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We come now to Keats's "Ode on Indolence," his great meditation on a body at
rest, a body whose mass is intensified by a kind of gravity. As in all of his odes, Keats is in a metaphysical
and artistic pickle: he is faced with the task of giving proper praise to a mood of contentment and
self-containment well understood by the natural world, but rare in human experience. How to praise
inertia without becoming complicit in rendering the opposite of inertia? Keats reports on having
seen a vision: three figures who have joined hands step before his mind's eye, clad in sandals and
white robes; he identifies his placid visitors as "Love, Ambition, and Poesy." "Ripe
was the drowsy hour" he tells us, "The blissful cloud of summer-indolence/ Benumbed my eyes;
my pulse grew less and less;/ Pain had no sting, and pleasure's wreath no flower." No doubt, Keats sees Greek
perfection-physical, but as with the eyeless sculptures of antiquity, betraying no emotion or volition. The
purity of form, the apparent seamlessness of these figures pulls Keats to them.
Dark Matter enthusiasts in the world of physics claim that only 10% of the universe is actually visible. That means Dark Matter accounts for a lot of the content, the matter, of the universe. Could the same be said of poetry and fiction, could language, in fact, be viewed as the means by which we discover the existence of Dark Matter? Is language our special lamp which allows us to see Nothing?
With the pleasure of the vision, however, comes the pain of knowing both its impermanence
as well as his separation from it; all is not as it seems. Do the three statue-like figures represent
pure and seamless ideas, as if they came from Platoville? Clearly, that is one temptation, but another
is the recognition that these pure ideas could inspire or lurk behind Keats's own poetry, which, as we
always know is never seamless, never a smooth and perfect composition. Am I a mere vessel, a passive
receiver of these dark forces? Am I merely a body at rest who is now being moved? Am I a rogue and
peasant slave to some inarguable and therefore scientific fate? Is the mass of me always subject to
Here's what Keats has to say to such questions in a long letter to his brother George and
sister-in-law Georgiana, in the spring of 1819they were incidentally living in Louisville, Kentucky.
I'm going to quote this letter at length, so please bear with me.
This morning I am in a sort of temper indolent and supremely careless . . .My passions are all asleep from my having slumbered till nearly eleven and weakened the animal fibre all over me to a delightful sensation about three degrees on this side of faintnessif I had teeth of pearl and the breath of lilies I should call it languor . . .In this state of effeminacy the fibres of the brain are relaxed in common with the rest of the body, and to such a happy degree that pleasure has no show of enticement and pain no unbearable frown. Neither Poetry, nor Ambition, nor Love have
any alertness of countenance as they pass by me: they seem rather like three figures on a greek vasea Man and two women. . . . This is the only happiness; and it is a rare instance of advantage in the body overpowering the Mind. I have this moment received a note from Haslam in which he expects the death of his Father who has been for some time in a state of insensibilityhis mother bears up he says very wellI shall go to town tomorrow to see him. This is the worldthus we cannot expect to give way many hours to pleasureCircumstances are like Clouds continually gathering and burstingWhile we are laughing the seed of some trouble is put into the wide arable land of eventswhile we are laughing it sprouts it grows and suddenly bears a poison fruit which we must pluckEven so we have leisure to reason on the misfortunes of our friends. . . . Very few men have ever arrived at a complete disinterestedness of Mind [by which Keats means "freedom from selfish interests of any kind"; see Negative Capability letter of Dec. 21-27, 1817]: very few have been influenced by a pure desire of the benefit of othersin the greater part of the Benefactors [of] & to Humanity some meretricious motive has sullied their greatnesssome melodramatic scenery has fascinated themFrom the manner in which I feel Haslam's misfortune I perceive how far I am from any humble standard of disinterestednessYet this feeling ought to be carried to its highest pitch, as there is no fear of its ever injuring society. . . . The greater part of Men make their way with . . . instinctiveness, the same unwandering eye from their purposes, the same animal eagerness as the HawkThe Hawk wants a mate, so does the Manlook at them both they set about it and procure on[e] in the same mannerThey want both a nest and they both set about one in the same mannerthey get their food in the same mannerThe noble animal Man for his amusement smokes his pipethe Hawk balances about the Cloudsthat is the only difference of their leisures. This it is that makes the Amusement of Lifeto a speculative Mind. I go among the Fields and catch a glimpse of a stoat or a fieldmouse peeping out of the withered grassthe creature hath a purpose and its eyes are bright with itI go amongst the buildings of a city and I see a Man hurrying alongto what? The Creature has a purpose and his eyes are bright with it. But then as Wordsworth says, "we have all one human heart"there is an electric fire in human nature tending to purifyso that among these human creature[s] there is continually some birth of new heroismThe pity is that we must wonder at it: as we should at finding a pearl in rubbishI have no doubt that thousands of people never heard of have had hearts completely disinterested: I can remember but twoSocrates and Jesustheir Histories evince itWhat I heard a little time ago . . . with respect to Socrates, may be said of JesusThat he was so great a man that though he transmitted no writing of his own to posterity, we have his Mind and his sayings and his greatness handed to us by others. It is to be lamented that the history of the latter was written and revised by Men interested in the pious frauds of Religion. Yet through all this I see his splendour. Even here though I myself am pursueing the same instinctive course as the veriest human animal you can think ofI am however young writing at randomstraining at particles of light in the midst of a great darknesswithout knowing the bearing of any one assertion of any one opinion. Yet may I not in this be free from sin? May there not be superior beings amused with any graceful, though instinctive attitude my mind may fall into, as I am entertained with the alertness of a Stoat or the anxiety of a Deer?
Nonot for myselffeeling grateful as I do to have got into a state of mind to relish them
properlyNothing ever becomes real till it is experiencedEven a proverb is no proverb to
you till your Life has illustrated itI am ever afraid that your anxiety for me will lead you
to fear for the violence of my temperament continually smothered down: for that reason I did not intend
to have sent you the following sonnetbut look over the two last pages and ask yourselves whether
I have not that in me which will well bear the buffets of the world. It will be the best comment on my
sonnet; it will show you that it was written with no Agony but that of ignorance; with no thirst of any
thing but knowledge when pushed to the point though the first steps to it were through my human
passionsthey went away, and I wrote with my Mindand perhaps I must confess a little bit
of my heart 2
Why Did I Laugh?
Why did I laugh tonight? No voice will tell:
No god, no demon of severe response,
Deigns to reply from heaven or from hell.
Then to my human heart I turn at once
Heart! thou and I are here sad and alone;
Say, wherefore did I laugh? O mortal pain!
O darkness! darkness! ever must I moan,
To question heaven and hell and heart in vain!
Why did I laugh? I know this being's lease
My fancy to its utmost blisses spreads:
Yet could I on this very midnight cease,
And the world's gaudy ensigns see in shreds.
Verse, fame, and beauty are intense indeed,
But death intenserdeath is life's high meed.
Phew. If Keats had known about the Dark Matter in the universe, he surely would have been
pleased, and if he had been able to sit down with a contemporary physicist of the Dark Matter persuasion, I
think he would have said, "Let it alone; it is as it should be. Leave the dark in the dark, so we can
see it for what it is." It is instructive to see how the letter and the sonnet provide a prologue to
the "Ode on Indolence." Part of what Keats is working out in the Ode, as well as the letter and
the sonnet, is his aesthetic theory of negative capability, "when man is capable of being in
uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact &
reason" 3 that is the ideal state of being one must find in order to write
poetry. As he says in another letter on the poetical character, "it has no selfit is every
thing and nothingIt has no characterit enjoys light and shade . . . It does no harm from
its relish of the dark side of things any more than from its taste for the bright one; because they both
end in speculation." This contentment with speculation is where I imagine Keats would part company
with our physicists, and probably with our contemporary wish to have a rational answer for everything.
But what is the Dark Matter in "Ode on Indolence," how does Keats encounter and regard it? The state of indolence Keats imagines is one of absorption, where energy is contained and uniform. The vision of the three figures is therefore an interruption to his indolent state; they are other-worldly reminders of the day-to-day world. In effect, they silently chasten Keats, as if to say, you cannot lean toward this dark world at the expense of ignoring your waking reality. Thus Keats complains about his worldly obligations: "O, why did ye not melt, and leave my sense/ Unhaunted quite of all butnothingness?" Ah, "nothingness," that big 20th century word, a hundred years early. Yet, implicitly, he's acknowledging that he has seen nothingness or what he thought was nothingness and realizes there's never nothing there. That in itself seems rather dark, as if the most appalling feature of nothingness is its somethingness. In the fifth section, Keats wakes to notice the natural world, a "new-leaved vine," the song of a birdhere, in the bosom of mother nature, Keats realizes, is true indolence, and he tells his visitors from the darkness, "O shadows! 'twas a time to bid farewell!" From his letters, from the sonnet, and from the Ode, we know that for Keats, Dark Matter was just part of the whole picture, though it certainly seems he was more captivated by the darker realms of the universe. We in fact have an indication that Keats mistrusts the things of the waking world, preferring their darker version: "O folly! What is Love? and where is it?/ And for that poor Ambitionit springs/ From a man's little heart's short fever-fit;/ For Poesy!no,she has not a joy," he pines, as if the things of this world are the real illusions, and their darker counterparts the real realitythey're certainly the "intenser," as he claims in the sonnet. The lines I just quoted are from the fourth section of the Ode. Look at that section on the page, how choppy and stringy it isfar less graceful looking than the other, smoother sections. If the whole ode were a baked chicken, this fourth section would be all gristle. This section, too, is the most digressive, a kind of black hole pricked in the fabric of the visible heavens, "particles of light," as he says in the letter, which illuminate the fact that those particles are invisibly bound to darker matter.
If Keats had known about the Dark Matter in the universe, he surely would have been pleased, and if he had been able to sit down with a contemporary physicist of the Dark Matter persuasion, I think he would have said, "Let it alone; it is as it should be. Leave the dark in the dark, so we can see it for what it is."
Another kind of Dark Matter in this poem is to be found by inference from the epigraph, "they toil not neither do they spin." That phrase comes from the Gospel of Matthew, and it's a passage worth noting, because it's sort of like Jesus' greatest hits of all time. Allow me to condense and paraphrase. In the space of about seven red-lettered pages Jesus gets baptized at the River Jordan by John the wild man; the spirit descends like a dove, God says from the clouds, "This here's my boy;" after which Jesus holes up in the wilderness fasting for 40 days, then the devil comes along and tempts him three times to no avail, so Jesus walks down to the Sea of Galilee where he buttonholes Peter and some other disciples and sets off on a barn-storming circuit ride, multitudes fall in behind him, and he goes up on a mountain, where he does the whole beatitude routineblessed are the poor, the meek, on down to the peacemakers and the persecuted which covers just about everybody; and along the way, He delivers some of his best one-linersyou are the salt of the earth, don't put your light under a basket, that whole adultery thing is tricky so watch out, God's throne is in Heaven and His footstool is the earth so don't curse either, and while you're at it turn the other cheek, and check out this here Lord's Prayer; do not lay up treasures for yourself on the earth; the lamp of the body is the eye and if your eye is bad your whole body will be full of darkness; and by the way you can't serve God and mammon both; therefore do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink or wearlook at the birds of the air for they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feeds them; and consider the lilies of the field, they neither toil nor spin and not even rich old Solomon was arrayed like them [Jesus was pretty good with the metaphors]; don't worry about tomorrow for tomorrow will worry about its own things; judge not that you be not judged, don't look for the speck in your brother's eye when you've got a plank poking out of yours, watch your pearls around the pigs, do unto others, etc., a good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and make sure you build your house on a rockthen He walks down off the mountain and promptly heals a leper.
While I've been a bit irreverent here, I must say I find this an impressive and always
fascinating passage; and I think Keats must have wondered at it, too. Don't chase after worldly ambition;
be careful in the matters of love and passion, and how about those lazy lovely lilies. The one thing Jesus
doesn't directly address is the "demon Poesy," though this scripture passage is effortlessly
poetic. In short, Jesus is preaching the Gospel of Indolence, the variety of indolence
and "disinterestedness" Keats has found worthy of praise. And, I think it is a
view which acknowledges the presence of Dark Matter, that matter in the universe which defies
calculation and formula, but which also always matters.
. . . "when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason"that is the ideal state of being one must find in order to write poetry.
Now, I'd like to ask you to read Edwin Arlington Robinson's dramatic monologue "The
Prodigal Son." I'm afraid I don't have time to discuss it fully here,
which is a shame since I want to implore you to read Edwin Arlington Robinsonhe is a great and nearly forgotten poet.
Here are the first few lines, to jog your memory of the poem.
You are not merry, brother. Why not laugh,
As I do, and acclaim the fatted calf?
For, unless ways are changing here at home,
You might not have it if I had not come.
And were I not a thing for you and me
To execrate in anguish, you would be
As indigent a stranger to surprise,
I fear, as I was once, and as unwise.
Brother, believe, as I do, it is best
For you, that I'm again in the old nest
I can imagine the prodigal twisting the fancy ring on his finger, and smoothing out his
new robe with a self-satisfaction he knows his brother must abhor. Suffice to say, "The Prodigal
Son" is full of Dark Matter implied in the dramatic situation: before the poem begins, presumably
there has been some conversation between the faithful son and his prodigal brother. We infer that the
good son finds it appallingly dark of the father to forgive and welcome home the prodigal. What but
some mysterious dark force could resist punishment? As in Frost's "Mending Wall," "Something
there is that doesn't love a wall," there's a something hiding behind the visible world, behind the
world of reason and logic and order, that doesn't oppose or contradict, but instead offers an altogether
different kind of logic and order. This poem depends on pre-established symbol and allegory, and the
archetypal significance of the familiar story. But Robinson quietly and carefully turns that archetype
on its head. The prodigal who should now be the poster-child of humility and contrition, instead has
the gall to admonish his brothera gall that surprises us because we could not have seen it coming.
As readers, we see a new, and previously hidden side of the story, and suddenly what was familiar and
knowable seems to have recoiled away from us to become remote. Indeed, Robinson presents our world as
viewed through the dark lens of that 90% of the universe which is always invisible to usbut there.
That's the modern, darker take on the old reliable allegory. The allegory of the
Self is also a favorite field for poets, always wondering what we've planted there. So now we move
to Robert Penn Warren, another great poet whose poetry I fear has disappeared from our contemporary
map. I'm going to take a moment and read you his fine, late poem, "Red-Tail Hawk and Pyre of
Listen to "Red-Tail Hawk and Pyre of Youth"
Here we have a representation of time-space geometry of which our modern physicists ought to approve. Time and space are not flat, but curved, warped and wrinkled by the force of gravity, a gravity which has magnified with memory, and which originates in the humiliation of sin, and in the knowledge of death. Time in this poem is hardly ever now; it is time reflected and refracted, the memory of a memory of a memory, and how the original meaning of the impossibly possible act has been drained of its brightness and replaced by a darker, inscrutable knowledge. Space is both a center point in "that convex perfection" and the "shadowy vortex of silver" expanding in "widening circles." Everythingthe hawk, the once-treasured books, spiritual and poetic vision, as well as, the Selfhas been sucked into that dark universe and consumed. What Warren wanted as a youth was to bring the world of light and the world of darkness together into a pure unified vision. It was a spiritual desire for the youth. A similar desire pre-occupied Warren as an artist, that "electric fire" Keats mentions "in human nature tending to purify." But Warren's attempt to bring dark matter into the light only reveals his own darkness, his own willingness to disrupt universal order as it is, and, as Keats discovered, merely alienates him from the world of light. This Nothing is like mercury, it won't be pinned down or contained: the young boy allows himself to believe he's come face to face with the something in that wheeling, impassive Nothingif he has, it has come at the expense of his own Nothingness relative to it. Dr. Einstein, I presume! At issue here is not a childish wish denied, but rather the impossibility of achieving the unified vision, as if the two spheres of light and darkness have the same charge and therefore repel each other. A further, darker possibility also exists: that we don't know either sphere as well as we might think; perhaps beyond our dualistic paradigm is a greater dimension in command of both, an undetectable, and therefore utter darkness.
As poets . . . we're stacking one uncertain stone upon another in the middle of a field of uncertainty, uncertain why we're doing it
One of the reasons the physicists want to get their hands on dark matter is so they can determine the mass of the universe. I'm not kiddingtalk about ambition! If they could calculate the mass of the universe, they could then decide if the universe is infinitely expanding, or if eventually the force of gravity will pull the entire universe back into one small point, which would be curtains for us. I hope we never know, because it will mean pure rationality has prevailed and our free thoughts will be chained. The most simplistic view of the universe, and our presence in it, derives from willful ignorance and unilateralism, a two-dimensional, yes-no, up-down, good-bad understanding of the mysterious design behind natural law and order: we live, we die, that's it, no God, no elysian fields; or, this life is but a dream and the real deal is on the other side where it's infinite recess and Jesus has the jump rope. I'm skeptical of either perspective, because each represents an extreme end of the spectrum, and any extreme is always blind to the existence of the opposite end, and often the fact that all things under the sun and beyond exist along that mercurial spectrum and are therefore bound to each other. The point is as poets and writers we're always in the position of having to acknowledgeif only for the sake of wonderthe constant presence, as if it were a physical, incalculable force, of the other, darker end of wherever we might be along the line or under the curve. If we're on the lighter, sunny side of things, then the other side indeed is darker; if we're in the mire of shadows, however, then from that perspective, the sunny side is also dark, unknown, and unknowable to our waking senses and our mathematical methods of verification. Our work as poets and writers, and the strange dark stuff we work with without seeing it for sure, teaches us to stay away from the lock-kneed absolute position of either extreme, where knowledge is turned into an immutable stone. Our work takes us other places: we're stacking one uncertain stone upon another in the middle of a field of uncertainty, uncertain why we're doing it.
Our view as writers is binocular, rather than telescopicwe see two visions at once, bent
toward and overlapping each other. And we know from physics that two objects in contact with each other
produces energyfriction, heat, response. Clashing with the world of darkness or the world of light
is always a source of revelation, especially for poets, and we want to capture that revelation, contain it,
and say its dimensions are measurable by the line, its character can be rendered by the multi-dimensional
means of metaphor, its meaning can be heard in the poetic voice piped through the heart and mind. We
believe revelation has a geometry we can represent on the page, it has natural laws which give it shape
and significance. But we always secretly know all of that is impossible. There's something behind any
revelationwhether its source be the indolent dream or the tale of mercy or the blood actsomething
behind and beyond that we will never know, and we know it; we know we'll never know. That second
knowledge, which we come to in thinking and living and writing poems, is Dark Matter indeed. Revelation
obliterates all we think and feel, all we remember, and turns it all to the dust of nothingness. Are
we borne of darkness and to darkness do we return? That's a question we can't answer in the world
of light, but it is a question we ask again and again. I wonder why?
1. Jim Holt, "Unstrung" in The New Yorker, Oct. 2, 2006, p. 88.
2. David Perkins, ed. English Romantic Writers, Second Edition. Orlando: Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1995.
3. Perkins, p. 1276.