The poet on the chain of art

Everyday pains and regrets, washing hanging on the line on a windy day, a glass of wine, a loaf of bread, a plate breaking in the kitchen sink, are as vital to art and writing as the greatest loves and losses, the grandest landscapes and lushest nudes. The material sublime was made out of rock and hair, skin and wood, sap and egg and insect carcasses.

Part Two of The Character of Light

DionysosFigure of Dionysos from the east pediment of the Parthenon, Athens, c.438-432 BC. © Trustees of the British Museum. “Misshapen monuments and maim’d antiques” – Byron, satirizing English Bards and Scotch Reviewers
for indiscriminate gushing over the Elgin Marbles.

Keats’ imagination links him to the chain of art, from the realistic details of classical sculpture and drapery in early Renaissance frescoes, to the joyful experienced sensations of Impressionism, the anguished lyrical Expressionism of Munch, and the quietude of abstraction. His multi-faceted poetic personality reflected all life, sensual and intellectual, mystic and realist, neo-classicist and Romantic.

He never wanted to be part of a school or movement. He saw himself as a student of life and art, not a precocious genius: “I cannot speak/ Definitively on these mighty things” he admitted in his Sonnet to Haydon after his first sight of the Elgin Marbles. When he wrote in a letter,“I never can feel certain of any truth but from a clear perception of its Beauty”, he was thinking the same as John Constable, who said “There is nothing ugly; I never saw an ugly thing in my life: for let the form of an object be what it may, – light, shade, and perspective will always make it beautiful.”

CT23238.tifConstable, View in a Garden with a red house beyond, ca.1821, oil on canvas.
Copyright © Victoria and Albert Museum

Keats, like Constable, was not a mannerist artist, excluding or romanticising ugly realities; he was trying to understand them. He knew he wanted real faces and real emotion in a painting, something “to be intense upon”, someone to fall in love with, a women he was “mad to kiss”.

shrimpgirlWilliamHogarthWilliam Hogarth, The Shrimp Girl, oil painting ca.1740-45. National Gallery. Image source: Wikipedia.
“The excellence of every art is its intensity.” (Keats, Letter to George and Tom Keats, December 22, 1817)

These non-idealized faces, “swelling into reality”,[1] conjure up Hogarth’s portraits of the first half of the 18th century, proof that grounded humanism was not incompatible with the scalloped and flounced exuberance of the Rococo.

HogarthServantsHogarth, Heads of Six of Hogarth’s Servants, 1750-5, oil on canvas, Tate. Image source: Wikipedia

Keats wanted, like Hazlitt, “gusto” in art; the flesh-colour of Titian that “made his bodies seem to feel”.[2] And, beyond sensory description, proved “upon the pulses”,[3] he defined the very moment of traversing conscious and unconscious states, prefiguring Symbolists’ dreams and Jungian abstract expressionism, when, in hypagogic drowsiness, the casement briefly opens on a vision of the innermost mind.

Fuseli, painter of erotic and terrifying personifications of the emotions, was, like Keats, a devotee of Shakespeare and theatre, and as fascinated by the “unlawful magic”of fairies like Lamia, and the malice of “the goblin… [on] the heath”.[4] Constable, too, “felt that the supernatural need not be the unnatural.”[5]

Fuseli The NightmareHenry Fuseli, The Nightmare, 1781. Image source: Wikipedia

Fuseli’s inspiration, like Keats’, came from classical art and literature as well as the depths of his own Romantic imagination, infused with opium. The balletic gestures of his lissom fairies and spirits conjure tragic Isabella “spreading perfect arms upon the air” and the “wooing arms” in Endymion.

fuselidream_jpg_dsHenry Fuseli, The Dream of Queen Katherine, 1781, oil on canvas.  Copyright © Victoria and Albert Museum

Fuseli’s influence extended over Romanticism and the following Victorian generations; he taught Constable, Turner and Keats’ friend Haydon. The death pose of Henry Wallis’ Chatterton, archetype of Romantic youth’s self-abandonment to Lethe, almost mirrors that of the maiden threatened by narcotic emanations in The Nightmare painted over seventy-five years earlier.

HenryWallisChattertonHenry Wallis, Chatterton, 1856. Oil on canvas, Tate. Image source: Wikipedia

The public display of the Elgin Marbles in 1817 shook contemporary neoclassical preconceptions about Classical Greek art. Keats, like the young art student George Frederic Watts over a decade later, was awed by the magnitude of their naturalism. Their simple monumentality permeated Watts’ work until the end of his long life, particularly the recurring figure of Endymion, existing in Keatsian physical and spiritual duality, seen finally, in the 1903 version, lying in golden ecstasy, “rich to die”, ensphered in the light of his imagination.

Endymion1903G.F. Watts, Endymion, 1903, oil on canvas. Collection: Watts Gallery

The Titans in Hyperion are related also to William Blake’s painted giants of passion and reason, muscular gods and angels, influenced by Michelangelo, at war in a universe of clouds, thunder, and orbs of fire, the “Manifestations of that beauteous life / Diffus’d unseen throughout eternal space” that Keats described, translated into watercolour

goodandevilangelsBlakeWilliam Blake, The Good and Evil Angels, 1795/c.1827. Colour print, ink and watercolour on paper. Image source: Wikipedia

Keats was awe-struck by the naturalism of the Parthenon’s sculptures, by their evocation of a real society of real human beings, not by their perfection. The damaged condition of the “Phidian freaks”[7] that outraged Byron’s idealized Hellenism enhanced their beauty in Keats’ eyes, because the art that “mingles Grecian grandeur with the rude/Wasting of old Time”[8] carried the sum of human experience with it, the pain and maiming and melancholy as much as the delights. Beauty as the consoling friend to man is not only in the globed peony and dewy musk-rose; it is in the assimilation of suffering, like Apollo’s when he must “…with fierce convulse/ Die into life”.[9]

The deification, and sexualization, of imagination:

michelangeloslaveMichelangelo, marble sculpture known as the Dying Slave, one of four writhing male figures intended for the tomb of Pope Julius II. Musée du Louvre. Image source: Web Gallery of Art. “Do I wake or sleep?” Keats, Ode to a Nightingale

As Constable said, “imagination alone never did, and never can, produce works that are to stand by a comparison with realities”.

awakeningslaveMichelangelo, Slave, awakening, marble, 1519-36, Galleria del’Accademia, Florence. Image source: Web Gallery of Art
Soon wild commotions shook him…
….
Most like the struggle at the gate of death;
Or liker still to one who should …
….with fierce convulse
Die into life…. Keats, Hyperion

The birth struggles of artistic creation, freeing itself from the rock of which it is made, are comparable to death. The truth of imagination once experienced must be tempered by technique, the ensuing battle for balance of power, like the one between impulse and reason, is the story of art and the poetic imagination.

Mundane pains and sorrows, the washing hanging on the line, the kitchen sink, are as vital to art and writing as the greatest loves and losses, the grandest landscapes and lushest nudes. The material sublime was made out of rock and hair and skin and wood and sap and egg and insect carcasses.

[1] Keats, Letters, December 22, 1817
[2] ‘On Gusto’, Selected Essays of William Hazlitt, 1778-1830, edited by Geoffrey Keynes, 1930
[3] Keats, Letters
[4] Keats’ Review of Kean in The Champion, Wikisource.org
[5] C.R. Leslie, Memoirs of the Life of John Constable, 282
[6] Keats, Ode to a Nightingale
[7] Byron, English Bards and Scotch Reviewers l.1009
[8] Keats, On Seeing the Elgin Marbles
[9] Keats, Hyperion

Part Two of THE CHARACTER OF LIGHT

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8 comments on “The poet on the chain of art

  1. erickeyswriter says:

    Wide labels lead to wide ranging thoughts. I’ve found that markets and contests and incredibly subjective by their very nature. I certainly wouldn’t take your missing the short list as any sign of the quality of your work.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. PJR says:

    I’m blown away by your generosity in taking my essay so seriously. It boiled my brains to write, in response to a friend’s suggestion that I enter a writing competition about the Romantics, and wasn’t shortlisted. Romantic is too general and imprecise a label. I grabbed at impressions and bundled them all together, like a harvester with sun-stroke; what else could I do?

    Liked by 1 person

  3. erickeyswriter says:

    “Everyday pains and regrets, washing hanging on the line on a windy day, a glass of wine, a loaf of bread, a plate breaking in the kitchen sink, are as vital to art and writing as the greatest loves and losses, the grandest landscapes and lushest nudes.”

    I agree. In fact, the everyday seems more vital to art than the greatest loves and loses, the grandest landscapes… Hmm… Not sure if I’d extend that to the lushest nudes, but that’s more a factor of the genre I work in than an objective evaluation!

    “Keats, like Constable, was not a mannerist artist, excluding or romanticising ugly realities; he was trying to understand them.”

    I wonder what they would think about reality TV which seems to be intent on making reality more ugly instead of less. Would they see this as an advance since we no longer are “excluding or romanticising ugly realities”? My guess is that they would still see this as a distortion that hides the truth. Of course, I tend to seek out the ugly as ugly in so much of my work. And I end up finding something beautiful in spite of myself. (Of course, others might not find it beautiful…)

    “art that “mingles Grecian grandeur with the rude/Wasting of old Time”[8] carried the sum of human experience with it, the pain and maiming and melancholy as much as the delights. Beauty as the consoling friend to man is not only in the globed peony and dewy musk-rose; it is in the assimilation of suffering, like Apollo’s when he must “…with fierce convulse/ Die into life””

    I’m blown away by this.

    “The material sublime was made out of rock and hair and skin and wood and sap and egg and insect carcasses.”

    Insect carcasses… That seems right up my alley. This is wonderful stuff, Pippa. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. […] other English painters, Delacroix admired Gainsborough and Lawrence, the history paintings of David Wilkie and the landscapes, especially the watercolours, of […]

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  5. PJR says:

    Thank you, Pete – I’m afraid the series is going to ramble on for a further 4 episodes – adapted from an essay I wrote last year which failed to get short-listed for the Keats-Shelley Prize. Blogging it is my revenge!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. beetleypete says:

    Wonderful stuff, and beautifully put together. Nice to see again, some works I had almost forgotten.
    The exuberance of ‘The Shrimp Girl’ is a delight to behold.
    Thanks for this series. It really is excellent.
    Best wishes, Pete.

    Like

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