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Susan McCaslin, Living in the Mystery: Keats, contd.

soul. And the anonymous 14th-century English mystic who wrote The Cloud of Unknowing describes seeking the unnameable Unity as like entering into a “cloud” where one abandons rationalistic certainty for union. In a letter to his friend J. H. Reynolds (May 3, 1818) Keats writes of the stage of life when a person enters what he calls “The Chamber of Maiden Thought,” which gradually darkens until “We are in a Mist…We feel the ‘burden of the Mystery.’” For Keats, the act of affirming beauty even in the midst of suffering is a practice that extends from the beginning to the end of his life. He writes to Benjamin Bailey in Nov. 1817, “I am certain of nothing but of the holiness of the Heart’s affections and the truth of Imagination – What the imagination seizes as Beauty must be truth – whether it existed before or not….” This affirmation reappears at the end of one of his most beloved poems, “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” which concludes with the famous lines, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,--that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” Though the clarity of the urn’s pronouncement may seem abstract when taken out of its context in the poem, and even to contradict Keats’ embrace of uncertainty and unknowing, for me it is an example of another kind of clarity that sometimes emerges within the experience of the cloud. Keats’ speaks of another aspect of the apophatic Imagination at the end of the same letter to Bailey: “The setting sun will always set me to rights—or if a Sparrow come before my Window I take part in its existence and pick about the Gravel.” The act of transcending one’s ego to enter the consciousness of a bird requires shifting from a perception of separateness into that of a unity that contains both bird and human. Here the divisions between ourselves and other species become permeable. Keats was not an otherworldly nature poet. As a progressive, liberal thinker, he was engaged with the social issues of his times, often rejecting conventional religiosity. He was keenly aware of the inequalities between rich and poor, colonialism, and dogmatism in its many forms. For a time, he saw himself in alignment with the ideals of his atheist friend Shelley who critiqued conventional forms of religion. Like Shelley, he turns in the letters and poems to the mysteries of nature, agreeing with Wordsworth about the futility of an obsessive “getting and spending” which “lay[s] waste our powers.” Because he insists on returning to the essential mystery of things, Keats for me is a heroic figure of humility and courage rather than abjection. We require Keats more than ever at this time because of 68 dialogue

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his posture of humility toward the earth. The ecological writer Thomas Berry coined the term “Ecozoic era” in his The Dream of the Earth (Sierra Club, 1988) to describe the geological era humans could be entering now, where we might (if we awake in time) come to live in greater harmony with other humans and with the ecocycles of the earth. It is an understatement to say that our “positively capable” industrial technologies developing during Keats’ time, which have enabled us to exploit and ravage the earth, have not served us or the planet well. Yet as we experience the destructive impact of our own cleverness as a species, Keats’ poems still sing about how we yet may open to a more conscious awareness of our relation to the earth. The Kentucky poet of sustainable farming, Wendell Berry, also addresses our need to lament our collective arrogance and adjust ourselves to the rhythms of the natural world. He writes in a Keatsian mode of “negative capability” when he argues that “we must learn to cooperate in [the earth’s] processes, and to yield to its limits. But even more important[ly], we must learn to acknowledge that the creation is full of mystery; we will never entirely understand it.” (from “A Native Hill” in The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays) Berry’s concepts of “slow growth” and even “no growth” are ways of affirming the life-renewing powers of restraint. Keats is a poet whose body of work continues to speak against the human urge to manipulate, improve, and control the planet. Keats’ insights about the fluidity of the poetic process are essential not only for the composition of poetry, but for the formation of a more poetic way of life for all: “[I]f it [poetry] comes not as naturally as Leaves to a tree,” he writes in a letter to John Taylor (Feb. 1818), “it had better not come at all.” His sense that poetry should flow naturally, doesn’t mean poets shouldn’t craft their words. It doesn’t mean that creating art is without struggle or difficulty. Nor does “negative capability,” when applied to our relation to the earth, mean we shouldn’t labour to protect and restore the ecosystems of which we are a part. The emphasis is actually on the word “capability,” the power that comes from joining with powers and forces greater than those of our limited selves. If we work with a sense that the doing is ours but not ours, we might have much better outcomes. The ancient Chinese sage Lao Tzu writes about the ease of “non-doing” when one with nature’s flow: The Tao does nothing, but leaves nothing undone. Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching (verse 37) …/ www.dialogue.ca

Dialogue Vol.30, No.1 digital edition  

Canada's unique volunteer-produced magazine for ideas, insights, critical thinking & radical imagination - shared in letters, essays, storie...

Dialogue Vol.30, No.1 digital edition  

Canada's unique volunteer-produced magazine for ideas, insights, critical thinking & radical imagination - shared in letters, essays, storie...

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