A few weeks ago, I ran across John Keats' poem On the Grasshopper and the Cricket with my sister in an old poetry collection in Colonial Williamsburg. The line, "The poetry of earth is ceasing never" struck me with such delight that when I found myself in a old bookshop in Florida a few days later, my mind was already made up to find a full collection of Keats' poetry. Something about the energy and earnestness in his poetry captures me. An aura of wonder and "beyondness" hangs about so many of his poems and yet I find myself astonished at how well he simultaneously captures the actual day to day human experience. His words dare to live in both the real and the hoped for.
I am finding that it takes me several times reading through a new piece of literature to take it in as a separate, fresh thing. The first (and even second) time through, I get so excited about the new colors of expression present in it that I unconsciously run home to try them out in reviving the drab and fading patterns of already well loved ideas. With this in mind, I might as well go ahead and clear up that the following thoughts are not so much about Keats poetry as they are about the paths which my thoughts have run along after reading hours and hours of Keats poetry during the last two weeks.
I think the following lines from Keats' poem Fancy have rattled around in my brain more than any others over the last few days.
Ever let the Fancy roam,
Pleasure never is at home:
At a touch sweet Pleasure melteth,
Like to bubbles when rain pelteth;
Then let winged Fancy wander
Through the thought still spread beyond her:
Open wide the mind's cage-door,
She'll dart forth, and cloudward soar.
Oh sweet Fancy! let her loose;
Every thing is spoilt by use...
When I first read these lines, my mind ran along to think of "Fancy" as a means to climb to the next rung on Plato's Ladder of Love up towards the Supreme Beauty "subsisting of itself and by itself in an eternal oneness, while every lovely thing partakes of it in such sort that, however much the parts may wax and wane, it will be neither more nor less, but still the same inviolable whole." (Symposium 211). In moments when despondency over present circumstances might blind me, I thought of Fancy as the tool to access the beauty stored in memory and to marvel at its abundance and then to savor Beauty as a whole and then to rejoice in and worship the Source of all Beauty, who Himself will never wax or wane. Is that not the direction one's mind first leaps in the following lines?
When the Night doth meet the Noon
In a dark conspiracy
To banish Even from her sky.
Sit thee there, and send abroad,
With a mind self-overaw'd,
Fancy, high-commission'd:—send her!
She has vassals to attend her:
She will bring, in spite of frost,
Beauties that the earth hath lost;
She will bring thee, all together,
All delights of summer weather;
It was this I had in mind when I mentioned this poem in conversation to a dear friend last week. But when I arrived home and read Fancy again in the context of another Keats poem I began to see an incompleteness in the poem. I clung to beauty but felt, once again, a bewilderment as my attempts to reach its Source fell short. Even Keats admits the limits of Beauty's power in the last stanza of his Ode on Melancholy:
She dwells with Beauty - Beauty that must die;
And Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips
Bidding adieu; and aching Pleasure nigh,
Turning to poison while the bee-mouth sips
Ay in the very temple of Delight
Veil'd Melancholy has her sovran shrine,
Though seen of none save him whose strenuous tongue
Can burst Joy's grape against his palate fine;
His soul shalt taste the sadness of her might.
And be among her cloudy trophies hung.
Suddenly the phrases "Beauty that must die," "Every thing is spoilt by use," and "Pleasure never is at home" began to knock together in my brain and to emerge sounding a lot like Ecclesiastes 2: "I said to myself, 'Come now, let's give pleasure a try. Let's look for the 'good things' in life.' But I found that this, too, was meaningless... 'What good does it do to seek only pleasure?' It was all so meaningless. It was like chasing the wind. There was nothing really worthwhile anywhere." (Ecclesiastes 2:1-2,11)
So if I am truly to take on that foul mistress Melancholy and as Keats bids, "Emprison her soft hand, and let her rave/And feed deep, deep upon her peerless eyes" it seems that I'm going to need something stronger than Fancy and more enduring than Pleasure. But we know that already! So why do we return to pleasure for comfort when present circumstances afford us none and commission Fancy to bring us tastes of past or future joys? Perhaps, in that fleeting moment of bliss, we seek Hope? Hope for future joy, hope for relief from the struggle, hope for meaning in pain. This seems to be Keats' cry in these lines from his poem, To Hope:
Whene'er the fate of those I hold most dear
Tells to my fearful breast a tale of sorrow,
O bright-eyed Hope, my morbid fancy cheer;
Let me awhile thy sweetest comforts borrow:
Thy heaven-born radiance around me shed,
And wave thy silver pinions o'er my head!
Should e'er unhappy love my bosom pain,
From cruel parents, or relentless fair;
O let me think it is not quite in vain:
To sigh out sonnets to the midnight air!
Sweet Hope, ethereal balm upon me shed,
And wave thy silver pinions o'er my head!
Yes, it is Hope we need to fight despondency and "emprison her soft hand". But here is where the slack runs out and our ideas must pull weight - at 3 am when tears come hot and fast and at 8 am when the alarm rings.
For what do we actually hope. For what should we hope? And even if we know that, how do we corral our wildly bucking emotions towards such a solid hope? We've met Fancy. But now we meet Fear - fear of losing present joys, fear of facing past pain, fear of never regaining dearly held joys which are slipping our grasp.
Is Fancy an ally robust enough to fight this kind of Fear? Fancy leads us back to past pleasures and says: "Here, small one, remember this joy? This will soon come again if you but take heart and weather the present storm!" This is Arnold Lobel's Toad telling Frog, "Spring is just around the corner!" Or in the words of Keats:
Oh thou whose face hath felt the Winter’s wind,
Whose eye has seen the snow-clouds hung in mist,
And the black elm tops, ‘mong the freezing stars,
To thee the spring will be a harvest-time.
(The Winter's Wind, Keats, 1818)
But Spring is less than one quarter of the year. Despondency wheedles, "what if Spring is not worth the wait?" Like the Lady of the Green Kirtle, our Mistress Melancholy uses Fancy to sweetly croon, "Live to taste the spring once again and then leave this bitter world of winter winds to quietly savor that spring through eternity - its bloom forever on your brow". Thrum, thrum, thrum, goes her lute. The spell is almost complete.
Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave
Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;
Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal - yet, do not grieve;
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!
Ah, happy happy boughs! That cannot shed
Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu;
And, happy melodist, unwearied,
Forever piping songs forever new.
(Ode on a Grecian Urn, Keats, 1819)
But it is here that we must summon the last ounce of our strength, stomp out this cozy but fatal fire and breathe in deeply the much less enchanting scent of burnt Marshwiggle until we are fit to storm "Veil'd Melancholy's sovran shrine," chasing her from the "temple of delight" before we are "among her cloudy trophies hung." (Ode on Melancholy, Keats, 1819)
If Spring (representing comfort/joy/relief) itself is what we are waiting for, then Spring has become a "cracked cistern which can hold no water at all." (Jeremiah 2:13) In other words, pleasure becomes empty as soon as it attempts to become a thing savored in itself. If we break off these rungs of the Ladder of love, we could perhaps light a fire to warm ourselves - a fire which would burn for a few hours and then fade like sparks into the night sky. Those rungs of pleasure are meant to form a ladder which invites us to climb to the Sun Itself. Let's go back to Plato's description of that Sun which "subsist[s] of itself and by itself in an eternal oneness, while every lovely thing partakes of it in such sort that, however much the parts may wax and wane, it will be neither more nor less, but still the same inviolable whole."
Do we seek Spring as a lovely thing which is lovely because it partakes of that Inviolable Whole? Or do we seek its rest as the pinnacle of our desires and the object of our worship in itself? I'm finding that it is often as a pleasure wanes that we discover its attempts towards autonomy. Fancy (as I'm defining it) would discover hope by returning to these autonomous pleasures once again and, through reliving the moment of pleasure (in itself), find the strength to hoist its wan and weary form out of bed. Fancy would willingly drain even Ransom's bubble fruit the second time. (Perelandra, Lewis, pg. 38).
So if we recognize Fancy's inability to bring ultimate satiety or even sufficient comfort, does this mean we surrender to Fear? I think not. Enter Faith.
Faith, in the broad sense, is like Fancy in that it deals with things which are not in our present reach to touch, taste, hold and be held by. The difference is that Faith tracks all the way to the source. Faith does not stop with the memory but climbs atop the memory as a boost towards the Giver of that joy. It leaps, Legolas style, from pleasure to pleasure towards the Inviolable Whole from which the pleasures overflow. I believe it is this leaping that a solid Hope requires. Not blind leaping: Faith knows its object. But rather a refusal to settle down and move in with pleasure to make a home there. Fancy would have us cling to pleasure. Faith would have us freely savor pleasure with our whole being - just long enough to taste and see that its Source is good.
Right now, it's 3 am. I have a choice. Tomorrow I'll have the same choice. I can commission Fancy who bids me savor, once again, sweet memories of lying in the soft grass atop a flower studded hill, face to the summer sun, fingers entwined with those of my love, his steady heartbeat filling the stillness with the sweetest music I've yet known.
Or I can give in to Fear.
Or I can mount Faith.
Faith would not have me murder pleasure or purge memory. Rather it bids me remember and worship the Maker of strong hands and heartbeats and soft grass and flowers in May and warm summer sun. It then commands me to remember that the Source of all this beauty does not wax or wane even if hands were to loosen and heartbeats fade into the distance and grass wither and flowers fade and the sun become a frigid glare on an icy white world. And because the Source does not change, the Winter cannot last, the Spring will come again and Hope is born. Hope in the Source...not in the ladder.
Yes: tonight I choose to place my hope in God. I will yet praise Him - the Eternal Lover of my soul! (Psalm 42:5)
Tomorrow, I must choose again. Beauty's ladder beckons. And "the Just shall live by Faith."