Tuesday, April 19, 2011



Walter Jackson Bate, John Keats (1963; rpt. New York: Oxford University Press, 1966), p. 486 (on the odes of April and May, 1819):
No single interpretation of any of the odes—still less of the odes as a group—satisfies anyone but the interpreter. Too many different elements converge. This, of course, is one explanation for their success, as it is for the success of any great work of art. That commonplace is one of those truths of which, as Johnson said, though we may not need to be informed, we need to be reminded. For, while few of us deny it in principle, most of us tend to betray it in practice. To seek relief in particular details is inevitable to a finite being. In reading a poem, in contemplating any work of art, we may genuinely feel the active coalescence of the diverse. But when we come to speak about it, we have to proceed consecutively: one thing has to be mentioned before another; in the process of noticing them individually, we find some considerations striking us more than others, if only because in our own phrasing of them we begin to tap essential concerns within ourselves; and we are led by the momentum of our own cooperating eloquence to narrow our interpretation. (A great work, of course, not only permits but invites that eager subjective response to different parts of it.) Moreover, the existence of previous commentary further specializes our attitude if we feel called upon to contribute our mite. For in the heat of debate, or even in the honest desire to return to the amplitude of the work of art, our recoil from what we consider to be partial, single-minded interpretations encourages us to champion those details that we feel were overlooked, and to contradict or minimize considerations that we might otherwise have wished only to supplement.

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