Francis Marion University
RE: Keats’s 27 October 1818 letter to Richard Woodhouse
Keats employs a perplexingly opaque phrase—“the dark side”—in his famous letter on the chameleon-like nature of the poet, one that invokes, appropriately enough, the time of year in which he was writing, Halloween, with its phantasms and fantastic apparitions, shades, demons, devils, and damned souls creeping around the corners of the spirit world into the real. If Keats’s letters, as is popularly claimed, are a teleological journal of soul-making in the vale of poiesis, then the dialectical dance in this letter between light and dark, substance and shadow, real and spectral, throws eerie light on an unsettling feature of Keats’ ensouling: the otherworldly evanescence of the self as co-constitutive of any self.
Referencing the poetical character in his letter to Richard Woodhouse, he writes “it does no harm from its relish of the dark side of things any more than from its taste for the bright one” (387). Of course, in our modern parlance Keats’s descriptive soul-phrase the space battles, light sabers, and padawans of Star Wars conjures up it does. This is, indeed, a serendipitous modern-day connection because, curiously, in Keats’s inventory of celestial habitudes and material entities that the poet can literally em-body, he exempts the stars. Well, unless we count the listed Sun, which is obviously technically a star although its orbital locality to the Earth emphasizes its spatial enormity to the extent that it seems, less a star, and more a whole blazing, bright world. According to Keats,
…a Poet is the most unpoetical of any thing in existence; because he has no Identity—he is continually in for—and filling some other Body—The Sun, the Moon, the Sea and Men and Women who are creatures of impulse are poetical and have about them an unchangeable attribute—the poet has none; no identity—he is certainly the most unpoetical of all God’s Creatures. (387)
Phasing in and out of creatures human and nonhuman, the poet flits about like a ghost constantly self-exorcising herself from one host and on the wing to possessing another. While the poet’s hauntology is certainly appropriately supernatural for the time of year during which Keats writes the letter, it strangely completely fails to anticipate Keats’s own poetry of this spooky season, his fall-related ode of the next year, “To Autumn,” where the lulling tenderness of bleating lambs and the quiet beauty of singing swallows seem as far away from going bump and boo in the night as one can imagine. That ode, in fact, if we follow Keats’s language, stands in the “bright.” Bathed in the lambent light of the sun, the poem and the poet, we might feel safe to say, will never turn to the dark side.
But what, then, is this dark side that glimmers within the poetical character and partially allows for its body-hopping-swapping abilities? The letter itself, to my mind, is little help in making sense of what is meant by the dark side, so I want to turn to another letter, one to George and Georgiana Keats, written during the same period, in which Keats, over the course of the month, jots down a slew of thoughts before crashing into a confessional on marriage and an encomium on the sublimity of solitude. In contrast to the chameleon letter, with its marvelously sneering put-down of the “Wordsworthian or egotistical sublime,” writing to George and Georgiana, Keats makes the poetical the personal (387). Having sung the praises of the cosmopolitan Isabella Jones, he then abruptly announces that he hopes he will never marry “though the most beautiful Creature were waiting for me at the end of a Journey or a Walk” (403). Much better, he attests, “is a Sublimity to welcome me home—The roaring of the wind is my wife and the Stars through the window pane are my Children” (403). Keats’s love flows only to his poetry, these empyrean murmuring entities, in his contemplative, beatific solitude. The poet, in these metaphors, is ego-less in that she is self-less, unlike the egomaniacally braggadocio Wordsworth, but here we find the soul married to the wind and giving birth to children, the stars that are the poet’s poems. Having pricked out the black universe with his children, the shining stars, no wonder then that he tells us “I feel more and more every day, as my imagination strengthens, that I do not live in this world alone but in a thousand worlds” (403). Except if we take the Sun and Moon above as worlds exampling two of these thousands, Keats would seem to open a schism in the poet’s bodily and textual hauntology. Perhaps this helps explain the above omission of the stars from Keats’s catalogue of nonhuman beings the poet inhabits and disinhibits. If the stars are his poetry and yet the poet cannot live in the stars but only in the planets and the sea and the bodies of men and women instead, then this would suggest that the poet cannot live in her own poetry. Confirmation of a sorts appears in Hyperion (1819) with Apollo proclaiming, “point me out the way / to any one particular beauteous star, / And I will flit into with my lyre” before Keats’s energy flags and the poem folds, as if Keats himself cannot lyricize the star (99-101). Perhaps Keats is here anticipating Paul de Man’s claim that prosopopoeia is the defining trope of poetry wherein the absent voice speaks in the present poem, the dead’s sussurrous speech ventriloquized in the living materiality of the tongueless text. The poet, in other words, is dead in this sense and lives only as a re-animated creature in poetry, alive now only in death.
But for that very reason it feels as if we are now worlds away from the poet of the chameleon letter and in the realm of what Keats’s means by the dark side, journeying among the sable skies by starlight, a kind of true dark night of the soul making. Perhaps Keats’s most famous starlight poem will aid in explicating what (and where) the poet is constellated among these worlds. The poet, we are told, “has no identity,” and “Bright Star” (1819) appears to affirm this lack:
Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art—
Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night
And watching, with eternal lids apart,
Like nature’s patient, sleepless Eremite,
The moving waters at their priestlike task
Of pure ablution round earth’s human shores,
Or gazing on the new soft-fallen mask
Of snow upon the mountains and the moors—
No—yet still stedfast, still unchangeable,
Pillow’d upon my fair love’s ripening breast,
To feel for ever its soft fall and swell,
Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,
Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
And so live ever—or else swoon to death. (1-14)
Autobiographically, “bright star,” as is well known, refers to Fanny Brawne, Keats’s last love, and he died while grieving over their bodily separation. However, it also sheds, err, light on the dark side of the earlier letter. The luminescent star is compared to the “Eremite,” marking the star off as solitary, just as in Keats’s claim when defining himself-as-poet in the letter to George and Georgiana on sublimity and his poetically conceived star-kids. At the same time, the star’s brightness occurs because it is not “hung aloft the night,” which suggests it is, instead, not a star but the sun, one of the poetical beings the poet should be able to shift into but here, puzzlingly, proves incapable of possessing. Yet, clearly, the poet, in his yearning to be as “stedfast” as the star is not that star, that sun, but rather a star, one amongst, we might say, the night’s other starry trophies hung. The speaker, unable ultimately to do anything other than “swoon to death,” remains “aloft the night,” on the dark side of the poetical character.
Which brings us back to the letter to George and Georgiana and the Hamlet (1609) allusion Keats opens the poem in that letter with:
Tis the witching time of night,
Orbed is the moon and bright,
And the Stars they glisten, glisten,
Seeming with bright eyes to listen.
For what listen they?
For a song and for a charm,
See they glisten in alarm
And the Moon is waxing warm
To hear what I shall say.
Moon keep wide thy golden ears
Hearken Stars and hearken Spheres
Hearken thou eternal Sky
I sing an infant’s Lullaby,
O pretty Lullaby!
Listen, Listen, listen, listen
Glisten, glisten, glisten, glisten
And hear my Lullaby!
Though the Rushes that will make
Its cradle still are in the lake,
Though the linen that will be
Its swathe, is on the cotton tree,
Though the woollen that will keep
It warm, is on the silly sheep;
Listen Starlight, listen, listen
Glisten, Glisten, glisten, glisten
And hear my Lullaby!
Child! I see thee! Child, I’ve found thee
Midst of the quiet all around thee!
Child, I see thee! Child, I spy thee
And thy mother sweet is nigh thee!—
Child, I know thee! Child no more
But a Poet evermore
See, See the Lyre, The Lyre
In a flame of fire
Upon the little cradle’s top
Flaring, flaring, flaring
Past the eyesight’s bearing—
Awake it from its sleep,
And see if it can keep
Its eyes upon the blaze—
It stares, it stares, it stares
It dares what no one dares
It lifts its little hand into the flame
Unharm’d, and on the strings
Paddles a little tune and sings
With dumb endeavour sweetly!
Bard art thou completely!
O’ the western wild,
Bard art thou completely!—
Sweetly, with dumb endeavour—
A Poet now or never!
O’ the western wild
A Poet now or never! (398-399)
Witch brings us back to Halloween. Keats never pauses to appropriate Shakespeare in his letters and the Hamlet invocation that kicks off this poem enwraps all of the chameleon disguises that pertain to poetry’s dark side. The black prince, Hamlet, thirsty for revenge, declares, “Tis now the very witching time of night / When churchyards yawn and hell itself breathes out / Contagion to this world: now could I drink hot blood / And do such bitter business as the day / Would quake to look on” (381-385). Murder of his false father uncle, Hamlet contemplates here, with goth vampire tropes like drinking blood as the apparent ensanguinary event that lets all hell break loose on earth by releasing encrypted ghosts and ghouls. As the churchyard yawns open and the ghosts ex-spir-it their graves, we are reminded of the malefic, the incantations of poetry remade as, weirdly, homicidal obsession with childbirth. For the child is born at “the witching hour.”
Keats’s love for the mythological is as well known as his Shakespeare-citing tendencies. So let us examine the mythological figures shimmering here in the stars’ phosphorescence: the very odd paradoxes of Asteria, goddess of the stars, whose daughter, Hecate, was the goddess of witchcraft. Keats draws on these mythological paradoxes to define the poet and poetry in this letter and these lines. If we follow Keats’s logic, then poetry and the poet, star children, are both born at the witching hour even as at the same time Asteria gives birth to this witching hour. This suggests that, for Keats, poiesis is both born of the stars at the witching hour and is the stars. A paradox akin, in short, to the magic of witchcraft. What we are left to conclude is that Keats’s children, the stars of his poetry that here creepily “glisten glisten,” are at once a maleficarum whose transferential properties inspirit these ghosts with the dark side of the stars, of a re-life. Poetry is literally a re-animator and a crypt keeper of the soul: it gives new life to mortuus animus, the dead soul. It gives life to the poet. Who is always already dead. Soul-making has become en-souling. Yes, this letter, to recall David Sigler’s reminder of the Derrida-Lacan exchange in his marvelous piece, has gone well beyond its destination.
The back-from-the-dead poet and the still-living poem, in turn, help explicate the swooning death fits of “Bright Star.” There, love—poetry’s highest form for Keats—equates to a star and works as poetry does, both a star and born of the stars at the witching hour. And now we can understand the dark side. For, for Keats, love’s paradoxical nature means it always partakes of what he calls, in the chameleon letter, “the bright” and “the dark side.” Just as Hecate grieves her mother after Asteria refuses Zeus’s dark love and swoons to death in the sea, so Keats fears the dark side of love will lead to its, and his, death. His love may never be light enough to inhabit Fanny’s love’s poetical “unchangeable attribute,” its necessary balance of the bright and the dark, its “stedfast,” bewitching sun. He may never become the poet he wishes, may never give, bring, himself back to life in his poetry, in his love. He may never “let the warm Love in” (67).
Deconstructive this sounds, I suppose, as if the autumnal side of the leaf is what allows for the vernal side and vice versa. Yet, I think Keats’s equinoctal dance with life and death, light and dark, love and no-love locates itself on the hither side of deconstruction, in an ontological place that tarryingly revenants in re-life. Deconstruction can never experience death since life gives life presence by its absence, death. Keats’s poiesis brings dead matter back from death. Although Keats feared he could never love with a love like Fanny’s, for Fanny, he faced that fear, and fear of death, with eyes wide open. For he knew, in his star words and worlds that, to quote a famous philosopher, “fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”
Keats indeed should have no fear of the dark side because he knows—or at least his poetry knows—that it is essential to the brightness, to any possible love. And indeed his fears, ultimately, were needless, as his letters and poetry incant. Poetry’s special star-chart witchcraft gives life to death, its spell casting capable, even, of preserving love—in a sonnet, say. Poetry is a special kind of force, of the light side and the dark, whose involutions swoon the dead back to life and love. Poetry’s dalliance with the dark is an act of bringing balance to this force even if its psychomachia deceptively seems to delight in the devil’s party of necromancy for the sheer sake of evil. But it is light itself too. In this even-handedness, poetry, you see, works to trick us on one hand and treat us on the other.
de Man, Paul. “Autobiography as De-facement.” The Rhetoric of Romanticism. New York: Columbia University Press, 1984. 67-82.
Keats, John. The Letters of John Keats. Vol. I. Ed. Hyder Edward Rollins. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. 391-405.
Keats, John. Complete Poems. ed. Jack Stillinger. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1978.
Star Wars. Created by George Lucas, performance by Frank Oz, Lucasfilm, 1999.
Shakespeare, William. The Tragical History of Hamlet Prince of Denmark. Ed. A.R. Braunmuller. New York: Penguin, 2001.