“…..every man whose soul is not a clod
Hath visions, and would speak, if he had loved
And been well nurtured in his mother tongue.”
(Keats, The Fall of Hyperion – A Dream)
Turner, Norham Castle Sunrise, 1845, Oil on canvas, Tate Gallery, London. Image source: WGA
“Oh God, not another f******* beautiful day”. (Alice de Janzé quoted in White Mischief, novel by James Fox, 1982, and in the film adaptation, 1987, screenplay by Michael Radford and Jonathan Gems.)
At the climax of Hyperion, tremors are passing through golden-haired Apollo’s classically beautiful body like electric shocks . He shrieks while “Creations and destroyings, all at once / Pour into the wide hollows of my brain”. Empathizing with all this random suffering and emotion is too much for a god to bear, let alone an artist or poet, striving to render teeming images exactly as they were when originally experienced.
Empathy, though it is taught as a social box-ticking tool nowadays [Like] or confounded with entertainment, as a self-gratifying, vicarious thrill, is a physical sensation, an instinctive response, not a moral virtue that deserves congratulation. It is only as good as the thing created from it, whether that is a work of art or a compassionate act.
In private life, if you are feeling empathy for someone you love who is suffering, you suffer, too. It is not like acting a role: you hurt. At some point you might lose yourself in your intensity of feeling, and break down. There’s no doubt that writing and painting, and performing, are therapeutic ways to find your identity again, metamorphosis of the de-created into a creator. There’s no doubt that publication helps further in building self-esteem; the evidence is here, on WordPress.
This post has arrived at the brink of artistic and human catastrophe, the gap between aspiration and achievement, delusion and suspension of disbelief. Intensity of emotion is seldom commensurate to quality of art. Feeling how someone else feels is a poetic gift to a writer, a painter, or an actor, only if they have the technique to use it, the rare ability to pull the sword out of the stone.
If art means anything at all, simply having a go yourself, “à se donner carriére”,  as Delacroix put it, isn’t the answer.
Two hundred years later, we have twisted the Romantic revolution in artistic self-analysis into self-gratification. Self-taught or schooled, an artist or writer has to learn their craft; they must study past masters, not be an imitator of imitators; they must observe and reflect nature, not just themselves, and, according to Keats’ theory, if they are to fully understand the universe they portray, they must undergo fusion.
PART SIX OF THE CHARACTER OF LIGHT
“Another word for feeling”
Keats gave up being a surgeon, and through poetry became a physician of the soul. Personal bereavement is at the heart of many of his mature poems; as a professional writer he was seeking to achieve more than self-therapy. The poem itself should interact with readers like a medicine. He tested the psychoanalytical possibilities of literary forms further than any of his Romantic contemporaries and successors.
All the dissolving that goes on in his poems is not hyperbole; he is practising (with or without the help of drugs) self-hypnosis. He is also deconstructing the craft of writing. For Keats, as part of creating a believable alternative reality, the poet had to go beyond self-expression to empathic loss of self in his subject.
The insoluble artistic contradiction at the end of this process, is that in creating the actual feeling of feeling in a poem, or a painting, or a novel, or a play, whatever you do, it remains an artefact. Having exalted poetic Imagination as the saviour of human suffering, Keats became increasingly doubtful about its healing powers.
Constable, Coast Scene at Brighton: Evening, oil painting, ca. 1828 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
“….colours from the sunset take:
From something of material sublime
Rather than shadow our own soul’s day-time
In the dark void of night.”
(Keats, Epistle to John Hamilton Reynolds)
Constable painted this ode to the dying day while his wife Maria was seriously ill with tuberculosis. She died about six months later. Is it necessary for us to know this biographical detail to appreciate the artwork? No. Any artwork lives or dies on its own merits, not its backstory. If the artist had wanted to paint a mourning picture of himself by her deathbed, he would have done. Instead, he identifies his feelings with his subject, nature.
And we must be careful here. We can intuit as much as we like from a bit of historical research, but if we seek truth, rather than rely on empathy, we must admit that we do not really know what Constable was feeling; we cannot rely on letters and memoirs, any more than we can rely on our own texts and emails, to reveal anything under the surface.
We project narratives on to his work, of the heartbroken husband, the devoted single father of seven children, when all we should be doing is looking at the man’s art.
Sunrises and sunsets are the diurnal opportunity for all of us to grasp the natural sublime; we feel the truth of Keats’ “pleasant pain” when we look at them. They are such powerful phenomena, that even when we are too world-weary or depressed to be excited by them, we resent the implicit reproach of their beauty. In this mood we think, like Alice de Janzé faced with the infinite pink and orange of a Kenyan sunrise, “Not another f******* beautiful day”.
Sunsets, being more colourful due to the different character of the light, are the most exploited. Their representations, the cheesy and the sublime, clog postcard racks, photo albums and the arteries of the internet. The feelings they evoke make it harder to disentangle their subjective and artistic value. It is a wonder that any artist still has the courage to portray them.
The intensity with which Constable painted the colours in the sky of an evening in Brighton in 1828 is painful to look at. The effect on us is cathartic. His technique enables the painting to enter our souls, “and does not … amaze [us] with itself but with its subject.”
As Constable’s landscape offers us a portal between the personal and universal, it should not be necessary for us to drag it back to the personal by prying into his private life. He and Keats offered up the healing powers of their finished art to put balm on our bruises, not their raw emotions for us to get off on.
If we use facts about Constable’s life in 1828 to heighten our enjoyment of the painting with an empathic thrill are we intruding on private grief and then exploiting it? Yes.
Or are we now creators ourselves, using our imaginations to make a story out of the painting to deepen our experience? Is it art if one of us fictionalizes in film or novel Constable’s last year with his beloved wife, with a real and CG backdrop of sunsets and storms over Brighton and Hampstead – and consider what the painters and poets of the en plein air revolution would have thought of CG – or is it emotional pornography?
Would this hypothetical adaptation be justified if it was turned into good art itself? Should I be copyrighting the idea just in case? Or is it morally and aesthetically obscene?
After Maria died, Constable wrote, privately, in a letter he never thought would be published, “a void is made in my heart that can never be filled again in this world”.  After that, the rest should be silence.
Our terrified and aching age, that knows so much, and understands so little, is producing too much mannered art, obscuring authentic art in previously unconscionable amounts. Desperate for individual validation, too many of us are publishing. On the right hand side of my screen I am reminded of the “status” of what I’m writing; I won’t be real until I make myself “visible”. It seems we can feel nothing any more without sharing it. We are writing, filming, painting, photographing, blogging too much.
In our own Romantic age of rampant egotism, I’ve not written a word here that will add to human happiness, or the march of intellect, I’ve not said anything that has not been said before, there is no better case for melodies being sweeter unheard, yet still I will not be denied self-expression.
Constable wrote, “painting is with me but another word for feeling”. We see and hear Wordsworth’s “green leaves rustle” and “torrents roar”, and look in awe at the same overwhelming skies in Constable’s landscape that arch over Keats’ stubble plains in To Autumn, or “the chancel vault” of the Titans in Hyperion, or “the portraiture of clouds and sky” in Endymion.
Constable, Stonehenge, Watercolour, 1835, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London. One of the paintings from her father’s studio bequeathed to national galleries and museums, all free of charge at the time of their institution, by the painter’s daughter Isabel in 1888.
Feeling is manifest in his watercolour and oil sketches, in the storm of grief in the sky above Stonehenge, which appears in Hyperion as “a dismal cirque / Of Druid stones, upon a forlorn moor, / When the chill rain begins…” , and the ruins of Hadleigh castle, brooding over an unyielding countryside circled overhead by flapping birds:
This is a god-forsaken landscape, painted like a howl of grief. If we did not know that it was painted shortly after Maria Constable’s death, we would associate the view with gothic, or modern post-apocalyptic, imagination.
For the finished oil painting, Constable smoothed his brush strokes, lightened and pulled out the view, and cut out some of the more disturbing details. He reduced the number of swooping birds and tormenting flecked clouds; the Thames estuary, the figures of the man and his dog and the cattle are clearly discernible. The painting gleams elegantly. He probably would not have been elected to the Royal Academy without these picturesque adjustments.
Hadleigh Castle, The Mouth of the Thames–Morning after a Stormy Night, Yale Center for British Art.
Image source: Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection
“….poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity” Wordsworth, Preface to Lyrical Ballads, 1800.
It still weeps. The finished painting is poetic in its own right, a study of recollected emotion, representing a more stiff upper lip, majestic view of the Essex marshes than the preparatory sketch. The mood has changed; like the conventional stages of grief, it is less angry, more resigned.
The sky is oppressive and threatening, but no longer roiling in the chaos that in our own mental landscapes brings us to the edge of madness. Constable restored a divine Christian presence to nature, appeasing his own Anglican faith and public expectation of landscape painting.
The broad, rapid brush strokes of the oil sketch express the ugly reality of grief. Beauty is in its truth. Calling it “confessional” does not do it justice, because we self-consciously edit our confessions, and in Constable’s artistry there’s no sign of audience awareness.
Constable’s impassioned oil sketches are part of modern art. In his lifetime, they were private. He adapted them for contemporary taste into the finished oil paintings, that are less exciting and revelatory for us. The public first saw the oil sketches half a century after his death, when his daughter Isabel gave them to the V&A in 1888, the year of Van Gogh’s most fertile period in Arles, the same year that Gauguin painted him painting sunflowers, the year that Monet was painting the Mediterranean light of Antibes, and the meadows and river at Giverny, all of them realizations of the poetry of art for the modern consciousness.
We should never forget that Isabel Constable’s gift to the nation was intended to be seen free of charge, an ideal of art for the public good that we should fight to keep whenever a government tries to revoke it. (Quote from V&A website: “During the 19th century the Museum had free admission three days a week and charged 6d for entry on the other three days. The purpose of the charging days was to keep the Museum quiet for students.”)
Constable painted the moment of glutting sorrow on a sunset, and the moment when “the melancholy fit shall fall/ Sudden from heaven as a weeping cloud”.
He painted several versions of a view of Hampstead Heath, based on an oil sketch of 1819, which capture the landscape drenched in a rain shower.
Constable often noted weather conditions in his sketchbooks, and painted his internal weather, too. Emotions shift with the wind and rainbows over Hampstead, with an “earnest grasping” of nature far closer to Keats than Joseph Severn’s sentimental and piously Christian recasting of the poet listening to a nightingale on an artificially moonlit Heath.
Joseph Severn, Keats Listening to a Nightingale on Hampstead Heath, 1845. Oil on canvas.
When love is not enough: the genuine feelings of the painter for his subject do not prevent the art from being mannered and second-rate. Our involvement in the metastory (for the Romantics still live in our hearts and minds after two hundred years, and will survive a few more Twilights) should not stop us from admitting that this is pretty dreadful.
Collection: Corporation of London. Image source: Wikipedia
Severn’s paintings lack the poetic requisites of gusto and chiaroscuro, but his kindness to Keats during the last heart-breaking months in Rome was real. His true talent was for compassionate friendship, not art. Love for another person should, as Keats demanded of great poetry, “be unobstrusive, a thing which enters into one’s soul, and does not startle it or amaze it with itself but with its subject”.
This was the way that a mysterious landscape, seen in a book of old engravings, entered and never left his soul.
 Delacroix, Journal de Eugène Delacroix, volume 3, p221. Openlibrary.org
 Keats, Ode to a Nightingale
 Constable, Letter to H. W. Pickersgill, 27 November 1828. Quoted on Tate Gallery website and archive.org Whitley, Art of England.
 Constable quoting from Wordsworth’s Thanksgiving Ode in a letter to Fisher, 1823. Memoirs of the Life of John Constable, 101.
 Keats, This Living hand