Notes From the Shelley-Keats House / by Bryce Hidysmith

< Soundtrack: The Mountain Goats - Harlem Roulette >

I went to the former home of the poet Keats yesterday. At the base of the Spanish Steps, it remains a small outpost of a dreaming spirit of Anglophone and Protestant character. It is the spirit of a wandering mind in territories of bad weather, of being captive physically but not mentally. Perhaps it is only in this state that man begins to attempt to divorce himself from nature, and accepts a quest towards discontinuous acts of change where one has framed the world in a low-fidelity abstraction so one can run computation on it. Of course, Borges' manuscript of a commentary "Keats' Nightengale" is there, for Borges was also always possessed by that same spirit, which he perhaps most obviously vocalizes in the lecture notes from his course on English Literature, to my knowledge the only example of his work as a professor that survives. A larger discussion of the exact nature of that enframing is for another time, but it is of remarkable interest that the Romantics clearly attempted to practice it, and the relationship of the enframing tendency and the Catholic world is of significant interest to me at this moment in time. 

In testament, Keats' old house is quiet. There are no photo ops, and so it is not terribly popular with the crowd captivated by the Spanish steps outside. But, it is the sort of place that offers copies of the poets' books in the reading room. Their library was buffeted by the Baroque and by the increasing relevance of the East. The Romantics were seduced by both, but still oddly provincial in tastes, utilitarian in behavior. If one is to think of the necessary conditions for thought in a world where splendor is used to dazzle the mind, then the mind must have a refuge where it is not fully dazzled to refine the little effects of language in the smallest turns of phrase. The artistic impulse can be characterized as both a metis and a techne, but it matters little which one contextualizes it as, for in the modern context they are used usually to denote a false political disagreement echoing the false political disagreements of the Romantics themselves. Both require concentration, dissociation, and sense of simultaneous safety and necessity. The refinement of language into sequences built for inspiration is just one example of this craft. The Romantics knew what they were doing in a political context, for while the modern assumptions of men like Shelley are that they were doomed soothsayers, attempting to conjure an alternative world in their scripts, they themselves knew that the invocations of such alternate worlds held real currency—he was married to Wollstonecraft after all, the implications of such a fact being looked over by perhaps all of those same people who would dismiss Shelley the Elder's strategies as flights of fantasy, following his death, and Shelley the Younger's writings as idle speculation rather than attempts at depicting the not only possible, but actual. Those same fools would likely assume that Gerome was to triumph, inevitably, over the Impressionists, while at the same time failing to notice that Gerome was, indeed, outputting work with much larger quantities of bits than the Impressionists ever would. While Keats wounds from printed verbiage are another story, one must remember that it was conjectured for some time that Byron might have become King of Greece, though this is of course cast in a most debatable light by modern scholars.

Their engagement with the world was uncompromising. The role of the poet has changed over the years. The post-Beat poets in the 1970s on were as far from engaged with the world as possible, unless they were rappers or other musicians—perhaps the first person I think of here is Leonard Cohen—and those were rising in an era of mass media that Byron and the like had begun creating back in the 19th century with industrially produced portraits and books, but certainly not the moving image on a telescreen half-way around the world. The question, I think, is what they were running away from, and what they were running towards. Industrialism was on the rise in England, and maybe the right thing to do was to follow the lead of Morris, but there seemed to be another distinct potential at hand: that of going back and trying to contend with the past and regain whatever noble spirit was at least hallucinated by men like Plutarch. Remember, Mary marks the humanity of the monster with Goethe's Sorrows of Young Werther, Milton's Paradise Lost, and Plutarch's Parallel Lives. Given that Goethe was himself a stop on the Grand Tour for quite some time, and Rome was the clear epicenter of the emergent Western project, it made sense that they were here. Keats himself noted that beauty was truthand truth beauty, but it is unclear if that sentiment was known to the other members of their set.

The Romantic rebellion was canonized in the heart of Rousseau, rather than the hand of Morris. Hope was valued over productive skill and enjoyable experience. The world was cultivated in the image of the ineffable fairy-tale of the intention of the mob. Insofar it was valued for its hope, it was valued for the addictive potential that hope produces. One might aspire to be Cato against Ceasar, but deny the trials of circumstance that limited both the Republican and Imperial strategies, and in that confusion built monuments like Wedding Cakes and simply hope that the general will of the people to maintain and survive would simply prevail. Perhaps this past is only valuable as a counterfactual, only usable as something to be rejected, kept in line of sight while one sails as far away from it as you can with a spyglass trained both at the fore and aft, until eventually that foreign country disappears under the curvature of the earth and it's possible to do something differently, somewhere and when else. Perhaps the best you can do is find a past that isn't yours, and repossess a bit of its marble to build a better foundation.