Indolence, Keats's Muse of Guilt

Topics: John Keats, Romantic poetry, Poetry Pages: 13 (4600 words) Published: March 9, 2008
Indolence, it would seem, is, in John Keats's life, a paradox. Both muse and reason for guilt. Both negative as a Coleridgean paralysis of will with its manifestations as torpor, sloth and paralysing dejection, and positive (‘delicious diligent indolence' (Letters 1:2311)) as creative energy-fuelling laziness. Indolence to Keats was both, as Wordsworth (1926: 281) claimed, ‘majestic', as well as, in his own words, a ‘capital crime' (Letters 2:77). Yet, despite its apparent duplicity, indolence occupied an incredibly important place in Keats's life and was often not only the subject of his written word, but also the inspiration, or foundation for his creative oeuvre that in its many guises has a prominent place in his letters and poems. Willard Spiegleman in his book Majestic Indolence (1995: 85) goes as far as saying that indolence was ‘the central place in Keats's aesthetics as well as in his poetic achievement' and the ‘master obsession of his career'. Statements that perhaps ignore not only Keats's other creative influences and obsessions such as, one could argue, Love, and Ambition, but also his own rather contradictory beliefs, longing for and conflict with the disposition. Keats is clearly aware of the contradictory nature of his indolence and describes it in a letter to his brother George and sister-in-law Georgina on 13 March 1819 (Letters 2:77) as having two forms: ‘easy' and ‘uneasy indolence', each being greatly different to the other. But it is Keats's own contradictory nature that is of more interest as his numerous letter references (20 in total2) show both a love, and even a dependency for indolence, yet also a revulsion and abhorrence for the torpor which so often manifests as a result. Understanding this disposition and Keats's relationship with it will obviously give us insight not only into the poet's creative process, but will also help us further understand the direction of his work that is centred on indolence itself. Though it is important not to isolate indolence in doing so or consider it as separate from Keats's poetry. Due to its psychological manifestation and its existence not as an external stimulus, but as an individual characteristic, indolence is as much a part of the poet as it is a part of the poetry. Indolence is not, of course, new to Keats's time and has, indeed, a colourful and diverse history, a history whose effects on Keats should not be discounted. We learn from the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) that two of its oldest meanings are now obsolete: ‘insensibility or indifference to pain' and ‘freedom from pain; state of mind in which neither pain nor pleasure is felt'. Originally, states Spiegelman (1995: 7), it was synonymous with ‘Epicurean apatheia ("like the state of a sleeping man" [OED cites Thomas Stanley's 1656 History of Philosophy]), and only in the eighteenth century did it come to suggest both a more pathological state and a more genial one'. Thus ‘love of ease' and ‘laziness' became the more neutral counters to ‘slothfulness' and ‘sluggishness'. Berkeley, according to OED used the word fifty years after Keats's death in Hylas & Phil. (1871: 1:269) thus: ‘I could rather call it an indolence. It seems to be nothing more than a privation of both pain and pleasure', while Dr Samuel Johnson labelled indolence as ‘that voluntary debility' (OED). Returning to Spiegelman (1995: 91), he says: ‘the eighteenth century saw such a varied series of experiments in coping with, and troping, the phenomenon that it deserves for this, as for other reasons, the label "pre-Romantic" '. Spiegelman goes on to highlight the use of the word by eighteenth-century literary authors Thomson (whose ‘Castle of Indolence' was clearly an influence on Keats), Gray and Shenstone. Shenstone in fact published his own ‘Ode on Indolence' in 1750, twenty-nine years before Keats. Shenstone's indolence is vastly different from Keats's and uses the meaning that has now become obsolete, a freedom from both...
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