- "Passion Before We Die":James Dickey and Keats
In his 1968 commencement address at the University of South Carolina (which I, a high school freshman along with my father, was there on the Horseshoe to hear), James Dickey says of Keats, "for me [he is] one of the great human presences in the whole of history." And he quotes a long passage about "soul-making" from Keats's vast 1819 letter (14 February-3 May) to his brother George and sister-in-law Georgiana. In that letter Keats famously describes this world, the realm of the senses, as not a "vale of tears" but a "vale of Soul-making," and Dickey, in his commencement address, embraces the idea: human beings, rife though they may be with "sparks of divinity," create of those sparks unique, personal identities—make their own souls—through the passionate receptivity to and engagement of experience (8). One of my aims is to show how this idea takes form in the poems that span 1957-1967, productive years that secured Dickey's critical reputation.
However much Dickey admired Keats the "human presence" as revealed especially in Keats's letters, Dickey confesses in Self-Interviews, "I wish I liked his poems better than I do" (74). Predictably perhaps, the poems by Keats that matter most to Dickey's poems, whether or not the poet likes them much himself, are popular odes: "Ode to a Nightingale" and "Ode on a Grecian Urn." But before I show how this is so [End Page 90] and before we explore Dickey's version of the vale of soul-making, I wish to glance at the long poem, whose extravagant title is "May Day Sermon to the Women of Gilmer County, Georgia, by a Woman Preacher Leaving the Baptist Church," that opens Dickey's retrospective Poems 1957-1967 (1967).1 A glance at this poem will get us to that vale; it will also begin to show how Dickey's poems compose a response to those of Keats, in particular to those two odes and "The Eve of St. Agnes." Simply put, Dickey sees as "destructive" to Keats's poetry his concept of the poet "as some kind of exalted creature who could only deal with exalted subjects" (Givens 217); in poems of his own Dickey vulgarizes Keatsian beauty.2 Is "May Day Sermon" "just a retelling of a local folk myth" as Dickey maintains in Self-Interviews (184), or is it perhaps a retelling of "The Eve of St. Agnes"? Where Keats frames his moorland romance with the prayers of a pious beadsman, Dickey masks himself as a fanatical female apostate in upcountry Georgia and responds to the earlier poet's lush Medievalism with a wanton "country surrealism" (Sorties 100).
"The Eve of St. Agnes" is the story of two adolescent lovers whose relationship is threatened by their feuding families. This isn't exactly the predicament in "May Day Sermon," but it almost is: an adolescent girl is forbidden by her tyrannical father, a single parent, to see her lover. In both poems the young lovers defy their families and consummate their love—with portentous results. Both sets of lovers vanish in blinding weather.
More subtle is an element of plot that draws attention to the interest of both poets in the ontology of dreams. St. Agnes is the patron saint of virgins, and on St. Agnes's Eve, Madeline performs the rites by which a virgin then may dream of her husband-to-be. When Porphyro leaves his hiding place in the house and enters the sleeping Madeline's room, he also enters her dream: "Her eyes were open, but she still beheld, / . . . the vision of her sleep / . . . / Into her dream he melted" (298-299, 320).3 In Dickey's poem the immaterial, envisioned face of the lover, a one-eyed biker, takes the form of a swarm of gnats. After her beating, when the girl "lies face down / In her room, . . . hearing in the spun rust- / groan of bedsprings, his engine" (his motorcycle), she knows "that the face of gnats will wake / In the woods, as a man," her lover; for "there is nothing else this time...