The Art of the Ode

Marking the 200th anniversary of Keats’s death, Anahid Nersessian offers a refreshing examination of his genius.

Literature

 

Anahid Nersessian_Keats
Keats's Odes: A Lover's Discourse, written by Dr. Anahid Nersessian. Available via The University of Chicago Press. Photo provided by the author.

 

According to its author I should not have read Keats’s Odes: A Lover’s Discourse. In the preface, Dr. Anahid Nersessian states “if you’ve never read anything on Keats’s odes before, this book should not be your first stop.” While it may be the duty of a writer and academic to encourage wide reading and understanding of a topic or figure, I’m not sure I agree that it’s necessary to go through the proper channels of being introduced to canonical literature critique. As it is, this book offers fascinating insights of the odes through “meditations,” as Nersessian calls them, expressed through personal connection and a variety of references rather than academic jargon.

 

I found this intimate exploration of Keats a profound way to connect to his work, and Nersessian’s words an inspiration of how us essayists can create work that combines our own experience with our knowledge and love of other writers or artists. Her disclosure (acknowledgment? humility?) in the first lines seems to downplay her “intimate, idiosyncratic responses” to Keats’s odes as if these are not serious enough to fully understand the poet’s work. On the contrary, I think this form of critique and discussion is a robust way to engage readers in writers of old. She also gives just enough biographical background and historical context to fill in those of us who are ignorant of such information. As someone with an interest in Keats but whose only knowledge of him comes from reading a few of his most famous poems found in my Treasury of Classic Poetry  and watching Jane Campion’s "Bright Star," I did not follow Nersessian’s advice before reading her book and can’t say I regret it. 

 

As February 2021 marked the 200th anniversary of Keats’s death, this book offers a refreshing examination of his genius. In her introduction, Nersessian explains various perspectives of his work and life, from writers and critics in Keats’s time to biographers and scholars today, along with Keats’s own point of view from poems and letters. She also introduces concepts and works of other writers she will continue to connect to Keats, from radicalism and Marx to lovers’ experiences and Barthes. Finally, she establishes her own role in this whole affair — that is, her love affair with Keats across time and space, and the role Western literature plays in her life.

 

This introduction gives readers an understanding of how this book will work: the author will fill in the background and, in analyzing the odes, bring in a variety of other sources and connections as well as her own experience to add another layer of meaning. This synthesis has various levels of success — at times, there’s a loss of focus and a muddling of purpose or insight. Generally though, it makes for an enlightening and complex critique, using diverse sources, evidence, and comparisons.

 

The main source of success throughout is Nersessian’s own eloquent explanations of Keats’s language and expression, as she does in introducing the concept of the ode and his version of one:

 

“…this poetry is honest — not in any limited moral sense, but because it is obstinate in its commitment to loving without shame or reservation. An ode by Keats is just that: an anchorage for big feelings that, in their sheer ungovernability, test what it might be like to be really free.”

 

This idea of love as freedom comes up multiple times throughout the book, but Nersessian also proves that the odes are not just about love as an experience of romance that we often limit it to — it’s an enveloping love of the world and “us: those who know this is not all we are meant to be.” That’s how Nersessian describes Keats’s love at the start of the book's introduction and it becomes clear in each chapter that the love present in these odes is world-encompassing.

 

The book has six “meditations” on six odes. By Nersessian’s own explanation, the first and last meditations she declares “conventional pieces of scholarship,” the second uses autobiographical aspects to give a poem further meaning in the contemporary moment, and the three in the middle tell a story, but what story she intends I am not exactly sure. I recognized the story of love and freedom — and poetry expressing the human experience of these feelings — running throughout all the chapters, not only the middle three. She also uses a similar style of synthesis in each chapter, to varying degrees: more autobiography here, more external sources and connections there.

 

In an effort at brevity, I will focus on the four odes/chapters that I found most interesting, making pairs that do not exactly follow the categorization Nersessian lays out. The two I will not focus on, “Ode to a Nightingale” and “Ode on Melancholy” are entirely enjoyable and interesting, but more straightforward in critique and purpose. “Ode to a Nightingale” is an effective introductory ode, Nersessian explains themes and biographical context, and makes various connections to literature, art, and psychology. Her voice is clearly a unique asset in understanding the poem’s concepts and language. In “Ode to Melancholy,” Nersessian delves deepest into her personal experience, interweaving a personal essay and the event of a melancholic love affair with her critique of the poem. These two chapters have their place in this book, but it is the four others I feel the need to explore.

 

Following “Ode to a Nightingale,” which, as Nersessian described, felt like a conventional critique, is “Ode to a Grecian Urn,” an ode I was familiar with but was fascinated to learn the extent of its meaning, according to Nersessian. Here, the author makes the robust declaration that this is poem about sexual violence, and more specifically (or broadly, as she puts it) “about poetry’s long involvement in a cultural tradition that takes sexual violence to be an especially rich source of inspiration for art.”

 

This chapter may be an example of why Nersessian made the statement in the preface about reading other critiques first — I don’t know if this interpretation is a new and controversial stance on the poem or if others have made similar points. What Nersessian does declare controversial in her reading is the idea that Keats is not the speaker but has created a persona. This seems almost convenient, since the speaker is part of aggressive tradition, describing an image in which rape is about to take place and almost reveling in it — Nersessian is careful to point out that this is not Keats, and that the poet actually sabotages this voice and its “absurd and malevolent reasoning.” So, the author has managed to implicate Keats in a tradition of using rape as inspiration, but then defends him as being one to expose this tradition rather than taking part.

 

For these complex arguments about sexual violence and those who exploit it, Nersessian uses clear evidence within the text as well as connections to other sources, not least that of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which comes up frequently throughout the book (given Keats’s penchant for mythic reference) and is indeed full of rape. The author also brings in her personal experience of sexual harassment in college and makes a complex connection to both the personal and historical, as well as the connection to academia and freedom — all are tied up in how sexual violence is experienced and discussed by the different genders.

 

This, in my mind, pairs with, or creates a trajectory to, the fifth ode of the book, “Ode to Psyche,” which explores the feminine experience within myth and various versions of myths, echoing, of course, the feminine experience within the world. “Psyche,” however, goes beyond an exploration of what women experience at the hands of men (exile, pleasure, pain, trials); it’s also a declaration of the “annulment of gender.” Nersessian explains how Keats’s gorgeous imagery and description of the famous lovers, Cupid and Psyche, make them into one being, that they’ve found a utopia of love and thus a freedom from constraints such as genders.

 

These two poems both show some of Keats’s radicalism, which Nersessian argues throughout is less about content and more about style and concept. In his imagery, voice, details of rhetoric, and description, he has radical things to say about violence towards women and their experiences in love, but ultimately it comes down to the human experience as being limited and love being the only thing to free us. I found these two meditations to be the most successful and meaningful in the book, as far as that synthesis of analysis of craft, literary reference, political discussion, and personal experience. Nersessian is an intimate scholar — this is, after all, about her love affair with Keats — and her voice comes through in extraordinary ways even without the more personal creative expression used in “Ode to Melancholy.” 

 

The two meditations I found most complex and problematic were “Ode on Indolence” and “To Autumn.” Problematic may not be the best word. They are as insightful and impressive explorations as the others, but they left me pondering and unsure.

 

“Ode on Indolence” is problematic because Nersessian finds Keats’s ode exactly that, or more severely, simply not good. In explaining her disdain for the poem and all the things that might have made it better, it felt almost like a too-intimate bone she was picking with her poet-lover-extraordinaire, which perhaps we don’t need to be privy to. However, she does explore the concept of indolence as a larger idea using the experiences and expressions of two women — Jenny von Westphalen, who would marry Marx, and Fanny Brawne, Keats’s famous lover.

 

I didn’t find much of Nersessian’s personal words or story in this chapter, as she claims, but there seems to be an identification with these women that show her true feelings. Indolence, according to Nersessian, means detachment and self-management, a way of coping with love that protects oneself from drama, pain, and disappointment. Keats had no knowledge of this way of loving, being entirely passionate and sensual, so the ode is a false pretense, a stereotype of something more complex and misunderstood.

 

I’ve certainly never thought of indolence as such a complex theory and stance and was intrigued by Nersessian’s explanation of its potential. But she also pairs Keats’s ode with quotes form a novel by Barbara Browning, which I found less successful in exploring the concept of indolence than the letters of von Westphalen and Brawne.

 

With “To Autumn,” Nersessian makes a bold move: she pairs a stanza from a contemporary poem with the ode and sprinkles more stanzas throughout the chapter. This is a synthesis similar to using quotes from Browning’s novel, but it’s a step further — it puts a poem in direct dialogue with Keats, and there is no explanation or source given until the end of the chapter. Nersessian’s discussion of “To Autumn” is largely about political context, since it is understood to have some connection with the massacre at Peterloo on August 16th, 1819, written as it was a month later. Nersessian goes through various theories of how the ode comments on Peterloo, discusses a Percy Bysshe Shelley poem that more directly addresses the event, and explores the idea of passivity or indifference as a form of resistance.

 

The comparison of Keats and Shelley and the argument that passivity or nonviolence is not always the only or best response to violence seems to be the main thesis Nersessian is building towards, but in the end, she comes back to the previously uncited mystery poem, revealing it to be Diane di Prima’s “Revolutionary Letter #7.” The chapter (and the book) closes with a comparison between this new, previously unmentioned author and Keats, and how they address ugliness in such a beautiful world.

 

Nersessian performs a wonderful analysis of Keats’s way of doing this but chooses to end by espousing the success of di Prima and her call to action in the face of violence. Nersessian doesn’t exactly disparage Keats. Ultimately, she declares the equal importance of the two poets and poetry as a whole, which is an appropriate ending. But I wanted more of Nersessian’s obviously loving expression in exploring Keats’s language:

 

“every impeccable turn of every line is bought by shame, which can never be allowed to leech through the language it has hounded into being, lest it accidentally impersonate an alibi or a justification. That we can be here…and still find things to call beautiful and to love or be unable to stop loving is indefensible. But we are here, and we do. ‘To Autumn’ confesses it for us.”

 

This is an ode in itself — Nersessian is never too effusive about Keats’s work but her care and attention to it reveals its complexity and delicateness. Her transcendent love for Keats and her thorough understanding of his poetry puts these odes in a new light. This is why I was disappointed for the book to end pairing him with some other poet; while there may be a good point being made about both poems, I wanted more of the pure revelation Nersessian draws from Keats’s words. It is their pairing that makes this book unique.  

 

 

Poetry, Review, Criticism, Art