Report of a lecture by Eli Siegel about the poetry of John Keats (1795-1821), including the great “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” and the lesser-known “Calidore”
Eli Siegel’s lecture of May 11, 1975 is one of the greatest honorings of the meaning of liking the world and of poetry. Mr. Siegel began this magnificent lecture, Poetry, Atmosphere, and Neatness, which was studied via tape recording in Aesthetic Realism classes, by saying:
What I’m talking about today constitutes part of the only argument I know of that can justify the world and make life seem sensible. There ought to be a seeing of what the question means: Is the world good or not? The case for the world as good is in the meaning of poetry and all the arts, which is the same thing as the meaning of reality when honestly seen by a person. What I’m talking about [is] aesthetics. I hope the meaning of that word will be seen.
Aesthetics, Eli Siegel showed, is the seeing of the oneness of opposites in reality, and is the one means of meeting our deepest desire: to like the world, see it as good. Pointing to the opposites which were the subject of the lecture, he explained, “[Saying] ‘atmosphere and neatness’ is the same as saying a thing doesn’t end, it continues—and also is very clear. It’s a little like a porcelain cup in the twilight.” Mr. Siegel explained with passion and technical precision that because poetry makes a one of neatness and atmosphere—what a thing is and its infinite relations—it shows there is no limit to how much meaning and beauty we can see in reality. And because of this, it stands for the way of seeing the world all people want and need to have in our lives in order to respect ourselves. Mr. Siegel stated passionately:
Most people in this world today depend for their livelihoods on contempt, on suspicion, on anger, on fear—and as I say this, I am very sober. Every person depends on contempt for the stability of his own opinion of himself.
While Mr. Siegel said every artist has shown the meaning of the whole world in specific instances of it, in this lecture he spoke deeply and definitively about the early 19th century English poet John Keats—showing that in his poetry, Keats had a way of seeing utterly opposed to contempt. Keats, who lived only 26 years, from 1795 to 1821, said of himself: “I have lov’d the principle of beauty in all things.” It was this love for beauty, Mr. Siegel showed—the desire to see unbounded meaning in reality—that made for a new effect in poetry. We saw this as he greatly explained two poems by Keats: “Calidore,” which is not so well known, and one of the most beautiful and studied poems in English, “La Belle Dame Sans Merci,” of 1819, which begins:
O What can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
Alone and palely loitering?
The sedge is wither’d from the lake,
And no birds sing.
The knight meets a beautiful woman who says she loves him. But in a dream, he hears, “La belle Dame sans Merci / Hath thee in thrall!” and when he awakens, he is alone and sad. Mr. Siegel showed this poem is related to what is said in the musical lines that end Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem, “Kubla Khan,” written in 1797, as the narrator tells what would happen if he were to remember the beauty he once saw in a vision:
And all who hear should see him there,
And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes in holy dread,
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.
Though in the Keats poem, it is a lady who represents something that can make for pain, and in “Kubla Khan” a person is told to beware of a man, Mr. Siegel explained, “the meaning of [both] is that every human being has something that stands for the whole world, and in possessing that person, unless we want to find what [he or she] means, we are going to be hurt.” Persons in the class were thrilled as Eli Siegel read “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” with gorgeous depth, and looked at nearly every line to show how the oneness of atmosphere and neatness in sound and meaning stands for a world we can like. Of the first line “O What can ail thee, knight-at-arms,” Mr. Siegel said:
It’s quite clear that the word “ail” is a little more toppling and uncertain than ‘knight-at-arms’. That is the way the world is–something that is strong, as we can see in a blade of grass in autumn, standing up straight, and also having that brownish color that shows it’s not faring so well.
Speaking about the neat structure of the poem—a ballad, written in iambic tetrameter—Mr. Siegel said: “Even as we have these grenadiers of sound standing at attention, there are all sorts of suggestion.” About the steadiness in the 2nd line—”Alone and palely loitering?”—he commented, “we can get the feeling that the Ls run it—and yet L is so unfirm itself: it doesn’t exactly wave a sword at you.” He said the 4th line—”And no birds sing”—is very famous, and explained it has, “something of the firmness of absence, the firmness of nullity.”
I love how Eli Siegel explained the meaning of the lady in the poem. Chairman of Education Ellen Reiss pointed out in the discussion following the lecture, people have wanted to see this lady as a vampire; she is called “La Belle Dame Sans Merci”—the beautiful lady without mercy. However, said Mr. Siegel, “She’s presented in the beginning as if she were not given to tormenting men and making them unsure of themselves.” For instance, in this stanza, she doesn’t seem so threatening:
I met a lady in the meads,
Full beautiful—a faery’s child,
Her hair was long, her foot was light,
And her eyes were wild.
“A real siren doesn’t have her eyes wild,” said Mr. Siegel, “—she knows what to do with them.” And he showed that Keats used her to represent something much larger. “One can say she knows all the evil of the world and is acting naive, but I don’t think it is that. The question is, What is beauty? Beauty is naive and also very knowing.” And he explained greatly, “The large question is whether Reality is ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci.’ That’s what I’m hinting at: [Keats is saying] that a thing can be fair and seem merciless.”
I think what Eli Siegel was showing here—that this woman stands for reality, which is the same as beauty itself and which the knight, who represents all people, wants to love but is afraid to love fully—is one of the greatest things in the history of literary criticism and the explanation of the human self. About the lady’s weeping, told of in these lines:
She took me to her elfin grot,
And there she wept and sigh’d full sore;
And there I shut her wild, wild eyes
With kisses four.
Mr. Siegel said: “I think what is being said is: ‘Yes, you are much taken by me, but I don’t think you’ll ever see me as I hope for.’ We have a problem in knowing anybody,” he continued, “to put the finite and infinite together. It’s so much easier to make a person manageably controllable and finite.” And this, he showed, is why the knight is alone at the poem’s end, feeling: “I’m much taken by beauty and I’m much taken by ego too, and I think beauty can give me pain.” Mr. Siegel spoke with beautiful intensity of what people need to learn in order to see reality as it deserves, including through another person:
The greatest enemy of ego is beauty. Every person who has ever been interested in art knows that beauty is without mercy. If you want to love something, you have to see every day, every hour that your ego is in the way. That’s the purport of this poem, and it will be the study of these years of the 20th century.
Mr. Siegel kindly explained: “The meaning of ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’ as Aesthetic Realism sees it, is—and it is in the life of Keats: he was going after what is beautiful always, but he constantly had a sense that he wasn’t fair to it.” Eli Siegel is the only critic to understand this feeling in John Keats. I love him for it, and for describing the thing in every person that is against beauty—the ego desire for contempt—so that we can know it, criticize it, and have a way of seeing reality that makes us proud.
Mr. Siegel described how Keats’ desire to see more, be fair to more of reality, was in his poetic technique, as he showed new dimension in what was immediately observable. Other poets didn’t have the “ornate verbal arabesques” Keats had, he said: “He made the couplet, which is supposed to stay put, more atmospheric”—and showed this is what so angered the critics in 1817, when an edition of Keats’ Poems, including the long poem “Endymion,” appeared. The critics wanted to say they knew what poetry was, and their brutal attack is one of the ugliest things in literary history, helping to make Keats unsure of his large, just purpose—to see the world as good. Using the book Contemporary Comments: Writers of the Early 19th Century as They Appeared to Each Other, edited by E.H. Watson, Mr. Siegel read from two famous reviews of “Endymion” which show this contempt for Keats. In the April 1818 review in The Quarterly, John Croker petulantly complains about Keats’ style: “There is hardly a complete couplet inclosing a complete idea in the whole book. He wanders from one subject to another, from the association, not of ideas but of sound.”
Though critical of Croker’s purpose, Mr. Siegel said: “‘Endymion’ is a hard poem to follow, because you feel that Keats felt: As long as it’s beautiful, let’s mention it. It’s a little rambling—[like going] from food to a cloud to a sweater to a smile.” And he explained, “In poetry, we have something fixed all the time. [It is] a relation of the fixed and the unexpected. You feel that as he gets into the poem, the rhymes are telling him where to go. Rhymes are neat, [and] rhyme has its own atmosphere.” For instance, in these lines from “Endymion:” “Rich with a sprinkling of fair musk-rose blooms: / And such too is the grandeur of the dooms,” Mr. Siegel said, “we have ‘sprinkling’, which is quite definite; the ‘musk-rose blooms’ is atmospheric. The word ‘dooms’ after ‘musk-rose blooms’ is very surprising. Croker [says] Keats got the ‘dooms’ because he had already written ‘blooms’. But he doesn’t see the poetry, even so—that these lines have true music.”
Mr. Siegel said some people saw the same quality in “Endymion”—the drive to include more, to describe the world with beautiful abundance—with great respect. He said Leigh Hunt wrote one of his best sentences on “Endymion,” calling it “a wilderness of sweets, but…truly a wilderness,” while saying people liked their lawns well-trimmed—referring to the 18th century preference for neatness in poetry. And he quoted a letter of Percy Bysshe Shelley to Keats in 1820:
I have lately read your “Endymion” again, and even with a new sense of the treasures of poetry it contains, though treasures poured forth with indistinct profusion. This people in general will not endure, and that is the cause of the comparatively few copies which have been sold. I feel persuaded that you are capable of the greatest things…
It was thrilling to hear Eli Siegel, who had explained centrally two of Keats’ most famous poems, then look with the same critical exactitude at a poem little studied, “Calidore,” which he said “is all about the subject of the world as neat and atmospheric, stating and hinting, vague and certain.” Though this poem has not been seen as important, Eli Siegel showed it is, and tremendously so, because it is “an attempt that cannot be called desperate, but can be called comprehensive, to like the world in many ways. It is important for persons to see the desire for beauty in a likable world without limit. This is not gush,” he stated, “There’s observation. While Keats was panting for a likable world, he looked at things that were of his life and where he was, looking for beauty.” The poem begins:
Young Calidore is paddling o’er the lake;
His healthful spirit eager and awake
To feel the beauty of a silent eve,
“The first thing is something large,” said Mr. Siegel: “To feel the beauty of a silent eve.” “That is in the field of vagueness,” he said. “Noon is neat; dawn is uncertain, atmospheric, and so is sunset.” About another line, “And turns for calmness to the pleasant green,” Mr. Siegel said, “Green is neat, and all green has atmosphere. Black is neater than green. Green is a study in neatness and atmosphere. All colors are.” Then, there is what he called, “the tumult that can be in the ornithological world.” Calidore sees a swallow dart through the air, and dip its wings into the surface of the water, on which he sees “The widening circles into nothing gone.” “That is the utter in atmosphere,” said Mr. Siegel, “where a thing vanishes into nothing. You can’t see a train vanish in the distance without being drenched in atmosphere—let alone see Charlie Chaplin walk away into the sunset.” These opposites are present in a surprising way, as Keats has time being measured by comparing the buzzing of a bee around peaches to the movement of a boat, in these lines:
And now he turns a jutting point of land,
Whence may be seen the castle gloomy, and grand:
Nor will a bee buzz round two swelling peaches,
Before the point of his light shallop reaches
Those marble steps that through the water dip.
Explaining that Keats brings ethics to the idea of beauty, Mr. Siegel said in this poem “Objects seem to say, ‘look at us.’ When objects protest to man about how they’ve been seen, we’ll have a kind world. The reason I’m reading this,” he continued, “is, it’s a gathering of things that can be liked in terms of the history of English poetry. It is in keeping with “Endymion”—[showing] that reality doesn’t run out of things of beauty.”
“This subject of atmosphere and neatness,” said Mr. Siegel as this sweepingly beautiful lecture concluded—
it’s almost literature itself. I’m glad to read this neglected poem of Keats entirely. It’s part of the good show reality can have. This poem has in it the world as neat and the world as making for thought or atmosphere and suggestion—and Keats, as a true poet, is very useful here. The presence of neatness and atmosphere as one, fully understood, is a sign that the world can be truly liked.
Eli Siegel is the person who understood the soul and work of John Keats as he has hoped to be understood for nearly 200 years. I am proud to agree so much with what Ellen Reiss said following this lecture, with which I end my report:
There is John Keats, who died so young, and was so driven to see beauty—he deserved to know Eli Siegel. He earned it—if ever a person earned it!—while he was alive and looking at things and wanting to be fair to them. When you see a person like Keats, the message is—we should work to deserve knowing what Keats deserved to know.
Read more about how Aesthetic Realism and Eli Siegel see the work of John Keats.
“The Immediate Need for Poetry” is a great essay by Eli Siegel, which I love.