Category Archives: notes on poems

when you know, but cannot feel, beauty

In his “Dejection: An Ode,” Coleridge describes the sparkling stars and crescent moon above but bemoans his own state of mind:

I see them all so excellently fair,
I see, not feel, how beautiful they are!

The reason is what we would call depression:

A grief without a pang, void, dark, and drear,
         A stifled, drowsy, unimpassioned grief,
         Which finds no natural outlet, no relief,
                In word, or sigh, or tear—

I consulted Coleridge’s “Dejection” thanks to Anahid Nersessian’s essay on Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale” (Nersessian 2021). Nersessian is great at wiping away that sense of Keats as a languorous aesthete, a maker of pretty lyrics. As she shows, the Nightingale ode reports suicidal thoughts. The narrator is “half in love with easeful Death” and seriously considering whether it is time to end it all: “Now more than ever seems it rich to die.” The three hard opening words, as Nersessian notes, violate iambic pentameter and ignore the ostensible addressee of the ode. Keats doesn’t begin, “O, Nightingale …” but rather, “My heart aches.”

Nersessian’s essay is not a close reading, but it made me turn back to the text of the ode. I wondered: what exactly is the narrator’s mental condition? (Remember: Keats had medical training, and the first stanza seems almost clinical.) The presenting complaint is a heart that aches. More specifically, “a drowsy numbness pains / My sense.”

This is complicated. Being drowsy and numb suggests a lack of sensation, and that interpretation is reinforced by the analogy to a “dull opiate” that suppresses the narrator’s conscious thoughts, sending him toward Lethe. But the numbness “pains” his sense, as though he had drunk hemlock. I am not sure whether we should assume that hemlock causes a quiet, sleepy death or an agonizing one: Wikipedia suggests that it triggers respiratory distress. I think that the question of lacking consciousness versus suffering is central to the poem as a whole.

In any case, what is the etiology of this numbness/ache? The narrator denies that he is envious of the nightingale’s “happy lot.” (The word “thy” in that sentence is the first mention of the ode’s subject.) When people deny that they are jealous, sometimes they actually are. But the narrator follows with a subtler point. He does not envy the bird’s “happy lot,” where “happy” could mean “favoured by good fortune; lucky, fortunate; successful” (OED). The bird’s lot is to sing in the mid-May evening, and Keats denies being envious of that. Instead, the nightingale causes heartache by “being too happy in [its] happiness”–in other words, by enjoying its role. This is precisely what Keats’ narrator, being depressed, cannot do. The poem describes beauty, yet the narrator cannot feel what such precise and evocative words as these should convey:

The grass, the thicket, and the fruit-tree wild;
         White hawthorn, and the pastoral eglantine;
                Fast fading violets cover’d up in leaves;
                        And mid-May’s eldest child,
         The coming musk-rose, full of dewy wine,
                The murmurous haunt of flies on summer eves.

Do we think that the nightingale is happy, in the subjective sense–happy in its happiness? Keats writes that the bird “sing[s] of summer in full-throated ease.” I suppose I doubt that it sings “of” summer. I assume it sings because the month is May, and its song is a component of what makes an English early summer lovely. I don’t believe that the bird is describing summer, as a poet could.

To modify an example from Robert B. Brandom (who discusses a parrot trained to say “red” in the presence of red objects), the nightingale reliably informs us that it is summer by singing, but the bird cannot express the premises and conclusions that relate to this information. The bird cannot say, “It is summer; therefore, it is not winter,” or “It is summer because spring is over,” or “Since it is summer, we should spend evenings outdoors.” To express points like that would be to talk of summer. Instead, the nightingale sings because it is summer, and as an aspect of summer.

Indeed, its happiness relates to its ignorance. Keats wishes to forget

What thou among the leaves hast never known,
The weariness, the fever, and the fret
         Here, where men sit and hear each other groan;
Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last gray hairs,
         Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies ...

That last line may describe the recent and agonizing death of Keats’ brother from tuberculosis, and it eerily foretells Keats’ own death from the same cause two years later. These are serious matters, wrenching tragedies, and the bird’s enviable condition is to know nothing of them. Its mental state is like that of a human being who has forgotten memories and fears of suffering.

We might expect that the bird’s song would cause Keats to forget pain, at least briefly, as he becomes absorbed in the music; but that doesn’t work for this narrator, because he is depressed. “Still wouldst thou sing, and I have ears in vain.” Instead, the narrator considers artificial solutions: “some dull opiate,” “a draught of vintage,” distracting reveries of “faery lands,” or–most effective of all, intentional death.

The darkness and anger of the poem should be taken seriously; it is not some pretty thing. Yet it is rapturously beautiful, the source of such nuggets as “tender is the night” and Ruth “amid the alien corn.” It is about not being able to feel beauty, yet it conveys beauty from that ailment.

In the fourth stanza, Keats commits to join the nightingale not by drowning his sorrows in drink but through the power of verse:

Away! away! for I will fly to thee,
         Not charioted by Bacchus and his pards,
But on the viewless wings of Poesy,
         Though the dull brain perplexes and retards ...

His brain is a problem: it perplexes and retards. “Poesy” looks, at least temporarily, like a way out. But why is it “viewless”? That word could mean invisible: we cannot observe how poetry moves the writer or the reader to a better place. Or it could mean unable to see. Certainly, this poet has trouble seeing. Due to the deep darkness where the nightingale sings, “I cannot see what flowers are at my feet.” Poetry offers words that name objects, but it does not actually allow us to see them. I think the central idea in the fifth stanza (Keats knows which flowers are present from their scent but cannot see them) is a metaphor for literary description. A poem conveys information but not actual experience.

Then he addresses the bird: “Darkling, I listen.” Calling a nightingale “darkling” is a clear allusion to Book III of Paradise Lost, where Milton writes:

            ... as the wakeful bird
Sings darkling, and in shadiest covert hid
Tunes her nocturnal note. ....

The argument of this passage is that God is light; beautiful things reflect God’s love. Since Milton is blind, he cannot see these objects. He misses the “sight of vernal bloom, or summer’s rose …  the cheerful ways of men.” Yet a miracle occurs. God makes the “celestial Light, / Shine inward,” and by purging and dispersing all the ordinary sights of life, allows Milton to “see and tell / Of things invisible to mortal sight.” Milton is like the nightingale, whose song tells of grace even though the bird cannot see in the darkness.

No such consolation is available to the narrator of Keats’ ode, who offers no hint that nature has a benign author. Nature is what gives people tuberculosis. Keats’ narrator is not only depressed but angry about it.

I will offer an alternative perspective, even though I don’t think Keats would agree with it. We are all like the nightingale; our vocalizations and other behaviors are caused by natural processes. (“Dependent origination.”) We cannot escape suffering, which is intrinsic to sentience and afflicts the bird as well as us. (“The first noble truth.”) Mental pain arises naturally. For instance, Keats must think of his recently deceased brother, because he is physically designed to feel grief. Forgetting such things is impossible, and drowning them out would be unethical. (“The middle way.”) However, Keats is not a real entity, and his condition needn’t interest the poet as much as it does. As he writes elsewhere, the poet “has no self”; “not one word I ever utter can be taken for granted as an opinion growing out of my identical nature–how can it, when I have no nature?” (“No-self.”) His protean mind can, however, fill with thoughts such as appreciation, gratitude, and compassion. (Mindfulness, the “third noble truth.”) The beauty of the night is real, just like suffering, and he can focus on the former.

Those who make it across the river and come back to help others over do the most good (“karma”), and Keats’ lyrics provide an example. They enrich the inner lives of us who read them. Keats claims no satisfaction from doing this, because he is depressed and because he doesn’t hold a Buddhist-ish theory. But he achieves what he cannot recognize, and we can read him compassionately for that reason. After all, the last five words (“Do I wake or sleep?”) are no longer addressed to the nightingale, which has departed for the “next valley-glades.” They must pose a question for us, opening a dialogue with readers and perhaps seeking our compassion, which we can give. If our minds are filled with compassion, we have less space for pain.

Keats was an unbelievably good poet. What if we can’t write immortal verse–can we then return to help others cross to a better place? I would say: Keats is a stranger to us, dead two centuries, and worth reading because his words are so excellent. The rest of us just say mundane things, like, “Did you hear that bird?” But we can say such things in relationships–to people we know and like or love. When embedded in a friendship or love, a remark like “Did you hear that bird?” conveys pleasure and care. By that means, we can alleviate suffering even if we could never come up with a phrase as good as “with beaded bubbles winking at the brim.”

Sources: Robert B. Brandom, Articulating Reasons: An Introduction to Inferentialism (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000); Anahid Nersessian, Keats’ Odes: A Lover’s Discourse (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2021). See also the sublime and other people; the politics of negative capability; “Keats against Dante: The Sonnet on Paolo and Francesca“; a poem should; empathy: good or bad?; and three endings for Christabel.

sighs, short and frequent, were exhaled

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

I thought of the opening of the “Waste Land” during an international Zoom call with a dozen lovely people, as they described how spring is breaking in their respective countries during this pandemic year.

If your mind turns to extraordinarily famous classics at such moments, you may be both pretentious and unimaginative. Then again, sometimes a new situation provokes a new look at a canonical text that has become a cliché from too much repetition.

Both T.S. and Vivienne Eliot contracted the Spanish ‘flu during the global pandemic. That experience, along with the First World War, might be in the background of his 1922 poem. Rereading it during a respiratory epidemic prompts new interpretations of passages like this one:

Unreal City,
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.
Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,
And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.

Even the phrase “Madame Sosostris, famous clairvoyante, / Had a bad cold …” has new implications when read during COVID-19.

As for the opening, the combination of “memory and desire” seems apt for our moment, when many familiar experiences have become distant memories that we yearn to repeat. Lilacs look and smell lovely, but their springtime “breeding” may be a painful process. Each of the first three enjambed lines splits a participle from its object, creating a series of false starts. Are we moving again?

Eliot is surely responding to the cheerful opening of the first great long poem in English:

Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote,
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licóur
Of which vertú engendred is the flour ...

However, the opening of “The Waste Land” depicts rebirth as cruel.

Later, Roethke will ask …

This urge, wrestle, resurrection of dry sticks,
Cut stems struggling to put down feet.
What saint strained so much,
Rose on such lopped limbs to a new life?
 -- Theodore Roethke, from "The Lost Son and Other Poems" (1948)

Eliot’s entitles his whole first section “The Burial of the Dead,” referring, perhaps, to that rite from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. The Anglican prayer emphasizes peaceful rest followed by joyous resurrection: “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord …” In contrast, I think Eliot’s narrator adopts a tone of metaphysical pessimism, as in classical Buddhism, Schopenhauer, or Silenus’ Greek phrase: “for humans, the best is not to be born at all, not to partake of nature’s excellence; not to be is best.”

This does not mean that pessimism is the spirit of the whole poem, which deliberately presents many voices and perspectives as Eliot portrays a metropolis in the aftermath of trauma.

In fact, it’s worth recovering an alternative to pessimism from the same poem. Apparently, the sequence Datta, Dayadhvam, Damyata (quoting an Upanishad) means: “be self-controlled, be charitable, and be compassionate.” Eliot presents that advice in a passage that is liquid, when most of the poem is bone-dry, and calm, when most of it feels tormented:

Damyata: The boat responded
Gaily, to the hand expert with sail and oar
The sea was calm, your heart would have responded
Gaily, when invited, beating obedient
To controlling hands.

And the whole work ends with the mantra “Shantih. shantih. shantih” (or “peace. peace. peace.”) So may it be.

Wallace Stevens’ idea of order

Ramon Fernandez, tell me, if you know,   
Why, when the singing ended and we turned   
Toward the town, tell why the glassy lights,   
The lights in the fishing boats at anchor there,   
As the night descended, tilting in the air,   
Mastered the night and portioned out the sea,   
Fixing emblazoned zones and fiery poles,   
Arranging, deepening, enchanting night.
     from Wallace Stevens, "The Idea of Order at Key West." 

Anchored fishing boats at night will send luminous streaks across the water to point directly at you, the viewer. They seem to partition the sea in an ordered way that gives you the central place. By doing so, they make the dark sea more attractive: organized, deepened, enchanted. Although you are not hallucinating or succumbing to egoism, your impression is misleading, for anyone else will see the streaks pointing at them. From the sky, the sea would not appear partitioned at all, although it must seem that way to you.

George Eliot uses a comparable metaphor:

Your pier-glass or extensive surface of polished steel made to be rubbed by a housemaid, will be minutely and multitudinously scratched in all directions; but place now against it a lighted candle as a centre of illumination, and lo! the scratches will seem to arrange themselves in a fine series of concentric circles round that little sun. It is demonstrable that the scratches are going everywhere impartially and it is only your candle which produces the flattering illusion of a concentric arrangement, its light falling with an exclusive optical selection. These things are a parable. The scratches are events, and the candle is the egoism of any person now absent …

Eliot, Middlemarch, part 3, chap. 27

Eliot is concerned about moral egoism. I think Stevens’ main interest is the subjectivity of any order that we impose on nature. If we push such skepticism far, nature vanishes entirely and all we have is our description. But the boats really are at anchor off Key West.

This image from the end of the poem might offer some hints about how to read the earlier portions. It seems that the narrator is by the sea with his friend, Ramon Fernandez, and they have heard a “she” singing. Stevens said he invented the name of his friend, but he later acknowledged that he might have suppressed the memory of the real literary critic, who was not actually his friend, and who might have been too keen to impose order. (The real Fernandez was a communist at the time Stevens wrote this poem, on his way to becoming a fascist collaborator.)

As for the “she,” this is a pronoun without any concrete noun. She has no name and is not called a woman or anything else specific. She has a complex relationship with the sea: she may be describing it, or communicating the sound it makes, or creating it with her song; or she may have been invented by the narrator as a metaphor for the experience.

The narrator explores each of those hypotheses:

  • [the ocean’s] mimic motion /  Made constant cry … [The sea is singing.]
  • Even if what she sang was what she heard … / it was she and not the sea we heard. / For she was the maker of the song she sang. [She is singing.]
  • If it was only the dark voice of the sea / That rose … / But it was more than that, /
    More even than her voice, and ours …
    [It is more than she who is singing.]

Perhaps this section–about the moment of a subtropical sunset–offers a synthesis to follow the various theses and antitheses:

        It was her voice that made   
The sky acutest at its vanishing.   
She measured to the hour its solitude.   
She was the single artificer of the world
In which she sang. And when she sang, the sea,   
Whatever self it had, became the self
That was her song, for she was the maker. Then we,   
As we beheld her striding there alone,
Knew that there never was a world for her   
Except the one she sang and, singing, made.

One can read the poem very literally and imagine that Wallace Stevens, a man from the mainland, and his friend, a man with a Spanish surname, have seen a woman striding along the beach and singing about the sea. But her song has the very special power of making the whole world. Even though the narrator insists that “she was the maker of the song she sang,” her song is coterminous with the object of her singing–the sea–which suggests that she is not different from it but another way of naming it.

At this point, the literal reading collapses–much as a naive interpretation of the streaks of light collapses when you realize that they are not really pointing at you. The poem does not give us direct access to a real moment in the past when a woman, two men, and some boats were visible at Key West. The poem is the object that we see, and it has a writer and some readers.

Under the title of the poem is the name “Wallace Stevens,” which stands for an actual man, married to a woman, who became famous for writing words. It’s reasonable to begin with the assumption that the narrator who tells us, “She sang …” is this man, and that he either really heard her singing or made her up from scratch, thus functioning as her artistic creator.

It’s then reasonable to place the poem in a very long tradition of men writing about women who are their muses, objects of love, creatures of their art, and/or metaphors for abstractions, such as nature. The politics of this tradition is problematic, since the poet with the he-pronouns typically controls the “she” of his verse.* He certainly gets credit for the words that attach to his name. Stevens either maintains this tradition or possibly subverts it, depending on what you think of the phrases “mastered” and “maker’s rage for order” near the end.

I don’t disagree with using gender to analyze the poem, but I think it also asks us to question our metaphysics. Why are we so sure that the narrator is Wallace Stevens, the poet with the he-pronouns? Couldn’t she be speaking, or the ocean, or the reader?

In one recorded dialogue with a student, Basho instructed, “The problem with most poems is that they are either subjective or objective.” “Don’t you mean too subjective or too objective?” his student asked. Basho answered, simply, “No.” 

Jane Hirshfeld, The Heart of Haiku

The moment of sunset is neither day nor night. Stevens’ poem is neither objective nor subjective but right on that edge. Basho avoids tipping either way by means of imagism. His poems do not mean; they are. Stevens attempts it in a very different way–by arguing explicitly about the nature of his own verse in ways that skillfully undermine any fixed conclusion about who is saying what about what.

*For a good reading along these lines, see Brooke Baeten, “Whose Spirit Is This?”: Musings on the Woman Singer in ‘The Idea of Order at Key West.’ The Wallace Stevens Journal 24.1 (2000): 24-36. See also: nostalgia for now; homage to Basho; a poem should; and the tree and the rock.

Amanda Gorman rose to the occasion

Occasional poetry is verse written to be read or declaimed aloud: for instance, at a wedding, a funeral, a graduation, a coronation–or an inauguration.

Several genres won’t work for these purposes. For instance, the audience probably doesn’t have time for an epic or a ballad. Satire is not what the patron expects, at least not at a funeral or an inauguration.

Lyric verse is also problematic. Lyric poetry since the Romantic period has often aspired to authenticity: the author’s distinctive personality becomes concrete in words. But an occasion is not about the poet. If the poet’s sincere emotion happens to be completely aligned with the event, lyric can work. That can happen at a wedding or a funeral if the poet is a dear friend. But politics is less personal. How many poets are fully committed, to the bottom of their souls, to the presidency of Joseph R. Biden Jr.?

Another major direction has been irony and indirection. A lyric poem doesn’t plainly say what the author thinks; it demands intense interpretive work from the audience. But that won’t work for an occasion, especially a mass event dominated by speeches. The last thing we want at an inauguration is any text that is easy to misinterpret by careless or hostile listeners. Clarity is essential. Although lyric verse can be impressively clear about the concrete objects that it describes, it is rarely clear about the implications.

Some styles of lyric poetry do work well for occasional purposes. For example, in the era of Dryden and Pope, English lyric poetry did not usually aim for authenticity, originality, or ambiguity. Poetry was more often an art of elegant expression. Many poems stated conventional opinions, but with excellent use of formal properties that listeners were prepared to appreciate–clever rhymes and classical rhetorical devices.

Thus (Royall Sir,) to see you landed here
Was cause enough of triumph for a year:
Nor would your care those glorious joyes repeat
Till they at once might be sure and great...

Dryden, "To His Sacred Majesty: A Panegyric on his Coronation" (1662)

According to Elliott Colla, “Occasional poetry remains … more central in non-Western traditions such as Arabic, Persian, Urdu, Japanese, Korean and Chinese.” But in English, the neoclassicism of Dryden and Pope has been little admired. Some astute critics recognize its quality, but very few active poets aspire to write in that vein.

In fact, Romantic and modern lyric poetry is anti-occasional, in the sense that it is written by an autonomous individual for the private consumption of other private individuals, dispersed in time and place. When it seems occasional, it fails (except if that appearance is ironic.)

Most of the previous poems at US presidential inaugurations have dissatisfied me in one of two ways. Some have been genuine lyric poems that fell flat when delivered through a microphone to a mass audience. Robert Frost prepared a somewhat wry commentary in verse about occasional poetry but couldn’t see his text in the bright sunlight and declaimed a lyric instead. Others have essentially been speeches with irregular line breaks. But it is not clear why a poet is qualified to give a speech at a major political event. The poet is a formal craftsperson, not an expert on policy.

One exception was Maya Angelou, who spoke as a leading public intellectual as much as a poet. I thought her poem was basically a speech, albeit with more of a fictional narrative spine. In any case, she enriched the 1993 inauguration.

Amanda Gorman has the advantage of working in the tradition of spoken word poetry: verse written for public performance and usually drawing on oral genres, from folk stories to hip hop. Spoken word is occasional verse; it is written to be performed at events.

Gorman didn’t give a prose speech, because her words were carefully chosen for rhythm, rhyme, alliteration, and assonance:

This is the era of just redemption
We feared at its inception
We did not feel prepared to be the heirs
of such a terrifying hour
but within it we found the power

She accentuated those formal properties in her performance. Indeed, her performance was much better than the words on the page, and that is intrinsic to the genre. (In contrast, T.S. Eliot does a poor job reciting his poems.)

Gorman wrote for the occasion–words that would be useful for Biden and Harris and for Americans of good will who were watching the event. She didn’t necessarily disclose all that she believes about the new administration or the country. (I have no basis to speculate about her full beliefs.) Nevertheless, she was authentic as a performer, much as Lady Gaga gave an authentic performance of the “Star Spangled Banner” or Anya Taylor-Joy poured herself into the role of Beth Harmon in The Queen’s Gambit. Each of these people chose to support the event at which they starred.

This is not to doubt Gorman’s words, but to take them as “occasional” in the best sense of the word. What the nation needed on this occasion was to hear this particular person reassure us that:

Somehow we do it
 Somehow we've weathered and witnessed
 a nation that isn't broken
 but simply unfinished ...

Shelley: England in 1819

England in 1819

by Percy Bysshe Shelley

An old, mad, blind, despised, and dying King;
Princes, the dregs of their dull race, who flow
Through public scorn,—mud from a muddy spring;
Rulers who neither see nor feel nor know,
But leechlike to their fainting country cling
Till they drop, blind in blood, without a blow.
A people starved and stabbed in th' untilled field;
An army, whom liberticide and prey
Makes as a two-edged sword to all who wield;
Golden and sanguine laws which tempt and slay;
Religion Christless, Godless—a book sealed;
A senate, Time’s worst statute, unrepealed—
Are graves from which a glorious Phantom may
Burst, to illumine our tempestuous day.

This is one sentence. Minus the adjectives and adjectival phrases, it says: “A king, princes, rulers, people, army, laws, religion, and senate are graves from which a phantom may burst to illumine our day.” (It’s interesting that one phantom will arise from all these separate graves.)

The “king” is George III, suffering by now from advanced dementia. He has seven surviving sons, which would be the narrowest definition of “princes.” But Shelley could mean a broader category–“princes” in the sense of the crowned heads of Europe. They are back on their thrones after Waterloo, erecting a system of reactionary absolutism that will last until 1830.

“Rulers” would mean the whole government, starting with the Prime Minister, Robert Jenkinson, 2nd Earl of Liverpool, who suspended civil liberties from 1817-19. The “people” are suffering from the Corn Laws (which prohibit importation of grain) and early industrialization. The “army” refers to the cavalry who charged a peaceful demonstration for parliamentary reform (the Peterloo massacre of August 16). The “senate” is parliament, although I don’t quite follow how that noun relates to “Time’s worst statute.” And the “Phantom” is something like liberty.

The situation is bad but unsustainable. The rulers may be evil, but they “drop, blind in blood, without a blow.” The army wields a two-edged sword, liable to slice its own bearer. The people, however, seem passive: they think and do nothing in particular but are “starved and stabbed in th’ untilled field.” The Phantom may (or may not) burst forth; it’s not clear that the people can decide that.

The poem is a sonnet: fourteen 10-syllable lines, rhymed, with a final couplet that answers the question posed by the rest of the poem: What will happen? However, the form is not strictly conventional. Shelley uses just four endings (-ing, -ow, -ield, and -ay) in an ABABAB CDCD CC scheme.

Christopher Spaide says that the poem was too radical to publish in 1819. By the time Mary Shelley included it in Shelley’s posthumous Poetical Works (1839), she thought it needed an explanation, since the “younger generation … cannot remember the scorn and hatred with which the partisans of reform were regarded some few years ago.” In other words, the sonnet went from revolutionary to quaint in 20 years–not because an actual revolution ensued in Britain, but because the political situation mellowed as reforms eased the crises of the day. No Phantom burst, but the laws arguably became less sanguine and the people less likely to be starved and stabbed.

See also Brecht, To Future Generations.