Poe, Keats and the Wordsworthian Sublime

Thomas Graves

The “egotistical sublime” is an idea we no longer revel in, reeking as it does of Romantic era perfume, whether a Byronic scent for some panting, embarrassing use, or a foliage-bedecked Wordsworth full of God. But if we sneer at “egotistical sublime” as moderns, defensively, since today we think of ourselves as mere dust motes in the universe, we are late to the game, because it was John Keats, the great Romantic, who coined the phrase “egotistical sublime” as a censure against William Wordsworth—in Keats’ 1818 letter to Woodhouse.

Was this just a kid (Keats was 22) picking on a giant (Wordsworth’s reputation in England as well as America was substantial)?

Poe (at 27) did the same 18 years later in his anti-Wordsworth “Letter to B__.”

Keats shared with Poe a kind of high-minded, aesthetic disdain for the earnest, humorless, nature poet. A sonnet by Keats, “The House of Mourning by Mr. Scott,” ends

All these are vile. But viler Wordsworth’s sonnet
On Dover. Dover! Who could write upon it?

And Poe has a raucous good time at Wordsworth’s expense, quoting from Wordsworth’s prose introduction to the Lyrical Ballads, adding parenthetical commentary:

Those who have been accustomed to the phraseology of modern writers, if they persist in reading this book to a conclusion (impossible!) will, no doubt, have to struggle with feelings of awkwardness; (ha! ha! ha!) they will look round for poetry (ha! ha! ha! ha!) and will be induced to inquire by what species of courtesy these attempts have been permitted to assume that title...

Poe represents that school of poetry which does not permit realism, sociology or the didactic to interfere with taste and charm and beauty; the “awkward,” or the ugly, generates more contempt from Poe than anything else.

Right here: Poe’s (and Keats’) disdain for Wordsworth—is a great crossroads in the modern poetry controversy.

Wordsworth widens the scope of poetry by including awkwardness—for sociological reasons.

Poe objects to awkwardness—for aesthetic reasons.

Wordsworth will say, I do not favor awkwardness, per se. Poetry is not just an exercise in pretty.

Poe will say poetry is precisely that which combats the awkward. Other avenues are better suited for conveying the sociological.

And the battle is joined.

Aesthetic concerns quickly spill over into political ones—so it’s not a debate about art anymore, so Wordsworth’s side wins; the “awkward” is ushered in as a legitimate artistic category.

The reformist, Harvard Unitarian, Transcendentalist circles associated with Waldo Emerson and Ellery Channing (friends of T.S. Eliot’s grandfather, it turns out) made sacred pilgrimages to Wordsworth, and were inspired by the popularity of Wordsworth’s ballads in America to make reformist and charitable gestures towards the disadvantaged.

Wordsworth and his New England reformist acolytes made an admiration of nature the new bible of the pious and the disadvantaged.

Wordsworth romanticized the rural poor, which Poe thought was a load of crap. Poe’s fiction might be read as a satire of Wordsworth’s idealizing impulse which cast a beatific light on quaintly insane occupants of mouldering hovels.

The holocaust of the Irish potato famine was one proof that the simple rural life as portrayed virtuously in Wordsworth’s ballads and epics saves no one.

This shows how quickly debate on art can veer into the outrageously political—see how easily it is done with our Irish famine example—which is precisely Keats’ and Poe’s point. Art can’t do its work when infected with didactic impulses and public square speeches.

But with Wordsworth’s “victory,” this is now the critical air we breathe. Issues like the following must be acknowledged: Poe’s famous hostility to New England Transcendentalism is one with his hostility to Wordsworth. It’s a small world.

Poe’s stories were the reverse of Wordsworth’s bland, virtuous poems—the urbanity and acumen displayed by Poe in his fiction a kind of revenge against the crowd he despised: “the cultivated old clergymen of the North American Review” (from Poe’s review of Hawthorne, where Ron Silliman plucked from Poe his updated “Quietist” designation.)

And now Keats’ letter makes a little more sense:

As to the poetical Character itself (I mean that sort of which, if I am any thing, I am a Member; that sort distinguished from the wordsworthian or egotistical sublime; which is a thing per se and stands alone) it is not itself - it has no self - it is every thing and nothing - It has no character - it enjoys light and shade; it lives in gusto, be it foul or fair, high or low, rich or poor, mean or elevated - It has as much delight in conceiving an Iago as an Imogen. What shocks the virtuous philosopher, delights the camelion Poet. It does no harm from its relish of the dark side of things any more than from its taste for the bright one; because they both end in speculation.

We can hear Keats supporting Poe’s agenda against Wordsworth and the “cultivated old clergymen,” for Poe certainly “lives in gusto, be it foul or fair” and “shocks the virtuous philosopher” and has “relish of the dark side of things.”

Dover? Neither Keats nor Poe ever wrote “of Dover” merely to write “of Dover.”

Now we still might ask, why did Keats refer to Wordsworth as egotistical? Wordsworth’s gentle concern for rural folk would seem to be the very opposite of egotistical. What exactly did Keats mean? Wordsworth began as a revolutionary, but did end up as kind of reactionary, Tory celebrity—is this what Keats is seeing?

The “wordsworthian sublime” of Keats is interchangeable with the whitmanian sublime or the emersonian sublime: writers who move around in quotidian, egotistical, Dover. Compared to writers like Wordsworth and Whitman, Keats and Poe are ‘nowhere’; they have no character born of Dover; they have no ego.

Wordsworth, Whitman, and Emerson, and moral writers of their kind are essentially “virtuous philosophers” who provide those virtuous themes—“things per se” that “stand alone”—which every American literature textbook boldly traces: The American Dream, Community, Land & Frontier, The Hero, Loss of Innocence, Self-Reliance, Pursuit of Happiness, Freedom and Authority, Social and Economic Justice, Changing Gender Roles.

Keats belongs to the school of Shakespeare, Milton, Shelley and Poe. These writers, as Keats puts it, “do no harm” with their “relish” of the “dark side of things” because these things “end in speculation.”

“Speculation” is perhaps the key word, here: Poets like Keats and Poe shun morals, themes, and facts; the Crown of Academia: the Research Paper, with its thesis statement and supporting arguments, forces one to examine things virtuously, to slavishly construct a “theme supported by well-ordered evidence” pyramid. The Research Paper wants no part of “gusto” and “the dark side of things.”

The Research Paper wants no part of speculation, either, because the research in every case selectively validates the carefully pre-chosen and institutionally approved thesis.

The argument is not allowed to Socratically follow whatever path speculation happens to allow, for this would undermine the wordsworthian sublime and discombobulate the thesis tailor-made for the academic research paper.

Now this is not a knock on academia; it is only to point out that this is what Keats refers to when he writes of the “wordsworthian or egotistical sublime, which is a thing, per se, and stands alone.” Houses are useful; they are things, they stand alone, and when they are of a certain size, they are egotistical. But houses are necessary for practical reasons, and nowhere in the realm of thought is it necessary to have what stands alone, is useful, egotistical, or thematic. The House of Wordsworth is a sturdy mansion full of goodly citizens living simply and austerely off the land, love-nourished by feelings sublimely fed to them by nature’s quiet presence, whose theme—the calm glory of nature making poets of simple folk—can be had by dipping into any page of any volume of the poet and philosopher, Wordsworth.

The Wordsworthian sublime, or perhaps more accurately, the Wordsworthian reputation, which must have oppressed many a poet, was what Keats was attempting to escape: I would rather be nothing than belong to the House of Wordsworth!

Keats’ 1818 “egotistical sublime” letter to Woodhouse anticipates Poe’s essentially scientific, ego-less, contributions to Letters—contributions that will not be hemmed in by an era, by a theme, a kindly personality, or a fact.

Americans, as a rule, love their facts, their literary eras neatly divided, their extroverted personalities, their themes based on facts: Thoreau’s pond, Whitman’s frontier, the virtues of manly land-management and freedom-seeking love, backwards-looking nativity combined with futuristic democracy.

Photography, in the American view, not only impacts painting, but rhyme and metaphor—history exists that poetry might exist. In the typical recounting, Poe’s ideal science melts away before the plain Emersonian fact.

In American literature, ideas only belong to a certain time period—then they cease to function.

In U.S. Letters, if it gives off a whiff of the historical, it needs to be accommodated to the now, now.

The French have always celebrated ideas in history, but the ideas remain for them more interesting than the history; the Anglo-American mind is more interested in the historical fact in its fact-ness: ideas are not solid; therefore they are not trustworthy.

This is why Poe lived in French, and was buried, in Anglo-American criticism. English-Speaking Letters has even made much of “the French Poe:” a scribe in the pre-WW I Nation, Aldous Huxley, T.S. Eliot, and Harold Bloom all claiming the French love Poe too much because of a trick of translation.

The claim is dubious, but Poe forces Anglo-American criticism to be a bit nutty; Poe is slippery; he didn’t build a neat little house on a pond. Poe’s writing can be understood, but experience isn’t graspable in it—no era or label or fact fits him; Poe’s urbanely French yet earthily Southern; modern, yet 18th century, and the mismatches go on and on: Christian, and yet not...mathematical, yet emotional...mysterious, yet obvious...American, but no...the pedant can’t sink his teeth into him; Poe can’t be grasped by the factual.

Poe makes nothing happen; he doesn’t teach us anything—he merely leaves us uncomfortably in awe...you don’t read Poe and say, “I could do that.” You read Poe and fall into speechless wonder.

Poe’s the circus and you, the little child. Poe makes you feel belated—you run to catch up with him and find the detective genre and literary science already in place.

Poe is the genius we study as we study nature.

He’s not a “writer’s writer.” Poe’s the one who makes the writer give up. That’s why Poe is strangely absent from MFA Writing Programs; Poe’s excellence winds its way from encouragement to discouragement. He’s the mountain top no one can reach. They find they can’t breathe and beat it back to base camp. No wonder critics of supreme confidence, like Emerson and Harold Bloom, hate him.

Poe’s Eureka explains existence, and he dares you to contradict him—which you cannot do. The room (universe) is locked and you cannot escape. It doesn’t matter whether you are a poet, a critic, or a scientist.

Poe’s universe begins and ends with one particle of all matter condensed in it, which Poe calls “unparticled” matter. What is unparticled matter? Matter, as Poe says, “without attraction or repulsion,” in its massive, yet “unparticled,” state: it is matter which does not exist. Poe guessed at the “big bang theory,” back in the middle of the 19th century, and imagines its reality in the simplest terms: it is the universe going from the one (matter in a state which cannot “exist”) to the many (matter as we know it, distributed in limited space). Gravity, the most powerful force and simplest law in the universe, is the phenomenon of matter-returning-to-its-original-unity, and once the return is effected and there is nothing, it starts all over again, like a beating heart. (And according to Poe, this heart is “ours,”—but this is speculation which must be saved for another day.)

At the heart of Eureka is nothing.

But this is not quite correct: at the heart of Eureka is matter conceived as spirit; for we think of matter in terms of density—and spirit as its opposite; in Poe’s universe, matter, when it is most dense (unparticled), becomes spiritualized nothingness, not fancifully, but rigorously and scientifically: matter, when most condensed, is spirit; spirit, when most ethereally vacant, is matter. The nothing—that is matter right before it manifests itself as matter in the big bang—is spirit.

It is hauntingly similar to what Keats says in his famous 1818 letter, if we think of Keats’ use of “poetical” corresponding to Poe’s “spirit” in Eureka, and the unpoetical to Poe’s “matter” in his great Prose Poem. We would normally think of the poet as a spiritual creature, but no, says Keats; and this reminds us of Socrates telling us the god, Love, is not lovely but ugly. It is desire for love that partakes of love more than love itself; likewise, in Eureka, it is matter’s desire to embrace (gravity) which partakes of matter more than matter itself; likewise, in Keats, it is the poet’s “unpoetical” nature (having no body, no identity of its own) which makes him a poet. To quote further from Keats’ famous letter:

A Poet is the most unpoetical of any thing in existence; because he has no Identity - he is continually in for - and filling some other Body - The Sun, the Moon, the Sea and Men and Women who are creatures of impulse are poetical and have about them an unchangeable attribute - the poet has none; no identity - he is certainly the most unpoetical of all God’s Creatures. If then he has no self, and if I am a Poet, where is the Wonder that I should say I would write no more? Might I not at that very instant have been cogitating on the Characters of Saturn and Ops? It is a wretched thing to confess; but is a very fact that not one word I ever utter can be taken for granted as an opinion growing out of my identical nature - how can it, when I have no nature? When I am in a room with People if I ever am free from speculating on creations of my own brain, then not myself goes home to myself: but the identity of every one in the room begins so to press upon me that I am in a very little time annihilated - not only among Men; it would be the same in a Nursery of children.

I am annihilated. This is everyone’s fear, and one of Poe’s major themes.

Poe’s universe is annihilated when it returns to its original unity—all that matter swirling into larger and larger clusters until the universe disappears into unparticled matter—matter which cannot exist. Yet, after its annihilation, the universe expands again into its scattered, material existence, in another ‘big bang,’ in another beat of the divine heart—which, Poe, says, is “our own.”

Let us look at the paradox of Keats’ description, which resembles the paradox of Poe’s universe.

When we think of someone whose identity is crowded out by others, we think of someone who has no ego, someone who is not a Wordsworth, not a famous poet standing with a ready identity, enjoying the crowd and being enjoyed by the crowd, the big-ego celebrity. But on the other hand, someone with a very large ego is precisely that person who cannot stand to compete with a crowd—that person who runs from a crowded party because their ego cannot stand to share attention with so many others.

So which is it? No ego or big ego?

We recognize in Keats the fully formed bi-part soul; he has simultaneously no ego and a colossal one: this is similar to the paradox Keats describes in his letter—the poetic self has no self. It is neither having a big ego, nor having no ego which makes the poet, but having both. Paradox—or should we say balance?—belongs to the soul of the poet.

We should not fear paradox, but embrace it.

Paradox is, in fact, balance.

Poe’s Eureka posits a God responsible for a single thought-act of volition, initiating the big bang, which returns matter to itself and thus the visible universe to itself, in terms William Ockham would have appreciated, and which even Daniel Dennett would have trouble refuting:

Poe’s deity is so quietly and logically unobtrusive that it almost doesn’t exist.

And so Poe manages to offend both Christians (who want a more personal God) and secularists (who don’t want one at all)—but only if Eureka is (perhaps) not read carefully.

The same could be said of Keats—a priest of poetry in such a manner that he is not religious, and yet, as most readers of Keats feel when reading him, Keats is part of all that we mean when we use that term, religious.

The poet ends up defining the very terms: God, religion, nature, spirit, matter, etc. by which reality is understood—and in this sense the poet really is a law-giver, a scientist, a priest, and a legislative force all at once—but which has no institutional, national or moral boundaries.

We might say that this role ended with Poe and Keats, but why should it end with Poe and not extend forward in time to us? If we can comprehend Poe, he then exists in the present with us, and we, as poet-scientists, might have a chance to insinuate ourselves into the public conversation, again. All we have to do is allow Poe, the poet, to join the scientific discussion—and he clearly earns admission with Eureka, and then we can trace his thought, together with speculations of our own, as it applies to both Poe’s fiction and poetry, and the literary arts, in general. But if we as “post-moderns” methodically push Poe away, assuming that “his era is gone,” we diminish both Poe—and ourselves.

The mere poet or person-in-the-street might say, “even if Poe is correct and this is how the universe works, what does it matter to me? The whole thing, because it really is ‘the whole thing’ finds me, as an individual, below its radar, lost to its abstract immensity.”

But Eureka is more than a guide to theoretical physics: the implications of practical poetry and philosophy are not insignificant, since Poe targets the very tendency for universal matters to seem too abstract.

Poe describes our universe uniquely, as if it were a person of a certain size, desiring and doing a certain thing.

Our best experiences are physical—and ephemeral for that very reason. What slips away is the highly material (real) aspect of existence.

Poetry is communication made sublimely physical. Love’s excitement and risks do not exist for us unless physically.

The physical—the more than physical profundity of the physical, if I might put it this way—is the door Poe opens in Eureka when he makes us cognizant of the fact that romance and science are one, that our most trivial, unlearned, and secret meditations are not so trivial, after all.

And yet, what is this physicality, but something deeply spiritual—which is merely the physical’s unresting opposite...?

To see the way Poe uses paradox—or, the sane version of paradox, balance, we’ll quote this passage towards the end of Eureka, as long as it is understood that Poe’s work is a single argument that needs to be read in its entirety:

I have already alluded to that absolute reciprocity of adaptation which is the idiosyncrasy of the Divine Art — stamping it divine. Up to this point of our reflections, we have been regarding the electrical influence as a something by dint of whose repulsion alone Matter is enabled to exist in that state of diffusion demanded for the fulfilment of its purposes: — so far, in a word, we have been considering the influence in question as ordained for Matter’s sake — to subserve the objects of matter. With a perfectly legitimate reciprocity, we are now permitted to look at Matter, as created solely for the sake of this influence — solely to serve the objects of this spiritual Ether. Through the aid — by the means — through the agency of Matter, and by dint of its heterogeneity — is this Ether manifested — is Spirit individualized. It is merely in the development of this Ether, through heterogeneity, that particular masses of Matter become animate — sensitive — and in the ratio of their heterogeneity; — some reaching a degree of sensitiveness involving what we call Thought and thus attaining (obviously) Conscious Intelligence.

In this view, we are enabled to perceive Matter as a Means — not as an End. Its purposes are thus seen to have been comprehended in its diffusion; and with the return into Unity these purposes cease. The absolutely consolidated globe of globes would be objectless: — therefore not for a moment could it continue to exist. Matter, created for an end, would unquestionably, on fulfilment of that end, be Matter no longer. Let us endeavor to understand that it would disappear, and that God would remain all in all.

That every work of Divine conception must cöexist and cöexpire with its particular design, seems to me especially obvious; and I make no doubt that, on perceiving the final globe of globes to be objectless, the majority of my readers will be satisfied with my “therefore it cannot continue to exist.” Nevertheless, as the startling thought of its instantaneous disappearance is one which the most powerful intellect cannot be expected readily to entertain on grounds so decidedly abstract, let us endeavor to look at the idea from some other and more ordinary point of view: — let us see how thoroughly and beautifully it is corroborated in an à posteriori consideration of Matter as we actually find it.

I have before said that “Attraction and Repulsion being undeniably the sole properties by which Matter is manifested to Mind, we are justified in assuming that Matter exists only as Attraction and Repulsion — in other words that Attraction and Repulsion are Matter; there being no conceivable case in which we may not employ the term ‘Matter’ and the terms ‘Attraction’ and ‘Repulsion’ taken together, as equivalent, and therefore convertible, expressions of Logic.”

Now the very definition of Attraction implies particularity — the existence of parts, particles, or atoms; for we define it as the tendency of “each atom, &c. to every other atom” &c. according to a certain law. Of course where there are no parts — where there is absolute Unity — where the tendency to oneness is satisfied — there can be no Attraction: — this has been fully shown, and all Philosophy admits it. When, on fulfilment of its purposes, then, Matter shall have returned into its original condition of One — a condition which presupposes the expulsion of the separative Ether, whose province and whose capacity are limited to keeping the atoms apart until that great day when, this Ether being no longer needed, the overwhelming pressure of the finally collective Attraction shall at length just sufficiently predominate and expel it: — when, I say, Matter, finally, expelling the Ether, shall have returned into absolute Unity, — it will then (to speak paradoxically for the moment) be Matter without Attraction and without Repulsion — in other words, Matter without Matter — in other words, again, Matter no more. In sinking into Unity, it will sink at once into that Nothingness which, to all finite perception, Unity must be — into that Material Nihility from which alone we can conceive it to have been evoked — to have been created, by the Volition of God.

In the final analysis, ‘Dover’ may be more meaningful and more accessible and more useful and even more exciting to us than the universe, or talk of “the Volition of God,” or the “dark side of things” or that poetic character which is “everything and nothing,” but the singular genius of a Keats or a Poe has its impact on Dover, too.

THOMAS GRAVES lives in Salem, Massachusetts.