Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Reaching out to Autumn

As some devoted literary circles in some parts of the world gather to celebrate the birth anniversary of John Keats, and some out to lunch crazy enthusiasts like me will mark and cherish the very day on which the poet was born, Romantic poetry written by him would remain as fresh as the cider of Autumn. I wonder how important is it to numerically cut and dry, saying, on 'this' day was born the poet of sensuously charged lines of verse but what is of more import figuratively is that Keats is remembered as a poet and as we revisit some of those oozy opalescent lines, Keats is born, revived and reborn. Imagination once again overcomes Reality in escaping, eloping to see inwardly hoe the nightingale looks like today; or how many more fruitful years the teeming wine has added to its ethereal taste since it was first inhumed under the tip of Keats's pen.
It is precisely a poet's predicament to say the preponderant with fewest words; to paint pictures on the canvas of sheer fantasy's delight. But there are few who achieve this poetic puissance in capturing the ambiguities of life. Keats's Odes is one such creation where the subtle differences between the so called binary oppositions and dualities simmer in the manifestation of the reader's inner eye. With each ode, Keats opens some aspect of our human nature and it is for a unique aspectual perception of life within Nature's bounty that the poet was inspired the most.
Plenty can be found written elsewhere about the literary greatness of the poet, but for me the Odes matter, taken as a collective unit even though there is little evidence that Keats intended them to stand together. One enchanting feature of the sequence of the odes is that you can enter from anywhere you like. Whether seen wholly or partially from a perspective, it remains rewarding to read.
'Ode To Indolence' prefaces other odes in that it leaves the speaker in the numb dreaminess of his indolence but promises a fuller and more deeply felt inspiration to come. 'Ode To Psyche' finds the speaker turning from the delights of indolence towards the delights of creative imagination:
I wandered in a forest thoughtlessly,
And, on the sudden, fainting with surprise,
Saw two fair creatures, couched side by side
In deepest grass, beneath the whisp'ring roof
Of leaves and trembled blossoms, where there ran
A brooklet, scarce espied:

A bird's song inspired Keats in 'Ode To A Nightingale':
’Tis not through envy of thy happy lot,
But being too happy in thine happiness,—
That thou, light-winged Dryad of the trees,
In some melodious plot
Of beechen green, and shadows numberless,
Singest of summer in full-throated ease.

But now Keats was in full flow of his imagination which results in capturing the essence of ambiguity. In this ode, the transience of life and the tragedy of old age (“where palsy shakes a few, sad, last gray hairs, / Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies”) is set against the eternal renewal of the nightingale’s fluid music (“Thou wast not born for death, immortal bird!”). The speaker confronts the paradox of transience and permanence:
Was it a vision, or a waking dream?
Fled is that music:—Do I wake or sleep?
'Ode On A Grecian Urn' depicts the speaker's attempts to engage with an object of art, or Art itself. 'Ode On Melancholy' is Keats' mature attempt on the theme of transience. There is a great emphasis on suffering to which Keats had unwittingly fallen.
'To Autumn' brings Keats full circle to a conscious realization:
Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss'd cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For Summer has o'er-brimm'd their clammy cells.
Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap'd furrow sound asleep,
Drows'd with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cyder-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.
Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,--
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.
Where “Ode on Melancholy” presents itself as a strenuous heroic quest, “To Autumn” is concerned with the much quieter activity of daily observation and appreciation. In this quietude, the gathered themes of the preceding odes find their fullest and most beautiful expression. The understated sense of inevitable loss in the final line makes it one of the most moving moments in all of poetry; it can be read as a simple, uncomplaining summation of the entire human condition. He is no longer indolent, no longer committed to the isolated imagination (as in “Psyche”), no longer attempting to escape the pain of the world through ecstatic rapture (as in “Nightingale”), no longer frustrated by the attempt to eternalize mortal beauty or subject eternal beauty to time (as in “Urn”), and no longer able to frame the connection of pleasure and the sorrow of loss only as an imaginary heroic quest (as in “Melancholy”).
The harvesting to the seasonal cycle softens the edge of the tragedy. In time, spring will come again, the fields will grow again, and the birdsong will return. As the speaker knew in “Melancholy,” abundance and loss, joy and sorrow, song and silence are as intimately connected as the twined flowers in the fields. What makes “To Autumn” beautiful is that it brings an engagement with that connection out of the realm of mythology and fantasy and into the everyday world. The development the speaker so strongly resisted in “Indolence” is at last complete: He has learned that an acceptance of mortality is not destructive to an appreciation of beauty and has gleaned wisdom by accepting the passage of time.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

The Outsider's Preponderant Ponderability

To all those who believe in the genius of Oscar Wilde, it would not be hard to reconsider the man's position as an outsider in his own society. That he was an Irish may be of material consequence and that Wilde's wit was hard to fit and the artist's flamboyance drew the chagrin of moral annoyance is a Victorian dilemma, but what remains common throughout history, is an outsider's predicament which starts off innocently and harmlessly but which stifles or is made to stifle by force by the so called 'authoritative' ambush.
In his short life and career, Wilde wrote profusely. Born on 16 October, 1854, he was already a brilliant classical scholar in 1873. For his academic career at Oxford was remarkable, he could never have been as idle as he liked to pretend. Indeed he must have read voraciously. Even at this early age Wilde was a man of exceptionally wide culture, having reflected over the writings of Spinoza, Goethe, Hegel, Matthew Arnold, Emerson and Baudelaire to say the least. At a time when the new theories of Evolution expounded by Darwin and Huxley, Wilde's wild adventure in the realm of thought excited the wrath of the Philistines to whom the very name of Art was anathema.
Much to the testiness of sophisticated gentry and worthy friends, Wilde went after an aesthetic philosophy of universal application. And his opportunity came about when Wilde was invited to lecture in America in 1882. In his very first lecture Oscar appeared in an 'aesthetic' costume (in his knee-breeches) much to the delight of the journalists but he left with his reputation enhanced. By the end of the decade, Wilde would come in contact with French men of letters and his visits to Paris garnered the awareness of the French 'Decadent" school. One wonders whether all this and his constant valuing of foreign sensibilities that would inevitably mark him an outsider. Wilde wrote:
"There is something tragic about the enormous number of young men there are in England at the present moment who start life with perfect profiles, and end by adopting some useful profession."
In 1888, the first collection of short stories, 'The Happy Prince and Other Tales' came out. The ideas expressed are usually pessimistic: the happy prince gives away all his goods in vain. The nightingale presses its heart against a thorn; but the result of reading Wilde's stories is anything but heartbreaking. His sense of humour would redeem the sadness of the theme. What must be important from his own point of view was the creation of the expression of ideas that were unarguably his own. Again, it was not the appreciation of literary circles but an outside encouragement of his own erudition that resulted in a more ambitious piece of fiction, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891). None of his works gave so much pleasure to write because he was able to express it in his own tastes. Fiction released Wilde to express more freely than ever: '"Give a man a mask, and he will tell you the truth".
Dorian Gray is the first of Wilde's writings in which the theme of homosexuality, while never expressed, is nevertheless implied. In the very year in which Dorian Gray appeared, Wilde was to meet the youth who was to lead him to the final catastrophe of his life. Was it this implication made by the society that marked him an outsider? Leading an extravagant life on his foreign trips, Wilde was bound to be surrounded by financial difficulties. But he was yet to try his hand at another literary form: theatre. During a holiday in North Africa, Wilde met André Gide whose verdict about him was admiring: 'People do not always realize how much truth, wisdom and seriousness were concealed under the mask of the jester'. Perhaps this observation comes closest in characterising the genius of Oscar Wilde. But was it then an irresistible urge to utter penetrating yet concealed 'truth' with 'wisdom' that would earn him the scornful gaze for a parvenu?
Wilde returned to London for the staging of 'The Importance Of Being Earnest'. And this time even critics joined hands in unanimous praise. But this phase was to be the culminating point of Wilde's career. His relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas was an insult to the latter's father. In a case of criminal libel between them, Wilde was found guilty and sentenced to two years' imprisonment with hard labour. Truth and Wit was condemned overnight. Today we may come out and defend gay rights but to many of the late Victorians the very idea did not exist. And here was an author, at the summit of his success, suddenly repudiated as a convict. The Philistines were eventually rubbing hands to think that the judgement of God has prevailed in the end. So then it was the final judgement which pronounced him an outsider; someone not of their own. The rest of the Decadents, some of his personal friends, though continued to write and drink themselves to death, were the reigning decades' last dents.
The first six months of the sentence passed in Wandsworth prison with particularly inhuman treatment. Some influential friends tried and had him transferred to the Reading Gaol where nonetheless he suffered intensely. There, he wrote on the double sheets of the prison paper the long letter to Lord Alfred Douglas, which was afterwards called 'De Profundis'. Wilde was released on 19 May, 1897. And he worked on 'The Ballad Of Reading Gaol'. He was rejoined by Douglas but as soon as Wilde's money was exhausted, his friend left him. Wilde went to Paris where he was to spend the few remaining years of his life. He died on 30 November 1900 in the Rue de Beaux-Arts, essentially as an outsider. But as we come back to the central premise as to what made him so among his fellow human beings, we chew over: was it a different or a revolutionary thinking; or was it the bold appreciation of arts that were foreign to Victorians; was it really his frank relationship with another youth; was it the lack of financial resources for Lord Alfred Douglas; or was it the wit which witnessed wide wounds inflicted on the decrepit structures of the ever resilient high society? I would let Oscar Wilde reply himself (as I am sure he would) to this ambiguity, in the form of another terribly beautiful ambiguity so that questions as well their answers may never die. Wilde would surely have liked to celebrate his birthday with lines conveying thus:

Each man kills the thing he loves,
By each let this be heard,
Some do it with a bitter look,
Some with a flattering word,
The coward does it with a kiss,
The brave man with a sword!
Some kill their love when they are young,
And some when they are old;
Some strangle with the hands of Lust,
Some with the hands of Gold:
The kindest use a knife because
The dead so soon grow cold.

~ Wilde, 'The Ballad Of Reading Gaol', 1898
Ever since I have read these lines something has stirred my own so called sense of belief, honour and dignity. Only Irony coming from the depth of a heart can rustle dead leaves; like the irony in these lines will ceaselessly unmask one definitive aspect of society: Hypocrisy. Our very own hypocrisy.
"As a literary-historical figure Wilde's place is unique. he stood, as he himself claimed, in a symbolic relation to his age. Without him neither the Aesthetic Movement of the Eighties nor the Decadent Movement of the Nineties can be understood. He has his permanent niche in the literature of England and in the literature of the world." ~ James Laver