Excitement, Ourselves, & John Keats
Dear Unknown Friends:
In part 5 of his great 1949 lecture Poetry and Excitement, Eli Siegel speaks about John Keats’ poem “The Eve of St. Agnes.” And he uses it to show—as he earlier in the lecture used Browning, Byron, and Thackeray to show—what excitement is.
The basis of Aesthetic Realism is this principle, stated by Mr. Siegel, which defines what no one before him understood—the relation between art and life: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.” Excitement, Mr. Siegel has been explaining, is always a oneness of opposites: for example, of what we expect and what we don’t expect; of so much meaning (maybe the meaning of one’s whole life) and a single, particular moment.
Most of the people of this world go about their hours and years with the feeling that life as such is not exciting. This feeling always has pain with it. The pain can be an ongoing emptiness, an ache that things don’t stir one much, don’t mean too much. But the pain that things as such seem unexciting can also be a rage, and a despair. And it is always, too—and this fact is beautiful—the pain of shame. People are ashamed of finding life unexciting, because, Aesthetic Realism explains, in being unexcited, they have been unjust—to objects, humanity, facts, the world itself!
As persons, young and older, go after excitement, they see it mainly as something which they have to manufacture, or hunt for somewhere apart from their daily lives. They see it as something they might have watching a “thriller” at the movies; or maybe riding very fast in a car; or finally meeting the person of their dreams.
Aesthetic Realism gives the most exciting news about excitement itself. It explains that reality as such is exciting—and that art is based on this fact! Art does not tack some manufactured excitement on top of some everyday dull reality. And art does not provide some exciting offset or intermission to what life is. The excitement that is in all art comes from the seeing of what things are. “Art,” Mr. Siegel wrote in 1946, “...shows reality as it is, deeply: straight” (Self and World, Definition Press, p. 110).
The Excitement in Any Object
What art sees and shows is that every instance of reality—from an old shoe to the Trojan War, from dust under the bureau to the face of Cleopatra, from a dirty pot to a wild imagining—has in it the structure of the world itself: the oneness of opposites. What could be more exciting than the presence of the whole world—infinite yet right before us, in an immediate situation? A phrase that people have used in love stands both for excitement and for excitement’s opposite, repose. The phrase is: You mean the world to me. Art shows that every object does truly mean the world to us, because that object shows what the world is, has the world in it.
Let’s take a line from the poem Mr. Siegel is discussing here, “The Eve of St. Agnes.” He is describing the excitement in the poem’s narrative, in its fervently and precisely told story, in its suspense as one occurrence follows another. But I’ll use a line from that poem to illustrate another excitement—the excitement I’ve been writing about: the excitement which, Mr. Siegel was the critic to explain, art finds in any object. "The Eve of St. Agnes,” of 1819, begins with these beautiful lines:
St. Agnes’ Eve—Ah, bitter chill it was!
The owl, for all his feathers, was a-cold;
The hare limp’d trembling through the frozen grass.
In that third line we have a fairly ordinary, unglamorous being—a rabbit or hare. Yet he stirs us after nearly 200 years because of how John Keats saw him. Eli Siegel is the greatest of all critics of poetry, the critic who explained what poetry is. He showed that poetry arises from a person’s seeing the object of his thought with such justice that his words become musical. Because a poet has felt the structure of the world itself in what he tells of, we hear reality’s opposites as one in the sound of his words. In this line of Keats we hear the stoppage and motion of things. In “The hare limp’d trembling,” the syllables do not flow into each other: there are little stoppages, difficulties—like the difficulty in moving had by the hare itself. Yet the line proceeds.
When we get to its last words, “frozen grass,” we hear difficulty still, in the fr, gr, z, and s sounds. Yet we feel wonder too, with that wide o in “frozen”; and the wide, soft sound of “grass” has a delicate mystery. So the difficulty and loveliness of the world are in that line—because Keats felt them in this hare trying to get somewhere on a winter night.
And though it is cold, achingly cold, we also feel something warm, because to be intimately within the feelings of another creature is to be warm. We feel the warmth which is the little inner self of that rabbit, through the way the word “trembling” comes at the very center of the line, comes after that word “limp’d.”
We feel one particular creature of flesh and blood, enduring things; and we hear a structure of great impersonality: a rhythm, the iambic pentameter organization of the line. We feel something so personal and so impersonal at once.
When John Keats felt, in a so specific, individual creature, the world itself come to a point—he was poetic. He was also having that deep excitement which any thing, seen truly, makes for. And we have that deep excitement as we read the line.
The Fight in Keats
Keats was one of the most truly excited people who ever lived, and one of the most honest. Yet he did not understand what had him feel agonizingly unexcited sometimes. Aesthetic Realism explains it.
Mr. Siegel identified the thing in everyone which hurts our own mind and which also is the source of every unkindness ever committed: it is contempt, “the lessening of what is different from oneself as a means of self-increase as one sees it.” Our desire to see meaning in things, be excited by them, is at war with our desire to be disgusted, bored, so we can feel superior. We want to find things unexciting, so as to feel we are the most important thing in the world. That was so even about the beautifully, richly agog John Keats. It had him feel what he described in a letter, November 22, 1817, to his friend Benjamin Bailey:
I assure you I sometimes feel not the influence of a Passion or Affection during a whole week—and so long this sometimes continues I begin to suspect myself and the genuineness of my feelings at other times—thinking them a few barren Tragedy-tears.
That is: since Keats was sometimes so unstirred, he could mock the excitement he would feel at other times, and call it fake. It was not fake. And John Keats would have been passionately grateful to Aesthetic Realism if he could have learned, as we now can, 1) what contempt is; and 2) what made for poetry in him—what made him truly, immortally excited. There are many instances in his letters of that excitement; but I quote a passage by his friend Joseph Severn, which I met in Walter Jackson Bate’s From Classic to Romantic (page 182 of the Harper Torchbook edition). Severn describes Keats as they would walk together:
Nothing seemed to escape him: the motions of the wind—just how it took certain tall flowers...the features and gestures of the passing tramps, the colour of one woman’s hair, the smile on one child’s face,...even the hats, clothes, shoes, wherever these conveyed the remotest hint as to the real self of the wearer.
This excitement of Keats in what things are, in what people are, arose from that which Aesthetic Realism shows to be the deepest desire of every person and the best thing in humanity: the desire "to like the world through knowing it.” Here, from a letter Keats wrote in 1819, are two sentences having that lovely and powerful excitement: the excitement of large respect for the world. (A stoat, mentioned by Keats, is an ermine):
I go among the Fields and catch a glimpse of a Stoat or a fieldmouse peeping out of the withered grass—the creature hath a purpose and its eyes are bright with it. I go amongst the buildings of a city and I see a Man hurrying along—to what? the Creature has a purpose and his eyes are bright with it.
Eli Siegel spoke much on the work of Keats, and on John Keats himself. He understood him, in his hopes and self-doubt, as he understood humanity, poetry, reality—and, I say with unbounded love and thanks, as he understood me. The respect for things, the desire to know, which Eli Siegel had was much larger than even that of Keats. The way he saw, spoke, wrote was the greatest, most courageous and beautiful thing I know; and it is immortal in Aesthetic Realism.