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  • For the Love of Nothing:Auden, Keats, and Deconstruction
  • Jo-Anne Cappeluti

"Authors can be stupid enough, God knows, but they are not quite so stupid as a certain kind of critic seems to think. The kind of critic, I mean, to whom, when he condemns a work or a passage, the possibility never occurs that its author may have foreseen exactly what he is going to say"

—W. H. Auden


Deconstruction by definition is an exercise of the intellect's predilection to disprove and deny aesthetic experience. Deconstruction is in love with denying this "nothing," but is seemingly unaware of how attempting demystification entangles the intellect all the more with the imagination. And it is the imagination that creates aesthetic experience, the very entity critics deny even exists. This dynamic is especially true of deconstruction looking at the Romantic mode of poetry: the poetry of poets who serve as their own subject. Analyzing the internalized quests of these poets, deconstruction offers a drama of itself too much in love with demystifying aesthetic experience, attempting and always failing, intellectually, to reduce it to nothing.

Poets who write in the Romantic mode of poetry are in love with this "nothing"; they present internalized quests filled with their acute awareness of the aesthetic—and highly indeterminate—nature of being human. At the core of this indeterminacy is the ongoing debate between imagination and intellect, the first interested in exploring what is there, in human consciousness, the second prone to demystifying it. Poets who write in this mode learn that such improvable yet actual aesthetic experience or "nothing" is germane to being human. Any attempt [End Page 345] to escape it intellectually will only lead back to the imagination that presents it.

Poets who write in the Romantic mode of poetry are so familiar with the way in which this aesthetic nature of human existence involves the unresolved conflict between imagination and intellect that these poets present in their poetry a response to the criticism that denies it. John Keats and W. H. Auden are two poets who show this dynamic and who, not by coincidence, have a lot in common. Deconstruction, however, sees Auden and Keats—however separately—as poets who wake up at mid-career to the fallaciousness of the imagination and subsequently turn their talent to making nothing happen in their poetry: undermining its aesthetic nature. Keats's Endymion and Auden's "Caliban to the Audience" are frequently cited as prime examples of this demystification process. As I will argue, however, both of these poems deliberately dramatize the self-thwarting attempts of the intellect to dissect and dismiss what it claims is nothing.1

Keats dramatizes this dynamic in Endymion, drawing attention to the way in which this "Brain-sick shepherd prince" claims—actually over-protests—to have loved "nothing" after his miraculous experience beneath the ocean with the strangely indeterminate creature, Glaucus (pp. 134, 206).2 Auden offers as well a detailed description of this dynamic in "Caliban to the Audience," the last section of The Sea and The Mirror, A Commentary on Shakespeare's The Tempest. In this poem, the strangely indeterminate, begged question of existence, Caliban, reveals in great detail his audience's futile attempt to demystify what upsets them.

My argument concludes with a discussion of the way in which these poems dramatize deconstruction's unintentional witness to the "real Word" of the imagination (CP, p. 444).3

As poets who write in the Romantic mode, exploring what is there in their consciousness, Keats and Auden find a great indeterminacy inherent in their human nature: an unresolved problem that they explore—rather than try to solve. Auden, in fact, links himself to Keats, finding in Keats's idea of the chameleon poet his (Auden's) central idea of the poet as actor for the imagination. Like Keats, Auden takes the imagination quite seriously and fuses Keats's sense of the imagination with Coleridge's: observing that poetry records the poet's experiences in which the (Primary) imagination is drawn to certain "sacred" beings and events. In "Making, Knowing and Judging," Auden declares that the "impression made upon the imagination by any sacred being is of...


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