A Brighter Word Than Bright
University of Iowa Press, 2013
In a rejected preface to his long poem Endymion, John Keats—apparently not having internalized the workshop admonition “no disclaimers”—writes: “. . . this Poem must rather be considerd as an endeavour than a thing accomplish’d; a poor prologue to what, if I live, I humbly hope to do.” But Endymion, however inadequate in its author’s mind, was not an exercise without reward. The criticism that the young poet faced, both internal and external, became a transformative experience. As biographer W. Jackson Bate explains:
Another reaction was his strong dislike [after Endymion] of forcing himself to write for the mere sake of writing. . . . For the same reason he was henceforth to feel freer, if a longer poem was not developing the way he hoped, to leave it unfinished and turn to something else; and his eagerness to publish subsided until, by contrast, it almost approached indifference.
In A Brighter Word Than Bright (University of Iowa Press, 2013), Dan Beachy-Quick undertakes a close reading of how Keats’s calculated indifference—defined not as the absence of concern or sympathy, but rather a lack of prejudice and prepossession—becomes a weapon in Keats’s struggle against the limitations of health, ambition, and craft. Eventually, the reader comes to witness Keats forging self-belief: “In Endymion, I leaped headlong into the Sea, and thereby have become better acquainted with the Soundings, the quicksands, and the rocks, than if I had stayed upon the green shore. . . . I was never afraid of failure; for I would sooner fail than not be among the greatest.”
Beachy-Quick’s own leap, as it were, is to forgo comprehensive biography and focus on Keats’s creative evolution, primarily through a chronological reading of his poems and letters from 1816 to 1820. This discussion is interspersed with a series of anecdotal portraits of the poet; in one such portrait, Beachy-Quick writes: “One way to draw an accurate portrait of Keats would be to drop some crumbs on the sill and wait for the sparrows to come.” This experiment may have, on the surface, an element of chance, yet it could also be said, “What will come, if not a bird?” The book takes this flight: observing the poet’s eye and imagination as they wander from urn to myth, from life to death, Psyche to sleep.
One major accomplishment of A Brighter Word Than Bright is how successfully it ties Keats’s oft-referenced “negative capability” to his full poetic project. This is evident in the indifference mentioned above, but also in the disinterest that Keats professes to admire as a vital trait in figures no less rarefied than Shakespeare and Jesus. Indeed, it’s clear that Keats is a poet who learns to give up the ambition within a poem while maintaining ambition without; failings and critical readings are “mere matters of the moment” to one who knows he “shall be among the English Poets after [his] death.” There’s no numbness in Keats’s idling post-Endymion; his is a “diligent Indolence.” Beachy-Quick makes the distinction: “One answer is to become lazy. One answer is to laze in the field’s long grasses until one becomes field-like—until one becomes an aspect of the field.”
Through the latter half of the book, a more ecstatic creation becomes evident in Keats’s poems, letters, and Beachy-Quick’s illumination of both. We see how Keats’s epistemological journeys among thought, knowledge, and emotion lead to the realization, in Beachy-Quick’s words, that “knowing does not end our confusion; it gives it to us.” Thus we begin to see how the germination of “negative capability” has its roots in an uncertainty that leads to indolence, which is in turn followed by industry. It’s in such state that the odes are composed. Torpor is not barrier, but vehicle. This is apparent in “Ode on Indolence,” most obviously, but also in the “drowsy numbness” of “Ode to a Nightingale,” the “silence and slow time” of “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” and “To Autumn”’s “mellow fruitfulness.”
The rules of negation that Keats presents (no “irritable reaching,” no “palpable designs”) are not presented as occasional tools or useful tips, but as inherent traits in the creative act, properties that are evident beyond poetry: they are apparent in Isadora Duncan’s observation that a dancer “stands before Beauty in a state of complete suspense,” in Robert Bresson’s admonition to “radically suppress intentions in your models,” and in Phillip Guston’s recounting of anecdote told to him by John Cage:
When you start working, everybody is in your studio—the past, your friends, enemies, the art world, and above all your own ideas—all are there. But as you continue painting, they start leaving, one by one, and you are left completely alone. Then, if you’re lucky, even you leave.
It’s this last departure that is naturally central to a discussion of Keats. A Brighter Word Than Bright begins with a story of John Keats’s life mask, made in December 1817 by the painter B.R. Haydon. In the aftermath of the casting, the promised replicas are not delivered, the mask disappears, and Keats, through his letters, can be found “[trying] to trace his own untraceable image.” Beachy-Quick describes the anecdote—and Keats’s own discussion of it—as mostly light-hearted, but it carries more symbolic freight in the shadow of Keats’s early death. This is, perhaps, the sense of the poet feeling his “real life having past,” a “posthumous existence” in its stead.
As Beachy-Quick delineates the evolution of Keats’s poetic voice, self-discovery necessitates, ultimately, self-shedding. In an interview with John Wesley Horton for Poetry Northwest’s Subvocal Zoo podcast, Beachy-Quick describes the “anonymous quality of the inspired moment.” He explains:
The same words spoken by us have been spoken by countless thousands of others through whatever various mutations and permutations time has wrought upon human communication. But there is a sense that because the medium is longer lived than any of us can be, to put the words together in the right way is to channel within those words a voice not wholly your own, but everyone’s.
He may not be speaking of the poet directly, but it’s easy to hear an echo of Keats, and an echo of the nightingale too, the “self-same song” through different singers.
Bill Carty is Reviews Editor for Poetry Northwest.