Keats House Young Poets May workshop

Keats Foundation Annual Lecture 2016

Presented on 6 September 2016 at Keats House, Hampstead, London

‘Ethereal Finger-Pointings’

Associative Memories and Keats’s Shakespearean Quotations 1


The University of Western Australia andAustralian Research Council Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions 1100-1800

To adapt the words of the Renaissance schoolmaster Richard Mulcaster (‘I honour the Latin but worship the English’), I can say that I honour Shakespeare but worship Keats. The two together form the most creative relationship in all poetry, and some aspects of the intimate link between them form my subject today. As we draw closer to the end of Shakespeare’s apparently interminable 400th ‘death year’, coming as it does just two years after celebrations of his birth, it seems timely to look at how his poetry was creatively used by his greatest admirer some 200 years ago.

Speaker at the Keats annual lecture 2016At the outset I make no apology that this paper is intended as a talk rather than a polished academic article, and it contains tentative conjectures, unanswered questions, and much that requires further research. This seems in the spirit of Keats’s phrase which gives me my title, ‘ethereal finger-pointings’. Here I want to examine just three letters in particular, where Keats’s quotations and allusions are especially revealing of his characteristic modes of thinking. This seems like short-changing you – where are the songs of spring like the Odes of 1819, or indeed of autumn? In reply I suggest that many papers have been fuelled in the past by just one phrase by Keats. I am heartened by the words of John Jones in his book John Keats’s Dream of Truth: ‘… every section-heading of this book is a phrase from three consecutive sentences of a single letter [Keats] wrote: as if I thought his words, even in casual prose, might sometimes be enchanted. And in fact that is what I do think’.[i] More recently Jones’s words are quoted apparently with approval in a searching book by Shahidha K. Bari, Keats and Philosophy: The Life of Sensations,[ii] in which the author also arranges material around key terms from Keats’s letters. This is just to remind us all that Shakespeare did not have a monopoly on ‘fine phrases’. On this occasion I dwell on some enchanted phrases occurring in one letter, in particular ‘voyage of conception’ (with its unexpected and inspired change from the proverbial ‘voyage of discovery’) and ‘ethereal finger-pointings’, both leading towards Shakespeare. I want to explore through the first of my chosen letters a critically neglected but important cluster of subjects for many Romantics, association of ideas, the art of memory, and creative intertextuality between writers, in this case Keats and Shakespeare. I hope to show that he deftly sketches a theory of the associative memory and demonstrates it in operation, using Shakespeare and in particular The Tempest as the running link.

Romantic quotation of Shakespeare

Shakespeare was seen in the Romantic period as an empowering and inspiring agency, and as a friend, the kind of ‘affable familiar ghost’ that he himself refers to in Sonnet 86, his rival poet. Shakespeare is one among the ‘old poets’ who, as Hazlitt was to say, ‘sit with me at breakfast … walk with me before dinner … and seated round, discourse the silent hours away’, and Keats echoes the sentiment.[iii] Of all the Romantics, he most frequently hits the note of sociable intimacy. His early verse letter ‘To G. F. Mathew’ shows him saturating himself in Renaissance poetry, regarding it as a collaborative activity rooted in a spirit of friendliness – ‘a brotherhood of song’ – conveying primarily ‘loving heart, a feeling / Of all that’s high, and great, and good, and healing’, the last word significant since Keats was still technically a medical student. His habit of quoting Shakespeare in particular in this spirit is never more movingly evident than when he was desperately and terminally ill, lugubriously joking to Rice, ‘Like poor Falstaff, though I do not babble, I think of green fields’.[iv]Writing to his brother and sister-in-law in America, he could imagine Shakespeare’s shared quotations as providing a convivial presence and spiritual glue holding friends together in ‘a direct communication of spirit’ which dissolves absence and separation: ‘I shall read a passage of Shakespeare every Sunday at ten o Clock – you read one {a}t the same time and we shall be as near each other as blind bodies can be in the same room.’[v] This prompts him to transcribe his own poem, ‘Bards of Passion and of Mirth / Ye have left your souls on earth—’,[vi] one which muses on the companionship of poets, dead and alive, whimsically suggesting that the ‘quotation community’ is not divided by death. In ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ his celebration of the work of art as ‘friend to man’ could just as well be a description of Shakespeare’s works. Through markings on his texts of Shakespeare’s works we can sit with something like warm companionship at his shoulder during the reading process, sharing his initial, excited markings and annotations, such as those on King Lear which inspired his sonnet, ‘On Sitting Down to Read King Lear Again’. Whole letters become admiring, mini-anthologies of quotations offered in the enthusiast’s terms, ‘I look upon fine Phrases like a Lover’[vii] but also often offering astute commentary.[viii]

[In order to move immediately into the part of the lecture dealing with Keats and Shakespeare, the next section of the paper is omitted here. It dealt with the ancient ‘Art of Memory’ especially the ‘palace of memory’ in St Augustine’s ‘Confessions’, and the related concept of association of ideas proposed by Locke, developed by Hartley, and well known in the Romantic age.]

It would take me longer than one lecture to trace the links between associationism and the art of memory but at least the affinities, and the importance to the Romantics, seem clear, though so far as I know this has never been explored even briefly. Keats himself was well aware of the concept of associational logic, mentioning it several times and also jokingly drawing attention to his own conscious practice in cross-hatching letters to save paper, as many did at the time:

This crossing a letter is not without its association – for chequer work leads us naturally to a Milkmaid, a Milkmaid to Hogarth Hogarth to Shakespeare Shakespear to Hazlitt – Hazlitt to Shakespeare and thus by merely pulling an apron string we set a pretty peal of Chimes at work – Let them chime on … [To Reynolds, 3 May 1818]

In passing, I might mention this may even be one of Keats’s ‘ethereal finger-pointings’ to Shakespeare in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, as Julia folds the letter from Proteus to let their names touch: ‘Thus will I fold them one on another: / Now kiss, embrace, contend, do what you will’.

Keats’s ‘voyage of conception’ and ‘The Tempest’

The letter I want to look at more closely in relation to Keats’s associative memory is offered by him as a ‘voyage of conception’ on 19 February 1818 to Reynolds, who needed cheering up after a bout of illness. The letter could be titled ‘In praise of indolence’, though of a very Keatsian kind based on remembering lines of poetry or ‘distilled Prose’:

I have an idea that a Man might pass a very pleasant life in this manner—let him on any certain day read a certain Page of full Poesy or distilled Prose and let him wander with it, and muse upon it, and reflect from it, and bring home to it, and prophesy upon it—until it becomes stale—but when will it do so? Never—

More generally it is about memory and knowledge. Porscha Fermanis in her excellent book, John Keats and the Ideas of the Enlightenment contributes not only to Keats’s own ‘developing ideas on the nature of human understanding’ but also to contemporary debates about education stemming from the works of Locke, Rousseau, Wordsworth, and even Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, one of Keats’s own favourite books.[ix] In a nutshell, Locke had advocated not supervised rote learning (perhaps what Keats means by ‘custom’ in this letter, or ‘consequitive reasoning’ in another) but a free-ranging empiricism close to Wordsworth’s ‘wise passiveness’ in Expostulation and Reply, and close to what Keats came to call ‘negative capability’. In this letter he advocates that we should ‘open our leaves like a flower and be passive and receptive’ instead of ‘hurrying about and collecting honey-bee like, buzzing here and there impatiently from a knowledge of what is to be arrived at’. But also more generally, the particular kind of receptivity Keats is drawing on concerns my primary topics here, knowledge derived from memory and especially memories of Shakespeare.

Although at the end of the letter Keats writes, ‘I have not read any books’ yet I believe there is one text weaving through the letter and the poem which ends it, ‘certain Page[s] of full poesy’ recalled through verbal associations and echoes mainly from Shakespeare’s The Tempest. This play based on sea travel and a manufactured storm causing a shipwreck might offer the first idea of a ‘voyage of conception’, and the play does refer to ‘gorgeous palaces’ if not specifying thirty two of them. Its hero is a magician who has learned his art from books but at the end swears to drown them and read no more, though presumably carrying traces in his memory, like Keats’s partially submerged quotations from literature. When in Keats’s words ‘a strain of music conducts to “an odd angle of the Isle”’ we are given two Shakespearean quotations brought into proximity, Orsino’s ‘that strain again’ in Twelfth Night, and the words of Prospero (1.2), which had stuck in Keats’s mind because they are followed in the play by a phrase which Keats had marked in his copy of Shakespeare, thinking it an especially apt description of Hazlitt: ‘his arms in this sad knot’.

There is a broader aptness and even a keen critical insight at work here, regarding the references to The Tempest as Keats contemplates the working of literary memory, since that play is in itself filled with memories. Prospero peers into ‘the dark backward and abysm of time’ as he insistently tests his daughter’s remembrances of her childhood on arriving at the island: ‘canst thou remember a time…’; ‘if thou remember…’, ‘made such a sinner of his memory’,  ‘no woman’s face remember…’. Ariel berates the ‘three men of sin’, Alonso, Sebastian and Antonio, for their illegal actions in the distant past — ‘but remember for that’s my business to you …’ ‘made such a sinner of his memory…’. Antonio mocks Gonzalo as ‘this lord of weak remembrance / Who shall be of as little memory’. Ariel and Caliban are both constantly reminded of their independent existence on the island before Prospero arrived to liberate the one and enslave the other. Prospero has never forgotten the injustice of his usurpation which he now intends to reverse by literally turning the clock both back and forward to recover his dukedom. As magus he recalls his own ‘so potent art’ in creating storms and heavenly music, and opening graves to bring back the dead, all of which are achievements singularly associated with the writer of the play himself, Shakespeare. And the play itself is noteworthy in recapitulating and echoing phrases from Shakespeare’s earlier plays. In Keats’s letter, as if following a trail of associative memories, there follows a highlighted quotation from Shakespeare’s only other play of magic, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, ‘when the leaves whisper it puts a “girdle round the earth”’, which in the context of Keats’s thought processes is another image for the links in a chain of memory and ideas which Shakespeare himself is at times surrendering to in The Tempest.

If my own ‘voyage of conception’ in surmising that ‘”the two-and-thirty Pallaces”’ is, whether intended or unintended, a ‘chime’ with Augustine’s palaces and mansions of memory, linking up with Prospero’s ‘gorgeous palaces’ in The Tempest, then it is a clue to the next thought, as Keats meditates on memory itself, which he says ‘should not be called knowledge – Many have original Minds who do not think it’. He likens the mental process of creativity to a spider spinning his ‘airy citadel’ on the points of leaves and twigs, an analogy which seems to refer to the memories of lines of poetry and enriched prose mentioned at the outset of the letter, which start off the thinking process. The divergence and final convergence of minds traversing their different paths come together in ‘Journeys end’, a phrase Shakespeare was so fond of that he repeated it in three other plays, Twelfth Night, Othello, and Cymbeline, and one which stuck in Keats’s memory. Early in The Tempestitself we have such a dialogue as Keats describes, between an old man [Prospero] and a ‘prattling’ child [his daughter Miranda], sharing their respective memories of the long past, especially since Miranda herself uses the word: ‘But I prattle / Something too wildly and my father’s precepts / I therein do forget’. Later in the play Prospero quizzes Ariel (who would have been played by a child in productions) in a similar spirit about his memories of the island before Prospero arrived. Some of Keats’s quotations and allusions come fairly directly from The Tempest: ‘a wide heath of Furse and Briars’ is in the play, while Keats’s phrase ‘a remote Oak or Pine’, is perhaps suggested by Prospero’s ‘I have rifted Jove’s stout oak  / With his own bolt; … and by the spurs pluck’d up / The pine and cedar’. At the end of his letter Keats returns self-deprecatingly to the context of the allusion: ‘so I will not deceive myself that Man should be equal to jove …’.

Next in the train of association comes Keats’s homily on the flower and the bee, surely drawing some inspiration from Ariel’s song where passive receptivity is the theme, ‘Where the bee sucks there suck I / In a cowslip’s bell I lie … Merrily merrily shall I live now, / Under the blossom that hangs on the bough’. We can construct learned footnotes to retrieve other distant echoes, for example to Mandeville’s fable of the bees (1705, 1714) and Dryden’s line in his translation of Virgil’s Georgics (iv) which the schoolboy Keats probably referred to in preparing his own prize translation of Virgil:  ‘Some have taught That Bees have Portions of Etherial Thought’,[x] with the collocation tantalizingly close to Keats’s magical phrase ‘ethereal finger-pointings’ and invocation of bees. But the primary leaf or twig of memory from which Keats in this case spins ‘the fine webb of his soul’, his ‘tapestry empyrean’, is more likely Ariel’s song, because of this character’s function in The Tempest, becoming at will an invisible observer, a spy gathering knowledge, and a discreet messenger. In the play, Ariel is both flower and bee. Keats’s phrase a ‘scullion-Mercury or even a humble bee’ is especially apt since Ariel plays just this kind of messenger to Prospero. Ariel is also an ‘ethereal’ character, by name explicitly incorporeal and of the air rather than material. Although not used by Shakespeare at all, the word is used in these senses twenty times in Paradise Lost by Milton, for example in ‘Go heavenly guest, ethereal messenger’ (8, 646). The word ‘ethereal’, repeated by Keats in his curious phrase ‘mould ethereal’ like a paradoxically earthy spirit, itself has other suggestive references, such as a 1610 translation by J. Healey of J. L. Vives, St. Augustine Citie of God: ‘Porphyry reckneth gods that are either heauenly, ethereall [L. aethereos], ayry, watry, earthly, or infernall’ (x. ix. 372, quoted from Oxford English Dictionary), air and water being the elements associated with Ariel, earthly and infernal with Caliban. Keats in his medical training would have encountered the chemical ether – Coleridge as drug aficionado took it ‘for the throbbing of the head’,[xi] for ‘stomach uneasiness and aching of the limbs’ in substitution for laudanum,[xii] ‘in small quantities with camphorated Julep’,[xiii] and he declared eventually (and mistakenly) that he had ‘abandoned all opiates, except ether’.[xiv] But it was not used as a general anaesthetic in surgery until the 1840s, this use being first recorded in English as late as 1847 in a journal of medical science (OED).

At the end of the letter Keats transcribes his own poem, ‘O thou whose face hath felt the Winter’s wind’, eliding several passages in As You Like It alluding to the ‘winter wind’, ‘The churlish chiding of the winter’s wind’, ‘As the winter to foul weather’ and others. As the letter proceeds, its web is spun from Keats’s own stray memories of literary fragments, with the points of leaves and twigs offered again mainly by phrases from The Tempest. These run through the poem like beads on a necklace. ‘To thee the Spring will be a harvest-time’ resembles Hymen’s ‘Spring come to you at the farthest  / In the very end of harvest!’. The words in this context of the marriage masque at the end of The Tempest gesture beyond Keats’s young horizon towards ‘To Autumn’, where Shakespeare’s ‘Earth’s increase, foison plenty, / Barns and garners never empty, Vines and clustering bunches growing’ is movingly metamorphosed into the mellow fruitfulness of a summer which seems unending. Keats’s reference to darkness, ‘night after night, when Phoebus was away’ was likely triggered by Ferdinand’s description of oncoming darkness as ‘the edge of day …’ when ‘Phoebus’ steeds are founder’d, / Or night kept chain’d below’. Keats’s ‘Snow clouds hung in Mist’ surely had its memorial origin in Prospero’s ‘cloud-capped towers’, which ‘dissolve’ and fade. The phrase ‘Thought of idleness’, a version of indolence which the letter begins with, comes to Gonzalo’s mind in his depiction of a communist utopia: ‘No occupation, all men idle, all; and women too, but innocent and pure; No sovereignty’.  The final line of Keats’s poem,  ‘And he’s awake who thinks himself asleep’ resonates with the two scenes in which Prospero and Ariel respectively put characters into a spell of an induced sleeping but simultaneously wakeful state: ‘strange repose, to be asleep / With eyes wide open; standing, speaking, moving, / And yet so fast asleep’ … ‘[thou] wink’st / Whiles thou art waking’. And again, later:

The charm dissolves apace,

And as the morning steals upon the night,

Melting the darkness, so their rising senses

Begin to chase the ignorant fumes that mantle

Their clearer reason.

This train of imagery concerning liminal states between wake and sleep in The Tempest leads to the play’s most famous, and orphic speech, concluding with not a wrack of material evidence left behind on the senses, only memories as of a dream: ‘We are such stuff / As dreams are made on, and our little life / Is rounded with a sleep’.

Having analysed in his letter associative memory of creative thought through images, Keats is now practising the theory in his sonnet by using ‘fine phrases’ from Shakespeare’s The Tempest as his memory trove of ‘ethereal finger-pointings’, while at the same time allowing us to notice that Shakespeare’s principle of organising images is comparably associative and memorial. In this letter, I suggest, the chambers opened by Keats in his palace of memory in his voyage of conception, lead us to the foam and magic of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, with a little help from the other fairy play, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and the bucolic play almost entirely devoted to the merits of contemplative indolence, As You Like It.

Two more examples

In my concluding section, with your indulgence and I hope with merciful brevity, I want to mention a couple more letters in which Keats demonstrates his own art of memory in relation to Shakespeare, with creative effect, to show its occurrence is more widespread in his work than just the letter to Reynolds. First, an early letter demonstrating and developing an explicit train of association of ideas through quotations was written to Benjamin Haydon in May 1817. Keats, evidently with text in front of him, quotes the first seven lines of Love’s Labour’s Lost, beginning ‘Let Fame, that all hunt after in their lives …’, knowing that the subject of future ‘fame’ for them both is what the egotistical artist wants to hear. He then turns to his own poetic failings and ambitions, quoting Edgar in the Dover Cliff scene in King Lear to express his feelings: ‘I have been in such a state of Mind as to read over my Lines and hate them. I am one that “gathers Samphire, dreadful trade”—the Cliff of Poesy towers above me’. True fame dwarfs the diminutive Romantic poet. Shakespeare, he hopes, will be the ‘good Genius’ and ‘Presider’ looking over both him and Haydon: ‘I never quite despair and I read Shakspeare—indeed I shall I think never read any other Book much.’ From object of enthusiastic veneration and source of sociability, Shakespeare’s words now serve as emotional therapy for Keats’s ‘horrid morbidity’ offering an antidote to his ‘despair’.

In a rapid association of ideas carried through Shakespearean quotations, Keats continues to develop the subject of fame, turning to Hazlitt, who sees Shakespeare as providing contemporary political insight, by comparing Napoleon with Antony. He quotes from Antony and Cleopatra to illuminate ways in which lives of public figures such as the waning Napoleon and Antony are ‘as common in particulars as other Men’s’ and are inadvertently revealed in a private, unconsidered gesture like Antony’s display of petulance: ‘He’s walking in the garden—thus, and spurns — The rush that lies before him’ (3.5.14-15, Keats’s emphasis). Beth Lau highlights Keats’s preference for striking momentary pictorial effects of imagery, suggesting that he shows scant consideration for the Shakespearean contexts,[xv] but not so here, for we see a genuine insight into the Shakespearean context, that even the famous reveal in their petty gestures that they are fallible human beings. Although I don’t have time, in the letter as a whole we can trace an associative meditation on the nature of ‘fame’ triggered and mediated by Shakespeare, as Keats juxtaposes passages uncovering unexpected links and subtexts, moving between poetry and politics.

Secondly, another letter to Reynolds, this time written on 22 November 1817, shows beautifully associational memory being both analysed and employed. Keats mentions the Sonnets of Shakespeare and he points to the way he explicitly refers to these poems being written on an associative principle:

I neer found so many beauties in the sonnets – they seem to be full of fine things said unintentionally – in the intensity of working out conceits – Is this to be borne? Hark ye!

When lofty trees I see barren of leaves

Which <erst> From heat did canopy the he<a>rd,

And Summer’s green all girded up in sheaves,

Borne on the bier with white and bristly beard.

Almost ‘unintentionally’ Keats has identified and linked a characteristic of many of Shakespeare’s sonnets, where the poem starts with an image which by either word, sound, or sense association leads to the next image – Keats brilliantly calls it ‘in the intensity of working out conceits’. In the sonnet quoted, we note the progression of thought developed associationally through palpable pictures – trees / without leaves / depriving cattle of shelter /  post-harvest sheaves of corn / carried on a ‘bier’ with its funereal association  / old age / death. There is an added level in the equation of ‘sheaves’ with pages of a writer’s book, bound and outliving the author’s life. Keats has perceptively located Shakespare’s own process of associational memory. At this stage he is simply full of admiration for Shakespeare as ‘the whim King!’, a lucky phrase which captures the apparently arbitrary but fortuitous way Shakespeare thinks through progression of related images, apparently not knowing where they will lead as he writes. Learning from his ‘great presider’, the process will have deep relevance to Keats’s own creativity, for these images and their ambience will stay in Keats’s memory palace, and work their way through eventually to emerge in his own ode, ‘To Autumn’.

Moreover, in this letter Keats gives his own inadvertent example of exactly the same process in his own thinking:

He [Shakespeare] has left nothing to say about nothing or any thing: for look at Snails, you know what he says about Snails, you know where he talks about “cockled snails” – well, in one of those sonnets, he says – the chap slips into it – no! I Lie! This is in the Venus and Adonis: the Simile brought it to my Mind.

He quotes the whole verse from Venus and Adonis which gives the image for the timid Adonis of the snail’s horns shrinking back into its dark shell. In fact, Keats’s associative mind is working overtime here, as in fact his initial example using the exact phrase ‘cockled snail[s]’ is from Love’s Labour’s Lost, but his creative memory has discovered and merged a single image from two different contexts in Shakespeare which also illustrates a formal strategy in a third, the sonnets, ‘in the intensity of working out conceits’. The reason they are linked in his mind is not primarily because of the subject of snails, but because each shows the same imaginative and technical progression from image to thought that he has identified in the sonnets. In the next sentence in the letter, Keats praises Shakespeare’s phrase from Sonnet 17, ‘”a poets rage / And stretched metre of an antique song”’ which he observes ‘by the by will be a capital Motto for my Poem – wont it? –‘ which he in fact uses as an epigraph to the printed edition of Endymion.

In his letters Keats not only demonstrates associative logic and vestiges of the art of memory when he is quoting from and reflecting on Shakespeare’s poetry, he also turns it into a considered theory of poetics for use in his own work. In the poetry we need to hunt since his sources are more deeply buried beneath his own voice. We generally find echoes rather than identifiable quotations, transmuted into ‘unheard’ melodies — distant half-recollections and semi-unconscious allusions — which are ‘sweeter’ than the heard. But they always carry a deep, inner coherence stitching thoughts together, ‘set[ting] a pretty peal of Chimes at work’, with both conscious and subliminal help from Shakespeare, retrieved from Keats’s palace of memory and providing stimulus for his voyage of conception.

[i] John Jones, John Keats’s Dream of Truth (London: Chatto and Windus, 1969), 1.

[ii] Shahidha K. Bari, Keats and Philosophy: The Life of Sensations (Routledge: New York, 2012).

[iii] Quoted in Literary Remains of the Late William Hazlitt … By his Son (London: Saunders and Otley, 1836), xxi

[iv] The Letters of John Keats 1814-1821, ed. Hyder Edward Rollins, 2 vols. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1958), II, 260.

[v] Letters of Keats, II, 5.

[vi] Letters of Keats, II, 25-6.

[vii] Letters of Keats, II, 139.

[viii] For more examples of Keats’s habits of marking, annotating, and quoting from his texts of Shakespeare, see R. S. White, Keats as a Reader of Shakespeare (London: Athlone Press, 1986) and ‘Shakespearean Music in Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale”’, English 30 (1981), 217-29. More generally, see also (forthcoming) Fiona Ritchie and Robert White, ‘Shakespeare and the Romantics’, in Shakespeare and Quotation, ed. by Julie Maxwell and Kate Rumbold (Cambridge University Press, 2017).

[ix] Porscha Fermanis, John Keats and the Ideas of the Enlightenment (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2009), 128-30.

[x] Virgil, transl. Dryden, Works, 32.

[xi] Letter to Robert Southey, November 1794; Collected Letters, vol. 1 letter xxxviii.

[xii] To his Wife, 1, cxxxvi.

[xiii] Coleridge, Collected Letters (1956) II, 897.

[xiv] To Southey, 1, cxli.

[xv] Beth Lau, ‘John Keats’ in Lamb, Hazlitt, Keats: Great Shakespeareans, ed. Adrian Poole, vol. 4 (London: Continuum, 2010).