Another Odicy: On the Two-Hundredth Anniversary of Keats's Odes of 1819

Rebecca Ariel Porte

Originally broadcast on Montez Press Radio (January 26th, 2019), this audio of the following address-in-the-form-of-an-ode (text lightly revised for PRELUDE) may be heard as a stand-alone episode of the Podcast for Social Research.

Another Odicy

i. “O,” an invocation

O, O, O, odes, O, the damned poets, O, Keats, O, kitsch, O, poetry, O, poems, O Sappho, who is wronging you? What is an ode and what’s in an ode? What’s odic about it, anyway? What is your odicy and how will we know we are in it when it comes to it? We can’t go home again—as is true, after a fashion, of that first Odyssey of Homer’s, of Odysseus’s, I mean—“Odyssey,” the journey of Odysseus and its homonym “odicy,” a rare noun meaning, here, “the qualities that make something resemble an ode.” Indolent? Melancholy? Autumnal? A Psychic storm and stress? The hollow of an antique urn? A nightingale’s cry at dusk? How odd. How ode.

ii. O, how ode

At the time of writing, they have been with us for approximately two full two centuries, the odes of John Keats. And more, soon, of the myth of the odes, the myth of Keats. And now? Now a question and a little summons: what is an ode? Not a historically stable poetic form or genre or even a set of rhetorical moves. And the odes of the Romantic period are not, truth be told, much like the Greek Pindaric and Anacreontic odes or the Latin Horatian ode or the cultic hymn of the Classical tradition. They are not even very much like the European odes of the fifteenth- and sixteenth- centuries, which looked back to the forms of those fallen empires in order to found their own curious and violent and occasionally ravishing regimes of art.

Keats’s experiments in odicy involved, among other things, an experimental play with the sonnet stanza. And it’s true that certain features of prosody—play in meter and rhyme—unite the Odes. But it is difficult, so difficult, to link the poems as a group merely by a resort to formal description. Even more difficult, perhaps, to connect Keats’s odes by their objects: “indolence” and “melancholy” (states of mind or emotions or moods or sins or even conditions of existence, depending on whom you ask), “Psyche” (the mind and a goddess who represents the mind), “nightingale” (a bird), “urn” (a hollow object), “Autumn” (a season). And the problem of resolving the odes into a kind of unified theory is compounded by the strangeness of their prepositions: Keats writes odes to “Psyche” and to a “nightingale” and to “Autumn.” He writes odes on “indolence,” on “melancholy,” and on “a Grecian Urn.” There is, in these poems, a to orientation and an on orientation and these orientations do markedly different work: to write or speak to someone or something is not the same as writing or speaking on the same thing (and speaking to or on is quite another matter from speaking with). Some critics have understood this set of six poems as an extended meditation on the potentials and limitations of art itself. [1] This is good so far as it goes, but it doesn’t quite tell us what an ode is or why.

The scholar M.H. Abrams called the Romantic outgrowth of the ode, somewhat vaguely, a poem of “lyric magnitude and a serious subject,” a specific instance of the “greater Romantic lyric,” which, in his account, is a rhetorical structure that attempts to restore vivacity to poetry by “[t]he repeated out-in-out process, in which the mind confronts nature and their interplay constitutes the poem.” [2] So the ode, then, is a kind of progress in which the mind of the poet “confronts nature,” inaugurating a series of echoes, reverberations, and recursive progressions. For Abrams, the odic terms of the greater Romantic lyric are the mind of the poet and the natural world (a phrase that might mean any number of things)—and so there is, in this way of thinking about odes, a kind of necessary movement through space, a constitution and dissolution of mental and physical geographies. It is worth noting that many of Keats’s most sensitive readers have attempted to understand the odes by diagraming or mapping them—plotting their moves in space as a window into the formal mechanics of the poems. [3]

As illuminating as these ideas about odes can be, they leave out a path rich in its own peculiar perversity: a particular gesture Keats’s odes make, a gesture I am going to call (for want of a better name) their odicy. This gesture is a kind of summoning. Keats’s odicy, a feature shared across all six odes, their grammar and their glamour, is the attempt to invoke a particular sensuous presence and the sleight of hand by which the ode ends up summoning something different—not necessarily better or worse—but different from the original object of desire. A Keatsian odicy is that which eternally wants one thing and eternally receives another in its place. A Keatsian odicy wants an object or an animal or a goddess or a muse or a season or a text or a change or a condition or merely a desperate intimacy with another mind; a Keatsian odicy nearly always wants you: reader, listener, an interlocutor, an audience.

These things are what Keatsian odicy wants—or thinks it wants—but they’re not what it gets. This is not to say that odicy is fruitless, only that what it summons is not the thing it called for: a metronome or an antique ship, a gilded zero torn from a mailbox number, Odysseus’s old dog Argo, the gravid nothingness of its own silence, a bride of quietness, a quiet wedding, Athena concealed in a cracking skull, Dionysus in a swollen thigh, Sappho in a blank page or a violet shadow. What an odicy conjures instead is no less and no more than a form of worldmaking—a set of poetic effects, poetry in the old sense, which comes from the Ancient Greek poiesis, which signifies “creation” writ large and small. But that’s a tale that will need to be twice told, twice sung. The word “ode” also derives from Greek, from aeidein, or singing, a word that used to be cognate with “human voice,” as if all sound, all moan, all utterance from our fallible mouths amounted to the condition of music.  

O tempora, O carmina: O the time, O the songs.

iii. O, how it was proved upon the pulses

O, how two hundred years ago, a myth was born in the vicinity of Hampstead Heath.

O, how the young poet, impoverished, indebted, no longer a student of medicine, would go to a place that would have him, the house of a friend at the end of a wide undulation of field.

O, how he would go to the vale of soul-making and try to make his.

O, that we should care, if we care. (We need not care.)

O, how, in uncertain order and in an uncertain period from early spring to September of 1819, he would sit under plum trees in gardens and in the yards of inns and, from this period of strenuous sedentation, fashion five of the six poems now known to us as the Odes of 1819.

O, how he would call them “Ode to Psyche,” “Ode on Indolence,” “Ode to a Nightingale,” “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” and Ode on Melancholy.”

O, how the sixth of the odes, “To Autumn,” would come to be written under the influence of a walk near the river Itchen.

O, how the poems would be gathered by that ambivalent magnet, canon, so many iron filings revolving in their heavy legend.

O, how ever after, phrases from the odes would reach you out of time, so that the on the first occasion you read them you had the unearthly sense—not entirely happy—that they had known your name forever.

O, how “unheard melodies” or “beauty is truth” or “tender is the night” could work upon you and how they could not work upon you without dragging all their fraught history in the wake.

O, how you could be unmade by this work.

O, how once they made you think, those odes, of Bernini’s mythic Rape of Proserpina, in which you found both beauty and truth, though you could not turn away from the details your postcard image of the sculpture represented most clearly, the bruising impress of Pluto’s vast fingers on Proserpina’s thigh, the agonized “O” of Proserpina’s lips, which had to be etherealized into the ichor aesthetics could feast upon, that mouth, her mouth, which Bernini could not or would not allow to be ugly, even in extremest distress, ravishing, ravished away to the underworld.

O, how Keats would write, in a letter from 1817, of the poetic faculty of “negative capability,” the capacity of being of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason,” remaining “content with half-knowledge” and arriving, thereby at a few “fine isolated verisimilitude[s] caught from the Pentralium of mystery”—and if this negative capability amounts to an aesthetics, if anything does, and very occasionally an ethics, it is also true that it is no kind of politics—and would we even want it to be? [4]

O, no.

O, how John Keats and his brother George would nurse their younger sibling Tom through a mortal case of consumption—tuberculosis—in 1818.

O, how George would go to America and how John would write to him of Tom’s last moments, knowing his letter would not be the one to break to George the sad news—that it would come to Kentucky, as the scholar Kamran Javadizadeh puts it, in “improper time,” in the small consolation of “projecting [your]self into a future perfect from a richly described indicative present”—that this letter would link sender and receiver in imaginary space—as Javadizadeh writes, “the improper time that an exchange of letters makes possible.” [5]

O, how I think of Emily Dickinson now, you know the one: “This is my letter to the world, / That never wrote to me,—” [6]

O, how Keats’s friend, Charles Armitage Brown, would, in all sincerity, work every nerve of legendary pathos in his description of Keats—John was so nearly a physician—Keats, who so desired release into a strange impersonal beyond identity—this Keats, speaking of his personal death, “calm[] of countenance,” in self-diagnosis: “Bring me the candle Brown,” says John according to his friend, “and let me see this blood . . . I know the colour of that blood; it is arterial blood — I cannot be deceived in that colour; — that drop of blood is my death-warrant; — I must die.” [7]

O, “darkling, I listen,” how Keats sometimes yearned for a kind of poetry that would not express identity but obliterate it, a desire that explains, in part, his turn to a self-conscious diction whose combinatorials, astonishingly rich, raid the granaries of poetic history rather than drawing primarily on the vernaculars of his day—his originality is a denial of originality. Against what he called Wordsworth’s “egostistical sublime,” against “virtuous philosopher[s],” Keats ranged the figure of the poet as a “chameleon,”  “the most unpoetical of anything in existence, because he has no Identity . . . is continually in for and filling some other body[,] [t]he Sun—the Moon—the Sea, and men and women.” [8] This he writes in a letter to Richard Woodhouse from 1818. The scholar Manu Samriti Chander cites Keats’s chameleon poet in a striking description of how Brown Romantics—colonial poets, so often charged with derivative or imitative poetics—undermine Romanticism’s cults of originality and authenticity. For Chander, Chameleon-Keats (complicit, like all the rest, in the poisons of his era), exposes the ambivalent faults in discourses of originality by positioning the poet as an urn-like vessel, a fetish of the sun and the moon, of men and women. The chameleon-poet is, in Chander’s rendering, a figure “thoroughly constituted by others . . . [who prompts] us to see Romanticism less as a cohesive aesthetic, philosophical, or political movement than an echo chamber, a literary space in which familiar tropes, images, and concepts were reiterated to the point where “originality” lost all meaning” [9]

O, how the consumptive poet, just shy of twenty-six, would be sent to Italy to live and die in a house on the Spanish Steps in Rome.

O, how the same letter that carries the lead of Tom’s death over the ocean imagines, too, that “every Sunday at ten o Clock,” John on one side of the Atlantic, George on the other, could “read [a passage of Shakespeare]”—together in time, apart in space—so that they might be, the brothers, “as near each other as blind bodies can be in the same room”—though John neglects to say at whose ten o’clock or in which Shakespeare this incommunicate communion is to take place—nonetheless—a pretty, poignant thought. [10]

O, how there are is always more to a myth, since there is always more to a myth—one is sorry to have said, for instance, nothing at all of Fanny Brawne—but really, the myth is not so much the concern just now—and O, again the time—

iv. “O,” no oubliette

O, what am I asking of the ode—of these odes—of their odicy? No, not the Myth of Keats or the Myth of the Odes. Not those things. Instead: the trace they have left in history. What they can mean now, how Psyche and Indolence, the nightingale and the urn, melancholy and autumn “turn [] to poison while the bee-mouth sips” or the “burst” of “Joy’s grape” against our “strenuous tongue[s],” as the “Ode on Melancholy” puts it. If their odicy is a summoning that always gives you something other than what you think you’re going to get, what is it you do or can get from this odicy?

O, “Dear Teddie,” wrote Walter Benjamin to Gretel and Theodor Adorno, intellectuals of the Frankfurt School. Benjamin’s letter attempts to deal with Theodor Adorno’s recuperation of the aesthetically thrilling, politically noxious music of Wagner—is such a thing possible (?), to recover something from art to which you have cathected in spite of its potential for harm? For Benjamin, recuperation is a philosophical tendency that “has a special affinity with that of music . . . is a cyclical form” and the problem of orienting yourself towards works of art that beckon with one hand and stab with the other cannot be resolved, temporarily or permanently, by linear “categories of the progressive and the regressive.” For Benjamin, Adorno’s grappling with Wagner suggests “the analogy of a field and . . . someone who knows it well from the games of early childhood” but finds one day, unexpectedly, that the same field has become “the site of a pistol duel to which he has been challenged by a rival.” The topos of innocent play becomes the dueling ground; the music you once loved uncritically, knowing it as sensuous substance but not as the barbed product of its contexts, can sometimes be experienced as an assault that retains—baffling (!)—the power of its early pleasures. Typically, Benjamin feels that Adorno’s materialist recuperation of Wagner requires the right image to enunciate this set of lively, deathly tensions: “I am thinking,” he says to dear Teddie, “of the most beautiful formulation in your study, that of the golden nothing and the silver wait-a-while.” [11] And yes, the sentence Benjamin means is very beautiful. It reads: “The silver wait-a-while belongs to the golden nothing.” It does not appear in the published version of “Fragments on Wagner,” Adorno having, after all, consigned the silver wait-a-while and the golden nothing to that other sink of nothingness. [12]

O, how in one of his essays on Proust, Benjamin remarks that “the important thing for the remembering author is not what he experienced, but the weaving of his memory, the Penelope work of recollection.” And then he thinks better of that claim, recalling, perhaps, the real mastery of the Penelope of that other Odyssey, remaining inviolate, prolonging things as a matter of survival: weaving and unweaving the shroud of Laertes, delaying her menacing suitors by means of an exquisite, ritual grief. No, Benjamin writes, not the Penelope work of recollection that translates memory into art, not that. “[S]hould one call it,” he asks, “rather, a Penelope work of forgetting?” Is there a subtle form of regret in Benjamin’s description of this Penelope work of forgetting as an involuntary operation in which “day unravels what the night [h]as woven” and Proust retires to work in his cork-lined study, a darkness lit by “artificial illumination,” so that “none of those intricate arabesques might escape him.” [13] Some forms of forgetting lend themselves, perhaps, to a kind of recuperation and maybe even that plaintive ghost of odicy, which sometimes goes by the name theodicy. This statement cannot be allowed to be a simple optimism. This statement cannot be allowed to be a simple fatalism.

O, and I have been reading Keats’s odes as long as I can remember reading—some of the first pieces of text I committed to memory—and sometimes they have been the pleasure that poisons, sometimes the sweetness of the burst grape. And so, and so what is to be done—no—not what is to be done—but what do you do, do I do, do we do—with art that creates the conditions for love and woundedness alike? “The Ode on Melancholy,” for example, begins in a series of tortured negations: “No, no, go not to Lethe, neither twist Wolf’s-bane, tight-rooted, for its poisonous wine.” And as a temporary antidote to this morass of twining toxins, it somewhat callously recommends that “if thy mistress some rich anger shows, / Emprison her soft hand, and let her rave, / And feed deep, deep upon her peerless eyes.” [14] The dueling ground unfurls over childhood’s field of play and perhaps your gun is now indistinguishable from a kite in the shape of a butterfly. What happens if neither wins out, if the bullet and the butterfly do not cancel each other: if you twist in the tremulous palimpsest? Why do what you can’t help doing: going back to the field and the dueling ground, the well and the oubliette, the place of the waters and the place of forgetting, the silver wait-a-while that belongs to the golden nothing?

v. “O,” an invocation, redux

O, what’s in an “O,” an archaic, embarrassingly literary word, even in 1819. “O,” the single letter, invariably capitalized, that you place before a noun or pronoun to indicate the grammatical case called the vocative, the case of direct address—when I want this or that—when I want you—I might say, as Keats’s odes always do, implicitly or explicitly:

“O, Psyche,”

“O for an age so sheltered from annoy, / That I may never know how change the moons”—I might say,

“O, you”—

“O,” an invocation—

“O,” its breathy length is the vowel, you could argue, which Keats’s poetry marks so clearly as its obsessive sonic touchstone—as if to compound longing by repetition, the vocative Keatsian “O,” in “Ode to Psyche,” appears in the excessively layered invocations to Psyche, the soul, lover of Eros in the old myths, whose name was once a synonym for “butterfly”—

“O, Goddess,”

“O, happy, happy dove,”

“O, latest born and loveliest vision far,”

“O, brightest”—though it’s not merely the vocative “O” that litters the poem but the long “o’s,” light and viscous by turns, that drive the echoic waterway of the poem’s prosody: the “amorous glow-worm of the sky,” the speaker’s wish to “make a moan / Upon the midnight hours,” which recalls—not so strangely, after all—a figure from another poem, the deathly Belle Dame Sans Merci, the “beautiful lady without mercy”—muse-like Psyche’s shadow—who looks her victim in the eye and makes “sweet moan.” How sad and hard it is that Keats’s women are so often not merely absent to the poet but, themselves, constituted by absence, vessels waiting to be filled by the dubious stuff of poetry. Do you remember Lacan on Ophelia? (I do.) “As a sort of come-on,” he writes in his seminar on Hamlet, “I announced that I would speak today about that piece of bait named Ophelia.” As the critic Elaine Showalter remarks, “she is merely what [Lacan] calls “the object Ophelia” . . . [t]he etymology of Ophelia, Lacan asserts is O-phallus.” [15] In other words, the void of the “O” that begins Ophelia’s name is essential lack, zeroes the sky and the earth and all points continuous, is transcendental winter, is the new moon, is: intrinsic, extravagant absence. 

Ophelia: I think nothing, my lord.

Hamlet: That’s a fair thought to lie between maids’ legs. [16]

So often an element of Keats’s Romantic odicy, that profligate, vocative “O,” is a feature, like so much of the sensuous bric-à-brac of his diction and his imagery, of the kitsch of Keats.

vi. O, kitsch of Keats

Easy, almost too easy, to point to the kitsch of Keats, his succession of jewel-like collations never meant to be eaten, Classical similes too rich for daily use, his “happy, happy love! more happy, happy love!,” his “silveriness,” to quote the critic Daniel Tiffany, a sort of “emblem of pop metaphysics,” an irreverent echo of, to borrow Tiffany’s words, “the historical iconography of [a] philosophical materialism [that cannot] be isolated from captivating images of radiant objects and meteoric bodies,” all the silver planets, yours and mine, the silver proxies. [17] Easy to mistake both the sincerities of this body of poetic strategies—and its ironies. In the early twentieth century, the poet Amy Lowell’s 1925 biography of Keats revived his reputation after successive waves of modernist dismissals of the poetry as flimsy aestheticism, Romantic escapism drunk on the worst clichés of sensuous, elevated, self-consciously poetic language. [18] Not that any poetry or even philosophy has ever truly managed to purify itself of the material taint of the image, of course. The philosopher Michèle LeDoeuff has written of this embarrassing plethora of figures in the philosophical canon:

statues that breathe the scent of roses, comedies, tragedies, architects, foundations, dwellings, doors and windows, sand, navigators, various musical instruments, islands, clocks, horses, donkeys and even a lion, representatives of every craft and trade, scenes of sea and storm, forests and trees: in short, a whole pictorial world sufficient to decorate even the dryest ‘History of Philosophy.’ [19]

Keats, of course, had no ambitions of abstract purity. The scholar Marjorie Levinson understands that bound up in the life of Keats’s poetry is his position as a working class man in an intensely stratified culture, a working class man with a profound lust for the abundant material and intellectual worlds of those with more wealth and status, the outsider pressing his nose to the window where the feast is laid, the allegory, as Levinson writes, “of a man belonging to a certain class and aspiring . . . to another” [20] If Keatsian odicy is about wanting one thing and getting another, then his perfervid hothouse of image and figure and lush sound might be read as the creation of a poetic atmosphere—no, I’m wrong, for once not prodigal enough—as the creation of a world in which some form of pleasure, luxury, some beyond of bare life becomes available. When upward mobility—or a vision of a world in which questions of upward mobility would be less pressing or even a moot point—when movement from an intolerable position seems materially impossible in the given world, the imagined world of the poem might offer some kind of unsecured alternative: not necessarily quiescence or reconciliation and not necessarily, on the other hand, any guarantee of revolution or of unqualified hope or despair, merely—an alterity—a heterotopia in LeFebvre’s sense—a space in which things seem other than they are. [21]

Though atmosphere is not quite wrong. What do poetic effects amount to if not atmosphere, a sustaining air if not an all-sustaining air? The philosopher Gernot Böhme writes of atmospheres as a collaboration among “things, people or their constellations” and, when the thing in question is a work of art, it is, on occasion, capable of “summoning” atmosphere, “conjuring it up” by working on the psyche: emotions, moods, correspondences, thoughts. And aesthetic experience, a register of life from which no one should be debarred, is one place where you might call for another kind of atmosphere than the one you know—and be answered. “Nobody,” as Böhme remarks with what may be a touch of irony, “is indifferent to his or her condition.” [22] And to enter Keats’s heady atmospheres, his worlds, may also be to confront the problem that what is dismissible as kitsch is also, potentially, renewable as a form of necessary luxury that belongs to no one and everyone, constellates the terms of the radically social and the radically alone. Of course, what Böhme underplays—and what has to be said anyway—is that different vantage points in history will determine which details of an artwork are available, relevant to the perceivers and creators of atmosphere: some readings are lost to us forever and some, thank fortune, we have yet to invent.

Keats’s odes, for example, are different kinds of objects now than they were in 1819 and will continue to be different for future readers, if there are any. Perhaps they will be forgotten; this conjecture is not an unalloyed tragedy. No matter how deeply we have been in thrall to them, if one poem or handful of poems is lost, poetry will not be: and it is just possible that the songs the future needs will be quite other than the ones we know. This is not to say it doesn’t pain me to think that the pleasure-pain of the odes does not exist or might never exist for others, only that the reality of the feeling compels nothing from anyone else, living, dead, or still unborn. I think of the claim of the theorist Roland Barthes in a slim book called The Pleasure of the Text: that our theory elevates desire because it is about what we lack, what we can’t possess, that our theory denigrates pleasure because it can be had. [23] Pleasure knows its name and sometimes even responds. There are in this world some forms of sweetness we can taste, though we cannot enjoin them in others and it would be sheer travesty if we could. What may be summoned or conjured in the act of reading or writing odically is not the urn or the nightingale or the absent friend, but the experience of the poem and its reverberations, whatever that might look like: perhaps a cavitation in the mind whose best hope is difference, a cast of thought not sicklied o’er, the slim chance that the next hour will bring news, a fresh cloud, a companion mind (or not), a thought unthought, a feeling unfelt, a wind from another quarter of the compass rose.

vii. “Ode to Psyche”

Well, that is the story of someone who dares to summon a goddess that he may become a paradise of poetry, a sort of eternal walled garden made of the impossible, Unfallen language Adam used to name the animals, someone who becomes, instead, only a writer of poems, O, Psyche (!):

And in the midst of this wide quietness 
A rosy sanctuary will I dress 
   With the wreath'd trellis of a working brain, 
         With buds, and bells, and stars without a name, 
With all the gardener Fancy e'er could feign, 
         Who breeding flowers, will never breed the same: 
And there shall be for thee all soft delight 
         That shadowy thought can win, 
A bright torch, and a casement ope at night, 
         To let the warm Love in! [24] 

viii. “Ode on Indolence”

Well, that is the story of someone who conjures Love, Ambition, and “my demon Poesy” and discovers, when they fleet by, only an aspirationally liveable orientation to the world that flowers from the recusals of indolence —indolence—a word that still carried, in Keats’s time, the phantom of its etymology, the Latin indolēntia freedom from pain, insensibility, not merely the meaning of “love of ease; laziness, slothfulness, sluggishness,” first attested in the early eighteenth-century, but the sense of “a state of rest or ease in which neither pain nor pleasure is felt.” [25] The scholar Lily Gurton-Wachter has set Keats’s poetics of numbness in the context of the so-called Elgin Marbles, whose missing limbs suggested to early nineteenth-century observers the amputated limbs of returning soldiers wounded in the Napoleonic Wars, human bodies in a condition of semi-living detachment in a violent world. By this logic of association, Keats’s practice of regarding his own pain, as well as the pain of others, through bodies dissolving or fragmenting into constituent faculties, looks like a kind of attempt to register, as Gurton-Wachter puts it, the "porousness of the aesthetic realm to pain and its relief, to medicine and war . . . the aesthetic might function for Keats more like an anaesthetic” against, as Keats writes in his description of the Elgin Marbles, “wonder . . . that brings a most dizzy pain. [26]

They faded, and, forsooth! I wanted wings: 
    O folly! What is Love? and where is it? 
And for that poor Ambition! it springs 
    From a man’s little heart’s short fever-fit; 
        For Poesy!—no,—she has not a joy,— 
    At least for me,—so sweet as drowsy noons, 
And evenings steep’d in honey’d indolence; 
        O, for an age so shelter’d from annoy, 
    That I may never know how change the moons, 
Or hear the voice of busy common-sense! [27]

ix. “Ode on a Grecian Urn”

Well, that is the story of someone who wants a “bride of quietness,” a “foster child of silence and slow time,” a “sylvan historian,” a “thou,” an urn, and receives, in change, the coldest pastoral, a logically indefensible proposition: “ ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” [28] The famous tautology, “beauty is truth, truth beauty,” is an utterance voiced by the speaker of the poem to the reader or else it is the speaker to the urn or else it is the poet to the figures on the urn or else it is the urn to the reader. Two centuries on, the texts remain inconclusive. May we linger a moment with the “is” of “beauty is truth, truth beauty”? May we go, irreverent, to Adorno on nonidentity? “Nonidentity is the secret telos of identification,” he writes, “the part that can be salvaged . . . the force that shatters the appearance of identity is the force of thinking: the use of “it is” undermines the form of that appearance, which remains inalienable just the same.” Objects, he reminds us, “do not go into their concepts without leaving a remainder.” [29] The “is” of “beauty is truth” might, in fact, be the most ambiguous word in the phrase. If it doesn’t mean pure equivalence—if, as Wittgenstein once speculated, with something like wonder that brings a most dizzy pain, even the same isn’t the same. [30]

x. “Ode on Melancholy”

Well, that is the story of someone who wants very desperately some alternative to the “melancholy fit” that isn’t merely an opiate—and to that one is given, instead, an exquisite dilemma: to turn deliberately on the edge of pharmakon, the place where poison and cure, pleasure and pain are mutually convertible, to understand the “very temple of Delight” as the same place where “Veil’d Melancholy has her sovran shrine” and, moreover, to see in this uneasy conjunction a pleasure worth the price, to go among the “cloudy trophies” with the taste of “Joy’s grape” still fresh against your “palate fine.”

Lucas Cranach’s Allegory of Melancholy, painted circa 1528, portrays Melancholy as a beautiful woman, a tree of vaguely ominous gilded apples above her head, children playing roughly with a dog at her feet in innocent malice, a host of nightmares mounted on horses drifting in from a billowing cloud lowering in the upper left-hand corner. Close observation reveals that the painting has been cropped. We know the missing portions to have contained a salient detail that marked the woman as an allegory of melancholy: a pair of great, black wings, black wings, which run together the angelic rainbows in which a Fra Angelico limned the pinions of his seraphim, black wings, which recall the early modern medical theories of the humors, which attributed melancholy to an excess of black bile. Keats was a fervent admirer of Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy (1621), which outlines a version of this humoral theory.

Cranach Melancholy 2

Allegory of Melancholy (1528), Lucas Cranach the Elder National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh (via Web Gallery of Art)


Allegory of Melancholy (2017 – 2018), Raqib Shaw, Scottish National Gallery (via The List)

The contemporary artist Raqib Shaw has painted his own Allegory of Melancholy in response to, in subversion of Cranach’s, a varicolored cloisonné, peppered with feather and coral and flower, called to order by the invisible precisions of a porcupine quill. The painting’s demanding vibrancy seems to seize your breath, convert it to a fine, invisible nourishment for the slow blaze of the canvas. Shaw’s Allegory of Melancholy, transposes Cranach’s, interfusing it with Shaw’s childhood memories of the Kashmiri landscape, riven by conflict, recollections of a house destroyed by fire in London. The composition of this new Allegory of Melancholy is also anchored by a figure, a kind of self-portrait, although a very different irreverence from the self-portrait of the artist as an ass that appears in his deeply ironic revisioning of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In this self-portrait-as-melancholy, the figure holds a paintbrush, plush with scarlet ink, and his skin is the blue of a Rama or a Shiva or a Krishna—divine blue, dying blue, the melancholy blue of the blues—he paints red arcs over the aqueous hues of the ground under the weight of a prospect of feathers—to the Allegory of Melancholy, Shaw has restored the lost wings, which are no longer black, but blue.  

xi. “To Autumn”

Well, that is the story of someone who walked out one evening into the Fall that could be occupied indefinitely and was given all the spendthrift abundance of everything born to die in an hour, in a season, upon a kiss.

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, 
   Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun; 
Conspiring with him how to load and bless 
   With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run; 
To bend with apples the moss'd cottage-trees, 
   And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core; 
      To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells 
   With a sweet kernel; to set budding more, 
And still more, later flowers for the bees, 
Until they think warm days will never cease, 
      For summer has o'er-brimm'd their clammy cells. [31]

xii. Envoi: “And so it is”

O, you, who are my odicy—it’s you whose name I’ve been calling all along, though I know that to try and beckon you to me is to guarantee that whoever or whatever comes to me now, it will never be you—that arrow doesn’t return, whether or not it goes home. Still, it’s you, Fair Unknown, whom I would rather intuit solely in distant foreclosure than do without completely. That is the only surety of an odicy: that something comes, whether good or wicked or merely—oddity—something comes. So we’ll never meet, not really, and perhaps it would not be right if we did, though I’ll regret that as long as I can regret. There’s a light like a captured star that pulses under your ribs and the glow of it comes to me in a faint irony of phosphorescence every time I close my eyes under a new moon or an eclipse, the silver rain of the Orionids, the Transit of Venus, a long joke of celestial mechanics.

I’ll remember you, too, though I don’t know your name, which you never answered to anyway, and never will now—and (well) if we’re lucky, whatever atmosphere, whatever world becomes available to us will make that memory a happy irrelevance. If particular presents require particular pasts—dictate what we can make of our Umwelt, of the significant textures of our given world—if particular presents require particular pasts, then particular presents require, too, particular futures, finitely many, even if they refuse, mercifully, distressingly, ever to be known, really known in advance. [32] In this at least—my dear, dear thou, dear thou—in this, at least, nothing is compelled. Dear thou—I wanted to call you that—just once—the intimate form of address—as archaic, as kitschy—as the “O” of invocation—you’ll say it’s sentimental—won’t be wrong—forgive me that.

There’s this bit of marginalia in Keats’s copy of Milton’s Paradise Lost. Do you know it? Just next to the description of the “black brightness—the ebon diamonding” of the mustering of the Fallen Lucifer’s warlike rebel angels. “ ‘[S]o it is’—” Keats writes so far from Paradise, there in the margins of damnation. In their way, the words of this tribute are as close as possible to a precision of descriptive silence—they are not a statement of desire, an attempt to call something into existence, merely an acknowledgement, in the face of a great confusion of air and darkness, that the poem has brought some difficult and accurate set of correspondences into conscious being. I am writing now—will always be writing now—in your margins. 

It is worth acknowledging, too, the intense labor of the reader or the listener, collaborating with, resisting the poetry to such a fine degree that it becomes possible to say it, to say it and to say nothing more because in it everything that can be said—is said—to say it, so say it: “so it is.” No, I have not forgotten the nightingale. You would never allow it. Of that, at least, I am sure. Listen, darkling! Someone is saying: my heart aches. Not that it matters. That is precisely the point, that it doesn’t matter. So it is. Listen: my heart—my heart aches

My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains 
         My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk, 
Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains 
         One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk: 
'Tis not through envy of thy happy lot, 
         But being too happy in thine happiness,— 
                That thou, light-winged Dryad of the trees 
                        In some melodious plot 
         Of beechen green, and shadows numberless, 
                Singest of summer in full-throated ease. 

O, for a draught of vintage! that hath been 
         Cool'd a long age in the deep-delved earth, 
Tasting of Flora and the country green, 
         Dance, and Provençal song, and sunburnt mirth! 
O for a beaker full of the warm South, 
         Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene, 
                With beaded bubbles winking at the brim, 
                        And purple-stained mouth; 
         That I might drink, and leave the world unseen, 
                And with thee fade away into the forest dim: 

Fade far away, dissolve, and quite 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; 
                Where but to think is to be full of sorrow 
                        And leaden-eyed despairs, 
         Where Beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes, 
                Or new Love pine at them beyond to-morrow. 

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: 
Already with thee! tender is the night, 
         And haply the Queen-Moon is on her throne, 
                Cluster'd around by all her starry Fays; 
                        But here there is no light, 
         Save what from heaven is with the breezes blown 
                Through verdurous glooms and winding mossy ways. 

I cannot see what flowers are at my feet, 
         Nor what soft incense hangs upon the boughs, 
But, in embalmed darkness, guess each sweet 
         Wherewith the seasonable month endows 
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. 

Darkling I listen; and, for many a time 
         I have been half in love with easeful Death, 
Call'd him soft names in many a mused rhyme, 
         To take into the air my quiet breath; 
                Now more than ever seems it rich to die, 
         To cease upon the midnight with no pain, 
                While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad 
                        In such an ecstasy! 
         Still wouldst thou sing, and I have ears in vain— 
                   To thy high requiem become a sod. 

Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird! 
         No hungry generations tread thee down; 
The voice I hear this passing night was heard 
         In ancient days by emperor and clown: 
Perhaps the self-same song that found a path 
         Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home, 
                She stood in tears amid the alien corn; 
                        The same that oft-times hath 
         Charm'd magic casements, opening on the foam 
                Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn. 

Forlorn! the very word is like a bell 
         To toll me back from thee to my sole self! 
Adieu! the fancy cannot cheat so well 
         As she is fam'd to do, deceiving elf. 
Adieu! adieu! thy plaintive anthem fades 
         Past the near meadows, over the still stream, 
                Up the hill-side; and now 'tis buried deep 
                        In the next valley-glades: 
         Was it a vision, or a waking dream? 
                Fled is that music:—Do I wake or sleep? [33] 




[1] Helen Vendler’s The Odes of John Keats and Susan Wolfson’s Reading John Keats, for example, offer strong readings of the odes that amplify this strain of the critical tradition.  

[2] “Structure and Style in the Greater Romantic Lyric, The Correspondent Breeze, p. 76.

[3] See Keats’s Odes, ed. Jack Stillinger, Kenneth Burke’s “Symbolic Action in a Poem by Keats” in A Grammar of Motives, Vendler’s The Odes of John Keats et al.

[4] Letter “To George and Tom Keats,” 21, 27 (?) December 1817, John Keats: The Complete Poems (eds. John Barnard), p. 539. The year of this lecture—1817 or 1818—is conjectural. See the introduction to Li Ou’s Keats and Negative Capability.

[5] “Improper Time” in The Keats Letters Project Retrieved 12/28/2018.

[6] Dickinson, “441,” The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson (ed. Thomas H. Johnson), p. 211.

[7] “The Life of John Keats” (eds. Dorothy Hyde and William Bissell Pope) p. 65.

[8] “To Richard Woodhouse,” Hampstead, October 27 1818, The Complete Poems, p. 547.

[9] Brown Romantics, pp. 95 and 92.

[10] “To George and Georgiana Keats,” 16 December 1818–4 January 1819, Retrieved 12/28/2018.

[11] “Walter Benjamin to Theodor Wiesengrund-Adorno and Gretel Adorno,” Paris, 19.6.1938, Correspondence 1930 – 1940, p. 146.

[12] n8, The Complete Correspondence, 1928 – 1940, p. 262.

[13] “The Image of Proust” in Illuminations (trans. Harry Zohn; ed. Hannah Arendt), p. 202.

[14] The Complete Poems, p. 349.

[15] “Representing Ophelia” in Shakespeare and the Question of Theory (eds. Geoffrey H. Hartman and Patricia Parker), p. 77.

[16] Hamlet, III.ii.

[17] My Silver Planet, p. 107.

[18] Consider the animus against Romanticism in Eliot’s The Sacred Wood or else the more ambivalent embarrassment about Keats in May Sinclair’s “Two Notes,” which claims that Keats “gets his thrill, not directly through his Images, his casements and his foam and his seas and fairylands, but tortuously and surreptitiously through adjectives which Imagists would rather die than use” (The Egoist 89). Or else Yeats’s “Ego Dominus Tuus,” which says of Keats:


His art is happy but who knows his mind?


I see a schoolboy when I think of him,


His art is happy but who knows his mind?


I see a schoolboy when I think of him,


With face and nose pressed to a sweet-shop window,


For certainly he sank into his grave


His senses and his heart unsatisfied,


And made—being poor, ailing and ignorant,


Shut out from all the luxury of the world,


The coarse-bred son of a livery stablekeeper—


Luxuriant song.



(Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats 181 – 182)




[19] The Philosophical Imaginary, p. 1.

[20] Keats’s Life of Allegory, p. 5.

[21] Not Foucaultian heterotopia but LeFebvrian, which intuits in the spaces of ordinary life a potential for radical alterity; in this differentiating move, I follow David Harvey’s discussions of the everyday heterotopian in Spaces of Hope (182 – 184) and Rebel Cities (xvii – xviii).

[22] Atmospheric Arcitectures, pp. 23, 27, and 30.

[23] 57. Barthes argues that it’s only marginal philosophies that defend hedonism, while major ones repress it in favor of more “serious” (air quotes mine) values, that desire possesses “an epistemic dignity” while pleasure does not.

[24] CP 342.

[26] Watchwords, pp. 167 and 164 – 165.

[27] CP 350.

[28] Ibid. 344 – 346.

[29] Negative Dialectics, pp. 149 and 5; actual exegesis, someday.

[30] Philosophical Investigations, §215.

[31] CP 434.

[32] The phrase “finite but many” borrows from Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and Adam Frank’s essay “Shame in the Cybernetic Fold.”

[33] Ibid. 346 – 348.