Dumb By Nature

Discussion on the works of John Keats.

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Dumb By Nature

Postby knight@arms » Fri Jun 04, 2004 12:42 am

Dumb By Nature

In a recent post, I referred to the muse as “dumb.” By that I meant that she is unable to make any sounds that are intelligible to school-boys. She can speak only in the language of Nature, which no scholar can ever understand. Only a poet can ever hope to sense her meaning; and, as her champion, try to restate in human terms what she is saying.

Keats, in his poem “La Belle Dame Sans Merci,” makes four references to the sounds of the muse. Not one of these refers to a language of the intellect. Each one, instead, is a language of the heart.

In line 20 she sings “a faery’s song.” Anyone who was neither a faery nor a poet would, if he heard anything at all, think it was perhaps only the whisper of the wind. Then, in line 24, Keats says that she “made sweet moan.” Again, any little scholar finding himself alone on a cold hill side and hearing a moan would run to seek out the safety and agreement of his school mates.

But Keats does not run away. Here is the beautiful lady for whom he has spent half of his life searching, not daring to believe that she might ever be real. And now, in line 27, he is sure that in her “language strange” she is saying that she loves him! She takes him to her elfin home, “and there she gaz’d and sigh-ed deep” (line 30). Finally, in her arms, he sleeps, and dreams of the dead men who control his life in the “real” world.

All of this, and not one word of English spoken….

When Keats awakes, he finds himself more alone than ever. Having been in the world of beauty, he can no longer stand to live among the dead souls of his critics and creditors. How could he ever hope to make any of them appreciate the beauty of nature as he has experienced it. Especially now that the muse has once again vanished.

The Lady’s voice is only the wind in the willows. Her hair is the long grass. The depth of the hills hides the depth of her soul. Keats waits, a wretched wight palely loitering, cold and alone. “Maybe she’ll pick him out again. How long must he wait?” (Dylan)

And no birds sing.
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Postby Matt » Fri Jun 04, 2004 3:45 pm

Interesting point but I think you have to be careful not always assume that the voice of the poem is Keats. Remember The Chameleon Poet- the ability of the poet to put his or herself into the position of anything whether it be living or dead
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... until you realize the art of dying.

Postby knight@arms » Fri Jun 04, 2004 11:10 pm

Hello, Matt.

As you say, an artist may have the ability to put himself into the position of many different things. But, when he is there, who is he? He is himself. Whose observations does he report? His own. Whose words does he use? His.

It is impossible for an artist to remove himself from his work. His work comes from him and through him. Every part of it is an expression of himself.

In the case of Keats’ poem, there is not even the pretence that he is talking about someone or something else. Using a bit of poetic metaphor, which is reflective of his studies, he speaks directly about his life. He has failed in his quest to defend the honour of Nature. He is regarded by his contemporaries as a bit of a fool. He is dying of consumption: tuberculosis consumes his body (lines 9-11); la Belle Dame consumes his soul.

We can see by the changes he made to the poem, from its first draft that he sent to his brother to the final published version, that his despair was increasing. It is a deeply personal poem. I can’t imagine that Keats might not have identified himself with the wretched wight.
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What another great subject for debate!

Postby Saturn » Sat Jun 05, 2004 11:54 pm

This is another fascinating debate.

Though undoubtedly, events in Keats life, and his lingering malaise are all reflected in the despairing tone of the revised 'La belle dame...', we should not make such an obvious correlation between his poetic, and real-life self.

He wrote elsewhere:
"A poet is the most unpoetical thing in existence; because he has no Identity - he is continually in for - and filling some other Body - The Sun, The Moon, the Sea and Men and Women who are creatures of impulse are poetical and have about them an unchangeable attribute - the poet has none; no identity - he is certainly the most unpoetial of all God's Creatures."

Perhaps, near the end he began to merge the two selves, so that we might learn of his suffering through his art, and come to reconcile loss and sadness through the meditative balm of poetry, that great Physician of Nature. Who knows what painful struggles he endured in his protracted misery.

Rilke says "The great artists have all let their lives become overgrown like an old path and have born everything in their art. Their lives have become atrophied, like an organ they no longer use."
Perhaps this is true in Keats case; he put, while he could, all his effort and spirit into his work - to the detriment of his delicate health.

After my earlier literary skirmish with knight@arms about 'La belle dame...', I'd like to espouse the cause of the much overlooked 'Fall of Hyperion: A dream', as opposed to the earlier printed version.

Similar to 'La belle dame...', the revisions reflect a deep sadness and despair, with Keats using the Dantesque vehicle of the pilgrim observer to voice his deep concerns about poetry and the difference between the artist and the idle dreamer.

This poem is arguably his most profound and moving meditation on art and life, within the framework of the earlier motif of the mythological war of the Titans.

Moneta; as well as being represantaive of memory and mother of the Muses, acts as a cypher for Keats own doubts regarding his own work, and the role of poetry in our lives.

She questions the narrator:
"What benefit canst thou do, or all thy tribe,
To the great world? Thou art a dreaming thing,
A fever of thyself..."

The distinction between poet and dreamer has been blurred, and become a general prejudice against poets and artists in general - perhaps this was what Byron meant when he rather crudely remarked that Keats was always "f****ing his imagination" (not a remark I agree with in the slightest!!).

There is a contempt for those who tread the unknown regions of the mind, to explore fully what it means to be human to the profoundest depths.

'The Fall of Hyperion: A dream' - Keats most sublime, unfinished masterpiece.

Discuss...
Last edited by Saturn on Tue Jun 08, 2004 10:57 pm, edited 1 time in total.
"Oh what a misery it is to have an intellect in splints".
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Dumb-de-Dumb

Postby knight@arms » Tue Jun 08, 2004 6:28 pm

Dumb-de-Dumb

Hello, Sir Stephan. Thank you for so gallantly supporting my case.

Sir John, in his “Dream,” as in “La Belle Dame,” encounters the muse. Again, in both, he is unable to bring her message back home. In fact, he gives up trying to write “The Fall of Hyperion: A dream,” leaving us with only a fragment. The task of being an intermediary between the muse and men is a daunting one.

I began this thread as follows:
“In a recent post, I referred to the muse as “dumb.” By that I meant that she is unable to make any sounds that are intelligible to school-boys. She can speak only in the language of Nature, which no scholar can ever understand. Only a poet can ever hope to sense her meaning; and, as her champion, try to restate in human terms what she is saying.”
and I continued:
“Anyone who was neither a faery nor a poet would, if he heard anything at all, think it was perhaps only the whisper of the wind.”

My comrade in arms, Sir John, put it this way in the musings that you mentioned:
“Mortal, that thou may'st understand aright, I humanize my sayings to thine ear, making comparisons of earthly things; or thou might'st better listen to the wind, whose language is to thee a barren noise, though it blows legend laden through the trees. In melancholy realms big tears are shed, more sorrow like to this, and such like woe, too huge for mortal tongue, or pen of scribe.”

In his dream, Sir John hears more than the wind in the trees; but, in the end, it still proves too huge for the pen of our poor mortal scribe. The effective result is: the muse is mute. She screams; but the ears of men are deaf to her, save for a few “vision’ries”. For the rest, “They are no dreamers weak; they seek no wonder but the human face, no music but a happy noted voice; they come not here, they have no thought to come.”

“There is a contempt for those who tread the unknown regions of the mind, to explore fully what it means to be human to the profoundest depths.”—S. Saturn, Esq.

I tell you, Sir Stephen, it is contempt born out of fear. So we must continue to be fearless. We must, as Sir David of Chatterley said, hold ourselves “together and fight, with a hit-hit here and a hit-hit there, and a comfortable feeling at night that [we]’ve let in a little air.”

We must – for the beautiful lady.
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Keep fighting the good fight

Postby Saturn » Tue Jun 08, 2004 11:17 pm

Verily, Sir Knight, mayest thou goe forth and slay ye dragoons of Ignorance, and long continuest ye warre against foul Ridicule and hideous Neglect.
"Oh what a misery it is to have an intellect in splints".
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No More Mr. Knight’s Guy

Postby knight@arms » Fri Jun 11, 2004 2:48 am

No More Mr. Knight’s Guy

I came to john-keats.com because I wanted to check something in “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” and felt I could do so faster online rather than searching through my paper tomes. I was annoyed to see that Keats’ version of the poem wasn’t included on the site nor, in fact, even acknowledged to exist. So I joined the forum and began posting as knight@arms, choosing that name because I saw myself as defending Keats’ honour, defending truth-and-beauty, and, most importantly, defending the muse.

Not surprisingly, I was met with the old “most people agree” that his earlier version was the better one argument – sort of the “we all say so; so it must be so,” school of thought. I intend to start a whole new thread regarding such schools and the school-boys or scholars (as they like to call themselves) who perpetuate them. For now, suffice it to say that scholars killed John Keats.

I used the literary device of the knight at arms in much the same way that John Keats did: as an image to convey a feeling. The words of the muse don’t translate directly into the words of men. As Keats has her say in ‘The Fall of Hyperion A Dream,’ “I humanize my sayings to thine ear, making comparisons of earthly things that thou may'st understand aright.” The muse may indeed be dumb; but that is only because men are dumber.

When John Keats realized that men were going to take the metaphor of the knight too literally, when he realized that his Belle Dame poem was being taken as just another of his airy-fairy renderings of other men’s work, he changed HIS name from “knight at arms” to “wretched wight.” That is really the only major change he made to his poem; but it speaks volumes about what he was trying to say and where he was coming from.

This is not to say that the poem is a literal description of his life at the time. We are not meant to “translate” the poem into some kind of newspaper report. He is still speaking with the language of poetry that is basically incomprehensible to the “left-brained” imbeciles who become critics or scholars. It is a language of images. Things are not “either-or.” Everything is much more fuzzy.

For example, the beautiful lady whom he meets in the meads is the same white goddess that he meets in the temple of Saturn. She inhabits nature. She inhabits the house next door. She inhabits the “imagination” of John Keats.

In a long letter to his brother George dated September 1819 (http://englishhistory.net/keats/letters ... r1819.html), Keats writes, “You speak of Lord Byron and me - There is this great difference between us. He describes what he sees - I describe what I imagine - Mine is the hardest task.”

The important thing to remember here is that describing what he “imagines” is not the same as describing the imaginary. He is a poet not a dreamer. As the white lady, the goddess Moneta, the immortal muse Mnemosyne, goddess of memories future and past, says: “The poet and the dreamer are distinct, diverse, sheer opposite, antipodes. The one pours out a balm upon the world, the other vexes it.”

Why is any of this relevant? Because the world needs a balm as much now as it ever did – probably more. Unless men, “large self worshipers” that they are, start to listen to the winds in the trees with new ears, if they don’t heed the warnings of nature, then John Keats will get his wish, and a “misty pestilence [will] creep into the dwellings, through the door crannies,” and men will sprawl into their graves.

Well, so what? Men will eventually sprawl into their graves anyhow, won’t they?

Yes, true enough. But what do we do in the meantime? We could eat, drink and do Mary. —And the next day do Martha. —And the next day sodomize Sam. — But after a while that gets really boring (no pun intended). Just ask Byron. Or, instead of screwing the world and everyone in it, we could do as John Keats did, and fight for truth-and-beauty.

Personally, I’m with John. I’d rather live in a world of truth and beauty than in a world of ugliness and lies. And as he says, this is the hardest task. But, just imagine…

“You might say I’m a dreamer; but I’m not the only one. I hope some day you will join us; and the word can live as one.” – John Lennon
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