Sensation and Immortality

Editor’s Note: Today’s post is a joint one by Kathleen Béres Rogers and Brittany Pladek, who collaborated on their responses to, via Keats’s 16 Dec 1818–4 Jan 1819 letter, related issues around illness, death, and dying. We indicate below the authorship of each section.

Kathleen Béres Rogers
College of Charleston

Memories. Sensations. We think of pictures in our minds, but pictures fade, they change, they can be altered. When I remember the two weeks I watched my father dying, I remember the sterile hospital room, the nurse who sat by his side, his bloated body and his ashen face. I remember his eyes, open but not seeing. But more than these things, I remember the smell of that hospital room, the sounds of the machines keeping him alive, the (non)taste of hospital food. I remember crying a great deal or, conversely, not being able to feel anything at all.

But there are also positive memories: I remember talking with him, singing to him, feeling like he was listening. Holding his hand, feeling that he knew I was there. I remember telling him that it was all right to go … and then he did.

In Keats’s December 16, 1818–January 4, 1819 letter to George and Georgiana, a long letter detailing his thoughts about grief, sensation, and memory, Keats has been through a somewhat similar process. “The last days of Tom,” he writes, “were of a distressing nature” (II: 4). For the person observing the dying process, the sensations can often be unnerving. John Ferriar, the physician to the Manchester Infirmary, writes about it in a 1798 essay on “On the Treatment of the Dying,” detailing the “tossing of the arms … the rattling noise in respiration, and difficulty of swallowing” (III: 203). The “death rattle” remains with survivors as a persistent, often traumatic memory, and Keats would have experienced this multiple times as a surgical student and dresser at Guy’s Hospital. In Consumption and Literature: the Making of the Romantic Disease, Clark Lawlor expands on this, adding the “fetid smell” often present in a patient dying of tuberculosis” (5). He continues to write that the consumptive death “can be extremely unpleasant, with patients becoming more and more short of breath, increasingly unable to control their coughing and expectoration, unable to gain a moment’s peace” (5). The indescribable smell of phlegm, the sound of constant coughing and spitting, and, finally, the rattle of death, are sensory memories that must have stayed with Keats until the end of his short life.

Yet Keats had already developed an ideological system—again, as a surgical student, he had to—for coping with death, and the literature of his day allowed for a different “reading” of consumption.  Specifically, the consumptive was often compared to a flower (Shelley repeats this move in “Adonais”), as in Coleridge’s “On Observing a Blossom.” Here, Coleridge apostrophizes the “flower that must perish” and asks whether he should “liken thee / To some sweet girl of too too rapid growth / Nipped by consumption mid untimely charms?” The notion of the consumptive as clearly effeminate (the “sweet girl” and the flower) intersects with and complicates the cultural and medical notion of these patients as poets, thinkers, members of, as Keats would say, the “Dreamer tribe.” In observing dying patients, Ferriar writes that he “[has] always been impressed with an idea, that the approach of actual death, produces a sensation similar to that of falling asleep” (195). Later, he quotes Spenser, who compares death to “sleep after toil” (Complaints). If death is like a sleep, then Keats must have wondered about dreams, which featured prominently in most of his poetry, and served, through the senses, as routes to memories—one can think here of Moneta, whose name means memory, in The Fall of Hyperion, and the fact that the Poet encounters her in a dream. Perhaps Keats thought of death as a sort of sleep, a pathway to a sensory universe that might more perfectly mirror reality. “Do I wake,” he asked, “or sleep?” (80).

Coleridge writes in “A Day Dream” that in a dream, “My eyes make pictures when they are shut” (313). This notion of “seeing” without physically seeing recurs throughout this letter in the form of blindness. Writing to George and Georgiana in the wilds of Kentucky, Keats had to rely on these mental pictures, as well as on other sensory memories. “We shall be,” he writes, “as near each other as blind bodies can be in the same room” II: 5). In Keats’s letter, blindness serves as a metaphor for physical, but not spiritual distance: the latter distance can be filled by memories and, of course, by sensation. The notion of blindness connects Tom’s death with George’s distance, but it is this very lack of physical sight that allows for sensory (and extra-sensory) memories to let the “viewless wings of poesy” do their work (33).

It is, in fact, words that allow for the poet (or, here, the letter-writer) to develop what Keats, in “To Homer,” calls “a triple sight in blindness keen” (12). Words seem to allow for the senses of sight, smell, and touch to assume equal importance. It is therefore no accident that Keats, in this letter, writes about arctic exploration and, more specifically, about “snow-blindness”:  “[The explorers’] eyes were so fatigued with the eternal dazzle and whiteness that they lay down on their backs upon deck to relieve their sight on the blue sky” (II: 5–6). The purely visual input of the snow becomes overwhelming, and the sense of sight must be mediated, “relieved.” Analyzing this same passage, Larrissy envisions the snow blindness as “an image of a malign excess, an overburdened parody of sublimity, which might well destroy artistic accomplishment” (167). The intensity and power of the visual sublime detract from the other senses, destroying the possibility both for poetry and, for Keats, artistic immortality.

Brittany Pladek
Marquette University

With Tom’s death, the idea of immortality became more than just artistically important to Keats. After describing his brother’s “distressing” final days with an austerity that suggests how hard he found it to relate the harrowing details, he concludes, “I have scarce a doubt of immortality of some nature [or] other—neither had Tom” (II: 4). It’s a comforting thought, likely written for Keats himself as much as George and Georgiana. But it’s also an intellectual problem he had wrestled with for some time. As Noel Jackson has argued, Keats was keenly interested in the “sensation” of states we might not normally understand as felt, the afterlife included. Tom’s death made that interest agonizingly personal. Surely immortality meant you didn’t have to hurt anymore? John Ferriar’s essay on medical conduct at the deathbed had recorded the commonplace belief that to “put [a patient] to death” meant to “put the patient out of pain.” In the winter of 1818, Keats needed to believe this was true. Just after consoling George and Georgiana that Tom’s “last moments were not so painful,” and just before averring his faith in “immortality of some nature,” he remarks that the “commonest observations of the commonest people on death are as true as their proverbs” (II: 4–5).

Several sentences later, he tries to flesh out those observations. It’s a peculiar metaphysics, born of new grief and growing loneliness. “That will be one of the grandeurs of immortality,” he tells George and Georgiana, who he has not seen since June: “there will be no space and consequently the only commerce between spirits will be by their intelligence of each other.” The heart of this intelligence is spirits’ memory of one another’s earthly identities, which Keats imagines as the sum of their physical mannerisms:

…they [spirits] will completely understand each other… I will give an example… I do not feel at the present moment so far from you is that I rememb{er} your Ways and Manners and actions… I know the manner of you walking, standing, sauntering, sitting down, laug{ing,} punning, and evey action so truly that you seem near to me. (II: 5)

In this vision of immortality, spirits move about walking and talking and laughing, but it’s all memory, not real sensation. They “understand each other” not through the sensual ear, but an eternal “intelligence” of no tone. Since they do not move in “space,” they have no bodies; since they have no bodies, they feel no pain.

Here, Keats returns to ideas he had been developing since 1817, and which would culminate in the famous “vale of Soul-making” letter of May 1819 (also addressed to George and Georgiana). In that letter, Keats would outline a “system of Spirit-creation” that sees a soul’s identity as the result of the pains it endured on earth, where “the heart must feel and suffer in a thousand diverse ways!” (2.102). This “system” will darkly revise Keats’s 1817 hope that after death, “we shall enjoy ourselves… by having what we called happiness on Earth repeated in a finer tone… such a fate can only befall those who delight in sensation” (II: 185). The difference between these views is sobering. In 1817, Keats saw immortality as an extension of earthly pleasures, a repetition of the “happiness” of all “who delight in sensation.” By May 1819, it will become a form of identity dependent on a lifetime of pain, a “heart” suffering thousands of times over. The winter of 1818 drastically altered Keats’s opinion on how immortality felt.

That Tom’s death would be the event that taught Keats how nothing was painless, not even pleasure and certainly not eternity, is so widely accepted that it’s sometimes difficult to remember the cruelty of the lesson. In 1818, Keats the grieving brother tries hard to reassure George and Georgiana—and himself—that Tom died “without a pang.” He plays the good doctor, “pour[ing] the sweet balm of consolation” onto “those unhappy persons, who fear to survive the loss of the objects of their love,” as Pierre Jean Georges Cabanis instructed medical students in his widely-read 1798 Essay on the Certainty of Medicine (114–7). So, too, Keats the metaphysician tries hard to imagine a comforting afterlife, where spirits retain their distinctively embodied “Ways and Manners” but escape the agony their living bodies suffered.

But he cannot forget Tom’s final days, which his reticent letter calls “distressing” but whose visceral details haunt his poetry: the youth who “grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies” (26); the Titans “pent in regions of laborious breath” (2.22); worst of all, Moneta’s ghastly face, consumed by the nightmare of an “immortal sickness that kills not” (1.228). During the summer of 1818, Keats had reread Dante’s Inferno, whose gruesome portraits of eternal pain he would, in 1819, try to rehabilitate into a fine and private heaven where “lovers need not tell / Their sorrows” (II: 91). But his efforts there feel forced, much like this letter’s lukewarm endorsement of an “immortality of some nature [or] other”—a no-place where everything is beautiful and nothing hurts. Both letters yearn to imagine an immortality without suffering. Neither quite manages it. By the winter of 1818, Tom’s death would confirm what Keats had already begun to suspect: that, as the sonnet “To Burns” he wrote earlier that summer admits, “pain is never done” (I: 308).

Contributors’ Notes
Kathleen Béres Rogers is an associate professor of English at the College of Charleston, and she works on Romantic medicine, proto-psychology, and disability. Her book, Creating Romantic Obsession: Scorpions in the Mind, is forthcoming from Palgrave.

Brittany Pladek is Assistant Professor of English at Marquette University. She writes on Romantic poetics and literature and medicine. Her book, The Poetics of Palliation: Romantic Literary Therapy, 1790-1850, is forthcoming from Liverpool University Press.”

Works Cited

Cabanis, Pierre Jean Georges. An Essay on the Certainty of Medicine, trans. R. La Roche. Philadelphia: Robert Desilver, 1823.

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor, “On Observing a Blossom on the First of February, 1796,” in The Complete Poems of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed. William Keach. Penguin Classics, 1997.

Ferriar, John, M.D. “On the Treatment of the Dying.” Medical Histories and Reflections. 3 vols. Manchester: G. Nicholson, 1798.

Jackson, Noel. Science and Sensation in Romantic Poetry. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

Keats, John. Collected Poems, ed. Jack Stillinger. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003.

Keats, John. The Letters of John Keats, ed. Hyder Edward Rollins. 2 vols. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1958.

Larrissy, Edward. The Blind and Blindness in Literature of the Romantic Period. Edinburgh University Press, 2012.

Lawlor, Clark. Consumption and Literature:  The Making of the Romantic Disease. Palgrave Macmillan: 2007.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *