Sunlight and the Reification of Culture

  • Ted Underwood

Abstract

“To Keats,” Ian Jack comments, “Apollo was more than a figure of speech or a literary allusion: he was becoming something very close to the God of his adoration.”1 Keats could treat Apollo as a living god partly because Apollo was understood (through his connection to the sun) as a god of energy and ambition. He was thus a fitting patron for Keats’s social, as well as literary, aspirations. But Apollo was also particularly the god of the lyre, and Keats’s seriousness about Apollo went hand in hand with a tendency to think of poetry as a power with a real existence outside written texts—and for that matter, outside writers and readers of poems. Keats often defines poetry as pure power—agency without an agent—for instance, in “Sleep and Poetry”: “A drainless shower / Of light is poesy; ‘tis the supreme of power; / ‘Tis might half slumbering on its own right arm.”2 William Hazlitt’s lecture “On Poetry in General” reifies poetry in a similar way. For Hazlitt, “the poetical impression of any object is that uneasy, exquisite sense of beauty or power that cannot be contained within itself,” which leads him to the oddly concrete conclusion that poetry exists “wherever there is a sense of beauty, of power, or harmony, as in the motion of a wave of the sea, [or] in the growth of a flower that ‘spreads its sweet leaves to the air, and dedicates its beauty to the sun.’” Here “poetry” is less a description of a particular human activity than a name for a generalized power that encompasses life itself. “Poetry,” according to Hazlitt, “puts a spirit of life and motion into the universe.”3

Keywords

Burning Clay Dust Foam Mold 

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Notes

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© Ted Underwood 2005

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  • Ted Underwood

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