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Femmes Fatales and the Female Muse:
John Keats and the Feminine

by Susan McCaslin

I first discovered the poetry of the Romantic poet John Keats (1795-1821) in high school when a teacher read us several of the poet’s great odes—“Ode on a Grecian Urn,” “Ode to a Nightingale,” and “Ode to Autumn.” I didn’t know exactly what Keats meant by ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,’ —that is all/ Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know,” but the lines spoke to some inner sense that beauty and truth couldn’t be separated. Certainly I was engaged by the pastoral scene and the ecstatic figures dancing on the urn. Reading these and other poems by Keats made me feel as he must have felt when he first read Chapman’s translation of Homer and later wrote a sonnet comparing his reading experience to that of the explorer Cortez when he first gazed at the Pacific.

Keats’ poems opened me to mystery. I didn’t understand, but wanted more. Then I studied him again in university, and again in graduate school at SFU beginning in 1969 when I read a biography of Keats by Walter Jackson Bate. I was at about the age of Keats himself when he wrote many of his early poems; so he became for me a sort of ghostly, imaginal lover.

For me now, in my late sixties, Keats has morphed from Romantic boyfriend to perhaps the son I never had. Given that he died at the age of twenty-five, he seems not just like a son figure, but a wisdom singer. How did one so young achieve such heights of poetic expression within only a few short years?  As a poet who has had the privilege of crafting my work for nearly five decades, I realize that what he accomplished in his lifetime was nothing short of astonishing.

Rereading Keats, I see a shift in his work from explorations of the “femme fatale” portrayal of women, to a deep identification with female wisdom figures. Keats’ treatment of women hints at how we might begin to shift from paradigms rooted in fear of the feminine to ones that embrace and respect it. For many, our deeply grounded, instinctual love of beauty has also been displaced, and replaced by a culture of violence, not only toward women, but toward each other and the natural world.

At the end of Keats’ long poem Endymion, the protagonist wakes to the recognition that the moon goddess Cynthia (Selene) he encounters in a visionary dream is one and the same as the very human and earthy Indian maiden he meets afterwards in a wood. The young seeker comes to know experientially that the human and the divine, the transcendent and the embodied feminine, are one.

In Keats’ ballad “La Belle Dame Sans Merci,” the poet examines the long-held stereotype of woman as vixen, siren, and temptress—a witch-like figure luring men to their death. Yet it is unclear whether the beautiful woman leads the knight to disaster out of malice, is herself subject to the control of dark forces, or is a projection created by the knight’s fear. At first, the dire ending for numerous naïve knights seems to suggest she is a femme
. Here the knight speaks:

                I saw pale Kings, and Princes too      
                         Pale warriors, death pale were they all;
                 They cried, La belle dame sans merci
                        Thee hath in thrall.

Yet we can’t assume that the speaker shares the views of the author.

After probing cultural stereotypes of the feminine in earlier poems, Keats subverts them in Lamia, where an alluring woman has been transformed into a serpent. She then strikes a bargain with the god Hermes, who agrees to turn her back into a woman, so she can woo and win the young man Lycius with whom she is in love. Lycius’ teacher Apollonius, a Greek philosopher, finds Lycius’ love of Lamia a threat to his control over his young student; so he “others” the female out of a need to retain his own power and ends by destroying them both. Keats presents Lamia as a tragic figure,  blocked and destroyed by Cartesian reason. The narrator comments at the end: “Do not all charms fly/ At the mere touch of cold philosophy?” Here, Keats is not attacking philosophy per se, but a narrow, circumscribed form of reason—philosophy abstracted from nature and from the feminine.

Keats’ last poem “The Fall of Hyperion,” is his second effort to write an epic poem about the heroic masculine god Hyperion, one of the older generation of Titans in Greek myth.  Instead he ends up writing about his last muse Moneta, daughter of Saturn, a goddess of the underworld. Because of his worsening health through tuberculosis, Keats was unable to complete the poem. Yet what remains is a mournful hymn to dignity and beauty shining through loss and defeat.

Moneta, whose name is associated, not only with “warning” and “instruction” in Latin, but with the goddess Greek goddess Mnemosyne or Memory, provides the dying poet with access to the realms of death and to the collective memory of the tribe. She is the embodiment of what Keats calls “Negative Capability,” a state where a person “is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason –” (letter to Benjamin Bailey, Dec. 1817).  The poet climbs to the altar of the goddess of loss, by labouring through his own grief.

Her eyes speak from a place within and beyond death, a place of mourning for the destruction caused by the warring gods. Moneta’s question to the dying poet addresses the value of the “tribe” of poets and poetry itself: “What benefit canst thou do, or all thy tribe,/ To the great world? Thou art a dreaming thing…” 

Then she distinguishes between the “dreamer” and the true poet, the latter of which “pours out a balm upon the world,” rather than “vexing” it. Keats studied to be a healer, a doctor; yet gave up that profession for the vocation of poetry. For me and generations of readers he is a healer through words.

Keats’ “Fall of Hyperion” laments how war-like power, greed, and desire to control have displaced the beauty of the more ancient order. Yet even in defeat, the older gods and goddesses remain grounded in the wisdom of Gaia, the earth. This poem is Keats’ courageous way of coming to terms with his personal, imminent death and with the ruins of a civilization. This late work he called “a fragment” was written in the context of the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars.

I sometimes think that Keats himself embodied aspects of the maligned feminine in his culture where women were often seen as the smaller and weaker of the species.  His most vicious critics attacked not only his writing, but his person, taunting him for his relatively short stature, calling him “little Johnny Keats.”  Even his friend Percy Bysshe Shelley in his elegy to Keats, Adonais, depicts him as a sensitive flower blown away by a bad review, as does Lord Byron in his satiric poem Don Juan. Recent biographers have corrected this false impression of Keats by providing evidence of how he proved remarkably resilient, courageous, and dedicated to his craft.  After digesting some negative reviews, he rebounded and continued writing.

Keats wrestles with western culture’s fear of the feminine, a construct that continues to haunt our contemporary world. One only has to consider the recent American presidential election, where misogyny was clearly a factor in the defeat of the more qualified and experienced candidate.  Keats’ nuanced and positive views of women clearly have continuing relevance.

Keats’ insistence on the transforming power of beauty—natural, moral, and spiritual beauty—reminds me of Dostoevsky’s enigmatic remark, as quoted by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in his Nobel Prize Lecture (1970):
                                 Beauty will save the world.

So called “dead poets” live on in their words, and words have the potential to wake us up, to heal, and to inspire.  Rereading Keats reminds us that poetry matters even more in a dark time. I woke this morning with these words in my head: “The other side of now, is now.” 

It was as if Keats were standing at the door.                                                                Susan McCaslin

December 2016
In Dialogue Magazine, Vol. 30, No.2

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