Cullen, Keats, and the Privileged Liar
Goldweber, David E., Papers on Language & Literature
It is well known that Harlem Renaissance poet Countee Cullen had great esteem for English Romantic poet John Keats. Cullen's "To Endymion," "To John Keats, Poet" and "For John Keats, Apostle of Beauty" show a love for Keats's poetry and a conviction that Keats's spirit lives on beyond physical death. Cullen studied Keats at NYU with Keats scholar Hyder E. Rollins and wrote his undergraduate thesis for him. Cullen's imagery, rhyme schemes, and uses of classical mythology have a Keatsian flavor. Keats helped Cullen recognize that the human soul, in order to develop to its fullest, must acknowledge life's limitations and endure worldly pain. To Alan Shucard, Cullen's affinity for Keats comes primarily through "the sense both men had of the inescapable and impending quality of death, and of its beauty" (45). To Ronald Crimeau, the two poets share a heightened sense of life's mixture of joy and pain, "the bittersweet complexity of the human experience" (74). To Bertram Woodruff, both poets believe "that joys are not at the full until they are sharpened into pains" (221).
Certainly there is a sense, through Cullen's repertoire, of the primacy of pain in human life, and certainly this is something he shares with Keats. Yet there are many moments when Cullen finds it is best not to face the hard truths of life and death, but, rather, to evade them. A large number of Cullen poems explore illusions: dreams, pretenses, outright lies, strategies for fooling oneself, ways to fool others. I would like to suggest that Cullen's admiration for illusions, just as much his sense of bittersweet human life, was inspired by Keats. For both Cullen and Keats, there are some times when truths must be faced--but other times when they must be avoided.
An illusion, to some people, may be a trifle, a trick, a simple entertainment or diversion. But to Cullen and Keats, illusions are crucial antidotes to a pain that threatens to overwhelm us. Illusions are an ironic solution to life's problems; they are, after all, unreal. Yet our awareness of their unreal nature often serves to heighten, rather than diminish, their healing powers. Illusions are not the only solutions to life's problems, and they are far from perfect, but they are the most viable for most of us through our lives. An exploration of Cullen's treatment of illusions, noting convergences with Keats, suggests that Cullen and Keats were drawn to them from a shared sense of difference or detachment.
That human life is unhappy is a truism for Cullen. The opening poem of his first volume, "To You Who Read My Book," is a statement about the inevitability of decline and misfortune:
Time will outsing Us every one Time will estrange The flesh from the bone A little while, Too brief at most, And even my smile Will be a ghost. (15-16, 19-20, 25-28)
This theme runs through the first volume, as well as the three later volumes. "Saturday's Child" depicts an unlucky and impoverished life. "Confession" depicts a life bearing the ills of racism. "Thoughts in a Zoo" laments the "stifling flesh" that traps us all. "To the Three for whom the Book" laments the ancient loss of Eden. "Tribute" admits that "man is not virtuous in himself, / Nor kind, nor given to sweet charities." There are many other variations on these themes.
Keats's view of life's unhappiness and tragedy is as pronounced as Cullen's, especially in "Welcome joy, and welcome sorrow," "Dear Reynolds, as last night I lay in bed," "Ode on Melancholy," and The Fall of Hyperion. The saddest lines appear in "Ode to a Nightingale," where Keats speaks of
The weariness, the fever, and the fret Here, where men sit and hear each other groan; Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last grey hairs, Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies; Where but to think is to be full of sorrow And leaden-eyed despairs, Where Beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes, Or new Love pine at them beyond to-morrow. …