The KLP Pedagogy Series Presents: Keats, Travel, and Aesthetics

[Today’s post is the first installment of the KLP Pedagogy Series, in which we feature student work, work about pedagogy, and other Keats-related things that intersect with some of the vibrant teaching happening in and around romanticism today. Our first author in the series, Victoria Rego, is an undergraduate student studying English and Creative Writing at the College of Charleston, where she also works as a writing lab consultant and has completed grant funded research on the intersection of Victorian Literature and Popular Tourism. Her short fiction has been featured in Bully, from KY Story, with more of her fiction forthcoming.

Read more about this series on our Pedagogy page, and contact us with pedagogy related ideas as you have them!]

Victoria Rego
College of Charleston

Re: Keats’s 17/18 April 1817 letter to J. H. Reynolds

Keats was twenty-one when he wrote a letter to J.H. Reynolds in the spring of 1817. It was the seventeenth of April and he was settling into his lodgings, newly arrived from London to the Isle of Wight, in hopes of making progress on his first grand-scale poem: Endymion. This poetic pilgrimage was, in part, an escape from the bleakness of London, that “jumbled heap of murky buildings,” as Keats refers to it in “O Solitude,” written only a few months earlier (line 1). True poetic inspiration, Keats believed, would require a different sort of setting. Rosemary Hill writes that William Gilpin’s idea of the picturesque was one catalyst that sent Keats to the Isle of Wight: “no matter how he might grumble about the Picturesque … Keats was following the routes prescribed” in Gilpin’s works (122). Gilpin’s essays on the Picturesque, published mostly in the latter half of the 18th century, distinguished between an everyday notion of beauty, and beauty that “please[s] from some quality, capable of being illustrated by painting” (3). Picturesque beauty stands, in many significant ways, in opposition to the philosopher Edmund Burke’s Beautiful, which was smooth, neat, and clearly composed. The Picturesque, in Gilpin’s view, was defined by roughness, crooked edges, and a look of untidiness. While Palladian architecture is undoubtedly beautiful, Gilpin argues, “should we give it picturesque beauty, we must use the mallet instead of the chisel: we must beat one half of it, deface the other, and throw the mutilated members around in heaps” (7). The Picturesque, originally affiliated with landscape paintings by Thomas Gainsborough, John Constable, and JMW Turner, soon spread to many facets of English culture, such as landscape gardening. David Lowenthal and Hugh C. Prince, in “English Landscape Tastes” wrote that “landscapes are formed by landscape tastes. People in any country see their terrain through preferred and accustomed spectacles, and tend to make it over as they see it” (186). While landscapes can seem like something objective—it’s easy to assume that geography and the physical things that make up the natural landscape just are what they are, irrespective of human intention—what the Romantics knew best was that the human imagination is capable of reshaping any and everything. For this reason, popular writers of the time began to infuse picturesque sentiments into their poems and narratives. These writers soon found that this movement, inspired by the imagination, was readily transferable to linguistic mediums: “the picturesque tends always towards narrative, while the Beautiful and the Sublime depend on stasis” (Hill 124). The conflict between motion and stasis, imagination and reality, sublimity and narrative, is a central one to Keats’ poetry, one that relies on the aesthetic impulse, always, for its realization.

I was twenty-one when I made my first trip abroad to study at the University of Nottingham in the English midlands. For me, travel was a thing of novels: a place of escape in the imagination, not an actualization. Up to that point, much like Keats, I had never left my home country—had never even traveled to the West Coast—and had spent the vast majority of my days in the same tristate area. After my arrival in the Manchester airport, I took a public bus to Nottingham. It took over three sleep-deprived hours to arrive at the place that would become my home for the next five months. Amid bouts of exhausted delirium, I was in awe.

A view of the Midlands scenery. Photo by the author.

The midlands seemed to me a post card: the grass so green it seemed impossible, the effortless hills divided by low-lying stone walls that had compartmentalized the land for centuries and were here and there falling into a crumpled heap, weather-beaten sheep huddled in loose clusters, the sky a smoky blue that seeped into everything. It was both something I felt I knew intimately, but had never seen before—“Was it a vision, or a waking Dream? Do I wake or sleep?”

It seems that Keats felt a similar sentiment while on his journeys across the Isle of Wight. In his letter to Reynolds, Keats writes of a walk he took the previous day to Shanklin:

Shanklin is a most beautiful place—sloping wood and meadow ground reaches around the Chine, which is a cleft between the Cliffs of the depth of nearly 300 feet at least. This cleft is filled with trees & bushes in the narrow part; and as it widens becomes bare, if it were not for primroses on one side, which spread to the very verge of the Sea, and some fishermen’s huts on the other, perched midway in the Ballustrades of beautiful green hedges along their steps down the sands. (130)

Keats’s depiction of the Picturesque starts with nature: the “Chine” filled with trees and bushes” lined with primroses. His depiction ends with the modest human footprint: the fishermen’s huts and “beautiful green hedges.” Rosemary Hill writes that while nature in its pure state may be Sublime, “it could not be Picturesque: the Picturesque [is] a contingent state, secondary to the Sublime and the Beautiful” (124). While the Sublime is revealed in natural scenes which are unable to be fully conceptualized, thereby shoving mankind’s mortality back in the viewer’s face, the Picturesque opens up as something warm, inviting, and rich, exactly because of human presence. The Picturesque delights in human history and the stamp of human activity, although limited. Picturesque scenes, while primarily arising in the bucolic setting, no matter how “their creators strive to conceal their handiwork,” are always “inherently artificial” (Lowenthal 195). The Picturesque setting was just as contrived—whether through actual handiwork, or through the imagination of the spectator—as any landscape painting or pastoral poem.

On one of my weekend journeys in Spring, I visited Dartmoor, a place with a rich literary history. Among the desolate, mist-covered moors, it is simple to see why those from Devon might see themselves as a particularly superstitious people; their landscape has more than enough spaces which seem well fit for ghostly inhabitants. My guide took me to Buckfastleigh Church, a catalyst for Devonshire superstitions for decades.

Buckfastleigh Church. Photo by the author.

The church has been rebuilt and burnt down multiple times over the centuries, with the latest disaster completely destroying the church’s roof. On my visit, I wasn’t the only one there to admire the ruin: I saw locals wandering amidst the grave stones, gazing up at the church tower which seemed to me solid and formidable against the skeleton of the nave. I watched a magpie balance himself on an empty window tucked into a disembodied wall standing at the end of the grounds and separating the church from the thick forest around it. The walls were engulfed in a miasma of vines and lichens. The irregular heads of moss marbled tombstones poked out of weed infested grass. The place was eerie, but it had a beauty. Could this be called Picturesque? My guide told me that the place was popular for photoshoots, for weddings, special occasions, and films.

In his letter to Reynolds, Keats praises the beauty of Carisbrooke Castle. He writes: “I have not seen many specimens of Ruins—I don’t think however I shall ever see one to surpass Carisbrooke Castle” (131). Lowenthal and Prince note that “the ruin was a landscape feature especially favored by lovers of the picturesque” (196). The ruin unites the Picturesque with the Antiquarian, another sentiment favored by the English Romantics. When Gilpin wrote of ruins, he argued that they were, although not necessarily more beautiful than complete specimens of architectural master work, favored subjects by painters. The rough surfaces of ruins diffused light in a way that was easier to replicate in paint. While this could be part of the Picturesque fascination with ruins, even Gilpin knew it was far from the whole story. The Picturesque love of ruins can be understood in light of the movement’s philosophy as a whole. The Picturesque “proposed a reciprocal relationship between material reality and subjective experience;” between the physical world and the imagination of the perceiver. (Hill 121) The ruin is a physical manifestation of this reciprocal relationship—an object built by a past peoples, no longer serving its original purpose (whether secular, religious, or political) and having been at least partially taken over by the natural landscape. In his letter, Keats praises the beauty of the ruinous castle:

The trench is o’ergrown with the smoothest turf, and the walls with ivy—the keep within side is one Bower of ivy—a colony of Jackdaws have been there many years—I dare say I have seen many a descendant of some old cawer who peeped through the Bars at Charles the first, when he was there in Confinement. (131)

Keats admires the melding of the natural world with the world of human activity; he delights in seeing the Jackdaws overtaking the castle, and the ivy claiming its walls. Hill argues that the Picturesque relies on a “greeting of the spirit’ in which self and spectacle meet” (Hill 125). It is in the ruin that the human self and the natural spectacle meet and find aesthetic harmony.

For all of Keats’s ruminations on the landscape, one aspect seems to unabashedly steal his attention. When he gets to the waterfront, the poet seems to lose his words: “but the sea, Jack, the sea” (131). Although sometimes depicted in picturesque landscape paintings, the sea rests largely within the Burkeian Sublime. The attempt to capture the Sublime in language is a defining feature of Keats’ works, such as the Elgin Marbles Sonnets, his Hyperion poems, and Endymion. Throughout his short writing career, Keats struggled to find a balance between the impulse to capture the Sublime and a recognition of the impossibility of the task. However, rather than give up his mission to capture that which defies language, Keats struggles on, as in the sonnet, “On the Sea” that concludes his letter to Reynolds:

It keeps eternal Whisperings around
Desolate shores, and with its mighty swell
Gluts twice ten thousand Caverns; till the spell
Of Hecate leaves them their old shadowy sound.
often ’tis in such gentle temper found
That scarcely will the very smallest shell
Be moved for days from where it sometime fell,
When last the winds of Heaven were unbound.
Oh ye who have your eye-balls vex’d and tir’d,
Feast them upon the wideness of the Sea
Oh ye whose ears are dinned with uproar rude,
Or fed too much with cloying melody—
Sit ye near some old Cavern’s Mouth, and brood
Until ye start, as if the sea-nymphs quir’d— (132)

In the sonnet, Keats prescribes the ocean as a soothe for those who are “vex’d and tir’d,” writing that a look at the sea will help one’s soul to “start,” will possibly reawaken the spectator. In his Guide to the Lakes, Wordsworth argues for a new category of aesthetic achievement, the “Tranquil Sublime.” Wordsworth believed that the Tranquil Sublime could be seen in the English Lake District. He argued that the Sublime had become synonymous with “enormity,” and so sought to recategorize aesthetic distinctions in a way more suiting to aesthetic merit. For Wordsworth, neither the Sublime nor the Picturesque were satisfying aesthetic tendencies; the Tranquil Sublime was his way of mediating between these two, collapsing the soothing elements of the Picturesque with the awe-inspiring grandeur of the Sublime. Keats was as skeptical as Wordsworth towards the Picturesque movement, and as Rosemary Hill notes, was vocal about his dislike of Picturesque tourism (122). However, regardless of Keats’ disdain for the Popular Picturesque movement, it is this same inclination to seek out picturesque locations that goes on to fuel some of his poetry. But his treatment of the Sublime element, the ocean, complicates the Picturesque. While the Picturesque is an aesthetic that revels in the traces of human agency in a beautiful scene, Keats’ treatment of the ocean in his sonnet is something contrary to this. In the sonnet, Keats writes that a person feeling the pressures of the world should “sit ye near some old Cavern’s Mouth, and brood / Until ye start” (line 13 132). Keats isn’t suggesting that one can either tame the ocean, or leave one’s mark on it; rather, he suggests that aesthetic pleasure comes from the contemplation of the object in its natural state. As in his Elgin Marbles sonnets, there is an underlying anxiety that something so beautiful can only reduce one to passivity. This possibility seems, at times, to haunt Keats. However, this letter and its sonnet reveal a reconciliation between the fear and awe inspired by the sublime and his tranquil appreciation of the Picturesque. Here, at least temporarily, Keats seems to find a kind of aesthetic equilibrium.

Endymion, the epic poem he starts on the Isle of Wight, begins: “A thing of beauty is a joy forever.” In his private correspondence, one can see clearly the joy he takes in beauty, whether it be Sublime, Picturesque, or somewhere in between. Perhaps this is something that made Keats, so scorned by the critics of his time, charming to many readers; his affection for the Beautiful seems at first so simple and genuine. However, it would be wrong to say his aesthetic impulse is simple. Keats is able to straddle these different aesthetic tendencies, recognizing their merit and pointing to their inadequacies, but eternally believing in the transformative powers of beauty in all its forms.

 

***This response was written for a class taught by Kathleen Beres Rogers at the College of Charleston. Below, she reflects on how the essay emerged from that context.***

One of the joys of my teaching career has been reading John Keats’s letters with my undergraduate students at the College of Charleston; often, our students work two jobs, struggle with young adult angst, and want their writing to “mean something”: in other words, Keats is a natural fit.

In the fall, I taught my usual Keats course with an emphasis on sympathy and the sublime; although I did give them some ideas for paper topics, I read their responses to our readings and suggested research based on their own areas of interest. In order to promote interest in Keats’s letters, I showed them some essays on the KLP page and suggested they attempt something similar. Tori, a philosophy minor with interests in creative writing, aesthetics and literary tourism, gravitated toward this particular letter and submitted this essay as her final paper for the course. It is undergraduate work, but that’s what (to me) makes it a compelling response to a young man attempting to find his own place in the world.

 

Works Cited

Cox, Jeffrey N., editor. Keats’s Poetry and Prose. W.W. Norton & Company, 2009.

Gilpin. William. Three Essays on Picturesque Beauty; On Picturesque Travel; and on Sketching Landscape. Cadell and W. Davies, 1808.

Hill, Rosemary. “Keats, Antiquarianism, and the Picturesque.” Essays in Criticism, vol. 64, no. 2, 2014, pp. 119-137.

Keats, John. The Letters of John Keats: 1814-1821. Edited by Hyder Edward Rollins, Harvard University Press, 1958, pp. 130-132.

Lowenthal, David and Hugh C. Prince. “English Landscape Tastes.” Geographical Review , vol. 55, no. 2, 1965, pp. 186-222.

Ottum, Lisa. “Discriminating Vision: Rereading Place in Wordsworth’s Guide to the Lakes.Prose Studies, vol. 34, no. 3, 2012, pp. 167-184.