WHY KEATS’ “ODE TO PSYCHE” ALSO DOESN’T WORK


………………………………………….Jacques-Louis David, “Cupid and Psyche” (1817)

It’s a silly painting — but delicious.

One can only wonder at what point Jacques-Louis David decided on that silly model, or did he realize the subject couldn’t be anything but delicious and silly, having looked at so many other recent failures in the great houses of Europe. Did he realize that the nakedness of Psyche was the sole interest, and that if Cupid was to be included he would either have to have a tiny wee wee as was the convention, and be a joke, or try to paint a real young man with the equipment that could satisfy her. A clever denouement in the end, in fact — a real-life adolescent Cupid smirking, embarrassed to be seen in this predicament.

“No, you can’t see what I’ve got — the art world’s not yet ready for it!”

Which in a way was the whole purpose of the original story, the myth itself, wasn’t it, that for perfect beauty to actually be anatomically in the embrace of love is never a pretty sight, that if you light a lamp and show it all you’ve just got pornography. That’s the joke here too, I think — and of course it’s brilliant. Jacques-Louis David takes a favorite theme with which to show off flesh, and in doing so makes a god a bumpkin hero!

Sex is always a bummer,  and any lover a bumpkin game-keeper in too much light — and what a ruckus was kicked up when an artist finally did decide to show it all as it really was,  although not of course in painting. Indeed, it’s actually quite hard to show it all in painting because when the embrace is all there it’s anatomically not visible. It’s only when it’s just getting started or when it’s all finished, ugh, that you can show it all, and porno stars in front of cameras trying to shoot the full monty in the middle have to be contortionists, and needless to say that’s not much pleasure for the lovers, even if they are divine!

So of course the light must not be lit — there are some things that can’t be seen, and ecstatic love is one of them. I was referring to D.H.Lawrence just before, of course, who also tried very sincerely and with considerable skill but still failed — which is all the more reason for sheltering Sharon Olds from the prurience of those who are allowed to look at her in the very arms of the god of love and just snicker!

And John Keats? What happens when you say you’re going to show it all and at the same time place Psyche on the altar? Can this be done?

.

……………….ODE TO PSYCHE

O Goddess! hear these tuneless numbers, wrung
By sweet enforcement and remembrance dear,
And pardon that thy secrets should be sung
Even into thine own soft-conched ear:
Surely I dreamt today, or did I see
The winged Psyche with awakened eyes?
I wandered in a forest thoughtlessly,
And, on the sudden, fainting with surprise,
Saw two fair creatures, couched side by side
In deepest grass, beneath the whisp’ring roof
Of leaves and trembled blossoms, where there ran
A brooklet, scarce espied:

‘Mid hushed, cool-rooted flowers, fragrant-eyed,
Blue, silver-white, and budded Tyrian,
They lay calm-breathing on the bedded grass;
Their arms embraced, and their pinions too;
Their lips touched not, but had not bade adieu,
As if disjoined by soft-handed slumber,
And ready still past kisses to outnumber
At tender eye-dawn of aurorean love:
The winged boy I knew;
But who wast thou, O happy, happy dove?
His Psyche true!

O latest born and loveliest vision far
Of all Olympus’ faded hierarchy!
Fairer than Phoebe’s sapphire-regioned star,
Or Vesper, amorous glow-worm of the sky;
Fairer than these, though temple thou hast none,
Nor altar heaped with flowers;
Nor virgin-choir to make delicious moan
Upon the midnight hours;
No voice, no lute, no pipe, no incense sweet
From chain-swung censer teeming;
No shrine, no grove, no oracle, no heat
Of pale-mouthed prophet dreaming.

O brightest! though too late for antique vows,
Too, too late for the fond believing lyre,
When holy were the haunted forest boughs,
Holy the air, the water, and the fire;
Yet even in these days so far retired
From happy pieties, thy lucent fans,
Fluttering among the faint Olympians,
I see, and sing, by my own eyes inspired.
So let me be thy choir, and make a moan
Upon the midnight hours;
Thy voice, thy lute, thy pipe, thy incense sweet
From swinged censer teeming;
Thy shrine, thy grove, thy oracle, thy heat
Of pale-mouthed prophet dreaming.

Yes, I will be thy priest, and build a fane
In some untrodden region of my mind,
Where branched thoughts, new grown with pleasant pain,
Instead of pines shall murmur in the wind:
Far, far around shall those dark-clustered trees
Fledge the wild-ridged mountains steep by steep;
And there by zephyrs, streams, and birds, and bees,
The moss-lain dryads shall be lulled to sleep;
And in the midst of this wide quietness
A rosy sanctuary will I dress
With the wreathed trellis of a working brain,
With buds, and bells, and stars without a name,
With all the gardener Fancy e’er could feign,
Who breeding flowers, will never breed the same:
And there shall be for thee all soft delight
That shadowy thought can win,
A bright torch, and a casement ope at night,
To let the warm Love in!

…………………………………..…...John Keats

.

It’s a remarkable poem, one of my favorites, and I’m so glad he tried, the fool — but still “Ode to Psyche” is a failure.

Christopher Woodman

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18 Comments

  1. thomasbrady said,

    March 14, 2010 at 2:39 pm

    The Keats poem wipes the smirk off the painting’s face.

    The painting is a failure. I would never want that hanging (pun?) where I could look at it.

    Nicely done, Christopher.

    Great post.

  2. Christopher Woodman said,

    March 15, 2010 at 1:21 am

    But let’s say the painting is a parody, let’s say the painter’s name is Laurence Sterne or Billy Collins, let’s say the painting is painted in March and is entitled “March Madness,” or in Miami during the spring break and is called “April Asses,” and that the lovers are depicted as two college kids cavorting on the beach? Let’s say the painting is enormous too, 20 x 10, feet, or 30, and is displayed on a bill board just across the street from Christie’s so that the whole art world doesn’t know where to look? Wouldn’t you go, Tom? Wouldn’t you have a good long peak?

    And do you think the Keats could still compete with that?

  3. wfkammann said,

    March 15, 2010 at 2:35 am

    This poem reminds me of Milton’s Lycidas; especially the formulaic introduction. It has the same youthful flavor as Milton who was clearly a major inspiration for the Romantics. Milton’s poem is about the first encounter with mortality and this with love. There are some lovely lines here and turning Psyche into a dove is a good touch. The last part, though when he takes the poem into the mind is most interesting.

    Yes, I will be thy priest, and build a fane
    In some untrodden region of my mind,
    Where branched thoughts, new grown with pleasant pain,
    Instead of pines shall murmur in the wind:

    “…thoughts, new grown with pleasant pain” compared with murmuring pines is novel.

    And in the midst of this wide quietness
    A rosy sanctuary will I dress
    With the wreathed trellis of a working brain

    Again the branching trellis of thought.

    And there shall be for thee all soft delight
    That shadowy thought can win,
    A bright torch, and a casement ope at night,
    To let the warm Love in!

    And here now the shadowy thought and the bright torch and the great line

    “a casement ope at night to let the warm Love in!”

    In the coutryside of Austria there is a tradition on warm Summer nights that young men try to climb in the windows of their sweethearts. It’s called “Fensterln” A US tour group was staying in a country school building outside of Salzburg and the local country boys tried their luck at Fensterln at the American girls’ rooms at night. The chaperones were horrified and went to the tour guide and complained to her about the boys’ behavior. They asked her to speak with the sexton at the school and demand that he do something about the incident. She asked him in German what he was going to do about it, to which he responded, “I tu nixe” “Not a damned thing.” Without a moment’s hesitation she turned to the Americans and translated. “Herr Meyer assures us that he is appalled by the situation and will not let it happen again.”

    This poem has the youthful lightheartedness of the countryside. Not sure how successful it is, but like Lycidas, it shows a poet ready to spread his wings with better things to come.

  4. Christopher Woodman said,

    March 15, 2010 at 5:40 am

    “Fensterin” — the perfect anecdote for “Ode to Psyche!” Thanks, Bill.

    And of course both responses are correct in the context, “I tu nixe” and the wonderful pimp’s transliteration.

    The point is that if you climb in her window, literally or metaphorically, it’s going to make a big difference whether or not you’re invited. And even that distinction is going to be complicated by other factors that intrude from the outside world, which poses all sorts of incentives and/or obstructions for such lovers. Indeed, there are whole industries out there that sell a bill of goods, one that says he does and she doesn’t, for example, another that says to the victor goes the spoils, another that says natural selection, another that says contraception renders chastity superfluous, another that says DNA will have its way, or sex is good for you, or a true man is like that, or get thee to a nunnery. Or come and get me. Or just say no.

    So it’s complicated for the girl inside the window, which is why the theme of Cupid and Psyche is always titillating, and in the hands of genius can be mind bending — to steer away from the sexual metaphor that might have been even more illuminating.

    Then you have to add the ingredient that clearly interested Keats, that humanity had evolved beyond the Hellenic Mysteries, that the time had come to worship the open window, consciously, in the full light of conscious knowledge — and my feeling is that he discovered it wasn’t actually possible, that the message got lost in too much light!

    So we’re back to “esoteric.” (Remember this in Pop Goes the Weasel? There’s actually far more there than I realized. Perhaps worth rereading in the context.)

    Christopher

  5. Christopher Woodman said,

    March 15, 2010 at 7:44 am

    I taught for many years at a very large public university in Northern Thailand.

    Most of the parents of my students had left school at 11 or 12, so this was not only the first generation to be educated, but the first generation to have been permitted an adolescence at all. Because in traditional South East Asian communities you used to go straight from school at 11 to work at 12, full time bending over in the rice all day — indeed, the very thought that someone should be given 5 years to flop around and complain was unthinkable.

    Most of my students at the university were also female, an unbalance which is a huge problem in the developing world. Boys are encouraged to be “real men” at 14 by their adoring mothers, while the sisters are kept at home to cook and clean and get ready for marriage. So the boys, even of this new generation in which there is a school place for everyone who can get there, physically, don’t get there very often, and the girls do. The boys go out every evening and don’t get up the next morning, and because the girls do all the work at home as well as their homework, it’s no inconvenience for anyone. All’s right with the world — at least for awhile.

    Eventually the brighter girls take the university entrance exams while the boys are still playing, and the girls join their university classes with all their friends. 75% are girls, and the boys remain behind to become unsuitable husbands for the new generation of educated women.

    That’s a prelude for the little scene in which a 4th year student enters my office to discuss her senior thesis, and she reeks of cigarettes. And you know what? I rejoice. I think, there’s another wise woman coming! Because this intelligent young woman has managed to break the Thai taboo that good girls don’t smoke, and by smoking she’s taken a huge symbolic step toward controlling her own life, toward defining herself and being alone.

    And then, of course, it gets harder and harder to go home, because you can’t smoke as a daughter at home, not even in front of your chain-smoking brother. You’re cutting yourself loose, and of course you’re flailing and maybe also failing. And then there’s sex.

    ~

    Psyche’s hot oil burns awake all sorts of monsters.

    Christopher

  6. Christopher Woodman said,

    March 18, 2010 at 2:12 am

    Where “Ode to Psyche” fails is in its ability to deliver what it promises — though I admit that in a perverse sort of way you could say that is an accomplishment in itself, trying something out in order to demonstrate that it can’t be done. Yes, the final image is thrilling, but mainly because it’s such a relief to get out of the rest of the poem which, though beautiful, goes absolutely nowhere.

    ~

    So much depends upon an open window, sort of like that.

    ~

    The problem is that the “shadowy thought” that creates the “soft love” is instantly dispelled when the “bright torch” comes in — which is precisely what happened to the poor girl in the myth in the first place.

    So we’re back to square one!

    ~

    In the end the poem lacks depth because, unlike the other Odes, its poetry fails to evoke cogent ideas that work within it. Imagine how much has been written about “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” for example, and how many great classes have been taught to young students whose minds will never be the same again as a consequence? “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is endlessly fertile in this way, every single word of it — as is even little “Ode to Autumn,” which has nothing but images to go on. “Ode to Psyche,” on the other hand, is rarely tackled in classes, and though it’s the most “beautiful” of them all in some passages, the poem as a whole is sometimes dismissed as incomprehensible. And that’s because the poem simply doesn’t deliver — you can’t talk, write or think about it without tying yourself into knots.

    And here’s the crunch: the idea that the Psyche story could be rewritten simply doesn’t work because it can’t be rewritten. The myth is psychologically, philosophically and spiritually correct as it is, and to try to update it leads only to contradiction and embarrassment.

    ~

    Ask Fanny Brawne about that. I haven’t seen Bright Star, unfortunately, so I don’t know whether the film confirms what I’m saying or not. But in everything I’ve ever read, when the lights went on and Fanny Brawne was face to face as a real person with the man who loved her so intensely, she was burnt to a crisp, so to speak. And of course he himself was on fire quite literally with disease.

    Just imagine waking up beside John Keats, man or poet?

    Christopher

  7. thomasbrady said,

    March 18, 2010 at 2:58 pm

    Christopher,

    The film “Bright Star” is heartbreaking. At one point Keats is homeless and collapses under a bush in Fanny’s yard, too proud to come into the house. It gets me a bit teary just thinking about it. I always thought of Keats as fairly middle class, maybe some genteel poverty, but this film, without ever getting too maudlin about its subject, shows the poet nursing his brother, which is probably how the poet caught TB, the pain of his very real poverty, the sweetness of his relationship with not only Fanny but her family, the mother, the younger sister, the tenderness, the chaste, the honorable love and affection, I think this is why Hollywood hated this film, it was beautifully poetic and sad and tender and chaste and yet unflinchingly realistic…oh God! to think how critics sneered at this film…

    As far as the myth…don’t you think Keats (and his fellow Romantics) were attempting to re-write the myths a little, and not just follow them to the letter? I think Keats was bold and self-conscious enough here to know that he was involved in a promethean and modern task of re-writing these myths; he wasn’t just following them as religious truths, this was one of the glories of Romanticism…. when the moderns reference the myths, they are certainly following in their footsteps…but to break icons and make them anew is not easy…

    In the gorgeous opening of this poem we can see how Keats is not merely referencing the myth…he’s respecting it on a powerful imaginative level…he has no modern ‘artistic distance…’ he’s saying f__ that, my imagination is not going to settle for ‘distance….’

    And so this:

    “pardon that thy secrets should be sung
    Even into thine own soft-conched ear:”

    is sincere, is real, in the highest imaginative sense…

    Thomas

  8. Christopher Woodman said,

    March 20, 2010 at 1:58 am

    Of course the myths get endlessly rewritten, and “Romeo and Juliet” gets the “West-side Story” treatment and then, shortly after, Leonardo DiCaprio comes along and does it all over again in another part of town. But if a myth’s told well the audience never gets tired, even if the plot-line never changes.

    Because Romeo and Juliet are always members of rival families that hate each other, they’re always very beautiful and very young, they always consummate their relationship in no-man’s land, the danger heightening the passion, they always seek wise help from the outside that goes badly wrong, and they always die in one another’s arms bringing peace and reconciliation at last to a divided world.

    That myth wasn’t invented by William Shakespeare either, of course it wasn’t, nor is it restricted to western culture. On the other hand, it’s hard to see how any of the dynamics of the story could be altered without moving on to some other human dilemma or crux. The star-crossed/bad-blood lovers myth has a profound, inalterable dynamic which is forever real and forever fertile for any society — because it’s humanly true, and as such can be tested out by anybody in the world, rich or poor, high or low, educated or not.

    So we’re not talking at all about “rewriting the myths a little,” we’re talking about changing the dynamics altogether – which, of course, poets can do anytime if they want, and may create something wonderful in the process too, but it won’t be the same myth. It won’t serve the same function in the archetypal web of human understanding.

    The dynamics of the Cupid and Psyche story are simple as well: a beautiful, innocent young girl, a mortal, has a lover that comes to her each night in the darkness but who tells her she must not try to find out who he is. When she breaks that injunction she realizes he is a god, and the brilliance of the discovery blights the whole world around her. She suffers exile, loneliness, anguish and despair.

    She grows up, in other words. She loses her primordial vision, and like all of us falls from grace.

    But how much deeper the myth is than any hackneyed, psycho-friendly interpretation we moderns can come up with. How much better to celebrate the existential agony inherent in the myth and leave it at that.

    But John keats didn’t, perhaps for obvious reasons. Keats tried to change the myth to make Psyche an immortal too, as if the initial event could be made visible in mortal terms and be immortal at the same time. Which it simply can’t, any more than sex can. The mortal/immortal split is the dynamic upon which the myth depends entirely, and the mystery can’t exist without it. It’s about precisely that.

    Otherwise you end up with two safe celestial lovers on a half-shell — as you do in Keats’ version, I’m afraid. And that doesn’t accomplish much, because it’s not something human beings can relate to, hemmed around as they are by illness, old age, despair and death. And that’s precisely the disappointment in the poem — on the mythic level, “Ode to Psyche” is too beautiful. It lacks existential depth.

    Christopher

  9. thomasbrady said,

    March 20, 2010 at 2:51 am

    But she has wings, Christopher. She’s a goddess. In the myth, Zeus finally does make her immortal after all her trials at the hands of Aphrodite.

    Keats explicitly says he will be Psyche’s “priest;” his poetry is replacing the fading myths themselves, myths which are fading in the light of Christianity and science. Keats makes us aware that he is aware of the task of not only ‘re-writing’ the myth, but taking it upon it himself to use his poem to re-place the myth.

  10. Christopher Woodman said,

    March 20, 2010 at 3:12 am

    Yes, in the latter day myth she is eventually rescued, but that’s long AFTER the events in the bed. The wings on Psyche are not the same myth, anymore than her lover in the original myth was just a baby. The two stories don’t even arise in the same epoch — indeed, that’s a good example of what happens when you rewrite a myth, you get something else!

    ~

    I agree with what you say in the second paragraph, unequivocally — Keats does try, and partly for the very reasons you mention, though I think there are others too. And I do think Keats was aware of the task as well — he was a very bright guy, after all! But the struggle in the poem to get there accomplishes very little but beauty. Indeed, given the size of the task, which is the attempt to make mortal innocence a permanent state, to achieve stasis in love, so to speak, it’s not at all surprising that on this level the poem goes nowhere.

    And I think Keats knew it — and I base that on what he achieved in the other Odes, but not in this one.

    ~

    The point is, Tom, that suffering’s good for you. No pain, no gain. O blessed fault, oh sacred sin of Adam.

    The Fall is essential in mythological terms. Despair leads more to insight than hope — which is why I’m so against the ease with which any suffering American today is prescribed prozac. The pain is muffled, and Psyche hardly wakes up in our land.

    All human beings lie in the arms of the God of Love in the dark, but when they wake up they’re alone. A hard place to be, alone, but essential!

    And that’s the world’s greatest riddle.

    C.

  11. thomasbrady said,

    March 20, 2010 at 12:10 pm

    But if you read a poem as a ‘lesson,’ isn’t that different than if you read a poem as a…I dunno….a perfect, paradisal ideal in itself? I think Keats was going for the latter…yes, life is hard and there’s no gain without pain…but once in a while, at least, shouldn’t the artist be able to leave all the lessons behind and just go for the goal, the paradise, the joy, itself?

  12. Christopher Woodman said,

    March 21, 2010 at 1:05 am

    You mean play just for fun as the players do in a basketball game?

    Poetry’s a beach, is that what you mean?

    Follow this reasoning through and in poetry you end up with John Ashbery, Rae Armantrout, LangPo and Flarf.

    And you don’t have to shout and tear your hair anymore either — you’ve already got what you want on your plate. John Ashbery is a delicious repast, after all, and Rae Armantrout’s no grouch.

    You’ve got a whole plateful of fluff already.

  13. thomasbrady said,

    March 21, 2010 at 2:18 am

    Christopher,

    Fresh air and exercise are fun for me.

    Basketball isn’t always fun. It’s a test under pressure, a rite of passage.

    Did you see all the Kansas players on the floor in pain today after they lost to Northern Iowa?

    Is Keats flarf?

    Does my statement really lead to flarf?

    I hear anxiety in poets like Armantrout or Ashbery, not in Keats.

    But you’d probably say, and I’d agree, that anxiety isn’t quite the same thing as ‘gain from pain.’

    You don’t think Keatsian joy is serious? Was Keats being frivolous when he said poetry ought to come to one like leaves to a tree, or one shouldn’t bother with it at all?

    But I think we’re miles apart here, anyway…I think you’re talking about a kind of practical morality (vitally important, yes, some would say much more so than poetry) and I’m talking about what’s in the poem and the didactic element in the poem…are we even talking about the same thing, Christopher?

    Have you been able to see “Bright Star” yet?

    Thomas

  14. Christopher Woodman said,

    March 21, 2010 at 2:21 am

    You don’t read what’s in the poem, it seems to me. You read only what’s in your “position.” And fair enough, if that satisfies you.

    I posted this article to try to open up the riddle of a very great poem that is flawed. You say “great” about some poems, you say “crappy” about others — and that’s all. I say read them, reflect on them, and then read them some more.

    If that makes me a “New Critic” in your view, so be it.

    ~

    Anxiety always lies behind cults of pure beauty.

    ~

    Tom,
    My complaint about the whole March Madness series is that it involves reading 1,500 poems very quickly and then ranking them. Looking at the results I can see nothing that would make me believe you are giving these poems much of a chance to speak for themselves what is more to you. The whole thing is way too manic for the sort of reflection I try my best to bring when I write for this site, and I feel very uncomfortable with it.

    You can say you’re doing it to expose the whole BAP juggernaut, but that’s a political position. My own feeling is that your own personal juggernaut is so huge your message gets lost.

    Not only that, it seems to me your political position, parody or not, does poetry a disservice as well.

    But chaque à son goût — if the people go for it, let them eat bread and circuses.

    ~

    And I know I’ve gone way too far on reading this one single, rather simple poem, “Ode to Pysche,” as well — out of the frying pan and into the fire!

    As it’s back to square one now I’ll stop.

    Christopher

  15. thomasbrady said,

    March 21, 2010 at 12:46 pm

    Christopher,

    I’m all for spending days on one poem.

    I’ve been reading BAP for years. I didn’t judge 1,500 poems in one sitting. Is that what you think I did?

    This is the poetry workshop age we live in. Most editors have to read hundreds of poems in a fairly short amount of time.

    This could be another line of discussion: how long does it take to know whether one likes a poem?

    Is poetic judgment absolutley subjective–or not?

    Thomas

    • wfkammann said,

      March 23, 2010 at 5:16 pm

      NOT

      • thomasbrady said,

        March 23, 2010 at 6:27 pm

        I agree, Bill. Objectivity just requires a little proof.

        Most have no trouble with poetry contests or poetry anthologies—even when these exclude subjectively.

        What I like about Scarriet’s March Madness is the parameters of exclusion are revealed, rather than—as they are in the poetry contest—hidden. Who, do you suppose, would object to the parameters of exclusion being discussed openly? Those who prefer the hidden, subjective judgment?

        Also dangerous, I think, is when objectivity is merely assumed and not rigorously defended.

        Even after a vigorous defense, subjectivity may yet remain, but this is better than before the defense, when objectivity was blandly assumed.

        Tom

  16. Robert Tonucci said,

    March 21, 2010 at 1:16 pm

    “In my father’s house there are many mansions” — that’s what makes Scarriet not Harriet!