“I find there is no worthy pursuit but the idea of doing some good for the world.”
------from a letter written by John Keats
I admitted earlier that I was reading John Keats while simultaneously watching television, a talent I haply discovered to be illustrative of a concept, attributed to Keats, called “negative capability,” which to my understanding means the ability to remain serenely focused amidst the loud chaos of the world.
For example, the sporting events on TV and cities from which the events were telecast included: baseball, soccer, lacrosse, racing (bicycles and motocross, thoroughbreds and quarter horses, NASCAR and Formula One (horsepower!), golf, tennis, Chicago, District of Columbia, New York City, Ruidoso, London, Denver, Detroit, Utrecht, Oakland, Daytona, Halifax, Vancouver.
Yet, in a grandiose display of negative capability, I was enjoying a collection of Mr. Keats’ letters while players grunted, engines screamed, and crowds roared.
For those who don’t yet know, and to reinforce what others do know, Mr. Keats was a poet from the Romantic period of English poetry that began in the very late 18th century and carried into the mid-19th century. His letters reveal him to be amiable and ambitious. He intended to, and did, make a name for himself (remarkably, in an awfully short life—he died at age 25) among the lofty pantheon of his contemporaries—Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Shelley, Samuel Coleridge, and William Wordsworth. (How fortuitous is that? All those English Lit icons alive at the same time, and in some cases, socializing with each other.)
Each created literature that, 200 years later, continues to be required reading for millions, maybe billions of people on this big, beautiful planet called Earth. (In my opinion, however, and to my poor brain drenched in 21st century speed media, in addition to the immortal, Big Time poetry, there is no small amount that is incomprehensible: prolonged, jungly, convoluted and often referencing goddesses and muses and myths that are all but archaic. And in Mary Shelley’s case, I find her fiction, Frankenstein for example, and her travel writing superior to any verse of hers I’ve read.)
Mr. Keats posited three “axioms” about poetry. The third---if poetry comes not as naturally as the leaves to a tree, it had better not come at all—I’ve quoted in previous posts but I wasn’t familiar with the first two.
His first axiom is stated this way: “I think poetry should surprise by a fine excess, and not by singularity; it should strike the reader as a wording of [the poet’s] highest thoughts, and appear almost a remembrance.”
And his second: “[The poem’s] touches of beauty should never be half-way, thereby making the reader breathless, instead of content. The rise, the progress, the setting of Imagery should, like the sun, come natural to him, shine over him, and set soberly, although in magnificence, leaving him in the luxury of twilight.”
A “fine excess” that leaves the reader “breathless”: that’s the standard by which all writers should be judged, and all readers should expect, wouldn’t you agree?
It takes some of us 60 or 70 years to reach the levels of poetic understanding and the meaning of life attained by Keats in a mere 25 years: “O there is nothing like fine weather, and health, and Books, and a fine country, and a contented Mind, and diligent habit of reading and thinking, and an amulet against the ennui — and, please heaven, a little claret wine cool out of a cellar a mile deep.” John Keats---cool out of a cellar a mile deep.