Intimations of Immortality: Odes, Elegies, and Politics
The critical fallacy inheres in discussions of English Romanticism that Keats is the least political of the major Romantic poets. Ostensibly, Keats’ subject matter is not directly political: the odal cycle or vision addresses subjectivity, temporality and spatiality, history (classical antiquity), epistemology, and the poet’s relationship to tactility, especially in the form of natural objects/vistas and expressed hetero sexuality. Yet, specifically in Ode to a Nightingale, a reckoning is enacted which takes Keats straight to the heart of a political dilemma which has plagued mankind since classical antiquity and before: what is the place of extremely developed and expressed individuality, visionary individuality, as it were, in an individual, against the conformist masses, held under the protective aegis of conformist societal contexts? Adorno’s “Lyric Poetry and Society” initiates many pertinent inquiries on this level; how I would like to elevate the discourse to the next level is to up a certain kind of discursive ante by tackling a trope which has lost some status over the last few hundred years: immortality. Specifically, as a topos to investigate in poetic texts and other literary contexts, who is more immortal, the visionary, with his or her extremely developed interiority, set in place against societal norms, or any generalized normative, and the ethos and praxis of the conformist masses themselves, with their standards of regulated behavior and (more importantly) regulated cognition. These issues present themselves nose on the face in the penultimate stanza of Nightingale:
Thou wast not born for death, immortal bird!
No hungry generations tread thee down;
The voice I hear this passing night was heard
In ancient days by emperor and clown:
Perhaps the self-same song that found a path
Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home,
She stood in tears amid the alien corn;
The same that oft-times hath
Charmed magic casements, opening on the foam
Of perilous seas, in fairy lands forlorn.
Nightingale puts Keats’ entire visionary odal system on a tightrope, as he boldly confronts this system’s potential obsolescence. What makes the nightingale immortal, here, is its sense of being indistinguishable from all other nightingales, whether singing for Ruth or not. Those not touched by the stigma of extreme individuality (here of a visionary nature) have their safety and immortality in numbers; while an “I” developed to an absolute peak of sharp cognitive-affective incisiveness is so vulnerable, through its singularity into isolation, that it can only feel the pangs of mortality and impending death beating behind and in front of it at all times. The politics of this dilemma is simple: any given society must decide for itself to what extent individuals may develop themselves as distinct, autonomous entities, against the normative, or to what extent this process must be nipped in the bud. The critical commonplace of the isolated Romantic genius does apply here, as does Adorno; but what is added is the sense of potential longevity in configuring things from one end of this to the other: who gets to be immortal, Keats or his replicant, replaceable Nightingale? This fits snugly into (also) an exploration of the Cheltenham Elegies. The analogue to Nightingale, 261, manifests in no uncertain terms the same syndromes and dichotomies:
Never one to cut corners about cutting
corners, you spun the Subaru into a rough
U-turn right in the middle of Old York Road
at midnight, scaring the shit out of this self-
declared “artist.” The issue, as ever, was
nothing particular to celebrate. We could
only connect nothing with nothing in our
private suburban waste land. Here’s where
the fun starts— I got out, motherfucker.
I made it. I say “I,” and it works. But Old
York Road at midnight is still what it is.
I still have to live there the same way you do.
The protagonist of the poem has the same sense of systematic, incisive insight as Keats does in the Odes. Here, the antagonist, who represents (among other things) the typical and the normative individual trapped in a society which values destructiveness and the continued predominance of short, stunted lives, is not a Nightingale but the driver of the Subaru in question. For discursive sake, let’s call him “Chris.” Who Chris is, as an American archetype; the suburban daredevil or show-off, with the same blarneying sense of indestructibility, backed by the despair of immobile, low-minded interests; is meant to appear as immortal as the visionary poet, who laments in an elegiac way the pointlessness of the world as it exists for both characters. The problem here (or tightrope, over which the elegiac system must walk) is that, for those for whom major high art consonance is anathema, Chris will always remain a more eternal character than the autonomous, visionary artist.
What, or who, is immortal here is a political issue; not just because the masses tend to propel the masses forward, and Chris is resolutely one of the masses, but because even the notion of immortality-in-art (a fixation for both these Odes and Elegies) is a vulnerable one, before the mind-numbing force and obduracy of mass indifference and resentment. The Odes have been given a high place, over two hundred years, in the canon of English literature. The Cheltenham Elegies have only begun to have the life they are destined to have. Yet neither the Odes nor the Elegies are for the obdurate masses, who are (very much) eternally and immortally impervious to the siren call of advanced textuality. That high art is nonetheless a political force on high levels and for all time is also manifestly and demonstrably the case, no matter how eternally impervious the masses are. The artist must stand alone, with his or her visions, against the imperviousness of the masses; perhaps with a Romantic sense of sublimity, perhaps not; but the politics of Keats dictates that the politics of what endures, of what is meant to be immortal and what is not, of how far an individual may go to extend his or her individuality against the masses, is one which will remain a tightrope to be walked for as long as anyone wishes to create major high art consonant work.