia long before ever James Lovelock dreamt up the word or the concept.  A linked theme would be that of the importance of the walking tour in mountainous areas.  Such external journeys also mirrored the internal spiritual journey of the artist or poet.

(vii)  The existential themes in his Letters - suffering and angst, the pain of existence.  These are always, as I have said above, seen as being able to be alleviated somewhat through artistic and creative expression.  Such sentiments are honest, frank and open, but never depressingly overwhelming.

(viii) Keats' theories of Knowledge, Beauty and Truth are all linked artistically and indeed existentially (I use this word in a decidedly anachronistic fashion as I have explained elsewhere in these posts) in his mind.

(ix) Negative Capability : I have written about the power of opposites many times in these posts. Samuel Taylor Coleridge was besotted with the idea of what he termed "the reconciliation of opposites," while Carl Gustave Jung was also most intrigued and taken by the power of these polar opposites, their dynamic interaction and interplay, and the eventual integration of both which he was to see as essential to becoming whole - a word he loved and a word much quoted by Jungian therapists. Our own Nobel winning Laureate, the great W.B. Yeats spoke of the existence of conflicting antinomies. For him, these antinomies or polar opposites (Good and Evil, Peace and War etc) are just there. Contraries exist but, he said, ‘I had never put the conflict in logical form, never thought with Hegel that the two ends of a see-saw are one another’s negation.'  The way Keats puts this healthy tension of polar opposites is: "Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact and reason..." (Letter to George and Tom Keats, 17, 27 December 1818, Letters, ed Gittings., p. 43)

(x) I will finish this post with the sheer wonder Keats had about all of existence and the very wonder of his very own mind.  There is possibly no better way to finish.  I am reminded of the wonder that our own native poet Patrick Kavanagh had about all of nature and life about him a century or more later in the following wonderfully inspiring words from Keats' pen::


Then instead of what I have described, there is a Sublimity to welcome me home - The roaring of the wind is my wife and the Stars through the window pane are my Children.  The mighty abstract Idea I have of Beauty in all things stifles the more divided and minute domestic happiness - an amiable wife and sweet Children I contemplate as part of that Beauty, but I must have a thousand of those beautiful particles to fill up my heart.  I feel more and more every day, as my Imagination strengthens, that I do not live in this world alone but in a thousand worlds - No sooner am I alone that shapes of epic greatness are stationed around me... (Letter to George and Georgiana Keats 14, 16, 21, 24, 31 October, 1818, Gittings, p. 158.)

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

A Short Political Interlude

Oak tree - Santry Wood, September, 2010
I make it a point of virtually never referring to politics as there are so many political blogs out there in the blogosphere, and most of them with deeper and more penetrating political insights that I can give.  Also my preoccupations are essentially in the areas of philosophy, literature, psychology and personal development as my strengths lie there.  However, the sheer volume of negative political and economical news that we are bombarded with on an almost hourly basis from our news media, both broadcast and written, has begun to sicken and depress me.  So much so that I feel I must make a few brief comments here for my own peace of mind and to let off some mounting steam.  This, I believe is the second post out of some 735 posts that I have deigned to make a political statement.

The Mind Boggles and the Soul Sickens:

My mind boggles at how the present Fianna Fáil/Green Government are in absolute denial.  If the truth of our present political, fiscal and banking situations were to suddenly come alive and transform themselves into three evil dragons I doubt if they would be even able to identify these mythical creatures.  Indeed, if these three realities were to transform themselves into very real gnarling wolves, I doubt if they would recognise them either.  Ours is a government in denial and one which, alas, is so economical with the truth, to use a euphemism which is almost too ridiculously pun-like, that it does not know the difference between Truth and Falsehood.    Indeed, they take us mere mortals for fools of the highest order.  In listening to the irate listeners of Joe Duffy's Live Line today one could not but be alarmed at the level of anger, disbelief and sheer incredulity among the Irish people.  It's sad to say, but it is a truism, that we get the politicians we deserve.  It took us too long, far too long, to realize that the empty rhetoric mouthed by our politicians in government was and is just that, empty rhetoric.  However, what's worse is that this empty rhetoric has become sheer denial, gross untruths and blatant lies.  Hence, my mind boggles. 

My soul sickens because in this sheer obsession with the state of our economy we have lost a lot of what makes us truly human, and indeed, truly Irish.  We were, and possibly are still, a very caring nation.  We have traditionally sent our best young men and women to the four corners of the earth educating the poor and nursing the sick.  We are a great literary and musical nation which also inspires many beyond the borders of our little country.  The soul of Ireland is sick.  The tsunami of greed that overtook this little country and into which many of us, alas, bought "hook, line and sinker" as the oft quoted cliché puts it, was the cause of our downfall.  Yes, indeed, there were the few prophetic voices who shouted stop, but our greed knew no greater self-awareness.  Indeed, a lot of us were in denial.  Things were too good and the money too cheap to refuse.  We bought properties with money we could not repay from developers who had borrowed to build them in the first place.  We were a nation strung out on the opium of greed.  Now we are paying the price.  We are all being punished for the grave sins and profligate gambling of the few and the many lesser sins of the masses of us who bought into the false dream of wealth without limit.

I am reminded here of a short lyric of William Blake from his Songs of Experience which runs thus:

(Songs of Experience 1789)

O Rose thou art sick.
The invisible worm
That flies in the night
In the howling storm:
Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy:
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.
A Yellow Rose called "Freedom," St Anne's Park, October 2010
Substitute Ireland, the soul of Ireland, for the rose in this poem and we have a truly fitting allegory.  The invisible worm would be the tsunami of greed that overtook our small nation during the years of heady hubris when we thought were among the richest nations on earth.  Poor Paddy lost his soul betting his very shirt on international markets, the "pie in the sky" of rampant and rapacious capitalism.  What's needed now is a return to the vision of the founders of this small but wonderful state.  We are the proud possessors of a wonderful culture which is priceless.  When we tried to sell that culture for "a mess of potage" we became undone.  Let us re-discover our spiritual - not necessarily religious - and literary roots.  Let us rediscover the power of the Celtic Imagination which will bring economic stability  with it as well as soul-comfort if we realise that small can and is both beautiful and sustaining economically.  We were never afraid of hard work.  Nor were we ever afraid that poverty would kill the growing flower of our nation.  We have come through much worse in our history as an ancient Gaelic people.  Let us not grow dispirited.  Our soul may be battered and bruised at the moment, but she is not broken! Éire abú!

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

On Dipping into Keats' Letters 9

Keats' Indomitable Spirit and High Self-esteem:

As a teacher of some thirty years' standing I can aver that lack of self-esteem is often the single most crippling handicap I have witnessed in any student whom it has been my privilege to teach.  For one reason or another many human beings end up not really believing in themselves and not valuing themselves as persons.  I have found that often the task a teacher faces in teaching the weaker classes especially is first building up their belief in themselves.  Usually the more intellectually gifted do not suffer from such disabling self-esteem problems, though, of course, some of their number can do so due to one or other mental illness or social or family problems - though this, I have found, is rare enough among this kind of pupil.

On dipping once again into John Keats' letters I have found that this great young poet who died all too young from Tuberculosis, a disease which first claimed his younger brother Tom whom he lovingly nursed and then eventually claimed him, did not succumb to lack of self-belief and low self-esteem.  This great and good poet, and wonderful human being (so easily inferred from his letters) kepts his spirits high and wrote what we would today call "Positive Self-Talk" in his many interesting and thought-provoking letters.  In a letter to George and Georgiana Keats he writes the following up-beat words:

I have written this that you mights see that I have my share of the highest pleasures and that though I may choose to pass my days alone I shall be no Solitary.  You see therre (sic) is nothing spleenical (sic) in all this.  The only thing that can ever affect me personally for more than one short passing day, is any doubt about my powers for poetry - I seldom have any, and I look with hope to the nighing time when I shall have none.  I am as happy as a Man can be - that is in myself I should be happy if Tom was well, and I knew you were passing pleasant days - then I should be most enviable - with the yearning Passion I have for the beautiful, connected and made one with the ambition of my intellect.  Think of my Pleasure in Solitude in comparison of my commerce with the world - there I am a child - there they do not know me, not even my most intimate acquaintance...  Some think me middling, others silly, others foolish - everyone thinks he sees my weak side against my will; when in truth it is with my will - I am content to be thought all this because I have in my own breast so great a resource... my greatest elevations of soul leaves (sic) me every time more humbled... (Letters of John Keats (OUP), ed. Robert Gittings, pp. 170-171)
There is great self-belief, self-confidence and self-esteem shown in the above lines.  Let us as readers bask in them.  Here was a poet rejoicing in his own gifts, literary and poetic, nay, rejoicing in the fact that he was a gifted and good human being.  Let us drink in such self-belief as expressed in the words from these wonderful letters.  I have found myself over the years returning again and again to John Keats's letters because I find them uplifting.  That such a young man could have had such profound insights into life in general and into the human condition in particular often overwhelms me with sadness and with joy by turns, given that he was to die so young.

Creativity and Healing:

To do something creative is a way of healing the soul.  It is the essential therapy - call it poiesis, as I have referred to this phenomenon in the preceeding posts.  Here, let us listen to Keats in a long letter to his brother George and his wife Georgiana, then being resident in America, having emigrated thence because of economic difficulties in England, a sad missive where he tells them of the death of their younger brother Tom:

My brother Pat peers from between the twisted trunks of a tree.
.... -  Never relieved except when I am composing - so I will write away.  Friday.  I think you knew before you left England  that my next subject would be 'the fall of Hyperion' I went on a little with it last night - but it will take some time to get into the vein again.  I will not give you any extracts because I wish the whole to make an impression - I have however a few Poems which you will like and I will copy out on the next sheet. (Letters of John Keats (OUP), ed. Robert Gittings, pp. 170-171)
Another fact that intrigues me is the unusual use John Keats makes of capitalization.  He often capitalizes the least expected words now and again, though usually he capitalizes only those he believes to be of singular importance.  However, such an observation is really of little importance vis a vis the wonderful insights and wisdom we can garner from his always interesting and moving letters.