One morning in July, 2016, I finished reading a book about Keats. Have you read Keats? In school, maybe? Do you read poetry anymore? I do. Not very much, to be honest. Not as much as I’d like. We’re too busy, right? For poetry, you have to slow down, which ought to be easy but isn’t. And if I’m bored, reading poetry doesn’t seem to be the answer. But here’s the thing: the book about Keats that I read was pretty exciting, once I got the hang of it. It was about Keats’s odes. You remember, the “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” the “Ode to a Nightingale”? Anyway, there are six of them. Keats wrote them all in about six months. The first one isn’t very good; the last one is a masterpiece. The book shows how Keats taught himself how to write better odes. It’s kind of a master class, pointing out all the mistakes as well as the brilliant bits.
Helen Vendler wrote the book. She’s a scholar at Harvard who wants more out of poetry than pretty verses. For her, a poem has to have structural integrity. It has to hold together in one piece, and it shouldn’t have any loose ends. Vendler’s book on Shakespeare’s sonnets is amazing. You wouldn’t believe the way she can unpack fourteen lines, how much meaning she kind find in such a small place. It’s like Grace Kelly’s overnight bag, in Rear Window. Vendler even finds meaning in the things Shakespeare leaves out. You know those games that people play to exercise their minds, so they won’t get Alzheimer’s (they hope)? Trying to keep track of Helen Vendler taking apart one of Shakespeare’s sonnets is better.
But I was talking about Keats. If you remember his Odes, they’re full of references to Antiquity — obviously, in the case of “Grecian Urn.” They’re called Odes. They aim for classic perfection. But they fall short, according to Vendler. Each a little less than the one before, but they all fall short — until the last one. The last one is not actually called an ode. It is called, simply, “To Autumn,” and, what’s more, there are no overt classical references in it. That, it turns out, was part of the problem with the earlier pieces. Keats had this goal, inspired by Milton. Milton wanted to replace all the Greek and Roman images with Christian and English ones. Keats wanted to do something a little different. He wanted to create an art that was indistinguishable from nature. That’s the best way I can put it. And in order to do it, he had to deny himself the poetic shorthand of gods, goddesses, and magical properties that poets are supposed to have at their fingertips. Keats wanted to hold onto the feelings of traditional poetry, but he also wanted to do without labels.
For a while, the “Ode on Melancholy” was my favorite poem in the world. I memorized a couple of lines.
Ay, in the very temple of delight
Veiled Melancholy has her sovran shrine,
Though seen by none by him whose strenuous tongue
Can burst Joy’s grape against his palate fine…
Great stuff, it sounded — even thought I never believed it. I don’t think that there’s anything melancholy about love. Oh, I know that line, post coitum omne animal triste est. But that hasn’t been my experience. If you smoke after making love, of course you’re going to feel dismal. I have this funny postcard. There’s a couple in bed together. The guy, who’s kind of scrawny, is sitting up, skin and bones, and he’s saying, “But after the sexual desire is fulfilled, what happens then?” His nicely tucked-up lady friend, who is not scrawny, just smiles, as a thought bubble floats over her head. In the thought bubble, a full breakfast awaits on a checkered tablecloth. Let’s have something to eat!
Keats. The beautiful thing about the Grecian Urn is that Keats, who appears to be talking about it, has actually made it up. He is not writing about an object in a museum. His urn lacks the common features of an urn, its handles, its fluted rim, its base either round or square. Keats’s urn is nothing but a memorial. It is an urn, and not a slab, because Keats wants it to turn round, repeating its narrative endlessly. The procession will never return to the village from which it set out or reach the altar toward which it is headed. The heifer will never be sacrificed. The lover will never catch up with the girl. The figures may be carved in stone, but they move with the urn’s rotation. It is something like Rilke’s Archaic torso, which is not described but created by shafts of sight: our sight as we glance at it; its headless sight, which seems to originate in the Zeugung, testicles (literally, witnesses). As we read Keats’s poem, it creates the urn for us — all we need to know. The poem not only is, but holds, its own work of art.
I didn’t wait until Vendler got to the end to read “To Autumn.” I knew its first line by heart, and found it beautiful. “Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness.” The rest of the poem, though, didn’t knock me out. Maybe it was too agricultural. It didn’t occur to me to think of Virgil’s Georgics, which I used to read, and try to like, when I kept a garden in the country. That was a long time ago, and my garden was purely ornamental. When I went through the poem with Vendler, I remembered that Keats had finished with ornamental gardens in the “Ode to Psyche,” having built in that poem a virtual shrine to his own soul. As a poet, throughout the course of creating the Odes, Keats learned not to worry that the gross material world would sully his poetry. Vendler showed me that what I had taken to be mousy details of a farm no longer green were linked a tight net of significance, more emotional than informational. It was not a picture but an existence: to read the poem is to inhabit it, to see what Keats shows in the first two stanzas and to hear the sounds made by birds and insects at the end. I was reminded of one of my favorite lines of Wallace Stevens: “This is the barrenness/Of the fertile thing that can attain no more.”
Now that I was done with the book, my spirit was a heavy cornucopia, overloaded not so much with riches as with the sense of richness itself. And I was troubled by that line of Stevens. My trouble would be expressed for me, the very next day, in a remark by François Mauriac, a French writer whom I can never really quite place. He said, of Virginia Woolf, that she was a writer “moving toward silence.” For both Keats and Woolf, rich artistic production was placed very closely to death. Keats would die two years after writing the Odes, at the age of twenty-five; Woolf had known madness before she began as a writer, and it would be fear of madness (occasioned by war) that made her take her own life at the age of fifty-nine.
I read the Mauriac quote in Hermione Lee’s biography of Virginia Woolf, which I pulled down from the shelf after reading To the Lighthouse. In my jumbled fashion, I had begun re-reading To the Lighthouse before quite finishing Helen Vendler’s book about the Odes of Keats. The two went well together. Woolf’s prose is almost as charged as Keats’s verse, even without the discipline of meter. It is more urgent because it is less “poetic.” Woolf was determined not to strike the classical realist poses that she disdained in writers like Arnold Bennett, a man who was as celebrated in his day as Woolf is now. Keats’s language is hardly vernacular, but in stripping away the explicit references to Arcady and the Hippocrene he was striving for a purely English poetry, not out of any nationalistic feeling but simply out of concern for linguistic coherence.
I had been moving through To the Lighthouse very slowly, partly because I was so excited by the wrapping-up of The Odes of John Keats and partly to make sure that I followed every tendril of Woolf’s impressions, of the impressions of her characters. I wanted especially to savor the irritability of Lily Briscoe, who stands in, somewhat, for the author, while Mrs Ramsay represents the author’s long-dead, still-adored mother. Julia Stephens’s greatest gift to her daughter was an early death; for Virgiinia’s older sister, Vanessa, would never have dared to be as bold as she was, after their father’s death, if her mother had been watching. And so Virginia would not have been free. She would never have been able to breathe her own atmosphere. She would certainly never learned how to write the kind of sarcasm that fills To the Lighthouse. Sarcasm that is grating and rude is easy; the gentle but wounded sarcasm of Woolf’s greatest writing requires a carefully trained hand.
At the end of the day on which I finished reading Vendler on Keats, I picked up To the Lighthouse at the point where Mrs Ramsay is reading “The Fisherman’s Wife” to her youngest child, James. James is a funny fellow; it’s hard not to suspect that Woolf, who had no children of her own, had been learning about them from Sigmund Freud, whose works, in translation, she was publishing with her husband, Leonard, at the Hogarth Press. James loathes his father with the impotent madness of a full-blown Oedipus complex. (Of course he outgrows and forgets it.) Every time his father walks by, James wants to slay him. The reader wouldn’t mind if he did. Mr Ramsay is an ego on bookmarks.
Presently, I reached Chapter XVII, which is the long dinner-party scene. It is not really a dinner-party, just dinner in a country house with fifteen or sixteen people at the table. Mr Ramsay sits at one end and Mrs Ramsay at the other. Woolf hovers over Mrs Ramsay’s end, where, as a result of Mrs Ramsay’s seating arrangements, the geometries of conversation are more interesting. Woolf’s tone is that of a somewhat world-weary, irreverent sophisticate. Everyone is dressed for dinner and is more or less comme il faut (except for Charles Tansley — there is always a Charles Tansley figure in Woolf, and you never know whether you’re supposed to feel sorry for him because you’re helplessly looking down on him, or whether you ought to be frank about his failure to measure up), and everyone professes, according to Woolf’s report of private thoughts, to be bored to death. Why do we sit through these damned dinners, everyone seems to protest — silently. Meanwhile, the conversation bumps and flows as it will. The soup course is ingested.
Then the scene changes slightly, as in Continental plays, with the addition of three characters. Two of them, a young man and a young woman, have just become engaged, crowning a project of Mrs Ramsay’s. The third character is not the maid but the lidded bowl that she carries, a boeuf en daube, or beef stew, that the cook has prepared following a recipe that was brought over by Mrs Ramsay’s great-grandmother. (Virginia Woolf had a French great-great-grandmother.) The daube is set before Mrs Ramsay; the chatter subsides. Mrs Ramsay is deeply pleased that the couple will forever associate their engagement with the delicious stew.
They’ll say that all their lives, she thought, and an exquisite scent of olives and oil and juice rose from the great brown dish as Marthe, with a little flourish, took the cover off. The cook had spent three days over that dish. And she must take great care, Mrs Ramsay thought, diving into the soft mass, to choose a specially tender piece for William Bankes. And she peered into the dish, with its shiny walls and its confusion of savoury brown and yellow meats and its bay leaves and its wine, and thought. This will celebrate the occasion — a curious sense rising in her, at once freakish and tender, of celebrating a festival, as if two emotions were called up in her, one profound — for what could be more serious than the love of man for woman, what more commanding, more impressive, bearing in its bosom the seeds of death; at the same time these lovers, these people entering into illusion glittering eyed, must be danced round with mockery, decorated with garlands.
As I read this ceremonial description of an elaborate stew, I was suddenly so overwhelmed, so thrilled, so unnerved by this festal lyricism — so reminiscent, if not of Keats’s poetry, then of Keats’s world on the one hand and of his poetic resources on the other — that I was nearly sick. I wanted to shout. I waited for my wife, Kathleen, to finish what she was doing, and then I began to read it aloud to her, in a voice that was more like a shout.
with its shiny walls! and its confusion! of savoury brown and yellow meats!! and its bay leaves and it wine,! and thought.!
I know that the final two words refer to the subject of the sentence, which is Mrs Ramsay, in parallel with “peered,” but it is also impossible not to regard “thought” as an ingredient of the daube, too, even if it isn’t preceded by a possessive pronoun. Virginia Woolf, a serious baker of bread, would know how much thought goes into cookery. To the Lighthouse gently insists throughout — in Lily Briscoe’s mind, not so gently — on the kinds of thought of which men seem determined to remain adamantly unaware. Mr Ramsay is a metaphysician, we are told. He worries that nobody will read his work after he’s gone. Meanwhile, the daube, served up to us here with a pagan ritualism that brings Keats’s urn to mind, embodies a recipe that dates back to the Eighteenth Century, if not earlier.
I am not going to explicate my thoughts. Pointing out the connections between Keats and Woolf that ravished me would be pedantic and exhausting. And beside the point: for I am not here to trick you into thinking that I could be a genuine literary critic if only I put a little work into it. I am past all of that. Ambition, like the insistent appropriation of classical claptrap that burns through five of Keats’s Odes with such heat that there is nothing left for the sixth, the title of which does not even include “Ode,” is spent, leaving only me, reading, writing, and palpating savory meats — or at least, as in the case of that night’s dinner of homemade fennel-sausage pizza, browning them with mushrooms — living a life that such moments make worth the trouble. For they are the life, the life amidst the living.
No, she said, she did not want a pear. Indeed she had been keeping guard over the dish of fruit (without realising it) jealously, hoping that nobody would touch it. Her eyes had been going in and out among the curves and shadows of the fruit, among the rich purples of the lowland grapes, then over the horny ridge of the shell, putting a yellow against a purple, a curved shape against a round shape, without knowing why she did it, or why, every time she did it, she felt more and more serene; until, oh, what a pity that they should do it — a hand reached out, took a pear, and spoilt the whole thing.
As I settled down from the bliss of brilliantly juxtaposed readings, each informing the other and lighting me up with an intensity that banished, for the moment, all thought of silence and death, I began to realize — the coins didn’t completely drop until the next day — that I had reached the point in my life that I had always hoped to attain.
Let me tell you a little bit about myself — before I tell you a whole lot more.