Common senses of the world versus mysteries of the unknown

In his older age, Wordsworth could almost be likened to a Dawkins-type figure. While Wordsworth seems to still think of Nature as spiritual, he does end up deferring to common sense, or rather, his own personal common sense of how Nature works. For an older Wordsworth, perhaps it is more comfortable to have the answers, rather than the mysteries. Perhaps there is nothing more than what he can physically sense.

Dawkins is all about acknowledging only what you can experience with your human senses, rather than some greater supernatural purpose.

“Our lives are ruled by all sorts of closer, warmer, human ambitions and perceptions” (Dawkins ix-x).

While I do not prescribe to the idea that there is nothing more to life than what is right in front of us, I will acknowledge that the human senses are the most common attributes that we share. If we only rely on human sense, then there will be no more mysteries, because through science, we can hypothetically figure out everything perceived by human sense.

Keats, on the other hand, as one of the second-generation Romanticists, imagines the other-worldly, the non-human and not common, particularly through the shape-shifting Lamia. Lamia is not a character of “common sense,” by which I mean that her qualities are certainly not those that we would perceive as common to humans. A shape-shifting woman/serpent hybrid creature would not be deciphered by our senses as something typical or common. Lamia is exceptional to human existence, certainly not common. She cannot be experienced by human sense, because her very attributes are non-human and other-worldly.

Keats describes Lamia in terms that are impossible for humans to fully grasp, because we cannot shape-shift or will our spirits to go wherever we want.

“But first ’tis fit to tell how she could muse / And dream, when in the serpent prison-house, / Of all she list, strange or magnificent: / How, ever, where she will’d, her spirit went; / Whether to faint Elysium, or where / Down through tree-lifting waves the Nereids fait / Wind into Thetis’ bower by many a pearly stair” (pages 3 and 4 of handout).

By describing Lamia, Keats shows an appreciation for the mysterious, the inexplicable, and the impossible for human sense. First of all, Lamia can shape-shift, so she is beyond any human’s ability to physically change and change back at will. Second, she can dream of anything, no matter how “strange or magnificent,” which could be a human sense, but only so far as our unconscious human mind could imagine.

Keats seems more interested, not in what is common, but instead what is mysterious. Lamia is a mysterious creature because she does not follow human means of transportation, mutation, or thought. He is more interested in the mystery of her behavior rather than the answer to how she could possibly do these things. In class, we called this his “appetite for wonder.” Lamia is an imagined creature from Greek mythology. Keats seems interested in this classic creature because she cannot really be explained. In Greek times, she probably would not have been explainable. Even now, she is inexplicable, because we could not imagine a woman shape-shifting without believing there is some sort of magician’s illusion going on.

Keats seems to express a desire to appreciate the impossible for what it is: not possible by human means. He wants whatever is beyond this human experience to be acknowledged, even if it cannot be explained.

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3 Responses to Common senses of the world versus mysteries of the unknown

  1. mercerism says:

    “For an older Wordsworth, perhaps it is more comfortable to have the answers, rather than the mysteries. Perhaps there is nothing more than what he can physically sense.”

    I’ve been thinking about the same thing. There seems to be a subtle but crucial distinction between on the one hand the view that there is nothing beyond what we can immediately perceive, and on the other hand the view that there *is* more, but that we should be satisfied with the wonder instilled in us by the limited experiences we have. These positions seem to be conflated too often, even by the authors we are studying themselves.

    John Searle, an antimaterialist philosopher of mind, criticizes empiricism by characterizing the position as being that “if something is real, it must be equally accessible to all competent observers.” Rubbish! The Romantic with an “appetite for wonder” and the empiricist scientist both agree that there is objective reality that is not directly observable [with current tools and methods]. They differ on the value of the attempt to unravel those mysteries. In contrast, later Wordsworth seems in a way to embody Searle’s straw man: “well, these daffodils are pretty. I guess that’s it.”

  2. kristy0715 says:

    I think this is a really interesting observation regarding Keats’ own deep awe in the mysteriousness and unnatural beauty of Lamia. Keats seems truly fascinated by the serpent woman, as she symbolizes nature and beauty in a form not truly explainable within scientific terms. I agree that Keats is more interested in her behavior rather her than the scientific composition of her transformation from a serpent into a human. It is also interesting because in the poem, Keats is able to describe from both perspectives by adopting different point of views from different speakers.

    In the beginning of the serpent’s transformation, Keats writes as himself or another speaker:

    “Left to herself, the serpent now began
    To change; her elfin blood in madness ran,
    Her mouth foam’d, and the grass, therewith besprent,
    Wither’d at dew so sweet and virulent;
    Her eyes in torture fix’d, and anguish drear,
    Hot, glaz’d, and wide, with lid-lashes all sear,
    Flash’d phosphor and sharp sparks, without one cooling tear.”

    In these lines, Keats describes Lamia’s jaw dropping transformation in a beautiful yet fearful manner. He matches contrasting words such as the dew so “sweet” and “virulent.” By coining Lamia an “elfin,” he compares her to a creature so unknown and mesmerizing. Yet using verbs such as torture, anguish, glaz’d, and “without one cooling tear,” Keats invokes an intimidating image of the Lamia. The reader becomes a bit confused since there is no explanation, scientifically or logically to describe the wondrous nature of Lamia’s transformation and state of being. With so many different words, what exactly or who exactly is Lamia?

    Later on, very interestingly, Keats allows the reader to witness both perspectives of Lamia- in a natural description and a scientific description. In the beginning, Keats focuses more on the unexplained earthly beauties of Lamia. Yet on the third page, when Lycius first sees Lamia, Keats adopts Lycius’ scholarly point of view to show the readers the man’s perspective of the woman. Keats writes:

    “Not one hour old, yet of sciential brain
    To unperplex bliss from its neighbour pain;
    Define their pettish limits, and estrange
    Their points of contact, and swift counterchange;
    Intrigue with the specious chaos, and dispart
    Its most ambiguous atoms with sure art;
    As though in Cupid’s college she had spent
    Sweet days a lovely graduate, still unshent,
    And kept his rosy terms in idle languishment.”

    Phrases such as “sciential brain,” contact and swift counterchange,” “specious chaos,” “ambiguous atoms with sure art” relate Lamia to scientific terms. Through Lycius, Keats shows a scholar’s scientific interpretation of describing something beautiful yet unnatural. Keats shows that although Lycius’ scholarly mind may not be able to wrap around the genuine explanation of Lamia’s existence, in his own way, he is still able to appreciate her beauty.

    Through this example, I believe that Keats intertwines both science and nature- he demonstrates that although through scientific means, people always like to find technical and plausible explanations for phenomenons, they will still find ways to fantasize and become awe-struck with the unexplained beauty of something so far from natural. Just because these scholars have their minds so wrapped up in scientific explanations of everything does not mean that they cannot explain natural beauty. Even though they may not able to find the right words to explain what they see or can only use scientific words to capture their perspective, they are still able to witness the captivating phenomenon of mysteries. Perhaps these scientists are not unable to see natural phenomenons or do not choose to distrust them, but rather cannot find the right descriptions to explain the bizarre things they are witnessing through their scientific minds.

  3. I enjoyed your discussion and juxtaposition of Wordsworth and Keats! I agree with what you’ve said regarding Keats, but I’d like to try to approach Wordsworth in a different way. While I agree that Wordsworth presented Nature as sublime and spiritually powerful throughout his career, I have a different sense of Wordsworth’s perspective on mystery.

    You referenced the older Wordsworth, in particular, suggesting that Wordsworth gradually became less enthralled with the mystery. If Wordsworth were to set his beliefs in stone, the mystery would, in theory, hold no power over him. The sonnet “The World is Too Much With Us,” one of the poet’s later works, shows that Wordsworth is as captivated by mystery as he ever was. However, while Keats’ “Lamia” investigates the ineffable mystery of the otherworldly, Wordsworth hones in on the mystery of the human.

    “This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon,
    The winds that will be howling at all hours,
    And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers,
    For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
    It moves us not.”

    Wordsworth is confronting man’s disconnection from the divinity of nature, and his frustration with this disconnect. As Keatsianfangirl mentioned, there is a great discomfort here with mystery. However, as demonstrated, the mystery in question is the opposite of all that Keats’ mystery is. Lamia is divine, beautiful and unreal; Wordsworth’s reality is horrifying and tragic.

    “The World is Too Much With Us” is utterly removed from common sense.

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