Review of Ian Jack, John Keats and the Mirror of Art.

[“Keats and the Painters.”Review of Ian Jack, John Keats and the Mirror of Art. Malahat Review 7 (1968): 123-9.]


Keats’s pigmented manner in The Eve of St. Agnes has long been noticed and admired; it used to be reckoned a pathological sympton but more recently has been explained as the result of his studio acquaintance with painters and his understanding of the tactile resources of brush and paint.  But the question of Keats’s detailed knowledge of painting and paintings and painters, and the implications of that for his poetry, has never been explored except in a superficial and casual way.  Now that Ian Jack has attacked these questions clear-headedly and in close detail, one marvels that anything so illuminating – so in a sense obvious – should have escaped for so long.  There have been, God knows, “close readings” enough of this and that, and biographies detailed enough to serve any conceivable taste, but the quality of Keats’s perception and the broad basis of his art have never been satisfactorily examined.  Keats at his best, it is true, gathers his resources into a single declarative action which leaves as few crevices for explanation or exposition as a superlative piece of dancing, tennis playing, rock-climbing, or fugue-writing.  The epigraph on the title page, taken from Henry James, is a clear guide and salutary reminder: “To live other people’s lives is nothing unless we live over their perceptions, live over the growth, the change, the varying intensity of the same – since it was by these things they themselves lived.”  The book is therefore by implication a study in aesthetics, an insight into the intersection of the visual, tactile, and verbal in a poet who had exceptional capacity for complex sensory experience and imaginative stylization.  Ian Jack has placed Keats in an enlarged and invigorating context, going far beyond exposition to present in a new dimension the scope and steadiness of Keats’s poetic intelligence.  It is, I think, the most important critical study of Keats yet to be published.

Ian Jack’s inquiry started from a single arresting recognition: he noticed that a passage in Sleep and Poetry was based in detail upon a painting of Poussin’s.  A quick check of available critical sources suggested to him that “an important part of the truth about Keats had for some reason been forgotten,” and he set about to try to answer to his own satisfaction “the question how deeply the poetry of Keats was indebted for inspiration to the visual arts.”  Only later did he discover that Sidney Colvin in 1917 had said that “a whole treatise” might be written on this subject; but Colvin, as Keeper of Prints in the British Museum and an acute critic of Keats, was better placed than most to see that this was possible; for it was necessary to strike through the apparent incompatibility of the media of painting and poetry to see poetry and painting as aspects of a single symbolic process.  As it happened this is precisely what Keats’s painter friends were trying to do; and one of the most interesting things about this book – though it does not seem to have been Ian Jack’s deliberate intention – is to see how much more clearly Keats understood the symbolic crisis for painting in his day than the painters themselves did, and how much more fully he realized in his poetry the ideals that the painters thought they were approaching in their work.

Ever since critics started to canonize themselves in the twentieth century, they have tended to suffer from the self-justifying disease of talking about criticism as “creative.”  Yet some pieces of criticism can (in a loose way) be seen as “creative” – that is, imaginative – when they bring observations into a unified state of ordered clarity and so refresh and stimulate disciplined response and relevant inquiry.  This book is a good example of this kind of criticism and exhibits the distinctive process proper to heuristic (that is, non-tautological) criticism.  For it started from a point of recognition minute enough and fertile enough to force the mind outwards to discover and construct an accommodating context.  The critical dogma, long fashionable, that every poem must be examined in isolation is nonsense unless it leads to such luminous recognitions – to cognitive acts that induce the poem to define itself.  The field of reference for poetry in general, and for individual poets and poems in particular, cannot be prescribed beforehand; critical theory and doctrine are useful as purgatives and optical instruments perhaps, but are at best preparatory to the critical activity itself, which is an integral activity guided, shaped, and dominated by the distinctive presence of what is being criticized (explored).  In this way, critical direction is transferred from the critic to the only source of patterned and controlling energy we have in the situation – the text(s) under inquiry.  Success depends not on “a good idea” but on a good starting point.

Most poems about paintings have no wider ambiance than general literary or mythological references have; no amount of research, biographical or technical, will take us much farther or deeper than to see that the poet had some acquaintance with some paintings and admired them, sometimes foolishly.  (It might however being us to the useful conclusion that even folly can be grist to the poetic mill.)  But for Ian Jack the theme is not “painting in Keats” but Keats and painting: basically his theme is – as Wordsworth somewhere says of poetry – “the history or science of feeling.”  Perhaps the most important element determining the quality of a piece of criticism is the critic’s concern or respect for his subject: hence the inadvisability of thinking of criticism as “scientific.”  If such intricate detail, historical and biographical, as Ian Jack presents is needed to provide an adequate matrix for the emotional and intellectual facts forced upon us by Keats’s writing, then Keats’s activity is impressive; and Mr. Jack’s respect for Keats is also impressive.  To read this book is a bit like taking up an Elizabethan voyager’s record of a new continent.  The country is new and unfamiliar, yet clearly of this world; if it is populated with strange creatures, they prove to be unexpected variations of known species; the monsters and marvels go on all fours or are really fin-driven and feather-borne; for the detail is set down with grave composure, the observation clarified by wonder and respect.  Not magic casements, but the foot-thick physical simple realities of life – of life too little explored, though our birthright – the life of the imagination.

Here are some landmarks.  The Ode to a Nightingale and Ode on a Grecian Urn were first published in the Annals of Fine Arts, the first quarterly of the fine arts ever to be produced in England: it was written and supported by Keats’s friends.  Keats, as he began to find his force as a poet, listened to his painter friends expound their conviction that a great renaissance in art was about to occur – certainly and soon, they said, and here in England, and they would lead it.  Furthermore, they were in the habit of seeing painting and poetry as “sister arts” capable of interacting upon each other, almost as though they were two facets of one art.  Yet Keats’s admiration was for earlier masters – Titian, Claude, Poussin, Raphael, Leonardo; and these were not mere names to him, because he was able to enjoy and study great painting at first hand in the splendid exhibitions that the Royal Institution arranged after the opening of the Musée Nationale, and in the Angerstein Collections which were soon to form the basis for the National Gallery.  For the first time, ordinary people in England could see European painting of the first order; and as soon as the Elgin Marbles were brought to England, painters and their friends could see and study them in Park Lane – as Keats did – before they were acquired for the nation and made available to the public at large.  When original paintings and sculptures were not at hand, they could be recalled, explored, reflected upon – and fresh discoveries made – through the many excellent engravings that were as much Charles Lamb’s passion as they were Hunt’s or Haydon’s.  There were many times when Keats would hear with delight, and himself take part in, those verbal reconstructions from engravings that were a favourite vent for Hunt’s enthusiasm and the backbone of Hazlitt’s art criticism.  Keats could just as well have said, as Hunt did: “What shall we do? take out a Life of somebody, or a Theocritus, or Dante, . . . or Shakespeare, . . . ? Or shall we read an engraving of Poussin or Ralphael?”  Engravings not only nourished the pictorial imagination, but directed inquiry into the specific use and meaning of particular mythological themes.  Here they would turn to the big mythological collections – Lemprière and Andrew Tooke, Spencer’s Polymetis, Potter’s Antiquities, and Baldwin’s Pantheon – and with something of the dogged and grave insistence of Jungians seek to crystallize from the many variants the pure form of each myth.  For Keats at least, mythology was clear evidence of early radical thinking; antiquities bespoke primordial vitality upon which artists must somehow learn to draw.  And this sense was nourished not only by actual paintings and sculptures, by engravings, and mythological compendia, but also by that series of inexpensive and widely distributed reproductions of classical and neoclassical originals, “Tassie’s gems” (the 1791 list shows 15-800 items): for had not Sir Joshua Reynolds declared that “All the inventions and thoughts of the Antients, whether conveyed to us in statues, bas-reliefs, intaglios, cameos, or coins, are to be sought after and carefully studied: the genius that hovers over these venerable relicks, may be called the father of modern art.”  It was a situation that had never occurred before; and it has never occurred quite like that since, because improved “communications” destroy wonder and undermine the emotional foundations of knowledge.  Keats was uniquely placed in historical time, social setting, and personal temperament to make splendid use of such a conjunction of circumstance.  That he was able to do so, confirms that his work – and that of his great contemporary poets – makes a genuine advance into areas of psychology and experience hitherto little known.

Because the process of an artist’s development is not casual but catalytic, the important figure is Keats; but Ian Jack has well shown from what improbable people some of the impulses came.  Leigh Hunt, the dilettante, was important though he damaged Keats’s poetry (and reputation) for a time and finally sickened him with his confident importunity: “Hunt does one harm by making fine things pretty and beautiful things hateful – Through him I am indifferent to Mozart – and many a glorious thing when associates with him becomes a nothing –“ Benjamin Robert Haydon, the painter, whose “jubilant sense of belonging to the immortals was his ordinary state of mind,” and whose diary – for its unwinking egotism and sustained grandiloquence – is surely one of the wonder of English letters, showed Keats how a painter works and introduced him to all the privileges of a fellow-painter, yet in the end outlived his assurance of high destiny and killed himself.  Then there was William Hazlitt, that sour but brilliant critic whose enthusiasm, learning, and insight were irresistibly infectious at an important turning point; and Mr. Jack may well be correct in his bleak comment that Hazlitt’s were “the only course of lectures on English poetry known to have had an important influence on a major poet.”  There were less spectacular figures, each playing his part: J. H. Reynolds, lover of prints and drawings; Charles Lamb, inveterate collector of prints, and author of an important early essay on Leonardo; Charles Dilke, admirer of Fuseli and collector of Blake’s drawings; and as artists and men of cultivated taste, Horace Smith, John

Haydon opened Spenser to Keats’s gaze as a work full of subjects for genre painting; but Keats, being no painter, reconstructed out of classical mythology (and Spenser and Boccaccio and Burton) a vigorous pagan world, and in the classical Arcadia of the poets and painters came on the springs of poetic vitality cast into formal, accented, and stylized modes.  Throughout the early and middle writing Apollo is present to his mind’s eye as the god of his poetry; and if Apollo does not as a living presence survive Keats’s deepening sense of tragic destiny, Apollo is an important clue to the tone and meaning of much of the poetry.  For Keats was never satisfied with description: he was inclined to transform even what his eye saw into a mythological artefact.  The painterly opulence of The Eve of St. Agnes, extending into The Eve of St. Mark and Lamia, represents not the peak of descriptive art but the symbolic transfiguration of sexual love; and after that crisis is passed he moves, in Hyperion, into a cool sculptural mode with statuesque forms disposed in a superhuman space and dimension.  In the end, the ode To Autumn, itself a rich genre painting constructed out of a sequence of genre images, achieves in poetry what Turner and Cézanne were to achieve in painting: the symbol falls into exact coincidence with the reality it represents, making a single body substantial and incandescent.  Hazlitt argued (using an analogy outmoded by Coleridge) that “Every object [in the actual world] becomes lustrous from the light thrown back upon it by the mirror of art.”  Art can indeed cast an improving or distorting colour upon the world.  Keats, concerned to catch the vigorous interaction between art and life, found that life threw as much light on art as art threw upon life: which in itself accounts for the tense drama of the Ode to a Nightingale.

Hazlitt was more perceptive than many of the painters when he said that lyrical poetry was most like painting because it was highly selective and dealt “with hieroglyphics.”  Haydon was certain that the coming glory of English painting was to be in “historical painting” conceived in a heroic dimension and executed with minute representation fidelity.  Keats however was certain that vital poetry must be symbolic, not descriptive; and that to cast description into an “imagined” setting (no matter whether “historical”) could be no more than an artistic evasion.  Haydon, Hunt, and even Hazlitt, might see in descriptive word-painting the consummated union of painting and poetry; but Keats knew better and was not deflected into making descriptions of paintings, even though exciting enough models were offered to him and even though figures, relations, and themes from paintings are often identifiable in his work.  Mythology called up before his mind precisely conceived symbols imbued with pagan force; and since this reaction was symbolic, it could spring as well from the mannered stylizations of Poussin as from the fluent vigour of Leonardo’s line.  Master-paintings and Greek sculpture, carried alive into his mind’s eye, could function as powerfully, and in much the same way, as the more primitive and ominous subliminal images and impulses that were to inform the work of Klee, Chagall, and Bartok; and Ian Jack has shown how compelling these fresh discoveries were to Keats, when taken living into his own life.

Keats’s ideals happened to imply a respectful affiliation with the world presented to his senses; sane in his thought and in his art, he was not tempted much by the meretricious sensationalism of Fuseli or the fake grandeur of Salvator Rosa.  For Keats, the inner world and the given world are one and continuous, as we see in his best poems and in those letters in which he reflects resolutely upon life, poetry, and destiny.  In his unguardedly naive and refreshingly unpretentious vocabulary he called this identity “Beauty.”  His own currency should be respected and explored: the meaning of Beauty in Keats, like the meaning of mimesis in Aristotle, is to be sought out, not assumed.  Keats was too sensible to limit Beauty to some flaccid and easily accepted classical-olympian model.  Aristotelian without knowing it, and more Wordsworthian than he might have wished to claim, his sense of beauty was very much the fascinated recognition that what is has a peculiar and unassailable integrity and substance – thing, thought, image, feeling.  In his own way and in his own right he discovered the unifying energy of imagination and called it Beauty, including within that difficult term even the Pisan frescoes which he found “Grotesque to a curious pitch.”  For Keats’s work is dominated by the human figure, the variety and vigour of human behaviour, the sorrow and magnificence of the human condition; and his vision is purified by the sharp interplay of the mythical and the mythological, the actual and the symbolic.

Ian Jack, unfolding so much in detail over a wide range with a keen sense of relevance, has placed Keats in a fresh light, his poetry deepened, his stature enhanced.  The scholarship is equal to the complexities of the subject, the style clear and unobtrusive, and the many carefully chosen illustrations keep us in close touch with the realities of the case.  It detracts little from my admiration for the book to regret that when at the close we come to the Odes and the Fall of Hyperion the more momentous implications of the argument are set aside in pursuit of visual and graphic parallels.  For if I have said more about Keats than (apparently) about The Mirror of Art, it was the book that informed me; and surely it is no slighting tribute to a book to say that it left me thinking hard and unquerulously about its subject.