Keats Lives in the Eye

Brian Rejack
Illinois State University

Re: Keats’s 25-27 June 1818 letter to Tom Keats

The highlight of this first letter from Keats’s tour is the long description of his visit to Stock Ghyll Force, a waterfall just outside of Ambleside. The lowlight is arguably Keats’s disappointment at Wordsworth. There are many reasons why Keats had been becoming more and more critical of Wordsworth over the last years. One reason is certainly the younger poet’s sense that the elder had become a bit too comfortable in his older age. Wordsworth was cheering on the French revolution in 1790-91, and now Keats finds him supporting the Tory candidate for the Westmorland parliamentary seat. While dining on his freshly-caught trout, Keats inquires of the waiter about Wordsworth: “he said he knew him, and that he had been here a few days ago, canvassing for the Lowthers. What think you of that–Wordsworth versus Brougham!! Sad–sad–sad–and yet the family has been his friend always. What can we say?” Keats tempers his criticism somewhat by noting that Wordsworth was supporting a family friend, but he nonetheless appears stung by “Lord Wordsworth[‘s]” act of betrayal.

In many ways the Northern Tour is a series of disappointments for Keats. Here he is in the land of Wordsworth’s poetry, and as much as he takes delight in noting “‘that ancient woman seated on Helm Craig,'” Keats also has to reckon with the elder poet’s political apostasy. Even so, Keats hoped to visit with Wordsworth, but he cannot do so (again, thanks to that political apostasy) and is forced to merely leave a note on the mantle piece at Rydal Mount. Later in the tour we will find similar disappointments as Keats visits Robert Burns’ birthplace hoping to feel inspired. Other more mundane obstacles seem to put a damper on Keats’s designs. The food becomes more and more of a preoccupation in the letters, with “the cursed Oatcake” emerging as his most consistent digestive foe. By early August he decides to cut the trip short after having come down with a nagging sore throat. If Keats had hoped that he’d write great poetry while taking in the scenes of grandeur, he feels disappointed in the results along those lines as well. Again and again in the letters, Keats expresses frustration with the poems he has written. So what did the tour do for him?

The description of Stock Ghyll Force points toward a few possibilities. Keats set out on this trip to, at least in part, gather more materials for his imagination. As he puts it more concisely back in April while planning the trip, he will “go to gorge wonders.” His first exposure to the “Lake and Mountains of Winander” seem to have done the trick: “the two views we have had of it [i.e. Lake Winander] are of the most noble tenderness–they can never fade away–they make one forget the divisions of life; age, youth, poverty and riches; and refine one’s sensual vision into a sort of north star which can never cease to be open lidded and stedfast over the wonders of the great Power.” The echoes of Keats’s later poetry–in particular “Bright Star” (open lidded and stedfast) and “Ode to a Nightingale” (“they can never fade away–they make one forget the divisions of life”)–suggest that his experiences in the Lake District did indeed supply him with “life and food / For future years.” Similarly, the extensive account of the visit to the waterfall suggest optimism on Keats’s part regarding what he thought the tour might do for his poetic powers going forward.

Although Keats apologizes to Tom for relying so much on descriptive prose (“descriptions are bad at all times”), he sure knows how to do it well. This passage deserves to be quoted at length.

Having visited this spot in July 2015, I can attest that the descriptions are quite accurate. We also get a sense of Keats’s reactions to them, but mostly the descriptions consist of an objective account without much intrusion from the writer’s thoughts. The “pleasant twinge” is a lovely detail, and a perfectly Keatsian one. Likewise for “then the thunder and the freshness.” There is a kind of cinematic, synesthetic character to the account, which alternately zooms in close and pans out wide, with visual and sonic details merging and blending. Then there is Keats’s keen sense of the “different characters” of the different parts of the falls. He expands on this notion further, which again deserves extensive quotation.

What Keats articulates here is nothing less than a theory of the relationship between place, embodiment, imagination, and poetry. From this moment of recognition the path to a poem like “To Autumn” now looks clear, which is not something one could confidently assert about Keats and his writing just a year earlier. First, he acknowledges the impossibility of ever fully cognizing a place. The “intellectual tone” cannot not be captured imaginatively or through recollection. Embodied experience, or “sensual vision” as Keats refers to a similar notion earlier in the letter, exists apart from, even as it must of necessity persist in relation to, imagined futures or recalled pasts. To “live in the eye” may seem to imply a form of disembodiment. Keats does, after all, say that this experience makes him “forget his stature.” However, he’s only forgetting his self-consciousness about being “Mister John Keats five feet high.” He’s differently embodied, not disembodied. The imagination rests because Keats finds himself so fully open to the sensory experiences filtered through his newly-constituted bodily awareness.

How do we get from that experience to poetry? Well, that part is a bit harder. If one cannot imagine or remember “these grand materials,” how exactly can they be harvested and put into poetic form? The answer is not a clear one, but Keats at least implies that the process must be one of further embodiment. He moves between abstract and material (“mass of beauty”), spiritual and physical, but ultimately he ends with “the relish of one’s fellows.” All of the processes that undergird and bring together the relations between embodiment and poetry ultimately conclude with the social and the material. The rhetoric of tasting (“relish”) is, of course, metaphorical, but it points toward Keats’s insistence on always returning to the world, to the body, to pleasure. Even this letter itself he conceives of as a vehicle for his brother’s physical well-being: “I am anxious you should taste a little of our pleasure; it may not be an unpleasant thing, as you have not the fatigue.”

So yes, Keats ends up doing a lot of griping about his summer adventure and its pitfalls. Just as frequently, though, we see some of his most significant thinking on the issues addressed in today’s letter, particularly with his account of visiting Stock Ghyll Force: how we experience the world around us, how we square that experience with other cognitive processes, and how poetry comes to exist and operate in the world as a result.

The author at Stock Ghyll Force in July 2015.

Stock Ghyll Force, “streaming silverly through the trees.”

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