«A Dissertation by SARAH ELIZABETH HART Submitted to the Office of Graduate Studies of Texas A&M University in partial fulfillment of the requirements ...»
Likewise, the reader of "This Living Hand" may not feel haunted to the point of "wish[ing]" her "own heart dry of blood," but the image of the hand may well be lodged in her memory, at least through the end of the poem, if not after reading it as well (Keats 5). This performative effect on the reader seems to coincide with Wolfson's conclusion that "Keats's last lyrics perpetuate rather than resolve the uncertainties of their formal strategies, rendering a poetry in which the dynamics of form forever inscribe a composition of 'unrest'" (82). Indeed, "unrest" seems to lie not only in the formal tensions between the present tense and subjunctive mood in the poem, but also in the speaker's "unrest" implied by his threat to "haunt" the listener and in his description of the terrifying effect he expects that haunting to have (Wolfson 82; Keats 4).
Wolfson's account of Keats's last lyrics to Fanny Brawne invites us to consider the possibility that "This Living Hand" (whether or not we take it to be addressed to Brawne) may also have been written for an internal audience as well as an external one.
Wolfson explains that Keats's last group of lyrics is far more "involved in the intimacies of 'self'" than Keats's previous poetry, which Paul de Man attributes to the "'acute sense of threatened selfhood'" that Fanny Brawne evoked in Keats (57; de Man qtd. in Wolfson 57). It seems likely that Keats may have experienced such an "'acute sense of threatened selfhood'" about the time he wrote "This Living Hand," which is dated around 1819 (Paul de Man qtd. in Wolfson 57; Ferguson, Salter, and Stallworthy 850). Keats wrote "Bright Star," which was addressed to Brawne, in 1819 as well (Ferguson, Salter, and Stallworthy 850). In addition, the brother who he had nursed for months passed away just one year prior in 1818, and, according to Bate, Keats's "tuberculosis... began moving into an active stage by early September, 1819" (386, 616). If we consider that Keats himself passed away only two years later in 1821, then we may well imagine that Keats's sense of the precariousness of his own life may have informed "This Living Hand" (Ferguson, Salter, and Stallworthy 831).
Wolfson suggests that Keats wrote such personal poems in the end "chiefly for himself, as if he were seeking in the act of poetic composition a resource for personal composure, a means of imposing some measure of control on the flow of powerful feeling" (58). Wolfson helps us imagine the kind of emotional turmoil that Keats likely experienced after the death of his mother when he was fourteen—emotions probably not unlike those that the recent death of his brother may have evoked or renewed: "love, anger... guilt over her fatal sickness which must have seemed the effect of his anger;
grief and guilt over her death-a real 'gordian complication of feelings,' to use Keats's adult phrase for his perplexity about women in general" (Wolfson 75-76). If Keats experienced a similarly complex abundance of emotions in response to his grievous situation in 1819, he must have felt overwhelmed with emotion—perhaps quite oppositely from Frost's and Dickinson's speakers, who mourn their lack of emotion.
Wolfson suggests that in writing poetry, Keats "hoped to summon a mastery of form sufficient to resist sensations of self-dissolution and uncrystallizing;" poetic form seems to have been an important "resource" for consolation for Keats precisely because he wanted to "control" unsettling emotions (65, 58).
Wolfson's account suggests that Keats may have felt in danger of dissolving under so much emotion, as opposed to Dickinson's speaker, whose subjectivity seemed fragmented by frozen, crystallized emotion. The speaker of "This Living Hand" seems to be composing the poem for himself in the sense that he wants to ensure his own preservation in the reader's memory—and/or his own, insofar as he may be a reader of his own poem. Both the hand and the poem that he "hold[s]" out to the listener/reader are intimately part of himself, his own body represented within the poem's narrative and in the handwriting of the poem (Keats 8). Like the speaker relies on the listener to preserve his presence, so too does Keats seem to rely on poetic form to preserve the emotional stability on which his subjectivity seems to depend. This similar role of audience and form coincides with Kenneth Burke's theory that form and audience are inextricably connected.
If we consider how "This Living Hand" would affect Keats himself as both writer and reader of his poem, then we may find him addressing that kind of audience he may wish himself to be—a reader who survives the malicious speaker, who can be compelled to sacrifice her life to redeem the speaker, and who, perhaps most importantly, can attain a calm conscience. Or, perhaps a poet in such distressing circumstances as Keats seems to have found himself would simply be relieved to impose poetic order onto the emotions of fear, anger, and grief that course through "This Living Hand." As if by creating syntactical patterns and condensing emotions into a poetic fragment that might evoke similar emotions in another person, a poet might release herself from emotional turmoil, at least briefly. For Burke, "a man can be his own audience, insofar as he, even in his secret thoughts, cultivates certain ideas or images for the effect he hopes they may have upon him" (RM 38). Burke implies that a writer may hope to evoke certain emotions, and perhaps even to reconnect with herself, (as, with Dickinson's lyric, ordering or reconnecting fragments of her subjectivity) by composing poetry. Whether a poet writes in order to create a particular connection with an external audience (as when, for example, we take Donne to be writing to affirm a close relationship with his wife) or to evoke a particular response in herself, poetry seems to aim for connection with an audience.
Poetic Form and Responsibility The relationship by which artistic form determines the "conditions of emotional response" to a poem or work of art may be very similar to the relationship between Levinasian responsibility and our actual experiences of emotion, actions, consciousness, etc. (Burke, Counter-Statement 47). In the case of poetry, our emotions, whatever they are, respond to the poem's form, although some emotions may align with or fulfill those conditions more closely than others. For example, the reader who responds with fear, at least on an imaginative level, to Keats's threat seems to align more closely with the poem's form than a reader who is indifferent to or uninterested in the threat. In the case of Levinasian responsibility, our emotions, intentions, consciousness, whatever they are, are responses to the other, who precedes us.
Not unlike poetic form, the other's presence, "from the start, affects us..."
("Substitution" 118). In one sense, this claim seems to mean that the other changes us "from the start," that from the beginning, we are shaped by other ("Substitution" 118).
When read through the lens of "Dying For...," however, we may see Levinas suggesting that the other "affects us" in the sense of making our affects or emotions possible; here he claims sacrifice, "[t]he humanness of dying for the other would be the very meaning of love... and, perhaps, the primordial inflection of the affective as such" (216). Our capacity for responsibility—for self-sacrifice—reflects our capacity for emotion, according to Levinas. All our emotions, according to Levinas, are various kinds of responses to the other. Some emotions may more closely coincide with our capacity for responsibility, as when Rossetti's and Donne's speakers seem to care for their readers' grief and insofar as Keats's listener seems potentially willing to sacrifice her life. Other emotions may fail to fulfill this capacity, as when Keats's and Rossetti's speakers seem to threaten their listeners. Both kinds of emotions, however, may be responses to this capacity for responsibility.
The elegy's response to loss and aim to affirm community seem to reflect Burke's "two major 'forms,' unity and diversity," or in Bauer's terms unity and separation, or connection and disconnection (Counter-Statement 46). These forms of "unity and diversity" also seem to underlie Levinas's theory of responsibility since it is the other's difference that compels our responsibility to her. For Levinas, I am connected to the other through responsibility, which itself inheres in my very presence as a human subject. Responsible connection to the other is the root of being human for Levinas; he claims that responsibility is "the meaning of being" and "the ethics of its justice" ("Ethics" 86). Responsible relationship to the other is, for Levinas, the condition of being human.
Dialogue beyond Death For Levinas, sacrificing one's life for another person seems to be the action that best fulfills our capacity for responsibility. In "Dying For..." he characterizes this gesture as "the very meaning of love," and he suggests that it reflects the "primordial inflection" or capacity for love and other emotions (216). In "Substitution," he clarifies that in "sacrifice... the absolute singularity of the responsible one encompasses the generality or generalization of death" (118). Sacrifice is one way of maintaining a personal relationship, of maintaining our human agency by making meaning through the event of death. This exercise of human agency negates the "generalization" of death and its absolute absence of meaning by transforming the event of death into a meaningful gesture ("Substitution" 118). Levinas concludes that through sacrifice, "we can have responsibilities and attachments through which death takes on meaning" ("Substitution" 118). Such enduring connections to others seems to be the hope for which mourning aims since mourning tries, albeit in vain, to maintain a connection with the lost other.
Levinas admits that sacrifice in no way "take[s] from death its sting," but he clarifies that we might free ourselves from our fear of death's lack of meaning through the meaningful act of "[d]ying for" the other ("Substitution" 118; "Dying For" 215).
Keats affirms Levinas's sense that in self-sacrifice, we may negate death's meaninglessness and thereby be comforted by the presence of meaning where we expected it to be lost. Keats's speaker assures the listener that she will "be consciencecalmed" if she sacrifices her life for the speaker (7). Part of the pleasure of reading Keats's terrifying poem may come from its implication that, despite the fear that death typically evokes in us, death may also be a release from more urgent fears, like the fear of treating others irresponsibly, unethically. Keats's listener may be consoled through her sacrificial—and meaningful—death. Keats also suggests that the speaker and the listener will not be separated by the speaker's death; the speaker will "haunt" the listener, remaining at least partially present to her even after his death (4). The possibility for remaining connected to the lost other, even in spite of her loss or death, may sound especially appealing and consoling to a reader confronting the loss of a loved one.
Rossetti likewise portrays a possibility for posthumous, or post-loss, connection with the other in her phrase "if the darkness and corruption leave/A vestige of the thoughts that once I had" (11-12). Rossetti's speaker seems far less certain than Keats's that death will "leave/A vestige of" her "thoughts," that she will remain partially present to her listener (11-12). Her poem's emphasis on memory indicates that this "vestige" may well refer to memories, although, as Reynolds' dual readings of the poem suggest, these memories may be either comforting and/or distressing for the surviving listener (Rossetti 12). Indeed, her poem itself may remind the listener of activities that he has shared with his listener, and may thereby function as a memento through which Rossetti might preserve her relationship with her ideal reader even after her death. We may also find that Donne's cerebral images of the "gold to airy thinness beat" and the two compasses emphasize the circularity—the enduring connectedness—of the speaker and the listener affirming the possibility of posthumous connections (24). Insofar as Donne may poetically address the "unity-in-separation" at the heart of language itself through paronomasia celata, he indicates that language too may provide a means of connection despite loss and death (Bauer 97). These poets demonstrate that memories, language, and certainly poetry can be ways of preserving a specific connection with another person, even beyond death. Their continued ability to affect historical readers through their poems affirms that dialogue, however much deferred, can still be extended beyond death. Such poetic dialogues create meaningful presences—connections between writers and readers—that may deflect the absence of meaning implied by death and loss.
Donne, Keats, and Rossetti achieve these dialogic effects through anti-elegiac conventions like prohibitions of grieving or premature mourning for one's own death.
They mourn "failed intimacy" with their listeners and represent ambiguous attitudes that coincide with Freud's observation of ambivalence at the heart of the "elegiac" subject (Spargo, Ethics 129; Clewell 64-65). Because these anti-elegiac conventions create dialogic relationships between speakers and listeners, writers and readers, they avoid substituting a new love object for the lost other. Instead, these poets try to maintain dialogic connections with the lost other, and thereby maintain new avenues for dialogue with readers. Insofar as these poems perpetuate dialogue, they seem to enhance readers' capacity to actualize their Levinasian responsibility to the other.
Readers seem to actualize this responsibility, at least in part, by negotiating poetic forms like rhyme and rhythm, which themselves seem to reflect dialogic relations.
Burke claims that such "[r]epetitive form," like rhyme and rhythm, "is basic to any work of art, or to any other kind of orientation, for that matter. It is our only method of 'talking on the subject'" (Counter-Statement 125). Although Levinas calls us to attend relentlessly to the other's difference, we can only do so through common ground that allows us to engage in dialogue with the other, to respond to the other. Poems like Donne's, Keats's, and Rossetti's seem to console mournful readers by reminding them of their ability to stay connected with others, even lost loved ones. Such consolation seems to reconcile our desire to respond ethically to the loss of the other with our desire "to alleviate... sorrow," however enduring it may be ("Console").