Sparks of the Divinity:
Keats' Gnostic Vision of Soul-Making

by Maureen B. Roberts, Ph.D.


That Keats was at heart a Gnostic has been strangely overlooked by critics and biographers alike, given that the basic tenets of Gnosticism are explicitly and implicitly affirmed in the poet's life, poetry and letters.

Essentially Gnosticism as a unifying mode of knowledge and self-redemption inverts the scheme of traditional Christianity by displacing salvation from an external act of history to an internal process of redeeming self-knowledge as self-realisation. Suffering, therefore, whether circumstantial or through the pain of conscious growth, is from a Gnostic perspective not an "evil" consequence of "sin," but rather the amoral paradox of necessary evil, the cathartic potential of which transforms the individual through erasing the Gnostic sin of ignorance as the unenlightened self.

Keats' poetry develops in terms of a basic pattern of transformation - common to Platonism, myth, alchemy and Gnosticism - in which an initial unity is divided, then re-collected as a "higher" unity through a growth in consciousness. Enacted as the mythic pattern of descent and reascent, which occurs in Keats' longest poem, Endymion, as well as in the later Hyperion poems, this pattern of division and reunification effects the reformation of an antecedent wholeness as the goal of psychic growth, a goal which as a holistic mode of knowledge and existence expresses itself through Keats' imagination as the uniting symbol, as well as through the divine self, Apollo, and in Beauty and Truth as metonymic of the oneness of knowing and being. The prospective nature of Keats' poetry accordingly arises from the momentum toward the reformation of a unity in which the self simultaneously creates and is created. Poetry therefore, in Keats' words "works out its own salvation" since "that which is creative must create itself."

Keats is the most Gnostic of the Romantic poets in regard to living its most basic principles of knowledge and redemption. In a long letter to his brother and sister-in-law concerning the world as the "vale of Soul-making," Keats discusses the interactive oneness of self and circumstance as the sole requirements of individuation. What he in an earlier letter calls the "spiritual yeast" of the self, which "creates the ferment of existence" through the inner compulsion to "act and strive and buffet with Circumstance," is reiterated in the Soul-making letter of March, 1819, as the interaction between "the World," "Mind" or "Intelligence" as the raw material of the unindividuated self, and the "heart" or "soul" - the individual "sense of Identity" as the goal of transformation. Here are the main relevant ideas:

The common cognomen of this world among the misguided and superstitious is a 'vale of tears' from which we are to be redeemed by a certain arbitrary interposition from God and taken to Heaven - What a little circumscribed straightened notion! Call the world if you Please "The vale of Soul-making" . . . I say "Soul making" Soul as distinguished from an Intelligence - There may be intelligences or sparks of the divinity in millions - but they are not Souls till they acquire identities, till each one is personally itself. Intelligences are atoms of perception - they know and they see and they are pure, in short they are God - how then are Souls to be made? How then are these sparks which are God to have identity given them - so as ever to possess a bliss peculiar to each ones individual existence?. . . I will put you in the place where I began in this series of thoughts - I mean, I began by seeing how man was formed by circumstances . . . and what was his soul before it came into the world and had These provings and alterations and perfectionings? - An intelligence - without Identity - and how is this Identity to be made? Through the medium of the Heart? And how is the heart to become this Medium but in a world of Circumstances?

The various Gnostic systems vary in terms of detail, but the basic elements common to them all are, firstly, the belief that the self is divine, a "spark of the heavenly light" imprisoned within the darkness of matter, and a myth of a pre-mundane fall which is counteracted through the saving "gnosis" of an awakening to the self's true identity. In relation to Keats' distinctive emphasis upon "sparks of the divinity," the Messina Colloquium of 1966, a large gathering of scholars meeting to discuss Gnosticism in general, summarised the Gnosticism of the second century sects as involving the central idea of a divine spark in man, deriving from the divine realm, fallen into this world by fate, birth and death, and needing to be awakened by the divine counterpart of the self in order to be finally reintegrated.

It was noted that not every gnosis is Gnosticism, but only that which involves in this perspective the idea of the divine consubstantiality of the spark that is in need of being awakened and reintegrated. This gnosis of Gnosticism involves the divine identity of the knower (the Gnostic), the known (the divine substance of one's transcendent self) and the means by which one knows (gnosis as an implicit divine faculty to be awakened and actualised).

On the basis of these generally acknowledged criteria, Keats is clearly Gnostic in his Soul-making insights as an instance of his predisposition toward knowledge as the realisation of the self through direct experience and intuition.

Keats rejects not Christianity per se but rather what in the Soul-making letter he calls the "pious frauds of religion" which replace the dignity of self-redeeming human passions with a reliance upon a suffering mediator as an "affront" to "reason and humanity." In Gnosticism the central focus is upon the inner experience of Christ as a symbol of the divine self. Christ, in other words, as the mythic hero who, like Endymion, the protagonist of Keats' longest poem, descends and reascends as a symbolic death and rebirth, embodies the myth of the divine human.

The experience of Gnostic principles of redemption involving mythic descent and ascent is at the heart of the reappearance of the creation myth genre in Romanticism. The Romantic recreation of the Miltonic Christian myth of the fall shifts the focus of redemption toward the present reality of the internal self. Thus the myth of fall and renewal becomes an inner symbolic drama involving the paradox of a "fortunate fall" through which salvation becomes healing self-knowledge as a heightening of consciousness. Through transposing the Christian myth into a scheme of self-development, "paradise" as the initial undivided unity of the self becomes lost through the "fall" into disunity or self-division arising from the emergence of self-awareness as the felt tension of the opposites. The recollection of the divided self into a restored unity at a higher level of awareness thus constitutes the Romantic quest for wholeness as a Gnostic inversion of the redemption myth. Its basic pattern of development can be summarised in a Blakean sense as the awakening from an initial state of "innocence" into a suffering or dis-eased "experience" of conflict, which is transcended by the "higher innocence" of a restored unity of knowledge and being. "Paradise" is therefore, in Keats' terms, the original "spark of the divinity" as the latent unity of the self as well as its reclaimed "identity" through Soul-making.

The Romantic transformation of the Edenic myth of Paradise Lost arises from an evolutionary advance in consciousness through which the internalisation of Paradise as the lost and regained self expresses the Blakean affirmation: "All deities reside in the human breast." In Milton and his other prophetic works Blake explores the distinction between the "negation" of reason, from which arises the static legalism of religious belief, and the "contraries" which are the energic polar opposites of the psyche. In Milton he states:

There is a Negation, and there is a Contrary.
The Negation must be destroy'd to redeem the Contraries.
The Negation is the Spectre, the Reasoning Power in Man.
This is a false Body, an Incrustation over my Immortal
Spirit, a Selfhood, which must be put off and annihilated alway.

The contraries, in other words, cannot be rationally reconciled, since they are not the products of reason but rather of a natural polarity, and can therefore be reconciled only through the archetype of unity.

Through the metaphysical "split" of the God-image in Christianity arising from the hypostasis of reason, the dark or shadow aspect of God is excluded from consciousness as "evil," while "good" becomes the moral nature of God and is associated with obedience to the "Governor or Reason" as God's representative, Christ. As an archetypal symbol the God-image coincides with the self, which as an intuitive idea of totality embraces conscious and unconscious, ego and shadow, in a paradoxical coincidentia oppositorum , being therefore "light" and "dark," and yet neither. The Gnostics thus taught that Christ "cast off his shadow from himself," since the original Christian depiction of Christ as the imago Dei united the opposites as an idea of wholeness which included the dark side of things. Christian ideas, originally grounded in experience and later statically projected as concepts, lose contact with universal psychic processes. Consequently, the shadow as "evil" in Christian orthodoxy is repressively relegated to the realm of unconscious energy, such that an irreconcilable split results between the "negation" of rational belief and the amoral, complementary "contraries" of light and dark.

What Blake teaches concerning Paradise Lost in this respect, Keats is a living example of through his intuition of the amoral paradox at the heart of knowledge and being. Cantor's remark, therefore, that Keats is "remarkably free of gnosticism" through his lack of a moral polarisation of good and evil, confusingly betrays a lack of understanding of the essence of Gnostic consciousness. The distinction between good and evil per se is hardly a distinguishing characteristic of Gnosticism, in which the dark/light polarity is firmly stressed, but is just as notably a feature of orthodox belief in which the irreconcilable nature of the opposites arises from their moral accentuation.

In terms of the central idea of a divine "spark" which needs to be reintegrated through individuation Keats is, as should be obvious by now, remarkably Gnostic. Consequently he shares Blake's relish of the energic nature of instinctual life, which characterises a mind grounded in the moral neutrality of the archetype and free from the restraints of legalistic religion. Blake's acceptance in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell of "energy" as "the only life" and therefore "Eternal Delight" is echoed by Keats' "instinctive attitude" described a month before the Soul-making section as the belief that though "a quarrel in the streets is a thing to be hated, the energies displayed in it are fine. . . . " Similarly about a week earlier Keats endorses Hazlitt's view that poetic imagination "delights in power, in strong excitement," whereas "pure reason and the moral sense approve only of the true and good." This energic power which, when yielded to as "right" includes yet transcends morality, is synonymous with Keats' "ellectric fire in human nature" which purifies through transformation until the birth of a new attitude emerges as "a pearl in rubbish."

The fire of psychic energy, associated with Hell as the shadow aspect of God, is positively valued by both Blake and Keats as morally neutral. Keats' description of the "delightful enjoyments" of his dream of Hell, inspired by his reading of Dante, corresponds remarkably to Blake's vision of "walking among the fires of hell, delighted with the enjoyments of Genius" in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.

An associated trend in Romanticism is the displacement of the holy from transcendence to immanence. Human life, lived mythically as a perceived mirroring of Nature, accordingly becomes itself the altar upon which life and consciousness are self-created through a metaphoric reversion of death to life. The imagination consequently expresses in Keats' words "the holiness of the heart's affections" as the criterion of truth. For Keats, beauty as synonymous with truth displaces a transcendent absolute as an immanent principle of unity and knowledge.

In Ode to Psyche the sacred is introjected to become an inner experience of the numinous as inseparable from human psychic life. Keats foregrounds in the Ode the contrast between belief and the lived reality of the divine by portraying the instinctively priestlike task of the poet as self-creation. Through the poet's building of "a fane/ In some untrodden region" of the mind, "branched thoughts, new grown with pleasant pain" enact the emotive tension of Soul-making as the transitional state of paradox. Herein the self experiences the purgatorial nature of a lawless affirmation of life. The tragedy inherent in this is that of a Keatsian "godlike hardship," which through the burden of direct insight finds it hard to distinguish "dark" from "evil." Although aware of the reality of good and evil, the precarious certainty of Gnosticism transcends the legalistic simplicity of a theological dichotomy that fails to take into account the legitimate darkness of the "shadow" side of mind and Nature. Keats' dilemma in this regard is evident in the 1818 epistle Dear Reynolds, in which affirmation is interwoven with scepticism. The poet's conflict emerges as an inability to reconcile reason with the amoral Blakean "Contraries" of light and dark which are revealed in Nature as the essential duality of creation and destruction. Keats laments:

Oh never will the prize,
High reason, and the lore of good and ill,
Be my award. Things cannot to the will
Be settled, but they tease us out of thought.
Or is it that the imagination brought
Beyond its proper bound, yet still confined,-
Lost in a sort of purgatory blind,
Cannot refer to any standard law
Of either earth or heaven? - It is a flaw
In happiness to see beyond our bourn -
It forces us in summer skies to mourn:
It spoils the singing of the nightingale.

Further on he confesses to have seen by looking into the sea "too distinct into the core/ Of an eternal fierce destruction." There is an apparent sense of evil in Nature here, yet the phrase "eternal fierce destruction" is itself morally neutral and implies a simultaneous acceptance of Nature as a self-cycling energy beyond the confines of morality.

Gnostic knowledge or "gnosis" differs from rational cognition in being a paradoxical knowledge of the unknowable One. Keats exemplifies the ambiguity of the Gnostic temperament in terms of the paradox of knowing and being. The surpassingly positive yet ineffably negative content of gnosis as being within non-being, knowing within unknowing, involves the self-affirming annihilation of the self as a uniting of emptiness and fullness, illumination and blindness. Gnostic myth and metaphor centres around the symbolic duality of light and dark, which as the paradoxical equivalence of the positive and negative capability of the self is the universal Gnostic attitude. Keats' predisposition toward receptive intuition is evident in his description of poetic "Negative Capability" as the ability to be "in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason."

If we return to the previously quoted passage from Dear Reynolds in what reads as a momentary lapse of intuitive certainty, "blind" in line 81 imputes a negative quality to the imagination's purgatorial lack of the "standard law" of moral legalism - the "hintings at good and evil" which Keats (in the later letter to Reynolds concerning the "grand march of intellect") connects with the apparent certainties of theological "Reasoning." Keats hovers doubtfully between an ambition for philosophy - the "High reason" which as moral dualism evinces the "lore of good and ill" - and the immediate intuition, later reaffirmed in Ode on a Grecian Urn, that things "cannot to the will/Be settled" in that "they tease us out of thought." In the next line of Dear Reynolds (78) the pivotal word "or" signals - as it does later in Ode to Psyche and Ode to a Nightingale - the intrusion of reasoning speculation through which intuition temporarily falters.

As symptomatic of Keats' later development rational judgment as an aspect of poetic creativity nonetheless becomes relatively developed by the time of his writing of Lamia and The Fall of Hyperion. Yet reason never supersedes the receptive disinterestedness evident in the statement written just after his abandonment of The Fall of Hyperion that the "only means of strengthening one's intellect is to make up ones mind about nothing - to let the mind be a thoroughfare for all thoughts. Not a select party." For Keats the "feeling of light and shade" as the "primitive sense" of poetic intuition always retains its functional supremacy.

Keats' intuitive knowledge of the absolute is perhaps best illustrated in Ode on a Grecian Urn. The cyclic structure of the Ode delineates the creative tension between unity and duality through a systaltic rhythm in which temporary reconciliation - in the form of the urn as uniting symbol - compensates Dionysian duality. As Apollonian tranquil unity, the urn transcends the Dionysian state of being contained in the opposites, since its symbolic freedom from duality reflects a holistic oneness of knowing and being. Through the transcendent function of the urn as uniting symbol, and through the sacramental function of art in which transcendence is made immanent, the urn unites fullness and voidness as a Gnostic "failure of reason and speech," which teases us "out of thought" through the direct apperception of the truth of beauty, the beauty of truth. Since the urn's emptiness represents metaphysical absence as the silence of unspeakable meaning, its being in the midst of non-being complements the unknowing knowing of the final beauty-truth equivalent. Consequently, the Ode's oscillation between the metaphysics of presence and absence, delineated in terms of silence versus sound, stillness versus energic movement, loss versus gain, detachment versus social participation, reflects the ambivalence of the Shakespearean and Keatsian 'poetical Character' as that which is simultaneously everything and nothing.

The Ode's structure conforms to the Gnostic pattern of a fall from innocence into the dividedness of experience and subsequent return to a higher innocence as self-knowledge, or self-recollection. Through the Ode's sonata form an accelerating transition occurs from Apollonian detached inertia into Dionysian wildness which is imaged as the dynamic interaction of the emotive extremes of ecstasy and sorrow. Thus while the urn's circular form symbolises the uniting ideal, its content is antinomial as an assertion of what Roy Swanson describes as "those universal and manifold modes of proportion comprehended in the concept of the golden mean, an ideal sustenance of balance between extremes. . . ."

The opening image of the urn accordingly represents a predisjunctive unity of innocence, suggested by the epithet "unravish'd," in which respect, as Jackson Bate notes, the "essence of the urn is its potentiality waiting to be fulfilled." In Endymion, Adonis, who like the urn displays an "Apollonian curve" of form (2.399), is thus the mythic equivalent of the urn as latent ideal and unity. The ambiguous "still" in the opening line of Ode on a Grecian Urn, while reflecting the Apollonian tranquillity of the urn, also alludes obliquely to the Wordsworthian "something evermore about to be" as the deferral of wholeness or completion, the latter suggested in the Ode's opening line through "still unravish'd bride." Correspondingly, "still" is used in an epithet of Adonis' region of sleep, wherein through the self-closure of unawakened innocence he remains "safe in the privacy/ Of this still region all his winter-sleep" (2.479-480). As well, the permanent present of denied erotic consummation, imaged in the second stanza of Ode on a Grecian Urn as the youth who can never reach his lover, resonates through the anaphora of "still" with the opening image of the stationary urn to reinforce the idea of unity as a condition which is perpetually deferred.

The urn epitomises the function of all symbols of the absolute principle of knowledge and being in that it represents the irrepresentable. It symbolises what the Ode itself delineates, the lived paradox of the inherent polarities of life: action through non-action, fullness through emptiness, knowledge through ignorance, being through non-being, and the immanence of the eternal within the temporal. The negative capability of the urn as metaphysical absence is reflected in its feminisation. In this respect its sacramental function parallels that of the Holy Grail as the universal receptacle which contains the unutterable mystery of ultimate knowledge. As symbolic of the passive, receptive "yin" principle, the urn is alchemically synonymous with the Moon, which is in turn equivalent to the "bride" of the alchemical marriage - a correspondence which the Ode itself implies in the opening line.

As a passively silent, empty symbol of the ultimate unity knowable only through the via negativa of unknowing, the urn represents the Gnostic One which is subjectively self-predicating as Truth. In Neoplatonic gnosis, therefore, the One is the standard for Truth and Beauty and is thus in a unique sense Truth as well as Beauty. The One of Beauty represents, then, what Keats metaphorically depicts in the Ode as the "unheard melody" of what cannot be logically articulated but only experienced as direct insight.

In spite of the analytic distinction between Truth and Beauty which most critics of the concluding aphorism of the Ode make, Keats himself never distinguishes between the two. On the contrary, he confesses in a letter to his brother and sister-in-law: "I can never feel certain of any truth but from a clear perception of its Beauty," a statement made in the context of the poet's discussion of the intuitive appraisal of visual art. Keats' "clear perception" is the Gnostic awareness of the One which, as Dionysius' paradox expresses, is the "Dark beyond all light" that goes "beyond seeing and beyond knowing precisely by not seeing, by not knowing." The urn incarnates the capacity of emptiness to embody what Plotinus calls the "innermost sanctuary in which there are no images."

The Ode's point of closure, then, is not only a return to its origin, that is to the urn as a sacramental incarnation of beauty, but also a moment of insight in which known, knower and means of knowledge are in a Gnostic fashion one:

Beauty is truth, - Truth Beauty, - that is all
Ye know on Earth, and all ye need to know.

All "ye need to know" is therefore "all ye do not know" in terms of rational cognition. Most critics of this deceptively simple conclusion, however, interpret it in terms of conceptual presence, rather than as a knowledge which defines through exclusion. The message of the message is metalinguistically "out of thought," as is the eternal, indefinable principle of Beauty. What the urn speaks is therefore paradoxically "silent" as the knowable unknown - the simultaneous presence and absence of that which is beyond polarity.

Indeed, a major theme of the Ode - the relationship between art and the imagination - implicates this intrinsic holism. Within an imaginative encounter with art the distinction between subject and object, ideal and actual, form and content, dissolves in the experience of artistic truth. Through the intense excellence of art "disagreeables evaporate" in their approximation to the final unity of Truth and Beauty. Art, like the poetic process, is depicted as that which immortalises change, which synthesises transience and permanence into an indivisible One. Like the imagination, art bridges the dissociation between the real and the ideal.

Through the immanent holiness of the creative imagination, in Keats' words: "What the imagination seizes as Beauty must be truth - whether it existed before or not" since "all our Passions," like love, are "creative of essential Beauty." By suggesting that pre-existent and created Beauty are necessary alternatives, Keats here introduces the paradoxical invenire - the inventiveness which merges with discovery. Keats in his Soul-making letter describes the "heart," metonymic of the self, as the "seat of the human Passions." Love, therefore, as the creative essence of the self "seizes" through a constructive violence the immediate instinct of unity as essential Truth and Beauty. Above all, love is for Keats the ultimate synthetic power which as imaginative passion creates the "essential Beauty" of universal oneness. In this regard Endymion's "orbed drop/ Of light" (1.806-7) as love forms a creative resonance with the urn as a circular symbol of the One of Truth. Through the connection of Beauty, Truth and love, Beauty, therefore, is the archetypal experience of the self through which, expansively, the synchronistic unity underlying all reality is simultaneously created and discovered. Through poetry as creative self-creation, the One of essential Beauty is universally reflective of the individuated self. Poetry, then, in the spirit of Gnosticism, works out its own salvation as collective individuation in which the divine identity of the self within the oneness of knowing and being is indeed "all/ Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."

In Keats' mature poetry the Gnostic paradox of fortunate fall, that is the ascription of a positive potential to Dionysian "Experience" as the felt tension of the opposites, becomes an increasingly prominent concern. In The Eve of St Agnes, Porphyro's furtive stealing to the "paradise" of Madeline's unfallen innocence (244), as well as the association of Dionysian emotional excess with his proposed seductive "strategem," evokes a sub-text connecting "burning Porphyro" with the sensual, Satanic tempter, who, denounced by "old Angela" as "cruel" and "wicked" (140,143), nevertheless redemptively induces the fall (or awakening) from innocence into experience. Here the psychological correspondence between the dark, antichrist pole of the self and the Dionysian archetype is evident in an amoral redemptive pattern reflective of an archetypal rather than moralistic dualism.

That the narrative of The Eve of St. Agnes represents a secularisation of the myth of the fortunate fall has been recognised by David Wiener, who describes Madeline's idyllic dream-state as "a self-enclosed, stagnant Eden." Porphyro is consequently a redeeming Satanic hero, which Stillinger similarly notes by correlating Milton's Satan with Porphyro. As the "Divider" - a role traditionally assigned to Satan - Porphyro potentially converts, in Abrams' words, "the happiness of ignorance and self-unity into the multiple self-divisions and conflicts attendant upon the emergence of self-consciousness. . . ." The fall is thus a "fortunate self-division," such that the return ascent as the saving gnosis of a recollected unity "looks like a reversion but is in fact a progression."

In a complementary manner, Porphyro's "heart on fire" as a "fev'rous" sensuality is counterbalanced by his worshipful, self-distancing idealisation of her (75-84). Madeline is - like the Gnostic spark which must be awakened, and like Adonis as the latent, underground self - "asleep" in deathly "pale enchantment" (135,169). The motif of the self-enclosed, seed-like "tomb," to which the "moonlight room" - entered by Porphyro before he sees Madeline - is likened (112-113), consequently represents the unconscious potential for the kind of psychic life that can only arise from an emergence into the conscious union of opposites.

The tranquil impotence of Madeline's narcissistic self-closure, likened to "a tongueless nightingale" and associated with pallor and death (200-207), is offset by Porphyro's self-tormenting passion which is imaged in terms of Dionysian torment as follows:

Sudden a thought came like a full-blown rose,
Flushing his brow, and in his pained heart
Made purple riot: then doth he propose
A strategem. . .

Porphyro's idealisation of Madeline repeats Endymion's overemphasis of the immortal, heavenly pole of the feminine, such that to Porphyro Madeline "seem'd a splendid angel . . . free from mortal taint" (223,225). The secondary, mildly ironic aspect of her innocence is that her own Chamber of Maiden Thought remains undarkened by the paradoxically redemptive fall from the ideal into the real of awakened experience. Through self-confinement to the light of unenlightened "sleep," Madeline fails to experience the fall into a Dionysian tension of opposites, and remains "Blinded" from both pain and joy, "As though a rose should shut, and be a bud again" (242-243).

The analogy of the closing rose, suggesting here a regressive self-isolation which rejects the agony of conscious growth, contrasts with the earlier likening of Porphyro's thought to the "full-blown rose" of planned action which wakingly confronts tangible reality. A correlation of floral closure with dreaming innocence likewise occurs in the 1818 poem Hush, hush, tread softly, in that "The shut rose shall dream of our loves and awake/ Full blown. . ." (21-22). Similarly, immediately prior to the Soul-making section Keats' presents an analogy of the rose which cannot avoid the outer experience of the cold wind and hot sun, a state that connects redemptive Soul-making with the exposure of consciousness as Dionysian suffering to the cathartic extremes of circumstantial reality:

For instance suppose a rose to have sensation, it blooms on a beautiful morning it enjoys itself - but there comes a cold wind, a hot sun - it cannot escape it, it cannot destroy its annoyances - they are as native to the world as itself: no more can man be happy in spite, the worldly elements will prey upon his nature.

The "fortunate fall" into self-division and subsequent reascent to unity unfolds in the two unfinished Hyperion poems through the creative tension between the unified Apollonian self and the Dionysian self-divided, or dis-eased, sufferer, who as the falling sun-god Hyperion is in principle synonymous with Milton's Satan. Milton's moral dualism in Paradise Lost arises from his splitting of the fraternal archetypes of Apollo and Dionysus, whereby Christ becomes the exclusively Apollonian or spiritual pole, equivalent to Blake's "Reason", and Satan becomes the dark, self-divided sufferer as Blake's "Energy." These two poles of the archetypal Christ, however, are complementary aspects of the paradoxical self, for Christ is symbolically both divider and uniter, life and death, wounding (as the 'dis-ease' of self-division) and healing.

Through a recognition of the equal importance of both the Apollonian and Dionysian poles of the self to self-genesis, in the Hyperion poems Keats therefore inverts the significance of the Miltonic Christian fall by ascribing a positive potential to the Dionysian transitional state of tension. Through this Gnostic perspective Keats' poetry becomes self-creative through its healing of the 'dis-ease' of inner division to reform the unified self. Accordingly, as the god of healing Apollo is metonymic of a unity whose loss and renewal is delineated in terms of the reversion of sickness, or dis-ease, to health. In Gnostic self-redemption, the interaction between the unindividuated "Intelligence" or "spark" and the individuated "Soul" unfolds as the creative tension between the real and the ideal, between transformation and stasis, wherein the ideal as the unity of the self is evoked through the primary visual metaphors of distance and height, both of which image the static ideal as a perpetually deferred wholeness toward which the individuation process continually aspires. Apollo, as what Nietzsche calls "the eternal goal of the original Oneness," is therefore the uniting symbol of order, synonymous with the spherical image of wholeness in Endymion, the diamond orb that Keats recognises to be the "goal of consciousness" (2.283), and which as the symbolic equivalent of Gnostic unity and enlightenment as Apollo, is appropriately described as "like the sun/ Uprisen o'er chaos" (2.246-247).

In Keats' early poetry the metaphor of distance, representative of Apollo as the projected ideal of unity, is prevalent. The associated metaphor of flight depicts the desire to escape the demands of Soul-making and is complemented by metaphoric descent as the intoxicating submergence into an unconscious or subconscious condition. Both extremes avoid the self-redeeming tension between the opposites which in the later Hyperion poems mediates the Gnostic ascent to individuation as an "un-dividedness" which bridges the dissociation between "Intelligence" and "Soul," real and ideal, human and divine, the unindividuated and the individualised self.

As early as 1816 in Sleep and Poetry Keats anticipates the sobering burden of Soul-making. Although in his early poetry Keats is predisposed to "on the wing of poesy upsoar" in order to "Fly from all sorrowing far, far away," in Sleep and Poetry he confronts his idealism by foreseeing a future need to progress toward "a nobler life" in which he might "find the agonies, the strife/ Of human hearts. . ." (122-125). In the accompanying vision of Apollo as the foreseeing "charioteer," the god thus appropriately descends, wheeling his chariot earthward in order to counteract the ideal with the real (127-134). Yet although Apollo's earnest ambition for individuation is evident in his "awfully intent" attitude and "forward bent" stance (151-152), Keats cannot sustain the vision, which subsequently relinquishes its anchorage to reality and reverts to an upward ascent, whereby the real becomes depreciated to the status of a "muddy stream" which mediates "nothingness" (155-159). The desirability of Apollonian idealism then reasserts itself in a regressive longing for "the high/ Imagination" to "freely fly/ As she was wont of old," to "Paw up against the light, and do strange deeds/ Upon the clouds" (162-167). Later in the poem the schism between the ideal and the real is amplified through a dichotomy between poetry as a "drainless shower/ Of light" and the dark side of life as the "fallen" state of death and suffering, from which poetry is able to "lift" humanity (235-247). Rejecting the necessity of the psychological fall into inner turmoil, the poet yearns for an undisturbed Edenic tranquillity (248-264). In contrast with Satan's courageous resignation in Paradise Lost to the hardship of Soul-making, summarised in his defiant statement: "Farewell happy Fields/Where Joy for ever dwells: Hail horrors, hail/Infernal world" (1.249-251), Keats with false optimism proclaims: "All hail delightful hopes!" before boldly stating what is antagonistic to his Soul-making philosophy: "And they shall be accounted poet kings/ Who simply tell the most heart-easing things" (264, 267-268). In principle these "poet kings" are synonymous with the "Fanatics" who with the deceiving "dreams" of escape from suffering "weave/ A paradise for a sect" at the opening of The Fall of Hyperion.

Through The Fall of Hyperion Keats imaginatively explores "The vale of Soul-making" in order to allow poetry to work out its own salvation. As a continuous and developing vision, the Hyperion poems are subsumed by the familiar Gnostic pattern of fall and reascent. In Hyperion Keats depicts the succession of the Greek gods with an evolutionary scheme in which the collective growth of consciousness - referred to elsewhere as "the general and gregarious advance of intellect" - progresses from a primitive condition of chaos, through the division into opposites, toward the higher beauty of the Olympian gods who displace Saturn and the Titans by personifying the "fresh perfection" of greater enlightenment. In The Fall of Hyperion this ascending pattern of transformation becomes an autobiographic dream as Keats, using the first person narrative, progresses toward the vision of a unified Apollonian self. In the first Canto of the poem the mythic scene for his sacrificial ascent is set within a sobering perspective from which the poet - in emulation of Dante in Inferno - looks upward in anticipation of a task through which with "patient trevail" he must "count with toil the innumerable degrees" (1.91-92). Keats foresees this aspect of his destiny in the 1817 sonnet On Seeing the Elgin Marbles when he confesses:

My spirit is too weak - mortality
Weighs heavily on me like unwilling sleep,
And each imagined pinnacle and steep
Of godlike hardship tells me I must die
Like a sick eagle looking at the sky.

Within these few lines are themes and symbols which come to feature prominently in Keats' mature poetry: the eagle as the transcendent victory of beauty - the vision of unity - over the "dizzy pain" of the "undesirable feud" of opposites; the motif of heaviness representing the Gnostic "sleep" as imprisonment in the world, and sickness as the self-division which must be transcended in order to attain the ascent.

Through a transformation fuelled by the fire of psychic energy, Keats in The Fall of Hyperion gives himself over to the sacrificial suspension between the opposites through which he enacts the Dionysian aspect of Christ as the divided self-redeemer. The "fierce dispute" between life and death precipitates a series of intensely emotive polarities wherein the positive role of the Blakean "Contraries," through which each pole imaginatively generates its opposite, sustains dis-ease as the condition of the "sick eagle" - the necessary prelude to a unified self.

From a Gnostic perspective, since suffering results from the separation of the divine spark from its source, the ascent is a metaphor of the Soul-spark's efforts to return from its intoxicated immersion in the heaviness of matter to its divine origin. Keats' struggle to ascend thus symbolises his striving after the gnosis of self-knowledge through which the holy is displaced from transcendence to immanence, from an outer to an inner holiness as the holistic goal of individuation, wholeness. The pattern of the mythic hero, enacted in Endymion through symbolic death and rebirth as descent and reascent, is compressed in The Fall of Hyperion into a more intense imaginative journey in which the archetypal Christ is synonymous with the inner self, who by being consumed in the fire of self-redemption is like the phoenix resurrected through his own power. Moneta as the veiled feminine "Holy Power" accordingly informs the poet:

"Thou hast felt
What 'tis to die and live again before
Thy fated hour. That thou hast power to do so
Is thy own safety. . ."

In this death-life struggle Keats emulates Milton's Satan, who through enduring the "hateful siege of contraries" undertakes in Paradise Lost a reascent to the light equivalent in principle to the return of the Gnostic spark to its original condition of unfallen bliss. Satan knows, therefore that 'long is the way/ And hard, that out of Hell leads up to Light. . .' (PL 2.432-433).

In the fulfilment of a Gnostic vision of self-redemption, Keats at the conclusion of The Fall of Hyperion fully identifies with and consequently displaces Apollo in the culmination of the imagination1s struggle to unify : the return to Apollo as the reality of the self rather than as a distantly imaged ideal. Through Keats' continual striving after the gnosis of self-knowledge as an autonomous 'system of Spirit-creation', the spark of the divinity has therefore awakened through the dream of the imagination to its true nature as the divine Soul.

Through his recognition of the 'pious frauds of religion' and his embracing of the essentially simple intuition of gnosis, Keats remained reconciled to the tragic reality of life. In contrast to Blake and Shelley, whose utopianism was directed toward improving the lot of humanity, Keats seldom stressed social reform but remained true to the Gnostic imperative: 'Know thyself' by withdrawing to a greater extent than did the other Romantic poets into the sanctuary of his inner life. In affirming the Gnostic oneness of the knower, the known and the means of knowing, Keats defines himself in a letter written to Reynolds during the writing of Hyperion as 'My own being which I know to be.' In true Platonic fashion, the outer apparent realities have become to him at this time as a dream of 'Shadows in the Shape of Man and women that inhabit a kingdom.' Keats follows this with words that summarise the essence of the Gnostic mind: 'The Soul is a world of itself and has enough to do in its own home. . . .'


Copyright Maureen B. Roberts 1997. All rights reserved


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