I have a difficult history with John Keats, perhaps ever since my undergraduate essay on him at Oxford was met with the beautifully faint praise that 'this would have been a first-class essay...in the 1960s'. The first chapter of my doctorate was on Keats, and it was then abandoned as I decided to focus on Coleridge alone. Undeterred, at the moment I am trying to work on something about Keats and Robert Southey which will analyse prayer, emotion and 'Greek religion'.
I'm also lecturing on his Odes at NUI Maynooth this week, and it's in this context that I've become increasingly intrigued by the motif of belatedness. From 'Ode on Melancholy', with its transitory sensations that carry sorrow and loss as their obverse sides ('Beauty that must die'), to the 'Ode to Psyche' with its 'latest-born' goddess, 'too late for antique vows / Too, too late for the fond believing lyre', there is a sense that Keats's Odes are always inscribed in the 'just-after'. The haunting nightingale song trembles and dissolves even before Keats has assured himself of its concrete existence ('Was it a vision, or a waking dream?'), whilst 'To Autumn' celebrates the music of the 'soft-dying day'. Only 'Ode on a Grecian Urn' - a lyric dedicated to permanence, stasis and a kind of futurity - seems to set itself differently, and even here the enigma and secrecy of ancient sculpture could be said to position the modern ekphrasis as perpetually belated to the eeriely timeless or out-of-time artwork it seeks to decipher.
Why? Why belatedness? I wonder if it's not something to do with Keats's medical training, and his understanding of the body, explored by critics such as James Robert Allard among others. There is a superb quotation somewhere in Keats's letters (which I cannot, unfortunately, track down because I don't have my Keats notes in Ireland) where he muses that the ceaseless decay and regeneration of physical flesh means that no body sustains a constant identity, but is rather a flux of atoms, a million material transits . It is a physiological re-statement of Hume's famous deconstruction of consciousness, where the self is nothing more than a streaming mass of different sensations, shifting from one moment to the next. Contextualised within the radically materialist medical theories of the day, which were challenging the separate existence of the soul (e.g. the lectures of William Lawrence), we begin to find a very different idea of the body to that typically associated with Romanticism. Whereas a Coleridge or a Wordsworth would normally gesture to the organic body as a privileged trope - as an index for sensation, presence and 'Life' - Keats model throws the stability of 'feeling', as an expression and/or guarantor of self-consciousness, into doubt.
With affect and sensation thus exposed to a temporality which is fluid - making each experience ephemeral and part of an embodiment always haunted by flux, decay and, perhaps, ultimately the realisation that to live is a mortal process, life-as-dying - is it any wonder that Keats's Odes seem equivocal? They fail to hold their central sensations in a secure grip, always overlaying sensation with the experience of after-the-sensation. This should not be seen - as a certain poststructuralist reading might frame it - as a case of writing or representation or poetry being deferred from the presence of a sensation, but rather as sensation being deferred from itself: the experience of a body which can possess no permanence, and which cannot appeal to a Christian soul to counterbalance the understanding that 'all flesh is as grass...the grass withereth and the flower thereof falleth away' (1 Peter 1:24).
Thus, we have belatedness. Sensation intertwined with the incessant movement of sensation. Psyche - a goddess and yet also a figure for the human mind, herself a human woman apotheosised in the twilight of Greek mythology - possesses a strangely double relationship to immortality. With no lodging place in temple or ritual - she is too late for that - Keats must offer poetry and his own mind as the dubious surrogate ground for the existence of Psyche (we are back, perhaps, to Wordsworth's lament that the human spirit has only the frailest of shelters to keep itself - cf. here, line 49). What stability is this? Is it enough? Turning to 'Ode to a Nightingale', listening to the songbird is an experience which appears to offer a plenitude of sensation, but one which is also shot through with echoes of the past:
The voice I hear this passing night was heardIn ancient days by emperor and clownPerhaps the selfsame song that found a pathThrough the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home,She stood in tears amid the alien corn.
I wonder if there is a way of seeing Keats as belated in relationship to these earlier figures. More straightforwardly, it is an obvious irony of the Ode that in the very act of making his meditation on past nightingales - even in trying to secure continuity and relationship with the past and with history - he suddenly finds his own sensation is now past; it has slipped away from him as the bird has slipped away through the trees. Reflection has overlaid affect, and affect has thus fled. And perhaps simplest of all is 'Ode to Melancholy', which understands the transit of sensation to be tragic and inevitable. In fact, pleasure is posited to exist precisely because it is short, momentary, predicated on a certain consuming or destruction of what is desired. One crushes the grape, and then it is gone. The grass withereth, the flesh too.
In some ways, I would conclude, this makes the enigmatic 'To Autumn' the most important of all Keats's Odes. For it alone, deliberately rejecting the songs of spring (the traditional loci for poetry since Greek pastoral), tries instead to explore an aesthetic of belatedness, transitoriness and the 'after-effects' of sensation. Everything in the poem is moving, passing, fading, oozing, ripening, decaying; it is a poem which opens up with a gorgeous passivity to time and refuses nostalgia for either spring or summer. It glorifies instead the slow movements of autumn and twilight, with the only the barest hint of mourning:
Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying dayAnd touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mournAmong the river sallows, borne aloftOr sinking as the light wind lives or dies;And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;Hedge-crickets sing, and now with treble softThe redbreast whistles from a garden-croft;And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.