Sunday, 15 April 2012

Keats, negative capability and magic: reviewed and roasted

I'm sadly neglecting several resolutions, but it occurred to be that Keats is full of magic and fantasy, which is why I love him. I also read a few articles on the web about theories of sorcery in Keats. Let's take a look at his narrative poems.
A Mermaid by JW Waterhouse

In the Eve of St Agnes, I think it is James Twitchell who says that Porphyro is a vampire who wishes to devour Madeline. (Eerily familiar, because Edward Cullen creeps into the bedroom staring at Bella). He grows faint, argues our scholar, because her crucifix round her neck is killing him. Only when she undresses does he gather the strength to seduce her. Someone called Mary Arseneau says that Madeline is a mermaid, because there is a passage that says her dress falls down her knees like a mermaid in seaweed. She is a femme fatale, a dangerous woman just like a mermaid. I know Madeline is pure, innocent, blah blah blah, but Keats invented Negative Capability. It's when you don't know the answer to something. In this case we don't know Madeline's thoughts, and even if we asked Keats wouldn't know, because she is a woman and he was only 24 when he wrote about her. Negative Capability isn't really illogical as such, because when used well, the characters' actions are perfectly within the scope of believability and even character, it's just we don't understand their motivations. Also, the background truth isn't clear. Angela says that Madeline plays the conjuror by conforming to the superstition that fasting, praying and sleeping naked on St Agnes' Eve will reveal your future husband in your dream that night. The thing is that while Keats was impious and disliked superstition, he was a Romantic not fond of science and philosophy, for destroying beauty. Strangely he makes Madeline's dream have Porphyro, and her lover really comes to see her to bring food and seduce her. So is it really a spell that worked? She and Porphyro glide like phantoms into the night, and the doors seem to magically open for them. You could also argue that Madeline, pure lovely Madeline inviting Porphyro into bed is out of character, and she seems to be in a dreamlike wakefulness. So does Porphyro hypnotise her with a spell? She doesn't look bad, or the "charm is fled." So is there a charm? Is Porphyro's seduction of her really because he is a rake (Keats doesn't think so) or because Madeline summoned him with a spell? Alternately the song he sings, La Belle Dame Sans Merci, to woo her, makes her wish he was a passionate monster, not a sober young man he acts. Does the song affect her reason, and might it be a spell as well? The owls and witches in the last stanza are suggestive, and we think of a folktale, indicating magic is in the air. Madeline is depicted as a mermaid, formerly a Syren of the Sea (in the original manuscript), a Vivien enchanting her Merlin, and somewhat like a snake. Is she a seductress? She's meant to be a good girl with an appetite, methinks, but her seductress act is unconscious. Keats couldn't get women, and so made Madeline what he saw in women: a lovable woman who tempts you. He couldn't enter her mind fully, which is Negative Capability. But by doing so he makes her convincing and real. It is like real life: a nice girl who doesn't go out to tempt you just like that, but does so unconsciously. She has a sexual instinct, but she wouldn't go out to sleep with you. It is just in her nature to be tempting men and perhaps disappointing them when she doesn't love them enough. Keats saw Fanny Brawne as a tempter and couldn't understand her - and I think it affected him somewhat. He didn't think she was capable of loving deeply at first because she was a flirt. But to the point. Vivien seduced Merlin and made him teach her all his magic. Madeline enchants Porphyro and makes him teach her the facts of life - though unconsciously. 

While Lamia is magical, Eve of St Agnes is more ambiguous. It is set in the mediaeval era, and distance in the past creates magic for some reason. Fantasy novels are often set in the past. Interestingly, Madeline talks about being a "dove forlorn" after having been ravished by Porphyro. Someone mentioned that in Greek mythology, Tereus raped Philomena and cut out her tongue so she couldn't tell on him, but anyway she managed to do so, with her tapestry, and then the gods turned her into a nightingale. She is described, having prepared for bed, like a tongueless nightingale who longs to express what she can't express (presumably her passion for Porphyro). When she is ravished, she cannot express her horror to others, rendering her tongueless, or she might be locked up and punished for losing her virtue. But luckily, Porphyro had intended to marry her all along, and anyway we all know she enjoyed it, she is just scared of the consequences. Indulging in dream-sex still makes you lustful even if you don't in real life, because you know you really want to. That is why I cannot blame Porphyro as much as as some people would like to. Keats couldn't really make magic so evident here, so he gives allusions to magical events. But we can see that ravishment is a metaphor for change - for loss of innocence. It is what makes her willing to follow him home and run from her family. She also knows love is not what she expected - not just an ideal passion, but a drear and pallid suitor. So her metamorphosis into a bird is a symbol of change, of a bird with wings to escape.

It is curious Keats spends so much time describing the exotic food here. Of course he was a Romantic, and Byron was far more exotic, but perhaps there is some significance. Exotic = sensuous, especially when it comes to foreign people. Porphyro's Italian name contrasts with Madeline, hildebrand, Maurice. Candied apple might be the forbidden fruit, for all you know. And they are all sugar-sweet, like idealised passion.

Porphyro is chill, dreary and pallid at Madeline's bedside, but when she complains he is all this, and implores him to come to her. Only then does his long-suppressed passion really express itself. You see despite all the nudity he has been decent until then. Is she then conjuring a spell? I think it is more likely she is giving free rein to her desires, and therefore his, but note that both do not act themselves, Madeline because she thinks she dreans, Porphyro because she invites him to. She accuses sober Porphyro of not being what he was (passionate in her racy dream) but this is his true self. Porphyro becomes totally different by jumping into bed, and so does Madeline. This out of character thing is like an enchantment. Love does make us act strangely, like some magic potion cursed Tristan and Isolde (and no, I do not find that story romantic).  This might be due to the incantations they recited to each other.


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