Thursday, November 17, 2005

Keats' Sensibility

Keats' sonnet "On Seeing The Elgin Marbles" has never been one of my favorites. Michelle Fram Cohen is giving a talk Saturday night about Cognitive Poetics, and she included this poem in her hand-out under the heading "Malevolent sense of life". I can see why she would think so. Consider some snippets:

"My spirit is too weak...
I must die like a sick eagle looking at the sky...
'Tis a gentle luxury to weep...
Brings round the heart an indescribable feud...
A most dizzy pain..."

More dreary than cheery, you can see. The Elgin Marbles, by the way, are a big collection of sculpture fragments from an ancient Greek temple.

Keats could, however, be perfectly cheery, even when talking about the worldview of the ancient Greeks. In another sonnet, On First Looking Into Chapman's Homer, he sings the praises of a particular translator who has really brought Homer home to him:

"Much have I travelled in the realms of gold
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen...
Yet never did I breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold..."

This is Keats in his "benevolent sense of life" mode. Or should I say mood? A mood is a passing thing, a sense of life is a persistent subconscious outlook. As I see it, Keats' sense of life somehow allows for both of these moods.

He was dead at 25.
What more might he have done
If he'd just stayed alive
Till 31?


Michelle F. Cohen said...

Cognitive poetics is concerned with the process of literary reading, and ultimately, in how the literary text creates the reader's response. In this context, the reader's sense of life is likely to be revealed in the reader's response. It can be the reader's temporary mood, but it can also be his sense of life. Therefore, the phrase "malevolent sense of life" or "malevolent world-view" or "malevolent-world mood" is appropriate for the poem. I should point out that cognitive poetics does not focus on the poet, but on the reader. It does not intend to encompass all the aspects of poetry, but to focus on the literary reading process.

Michelle F. Cohen said...

Another aspect of Keats' sense of life is reflected in his anti-American sentiments, which he expressed in the poem "What Can I do to Drive Away?" in 1819. Here is the most relevent quote:

"Where shall I learn to get my peace again?

To banish thoughts of that most hateful land,

Dungeoner of my friends, that wicked strand

Where they were wreck'd and live a wrecked life;

That monstrous region, whose dull rivers pour

Ever from their sordid urns unto the shore,

Unown'd of any weedy-haired gods;

Whose winds, all zephyrless, hold scourging rods,

Iced in the great lakes, to afflict mankind;

Whose rank-grown forests, frosted, black, and blind,

Would fright a Dryad; whose harsh herbag'd meads

Make lean and lank the starv'd ox while he feeds;

There flowers have no scent, birds no sweet song,

And great unerring Nature once seems wrong. -"

Read more about Keats' view of America at