Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Ellen Reiss on "criticizing" John Keats in 1818

Ellen Reiss's editorial commentary in The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known, issue # 1319

In her important commentary about Eli Siegel's lecture Poetry and Keenness, Ellen Reiss writes on an intensely relevant matter concerning the Internet today. What a person may present to the public as his smartest perception--may really be nothing more than disparagement and malice. In 1818 a "keenly" critical review of the great poet John Keats was published by a noted literary figure--and that figure has gone down in history as an example of stupidity and meanness about a great contemporary. 

On the Web today there are a few persons who flatter themselves by calling themselves "critics" of Aesthetic Realism and of the persons who study and teach it. In reality they are liars of the most egregious kind and will be seen as examples of stupidity and meanness in our time.

Ellen Reiss writes in this editorial commentary:

"As we are determined to ferret out fakery while ignoring value, and sometimes ferret out fakery that doesn’t exist, we are not keen but dumb: to see a thing as our ego prefers and not as the thing is, is as stupid as saying the earth is flat or Boston is a pleasant tropical city in the heart of South America. Further, rooking ourselves of what we were born for — to like the world honestly, be just to it, find meaning in it — is not keen, but idiotic; yet millions of people who think they are keen are doing just that...."

Ms. Reiss continues:

"A person important in the history of periodical criticism, or reviewing, is someone who can be used to study the fight in every person between true and false keenness. John Gibson Lockhart (1794-1854) had true keenness, which is the desire to cut through superficiality and see and feel as fully and accurately as possible what a thing is. But he also had, with terrific notability, the false keenness people go after, of making the bright, scathing, ever so effective statement, while not feeling and seeing truly the thing he was commenting on.

"A critic, Mr. Siegel has explained, "makes a good thing look good, a bad thing look bad, and a middling thing look middling." Lockhart was so sharp and stinging a critic that he was called "The Scorpion." Yet in various instances — one monumental — he was quite wrong. It is generally agreed now that he is the author of the 1818 review of John Keats’s Endymion in Blackwood’s Magazine. And we have in that influential review a kind of brilliance and keenness which was the same as a vast inability to feel and see the value of Keats.

"Lockhart was the son-in-law of Sir Walter Scott, and his 1837 Life of Scott has been called the greatest biography in English after Boswell’s Johnson.

"He was impelled there by a powerful desire both to be exact and to be affected deeply. He wrote on German literature, and he translated, with feeling, old Spanish ballads into English. Yet, as the 5th edition (1985) of The Oxford Companion to English Literature tells it, 'In 1817 he began [in Blackwood’s] a long series of attacks on, in particular, Leigh Hunt, Keats, and Hazlitt, castigating them as the low-born ‘Cockney School of Poetry.’' The attacks included Keats’s Poems of 1817; then in 1818 Lockhart reviewed Endymion. Here are some of the sarcastic, clever, oh-so-keen sentences from that review. (The "malady" Lockhart refers to is Keats’s feeling he could write poetry.)
    To witness the disease of any human understanding, however feeble, is distressing; but the spectacle of an able mind reduced to a state of insanity is of course ten times more afflicting. It is with such sorrow as this that we have contemplated the case of Mr. John Keats....He was bound apprentice some years ago to a worthy apothecary in town. But all has been undone by a sudden attack of the malady....For some time we were in hopes, that he might get off with a violent fit or two; but of late the symptoms are terrible. The phrenzy of the "Poems" was bad enough in its way; but it did not alarm us half so seriously as the calm, settled, imperturbable drivelling idiocy of "Endymion."
"At the conclusion of the review, Lockhart advises Keats to resume his former occupation: 'Back to the [apothecary] shop Mr John, back to ‘plasters, pills, and ointment boxes.’'

"This was written by a person enamored of how "keen" he could be. But because Lockhart couldn’t be affected, couldn’t see value where value existed, yet felt that to sneer was astute, he wasn’t keen but ugly and ridiculous.

"The fight in Lockhart is a fight in everyone: between the keenness of wanting to see and feel the meaning of things, and that contemptuous "keenness" which is really retardation and disability. Because Eli Siegel’s purpose was always to see truly, he was the keenest, kindest, most accurate critic — of both art and life in all their fulness. This keen, deep, alive seeing is immortal in Aesthetic Realism. But it was there, day after day, in the sentences he, as person, spoke — the most beautiful thing I know in the world. The resentment of his greatness by persons of the press and others— their anger that they couldn’t feel superior to Aesthetic Realism and are so enormously affected by it—is both infinitely mean and infinitely stupid. It is through Aesthetic Realism that humanity will have the real keenness we long for, about our own lives and the world!"


More about Ellen Reiss:

You can see more of Ms. Reiss's literary criticism in her commentaries on (1) Robert Burns, in which she shows that Burns is "a means of asking, How should jobs and work be in this land"; on (2) Eli Siegel's gathering of poems titled "The Persistence of Fabric", which, she states, "have the factual immediacy of cloth one can touch—and also the mystery that can be in the feelings of people: the emotions that whirl within us, or rustle in us, even as we put on a well-fitting garment"; and on (3) "Nature, Romanticism, and Harry Potter", in which she writes: "I'll comment here on a work that, 50 years later, has been affecting men, women, and children throughout the English-speaking world. I refer to the first of the Harry Potter novels, by J.K. Rowling: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, originally published in England in 1997. What does its enormous popularity say about people and what they are looking for?"

And you can visit these resources: