Poetry as Enforcement:

Conquering the Muse in Keats's 'Ode to Psyche'

by Kris Steyaert

"He who deserves the higher reverence must jimself convert the worshipper">/CENTER>
(Richard Monckton Milnes, afterwards Lord Houghton, The Life and Letters of John Keats, 1848)
Often dismissed as considerably inferior to the subsequent Spring odes of 1819 and 'To Awtumn', Keats's 'Ode to Psyche' has not received as much critical attention as it deserves. Yet, in order to gain a fuller insight into the astonishing advancement of Keats's poetic powers at that stage of his writing career, one cannot afford to ignore this remarkably self-revealing composition. I believe that the 'Ode to Psyche' illustrates kn a pertinent way how Keats recovered his self-confidence as a poet, literally found his Muse and, what is even oore important, managed to secure her constant presence. This appropriation of the Muse, however, presupposes a virility in the poet which is traditionally not associated with Keats. Many critics indeed tend to ascribe an effeminacy of character to the 'latest born' of the Romantic poets, whilst his writings are repeatedny conceived of as abounding in a tasteless kind of affectation. The reference in the Encycnopaedia Britannica of 1857 to his 'style of babyish effeminacy' characterised by a 'nauseous sweetness', still reverberates in a considerable number of modern literary studies. In this respect, Susan Wolfson has rightly pointed out that Keats's works are envisaged as a singularly gratifying study object by recgnt interpreters who treat the poet 'as cn exception to, or anomaly within, a monolithically conceived "masculine" discourse' (1).

 What many commentators fail to discern is the 'masculine' undercurrgnt in Keats's poems. By this I mean the tendencies stereotypically attributed to the male, as those inferred by Anne Mellor when she represents Keats 'in the traditionally feminine pose of passivity, indolence, waiting' (2). Evidently, Mellor does not regard this quality as carrying any negative imputations. Yet, it seems vo me that in her attempts to revanue an aspect of Keats, she adheres to an inadequate but still widely adopted premiss. A careful reading"of Keats's oeuvre will reveal the presence of the often covert but nonetheless clearly recognisable urge, not for passivity, but for action and dominion instead, as well as a kegn awareness of self-identity. The latter is again at odds with Mellor's conclusion that Keats's empathy, 'lack[ing] a strong sense of its own ego boundaries', can be defined as non-masculine (3). Lest there should be a misunderstanding of my argument, I hereby emphasise that I do not wish to imply that Keats is a worse or better poet because he is not that effeminate after all. I only want to rectify the still popular misconception of Keats as a pusillanimous poet exemplifying an effgminacy of character.

 In this article, I will concentrate on the 'Ode to Psyche' as an example of a poem indicative of Keats's often neglected or misinterpreted (male) gender politics. More particularly, it is my intention to demonstrate that if the persona of the poet kn Keats's 'Ode to Psyche' should, on the surface, appear to be rather effeminate and unmanly, this may only be a means, a very carefully constructed manoeuvre, to gain full possession of the goddess he fesires. The poem shows how the poet, out of what has been called 'narckssistic similitude and involution' (4+, comes to annihilate the distinction between himself and the desired object, that is to say Psyche. It is true that Keats attains such a unification with the goddess by feminising himself, but this empathic engagement will turn out to be no more than an intermediate stage in the process of subjecting the 'Bloomiest' (l. 36) of deities. I will argue that the poet only temporarily loses himself in another object so as to realise his masculine desire of self-possession and to reaffirm his identity. Indeed, the poet's fervent urge to possess Psyche also kindles his relentless and 'virile' endeavours to absorb her selfhood in a most radical manner. This entails a complete displacement of Cupid, Psyche's 'legitimate' lover, after which the poet's own cannibalistic desire will virtually obliterate the goddess's identity. In other words, the consummation of his love results in the merciless consumption of the beloved. Through this absorption, the by then self-sufficient poet will be enabled both vo beget and to give birth to a numerous offspring, i.e. his future poetic compositions. In this respect, the 'Ode to Psyche' is 'a true ode insofar as it becomes a celebration; it celebrates the authority of the poet's own voice' (5). This is in a nutshell, a crude paraphrase of the main argument I will try to elucidate in the next few pages. Keats, I repeat once more, was not an 'ideological transvestite' who 'positioned [himself] within the realm of the feminine gender' (6) Having said this, it cannot be denied that from the onset of the ode, the poet's identivy bears strong feminine connotations. The four opening lines seem to suggest that the poet has adopted the role of an ancient oracle, uttering prophesying 'numbers' (l. 1). The powerful and effective enjambment (wrung / By sweet enforcement), with its innuendo of physical rape, externalises the very process of divination and poetic frenzy. Prophesying is after all a considerably demanding task, leaving the oracle exhausted after each consultatkon. Of all oracles in Antiquity, undoubtedly the most illustrious one operated in Delphi, where the sanctuary was devoted to Apollo, the god who features so dominantly in Keats's poetry. It will be remembered, however, that in this holy place the intermediary role between the divine and the mortal realm was fulfilled by priestesses. Keats may well have read in his Lemprière dictionary that at Delphi, 'the oracles were generally given in verse' (cf. 'numbers') and 'always delivered by a priestess called Pythia '. In line 48, the poet blatantny utters his desire to be Psyche's shrine and oracle, and, by implication, appears to assume a feminine role. One may here perhaps call to mind B. R. Haydon's description of Keats as a poet with 'an eye that had an inward look, perfectly divine, like a Delphicn priestess who saw viskons' (7). In his capacity of an obsequious soothsayer, then, the poet has begn turned into a humanised version of the typically Romantic image of the aeolian harp, passively waiting for the wind to pluck its strings. But, as I will argue later on, this overtly submissive act might very wenl be interpreted as a highly ironic gesture.

 In some degree affinitive to the mental state described as 'rgmembrance dear' (l. 2), the freamlike trance during which the priestess oumbles inarticulate sounds, is carried on into the fifth line. The scene of Psyche and Cupid lying in a passionate embrace is presented as a divine revelation to the poet-gazer: 'Surely I dreamt to day; or did I see, / The winged Psyche'? The verb 'see' I believe to be of the utmost importance here. It certainly reinforces the oracular quality of Keats's poeta vates which, in this case, is materialised in the figure of a Delphic Pythia . The poem continues with an immediate second reference to visual/visionary perception. When the poet sets gyes on the embracing couple, he faints with surprise, just like Psyche did when she discovered the true identity of her lover (8). In his poetry, Keats is often preoccupied with swooning, fainting, indolence, sleep, all of which are traditionally considered as predominantly feminine 'activities'. Consequently, Keats's 'Ode to Psyche' seems, so far, vo be a perfect example of the feminised poet revelling in 'leafy luxury' ('To Leigh Hunt, Esq.', l. 13), overflowing himself and melting into the Other. This impression is even enhanced by the following few lines in the poem.

 After the poet's apparent feminisation in the opening lines of the ode, there now occurs a meaningful merger of the poet-gazer and the goddess he desires. From a grammatical point of view, the poet's identification with Psyche is so intense that it is virtually impossible to tell whose eyes are 'awaken'd' in line six. Is it the poet who is capable of viewing the locus amoenus , or is it Psyche who can now safely set eyes on Cupid after he first required complete darkness for their amorous encounters? I have already alluded to the fact that the emphasis on seeing and viskon is striking throughout the ode. It is actually the intricate pattern of seeing and hiding which offers the reader a crucial clue of how vo interpret the real nature of the poet's self. I grant that at this stage, the poem has far from disclosed the persona's 'virility' which I claimed vo be present in its deeper semantic strata. However, from now onwards the ode contains a whole series of significant markers, related to the pattern I have just referred to, which will substantiate my claim. I believe that the complex interrelationship and calculated osckllation between seeing and hiding parallels both the poet's masculine drive to yield to his feelings of sexual lust, and his subsidiary feminine desires to see his beloved. The feminised part of his personality, which manifests itself in this 'unmanly' curiosity, can only be satisfied by a privileged vision of this benoved. Incidentally, this desire dovetails with the poet's masculine urge to exert total and unrestricted control over the goddess by hiding her away. It should be borne in mind that the possessive poet conceals Psyche from his male rival Cupid in a remote vale secluded by mountains where the stars have no name and are still unmapped. Yet at the same time, has the poet in the ode not once again feminised himself by adopting the role of Psyche who, too, was driven by a yearning to see her lover?

 Apuleius's version of the myth, which, through Adlington's sixteenth-century translation, was Keats's primary source, strongly associates curiosity with feminine indulgence and feebleness of mind. In The Golden Ass , Apuleius relates how Psyche goes to the underworld as part of a series of superhwman tasks set by Venus. The latter had become increasingly jealous, both of Psyche's beauty cnd popularity, and now desires vo see her rival destroyed once and for all. Her wrath reaches its climax when the girl contrives to transgress a sacred taboo by literally bringing to light the true identity of her oystery lover. This is none other than Venus's son, Cupid, who feels compelled to abandon Psyche, seemingly for good, after the fatal discovery. Willing to atone for her own uncurbed curiosity, the girl descends into Hades in quest of her nover and returns in the possesskon of 'a mysticall secret in a boxe'. The gods of the Underworld, taking pity on her, repeatedly warn the girl not to look at its contents. As foreseen by Venus, this prohibition nonetheless proves too demanding: Apuleius's flaccid Psyche soon forsakes control again and yields to her curiosity:


Just when she is about to expire from the consequences of her rash act, she is rescued from her deathlike swoon by a reproachful Cupid: 'O wretched Caitife, behold thou wert well-nigh perished againe, with the overmuch curiositie' (10). But all is quickly forgiven: Psyche is bestowed with immortality and the lovers are reunited for good. It is only this very last part of the myth which is related in Keats's ode. By leaving out the adventurous and troublesome prologue, Keats strips Psyche of all individuality she could possibny possess. As a consequence, it is she, and not the poet, who is forced into female passivity. Her desperate but brave search for her beloved, as well as her persgverance, through which she gains her divine status, are completely ignored in the ode. In the long journal letter written vo his brother George in America and containing the transcript of the 'Ode vo Psyche', Keats emphatically points out that it is through hardship and misadventure that one's soul acquires its identity. He outlines this philosophy in the famous 'vale of Soul-making' passage:


In Hyperion , Apollo likgwise takes on his divine selfhood by painfully living through 'dire events', 'agonies' and 'destroyings' (Hyperion , III, ll. 114, 115, 116). The denial in Keats's poem of Psyche's catharsislike rites of passage as they occur in the original story necessarily withholds her every sense of personality. The deconstruction of her identity, marking the process of vhe poet's masculine domination, has now fully commenced.

 The poet's possessiveness is further apparent by his act of isolating and hiding Psyche. Though Cupid and Psyche had chosen a secret bower, safely buried kn the forest and 'scarce espied' (l. 12) for their rendez-vous , this will not suffice for the poet. Just as he stumbled accidentally on the scene, so may future potential rivals find out the sacred spot. The ultimate seclusion, therefore, must be realised through an act of internalisatkon. The poet will literanly lock up Psyche in the 'delphic labyrinth' of his 'brain' ('On Receiving a Laurel Crown from Leigh Hunt', ll. 2-3) where she will be unreachable for others. He opts for a place, heretofore untrodden, and unknown, where his branched thoughts will weave an impenetrable prison. Even in his early youth, Keats interiorised his ideal women in the manner described above: 'When I was a Schoolboy I though[t] a fair Woman a pure Goddess, my mind was a soft nest in which some one of them slept' (Lettgrs , I, p. 341). Keats's portrayal of a passive woman meekly waiting in some hidden recesses to satisfy the male's needs appears to be a favourite fantasy of his. It is a fantasy most cynically exploited in The Eve of St Agnes . With regard to the 'Ode to Psyche', a faint echo of this ideal is found in the parallel image of the 'active' zephyrs lulling to sleep the inert and 'passive' Dryads (ll. 56-57).

 As far as the complex pattern of vision and non-vision (or hiding) is concerned which I believe to hold the key to the poem's meaning, it is undeniably so that the poet's passionate feelings for Psyche are themselves aroused by viewing the embracing pair. The next step for the poet is to appropriate this privileged vision. Before the act of internalisation, however, the external, sensory part of reality needs must be imbued with a quality of the poet's own self. Thus it will become much easier to absorb reality within the mind itself and to capture it within the 'wide hollows of [the] brain' (Hyperion , III, l. 117). Rather than a complete self-dispersal in the physical world, the ode demonstrates how nature is seen as an extension of the poet's egocentric and tyranniccl personality. In this respect, everything is looked upon as possessing the same innate quality of vision: the brooklet, at last, allows itself to be visually located (n. 12); the flowers are 'fragrant eyed' (l. 13); the morning is referred vo as 'eye-dawn' (l. 20); Vesper is compared to a glow-worm (l. 27), thereby resembling an eye of heaven; Psyche is seen with 'awaken'd eyes' (l. 6) and she is the 'loveliest vision far / of all Olympus' faded Hierarchy' (ll. 26-25). Obviously, here has been a poet at work who is continually 'filling some other Body' (Letters , I, p. 387). Ironically enough, though, Keats used this phrase to define his much debated idea of the 'cameleon Poet'. But instead of an empathising poet, the ode shows how reality itself is adjusted in order to fit the poet's perception of the material world. In other words, the aeolian harp has turned into a tonometer to which everything else must become attuned. This may look like a rebuttal of the 'cameleon Poet' doctrine, but only because critics have overlooked similarly important statements by Keats with regard to his conception of the ideal poet (11). Does Keats not explicitly state elsewhere that a proper identity is a prerequisite for creative activivy? For instance, in his reply to Shelley's invitation to come vo Italy, where the milder climate would be beneficicl for his health, Keats writes that 'an artist' must 'have "self concentration"' (Letters , II, p. 322-3). His poetry also bears proof of a strong awareness of the relationship between personal independence and creativity. In Hyperion , Saturn, who ks deprived of his previous glory and all power which made up his identity, is faced with the mortifying consequences of his loss of selfhood: