The Keats essay from 1943

McLuhan’s January 1943 essay on Keats1 is an important milestone on his way in many respects. For one thing, it was doubtless organized by Father Gerald Phelan as part of a plan to secure an appointment for McLuhan in Toronto. Three years later the plan would be brought to completion and McLuhan would then spend the remaining three and half decades of his life teaching there.

For another, the Keats essay was exemplary of a whole series of portraits in English literature written by McLuhan. These had begun when McLuhan was not yet 20 with ‘Macaulay: What a Man!‘ (for the The Manitoban student newspaper).2 Then his first published paper outside of Manitoba student organs was another portrait of another Englishman, ‘G. K. Chesterton: A Practical Mystic’ in 1936.3

At Cambridge and in his first teaching positions at the University of Wisconsin and St Louis University, McLuhan continued to draft such portraits which came to include (often focused on a single work) Wordsworth, Coleridge, Southey, Byron and Shelley as well as Keats. Together these portraits were called Character Anthology and are preserved today in McLuhan’s papers in Ottawa. In the 1940s, although he may never have brought it into definitive shape, the ambition was to publish the anthology and McLuhan solicited the aid of Sigfried Giedion and Cleanth Brooks and doubtless others in this hope — which was never fulfilled. It may be that his 1944 Kenyon Review essay on Hopkins began its life in this same context, as in all probability did his three published pieces on Tennyson.4

Also preserved in Ottawa are a great many finished and unfinished pieces on Eliot, few of which ever saw the light of day. McLuhan intended to bring them together in a portrait volume to be called Great Tom. He also did many pieces on Wyndham Lewis, at least three of which were published.5

In all of this, McLuhan was continuing the work of his mother, Elsie.  What she had done in sound portraits, he did in visual literary ones. But he, too, loved to imitate the voices of people like Eliot and Lewis. It may be, indeed, that around 1960 he was finally able to realize his project of ‘understanding media’, when he came to perceive how sound and sight are not alternate modes of information coding, but are both present in all human experience as a co-variable ratio:

The break-through in media study has come at last, and it can be stated as the principle of complementarity: that the structural impact of any situation is subjectively completed as to the cycle of the senses. (McLuhan to Bernard Muller-Thym, February 19th, 1960)6 

It is remarkable that one of the central points of this thesis — that the eye and the ear together might serve to focus the collective study of experience — was already present in germ in the Keats essay. McLuhan noted “the delightful visual and auditory life” (103) in Ode to a Nightingale and the associated contrast in it of “the superior senses of eye and ear”  to “the lower senses of taste and touch” (ibid). 

Important steps on his way in the next two decades would be the realization that he himself in his pursuit of the literary life was dominated by the eye and by print — by the Gutenberg galaxy — and that he therefore needed to balance that dominance with an appreciation of “acoustic space”. This would not come for another decade with Carl Williams’ suggestion of this possibility in a 1954 meeting of the culture and communication seminar. But already in the Keats essay, as a kind of unconscious directive to himself, he observed:

In the case of these odes it is necessary to grasp that the relations between their parts rather resemble the internal structure of a fugue or a sonata than a paragraph of statements. (100)

It was not enough, however, simply to step up appreciation of the auditory relative to the visual. It was also necessary, indeed it was even more important, to realize that it was the hinge between them, their variable relation, that first allowed the required specification and resulting collective study. This was exactly that “complementarity” and “cycle of the senses” that McLuhan would finally come to perceive early in 1960. 

This variable hinge was the medium [that] is the message — a phrase which McLuhan began to emphasize beginning in 1958 — again as a kind of directive to himself that he came fully to understand only two years later. This hinge was often called ‘tactility’ by McLuhan as the nominally sensory7 joint between the eye and ear. Such ‘tactility’ was not one of the lower senses” as he had suggested of touch in the Keats essay, but the very heart of the sensorium through which it ceaselessly transformed.

But here again the Keats essay was prescient and directive. In its concluding remarks on Keats’ Ode to Autumn:

There is here a world of rich organic and tactual awareness… (113)

  1.  University of Toronto Quarterly, 12:2, January 1943, 167-179.
  2. October 28, 1930.
  3. The Dalhousie Review, January 1936. See the Chesterton posts and Innis and McLuhan in 1936 for further discussion.
  4. On Hopkins: ‘The Analogical Mirrors’, The Kenyon Review, VI:3, 1944, 322-332. On Tennyson: ‘Tennyson and Picturesque Poetry’, Essays in Criticism, I:3, 1951, 262–282; ‘Introduction’ to Alfred Lord Tennyson: Selected Poetry, 1955, v-xxiv; ‘Tennyson and the Romantic Epic’, in J. Killham (ed), Critical Essays on the Poetry of Tennyson, 1960, 86-95.
  5. ‘Wyndham Lewis: Lemuel in Lilliput’, Key Thinkers and Modern Thought: St. Louis University Studies in Honour of St. Thomas Aquinas, Volume 2, 1944, 58-72; ‘Wyndham Lewis: His Theory of Art and Communication’, Shenandoah 4.2-3, 1953, 77- 88; ‘Wyndham Lewis’, Atlantic Monthly, December 1969, 93-98.
  6.  Cited in Gordon, Escape into Understanding, 313-314. What McLuhan called “complementarity” and “the cycle of the senses” was just sound and sight as a co-variable ratio of the two in all human experience — like the proton and electron in all physical material.
  7. ‘Nominally sensory’, because the essence of McLuhan’s way of “understanding media” was that “the cycle of the senses” cannot be read from their input, but only from their output.  Hence television was no a visual medium although its input was visual, but ‘tactual’. Symphonic music was not auditory although its input was auditory, but ‘visual’. And so on.