«A Dissertation by SARAH ELIZABETH HART Submitted to the Office of Graduate Studies of Texas A&M University in partial fulfillment of the requirements ...»
Clewell 65). Such ambivalence may itself may coincide with Levinasian responsibility since, according to Freud, ambivalence results from "the very separation between self and other," and permanently ruptures the self, who is "inhabited by otherness as a condition of [her] own subjectivity" (Clewell 65). In Levinasian terms, the self responds to the other "as a condition of... subjectivity" (Clewell 65). The speaker's ambivalence may be a sign of the speaker's a responsible, mournful subjectivity. The contrast between interpreting the speaker as genuinely sad about leaving the listener and interpreting him as happy to leave her may also speak to the poem's dialogic form. A dialogic relationship may exist between these two contrasting interpretations, which may situate the reader as negotiating this dialogic contrast. This effect would likewise enhance the poem's appeal to dialogue.
However we interpret the speaker's motives, Donne's reader may find pleasure in the poetic connections the poem makes. Even if the speaker feels ambivalent towards his listener, he still appeals to his audience's value of connection through poetic connections, like the abab rhyme scheme in the first stanza and the metaphorical connection that identifies the speaker-listener relationship with the "gold" wire and the "twin compasses" (Donne 24, 26). This value seems to underlie the appeal of poetry in general. One of lyric poetry's unique pleasures is that it uses similarities in rhymes, rhythms, sounds, and meanings to connect disparate words and ideas. These artistic connections in turn create a connection between the poet and her reader. Perhaps Donne's fascination with unity and separation motivated, at least in part, his treatment of the appeal of connection in "Forbidding Mourning." In light of the tour-de-force of poetic and linguistic connections that Donne wrought in this poem, whatever his true feelings for his wife may have been, Donne seems to recognize how well-suited a leave-taking would be for a poem that interrogated the possibilities for poetic connections, including connections between the poem and its contexts. Donne's emphasis on connection seems to affirm that poetry and dialogue may be successful ways of attenuating loss.
Keats While Donne seems to aim to comfort his reader, even if such comfort is merely a mask of more ambivalent, less caring feelings towards his audience(s), Keats quite differently aims to torment his reader. Like Donne, Keats directly addresses his reader and describes the speaker-listener relationship that the poem invokes (i.e. "This living hand... would, if it were... in the icy silence of the tomb,/So haunt they days...") (Keats 1-4). Unlike Donne's poem, in which the listener is comforted by her connection and cooperation with the speaker despite physical separation, Keats's poem only comforts the listener by releasing her from the terror of the speaker's haunting presence.
In Keats's scene, the listener is one who survives the speaker's death, only to "wish" herself dead so that he might live "again"—and her "conscience" finally be "calmed" (5The listener is asked to reciprocate the poem addressed to her by giving her life, and, thus, attain the pleasure of a calm "conscience" (Keats 7). Keats emphasizes reciprocity—and its dependence on loss—in contrast to Donne's emphasis of continual connection, like the "expansion" of a "gold" wire (23).
Such reciprocity turns on loss or absence, according to Alexander Regier, who shows how the "epistolary poetics" of Keats's letters "relies on an economy of fracture and reciprocal movement" (119). According to Regier, the epistolary genre simultaneously affirms connections with—and fragmentation/disconnection from— others. He explains that "the activity of writing (and sending) a letter" makes "the other and oneself simultaneously present" in that act, while the letter itself "reinforces the gap that exists between the interlocutors" (Regier 123). The exigence of the epistolary genre is the need to communicate with an audience who is at a distance from the speaker/writer; like most if not all written text, it is a genre of delayed communication, communication deferred across time and space. The epistolary genre affirms the absence of immediate connection between the interlocutors even as it attempts to bridge that gap.
Although, like a letter, "This Living Hand" unites the speaker and the listener through direct address, it simultaneously affirms the gap between the speaker and the listener. It is precisely the gap between life and death that motivates the speaker to curse his listener. Regier explains two aspects of the epistolary genre that clarify this curse— the gift-like aspect of letters and the obligation they place on their audience to respond.
The Romantics in particular viewed letters as part of "the genre of the love-gift," according to Michael Wetzel, because the Romantic letter "unites in its technical aspects of bestowing writing, addressing, dating, and transport, all the preconditions to make the desire of the other an event, to invent the other through imaginative excitement" (qtd. in Regier 127). In much the same way, Keats and Donne bestow their poems on their readers, dedicating their poems to their readers via second-person pronouns and explicit references to the speaker-listener relationships that their poems make possible. In both poems, the speaker's "desire of the other" is the "event" of the poem itself (Wetzel qtd. in Regier 127). In Donne's poem, the speaker wants the listener not to mourn, and the poem seems to function as a gift in that it re-names absences (like "breach") as presences (like "expansion," which suggests their relationship is even greater than it was before)—we may view Donne's poem as giving the gift of presence in order to prevent mourning (23).
Keats's poem, however, functions as a gift quite differently. For one thing, it asks the listener to sacrifice her own life—to give the gift of her own absence—in order to restore the speaker's life/presence. The poem makes this request through its gift-like form; it is dedicated to the listener/reader through references to her own "heart" and "conscience," and especially the threat to "haunt" her (Keats 5, 7, 4). The final lines "see here it is--/I hold it towards you" strongly connote the gesture of giving, which is often performed by hands holding something out to the recipient (Keats 7-8). The pronoun "it" in these lines has an ambiguous referent; as Brooke Hopkins observes, "it" in these lines "is obviously the hand, but it is the hand in the form of a poem (handwriting)" (36).
Keats invites the reader to identify the image of the hand with his literal handwriting and thereby with the poem itself. The poem is gift-like in that it "hold[s]" the figure of hand "toward" the listener/reader in three respects: a fictional hand, a piece of handwriting that is a "trace" or effect of Keats's literal hand, and a poem that embodies both (Keats 8;
Hopkins 35). Even though we cannot literally take the fictional hand that the speaker "hold[s]" toward the listener, we may take or receive the poem through the act of reading it and, perhaps, through our memory of it.
To receive the poem seems to signify a death-like or suicidal gesture for the reader. Receiving or accepting the poem implies the reader's acceptance of poem's curse—her willingness at least to imagine with the speaker a situation in which he would "haunt" and terrify her to the point that she would "wish [her] own heart dry of blood" so that the speaker would live again and her conscience would be calm (Keats 5-8). As long as the reader remembers the poem's curse, she sustains the possibility that the speaker will die and haunt her. The speaker may actually haunt the reader as long as she remembers the poem, possessing her attention not only while she reads the poem, but also afterwards. The speaker may possess the reader by inviting her to identify with him—both the speaker and the reader focus on the speaker's death, an event which both may fear, especially because the speaker aims to evoke fear in the reader. By possessing the reader's attention and through evoking her fear for his own death, the speaker may haunt the reader both in her acts of reading and remembering the poem. Reading thereby becomes a gesture of self-denial for the reader, who gives her attention over to the speaker.
The poem appeals to memory through its emphasis on "haunt," a verb that connotes a kind of partial presence that endures beyond absence and death (Keats 4).
Even if the hand does not literally appear before the reader, the possibility that it might, emphasized so graphically through the visceral references to the speaker's and listener's bodies ("heart dry of blood," "veins red life might stream," "icy... tomb"), may present an unforgettable image to the reader (Keats 5, 6, 3). The poem may haunt the reader/listener, even if the hand does not—and such poetic haunting seems to threaten, at least figuratively, the reader's "conscience" and life (Keats 7). The threat of haunting seems to imply not a "love-gift," as Wetzel terms it, but rather a hate-gift—something given to the reader, but done so with explicitly harmful motives (Wetzel qtd. in Regier 127). Keats frames this hate-gift, however, as a gesture of reciprocity, and, thus, may appeal to the reader's value of reciprocity and dialogue, albeit in a threatening way.
According to the logic of the poem, the speaker seems to oblige his listener to reciprocate the curse/poem he gives her by sacrificing her own life for him, that he might live again. This "obligation to respond" is inherent in the epistolary genre and in dialogue more generally, according to Regier; letters, as partial or fragmented pieces of dialogue, put the audience "in a position where it is necessary to reciprocate," i.e. "to produce an adequate response: another fragment" (127). Regier concludes, "The epistolary obligation to reciprocate is a symptom of the fragmentariness of language," which Keats "thematises" in his letters (126). Keats portrays a similar obligation to respond in "This Living Hand" as he appeals to a listener who presumably has a "conscience" that can be deeply disturbed by unfulfilled obligations, much like Freud's and Levinas's mournful subject (Keats 7).
The obligation to respond in "This Living Hand," however, seems very different from Levinas's description of the subject's primordial response to the other, who the subject is obliged to protect from lethal displacement. In "Dying For..." Levinas characterizes "the human" as a creature "in which worry over the death of the other comes before care for the self;" responsibility is "concern for the other's death...
realized" in self-sacrifice (216-217). Keats's speaker conveys an opposite attitude; he is so entirely consumed with care for himself, for his own death, that he attempts to coerce the listener into sacrificing her life—a lethal gesture quite the opposite of Levinas's responsibility to protect the other, even at the cost of one's own life. This motive also seems to contradict the "crisis in protection" that conventionally motivates "elegiac grief" (Spargo 160). This failure to protect the listener, therefore, seems anti-Levinasian and anti-elegiac. While Keats's speaker may represent the antithesis of Levinas's ethical subject, Keats positions his listener as one capable of fulfilling Levinasian responsibility to the other—one capable of "dying for" the other, the ultimate self-sacrifice. Keats demonstrated such self-sacrifice himself in the diligent care he gave his mother when she was ill with consumption. In "This Living Hand," Keats places his reader in a similarly self-sacrificial position by appealing both to the reader's value of connection with the other and to her fear of death in a way that prioritizes dialogue over the reader's own death.
Keats appeals to the conventional fear of death (for example, in Milton's mourning Lycidas's death, Margaret's grief for falling leaves, and the mutual mourning of Wilbur's boy and snowman) via diction that presents death in terms of physical suffering, i.e. "icy silence of the tomb," "thy own heart dry of blood," "chill" and "cold," rather than regeneration—reminding the reader of her own death, as Hopkins observes, in a fearful manner (Keats 3, 5, 4, 2; B. Hopkins 38). This appeal to the reader's fear of death serves to emphasize the even greater terror that the hand's haunting would provoke in the reader. This terror is so great it apparently cannot be described explicitly but only implied by the suggestion that the hand's haunting would cause the reader to "wish" for her own death just so that her "conscience" would be "calmed" (Keats 5, 7). By emphasizing the hand's terrorizing effect, Keats recasts his audience's death as desirable, thereby inverting the value of death as fearful. By making death desirable/appealing, Keats positions his audience as a Levinasian subject—one who would rather die to protect the other than live with the knowledge of the other's suffering.
Death would seem desirable to the listener because the speaker's hand—and the speaker's death, which it represents—so deeply disturb her "conscience" (Keats 7). This term connotes the psyche or mind, invoking both the value of peace of mind and the meaning of "conscience" as our ethical sensibility. This ethical connotation suggests that the reader may feel ill at ease for ethical reasons, as if some injustice occurred to motivate the hand's haunting. Because the poem does not indicate that the listener may have caused the speaker, however, it seems that by simply reading the poem, the listener/reader has evoked the hand's haunting herself. It is as if by engaging in the poem's dialogic situation—by receiving the poem/curse through the act of reading it— the listener has assumed the obligation to respond by sacrificing her own life in a Levinasian manner.
Despite the fear that Keats evokes in order to produce a Levinasian attitude of sacrifice in the listener, such sacrifice may be a source of pleasure for the listener.