Keats and authorial intention

I’m continuing to enjoy The Story About the Story, an anthology of essays on literature, many of which (although not all) are written from a personal perspective. This is the kind of book I read slowly, an essay at a time, whenever I feel inspired to pick the book up. I’m about seven essays in at this point. I won’t write about each and every one, as not all of them inspire me to write, but Sven Birkerts’s essay “On a Stanza by John Keats” is one I don’t want to neglect.

Birkerts starts off on a lofty level, considering what it means to encounter beauty in art. He decides that:

When we are stirred by beauty in a particular work of art, what we experience is the inward abolition of distance. It is only when we try to put our finger on the source of the sensation, when we try to explain the beauty, that the horizons are reversed. At that moment the near becomes the far, much as it does when we try to fathom our own reflection in the mirror: The more intently we look, the stranger becomes the object of our scrutiny.

He then turns to a more specific mission: “I set myself what seemed at first a simple task: to say why Keats’s ‘To Autumn’ was beautiful.” This mission leads him to embark on one of the closest readings of a poem I have ever read. The essay is about 12 pages long, and about eight pages of it is devoted to looking as closely as possible at the 11 lines of the poem’s first stanza. Birkerts does all the usual things people do when they close read — he looks at the meanings of words and their order and their sound qualities, but he does it in such loving detail and with such beautiful writing that it’s no ordinary close reading. He also looks at aspects of words people don’t often focus on — the way we move our mouths as we recite the poem, and how those movements affect our experience. Here’s what he decides about what makes “To Autumn” beautiful:

I am convinced that the beauty of the ode is to be sought with the fine crosshairs of sound and sense, that it inheres in the subtlest details and is sustained from breath to breath — that generalizations will serve for nothing. We experience such a rapid succession of perfectly managed sensory magnifications that we are, in a strange way, brought face to face with the evolutionary mystery of language. The absolute rightness of the sound combinations forces us to a powerful unconscious recognition: Sound is the primal clay out of which all meaning has been sculpted.

After finishing his close reading, Birkerts briefly considers a question that comes up in my literature classes a lot: the question of whether the author “meant to put that there.” Are these consciously created effects Birkerts is uncovering? Are those effects there but not consciously created? Or is Birkerts just reading too much into the poem?

When these questions come up in class, I tend to answer in two ways — answers that seem contradictory, as a matter of fact, but I’m open about that and don’t mind their contradictions. One is that yes, the author probably did “put that there,” because generally the effect we are discussing that provokes my students’ skepticism isn’t a terribly complicated one and I’m pretty sure the author really did know what he or she was doing. My students just aren’t used to the idea of an author having such great control over language and that’s because they are relatively new at literary analysis. My other answer is that it doesn’t matter what the author intended, both because language takes on a life of its own beyond the author’s complete knowledge and control, and because we can never truly know what an author intended. Even if the author tells us what he or she meant, we still can’t really trust that report because does the author really know what happens at the moment of creation?

Birkerts offers answers to these questions that are similar to mine, but expressed in terms I like and will probably borrow. He says, first:

Let’s not forget that we read poetry in the odd hour, as amateurs; Keats pressed his lines into place with the full intensity of his being. When a poet is composing, the value of every sound is magnified a thousand-fold. His radar is attuned to frequencies that we are not even aware of….I would argue, therefore, that not only (A) if you find it, it’s probably there, but also (B) however much you find, there is sure to be more.

I like that. Keats was a professional! He can work magic with language that we amateurs can only marvel at. His other answer is that as long as you believe the unconscious is involved in the poetic process — which he thinks it obviously is — then:

it is not a case of the poet’s inventing lines, but rather of his finding sounds and rhythms in accordance with the promptings of the deeper psyche. The poet does not rest with a line until he has released a specific inner pressure.

So there’s more going on when a poet writes a poem than he or she is consciously aware of, and it’s impossible to account for what a poet intended or didn’t intend. It’s all part of one big messy process that, as Birkerts says, the poet “presides over.” It’s too mysterious to analyze much further than that.

Birkerts essay is a beautiful one — a fitting tribute to a marvelously beautiful poem.


Filed under Books, Essays, Nonfiction, Teaching

11 responses to “Keats and authorial intention

  1. A lovingly close reading, what a tribute! I answered the question of authorial intention in much the way you do. The best poets are so sensitive to language, that while they may do something automatically, it would be eliminated if it didn’t convey exactly what the poet intended. On the other hand, we may never really know what the intention was, and even the poet may not be clearly aware of it.

    Of course, a reader always brings some background and experience to a work that will influence his reading of it. So a poem can assume a meaning beyond the poet’s. That is where many students balk, isn’t it?


  2. What a fascinating-sounding essay! You’re gradually making me more and more excited about picking up this collection at some point. I love the second quote – “sound is the primal clay out of which all meaning has been sculpted.”


  3. Ah, so you teach a literature class. No wonder your reviews are so special. And I thought you spent all your non-reading time cycling. Thank you for this stimulating post. There is no greater pleasure than reading a beautiful piece of analysis of a beautiful piece of analysis of a beautiful piece of writing.


  4. I can’t wait to get to this essay! Birkerts is so passionate about literature that even when I disagree with him I still have to admire him. I doubt I will disagree with him on this essay though. I like how he answers the question of whether Keats actually put all that there. I think he has found a good balance between the conscious and the unconscious.


  5. What an interesting essay, and such a good review of it from you. Oddly enough I was half considering blog post about literary creation but only have half a blog post at best to say so it may never happen. But I think that good writing comes from the author’s gut, from a deep, instinctual place that is fundamentally wordless. It’s another example of the unthought known, the animal apprehension we have of life, which can be highly sophisticated but which resists expression. And that’s how come critics can say so much about it and come to so many, often contradictory conclusions. Writing emerges from a deep strata of existence that’s sharply felt but poorly understood, and once we put it into language there are many ways to write about it and to make sense of it. Well, that’s sort of what I’ve been thinking. 🙂


  6. Intriguing and thoughtful review. I enjoyed it so much that I was going to leave a one word comment: Yes.



  7. Thanks for an excellent post, Dorothy! The coincidence for me is that I just watched the biopic on John Keats’ short-lived love relation with Fanny Brawne, Jane Campion’s Bright Star. In the film there are scenes showing Keat’s creative process. And of course, I’ve enjoyed the cinematic beauty reflecting Keats’ words… just written a review of the movie.

    Second coincidence is that I’ve been researching on this idea of authorship and have been reading Michel Foucault’s ‘What is an Author’ and Roland Barthes’ ‘The Death of the Author’, exploring the subjectivity and multiplicity of interpretation. Thanks for introducing Birkerts’ essay to me!


  8. I agree with Lilian. Absolutely. I’ll have to go and read ‘To Autumn” now. What a lovely interpretation of the act of creation.


  9. This essay/your post makes me want to go and read Keats. I do wish I could get into poetry, but I wonder if I just never give myself the chance. I often wonder, too, about how much an author intended to put into a work and how much is mined in the reading–I like your answer.


  10. Jenclair — it’s so hard to find a good balance in the classroom between a poem meaning anything you want it to mean and it meaning just what the author wanted it to and nothing more. I find students usually tend toward one extreme or the other.

    Emily — it really is a great collection; obviously, I highly recommend it! The essay is full of wonderful quotations.

    Joseph — thank you! It is all rather meta, isn’t it? I do teach intro literature classes and also a lot of writing, and it’s fun, although I’ll admit I wouldn’t mind spending all my time reading and cycling 🙂

    Stefanie — I’ve disagreed with Birkerts a time or two as well, but not with anything in this essay. It’s so obvious how much he loves language and how much he knows about it, that it’s a real pleasure to read.

    Litlove — I think a blog post on the subject would be great! If you want to write it, I’d love to read it. How fascinating to think of literature coming from a place that is wordless. It sounds contradictory and impossible, but in a way it makes sense — it’s an effort to put into words feelings that are wordless. And it does explain very well why literature is so endlessly fascinating and why we often don’t agree on what it means.

    Lilian — what a lovely comment! Thank you 🙂

    Arti — I’d really like to see the movie on Keats, and I’m heading over to your place soon to read your review. And I think we have both Barthes and Foucault to thank for contemporary ideas about authorship — their influence has been very powerful.

    Pete — I hope you did read “To Autumn”! What a wonderful result of writing this post that would be, if it got people to reread that poem!

    Danielle — I recently read through a fairly short edition of Keats’s most famous poems, and it was great. Picking up a collected works can be intimidating, but a nice small collection is much more inviting.


  11. Thanks for this post… I’ve appreciated the ‘messiness’ you refer to. I think Barthes has put it a bit too starkly, that the author is dead and all meaning ascribed by the reader. I mean, wasn’t he supposed to appreciate multiplicity?


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