Home » Spring 2014 » “Deathwards progressing to no death:” The Freudian Trauma Cycle in Keats’s “On Seeing the Elgin Marbles,” “Ode to a Nightingale,” and The Fall of Hyperion

“Deathwards progressing to no death:” The Freudian Trauma Cycle in Keats’s “On Seeing the Elgin Marbles,” “Ode to a Nightingale,” and The Fall of Hyperion

April 14, 2014 11:51 pm Category: Spring 2014 A+ / A-

By Rebecca Short

“Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought/ As doth eternity” remarks John Keats’s speaker in “Ode on a Grecian Urn” as he contemplates the urn’s aesthetic implications (44-45). The comment illustrates art’s existence outside of mutability and its subsequent baffling effect upon human comprehension. This defiance of temporal understanding reflects Keats’s theory of negative capability, which he defines as a poetic state of lingering in “uncertainties, mysteries, [and] doubts without any irritable reaching after fact and reason” (Wu 1423). For Keats, negative capability allows a poet to transcend the structuring functions of the mind and enter the perpetually suspended realm of art; however, it is often accomplished through a traumatic moment of destabilization in which the poetic speaker realizes his mortality in the presence of an object of eternal beauty.

Psychoanalytically speaking, Keats’s engagement with the disjunction between speaker and artwork suggests the Freudian repetition compulsion as a means of overcoming this trauma. The engine at the heart of this compulsion is the death drive and Keats’s negative capability functions metaphysically as this instinct towards self-destruction; it requires the dissolution of the “irritable reaching” of the self and mind into an egoless space of “uncertainties, mysteries, [and] doubts.” By repeating the traumatic realization of mortality in poems such as “On Seeing the Elgin Marbles,” “Ode to a Nightingale,” and The Fall of Hyperion, Keats hones his ability to enter the negatively capable realm of art and poetically suspend his death in verse; thus, he overcomes his mortality by attaining the static beauty of art in the form of poetry.

Before examining these poems, it is pertinent to discuss “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” which functions as Keats’s discourse upon the nature of art and its ideal state of negatively capable existence. “Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness” begins the poem, and immediately Keats identifies art’s endurance outside of structured time (1). The urn’s “unravish’d” existence sexually implies that its decorative images have never been consummated and brought to a satisfying conclusion; rather, they exist in a state of suspension and uncertainty as to outcome. Keats echoes this suspended sexuality in stanza two where he remarks, “Bold lover, never, never canst thou kiss,/ Though winning near the goal—yet, do not grieve;/ She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,/ For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair” (17-20). The lovers will never consummate their love since they are mere figures on an inanimate object; nevertheless, their love and beauty are perpetual and they will always be on the cusp of pleasure, never having to fear the aftermath of love. Art’s ability to capture this apex of human happiness makes it an eternally renewable source of pleasure. The speaker of “Grecian Urn” implies this when he describes the “happy melodist, unwearied,/ For ever piping songs forever new” (23-24). Frozen in time on the urn, the melodist’s music will be “forever new” because every viewer of the urn will imagine a different song issuing from his instrument. Keats is quick to praise the inert beauty of the Grecian urn yet he refers to it near the end of his poem as a “Cold Pastoral,” identifying it with a deathly plane of existence only underscored by its function as a vase which holds the ashes of the deceased (45). Indeed, it is the urn’s joyful independence from change and human passion that ironically makes it a portrayal of living death or stasis in which its immobile figures are always on the cusp(s) of consummative action. This ability to dwell in perpetual mystery as to outcome makes the urn negatively capable and free from the tension of “irritable grasping” to which the human condition is subjected.

The urn’s freedom from tension reflects the goal of the Freudian repetition compulsion and speaks to Freud’s theory of the death instinct. In Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Freud asserts, “the dominating tendency in mental life…is the effort to reduce, to keep constant or to remove tension due to stimuli…” (96). This explanation of what he terms the Constancy Principle explains that individuals are inclined to repeat traumatic events so they may regain their psychological equilibrium and “master a powerful impression” (58). The repetition compulsion is marked though by self-destructive behaviors, motivated by what Freud identifies as the death instinct, or a desire to return to inorganic form. He further stipulates a personalized law to the death instinct, namely that “the organism wishes to die only in its own fashion” (63). Pamela Thurschwell explains the logic behind the death instinct and reinforces Freud’s assertion regarding a self-styled death: “Death is the ultimate release of tension; it promises the ultimate experience of stasis and complete calm. Reenacting unpleasurable experiences comes to seem like a rehearsal for one’s own death” (88). Thurschwell’s language here evokes the negatively capable condition of the Grecian urn and its static, technically dead existence. The urn therefore embodies not only Keats’s theory of negative capability, but the death drive’s objective as well. Indeed, repetition as a “rehearsal for one’s own death” suggests a creative nature to the death drive that allows one to refine and style their death into some form of perfected artwork. It indicates how negative capability, a metaphysical death drive, is the path the Keatsian speaker must travel if he desires to overcome the mortality-induced “tension” of his existence.

“On Seeing the Elgin Marbles” marks the advent of this tension that the Keatsian speaker is so desirous of nullifying and functions as the first step in Keats’s development into a negatively capable poet. The sonnet depicts a speaker disturbingly overwhelmed by the disjunction he perceives between the eternal beauty of the marbles and his mortality. He feels crippled by an “indescribable feud” (10) and “dizzy pain” that he can neither reduce nor remove (11). Indeed, the sonnet begins with the speaker’s awareness of his mortality inducing a spiritual feebleness: “My spirit is too weak— mortality/ Weighs heavily on me like unwilling sleep,/ And each imagined pinnacle and steep/ Of Godlike hardship tells me I must die/ Like a sick eagle looking at the sky” (1-5). Knowledge of mortality is nauseatingly burdensome for the speaker; he compares it to “unwilling sleep,” an ambiguous description suggesting a complicated attitude towards death. We can read this line as sleep that undesirably and uncontrollably overwhelms the speaker or as sleep that refuses to come upon him. Either way, the speaker implies the marbles lead to a mental encounter with death. Indeed, the latter interpretation suggests the speaker desires his death in order to escape the “imagined pinnacle[s] and steep[s]” of life and “Godlike hardship” the marbles depict. In this instance then, we see a very basic, immature form of the death drive in which the Keatsian speaker wishes simply to evade the responsibility of living; he is sickened by the struggle to survive beside the disturbing proximity of death. Thus he aptly compares himself to a “sick eagle looking at the sky” to express the experience of being cripplingly eclipsed by the sublime. The eagle’s sickness mirrors the speaker’s own nauseated weakness and its intimidation at the sight of the sky’s expansiveness communicates the narrator’s own existential angst in the presence of eternality’s expansiveness. In this way the eagle’s inability to enjoy the sky’s heights becomes a symbol for the speaker’s own compromised grandeur. That is to say, the speaker’s devastating awareness of his mortality beside the eternal marbles compromises his ability to engage in an “imaginative flight” where he could indulge in their beauty. This is reinforced by a sober reflection upon how the exhibit “…mingles Grecian grandeur with the rude/ Wasting of old time—with a billowy main—/ a sun—a shadow of a magnitude” (12-14). Keats’s speaker is appalled by the “mingle[d]” co-existence of “Grecian grandeur” and “rude wasting” time and the juxtaposition in diction between both states establishes a clear tension between the superior nature of permanent beauty and the degenerate nature of corporeality. The speaker is so disturbed and offended by this image that even his language in the final two fragmentary lines becomes subjected to broken syntax, reflecting the “rude wasting” of time upon flesh and the fragmented condition of the marbles themselves.

“Elgin Marbles” marks an early attempt at the encounter between mortal and eternal artwork in Keats’s oeuvre and initiates what Brendan Corcoran identifies as an “awakening into an ungraspable intimacy with death, a perpetually suspended dying” (347). This idea of an “ungraspable intimacy” recalls us to the “shadow of a magnitude” found at the end of Keats’s sonnet and signals the major shift in consciousness that his speaker undergoes in “Elgin Marbles.” He is now “awakening” into an elusively infantile knowledge of his own transience. Despite this awakening, he has not reached Corcoran’s “perpetually suspended death.” Such a state implies the condition of the Grecian urn in its portrayal of a living death and proposes that the speaker has successfully channeled negative capability. This is hardly the case seeing as the speaker fails to resolve the gap between his mortality and the artwork’s eternality, as evidenced by the sonnet’s degenerated denouement. He also fails to overcome his spiritual malaise and take part in an imaginative flight, attempting instead throughout the sonnet to articulate his predicament; this “irritable reaching after fact and reason” contradicts negative capability. Keats’s speaker can apprehend the grandeur of the marbles, and he can intuitively grasp at their profound meaning, but his oppressive awareness of mortality and “rude wasting” compromises his ability to lose himself in them to explore their expansiveness and aesthetically channel his anguish.

This initial encounter or “awakening into an ungraspable intimacy with death” is a moment of trauma for Keats’s speaker. Freud states, “we describe as traumatic, any excitations from outside powerful enough to break through the protective shield [of the mind]” (57). It is more than evident that the “Elgin Marbles” speaker undergoes a traumatic breach in his consciousness when he experiences the exhibit: his spirit is crippled by an awareness of mortality, and the “shadow of a magnitude” surfaces as an intimidating and undefined force. Katey Castellano notes that for Keats, “…traumatic loss is destabilization, the ‘negative’ that engenders the ‘capability’” and in the context of “Elgin Marbles,” Keats has lost what can be construed to be a type of innocent ignorance of death’s imminence (33). In his famous letter to John Hamilton Reynolds, Keats describes his conception of life as a “large mansion of many apartments” and writes that “the first we step into we call the infant or thoughtless chamber, in which we remain as long as we do not think” (1423). “Elgin Marbles” portrays the Keatsian speaker’s emergence from this chamber with a profound consciousness of and “ungraspable intimacy” with death.

In the same letter, Keats describes the process of awakening into this knowledge and its subsequent activation of a psychic state greatly akin to negative capability. He discusses his conception of the second of life’s apartments, the “Chamber of Maiden Thought,” which functions as an initial state of innocence filled with “pleasant wonders” but that gradually awakens an individual’s sensibilities to the “‘misery and heartbreak’ of the world” (Wu 1423). Despite this traumatic realization, Keats implies that a profounder knowledge of life is gleaned through a metaphor describing “many doors” that are “set open…all leading to dark passages.” He describes these “dark passages” as lacking the “balance of good and evil,” existing in a “mist,” and as foisting the “burden of the mystery” upon those who enter. These characteristics are reminiscent of his definition of negative capability, a state which itself exists in “mysteries” and dissolves the structuring functions of the mind (such as those that delineate between “good” and “evil”). Accordingly, the Chamber of Maiden Thought reflects Castellano’s conception of “traumatic loss” as a means of engendering negative capability. This also explains why the speaker of “Elgin Marbles” fails to enter negative capability: his spiritual weakness leads to a rejection of the “imagined pinnacle[s]” of “Godlike hardship” that must be overcome in life, which is an implicit refusal to experience suffering. Indeed, J. Robert Barth writes, “…it is only when we feel ‘the burden of the Mystery’ that we may begin to explore the ‘dark passages’” (291). The “burden of the mystery” reflects the weight of mortality and knowledge of life’s suffering that overwhelms the “Elgin Marbles” speaker and leads him to reject the anguish of the human condition.

Keats’s letter regarding the Chamber of Maiden Thought finds a plot iteration in “Ode to a Nightingale,” which serves poetically as an intermediary stage in Keats’s maturation into a negatively capable poet. “Ode to a Nightingale” repeats an encounter between mortal speaker and eternal object of beauty and begins with the speaker reflecting upon his joy in hearing the nightingale’s song: “Tis not through envy of thine happy lot,/ But being too happy in thine happiness” (5-6). He becomes so captivated by the beauty of the song that he begins to have escapist fantasies in which he desires to: “Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget/ What thou among the leaves hast never known,/ The weariness, the fever, the fret” (21-23). The speaker’s intoxication is reminiscent of the intoxication experienced in the Chamber of Maiden Thought with its “pleasant wonders” that make one “think of delaying there forever in delight.” However, the nightingale is also the agent responsible for the “sharpening of one’s vision into the heart and nature of man.” In this case, the nightingale’s song heightens the speaker’s awareness of human suffering, its “fever” and “fret, something the eternal bird “hast never known.” Similar to his “Elgin Marbles” counterpart, the poet-narrator of “Nightingale” is tormented by the “rude/ wasting of old time” that his mortality signifies, especially when “mingled” with the grandeur of an object of eternal beauty (the nightingale). He naturally seeks escape from it through “easeful Death” (52). Despite this repeated death wish though, “Nightingale” departs from “Elgin Marbles.” As the speaker descends further into the sensuous rapture of the nightingale’s song, he remarks “I cannot see what flowers are at my feet,/ Nor what soft incense hangs upon the boughs,/ But, in embalmed darkness, guess each sweet” (41-43). These three lines suggest an engagement with negative capability in that they describe a speaker lingering in the darkness of uncertainties and living death. He “guess[es]” at the flowers surrounding him; by definition, the word “guess” precludes definite judgment and therefore maintains a space for “uncertainties, mysteries, [and] doubts” to flourish. Walter Jackson Bate comments in his seminal essay on negative capability that “what is needed [for this state] is an imaginative openness of mind and heightened receptivity to reality in its full and diverse concreteness. This, however, involves negating one’s ego” (332). The Keatsian speaker achieves Bates’s “imaginative openness” in his willingness to rely upon mere conjecture about his environment and with his “heightened receptivity” to the “diverse” sensual experience surrounding him. We can also infer from the “embalmed darkness” of the previous lines that the poet-narrator has undergone some type of ego-negation and entered into a metaphysical living death where he exists only as a disembodied consciousness (332). In light of this experience, “Nightingale” ends with the speaker dazedly wondering “Was it a vision, or a waking dream?/ Fled is that music— do I wake or sleep” (79-80)? This continued lingering in “uncertainties” on the speaker’s part indicates that he has managed, although temporarily, to enter the “dark passages” of negative capability. Indeed, his use of a vision and dream states correspond to the “mist” that one enters when they have undergone the ritual experience of suffering in the Chamber of Maiden Thought, further situating the speaker within negative capability.

This quasi-negatively capable speaker reveals Keats’s refinement of his “death” and mastery over mortality. Mark Sandy notes that “the Keatsian self is forever in potential, wavering between ‘everything and nothing’, verging on self-discovery and self-invention through writing…” (215). The world of “Nightingale” reflects this “wavering” Keatsian self, especially in the last two lines of the poem. As readers, we cannot positively discern the speaker’s mental state by the end of the poem and there is no written return to a rational outlook to clarify the outcome of the speaker’s imaginative flight. Just as the Grecian urn “doth tease us out of thought,” the “Nightingale” speaker defies questions from the reader’s end because he dwells in perpetual mystery and potential regarding his mentality. He is in a suspended state, this state being the metaphysical one of negative capability. In this repeated cycle of the encounter between mortal speaker and eternal artwork, Keats has bridged, albeit flimsily, the gap between himself and a work of beauty through negative capability. His attempt is flimsy because although he enters into an imaginative flight (contrary to his “Elgin Marbles” counterpart) he “crashes” due to his inability once again to embrace the suffering of life. This is evidenced by his desire to escape the “fever” and “fret” of human existence through “easeful Death.” Again we see the recurrence of a very basic, immature form of the death drive in which the speaker desires physical death as a means of evading the responsibility of living. It is this repeated rejection of human affliction and its attendant death wish that estranges the speaker from his imaginative flight. “Forlorn!” he exclaims, “the very word is like a bell/ To toll me back from thee to my sole self” (71-72). The disembodied consciousness in “embalmed darkness” that the Keatsian speaker has been enjoying thus far is suddenly dissolved by the speaker’s remembrance of human isolation and a consequent return to his individuated ego (43). Nevertheless, we can credit him with achieving a transient version of negatively capable death since he transcends his physical identity into a self-effaced plane of metaphysical death (“embalmed darkness”) where the eternal beauty of the nightingale’s song resides.

We should note as well that in the same stanza as the speaker’s escapist desire for death are the lines: “Still wouldst thou sing, and I have ears in vain—/ To thy high requiem become a sod” (59-60). This signals a shift in consciousness for Keats’s speaker because “at the point that he aspires to share the bird’s ‘ecstasy’ through the ‘rich’ experience of death, he realizes that death would instead cut him off irrevocably from the nightingale…” (Wilkes 60). If the speaker dies physically, he will escape life’s torment but he will also fail to bridge the gap between himself and eternality, thus failing to overcome the trauma of his mortality. Prior to this realization of physical death’s inadequacy, the speaker considers the “viewless wings of Poesy” (33) as a viable medium for joining the bird’s immortal song; however, he recognizes the drawback of this method as well: “though the dull brain perplexes and retards” (34). Nevertheless, the speaker’s consideration of poesy is crucial because it marks Keats’s acknowledgment of Sandy’s “self-invention” through artistic media, which will preserve him as an object of beauty if he can attain the negatively capable genius required to write it. Again, this ability to create in order to overcome mortality speaks to the idea of repeating trauma as a “rehearsal for one’s own death”; however, the Keatsian death is a metaphysical as opposed to physical one.

In both “Elgin Marbles” and “Ode to a Nightingale,” the Keatsian speaker has a passive experience of trauma. He merely reflects upon how images of eternal beauty impress him, and there is no action on his part aside from mental reflection. Freud writes that individuals repeat a traumatic event because they can master it “far more thoroughly, by being active than they could by merely experiencing it passively” (58). Although Keats is actively repeating poetic plots, his speakers are not necessarily acting. This passivity functions as the final barrier to be overcome in Keats’s mission to become a negatively capable poet.

In The Fall of Hyperion, the poet-narrator actively experiences the trauma of his mortality and successfully transitions into the negatively capable realm of immortality and art. The poem seems to begin where “Nightingale” left off: in a quasi-negatively capable landscape “ending in mist/ Of nothing…” (I.84-85). The speaker has matured though; his conception of poetry as the superior medium for attaining immortality becomes a crystallized belief: “…the fine spell of words alone can save” he asserts (9). With this conviction articulated, he proceeds to relate a dream that, in the words of RS White, also “seems to be an actualization of ‘the chamber of maiden thought,’ which the poet must leave for ‘dark passages’ of suffering…”(196). After the pleasant experience of drinking from a “cool vessel of transparent juice” (12), the poet-narrator falls into a “cloudy swoon” (55) and wakes to an abandoned land of “sunk realms” (68). He then describes his arrival upon an altar where a voice advises: “If thou canst not ascend/ These steps, die on that marble where thou art” (107-08). This ominous warning reminds us of the predicament the “Elgin Marbles” speaker faced: overcome or succumb to the “imagined pinnacle[s] and steep[s]” of life, “Godlike hardship,” and death the marbles represent. It also gives voice to the challenge one must face in the Chamber of Maiden Thought, which is that “of convincing ones nerves that the World is full of Misery and Heartbreak, Pain, Sickness and oppression” (1423). One may only continue into the “dark passages” if they accept life’s suffering. This is the precise point at which The Fall departs from “Elgin Marbles” because Keats’s speaker actively combats the incredible burden of his mortality to ascend the altar: “I strove hard to escape/ The numbness; strove to gain the lowest step… One minute before death, my iced foot touch’d/ The lowest stair; and as it touch’d life seem’d/ to pour in at the toes: I mounted up…” (127-28, 132-34). Ascending the altar is a strenuous task that nearly kills him until he touches the bottom step and is filled with life. The narrator is baffled by how he could be saved from physical death and the mysterious voice replies:
None can usurp this height…
But those to whom the miseries of the world
Are misery, and will not let them rest.
All else who find a haven in the world,
Where they may thoughtless sleep away their days
Rot on the pavement where thou rotted’st half. (147-151, 153).

This monologue indicates that the Keatsian speaker has finally accepted that “melancholy is an inescapable aspect of all human experience…” (Wu 1393). He does not seek a “haven in the world” but faces the tragedy of the human condition squarely, recognizing misery as misery and nothing else. That this realm is a “height” implies it is Godly; ironically then, Keatsian immortality is marked by extreme anguish. Nonetheless, the speaker “usurps” it and his success in seizing this negatively capable realm indicates a complete overcoming of mortality through extreme acceptance of life’s, in all its forms, pain. The voice’s indictment of the spiritually weak who “thoughtless sleep away their days” recalls the “Elgin Marbles” speaker who felt his mortality like “unwilling sleep” and implicitly desired death to escape knowledge of it. However, at this final stage of development, Keats’s speaker has transcended physical death via his acceptance of suffering and achieved the metaphysical death of negative capability. This is confirmed by the speaker’s description of Moneta, the goddess behind the mysterious voice, and “the veils, that from her brow/ Hung pale, and curtain’d her in mysteries” (252-253). Moneta reigns over the “fane” the speaker has entered and her existence in “mysteries” aligns her (and collaterally, the fane) with negative capability (152). When the speaker sees her face, he describes it as pained “By an immortal sickness which kills not;/ It works a constant change, which happy death/ Can put no end to; deathwards progressing/ To no death was that visage…” (258-261). These descriptions mirror the condition of the Grecian urn. The paradox of Moneta’s “immortal sickness” parallels the living death of the urn and both portray a static condition of protean potential for outcome. Brendan Corcoran explains,

The lesson in Moneta’s face may re-emphasize the ‘borderline’ indistinction between life and death—in which there is a ‘constant change…progressing to no death’— signposting the way towards the process of ‘becoming’ without ever affirming its fruition, preferring instead to defer the moment of consummation and its responsibility to the reader. (220) Corcoran’s language here ascribes features of the Grecian urn to Moneta’s face. That it signals a process of “‘becoming’ without ever affirming its fruition” echoes the suspended lover’s affection. Moneta will never consummate her death just as the lovers will never consummate their love. This suspension in “uncertainties” reinforces Moneta’s existence in negative capability and indicates that the speaker’s compulsion to repeat the trauma of mortality has allowed him to “rehearse” his negatively capable death to perfection. He is implicitly an equal of Moneta because he can exist in the same misty space of suffering and constant “becoming.” We see this supported by Moneta’s decision to momentarily grant him the ability “To see as a God sees” and enter into a vision that depicts the deposed Titan Saturn’s suffering (304). Regarding negative capability, Walter Jackson Bate writes that knowledge “can direct and habituate the imagination to ideas other than that of our own identity” (339). In this context, the new-found knowledge of what it is to be a God, and what it is to suffer as an immortal, grants the speaker entrance into the “dark passages” of negative capability and expands his life-consciousness beyond his own narrow existence as a mortal human. His identity is not negated here so much as it is subsumed into a grander scheme of universal suffering that allows him, like Apollo in the first Hyperion fragment, to “die into life” and suspend this death in verse, solidifying it into a work of negatively capable art (III.130). In the final stanza, the speaker remarks, “Now in clear light I stood,/ Reliev’d from the dusk vale,” and although this indicates that he has exited the “dark passages” of Moneta’s vision, he still ultimately remains in the altar (II.49-50). That is to say, contrary to his “Nightingale” predecessor, the poet-narrator enters the negatively capable realm, in this instance where Moneta reigns, but never exits. Whatever post-alter destination he has is deferred by the fragmented ending of the poem and we as readers are denied a conclusive indication of poetic outcome. Keats’s speaker remains forever in the immortal “uncertainties,” embodied by the altar, of negative capability.

This negatively capable suspension in The Fall highlights an incredible role reversal on Keats’s part between viewer and art piece, reader and poet alike. Just as it is the Grecian urn viewer’s responsibility to imaginatively consummate the lovers’ affection or imagine the song the happy melodist is playing, so too is it the reader’s responsibility to imagine the Keatsian speaker’s destined ending. Keats tried numerous times to rework and restart The Fall and create a conclusive poem but never managed to locate a cohesive story thread. RS White describes how “the work gives the impression of a mind struggling with ideas towards a clarity which never quite reveals itself, and admittedly it is confusing if judged as a formal argument or narrative…” (198). Although these pitfalls fly in the face of logical reasoning, one cannot help but acknowledge that the “confusing” threads that impede a “formal argument” in The Fall force it to be a poem that itself (and its poet-narrator) remains in “uncertainties, mysteries, [and] doubts.” The Keatsian speaker’s suspension in the fragmented The Fall then grants him eternal life because there are endless possibilities and a “range of implication” as to his fate in Moneta’s temple (Bate 330). In this way, Keats becomes a type of Grecian urn and we as readers and the new viewers are “teased out of thought” because we are now viewing the eternity of the poet himself as he exists outside of linear telling in a constantly “becoming” state.

Katey Castellano writes of Keats’s poetry that “…aesthetic outcomes come surprisingly and unexpectedly from fidelity to the traumatic event” (31). Indeed, Keats’s loyalty to the trauma of mortality throughout “On Seeing the Elgin Marbles,” “Ode to a Nightingale,” and The Fall of Hyperion facilitates his development into a negatively capable poet able to attain the living death of the Grecian urn. From a Freudian perspective, Keats’s compulsion to repeat the encounter between mortal speaker and eternal artwork functions as his own “rehearsal” for death and mastery over mortality. Thus the aesthetic potential of negative capability, of suspending oneself in “uncertainties, mysteries, [and] doubts” serves as a metaphysical death drive that allows one to “usurp the height” of the Gods and never consummate the moment of death. John Keats has been dead nearly 200 years, but the immortal, suspended speaker he left behind endures as an eternally renewable source of pleasure.

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