The Character of Light

enchanted castleClaude Lorrain, Landscape with Psyche outside the Palace of Cupid, 1664
National Gallery. Image source: National Gallery

“You know the Enchanted Castle, – it doth stand / Upon a rock, on the border of a Lake, /
Nested in trees….” (Epistle to Reynolds)


Claude’s Landscape with Psyche outside the Palace of Cupid, inspired by Apuleius’s story, which Keats sourced for his Ode to Psyche, is a late work of the painter’s, an elegant baroque fantasy with less than the usual “incessant observation of nature” and quality of “Brightness [that] was the excellence of Claude, brightness independent on colour…the evanescent character of light”[1] that Constable valued above all other artistic attributes.

The picture’s shortcomings, its dark, sleeping stillness, as if waiting for someone to step in and breathe life into it, gave literary advantages to Keats. The glimpse of the stone towers and colonnades nested above a foaming sea left him with more “room for Imagination” [2] to improvise a philosophical fairy tale to entertain a sick friend [3] and, later, to develop a recurring motif in his work.

He woke up the painting from its two centuries’ sleep and called it The Enchanted Castle. He rebuilt it repeatedly in his fertile year of 1819. The “marble balustrades”, “polish’d stone”, “diamond paved lustrous long arcades” and “crystalline pavilions” dominate the dreamscape of The Fall of Hyperion, the precious fragment containing his beliefs and doubts about the value of art and poetry distilled from the previous two years of his writing life. He remembers the Elgin Marbles in the motionless postures of the Titans, Saturn and Moneta: “Like sculpture builded up upon the grave / Of their own power. ”

The white heifer from the Epistle to Reynolds is sacrificed another two times, in Ode to a Grecian Urn and The Fall of Hyperion. The narrator’s blissful vision the moment before he is tolled back to his sole self in Ode to a Nightingale by the spell-breaking word “forlorn” is of the Enchanted Castle overlooking the sea.

The fragrant woodland landscape of the Enchanted Castle is where the dreamer, the feeling man, aspires to become a poet who can “‘Labour for mortal good'”. In his attempt to “usurp this height”, [3] Keats’ experiments in poetry were not infallible. He also had to earn a living; and he was getting ill. (Those of us wanting our young poet/prophet to be perfect, prefer to keep Otho, and The Cap and Bells out of our thoughts, only daring to admit them in parenthesis.) During his last year of “posthumous existence” that produced no new poetry, he was still consumed from within by “all that information (primitive sense) necessary for a poem”, and of feeling “the identity of every one in the room” [4] with the same intensity that made a newly created god shriek in pain.

The gap remained, the aching voids between form and expression, imagination and experience, objectivity and subjectivity, universality and the personal. The dialectic irradiates his writing, an intellectual light diffused over the lush landscape. He argues with his own poetry.

ClaudeLorrainSeaportwiththeEmbarkationofSaintUrsula wiki versionClaude’s Seaport with the Embarkation of Saint Ursula, oil on canvas, 1641. National Gallery, London –
“in no other picture have I seen the evanescent character of light so well expressed.” John Constable, Second Lecture at the Royal Institution, 1836. Image source: Wikipedia.

The “wide arched grace” of Lamia‘s marble palace, an artifice inside an artifice, decorated with “creeping imagery” of trees, reminiscent of Claude’s feathery foliage, is the setting for the battle between rationality and sensual imagination that ends in a world “empty of delight”.

Even more difficult to face than the truth that sexy, brilliant, passionate Lamia is a serpent, is that self-important, negative Apollonius is right. Art must include the real world in its grasp, or it is useless. Denial of reality is self-poison. The inextricable contrarieties of life must be endured if we are to enjoy happiness, rather than spoil each rare joyful moment with regret that it must pass. The dreamer in The Fall of Hyperion is advised to bear: “The pain alone; the joy alone; distinct”. 

Keats, the striving writer, was never satisfied that he had found the solution – “ever must I moan, / To question Heaven and Hell and Heart in vain” [5]. Keats was a suffering artist, without affectation; complacency is the death of any artist, “sublime or low”. [6] When we were young, hot for certainties, [7] some of us glided over the question marks in Keats, treating them as if they are the rhetorical flourishes of a Regency ghost – a big mistake, because they are nothing of the sort, they are questions, to be delivered with urgency; they complete the counterpoint; they are part of his chiaroscuro. He described his profession as  “straining at particles of light in the midst of a great darkness”. [8]

Towards the end of his lifelong study of nature, Monet’s transcendental, increasingly abstract Nymphéas in the series begun during the early casualties of the First World War, are still real water lilies, “material sublime”, painting them being another word for feeling, a Keatsian twilight fusion with Essence.

monetsunsetMonet, Water Lilies, Sunset, after 1914.
Oil on canvas, Musée de l’Orangerie, Paris. Image source: WGA
Given to the French Nation by Monet in 1922
“The pain alone; the joy alone; distinct” (The Fall of Hyperion)

In trying to trace “the shadow of a magnitude” [9], poetry of art, like any other religion, offers us salvation, or, failing that, perspective. Even when we are beyond cure, it brightens our darkness, like a star dying into life, or the subtlest play of scattered light on shade.

The poet-painter controls the field of vision. We all feel better when we have control, when we see a pattern. Viewing an Enchanted Castle in close-up, or led under its imitation marble arches into the wreathed trellises of the interior, we are dazzled into believing it is a private theatre for our fantasies, an exquisite virtual world, architecture for introspection.

Valeriani design for a stage setGiuseppi Valeriani: Set of designs for a stage set, 17th Century.
The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London
“A rosy sanctuary will I dress / With the wreath’d trellis of a working brain” (Keats, Ode to Psyche)

The poetry of art offers us rescue from a vile world through mediation, not denial, of external realities. The wide shot of ‘Psyche outside the Palace of Cupid’ shows us that the gleaming towers are on the promontory of a wild sea, subject only to the laws of nature and reality, where, without the redemptive powers of imagination and reason, our individual hopes and fears, loves and ambitions “to nothingness do sink.” [10]

The Enchanted Castle is where the poetic soul is made, the place where, in a Turner or Claude painting or Keats poem, self is dissolved by imagination into light. And, yes, penetrating this evanescence is a death-wish, to die upon the midnight with no pain, the kind of fantasy-death without cough, fever, haemorrhage, and sickening belief of having failed, for which Keats yearned and did not have, a sensation as sweet as sex, or drinking wine, knowing the taste of joy will turn to poison in an instant, and drinking again, because truth is beauty.

At this apex of feeling, the poet/painter is tolled back to “self-concentration”,[11] and, by starting the careful selection and combination of forms and colours, “patent yellow or white lead”[12] for sunlight, learned from patient study of art and nature, renews his cycle of creativity.

As for the rest of us, without his “magic casements, opening on the foam / Of perilous seas”, [13] where on earth would we be?

[1] Constable, Lecture II, p307
[2] Keats referring to the Camposanto frescoes in Letters, pp 187-8, a selection edited by Robert Gittings, OUP 1970.
[3] The Fall of Hyperion
[4] Keats, Letters
[5] Letters, 14 February 1819
[6] The Fall of Hyperion
[7] George Meredith, Modern Love, (1862) in one of literature’s truest and most quoted aphorisms “Ah, what a dusty answer gets the soul / When hot for certainties in this our life!—”
[8] Letters
[9] Keats, On Seeing the Elgin Marbles
[10] Keats, When I have fears
[11] Letters
[12] Constable, Lecture II, Memoirs of the Life of John Constable, p307
[13] Ode to a Nightingale

12 comments on “The Character of Light

  1. […] A bright torch, and a casement ope at night,          To let the warm Love in! (Keats, Ode to Psyche, 1819) […]


  2. erickeyswriter says:

    “When we were young, hot for certainties”

    I remember those days. I studied Philosophy thinking, rather naively, that somehow I would find certainty there.

    “He described his profession as “straining at particles of light in the midst of a great darkness”.”

    It’s more than his profession, I think. Aren’t we all doing that all the time? Some of us just do it in a way that attracts the attention of others, I suppose.

    “Even when we are beyond cure, it brightens our darkness, like a star dying into life, or the subtlest play of scattered light on shade.”


    “And, yes, penetrating this evanescence is a death-wish, to die upon the midnight with no pain, the kind of fantasy-death without cough, fever, haemorrhage”

    Indeed. It sounds wonderful.

    “and sickening belief of having failed”

    Yes, that seems to me to be worse than the cough, fever and haemorrhage.

    “for which Keats yearned and did not have, a sensation as sweet as sex, or drinking wine, knowing the taste of joy will turn to poison in an instant, and drinking again, because truth is beauty.”


    “As for the rest of us, without his “magic casements, opening on the foam / Of perilous seas”, [13] where on earth would we be?”


    I keep thinking I almost have something clever to say and then all that comes out is… Ah!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. PJR says:

    Thank you, erudite and profound Lelius – I think you are entirely on the general subject. There is a strong argument in favour of appreciating each art form separately (elegantly summed up by E.M Forster in Howards End) and I am not a fan of most adaptations, but after looking at Keats and painting, it is clear that some artists genuinely cross-over and not to admit that belittles them. If I was more musical, I would definitely start tackling the subject of Keats’ counterpoint – a disturbing sweetness and sweet disturbance – we would hear the different layers, the daring dissonance that is not apparent in spoken verse. You do that in your blog, beautifully. It could be acted, of course, by great actors – but dramatic art is being diminished in our culture……………….

    Liked by 1 person

  4. PJR says:

    Thank you – for everything.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Lelius says:

    A real pleasure to visit you. Thank you !

    There is something musical in the compositions of the paintings of Claude Lorrain. Found in his picture planes and in its color palette the same expressive concern that had to have a Mahler, for
    example, in the ordering of instruments and tones to play them the multiple lights of a symphony.
    When I go into deep meditation inspired by this picture, I hear the Nietzsche’s words blown by the soprano crossing the night of the fourth movement of the third Mahler’s symphony (“Sehr Misterioso / Durchaus / pianississimo langsam..”) :

    O Man! Take heed !
    What says the deep midnight?
    “I slept, I slept-,
    from a deep dream-have I awoken: –
    the world is deep,
    and deeper than the day has thought.
    Deep is ict Painleve,
    joy-deeper still than heartache.
    Pain says: Pass away!
    Goal all joy
    seeks eternity-,
    -seeks deep, deep eternity ! ”

    Pardon me for having so freely away from Keats and perhaps the general subject.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Pete has put into words what I have never been able to express. He is spot on.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Head has now hit the ceiling!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. PJR says:

    I am very glad – I saw the painting for the first time at the Courtauld a few years ago when I was sent along to review an exhibition by my then editor, the great Sarah Vernon of First Night Design blog.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. PJR says:

    And yet again, Pete, thank YOU for reading and receiving it all. It would never have been written without the encouragement of a friend (an artist) in the first place, and it is vindicated by the appreciation of online friends like you. I am glad above all that you were enchanted and entertained!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. segmation says:

    Rubens, Solomon Receiving the Queen of Sheba is one of my favorites! Thanks for sharing.


  11. beetleypete says:

    I cannot recall having been both challenged intellectually by a work, and so fascinated by it at the same time. This series will live long in my thoughts Pippa. Even as I type, I am finding it difficult to get some of the phrases and imagery out of my head. It is very much a thing of importance, deserving a wider audience. I am thinking BBC 4 at the very least.
    Thanks once again for giving me so much to consider, whilst being enchanted and entertained as i do so.
    Very best wishes, Pete.

    Liked by 2 people

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