Since posting about creativity versus health, I've been feeling some misgiving, deepened by reading Virginia Woolf. Because it's not exactly a choice, is it? Whether to be mad or not. And mental health and good behaviour are not always what they're cracked up to be.  They are guarantors of happiness only insofar as happiness is constituted in conformity, in treading the via media. I think as I get older I'm growing less tolerant of social transgression, more plaintive about disturbance of the peace. This happens, no doubt, when we get comfortable, when we become elder to the new generation. But when we become elder still, we face the final unravelling of everything we've woven so tightly, so decorously round ourselves.

Dementia, the long goodbye, is a horrible darkness, but in some cases that darkness is ever so slightly illuminated by creation. Dementia patients can find in themselves a sudden sensitivity to art, a sudden ability to paint or compose that they never had before. Ravel's Bolero is the notable example: a piece made by a demented mind that has a driving rhythm and a strange, lurching magnificence. We would be poorer without it. Oliver Sacks has been criticised for exploiting his patients' stories of neural anomaly, but I think he's added immeasurably to our stock of human experience. Experiences on the perilous edge of human consciousness, which we might never know except by reading about them, challenge our notions of what it means to be human, what it means to be healthy or happy or good, how much our notions of normal are constituted in perception. And Woolf, gifted and afflicted, lyrically afloat in the full-fed stream of her consciousness, wrote at a depth few of us reach. We would be poorer without her.

She's one of many artists - the ones Sonya Chung was harking back to - that embody Shakespeare's compounding of the lunatic, the lover and the poet. And of course, as the poets would testify, we would be poorer without a spectrum of experience that involves the unconforming, the unbodied, the inexplicable. Keats saw it in Shakespeare, but the coinage, ‘negative capability,' is his. “When man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason." When experience of all kinds is welcome evidence of existence, and the fuel of creative fire. While I might personally fear an exile from the middle way, collectively we need the experience of these border rangers. We need the negatively capable to testify to the enduring mystery of existence. To find the hard shell of normal and crack it open.

Of silence and slow time

As my nuptials are fast approaching, I was looking for an epithalamium for today, but most of them are too long to publish here, and lots of them seem to focus on the bride and the bridal chamber in a way that brings a blush to the bridal cheek. So instead, I chose Keats’ “bride of quietness” and the festal scene depicted on the Grecian Urn. If you want to read the whole thing it's here, but I felt the first two stanzas would do nicely.

Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness,  
Thou foster-child of silence and slow time, 
Sylvan historian, who canst thus express 
A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme: 
What leaf-fring’d legend haunts about thy shape      
Of deities or mortals, or of both, 
In Tempe or the dales of Arcady? 
What men or gods are these? What maidens loth? 
What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?    
What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?   

Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard 
Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on; 
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear’d,  
Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone: 
Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave         
Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare; 
Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss, 
Though winning near the goal—yet, do not grieve;  
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss, 
For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!        

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness

Since today is an exquisite Autumn day, and since Brad suggested it some while ago, I thought I would post an Autumn poem.  There are heaps - probably more than for any other season - but I find it hard to go past Keats.  I wrote about him in my honours thesis, and seem to remember arguing that this poem was in fact his greatest achievement. Anyway, here it is:

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss'd cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For Summer has o'er-brimm'd their clammy cells.

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap'd furrow sound asleep,
Drows'd with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cyder-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.

Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,--
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

Enshaded in forgetfulness divine

Of course this week's Friday poem has to be Keats, and though I like his early poem “Sleep and Poetry,” I prefer this late sonnet “To Sleep.” His ode to the nightingale famously ends with a question that shades all his work: “Do I wake or sleep?” I love that twilit dream-state he evokes so beautifully, especially with unreal words like ‘embowered’ and ‘enshaded.’ (I remember with what ecstasy I first found ‘emparadised’ in Donne). I like his inversion of dark and light: light is harsh and relentless, soothed by the gentle dark. 

O soft embalmer of the still midnight,
Shutting, with careful fingers and benign,
Our gloom-pleas'd eyes, embower'd from the light,
Enshaded in forgetfulness divine:
O soothest Sleep! if so it please thee, close
In midst of this thine hymn my willing eyes,
Or wait the 'Amen,' ere thy poppy throws
Around my bed its lulling charities.
Then save me, or the passed day will shine
Upon my pillow, breeding many woes, -
Save me from curious Conscience, that still lords
Its strength for darkness, burrowing like a mole;
Turn the key deftly in the oiled wards,
And seal the hushed Casket of my Soul.

Fireworks and falling stars

 “Knowing within myself the manner in which this Poem has been produced, it is not without a feeling of regret that I make it public. What manner I mean, will be quite clear to the reader, who must soon perceive great inexperience, immaturity, and every error denoting a feverish attempt, rather than a deed accomplished...[It] may deserve a punishment: but no feeling man will be forward to inflict it: he will leave me alone, with the conviction that there is not a fiercer hell than the failure in a great object. This is not written with the least atom of purpose to forestall criticisms of course, but from the desire I have to conciliate men who are competent to look, and who do look with a zealous eye, to the honour of English literature.” So wrote Keats in the preface to Endymion, published in 1818.  So might Jane Campion have prefaced her film.

Physically, it is beautiful, particularly the photography of fabric, paper, flowers, butterflies, and luminous interiors.  But as an accomplished deed, as a contribution to the honour of English literature, it leaves much to be desired.  I wasn't surprised to find myself out of sympathy with the tone, as I think most period films fail to recreate the sensibility of their period, content to stick gen-y celebs in ye olde garb and assume that folks in the nineteenth century thought, felt and spoke much as we do. Beyond this elementary shortfall, I was struggling to find out what the film is about.  It's not about Keats, as the only biographical cues we get are a puffy shirt and a slight cough.  It's not about Fanny, in the sense that we see her inner world and understand her passion for the poet or the poems. It's not about the affair, which is anaemic and ambiguous, and has no clear genesis or consummation. And it's certainly not about poetry, though the central characters lurch into verse at key moments, much as leads launch into song in stage musicals.  I have to conclude that it's in fact about the visual beauty of fabric, paper, flowers, butterflies and luminous interiors; that Keats was not a text but a pretext; and that Campion is in company with many a director who mistakes the medium for the subject. Maybe it's impossible to translate into film the synchronous evolution of a romantic poet and a poetic romance. Or maybe our generation is incapable of a rich and nuanced visualisation of great literature, preferring a shimmering spectacle to an enduring work of art.