On Yves Bonnefoy’s ‘The Tombs of Ravenna’

In my last blog I was discussing Keats’ ideas about Negative Capability, provoked by a visit to Keats House and a discussion there about Negative Capability and psychoanalysis. The speakers were Dr Margot Waddell, a child psychotherapist from the Tavistock Clinic, and Dr Toni Griffiths, Trustee of the Keats Foundation. Waddell focused on the acknowledged influence of Keats’ idea on the work of psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion. In the aftermath of such major stimulation, the new issue of PN Review fell through the front door, containing John Naughton’s excellent new translation of Yves Bonnefoy’s 1953 essay, The Tombs of Ravenna. Keats and Bonnefoy melded in my mind and I was reading the latter in terms of the former as follows.


Bonnefoy observes that though many philosophers have discussed death, few have bothered to ponder the places where we traditionally lodge the dead: sepulchers and tombs. The explanation he offers introduces a key term for both his prose and poetry from 1953 to the present day: the concept. The concept, as in conceptual thinking, is a human creation, abstracted from the plentitude, the flood and flux of actual, particular human experience. It is “always a means of escape” into a more fixed abode. The concept denies time and is “a profound rejection of death”. It denies the fact of death as our inevitable fate and constructs an illusory “dwelling place of logic”, a more alluring place of “permanence and identity”. Also, and crucially, the concept is “made of words”. Language is a similar construct, also seeming to promise the same sort of escape into the timeless, the unchanging. All forms of conceptual thinking seem to promise an achievable resolution but, Bonnefoy argues, “what is pondered is no longer the real object”. Instead, we contemplate “a dubious knowledge” though it may soothe our “initial anguish and trivialises that most somber melody with words that mask the reality of death”.


So the concept promises a “strange immortality” but only if we can “forget brutal reality” – which, of course, we can and readily do. One reason is that there are general truths in conceptual thinking and a particular kind of power derived from it. It “allows thinking” of a certain kind; it is linked with “the vast power of words”. But any gain is predicated on a significant loss, the abandonment of the actually existing “world of things”. Conceptual thinking is “systematized”, generalizing, categorizing; it’s in this that its “flight” from the real is found. The only sort of thing that can be held up to counter the concept are specific particularities of human experience: Bonnefoy asks “Is there a concept for footsteps in the night, for a cry, for a stone rolling in the brushwood? For the feeling evoked by an empty house? No [. . . ]”

Elevation of Tomb of Theodoric, Ravenna

In his letters, Keats calls this sort of non-particular thinking “preresolved” and he encountered it especially in his friend Charles Dilke: “a man who [. . . ] has made his Mind up about every thing” (303; page numbers in brackets are to John Keats: Selected Letters (Oxford World Classics, newly revised 2002)). Dilke is one of the “stubborn arguers” who never begin on any subject “they have not preresolved upon” (303). In contrast, Keats argues the only means of strengthening one’s intellect and identity “is to make up one’s mind about nothing – to let the mind be a thoroughfare for all thoughts” (303). Keats’ best formulation of this idea arises when several things “dovetailed” in his mind after a frustrating debate with Dilke. The quality that marks out the artist – Shakespeare especially, he says – is Negative Capability. He defines this as consisting of a passive openness to the full range of particular human experience (“uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts”) without any imposition of preconceived notions, preresolved ideas or language: “without any irritable reaching after fact & reason” (41/2). Bonnefoy’s insight is that rather than being an occasional tendency, this reaching after fact and reason (conceptual thinking rather than direct, particular, various experience) is our default status. We pass our days in a delusion of resolution and systematization because if we did not we might fry our brains with the overload. In his last ever letter, Keats laments “the knowledge of contrast, feeling for light and shade, all that information (primitive sense)” as having become a great enemy to his “recovery” from his present state of illness. (369).

Yet the dully pragmatic ought not to be allowed to displace truth: Keats in better health argued this and Bonnefoy does the same in The Tombs of Ravenna. Bonnefoy’s essay for several paragraphs plays devil’s advocate, expecting to find “horror” in visiting the tombs of the dead, yet admitting that he felt “nothing but lightheartedness”. Initially, he locates this sense of up-lift in the ornamentation of the tombs, the “braids and interlacing [. . .] bows and foliage”. The essay playfully misleads its reader, suggesting that this effect of the ornamentation must be because it is comparable to the “concept” in denying the fact of death. Bonnefoy says he believed (note the past tense here) that ornamentation also abstracted towards the universal from the real, that the ornamentation presented “a closed world”, a world of “harmony”. Hence, just as the concept “seeks to establish truth without death [. . .] It seemed to me that ornamentation sought to build a dwelling place for us without death, and to have death no longer be here”. Visiting Ravenna, Bonnefoy felt lighthearted beside the tombs because its skilled and delicate ornamentation persuaded him of a world of permanence and consoling abstraction (beyond death, other than death).


But the essay now turns dramatically to deny the validity of such consoling sophistry. It’s invalid because Bonnefoy had failed to understand “the power of stone”. His insight is that it is not the ornamentation which is at the root of his lightheartedness but the very material out of which it has been carved. Stone is “unfathomable, and this abyss of plentitude, this night covered by an eternal light, is for [Bonnefoy] the exemplary form of the real”. What he means is that stone deflects the grasp of conceptual thought; conceptual thought distances itself from stone as it does from death. Stone is or represents “the difficult real” and it is or represents the “dawn of the sensory world”. Stone’s resistance, its very hardness, gestures towards the fullness and particularity of human experience (what Keats calls a “Life of Sensations”), towards “everything that has flesh, heartbeat, immanence”. The stone leads us towards the “truth tenaciously present beneath the truth of the concept”. And it is the latter ‘truth’ that Bonnefoy declares he must “tenaciously contest”.

The battle in Bonnefoy’s thought between the sensory world and the concept reflects Existentialism’s concern for existence rather than essence. His faith in a world resistant to and actually prior to the draining, withering forces of the intellect, his resistance to post-modernism, are reasons why he strikes many as such an inspiring figure. He says: “This world here exists, of that I am certain [. . .] It is simply with us. In what can be felt and sensed”. In The Tombs of Ravenna he names this underlying truth, not as existence, but “presence”. It is “what is perceived by the senses” and it was a dimly stirring awareness of this truth that constituted the “lightheartedness” he felt before the tombs of Ravenna. Through an encounter with the stone from which the tombs are constructed, the resistance of both life and death to the abstracting processes of conceptual thought was made clear and the pleasure induced arose from his closer approach to a fundamental truth.

Just as for Keats, such ideas have consequences for art and poetry. For Bonnefoy, poetry seeks to represent the real particular truths of human experience, to convey what it can of the “dawn of the sensory world”, as opposed to succumbing to the lure of conceptual thinking, even that conceptual thinking inherent in the very fabric of language itself. This specific paradox is not explored very far in The Tombs of Ravenna in which he confines himself to declaring that we require “another language than that of the concept” to articulate such truths. He concludes poetry’s only concern is “for that spot in the world I can sense” and because it must, as far as possible, resist the lure of conceptual truths (truth without death) it follows that “poetry and journey are of the same substance, the same blood”.


What such a poem might look like is suggested in those few moments when Bonnefoy himself resorts to “minute particulars”. On one such occasion, drawing from his own life, he tells us of “the cry of a bird I heard as a child, at the crest of a kind of cliff. I don’t know where that valley is anymore, or why or when I was there. The light is the light of dawn or of evening, it doesn’t matter. Through the brushwood runs the pungent smoke of a fire. The bird sang. Rather I should say, to be exact, it spoke, raucous on its misty height, for a moment of perfect solitude”.

Or as Keats put it in 1819, having listened to a nightingale singing on Hampstead Heath:

Adieu! adieu! thy plaintive anthem fades

Past the near meadows, over the still stream,

Up the hill-side; and now ’tis buried deep

In the next valley-glades:

Was it a vision, or a waking dream?

Fled is that music:—Do I wake or sleep?


Keats’ Negative Capability Clearly Explained

Recently I went with some teaching colleagues to Keats House, London, to hear a discussion about the poet’s idea of Negative Capability and psychoanalysis. The speakers were Dr Margot Waddell, a child psychotherapist from the Tavistock Clinic, and Dr Toni Griffiths, Trustee of the Keats Foundation. Both were fascinating, condensing whole areas of scholarly knowledge into accessible (if intense) 45 minute talks. Waddell focused on the acknowledged influence of Keats’ idea on the work of psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion.


I’m not sure I feel very qualified to comment on that intriguing area without a good deal further reading, but a memorable phrase arose from it: Waddell argued that Bion saw the way that preconception obstructs perception and how this must adversely affect the therapist/patient relationship. Toni Griffiths’ elegant and economical discussion of Keats’ work (not merely the Negative Capability idea) set off several days of thought for me and has produced what I think will be two blog posts. Firstly, and perhaps largely for myself, I wanted to clarify my own understanding of Keats’ idea which has long meant a great deal to me. In my next post, I want to explain how those thoughts have “dove-tailed” (Keats’ own brilliant phrase in the Negative Capability letter to his brothers George and Tom, December 1817) with a recent translation of Yves Bonnefoy’s 1953 essay The Tombs of Ravenna (in the most recent PN Review (No. 226, Nov-Dec 2015, pp. 58-63).

This second blog is now available to be read here.

What follows below is my assemblage of observations from Keats’ letters, hopefully into a clear argument, indeed, into Keats’ coherent theory of poetic achievement and practice (though Negative Capability of course eschews all such systematizing). Page numbers in brackets are to John Keats: Selected Letters (Oxford World Classics, newly revised 2002).


In his 1817 letter to Benjamin Bailey, Keats wishes for “a Life of Sensations rather than of Thoughts!” (36). Just a year later, in a letter to James Hessey, he clarifies this distinction, suggesting that poetry is not “matured by law & precept, but by sensation and watchfulness” (146). The language use Keats associates with law and precept is evidently a fixed, a “preresolved” (303) language. What he seeks inits place is rather a language sufficiently flexuous and responsive to “watchfulness”, to attentiveness and often, when Keats discusses this, there is a strong sense of passivity. Writing to Bailey, characteristically using the phrase that an idea had “pressed upon” him (35), he says it has “increased my Humility and capability of submission”. The idea he is referring to is that artists (“Men of Genius”) “have not any individuality, any determined character”, as opposed to “Men of Power” who are replete and resolved in “a proper self” (35).

Keats’ distrust of such self-confident preresolution famously emerges in the 1818 letter to John Reynolds, as his dislike and distrust of poetry that has a “palpable design” on us (58) and to Bailey he contrasts this with an alertness to the “holiness of the heart’s affections and the truth of Imagination” (36/7). Preresolution pre-packages or pre-limits our emotional and spiritual life, whereas Keats is intent on welcoming “all”. This is what he means in the phrase “a Life of Sensations”, the latter word (rather misleadingly) encompassing both emotional and spiritual life as well as a full, open and alert response to the world about us. Such a full engagement with present experience is where we feel Imagination at work: Keats asks Bailey if he has not felt this in even such common experiences as listening to “an old Melody” and in the “elevation of the Moment” Keats declares we are “mounted on the Wings of Imagination” (37).


This ideal of a radical openness to present experience and its passive acceptance, was further clarified for Keats in his later dealings with his friend, Charles Dilke, who was becoming something of a political bore (spouting Godwinian philosophy and politics), a man who had resolved upon most issues. Keats again links this state to identity: Dilke is “a man who cannot feel he has a personal identity unless he has made his Mind up about every thing” (303). Dilke is one of the “stubborn arguers” who never begin upon any subject “they have not preresolved upon” (303). In contrast, Keats argues the only means of strengthening one’s intellect and identity “is to make up one’s mind about nothing – to let the mind be a thoroughfare for all thoughts” (303).

Keats’ best formulation of this idea arises when several things “dovetailed” in his mind after another frustrating debate with Dilke. The quality that marks out the artist – Shakespeare especially, he says – is Negative Capability. He defines this as consisting of a passive openness to the full range of human experience (“uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts”) without any imposition of preconceived notions, preresolved ideas or language: “without any irritable reaching after fact & reason” (41/2). Once again, the best way to understand this is through Keats’ word “watchfulness”, an attentiveness to the true nature of experiences. In yet another foray into these ideas, he experiments with the word “disinterestedness”. This again implies the absence of a forceful or dominating self, full of preconceived ideas, words, precepts. Writing to his brother George, he says “complete disinterestedness” is a difficult goal. He admits he is himself “far” from it though personally and in social terms he believes it “ought to be carried to its highest pitch” (213).


Such moments of disinterested perception occur in his observation of a sparrow picking about on the gravel (37). Approached with Negative Capability this mundane moment becomes something that “startles” and Keats says “I take part in its existince [sic]” (37). In this way, the poet is continually “filling some other body” (148). Such is the truth in a “Life of Sensations”, fuelled by Imagination, and one of the delights of a human life is that these happy moments will continue to be “repeated in a finer tone and so repeated”. The mind develops in this way through the repetition “of its own silent Working” (36). These refinements of the mind can occur only when experience is encountered openly, nakedly, even dangerously. To Reynolds, Keats wrote that to become fully “fit for this world”, with all its pains and hardship, a man would have to have “the fine point of his soul taken off” (39). But the poet or artist cannot afford to be so blunted by experiences but must remain radically open, even submissive to them. In the same letter to Reynolds, Keats quotes Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis: “As the snail, whose tender horns being hit, / Shrinks back into his shelly cave with pain”. Such a reaction of withdrawal must not be countenanced by the would be artist. To Richard Woodhouse, Keats wrote “What shocks the virtuous philosopher, delights the camelion [sic] Poet” (148). The work of the poet experiences “no harm from its relish of the dark side of things any more than from its taste for the bright one” (148).


Keats recognizes and accepts the personal, experiential conclusion of such thoughts as he records his own sensation of feeling annihilated in a crowded room because “the identity of every one in the room begins to press upon me” (148). Yet this absence of a resolved self (pushing and barging over-confidently outwards) leaves room for such delicate encounters as that with the sparrow and on other occasions, catching a glimpse “of a stoat or fieldmouse peeping out of the withered grass – the creature hath a purpose and its eyes are bright with it” (213). Keats regards such escape from or evasion of this confinement to self as a form of purification: “there is an ellectric [sic] fire in human nature tending to purify” (213). He names Socrates and Jesus as perfections of this state, though “it is to be lamented that the history of the latter was written and revised by men interested in the pious fraud of Religion” (214). Of course, poetry must also aspire to this state and (as David Constantine has argued in his Bloodaxe lectures, A Living Language 2004)) Keats’ “gymnastics” in trying to broaden his native language-use (with its preresolutions) through a variety of foreign poetic experiments suggests he knew this well enough.


By the spring of 1819, Keats was further developing his ideas about the role and nature of the self with the letter discussing life as a “vale of Soul-making”. He dismisses naïve ideas of the “perfectibility” (232) of mankind, even doubting the real progress made by any “seldom appearing Socrates”. He jokes that fish are as likely to “philosophise the ice away from the Rivers” as man is likely to arrive at a perfect state because “the nature of the world will not admit it” (232). However much happiness a man can experience, there will still be worldly elements that “prey upon his nature”. It is from this conviction that Keats proposes – in stark contrast to any Christian reading of man’s life –the idea that we are born as intelligences (“sparks of the divinity” or “atoms of perception” (232)). Then through a system of “Spirit-creation”, the intelligence develops into a Soul by refining an individuality or identity. This process is an educative one, fuelled by Negative Capability, in that the world is allowed to impact fully on the human heart which is led to “feel and suffer in a thousand diverse ways” (233). Man can never achieve a state of perfection but as the world’s school of hard knocks is openly, vulnerably embraced so the process of individuation occurs via emotional experience. It follows that the human heart is “the teat from which the Mind or intelligence sucks its identity” (233). As various as the lives of all individuals are, so “various become their souls” since individual emotional experiences are the “fortifiers or alterers” of our ever-developing nature (234).

So Keats’ ideal poet must possess Negative Capability to fully experience the world before him without preresolution. Armed with sufficient language skills to express the plenitude of these experiences, the poet’s role is then to re-present them to the reader in such a way that the poem itself contributes to the reader’s own developing emotional life. The work of art is therefore an important contribution to the reader’s own on-going process of Spirit creation or individuation (though this is only going to occur if the reader too is possessed of Negative Capability and is not someone who opens a book of poems with firmly preresolved expectations and ideas).


Review: Kate Bingham’s ‘Infragreen’ (2015)

There is a side to Kate Bingham’s poetry that might be (and has been) described as steady, calmly observed, dispassionate, elegant and formally accomplished. But I also see another writer – one largely unacknowledged in Seren’s blurb to Infragreen and the many critical comments arrayed in her praise – for whom the world is endlessly atilt, above lethal undertows, aching distances, the formal wizardry in large part a white-knuckled hanging on in fear of letting go. I don’t mean the latter in any silly psycho-babble way but in relation to that moment when the black gulfs open up under all we thought we knew.

The more conventional part of this new book is the second section which seems to be visiting a landscape, a house and wooded countryside where the poet perhaps spent time in her youth. We are given reflections on early love, motherhood, the daughter becoming a mother herself, the English countryside, cattle, blackberrying. Most of these poems are obviously viewed through the perspective-glass of time past and time present and this somewhat disrupts Bingham’s more characteristic way of seeing things which is from within and without. One really marvelous poem here assumes the stance of the innocent younger girl encountering an apparently friendly farmer who keeps a bunch of string in his pocket to entertain the child while also using it to keep “his trousers up” (‘String’). It’s the humming, obsessive, ground-base of end-rhyming (string, string, twine, string, mine, strings, string, hem, string, hen, string, him) that evokes the worrying undertow of adult threat without anything explicit being said at all: “He didn’t need the string. / I tugged his arm and trotted after him”.


It’s the clash of viewpoints or perspectives – using that unsuspecting, unreliable narrative voice – that makes this gem of a poem so disturbing to read. And it is the manipulation of viewpoints that yields such rich dividends elsewhere in Infragreen. On a domestic level this is played out in ‘Next Door’ where the tone is one of some surprise that the neighbours “experience life to the full”, the latter word forming on this occasion the repeating ground-base rhyme that imports irony into the seeming admiration for the “bang and slam” of their lives. But the collection is carefully opened with two brief, curiously abstract treatments of perspective. ‘Ultragreen’ takes the ‘above and beyond’ implication of the prefix to have the narrator observe a water drop “at the end of the garden”. Through a disturbing synaesthetic travelling, the drop instantaneously appears “in my brain”, indeed takes up the narrator’s perspective precisely as it “looks out / and sees what I have seen”. What was without is now within and something “like photosynthesis begins”. As a way of announcing this poet’s basic strategies and as a metaphor for (artistic) generative fecundity this is brilliant.


This is followed by the six cryptic lines of ‘Infragreen’ itself. I take Ultra to suggest ‘out there’ so Infra is more ‘within’ and here suggests a more harmonious coincidence of perception in which “the sun and I see eye to eye”. However, this frail connection seems always in danger of being broken, “half letting go of itself / half hanging on” and though Bingham does write occasionally of the fertile experience of such connectedness (see below) she more often writes in the throes of its breakdown, of distance and the accompanying sense of loss of control. So the archetypal ‘feel-good’ season of ‘Spring’ seems to be remotely occurring rather than directly experienced, the sun (again) “rising above its various nationalities / and making things grow”. The romantic gift of flowers is undercut in a meditation on tulip harvesting in Holland and the deliberate wrenching cliché of “the international language of flowers”. Even the self, viewed from deep within, has to be recognized through experience and even then not reliably: “it is her face my face projects / and for a moment I look strange” (‘Look’).


Seamus Heaney has a number of car poems in which the vehicle seems to be working benignly as a mode of travelling into wider experience (my favourite is ‘Postscript’ from The Spirit Level (1996): “As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways / And catch the heart off guard and blow it open”). For Bingham, in contrast, the narrator’s car is a place “I have to return to”, a place of (admittedly rather dull) security, “somewhere to look from” (‘Silt’). So much so that there are occasions, even when “London at night is a blaze of company”, when sitting alone in a stationery car, “seat belt on / and the engine running”, seems the best thing to do, or even the most that can be done. This is from ‘Between’, another of Bingham’s best poems in this collection, opening in the familiar only to end in another dizzying, atomised gulf.

The familiar surroundings, the container of the car, perhaps works in the way that Bingham’s use of rhyme can be seen to work, as providing a firm base from which the poem gazes outwards into the truly disturbing (Tony Harrison has said something similar about his use of metre and rhyme; it also makes me think of Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘The Art of Losing’). So the lulling rhymes of ‘On Highgate Hill’ make the stabbing on a London bus more shocking than a more informal, realist treatment. The hypnotic, mono-rhymes of ‘At Night’ (night, white, light, sight, tight, right, bright and so on) evoke a drowsy, sleepiness of thought that ventures closer and closer to the edge. On this occasion, the vision is a brighter one of something (like Edward Thomas, Bingham enjoys the nonspecific of such a word), something “mine and right / and unconditional”.

The unconditional is an escape from the binaries of perspective. It is a fleeting moment – impossible really to be written about because impossible to be disciplined into language – when self and other, those distinctions we lean on and then find ourselves manacled to, vanish. Bingham approaches such moments cautiously, “my hairs on end, my senses trespassing”, occasionally there are successes: [I] look back from where I am at where I stood / and see the wood for the trees, the trees for the wood” (‘The Wood’). On other occasions the plenitude is more overwhelming like the fisherman faced with an overflowing fish farm: “tongue-torn, foul-hooked, half tame / when there was nothing more to take more came” (‘Cull’).


But there are also a few untitled experimental pieces scattered through Infragreen that seem to be approaching this state of the unconditional in a lower-case, unpunctuated tentativeness. On page 24, a couple wake into a sleepy uncertainty in which bird song and growing buds seem one, as do thoughts and birds on a branch, the human and the natural, “one listening one listening to itself”. The final poem too, page 63, starts by undermining language (“call it what you like”) and proceeds to a car crossing Exmoor, an unaccountable stopping, the driver leaping out into a gale force wind, a slammed door offering a brief framing device, the observing voice trying to “make what I can” of it all, though within and without are bewilderingly blurred, “the other side of the force in the fence // of the foreground”.


Kate Bingham’s skill in tacking the vessel of form against the breeze of colloquial language is certainly to be marveled at. There is great pleasure to be had from the rightness of her positioning of words on the page. But I also admire her willingness to gaze past what Seren’s blurb refers to as “necessarily” her subjects, “the familiar, the seen again, and the returned to”, to glimpse something far more terrifying and in this she reminds me less of Edward Thomas, less of Elizabeth Bishop, more of Robert Frost.