Having committed myself very willingly to a position that ranks Keats’ lyrical gift (for melopoeia, prosody, etc) above all others in the history of the English language, I have now gotten around to configuring what I call a Prosody Meter to posit other rankings. It begins with the supposition that Keats’ gift supersedes all other competitors, and the 100% of the scale is the 100% of Keats’ prosodic achievements. On the level of 75-80%, I would place (at their respective prosodic pinnacles) Donne, Wordsworth, and Shakespeare, all of whom create and sustain exquisite poetic music, but lack Keats’ edge of fulsome solidity, of loading lines from every angle with ore. When Keats, for example, offers “mortality/ Weighs heavily on me like unwilling sleep,” the effect of assonant sounds repeated so that almost every word in the line is included has no echo in Donne, Wordsworth, and Shakespeare. At the level of 66.66% I place myself and Shelley. “Clustering,” as I call my prosodic method, has the advantage of clearing up narrative-thematic ground so that I am not chained to my own music at the expense of narrative or intellectual interests, but also loosens a chunk of what could be formally golden into a purgatorial realm where what sticks, sticks and what is lost cannot be retrieved. Shelley I deign (as Keats did) to be a competent but rather lazy craftsman, who falls (despite a substantial lyrical gift) into lazy phrases and inappropriate repetitions: no one who reads the Romantics seriously can quite forgive “I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!” and its like. The lowest, 50% rung of the Prosody Meter has on it a cluster of poets habitually formally lazy enough that “ore,” in the Keatsian sense for them, is always over or under-employed: Byron, Tennyson, Browning, Swinburne, Yeats, and Eliot. All of these poets can be “jingly,” facile the wrong way round, and prosodic bells ring perfunctorily.
Back to Keats: if I do pick nits with some of Keats’ sonnets, it is because, by the time he begins writing the major ones in 1816, his “chops” are so developed that, in his innocent delight with his own magnificent technical facility, he sometimes undercooks his voltas (the volta in a sonnet occurs around line 9, which is supposed to turn or torque the narrative of the opening octave.) Keats’ early voltas can be “auto-pilot” contrivances:
O Solitude! If I must with thee dwell,
Let it not be among the jumbled heap
Of murky buildings; climb with me the steep—
Nature’s observatory— whence the dell,
Its flowery slopes, its river’s crystal swell,
May seem a span; let me thy vigils keep
‘Mongst boughs pavilioned, where the deer’s swift leap
Startles the wild bee from the foxglove bell.
But though I’ll gladly trace these scenes with thee,
Yet the sweet converse of an innocent mind,
Whose words are images of thoughts refined,
Is my soul’s pleasure; and it sure must be
Almost the highest bliss of humankind,
When to thy haunts two kindred spirits flee.
The volta here undercuts, weakens the octave, by making the protagonist seem irresolute, and also unimaginative; in other words, it would have been more challenging for Keats to find in his solitude some objective correlative in nature to express what he wanted to express, rather than giving us the affective data nose on the face. It is, in American MFA parlance again, “telling” rather than “showing.” The irony of American MFA-land is that American poetry before me displays so little prosodic heft that American poetry gamers should worship the ground Keats walks on; but, in American MFA programs, the Romantics are little touched on. American poetry until now has been written uniformly by cretins. The gifted poets in the American canon are none. But back to Keats and his voltas: his more successful sonnets have structural dynamics that make the major turn interesting:
When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has gleaned my teeming brain,
Before high-piled books, in charactery,
Hold like rich garners the full-ripened grain;
When I behold, upon the night’s starred face,
Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,
And think that I may never live to trace
Their shadows, with the magic hand of chance;
And when I feel, fair creature of an hour!
That I shall never look upon thee more,
Never have relish in the fairy power
Of unreflecting love!- then on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone, and think
Till love and fame to nothingness do sink.
The double crescendo here— the revelation of Fanny Brawne, and Keats’ deeply felt passion for her, and then the plummet into the visionary locale of “the shore of the wide world” where Keats is confronted by his own powerlessness in the face of mortality (Keats’ Scorpionic courage in confronting extinction being one of his great poetic strengths), take us, with the requisite magisterial music (assonances like “of unreflecting love” backed/solidified by strong end-rhymes, and anaphora from “of” as well), to a place of complete, totalized textual fulfillment, where an extreme gift is made to serve genuine narrative-thematic gravitas. That is genius in major high art consonant poetry.