John Keats: A Literary Biography, Page 21|
by Albert Elmer Hancock (1908).
THE PHILOSOPHY OF SOUL-MAKING
The purport of "Endymion" has never been made clear. Mrs. Owen has interpreted the poem as an allegory. Colvin assumes it to be "a parable of the soul's experience in pursuit of the ideal." Rossetti finds it meaningless and considerately reconstructs the fable. Keats did attach some philosophical ideas to his narrative; but his purpose was neither allegorical nor meaningless. [An allegory, as a literary type, is a sustained metaphor, drawn out to the length of a narrative, which particularizes the abstract. If "Endymion" is an allegory, then Keats was more interested in an abstraction than in a story. There is no external evidence that he was interested in an abstraction at all. There is definite proof that his purpose was to tell a story. It is possible that his imagination may have played, in passing, with symbols as allegorical figures of speech. But allegory may be forced out of anything. It is too often abused as a last refuge from obscurity.]
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"Endymion" seems a puzzle because the Anglo-Saxon critics have insisted upon reading it through their ethical spectacles. They hunt for a moral issue where there is none.
The key to the puzzle is the meaning of the word "spiritualize" which Diana utters at the close. This commonly implies an elevation from the animal instincts to moral ideals. But Keats used it without any moral significance whatever. The episode with the Indian bacchante, supposed to be crucial, involves no remorse. "Spiritualize" has an æsthetic meaning only, and the senses are made the media of spiritualization. This word is the epitome of Keats' self-spun philosophy of Beauty. It is the open sesame to an understanding of his poetry.
"Oh, for a life of sensations rather than thoughts!" Every student of Keats knows of this exclamation, and pretty nearly every one associates with it Haydon's tale that the poet peppered his tongue in order to increase the delicious coolness of claret. The two things, as text and gloss, have given credibility to the fiction that Keats, with all his fine poetry, had an ignoble weakness for titillating his nerve-ends.
Keats peppered his tongue once; anybody might legitimately try that or a similar experiment. The exclamation, however, has been torn, literally torn, from its context and made into debased currency; although its real meaning was all gold. Keats was at Burford Bridge when he wrote the passage about "spiritualize." While there he also wrote a letter to Bailey, containing this much-quoted phrase, which discussed the two methods of attaining truth, the intuitive and the rational. In the midst of his argument he suddenly broke out, "Oh, for a life of sensations rather than thoughts!" And the exclamation, interpreted by its context, simply meant, "I should rather live in the emotions of the heart, stirred by the imagination's conception of beauty, than in the intellectual truth gained from the processes of logic." It is the impetuous cry of the poet for the intuitive perceptions of the higher nature. Other phrases, used synonymously for the life of sensations, "a Vision in the form of Youth" and "ethereal Musings upon Earth."
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