As/Is







7.04.2015


Twisted Flowers, Perverse Ornaments


Shelley, in Adonais, has a way or manner of referring to both John Keats, and Keats' poetry, as flowery, or flower-like, or even just Keats-as-a-flower and his texts ("melodies") as flowers as well. Shelley's most grandiose moments, especially within the elegy Adonais, tend towards perversity or twistedness; just as Keats' apogees lean towards the straightforward or earnest. But the question I'd like to raise is a tangent to Shelley's designation of Keats and all things related to Keats as "flowery," and it has to do with a substitution of sorts: let's say what is "flowery" in serious art or poetry could also be called "ornamental." That is, meant to heighten sensation, especially sensations of enjoyment/euphoria, without changing or challenging the substance of human thought or consciousness. Does Shelley find Keats to be, in his life and art, ornamental? Is prosody, the melodic richness of language, merely ornamental or an ornament? As I have said before, but it bears repeating in this context, if you eliminate Keats here, dismiss his prosodic achievement as merely ornamental, you have (also) to take out Bach and Beethoven. By Shelley's definition (it would seem), all music is "flowery," ornamental. If I cannot accept this designation as more than a half-truth, it is because what music, in poetry or in its more purified form, does for human consciousness, as a conduit to rendering the most heightened forms of emotion as palpably as possible, is substantial, and adequate to evince the seriousness of the narrative-thematic levels of literature which have more gravitas for Shelley. Little but music teaches us how we feel, and that the importance of emotion is permanent.

So, when Keats sings to us of Psyche, his sadder but wiser girl, it is built into his achieved aesthetic balance that what is flower-like gives us more than half of Keats' earned gravitas, but by no means the whole thing; while Shelley's music is adequate, but does not display the emotional fluency or dynamism of Keats'. Then, it follows that the narrative-thematic levels which predominate draw us back to his texts, and the emotional heft of Shelley's best verse is twisted into a taste we may have for the gnarled or ghastly (and scarred and riven). This is why, at the end of the day, artists of consequence will have a difficult time choosing Keats over Shelley or vice versa; they are so distinct from each other, each the creator of his own universe or consciousness-world, that the comparison has the quality of being apples and oranges. Shelley's condescension, in Adonais, is one of the attitudes that is gnarled in/from him, or twisted, or perverse; just as Keats does, in fact, make a fetish of flowers and flower-like vistas. In a time of recession, serious students of poetry will have to choose from day to day both what they enjoy and what they prefer. What happened later in nineteenth century England- Swinburne and Tennyson taking flowery aesthetics into a realm of no intellect/no imagination, while Victorian mystery novels got twisted, perverse- is not of as much interest as the century's predominant opening salvos, as the twenty-first gets underway with its own twisted flowers and perverse ornaments, and pendulums are prepared to swing back and forth.