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?

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……………….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

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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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