Odal Cycles: Notes on Keats' Odes Pt. 1

Keats’ Odes encompass cycles and cycles within cycles; they are a literary meta-monument par excellence. The most overt cyclical energy I’ve spotted in the Odes subsists between “Grecian Urn,” “Psyche,” and “Nightingale.” That Psyche and Grecian Urn set setting something in place to be reified— a cohesive gestalt vision of visions, and a blazon of the visionary as an emanation from the chiasmus between sense, tactility, and imagination— which is parodied, deconstructed and supplanted by subjective necessity against negative capability in Nightingale, is the basic premise. What is “doubled” between Grecian Urn and Psyche is profound— the visionary synecdoche, of young lovers frozen into immobility in a forest, appears to Keats on the Grecian Urn itself, and then magically manifests before his eyes as Eros and Psyche, embodied physically in three dimensions as Keats strolls through an actual forest in Psyche; that Psyche, owing to her position in classical lore, constitutes the literal apotheosis of Daphne and Syrinx in Grecian Urn; that all these processes of recognition and assimilation had to evince an (odal) sense of the celebratory; and that what becomes tactile, as Grecian Urn leads to Psyche, is another recognition, that liminal states and modes of being, “half” modes, usually situated between sleep-states and wakefulness, are necessary to the cultivation of the visionary, and visionary happiness, in such a way that the poet himself disappears into a liminal trance to channel the rough tactile materials of his trade into sufficiently honed, “quiet” (or murmurous) forms.

In short, Grecian Urn up to Psyche establish a self-enclosed, self-contained system— a system both of artistic representation and of self-awareness, poetic and otherwise, around representational processes in general. The manner in which Nightingale talks back to the two Odes constitutes both a (partial) critique and a (partial) denial— by beginning Nightingale with an apostrophe to himself, and his own vulnerability, this version of odal protagonist adumbrates the limitations of the established odal system and cycle— that the happiness of self-transcendence and liminal states of consciousness cannot always be achieved; that the tactility of things can be torturous as well as ecstatic; that the entire applied odal method, in fact, exaggerates what is inherently (partially) banal in tactility and liminal states of consciousness; and that exercising a “purple-stained mouth” perpetuates its own cycle of unrealistic expectations and weakly-strung nerves. Just as Psyche’s casement opens on love and refreshment, Nightingale’s opens on perilous seas and forlorn realms; Psyche’s forest is viewed in broad daylight, Nightingale’s in confining, “embalmed” darkness; the “heathen goddess” becomes an indifferent (immortal) animal; and the totalized purview of the visionary is revealed as an “easeful Death.” Even synesthesia, Keats’ accustomed manner of deranging and re-configuring the tactile, has its disasters— the “shadowy sounds” of the forest reinforce the protagonist’s isolation, melodious plots of greenery extend past his reach, sight and hearing do a dance more irritating than not. Because Nightingale closes and rounds out the relevant odal trio, the meta-commentary and meta-critique enact an inquiry with, as is typical with Keats, a sense of half-determinate conclusions.