Dealing with phenomenology in the Cheltenham Elegies

The process of critical comparison in literature reveals and adumbrates, over a long expanse of time, that in the interstices between works of literary art, of perhaps equal value, a system of compensations binds and fastens comparison and chiasmus. When positing the Cheltenham Elegies in relation to Keats’ Odal Cycle, and bearing in mind the preponderant strength and subtlety of Keats’ prosody, I would like to suggest this compensatory chiasmus for the Elegies— just as Keats’ prosody not only vivifies the Odes but justifies the entire Odal endeavor, the Cheltenham Elegies are vivified and justified by the exquisite tensions and dramatic intimacies between the specific characters who populate them. Keats’ Odes, it must be iterated, are populated by no specific person other than the Odal protagonist— the intimacy between this protagonist and Art and Nature must suffice. The intimacies thus explored are Platonic intimacies. As human drama must compensate for metrical sublimity in the Elegies, what should be sublime in them are the intricate complexities (scaffolding again) between the characters, and the sense of crescendo/decrescendo inhering in the miniaturized dramas which unfold and coalesce from line to line, and from (as certain characters are carried over) from Elegy to Elegy. The precise substitution is humanism for formalism— and heightened psychological acuity for heightened diction. Poets and critics are free to decide, in their own systems of compensation, which counts for more, within the context of poetry, rather than in drama, philosophy, or literary criticism itself.

The phenomenological aspect of the Odes— what, as textually represented, is outside of Keats’ mind and what remains locked inside— is matched, in the Elegies, by a sense or panoply of multiplications around the myriad characters who inhabit them— that phenomenological inquiry, when applied to more than one represented psyche, especially applied in a simultaneous fashion, manifests its own bewildering complexity, and must be approached (on a critical level) with a certain amount of caution and restraint. Thus, I will not yet venture towards the sorts of appraisals I have already visited upon the Odal Cycle— I will only assert that the Elegiac protagonist (so to speak), in making (in each Elegy) a series of textual, narrative-thematic bifurcations (as in, with every introduced character we see manifested another cognitive interior and exterior), creates and orchestrates a circumscribed textual universe or cosmic egg, in which phenomenological matter changes form, ascends or descends, without ever altering the basic imperative drives of an individual, individuated human psyche, as a smaller egg contained and encompassed within the larger cosmic one. If prosody, commensurate with Keats’, is not there to lend grace and beauty to the production, what is? To paraphrase Grecian Urn, the beauty of the Elegies is all in their truthfulness— that by channeling the deepest possible levels of human intimacy, we see, on this humanistic level, the human race revealed in totem, in a way or manner impossible in the Odes, whose prosody still signifies everything but human intimacy and interrelation. As the work on various Elegies begins, the delicate, tentative work of unraveling the phenomenological systems in the texts will gradually emerge from this early amorphousness.