Jeffrey C. Robinson: Reconfiguring Romanticism
'Pythia: Commotions, Convulsions, and Shrieks in Keats'
[The following is the latest installment of Jeffrey Robinson’s ongoing renewal and reimagining of Romanticism and part of his current work in progress: John Keats Utopian Margins. A major Romanticist in his own right, he is the coauthor with me of the third volume of Poems for the Millennium (Romanticism and Postromanticism), a rethinking of the poetic past from the point of view of the present. (J.R.)]
At the abrupt end of Hyperion, Keats’s epic fragment on the downfall of the Titans and the rise of the Olympian gods, the ephebe poet-god Apollo suffers a total disruption of Olympian equanimity with “wild commotions”:
Most like the struggle at the gate of death;
Or liker still to one who should take leave
Of pale immortal death, and with a pang
As hot as death’s is chill, with fierce convulse
Die into life.
In the earlier Sleep and Poetry he had imagined poetic achievement with similarly passionate, sacrificial extravagance: “let the hot sun / Melt my Dedalian wings, and drive me down / Convuls’d and headlong!” The reference to Daedalus asks us to think of the overreaching Icarus in terms of the breakdown of received language and stable forms; Keats stalls a measured conclusion to Hyperion with a harsh full stop: “At length / Apollo shriek’d.”
These final lines, melodramatic in the “wild commotions” and “pang / As hot as death is chill,” lead not to the predictable dying-into-life of an eloquent poet god (as Keats at times imagined Milton), but to an unexpected “shriek” — the sound of projecting the inexpressible. Keats was absorbed by the entry on the Pythian priestess of Apollo at Delphi in his favorite reference book, Lemprière’s Classical Dictionary (first ed. 1788): “She delivered the answer of the god to such as came to consult the oracle, and was supposed to be suddenly inspired by the sulphureous vapors which issued from the hole of a subterraneneous cavity within the temple, over which she sat bare on a three legged stool, called a tripod. In the stool was a small aperture, through which the vapor was exhaled by the priestess, and, at this divine inspiration, her eyes suddenly sparkled, her hair stood on end, and a shivering ran over all her body. In this convulsive state she spoke the oracles of the god, often with loud howlings and cries, and her articulations were taken down by the priest, and set in order.” The shriek pitches sound far beyond ordinary speech in an expression of what we can only imagine is Keats’s hunger for an “other utopia,” a world without the hierarchies of deposition and succession and their modern updates in his early-nineteenth-century’s market economy obsessions with acquisition, surveillance, and in poetry that retreated into overvalued received forms. The late poet Sean Bonney usefully helps us understand what is possibly the extreme visionary (nonliterary) intention and content in the shriek, perhaps only intuited by Keats, with a description of a “scream” in Pasolini’s film Theorem that “contain[s] all that is meaningful in the word ‘communism’ — or rather, whatever it is that people like us mean when we use that word, which is … somewhat different to whatever it is the dictionary of the visible world likes to pretend it means” (quoted in Atlantic Drift, ed. Robert Sheppard, 38). In this view the scream or shriek enunciates an inexpressible authenticity in human, collective possibility, uncontainable by society’s linguistic instruments of repression; the shriek furthermore puts the lie to Apollo’s sudden assertion of Olympian disinterestedness: “Knowledge enormous makes a god of me.” His convulsion and shriek rather anticipate the “croak” of Bonney’s predecessor Rimbaud:
The poet makes himself a seer through a long, a prodigious and rational disordering of all the senses. Every form of love, of suffering, of madness; he searches himself, he consumes all the poisons in him, keeping only their quintessences. … He arrives at the unknown: and even if, half crazed, in the end, he loses the understanding of his visions, he has seen them! Let him croak in his leap into those unutterable and innumerable things: there will come other horrible workers: they will begin at the horizons where he has succumbed. (from “Letter to Paul Demeny,” May 15, 1871)
André Breton, an earlier worshiper of Rimbaud, wrote in Nadja: “Beauty will be convulsive, or it will not be.” Convulsions, croaks, shrieks: for Keats these seeming perversions of classical and Romantic paradigms of representations of self and unity and melody in poetry capture an alternate Archimedean point of reference from which to view his poetic intention and practice. (Keats, like Rimbaud, consumes poison — honey that “turn[s] to poison as the bee-mouth sips”). His poems, preparing the way for twentieth-century innovative poetry (written by “other horrible workers”), are committed to a poetic technology necessary to embody simultaneously all of the “opposite and discordant” qualities that make up self and world, in which self must half-knowingly participate. Here are the far implications of Negative Capability — the intensities, the face one feels mad to kiss, the extreme openness of mind that swells but does not close itself off to “fact and reason” or any equivalent form of poetic consolation; and in the poetry itself the swellings become what Rachel Blau DuPlessis has called his “hypersaturations of verbal plenitude.”
Romantic Note on Madness, Bodily Distortions, and Lyric: “Who does not know what sort of lost truths may be discovered and brought to light by the true lyric poet, that is to say, the man who burns with maddening fires, the man whose soul is in complete disorder, the man thrown into a state of vigor that is feverish and extraordinary (a state that is chiefly, indeed, almost indispensably corporeal), and as if intoxicated?” (Leopardi, Zibaldone, no. 1856, written in the early 1820s)
Pythia usually does not shriek in Keats: there are all those beautifully moulded stanzas — comforting, melodic, sensuous — monumental, we are told, not “convuls’d.” I am pushing the poetic center for Keats to the margins of his standard reception: from what point should we best take the measure of those stanzas? Marina Tsvetaeva turned elegant, classically Russian rhyming quatrains but at what cost and with what significance? For her a poet is a comet — hot and unbridled, starting a “long way off” from our (cultural) geo- and ego-centricity and burning up. And Keats, in his agony of l’amour passion for Fanny Brawne, did, in performative desperation, invoke the Pythia:
Physician Nature! let my spirit blood!
O ease my heart of verse and let me rest;
Throw me upon thy tripod, till the flood
Of stifling numbers ebbs from my full breast.
Convulsions and shrieks, bodily and vocal distortions, in Keats’s poems direct us to read him otherwise, I argue in my work in progress, John Keats Utopian Margins, to know the intensity of this poet’s struggle against drive in Regency England towards a poetry and society of “palpable design” (Keats on Wordsworth’s poems), his destabilization of received forms, conventional language use, and the standard preference in poetry for “sense” over “sound”; Keats, a poet of the proliferative, extravagant Fancy, seeks “flexibility” and “invention” (John Cage). And at a not altogether un-fevered moment of nomad radical Romanticism: “not myself goes home to myself.”