Sunday, October 18, 2009

Keats: Sleep and Poetry, a unique world of words

Every now and then, (or not so every now and then), one comes across a writer who's way with word is so particular that they construct a unique universe out of language. Keats is just such a writer. While reading Sleep and Poetry, I was astonished by the uniformity of the aesthetic. Keats created a mood of otherworldliness without dropping the ball once for pages on end. Every word contributed to the grand tapestry of the whole.

Purposefully cutting ties with reality, Sleep and Poetry weaves in and out of interior monologues and dreamscapes. We experience Keats's dreams with him and experience him talking to himself about his dreams . . . dreams both in the sense of sleep dreams, and dreams in the sense of life ambitions and goals. We learn about Keats's never ending quest to create great art and his sense of despair at not having achieved that goal, at which point he escapes into his sleep and dreams.

One of the most surprising things about Sleep and Poetry was that it was more philosophically robust that I expected it to be, and Keats came off as being more intellectually restless than I remember. I had him stereotyped as a fluffy, pretty poet. I mean, who would write a whole poem about a vase? Sleep and Poetry, however, was a sophisticated investigation into the meaning and purpose of art and life. For all it's surface beauty, it had an urgency and despair, even an aggressiveness, that gave me something to sink my teeth into.

A dilemma Keats grapples with is how to live with himself, how to handle his dreams and passions. On the one hand, he wants to push himself to climb that artistic mountain so to speak and translate the ineffable into poetry. At the same time, he shies away from that burden and extolls a simpler, perhaps more hedonistic approach to life. He rhapsodizes about nature and romance and yes, even sleep.

Certain tendencies associated with romanticism proliferate, particularly the romanticization of nature and romance, transcendentalism, and morbidity. The mood is passionate and vital, but there is a tone of despair. The poet seems convinced that there is more to life than he is somehow able to comprehend; only in art (and sleep) can he experience the euphoria and grandeur of it all. Woe betide that he should die before experiencing and expressing it all.