This articles seeks to recover a lost visual device proposed in 1812 by the English traveller and materialist philosopher John "Walking" Stewart, and to explore how the imaginary apparatus participated in a prevailing intellectual climate of ambivalence to which Keats's imagination was particularly responsive. Stewart's curious contraption, the "panoscope", was fashioned as a pseudo-scientific, quasi-medical implement which could enable the aperture of human perception to resolve with a kind of rationally achieved omniscience the material reality that constitutes the eternal interchange between substances in states of "patiency" and "agency—life and death. The inherent ambivalence of panoscopic vision towards the prevalence of life or death, it is argued, came to distinguish much of Keats's writing in the last phase of his career as the promise of transmutation between literal and literary states of "composition" and "decomposition" became at once a comfort and anxiety for him.
I concur with those who find [“To Autumn”] markedly the greatest of Keats’s odes, and there is no coincidence in its being also the one which most naturally, subtly, and unmisgivingly accommodates the ambivalence of feeling which I consider characteristic of Keats’s truest imagination.Christopher Ricks, Keats and Embarrassment
Ambivalence: etymologically, it must be admitted from the outset, it is anachronistic to summon the word; it was born over a century after Keats. It comes from the German term, ambivalenz, coined by the psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler, grafting the Latin ambi (“in two ways”) on to valentia (“strength”). The Oxford English Dictionary and Oxford’s Dictionary of Etymology both propose 1910 as the year of its invention, crediting the publication in that year of Bleuler’s Die Negative Suggestibilität. In all likelihood, however, the word occurred slightly earlier; Freud is already using what he calls Bleuler’s “happily designated” (566) word in his Drei Abhandlungen zur Sexualtheorie, published in 1905. Bleuler must therefore have introduced it sometime before 1897, when the bulk of Freud’s essay on infant sexuality was written. Ambivalent, and the noun form, ambivalence, were soon afterward formed into English on the model of equivalent, equivalence. Yet there is no equivalent, either in eighteenth- or in nineteenth-century currency, that quite captures the same meaning:
having either or both of two contrary or parallel values, qualities or meanings; entertaining contradictory emotions (as love and hatred) towards the same person or thing; acting on or arguing for sometimes one and sometimes the other of two opposites; equivocal.OED
Even equivocal, by the OED’s own definition, is connotatively different. Rather than “parallel values, qualities or meanings” (emphasis added), equivocation denotes instead the shuttling, back and forth, between contrary beliefs or opinions held serially: now believing one thing, now its opposite. Where equivocation is uneasily contradictory in nature, ambivalence “entertains,” welcomes, contradiction:
“Welcome joy, and welcome sorrow,” ll. 1-4
Welcome joy, and welcome sorrow,
Lethe’s weed and Hermes’ feather;
Come today, and come tomorrow,
I do love you both together!
“Both together,” not alternately: ambivalence, not equivocation. Lucy Newlyn entitles a section devoted to Keats in her study Paradise Lost and the Romantic Reader (1993) “Equivocation,” but it is not long before attention shifts more precisely to “ambivalence”:
in his ambivalent attitude to divinity, to Milton, and to imaginative power, he encompasses the full range of positions which I have examined in other writers, making his distinctive contribution through a counterpointing of different voices whose argument remains unresolved … His poetic quest is indeed divided against itself … the patterns of duality and ambivalence which, as a result, run all the way through his poetry are demonstrations of negative capability…250-5; my emphasis
Notwithstanding the anachronism, it has long seemed appropriate to commentators to focus on feelings of ambivalence discernible behind almost every aspect of Keats’s art, and ambivalence is a precondition too, as we shall see presently, in the conception of an extraordinary device which sheds light on Keats’s imagination—a curious mental contraption called the panoscope. “An ambivalent meaning,” Bernard Blackstone says broadly of Keats’s consciousness, “attaches to the objects and events that present themselves to him” (257). William Flesch, discussing “To Autumn” in his essay “The Ambivalence of Generosity,” explores what he calls “Keats’s ambivalent achievement in this poem” (150), and Christopher Ricks, also concerned with that late ode, unmisgivingly equates (in the epigraph above) the genius of Keats’s “truest imagination” with a capacity for ambivalence that he finds evidenced in that work: “I concur with those who find [“To Autumn”] markedly the greatest of Keats’s odes … the one which most naturally, subtly, and unmisgivingly accommodates the ambivalence of feeling which I consider characteristic of Keats’s truest imagination” (208).
Linked to “Keats’s truest imagination,” ambivalence must not be confused with that attitude for which it is often mistaken in everyday conversation, indifference—that frame of mind which, as T. S. Eliot says in Little Gidding, “resembles the other as death resembles life” (l. 154). While “ambivalence” may have been unavailable to Keats, as a word, as a distinct psychological concept, he seems to have been wholly sensitive of the difference between a life-invigorating state of imagination on the one hand, and the potentially fatal consequences of its polar opposite, indifference, on the other. In a letter of December 1818 to Richard Woodhouse, Keats expresses concern over the onset of an attitude of “solitary indifference,” which, he says, could “blunt any acuteness of vision” he possesses.
Six weeks later, writing to George and Georgiana, he accuses Leigh Hunt of making him “indifferent to Mozart … and many a glorious thing,” a disposition which he says “distorts one’s mind—make[s] one’s thoughts bizarre—perplexes one in the standard of beauty” (“To George”). And while perspicacious commentators, therefore, such as Newlyn, Blackstone, and Ricks have, with the benefit of our expanded modern lexicon, positively pinpointed “ambivalence” per se as the locus of imaginative genius in Keats’s writing, others have, via negativa as it were, reached perhaps the same point, suggesting that, where there is great poetry, there can be no indifference. “Poetry, like the thinking of the philosopher,” Heidegger says in Einführung in die Metaphysik, “has always so much world space to spare that each thing—a tree, a mountain, a house, the cry of a bird—loses all indifference and commonplaceness” (qtd. in McFarland, Shapes 107-8). John Bayley, who too recognises the energy of contradiction everywhere in Keats’s writing, wonders whether its resistance to indifference would have held had the poet survived into maturity. “Wherever we look into Keats,” Bayley says, “there are contradictions whose point as enactment is that they cannot be resolved. Like Rimbaud he might well have come, had he survived, to indifference and to silence, although his own poetry is so different from Rimbaud’s” (115).
The fine line separating what some have identified as vital ambivalence on the one hand and what others, including Keats himself, have seen as fatal indifference on the other, is arguably the very high-wire along which the poet’s imagination precariously strode. A comment by the psychologist R. D. Laing on the artistic consequences of “indifference” is perhaps useful in clarifying just what awaited Keats in the nets below should his balance have faltered:
In the attitude of indifference the person or thing is treated with casualness, or callousness, as though he or it did not matter, ultimately as he or it did not exist. A person minus subjectivity can still be important. A thing can still matter a great deal. Indifference denies to persons and to things their significance. Petrification, we remember, was one of Perseus’s methods of killing his enemies. By means of the eyes in Medusa’s head, he turned them into stones. Petrification is one way of killing.76
Arguably no poet’s eyes endeavoured to resist the petrifying effects of indifference so steadfastly as Keats’s. Several recent studies of his work, such as interesting ones by Grant Scott and by James A. W. Heffernan, have concentrated, for example, on the ubiquitous ekphrasis, or what might be described as the depetrification of static artefacts into living works of words, that is to be found everywhere throughout his writing. “On Seeing the Elgin Marbles,” “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” and “Ode on Indolence,” to name only a few of the more conspicuous instances, are indicative not of the ossification of indifference, but rather of the oscillation of ambivalence—the liminal smudging of generic lines whether between artistic media (visual and verbal; sculpture and word) or between states of consciousness (dream and wakefulness; life and death). In Laing’s formulation, the cold reduction of subjectivity into dead matter is the potential consequence of an abiding indifference, whereas, say, in at least one modality of Keats’s achievement, his ekphrasticism, the poet’s ability simultaneously to provoke alternate and alternating states of being—an object as at once lithic and living; a subject as latent with objectivity and vice versa—is attributable to his powerful imaginative capacity for ambivalence.
But where does this capacity derive from? What constitutes it? What motivates and undermines it? What, in the words of the ambivalently half-living, half-petrified alter-ego poet of The Fall of Hyperion, enables Keats so successfully “to fathom the space every way” (line 82), and “to see as a God sees” (line 304)? In what follows, Keats’s preoccupation with the im/mortal nature of the poet figure—his ambivalence toward the death-in-lifeness and life-in-deathness of the poet—will be considered in the light of the eccentrically concocted mental instrument introduced in 1812 by one of Romanticism’s most extraordinary and extraordinarily neglected figures, the itinerant materialist philosopher called “Walking” Stewart. Though Stewart has plumbed the depths of near oblivion in the years since his death in 1822, he was, in the first quarter of the nineteenth century, as celebrated a figure in London’s thoroughfares as one could care to name. Once admired primarily for unprecedented pedestrian adventures which took him across India, Abyssinia, Arabia, Africa, Europe and North America, Stewart is now known, if at all, as the “sublime visionary” (De Quincey 3.247) to whom De Quincey offered affectionate tribute in a pair of essays in the London Magazine and Tait’s Magazine in 1823. By turns, De Quincey calls Stewart “a man of very extraordinary genius,” “the most interesting by far” of all his friends in London, and “in conversation, the most eloquent man . . . that [he] ha[d] ever known”—an opinion, De Quincey says, that Wordsworth shared: “I was much struck with the eloquence of [Stewart’s] conversation,” De Quincey wrote, “and afterwards, I found that Mr. Wordsworth, himself the most eloquent of men in conversation, had been equally struck, when he met [Stewart] in Paris between the years 1790 and 1792, during the early storms of the French Revolution.” (3: 134). In the three decades following Wordsworth’s and Stewart’s acquaintance in France, Stewart would articulate, in a series of nearly thirty works of “homespun” Spinozist speculation, a unique brand of pantheism which arguably had an important impact on Wordsworth’s subsequent writing and thought. And while Wordsworth’s possible indebtedness to “Walking” Stewart is now slowly coming into critical focus, his wider significance to Romanticism remains unresolved. Among the more intriguing aspects of Stewart’s writings is his preoccupation with pseudo-scientific apparatuses in accord, say, with Robert Barker’s Panorama or Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon. In 1812, in a tiny duodecimo work printed for the bookseller S. Gosnell of Little Queen Street, London, inimitably entitled The Sophiometer, Stewart introduced one such contraption which he called “the panoscope.” The panoscope was conceived as an imaginary implement capable of focusing the human mind simultaneously on both the infinite and the infinitesimal—at once telescopically on the vastness of planets and microscopically on the minuteness of atoms. As such, the panoscope was designed to enable the aperture of human perception to resolve with a kind of rationally achieved omniscience the material reality that constitutes the endless interchange between substances in states of “patiency” and “agency”—the endless flux, that is to say, between the prevalence of life and death.
In the discussion that follows, my aim will be to demonstrate how the inherent ambivalence of panoscopic vision as proposed by Stewart distinguishes much of Keats’s writing in the last phase of his career, and how the possibility of a transmutation between literal and literary “composition” became both a comfort and an anxiety for Keats. Like Barker’s Panorama and Bentham’s panopticon, Stewart’s panoscope may be understood, on one level, as a product of Enlightenment confidence in the ability of human rationality fundamentally to improve man’s state of being. On a more profound level, however, each of these devices symbolises a very Romantic irony between theoretical design on the one hand and fraught disabled application on the other—an irony to which Keats’s ambivalently formulated poetic contrivance, “negative capability,” was also to succumb.
Keats’s imagination “has the power,” Bayley has said, “of reversing and reducing the big poetic idea to a homely size, or of making greatness emerge out of littleness, a generalised sublime from the small intensities of day-dream vision” (122). In contemplating, say, such large and abstract human emotions as melancholy, it is the small, palpable, “homely size” of a personified hand that Keats’s imagination grabs hold of and which grabs hold of the reader’s imagination too:
“Ode on Melancholy,” ll. 18-20
Or if thy mistress some rich anger shows,
Emprison her soft hand, and let her rave,
And feed deep, deep upon her peerless eyes.
While Keats’s vision therefore is famously capable of being exhilaratingly telescopic in scope (“Oft of one wide expanse”; “like some watcher of the skies / When a new planet swims into his ken”), it has the tendency too of being excruciatingly microscopic, often simultaneously so, as in the late loving gush “I cry mercy, pity, love—ay, love!” (sometimes called “To Fanny”):
O! let me have thee whole,—all—all—be mine!
That shape, that fairness, that sweet minor zest
Of love, your kiss—those hands, those eyes divine,
That warm, white, lucent, million-pleasured breast—
Yourself—your soul—in pity give me all,
Withhold no atom’s atom or I die […]
What begins as an “all”-enveloping desire to possess his lover’s “whole” “shape,” soon localises, focusing on the “eyes,” on a “breast,” until it reaches such minute detail as to make a passing knowledge of organic chemistry sound almost erotic. Once recognised, as if noticing a kind of poetic tic, one can see the tendency in Keats to hold in artistic suspension, or creative balance, both the whole and the parts of the whole at work throughout his writing.
Possibly the most powerful and at the same time most subtle example of this tendency obtains in “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” There, the depiction of the whole of life lived at its most cornucopiously fruitful and abundant, as represented by the occasion of a happy marriage ceremony (“More happy love! More happy, happy love!” [l. 25]) set fittingly amidst unending bloom and endless generation (“happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed /Your leaves” [ll. 21-2]), is physically suspended, frozen (friezed, as it were), as it is made to encase, to emboss the “cold pastoral” vessel of an entirely opposite ceremonial awareness—the ashy, atomic, inescapable material fact of mortal human degeneration in which the urn, on its most basic, crematorial level, essentially functions. This simultaneously suspended shift in scope, capable unflinchingly of encompassing at once the particles and the particularities of life and of death, is characteristic of Keats’s ambivalent imagination, and, as exemplified in the “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” increasingly so in the last two years of his life and composition.
As fears of ceasing to be mounted in the last cruel phase between the identification in 1819 of a death warrant in the form of a small spot of blood on the poet’s pillow and his eventual consumptive death in 1821, one begins tracing an understandably heightened awareness in Keats’s writing of an almost fluctual link between literary composition on the one “hand,” as it were, and literal, material decomposition on the other “hand”:
“The Fall of Hyperion. A Dream,” ll. 11-18
Who alive can say,
‘Thou art no Poet—mayst not tell thy dreams’?
Since every man whose soul is not a clod
Hath visions, and would speak, if he had loved,
And been well nurtured in his mother tongue.
Whether the dream now purposed to rehearse
Be Poet’s or Fanatic’s will be known
When this warm scribe my hand is in the grave.
The ostensibly rhetorical, ironic retort to materialist rejections of an immaterial dimension to human existence (“soul is not a clod”) is somehow re-invested with unexpected literalness in the chilling last line, “When this warm scribe my hand is in the grave.” The synecdoche of “hand,” standing at once for the poet and for artistic composition generally—for Keats’s very “soul,” one might say—is placed into as close a proximity to “clod”-iness and physical decomposition (“in the grave”) as one can scarcely bare from a young poet himself barely a year and a half from burial. Grimly, one cannot help recalling too, though Keats himself presumably was not aware of it, the detection by Coleridge of imminent mortal decomposition in Keats’s own hand of immortal composition, when the two parted company on Hampstead Heath in 1818. “A loose, slack, not well-dressed Youth,” as Coleridge recorded later in Table Talk: “met Mr Green and myself in a lane near Highgate. Green knew him, and spoke. It was Keats.” “He was introduced to me,” Coleridge goes on to say, “and staid a minute or so. After he had left us a little way, he came back, and said ‘Let me carry away the memory, Coleridge, of having pressed your hand!’ ‘There is death in that hand,’ I said to Green , when Keats was gone! Yet this was I believe, before the consumption showed itself distinctly” (325).
The younger poet, full of admiration and hope that something of the immortal genius of the elder poet might rub off in the clasping of hands, himself conveys, preternaturally almost, a sense only of his own premature mortality. And it was around this same time, in the early summer of 1818, that Keats, on some level, seems also to have begun to sense something of the material degeneration of that very component of his physical existence which he all the while hoped might still be capable of generating a kind of immaterial longevity. “I am now so depressed,” he confessed to Benjamin Bailey, “that I have not an Idea to put to paper—my hand feels like lead.” “It is,” Keats went on to explain the insensate sensation, “[an] unpleasant numbness it does not take away the pain of existence—I don’t know what to write—Monday—You see how I have delayed—and even now I have but a confusing idea of what I should be about my intellect must be in a degen[er]ating state” (“To Benjamin Bailey”). 
As death became unrelentingly imminent, the intermeshing in the poet’s own mind of his hand’s potential at once for immortal composition and for mortal decomposition tightened. “Even if I was well,” he wrote in February 1820, “I must make myself as good a Philosopher as possible.” “If I should die,” Keats said to himself, “I have left no immortal work behind me—nothing to make my friends proud of my memory—but I have loved the principle of beauty in all things, and if I had had time I would have made myself remember’d” (“To Fanny Brawne”). Having been so passionately engaged with life, so determined to secure some immortal access to it, the inevitability of premature physical demise forced Keats to adopt a profoundly philosophical detachment, such that death ambivalently began to replace life as that which he earnestly craved. The oscillation between a craving for immortality, on one side, which only his living hand could secure for him, and, on the other, for the “comfort” of an “easeful Death”—an eternal stillness of hand which, in a sense, might inaugurate that immortality—had defined the pendulous sweep of Keatsian ambivalence for some time:
for many a time
I have been half in love with easeful Death,
Called him soft names in many a musèd rhyme,
To take into the air my quiet breath;
Now more than ever seems it rich to die,
To cease upon the midnight with no pain,
While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad
In such ecstasy!
Still wouldst thou sing, and I have ears in vain—
To thy high requiem become a sod.
Life no longer promising continued access to further life, Keats ambivalently begins looking toward death in the paradoxical hope that it may lead him back into life—that he may “die into life,” as Apollo is said to in Hyperion (iii, l. 130). “Living and dying were for Keats,” Thomas McFarland concludes from these same articulations, “more than for almost anyone else, one and the same” (Masks 70). Life and death—composition (“musèd rhyme”) and decomposition (“become a sod”)—each begins to look more and more like the dormant state of the other: alternating modes or masks of what Keats himself called “the camelion poet”..
But if the crushing pressure of imminent death is what elicited or occasioned from Keats the detachment of philosophical ambivalence toward life and death, composition and decomposition, what, one wonders, informed the particular contours of its literal, materialistic articulation—the life-in-deathness and death-in-lifeness that is expressed, for example, with such paralysingly atomistic exactitude in The Fall of Hyperion?
thus I heard
Language pronounced: ‘If thou canst not ascend
These steps, die on the marble where thou art.
Thy flesh, near cousin to the common dust,
Will parch for lack of nutriment—thy bones
Will wither in few years, and vanish so
That not the quickest eye could find a grain
Of what thou now art on the pavement cold.
The sands of thy short life are spent this hour,
And no hand in the universe can turn
Thy hourglass, if these gummed leaves be burnt
Ere thou canst mount up these immortal steps.’
One senses behind Moneta’s challenge to the poet a level of challenge that Keats likely levelled at himself: to convert the mortal decomposition of his flesh, “near cousin to common dust,” into the “immortal steps” or feet of composition, to convert the particles of one mode (“dust,” “grain,” “sands”) into the particularities of the other. Some critics have argued that, in Keats’s own case, the transmutation of mortal decomposition into immortal composition was, after all, tragically achieved. “He literally paid with his life,” McFarland contends, “for the intense achievement of his poetry. He exchanged the fullness of his life for the immortality of his verse” (Masks 71). Even before the pressure of impending death exerted itself with the sustained force it must have during the composition of The Fall of Hyperion, modal flux between the literal and the literary conceived materialistically was a trope with which we know that Keats himself was comfortable. Not only in the famous formulation of “the camelion poet” does Keats proclaim that the author "has no Identity—he is continually in for—and filling some other Body”; in 1818, he remarked to Haydon about “the innumerable compositions and decompositions which take place between the intellect and its thousand materials before it arrives at that trembling delicate and snail-horn perception of Beauty” (“To Benjamin Robert Haydon”). Keats’s comment and, as we have seen, his assimilation of related tropes into the writing of the last two years of his life, suggest not only a familiarity with materialist language in a technical sense, but a sensitivity too to a detached, ambivalent, philosophical position informed by an awareness that relies upon such language—an awareness which resonated with increased relevance, power, and consolation at the very moment when Keats was coming face to face with his own physical demise.
One can locate in Keats’s educational background—from schooldays at Enfield, to his subsequent apprenticeship under the surgeon Thomas Hammond, to his eventual training to become an apothecary—opportunities to become acquainted with contemporary developments in chemistry, medicine, and science in general. Studies by Sir William Hale-White, Donald Goellnicht, and Alan Richardson have surveyed the poet’s access to state-of-the-art equipment and robustly debated hypotheses—from microscopic advances in the understanding of human physiology to adjusted telescopic models for conceptualising the alignment of stars. Keats participated in live models meant to reconfigure common perceptions about the universe from the infinite to the infinitesimal. Under the innovative tuition of headmaster John Clarke and Baptist Minister John Ryland at Enfield, Keats was “taught the configurations of the solar system” by being placed within a “human orrery” (Newman 82) while at Guys Hospital he was among the first student to have access to cutting-edge medical apparatuses, where “miscoscopy was in its very infancy” (Hale-White 23).
In one of his medical notebooks, Keats makes a facetious remark which demonstrates all the same just how attuned his imagination was, even at that early stage, to the understanding that the microscopic particles that comprise life are capable of fluctuating between an active mode and its lithically life-latent opposite: “Those who have been much addicted to Study, from Keeping up a continued determination of Blood to the Brain have often the Vessels of that part ossified” (qtd. in Hale-White 23). The suggestion of a partly-ossified, partly-living subject, only some of whose material consistency has retreated into dormancy, is remarkably proleptic of Keats’s later depiction of the poet himself in The Fall of Hyperion. That awareness anticipates too a comment made in a letter of 1818 to James Rice in which Keats speculates on the almost material consistency of Milton’s intellect:
my dear fellow I must let you know that as there is ever the same quantity of matter constituting this inhabitable globe—as the ocean notwithstanding the enormous changes and revolutions taking place in some or other of its desmenes—notwithstanding Waterspouts whirlpools and mighty Rivers emptying themselves into it, it is still made up <of> of the same bulk—nor ever varies the number of its Atoms—And as a certain bulk of Water was instituted at the Creation—so very likely a certain portion of intellect was spun forth into the thin Air for the Brains of Man to prey upon it—You will see my drift without any unnecessary parenthesis. That which is contained in the Pacific and lie in the hollow of the Caspian—that which was in Miltons head could not find room in Charles the seconds—
From “globe” to “atoms,” from “the Pacific” to “Miltons [sic] head”: what is striking about Keats’s ability to adjust his poetic aperture from the massive to minute, and the awareness that accompanies it of the fluctual link between modes of material existence, is not only the consolatory ambivalence it offers towards the prevalence of life or death, but how consonant that ambivalent sensibility is with “Walking” Stewart’s. “Worlds circulate and transmute their matter reciprocally from planet to planet, sun, stars, &c., &c., just as modes and systems transmute in chemical circulation upon the globe,” (Sophiometer 291) Stewart says, capturing the oscillating telescopic-to-microscopic sweep of Keats’s imagination, and corroborating with uncanny congruence the way in which the poet seems to have assimilated the theories of the day. “Transmutation,” Stewart goes on to say, “does away all the fears of death, and transmutation of atoms in life, to reconcile man to the inevitable course and laws of nature.” (Sophiometer 291-2). “Transmutation does away all the fears of death”: the pronouncement is startling in its certainty, its confidence. The fluctual link between “innumerable compositions and decompositions,” which perforce crushes death’s dominion and liberates what Keats calls the “warm scribe [the] hand” when it is “in the grave,” can be perceived, according to Stewart, through the lens of an imaginary mental device, the panoscope, whose operation he endeavours to define in his 1812 The Sophiometer.
Though it is not known whether Keats was ever familiar with any specific work by Stewart, one possible connection between the two writers is intriguing. Keats’s instructor and examiner for various subjects including chemistry, according to the “Minute Book of the Court of Examiners of the Apothecaries Society,” beside the date 25 July 1816, was a “Mr Brande.” In all likelihood, the reference is either to Everard Brande, or to his brother, the famous chemist, friend, and first-biographer of “Walking’ Stewart,” William Thomas Brande. In any event, Stewart’s definition of panoscopic vision captures with astonishing pertinence the nuances of Keats’s ambivalent perspective in the last years of his life, particularly as it obtains in The Fall of Hyperion.
Stewart’s fascination with optics, and the potential that it offered of providing palpable scientific proof of those things which had forever been confined to the realm of philosophical speculation, or the imagination, is evident as early as 1794 when, in The Revolution of Reason, he muses
Was the science of optics improved, we might in time discover the universal and reciprocal involution of atoms: we should observe the active and the passive, creative and created bodies in a perpetual state of commutation … What powerful instructors would optic glasses then become? The philosopher must bow his head in the presence of the microscope, which would demonstrate to conviction what wisdom has just power enough to conceive, the recondite simplicity of truth, the unity of self and nature, or the identification of individual and universal good.21-2
But by 1812, Stewart has become too impatient to wait any longer for scientific advances to catch up with his visionary vision of a device that can unite the infinite and infinitesimal, and takes matters into his own hands: “as the optician new worlds by means of his telescope, so my new invented mental panoscope exhibits the conceivable whole from analogy of the visibly intelligible parts.” “The mind without the panoscope,” Stewart warns
would possess no discipline of sense, no fortitude, no energy, no wisdom. The knowledge of sense in chemistry, exhibiting the transmutation of matter incessantly from a single agent mode into a patient system, would make man a miserable and terrified coward. The apparent omnipotency and supremacy of the surrounding spheres would deprive him of all his energy.Sophiometer 289
Panoscopic vision “does away all the fears of death” because it reveals at every instant the fluctuation between life and death—the “chameleon” nature of “Identity” that constitutes the very energy of existence. “Death,” Stewart maintains, “is a real good” which, though “nobody likes,” “everybody must be reconciled to” (Moral 312). “I come now to exhibit the ultimate and consummate powers of my panoscope,” Stewart announces with characteristically endearing pomposity,
in a fact of analogy that is so simple, so familiar to sense, so irresistible to reason, that though it pervades and lays open the whole constitution of nature as under the tact of sense, I think I shall have no difficulty in gaining assent of every mind that has the least spark of sense, candour or liberation, from prejudice in his nature. The fact of analogy that I allude to is that all composition must become decomposition.Sophiometer 293
“All composition must become decomposition”: Stewart’s conclusion is in accord, literally and literarily, with deep tropisms of Keats’s ambivalent imagination. Stewart’s eccentrically defined panoscope, like “negative capability,” is a lever of “ambivalence”—literally a “strength” “in two ways”—enabling its user to observe simultaneously not only the immenseness and the infinitesimalness, but also the “patiency” and “agency” of matter, the death-in-lifeness and life-in-deathness of all things; to see, in other words, what Stewart had described some years earlier as the “chemical affinity and transmutation of terrestrial bodies, with celestial bodies of planets, satellites, comets, suns, and stars” (Conquest 15). From the moment that the poet awakens from his elixir-induced trance in The Fall of Hyperion—whose “transparent juice” has helped him to see transparently—his perception of Self and surrounding is fantastically at once both widened and zoomed: “I raised / My eyes to fathom the space every way” (ll. 81-2), the poet says, observing instantaneously Moneta’s whole, entire “Image, huge of feature as a cloud,” as well as the most minute particles that constitute it:
. . . the small warm rain
Melts out the frozen incense from all flowers,
And fills the air with so much pleasant health
That even the dying man forgets his shroud—
“Withhold no atom’s atom”; Keats is at once cognizant of the misty and material composition of the “Image” before him, a visionary awareness that he likens in its fragrant intelligence to the easefulness of a dying man who momentarily “forgets his shroud.” And it is presumably the potency of this visionary condition that enables the poet to comprehend and endure the subsequent trauma of being reduced to a half-stone, half-living being: with “two senses both at once,” he witnessed suddenly a palsied chill “Struck from the pavèd level up [his] limbs,”
And was ascending quick to put cold grasp
Upon those streams that pulse beside the throat.
[He] shrieked; and the sharp anguish of his shriek
Stung [his] own ears—[he] strove hard to escape
The numbness, strove to gain the lowest step.
Slow, heavy, deadly was my pace: the cold
Grew stifling, suffocating, at the heart;
And when [he] clasped [his] hands [he] felt them not.
“Often the Vessels of that part ossified”; the whimsy of Keats’s medical marginalia is subsumed in the crushing urgency of his later ceasing-to-be-ness by a panoscopic awareness of the fluctuation between life and death. Arresting, as Stewart says panoscopic vision does, “all the fears of death” (Sophiometer 293), the ambivalence of Keats’s imagination, as exemplified in the suspended half-living, half-dead poet of The Fall of Hyperion, survives the ordeal significantly in a moment that challenges and collapses the materialistically arbitrary distinctions between literal and literary composition.
Shortly after having given up work on The Fall of Hyperion near the end of 1819 (“To J.H. Reynolds”), Keats experiences a moment of cataclysmic clarity—a crystallisation of conceit concerning the interplay between the “innumerable compositions and decompositions” with which he has existentially been grappling. In the almost-epitaphic fragment, “This living hand,” Keats finds himself stripping away the artifice of myth in which his panoscopic vision has been shrouded in The Fall of Hyperion to produce one of the most arresting passages in his entire oeuvre:
Keats, Complete Poems 459
This living hand, now warm and capable
Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold
And in the icy silence of the tomb,
So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights
That thou would wish thine own heart dry of blood
So in my veins red life might stream again,
And thou be conscience-calmed—see here it is—
I hold it towards you.
Keats now senses in the imminent hollowness of his own grasp what Coleridge had detected the previous summer. Rather than surviving figuratively through the endurance of his literary corpus, the poet threatens, even promises to retain it literally by transmuting the “red life” that he intends to bleed from his reader’s corpse into his own. The molecular law of material conservation that the fragment almost maniacally asserts is that composition provokes decomposition, which in turn sustains composition. Deriving only cold comfort from Milton’s reassurance that “a good book is the precious life blood of a master spirit” (Milton 207), Keats’s fragment resonates with a terrifying, desperate resentment of the reader and of each subsequent generation of readers, for whose sake Keats knew he was on the verge, literally, of giving his life. As a result, the fragment demonstrates how the width of Keats’s panoscopic aperture was capable of extending, not only microscopically and telescopically, but into futurity as well.
Kelly Grovier's collection of poems A Lens in the Palm was published by Carcanet Press in February 2008, and his popular history of London's notorious Newgate Prison, The Gaol, was published by John Murray in July 2008. His study of the influence of the itinerant philosopher "Walking" Stewart on the imagination of William Wordsworth, "Travels of the Mind," is forthcoming from Liverpool University Press. He is co-founder of the scholarly journal European Romantic Review and a regular contributor to the Times Literary Supplement and The Observer.
John Keats: The Complete Poems. All subsequent poems are taken from this text unless otherwise noted.
See the present author’s recent articles, “Dream Walker: A Wordsworth Mystery Solved” and “‘Shades of the prison-house’: ‘Walking’ Stewart, Michel Foucault and the making of Wordsworth’s ‘two consciousnesses.’”
See Hermione De Almeida, 44.
See Thomas McFarland’s The Masks of Keats, where McFarland goes on to summon also Keats’s comment from 1820, ”I am glad there is such a thing as the grave—I am sure I shall never have any rest till I get there” (68 ff). McFarland also reminds us of the remark by Keats’s friend, Joseph Severn, who courageously ministered to the poet in the last gruelling weeks, that ‘Keats is desiring his death with dreadfull earnestness—the idea of death seems his only comfort—the only prospect of ease—he talks of it with delight’, Severn says. (“Joseph Severn to John Taylor”). My thinking about the state of Keats’s consciousness in these crucial months is very much indebted to McFarland’s compilation and soulful explication of these statements.
See also Hermione De Almeida, Charles Hagelman Jr., Henry Pettit, Hillas Smith, Stuart M. Sperry, and R. S. White.
See Stewart’s discussion in The Philosophy of Sense (1816), published the same year as Keats’s note was written, in which he discusses the “co-existence of composition and decomposition in all organic bodies, without any exception,” and describes the existence in nature of a complementary “composing power” and ”decomposing power . . . which ossifies the blood vessels” (xxxiv).
It is worth noting that, though Keats was occasionally inclined as here to materialistic metaphor, some part of him recoiled from it. His famous attack in Lamia, for instance, on Newtonian attempts to ‘[u]nweave a rainbow’ (l. 237), demonstrate a deep ambivalence about materialistic formulations.
See Brande’s The Life and Adventures of the Celebrated Walking Stewart.
Though the panoscope, both in concept and as a neologism, failed to enter into any kind of cultural currency, one possible enduring literary resonance is worth considering. Thomas Love Peacock’s satirical novel, Headlong Hall, published in 1816, features a character curiously called Mr Panscope—a travelling philosopher/scientist who is said to have “run through the whole circle of sciences, and understood them all equally well.” Though it has generally been assumed that Mr Panscope was conceived as an affectionate caricature of Coleridge, following, as it does, on the heels of Stewart’s proposed device just a few years earlier, one wonders whether an intriguing conflation of Coleridge and Stewart has once again occurred.
The promotion of a holistic attitude towards death, Stewart insisted, was among his primary objectives—“Identity of body,” Stewart writes elsewhere, “is nothing but the combination of individual particles or atoms, in perpetual fluxion; their dissolution by death is of no more consequence to nature, or the whole of matter in existence, than the dissolution of figures combined in any sum is to the power of the number.” [Revolution of Reason 8.]
The analogous elegance of Stewart’s formulation to Keats’s required some refining. In The Moral or Intellectual Last Will and Testament, which appeared two years earlier, Stewart struggles to reduce his contention concerning the link between the immense and microscopic into a memorable axiom—an effort which finds him rejecting the doctrine of necessitarianism which one might have expected him to endorse: “The doctrine of necessarianism presumes immutability on the laws of nature, from the single fact of planetary motion; for every other action of nature that man is acquainted with, from the gravitation of matter to the motion of wind, is subject to contingency, and this very revolution of the planets, though permanent to human knowledge, from the short duration of human life and history, must be mutable at a remote period, because all composition is subject to dissolution.” (101)
Quoted in McFarland, Masks 1.
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