Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Keats and the Fear of Happiness, Part Two

In the fifth stanza, the Knight then tells us he initiated the courtship by dressing this already beautiful faery’s child in the lovely trappings of nature: “I made a garland for her head / And bracelets too, and fragrant zone.” A garland is made of flowers and perhaps leaves, so in the flashback, nature still lives and provides the Knight with an assortment of female accessories.

The “fragrant zone” is often glossed as a girdle, but probably isn’t the kind that shrinks the female waistline. Rather, it’s a belt or sash made of flowers, hence its fragrance. (Just remember, that by the time we get back to “real time,” nature will be cold and dying.)
In Hughes' version the Faery looks enthralled -- look at her wrists.
Frank Dicksee's version. She's a bit more aggressive.
The faery’s child (still unnamed) is appropriately grateful: “She looked at me as she did love / And made sweet moan.” Okay, that “sweet moan” is more than appropriately grateful. I hear her saying, “These [flowers] are nice. Let’s go to what’s next.” And what’s next is that he takes her for a ride in pulsating iambs. 

Yes, they go horsing around on his “pacing steed” in a way that allows them to establish eye contact all day long while she sings a faery’s song. You don’t have to be a hormone-crazed high-school student to think this is a figurative way of saying “they’re doing it.” But we’ll consider this possibility more rationally momentarily.

In the next stanza, with the Knight having previously dressed the faery from the stuff of nature, she now feeds him from it: “She found [him] roots of relish sweet / And honey wild and manna dew.” This is an exotic communion indeed, not the fare of a high-school cafeteria, not Sonic’s greasy tater tots.

This food comes from a far country in another time where the sweet relish from roots and wild honey mingle with “manna dew,” the Bread of Heaven that gently fell like tiny wafers or flakes of snow on the Children of Israel, reminding many Christians of that most sacred of meals offered weekly at the altar rail.

In short, this is not like any food the Knight has had before or any he will have again. It cannot become his default order at his favorite restaurant. It touches taste buds he never knew existed.

Maybe I felt something similar the first time my mom made pancakes. I certainly thought of it as manna from heaven, and it immediately became my favorite food, and I have had thousands of pancakes since then, but never the one I wanted.

After these two beings from separate worlds have completed their communion, the love sensed by the Knight in line 19 (“She looked at me as she did love”) is articulated by the faery. Or is it? “And sure in language strange she said / ‘I love thee true’ – .” 

Here’s where a teacher who wants to embarrass or belittle a student asks, “Does the faery love the Knight?” One of the poor bastards will say “yes,” and then you pounce on her and ask for proof, and she’ll go back to that line and notice both the qualifying “sure” and “language strange,” and sheepishly admit, “The Knight thinks she does, anyway.”

True enough. He has earlier interpreted her look as expressing love, now he does the same to her faery language which probably sounds something like this: “Brxh shft broxenhrt.” Sure, he’s projecting, but also deducing from her actions – she accepts his gifts, she moans, she goes for an iambic ride (winner of crudest Keatsian pickup line ever: “Hey, mama, wanna go for an iambic ride?”), she sings to him (granted, he can’t understand the lyrics), she feeds him exotic food with sexual and religious connotations – so of course when she says “Brxh shft broxenhrt” he hears “I love thee true.”

How can it get any better than this? Keats devotees have come to expect a similar moment in most of his poems. Some of us have even named it Keatsian Intensity (and we think Fitzgerald adapted it to the end of Chapter 6 in Gatsby when Nick narrates the famous “stairway to heaven scene,” culminating in a kind of Keatsian Kiss between Gatsby and Daisy, in which Gatsby “forever wed[s] his unutterable visions to her perishable breath”), and we’ve noticed that it often contains an ecstatic experience in which a character loses himself, in the best sense, his boundary of “I” falling away, opening up to a consummation with Another.

(What would Porphyria’s lover in Browning’s poem do in a similar situation? What would Faulkner’s Emily do, her perfect love returning to her bed for one more tryst?)

Look how Keats indicates this experience with his use of pronouns (I learned the following from a critic whose name I’ve forgotten). The Knight’s first stanza of narration (stanza 4) is all “I,” all about his actions. The following stanza combines “I” (“I made” in lines 17-18) with “She” (“She look’d” in 19-20). The next stanza is also “I”/”She,” with “I” setting her on “my pacing steed,” and “she” bending and singing “a faery’s song.”

But in the stanza of Keatsian Intensity, “I” goes away. The faery takes control and the Knight loses his “I,” loses himself in her. Again: How can it get any better than this?

I only hope it lasts. 

Why would anyone accept this as a temporary experience? Why would anyone relinquish it? For the love of God, “let no sunrise’ yellow noise / Interrupt this ground.”

This stanza is also the culmination of something Keats calls the Pleasure Thermometer. This thermometer, with its somehow faintly obscene appellation, measures gradations of happiness, or, as Keats states it in a letter, “a regular stepping of the Imagination towards a Truth.” In his poetry, this process often begins with references to nature (see lines 17-18), followed by music (23-24), then ending in a kind of self-obliterating love (28). If you’d like further evidence of the Pleasure Thermometer, see the third stanza of “Ode on a Grecian Urn.”

Lest the viewers at home grow restless, however, foolishly desirous of a change of subject and scenery, let’s move to the next stanza which begins with “She took me to her elfin grot.” Now it’s time to see the world from her place.

Who doesn’t remember this stage of a relationship? Entering the alien world of your new sweetie, a world perhaps first distinguished, as the door opens, by its scent. No two residences smell alike. How does this one smell? What is its bouquet, its flavor? What are the senses telling you immediately about possibilities, potential? 

Is Rockwell on the wall or the bearded old man saying grace or Jesus himself, or is there an O’Keefe painting that, whatever it is, looks much, much like Femaleness Herself? This place, the female’s place  -- stereotypically speaking --, is certainly an analogue for the alien rarefied Other World for a bumbling, awkward clueless male primate.

So this place is her habitat, her Self projected all over it, where she goes when she leaves you. Closets, hangers, mirrors, shoes, laundry, a female life that’s been carried on without you, and now you’ve broken through. She has made herself vulnerable by letting you in. What all can happen in this place and where? You can already picture things that might happen. There are erotic charges in the air.

You’re pretty sure that’s what you feel. Or is it menace? She could easily slip a knife between your ribs or boil your child’s rabbit, if you have a child, if your child has a rabbit. She could tie you to the bed and leave you there to rot.

But if she pulls you to her and you smell the perfume on her neck, on her sweater, then maybe you’re home, maybe you’re safe, and it’s not going to get any better than this. Will this be heaven or a trap?

Where were we? At her place. Her grot. A dictionary will tell you “grot” is just short for “grotto,” a cave or cavern, an artificial cavern-like recess. But people I know who believe in fairies – reliable sources, all of them – tell me that in fairy lingo, a grot is an invisible cave-like residence in the side of a hill or mountain. You can walk by said hill or mountain and never see the grot. It’s enchanted, a fairyland. Keats’s narrator in “Lamia” lives in one, and no one can see him and his sweet snake lady in there, burning with romantic love.

And the grot has come to symbolize that invisible and pointless place the romantically involved go.There are no board or department or committee meetings there, so nothing worthwhile is ever accomplished. The couples apparently just lie around and make out and have sex and fall asleep, then snack on exotic and sensual foods long enough to get their stamina back and go at it all over again.

Sometimes, if they speak the same language, I assume they fall into an ecstasy of talk – the other intercourse -- and the language flows and sings and makes poetry throughout the grot and they talk and talk until sleep knocks off the ends of their sentences, and they rest for a tomorrow they not only don’t dread but can hardly sleep in anticipation of.

So, yes, that’s right, we’re at her grot, where it can’t get any better, except . . . “there she wept and sigh’d full sore.” How can we possibly read another line before we answer the question: Why in God’s name is she weeping and sighing?

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