{Sun 25 March 2007}   The Priesthood of the Soul
I have just found in an old backup file some essays of mine on subjects close to my heart, which I had feared were lost. They were created in WordPerfect in 1992 and 1993 on my first computer – a 7.5kg whopper of a laptop which I abandoned in about 1997, I think. I have no idea whether these thoughts and approaches would be considered to have any validity now in any current education programme, but part of me doesn’t care. I just want to affirm and reconnect with my experience of “flow” at the time and also to reconsider now these influences which I know have formed and informed my approach to poetry.

As I read through them, and read the markers’ comments again, I am amazed both at the intensity with which my mind was working at the time, and at my concurrent inability then to absorb either the praise or the criticism that the markers gave. My relative maturity now enables me to see how much care was taken by the markers in their thoughtful comments and I am embarrassed to realise how little I valued them then. My driving need for approbation and reinforcement prevented me from realising that people were offering me exactly these simply by taking my writing seriously enough to offer me thoughtful feedback.

I have no record of the mark I received for this one, but the lecturer actually wrote a five-page response to this twelve-page essay which begins as follows:

The Priesthood of the Soul: The relationship between Imagination and Reason in Keats.

The Romantic obsession with the apparent dichotomy between Passion and Reason is given a new twist in Keats’s unique theology:

Call the world … “The vale of Soul-making”…. There may be intelligences or sparks of the divinity in millions — but they are not Souls till they acquire identities, till each one is personally itself…. Spirit-creation … is effected by three grand materials acting the one upon the other for a series of years — These three Materials are the Intelligence — the human heart (as distinguished from intelligence or Mind) and the World or Elemental space suited for the proper action of Mind and Heart on each other for the purpose of forming the Soul… As various as the Lives of Men are — so various become their souls (Letter 123, 335-6).i

That Keats favours a chemical metaphor for the processes of both poetry and human experience indicates how much his rational and his imaginative faculties complement each other. In The Chemistry of the Poetic Process, Stuart M. Sperry minutely demonstrates how much Keats borrows from his scientific reading to develop his poetic philosophy.ii He shows that Keats sees poetry as a process whereby the material world’s beauties and travails are absorbed via the senses and distilled, through an inner contemplative-experiential mechanism called ‘intensity’, into an essence of thought. Such thought, however, cannot be equated with rational conclusions arrived at through logic. Sensation acted upon by the imagination (the agent of intensity) produces a fresh complex of sense-stimulating beauties which open up new avenues for exploration. For the reader, the poem then forms an acutely tuned part of his material world and invites him to a similar experience of intensification and distillation of thought. In consequence, the reader’s appreciation may differ from the poet’s. Keats’s own capacity for existing in uncertainty allows his readers to fashion their own souls as they choose. In one letter he asserts that poetry can lead man into contemplation and through it to an active awareness (by which he means sensitivity to potential pathways rather than any single, absolute conviction) which could transform humanity (48, 103-4). This is how the poet functions as priest of the soul in ‘the vale of Soulmaking’.

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