Sunday, November 28, 2010

Keats' Isabella, The Eve of St. Mark, La Belle Dame Sans Merci, Lamia

“Isabella”, Based Upon a Story from Boccaccio
Isabella was planned and begun in February, 1818 and finished in the course of the next too months. The poem is based upon a story from Boccaccio telling of the love of a damsel of Messina for a Young man in the service of her merchant-brothers, with its tragic end and pathetic sequel.
Keats transfers the scene of the story from Messina to Florence, and he adorns and amplifies Boccaccio’s story, enriching it with tones of sentiment and colours of romance, and dwelling over every image of beauty or passion. His adornments and embellishments are, however, not inordinate as they were in the case of Endymion. His powers of imagination and of expression have now gained strength and discipline; and his characters make themselves seen and felt in living shape, action and motive. The poem is not completely free from false touches and misplaced beauties. For instance, in the lines
his erewhile timid lips grew bold   
And poesied with hers in dewy rhyme.
we have a false touch in the sugared taste frequent in his early verses. And in the call of the wicked brothers to Lorenzo—
Today we purpose, aye this hour we mount
To spur three leagues towards the Apennine,             
Come down, we pray thee, ere the hot sun count      
His dewy rosary on the eglantine,—
the last two lines are beautiful indeed; yet they are misplaced in the villainous mouths that speak it. Moreover, the language of Isabella is still occasionally slip-shod, and there are turns and passages where we feel that, as in Endymion, the poetic power has been subordinated to the chance dictation or suggestion of the rhyme. These minor faults apart, Isabella is conspicuous for its power and charm.
Imaginative Vitality and Truth, Combined with Beauty
The true test of a poem like Isabella is that it should combine imaginative vitality and truth with beauty and charm. This test Isabella admirably passes. There is, for instance, the account of the dream which comes to the heroine of her lover’s decaying corpse:
Its eyes, though wild, were still all dewy-bright          
                With love, and kept all phantom fear aloof
                From the poor girl by the magic of their light.
These lines have a true poignancy of human tenderness, while all the horror and grimness of the picture have been kept out. Again, the scene is realised with unerring vision in the lines which describe Isabella’s action at her lover’s burial place:
She gaz’d into the fresh-thrown mould, as though    
One glance did fully all its secrets tell;         
Clearly she saw, as other eyes would know  
Pale limbs at bottom of a crystal well;          
Upon the murderous spot she seem’d to grow,           
Like to a native lily of the dell:      
Then ‘gan she work again; nor stay’d her care,          
But to throw back at times her veiling hair.
These are remarkable lines, and only the best poets can combine such concentrated force and beauty of conception with such a limpid and flowing case of narrative. The swift despairing gaze of the girl, the simile of the lily, striking the note of beauty, while it intensifies the impression of her rooted fixity of posture and purpose; the sudden solution of that fixity into vehement action as she begins to dig; then the first reward of her labour, in the shape of a glove which she kissed and which she put in her bosom; then the resumption and continuance of her labour, with gestures of vital dramatic truth and grace—all these are most effectively conveyed. Poetry had always come to Keats as naturally as leaves to a tree; and now when it achieved a quality like this, he had fairly earned the right to look down upon the fine artificers of the school of Pope.
An Adverse Comment on the Poem “Isabella”
Roger Sharrock, however, makes an adverse comment on Isabella. According to this critic, this poem is “a self-conscious exercise in sentiment, even though the writer looks upon love as the highest value and therefore the most fitting subject for poetry”. Keats himself, this critic tells us, recognised the artificiality of his own love-melancholy. Roger Sharrock goes on to say: “Its manner, working through the slow and decorative stanza, is diffused and luxuriant; a brief tragic tale from Boccaccio is presented at one remove so as to extract the last drop of sentimental pathos. The first embrace of the lovers reveals a view of life that would contain experience within the bounds of ‘poesy’:
So said, his erewhile timid lips grew bold,   
And poested with hers in dewy rhyme:        
Great bliss was with them, and great happiness         
Grew, like a lusty flower in June’s caress.
The image suggests that the kiss exists in order that a poet may write about it; it also suggests that love is a mode of poetry conceived as a state of luxurious contemplation beyond the cares of the ordinary world. A graceful and accomplished artifice of sorrow is imposed on the story; there is a kind of self-conscious tuning-up of the poetry to make it equal to contain a theme:
O Melancholy, linger here awhile!               
O Music, Music, breathe despondingly!       
O Echo, Echo, from some sombre isle,        
Unknown, Lethean, sigh to us—O sigh!
The method may be described as a rhetorical lyricism. There are frequent apostrophes like those above and those to ‘sad Melpomene’ and to ‘eloquent and famed Boccaccio’, and many highly-mannered repetitions and declamations. The management of some of these rhetorical construction is very beautiful, for instance, the description of Isabella’s grief, a variation on the word ‘forget’:
And she forgot the stars, the moon, the sun.               
And she forgot the blue above the trees,      
And she forgot the dells where waters run, 
And she forgot the chilly autumn breeze;   
She had no knowledge when the day was done,        
And the new mood she saw not…..
Sorrow is stylised like a mourning figure on an urn. The long declamatory passages disperse the emotion and cause it to cling to detached and pictorial movement of the story. A repetitive series of questions fruitlessly probes the origins of the brothers’ commercial and family pride which has made them decide to dispose of their sister’s lover: ‘Why were they proud ?......”

Keats’s Own Assessment of “Isabella”
Isabella was written most probably in March-April, 1818. It is a straight narrative, simple, romantic and lyrical—‘with no palpable design upon us’. Both Isabella and the first version of Hyperion were written against a background of Tom’s illness, and both bear the marks of it. The strength of Endymion, all its flaws apart—had been its nervous energy, its rich sense of vigorous, organic life. Here in Isabella, for all the loveliness that plays about the surface, there is an impotence at the heart of the poem......The poem is not easy to place in the context of Keats’s developing ideas. Apart from the dreaminess of a young man’s idealised love-fantasies in the earlier stanzas, it does not give us the feeling that his own personal allegory is woven into it; the beauties where they occur, are detached not a piece of the fabric of his own being except where, suddenly and perhaps incongruously, the fierce indignation against tyranny and exploitation breaks out in stanzas 14 and 15. Keats himself came to have serious doubts about the poem and would have preferred not to publish it. With the experience of the hostile reviews behind him, he wrote to Richard Woodhouse: “I will give you a few reasons why I should persist in not publishing The Plot of Basil—it is too smokeable (that is, open to ridicule). There is too much inexperience of life, and simplicity of knowledge in it             Isabella is what I should call, were I a reviewer, a weak-sided poem with an amusing sober-sadness about it.”
“The Eve of St-Mark” an Unfinished Poem
The Eve of St. Mark is a fragment based on a popular belief connected with the Eve of St. Mark, the belief namely, that a person stationed near a church porch at twilight on that anniversary would see entering the church the apparitions of those about to die, or to be brought near death, in the ensuing year. Keats’s fragment breaks off before the story makes any headway, and it is not easy to see how this opening would have led up to incidents illustrating this belief. There are two main pictures in the poem: the out-door picture or the city streets in their young spring freshness and Sabbath peace; and the in-door picture of the maiden reading in her quaint fire-lit chamber. Each picture is admirably vivid and charming.
An Anticipation of the Pre-Raphaelite School
The interest of the poem lies not in moving narrative, but in (a) its pictorial brilliance and charm of workmanship; and (b) its relation to and influence on later English poetry. Keats here anticipates the feeling and method of the Pre-Raphaelite school. The in-door scene of the girl over her book, with its vivid colour and the minuteness of suggestive and picturesque detail, is thoroughly in the spirit of Rossetti; while in the out-door picture we find anticipations of William Morris.
“La Belle Dame Sans Merci”
La Belle Dame Sans Merci can hardly be said to tell a story. It sets before us the wasting power of love, when either the hostility of fate or a mistaken choice makes of love not a blessing but a disaster. The wretchedness which the poet describes in the poem is partly that of his own soul in relation to Fanny Brawne. The imagery of the poem is drawn from the medieval world of enchantment and knighterrantry, and’ truly expresses the passion. “To many students the union of infinite tenderness with a weird intensity, the conciseness and purity of the poetic form, the wild yet simple magic of the cadences, the perfect inevitable union of sound and sense, make of La Belle Dame Sans Merci the masterpiece, not only among the shorter poems of Keats, but even among them all.
Lamia is the tale of a serpent who in the form of a beautiful woman gains the love of an Athenian youth, but is disenchanted at her wedding feast by a “bald-head philosopher”, whose “demon eyes” make her “melt into a shade”. The serpent-lady here is both an enchantress and a victim of enchantments. She builds, by her art, a palace of delights for her lover, until their happiness is shattered by the scrutiny of the philosopher who represents intrusive and cold-blooded wisdom. Keats himself made the following observation about this poem: “I am certain there is that sort of fire in it which must take hold of people in some way—give them either pleasant or unpleasant sensation”. There is undoubtedly much truth in this observation. There is perhaps nothing in all his poetry so vivid as the picture of the serpent-woman awaiting the touch of Hermes to transform her, followed by the painful process of the transformation itself. The introductory episode of Hermes and his nymph is admirably told, though it occupies more space than it should. Admirable again is the concluding stanza where the merciless gaze of the philosopher shatters his pupil’s dream of love and beauty, and the lover in losing his illusion loses his life
An Unequal Poem
The poem has a thrilling vividness of narration in certain parts of it, and much of the verse has a fine melodious vigour. But the poem is in some parts too feverish, and in others too unequal. It contains descriptions not entirely successful, as for instance that of the palace built by Lamia’s magic. In certain reflective passages, Keats relapses into his early strain of affected ease and fireside triviality. The passage in the first book beginning “Let the mad poets say whate’er they please”, and the first fifteen lines of the second book belong to this category. Besides, there is a weakness in the moral of the story:
Do not all charms fly        
At the mere touch of cold philosophy?        
There was an awful rainbow once in heaven;            
We know her woof, her texture; she is given              
In the dull catalogue of common things.     
Philosophy will clip an angel’s wings,          
Conquer all mysteries by rule and line,        
Empty the haunted air and gnomed mine—              
Unweave a rainbow, as it erewhile made     
The tender-person’d
Lamia melt into a shade.

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