Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Keats's Ways: The Dark Passages of Mediation and Why He Gives Up Hyperion

Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Keats's Ways: The Dark Passages of Mediation and Why He Gives Up Hyperion

Article excerpt

We could posit a desire for communication which is so strong, so idealistic and hence so frustrated, that it becomes inevitably a dream-state.

--Geoffrey Hartman,

"I. A. Richards and the Dream of Communication" (1)

IN A JOURNAL LETTER OF DECEMBER 1818-JANUARY 1819 TO GEORGE AND Georgiana in Kentucky, writing on the cusp of what will come to be hailed as his annus mirabilis, Keats offers his initial thoughts on the recent death of Tom and then meanders into a truly arresting thought experiment:

   [S]ometimes I fancy an immense separation, and sometimes, as at
   present, a direct communication of spirit with you.... Now the
   reason why I do not feel at the present moment so far from you is
   that I rememb{er} your Ways and Manners and actions; I known you
   manner of thinking, you manner of feeling [sic]: I know what shape
   your joy or your sorrow w{ou}ld take, I know the manner of you
   walking, standing, sauntering, sitting down, laugh{ing,} punning,
   and evey [sic] action so truly that you seem near to me. You will
   rem{em}ber me in the same manner-and the more when I tell you that
   I shall read a passage of Shakspeare every Sunday at ten o
   Clock-you read one {a}t the same time and we shall be as near each
   other as blind bodies can be in the same room. (2)

Keats's dispatch had begun by assuring his brother and sister-in-law that, in the wake of Tom's death, he has "scarce a doubt of immortality of some nature of [or] other" (LJK 2:4). Nor has he any doubt that souls in the afterlife engage in unmediated communication with each other, and enjoy, like Milton's angels, intuitive rather than discursive knowledge: "That will be one of the grandeurs of immortality--there will be no space and consequently the only commerce between spirits will be by their intelligence of each other--when they will completely understand each other" (LJK 2:5). But in the intriguing thought experiment that follows, Keats transposes the ease of immortal interaction to the real world; he imagines a situation whereby he and his correspondents might achieve a similar kind of instantaneous, reciprocal "intelligence of each other." Because each party possesses an abundant capacity for sympathetic imagination ("I known ... you manner of feeling" [sic]), if they were to engage in a coordinated reading of Shakespeare, they would establish an intimate transatlantic connection and overcome the "immense separation" between London and Kentucky. Remembering the name of the ship George and Georgiana took to America six months earlier, the Telegraph--which alludes to the late eighteenth-century semaphoric communications technology--while looking ahead to Mark Twain's 1891 satirical treatment of its electric successor, one might name this scene "mental telegraphy." One might even be tempted to call Keats's scenario Shakespearean Skype. After all, his proposal of synchronized reading raises the same question about time difference that the railway made newly urgent in the early nineteenth century, and which lives on in the scheduling of today's planned mediated interactions: "ten o Clock" in whose time zone? (3)

But even as Keats indulges in this fantasy of instantaneous communication, he intimates its counterfactual nature and the obstacles to true contact. Note his final simile: he declines to liken his scenario to sighted individuals each sequestered in far-flung places and hence invisible to one another. That would be the more appropriate simile for the situation he narrates. That would also be a fitting, reflexive image for the very act of postal correspondence in which he is participating; as Charles Lamb confesses in "Distant Correspondents" to his addressee in Australia, "I cannot image to myself whereabout you are." (4) Instead, Keats scribbles off the converse simile of "blind bodies ... in the same room," as though to register, within his own fantasy, a sense that an ineluctable condition of isolation predominates even when individuals are as closely joined as two bodies in the same room. …

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