Friday, 25 October 2013

The Character of Light

The Enchanted Castle: at this apex of feeling, the poet/painter is tolled back to “self-concentration”, and, carefully selecting the words or colours for sunlight (“patent yellow or white lead”, renews their cycle of creativity. As for the rest of us, without their “magic casements, opening on the foam / Of perilous seas”, where on earth would we be?.........
 Part Five

The poetry of art as defined by late eighteenth and early nineteenth century aesthetics is not restricted by style and form. Thomas Lawrence, keen play-goer and close friend of the priestess of emotions, Sarah Siddons, created consciously theatrical portraits; to our eyes his way of lighting his celebrity sitters, usually from high above, and coaxing intimate expressions out of them, is cinematic. 

Lawrence was only interested in landscape as a backdrop to his staged portraits. For Constable, landscape was the drama, a changing story of wind, rain and sunshine across sky, fields, water, and trees, from where Keats tracked the nightingale, out of its habitat “Of beechen green, and shadows numberless” into the light of meadows and still streams. 
Constable, Branch Hill Pond, Hampstead, oil on canvas, ca.1821-22. 
Image: © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

                                                                "...thy plaintive anthem fades
                                                                  Past the near meadows, over the still stream,
                                                                    Up the hill-side; and now 'tis buried deep
                                                                      In the next valley-glades..." 

Keats, Ode to a Nightingale

Keats the trained doctor, Constable the amateur geologist, one pantheist, the other Anglican, while communing with nature through their senses, wanted to know “Tell…how came I thus, how here?” just as Milton's Adam had.[1] “We see nothing truly till we understand it”, Constable declared, during his ‘Course of Lectures on the History of Landscape Painting’ (1836), a professional’s guide to creating art through imagination and scientific study of nature, resonating with Keats’ philosophy.

Constable’s art was in “selection and combination”[2] of nature’s forms and colours; he did not paint “golden visions”[3] like Turner. In the Odes, and in Hyperion’s “lucent empire”, Keats does both; he observes and dreams. The pretty “spangly light” of Endymion evolved into Hyperion’s “calm luxuriance of blissful light”, the same diffuse reflections and refractions of Claude, Turner and the Impressionists.
Turner, Ancient Italy, Ovid Banished from Rome, 1838, oil on canvas. Private collection.
 Image source: Wikipedia
"Turner has done some golden visions, glorious and beautiful; they are only visions, but still they are art, and one could live and die with such pictures." John Constable, Letter to Fisher, June 11th, 1829

We experience Keats’ “high requiem” of nature, finding “a path /Through the sad heart” of humanity, again, in Palmer’s visionary pastorals, lit by sun or full moon, of the mid 1820s to mid 1830s.
Samuel Palmer, In a Shoreham Garden, watercolour ca. 1830 
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
"I cannot see what flowers are at my feet,
Nor what soft incense hangs upon the boughs,
But, in embalmèd darkness, guess each sweet
Wherewith the seasonable month endows"
Keats, Ode to a Nightingale

Constable wrote, “painting is with me but another word for feeling”.  We see and hear Wordsworth's “green leaves rustle” and “torrents roar”,[4] and the overwhelming skies of Keats in Constable’s landscape.
 Constable, Stonehenge, Watercolour, 1835, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London. One of the paintings from her father's studio bequeathed to national galleries and museums, all free of charge at the time of their institution, by the painter's daughter Isabel in 1888.
"a dismal cirque / Of Druid stones, upon a forlorn moor, / When the chill rain begins…" 
Keats, Hyperion

Feeling is manifest in his watercolour and oil sketches, in the storm of grief in the sky above Stonehenge, that appears in Hyperion as “a dismal cirque / Of Druid stones, upon a forlorn moor, / When the chill rain begins…”; emotions shifting with the wind and rainbows over Hampstead, with an “earnest grasping”[5][1] of nature closer to Keats than Joseph Severn’s sentimental and piously Christian recasting of the poet listening to a nightingale on an artificially moonlit Heath.

Joseph Severn, Keats Listening to a Nightingale on Hampstead Heath, 1845, oil on canvas. Collection: Corporation of London. Image source: Wikipedia
When love is not enough: the genuine feelings of the painter for his subject do not prevent the art from being mannered and second-rate.

Severn’s paintings lack gusto and chiarascuro, but his kindness to Keats during the last heart-breaking months in Rome was real. His true talent was for compassionate friendship, not art. Love for another person should, as Keats demanded of great poetry, “be unobstrusive, a thing which enters into one’s soul, and does not startle it or amaze it with itself but with its subject”.

The fairyland vision of a Baroque painting that he called the ‘Enchanted Castle’ entered his soul. Claude’s Landscape with Psyche outside the Palace of Cupid, inspired by Apuleius’s story, also a source for Ode to Psyche, is a late work, of 1664, an elegant fantasy with less than the usual “incessant observation of nature” and quality of “Brightness [that] was the excellence of Claude, brightness independent on colour…the evanescent character of light” that Constable valued above all other artistic attributes.

Claude Lorrain, Landscape with Psyche outside the Palace of Cupid, 1664
 Keats' "Enchanted Castle"

The picture’s shortcomings, its dark, sleeping stillness, as if waiting for someone to step in and breathe life into it, were advantages for Keats, leaving him, as he said about the Camposanto frescoes, with more “room for Imagination”, to weave his own tale in his ‘Epistle to John Hamilton Reynolds’ about the stone towers nested above a foaming sea, and the visionary moment of bliss before being tolled back to his sole self in Ode to a Nightingale by the spell-breaking word “forlorn”.

In the end, the poet of sensations and seductive onomatopeia, the mellifluous word-painter of altering moods, the worshipper of Beauty and believer in salvation through imagination, accepted that on the path to reconciling humanity with its existence, art of pure subjectivity was not enough. Fact and reason had to be admitted into Keats' “sensual life of verse”, just as knowledge of his own death from the colour of his arterial blood came into his daily life. All mortal experience is "material sublime" in the poetry of art.

After his lifelong study of nature, Monet’s transcendental, increasingly abstract Nymphéas, in the series begun during the early casualties of the First World War, are still real water lilies, “material sublime”, painting them being another word for feeling, a Keatsian twilight fusion with Essence.

Monet, Reflections of Clouds on the Water-Lily Pond, oil on canvas, c. 1920. MOMA, New York.
"Material sublime" Keats

The contact between feeling and reason sparks the radiant horror of Apollo’s total deification in Hyperion:

Knowledge enormous makes a god of me,
Names, deeds, gray legends, dire events, rebellions,
Creations and destroyings, all at once
Pour into the wide hollows of my brain,
Most like the struggle at the gate of death…

Turner, Rain, Steam and Speed - the Great Western Railway, 1844, oil on canvas. National Gallery, London. Image source: Wikipedia
Realities in art: "Names, deeds, gray legends, dire events, rebellions,.agonies, / Creations and destroyings"

The character of Mnemosyne in Hyperion wields holographic powers. The effects that Keats wanted to achieve through original and authentic poetry are more usually painted and, nowadays, projected, than written. The immediacy of
         This living hand ….
…- see here it is -
I hold it towards you -

no longer requires an intuitive connection between author and reader, or actor and audience, when, unweaving a rainbow, we can see the hand through 3D glasses. 

Rossetti concluded that “the next Keats can only be a painter”.[6] Keats put himself to torture in the last year of no poetry, dying but still consumed from within by “all that information (primitive sense) necessary for a poem”, and by “the identity of every one in the room”,[7] too much empathy even for a god to bear.
Constable, Coast Scene at Brighton: Evening, oil painting, ca. 1828 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
         "....colours from the sunset take:
                 From something of material sublime
                               Rather than shadow our own soul's day-time 
In the dark void of night."
(Keats, Epistle to John Hamilton Reynolds)
Constable painted this elegiac view of the dying day while his beloved wife Maria was terminally ill. 

The Enchanted Castle is where the poetic soul is made, the place where, in a Turner or Claude painting or Keats poem, self is dissolved by imagination into light. And, yes, penetrating this evanescence is a death-wish, to die upon the midnight with no pain, the kind of fantasy-death without cough, fever, haemorrhage, and sickening belief of having failed, that Keats never saw or had, a sensation as sweet as sex, or drinking wine, knowing joy will turn to poison in an instant, for truth is beauty, and at this apex of feeling, the poet/painter is tolled back to “self-concentration”,[8] and, carefully selecting the words or colours for sunlight (“patent yellow or white lead”[9]), renews their cycle of creativity. As for the rest of us, without their “magic casements, opening on the foam / Of perilous seas”,[10] where on earth would we be?
Detail of Claude's Seaport with the Embarkation of Saint Ursula, oil on canvas, 1641. National Gallery, London. Image source: WGA
" no other picture have I seen the evanescent character of light so well expressed." John Constable, Second Lecture at the Royal Institution, 1836

[1] Milton, Paradise Lost, VIII, 277 
[2] C.R.Leslie, Memoirs of the Life of John Constable, (1843), Phaidon 1951, p.323, Constable in his Fourth Lecture at the R.I. quoting Thomas Lawrence
[3] Constable, p.166
[4] Constable, 101. Constable quoting from Wordsworth's Thanksgiving Ode in a letter to Fisher, 1823
[5] from Keats poem, This living hand
[6] D.G. Rossetti in letter to William Morris, quoted by Stella Bottai,, from G.H. Ford, Keats and the Victorians, London, 1944
[7] Quotes are from Keats' Letters, a selection edited by Robert Gittings, OUP 1970
[8] Keats, Letters
[9] Constable, Lecture II, Memoirs of the Life of John Constable, p307
[10] Keats, Ode to a Nightingale

part one
part two
part three
part four

A chain for reference
Claude Lorrain 1600 -1682
John Milton 1608-1674; Paradise Lost published in 1667
William Hogarth 1697-1764
Thomas Gainsborough 1727 -1788
William Cowper 1731-1800
William Blake 1757-1827
Thomas Lawrence 1769 -1830
William Wordsworth 1770-1850
Coleridge and Wordworth's Lyrical Ballads published in 1798
J.M. William Turner 1775-1851
John Constable 1776-1837; painted in the open air in Hampstead from 1812; first lived there with his family in the summer of 1819
John Keats 1795-1821; lived in Hampstead 1818 -1820; great ode sequence written in 1819
Samuel Palmer 1805-1881
George Frederic Watts 1817-1904
Edward Burne-Jones 1833-1898 
Claude Monet 1840-1926
Edvard Munch 1863-1944