Keats: Prosody: Odes

The chiasmus between phenomenology and prosody in major high art consonant poetry, specifically in Keats’ Odes, is a novel one. What can be mapped, in the five major Odes, is that Psyche manifests points of extremity which the others do not: not only is Psyche the only Ode which presents what could be termed a complete, totalized mindscape, without an engagement with tactility outside of imagination (“fancy,” in Keats’ parlance); it is by far the loosest and most casual on a prosodic level. As to the ramifications of this: that a “pure” imaginative landscape should engender unusually loose, casual, expansive, even luxuriant prosody: it would seem that the mind’s self-sufficiency, its sense of remaining safely enclosed within its own bounds, heightens for the poet an ambience of naturalness and ease, of being ensconced in a kind of womb-like space where changes, abrasions, and peripateias are impossible, and the poet is free to generate long, loping lines which needn’t be clipped by the vicissitudes of actual flesh and blood. It is also notable that, on phenomenological levels, Psyche and Autumn (first and last, as I place them in the Odal cycle) are near-precise opposites: the landscape of Autumn is resolutely outside the mind, and Keats makes no imaginative impositions on the surfaces he represents textually. Oddly, Autumn is more relaxed, in its prosody, than any other Ode besides Psyche; it expands on the prosodic tightness of the three “middle” Odes (Grecian Urn, Nightingale, Melancholy), and has a purity as the opposite of a mindscape or Fancy-production— Autumn represents a catalog of Earth-consonance, of hills and forests, away from enchantment, into the pure sense of the self-sufficiency of Nature against the human mind, and as its own womb-space.

Nightingale is the Odes’ centerpiece, for more reasons than one: the way I configure the Odal cycle, it is read third out of five; and, because it is halved down the middle in its phenomenological import, as half-mindscape, half representation of Earth-consonance, half in and half out of the mind (so to speak), it is capable of generating the most complex cognitive responses of all of the Odes, and maps the process of cognitive dissolution, partly into prosodic richness, partly into narrative-thematic confusion, with greater emotional force and sense of crescendo/decrescendo than the other Odes do. What Keats learns in Nightingale forces him into a confrontation: that the Nightingale, as representative of the enchanted forest which has already been established as topos in Psyche and Grecuan Urn, is not necessarily a benign presence, and staggers Keats’ imagination with its own imposition of Otherness towards Keats recognition that the sublimity of the forest is not only an agent of ecstatic dissolution but also of frightening confrontation (“What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?”). The Otherness of the Nightingale, indeed, forces a sense of entropic bankruptcy in Keats, and establishes Keats’ sense that his imaginative capacities are being bled out of him by a Nature-force which is more powerful than he is. The prosody of Nightingale is the most meticulously executed of all the Odes, and the most daunting for poets who followed (and continue to follow) in Keats’ wake to achieve parity with, for it is here that the English language achieved what is, if not its absolute apotheosis, at least as close as it can come to absolute apotheosis besides (perhaps) certain passages in Shakespeare and (for my money) not particularly Milton or Wordsworth, both of whom cannot generate the emotional passion in text to lift them, on “Poesy’s viewless wings,” to the melodious plots in which the human mind has represented Otherness as perfectly as possible.