Aesthetic Pattern (singular) in Keats’ Odes

McLuhan’s 1943 essay, ‘Aesthetic Pattern in Keats’ Odes’,1 treats aesthetic patterns in Keats’ odes: why, then, his specification of the singular “aesthetic pattern” in the title?

Instead, however, of oscillating “up” and “down” movements, there is in this ode a single motion of expanding awareness…  (112)2

The answer to this question goes to the very heart of McLuhan’s project and may be put simply: from early on McLuhan sought what in physics is termed a superposition that would define at once what a work of great culture achieves and what rigorous criticism must be able to recognize as present or absent in particular works (be they aesthetic works or works in education, commerce, politics or religion).3 Such a superposition embraces all the possibilities available before any individual work (in multiple senses of ‘before’) and is therefore able to explicate in terms of their complete range the achievement, or lack of achievement, in that work. McLuhan would later come to call such a superposition “the emotion of multitude” from Yeats’ short 1903 text of this title.4

Without as yet knowing how to specify such a superposition (or, therefore, the individual positions subsumed by it), McLuhan’s 1943 Keats essay5 repeatedly gestured towards it in the following terms:

  • the high place which the odes have held in the regard of those who care for poetry is owing to qualities (…) of intense organization arising from the strict discipline of a critical intelligence. (99)
  • a basis of stability [is achieved] (…) resolution in “rational” wakefulness. (100)
  • there is something basically characteristic of Keats’s artistic mode arising from his preoccupation with these paradoxes or conflicts in the very heart of experience. How very far he was from refusing to undertake their resolution with the full intellectual energy of a great artist has been quite insufficiently recognized. (102)
  • the achievement of a patterned economy (104)
  • an equilibrium born of previous conflicts  (107)
  • one notes a harmonious conjunction and assimilation of the themes of depression (…) and the flight on the “wings of Poesy” (…). That is, the first “down” movement and the second “up” movement recur6 together as a new thing. (107)
  • [there is] a change of tone. The poem is now, for the first time, at the level of explicit rationality, and it is at this level that the resolution of the conflicting claims of all the other modes of life in the poem is effected. (110)
  • The “meaning” of this poem is only to be apprehended in terms of this complex structure and the reverberation and interaction of its delicately modulated themes. (111)
  • the stability was achieved not by espousal or rejection of life, nor by affirmation nor negation, but by a mode of being which Keats, himself , called “negative capability“. Keats’ definition of this phrase is (…): “. . . when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason. (112)7
  • Instead, however, of oscillating “up” and “down” movements, there is in this ode a single motion of expanding awareness…  (112)8
  •  Rossetti, Swinburne, Pater, and Tennyson (…) had only a small share of that artistic toughness of fiber which made Keats finally reject anything less than a total view of his experience. It is just such a totality (…) which is the concern of these odes. (113)


  1.  University of Toronto Quarterly, 12:2, January 1943, 167-179.
  2. This and all references below are to the reprinting of the essay in The Interior Landscape (where the Keats essay is the earliest piece included in the collection).
  3. Formulation of a superposition is critical in art and science both individually and in their mutual connection, according to McLuhan, but also to religion and to social, even world order. However, the larger the claim, the more the imperative for precise definition and open investigation. Hence the need for McLuhan’s work for the 20 years between 1940 and 1960 to be directed to the question of how to specify a superposition such that the required collective study might at last begin.
  4. For discussion see Lévi-Strauss on method in anthropology.
  5. Probably McLuhan had been drafting studies of Keats over many years going back at least to the late 1930’s, if not to the middle 30’s in Cambridge. Using these drafts he must have brought the Keats essay to completion in parallel to his Nashe thesis by 1942 at the latest. What is here called his gesture towards a superposition is called in the thesis the “grammar” component of the trivium: “The essential opposition between the (rhetorical and dialectical) arts of the trivium being such, then, as frequently to pit the one against the other, with results of the greatest importance, it is useful to recognize that the present exposition of the history of the trivium is being made from a grammatical point of view. Exposition and interpretation of stated doctrines are grammatical problems; and derivative philosophy and almost all histories of philosophy are the products of grammarians” (The Classical Trivium — The Place of Thomas Nashe in the Learning of His Time, 2006, 42). Hence, Keats’ “negative capability” can be defined in ‘trivial’ terms as follows: it unfolds “when a (hu)man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, (grammar) without any irritable reaching-after-fact (rhetoric) & reason (dialectic)“. Such a “capability” may therefore be termed an incomplete (hence its “uncertainties, mysteries, doubts” ) intuition of a complete domain. So, for example, when the elements of geometry or of chemistry were first hypothesized, millennia apart, they were not by any means known in their complete range. But the implicated intuition of those ranges was wondrously accurate, so that they were able to supply frameworks for endless investigation in the future. Endless investigation, that is, exactly of their “uncertainties, mysteries, doubts”. McLuhan’s 1960 proposal for “understanding media” represented a comparable flyer.
  6. McLuhan’s considerations of a superposition would increasingly turn on ‘repetition’ verbs like ‘recur’, ‘retrace’, ‘recognize’, ‘retrieve’. Implicated questions were: when does this repetition take place? how? ‘who’ does it?
  7. Keats’ “negative capability” from a December 1817 letter to his brothers would have been generally familiar at Cambridge. It is noteworthy, however, that McLuhan’s friend and sometime adviser, Muriel Bradbrook, cites it in her 1936 School of Night: “(Ralegh) possessed the faculty which Keats thought of the first necessity for a man of achievement, ‘negative capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason’.” (64) There are many reasons to believe that Bradbrook’s little book, although it is not in McLuhan’s library at UT, and whose theses have largely been rejected by scholarship, influenced McLuhan decisively for the rest of his life.
  8. This formulation is particularly close to the superposition specification in physics of orientation in quantum particles.