Allen Ginsberg on “The History of Poetry” continues from here
AG: Move on to.. There are certain things in Shelley that should be noted. You had the “Ode to the West Wind”. There is a great thing called “The Hymn to Intellectual Beauty” – again Neo-Platonic. It’s actually very similar to what Wordsworth said in the “Intimations of Immortality” except it’s a little bit more abstracted in Shelley. It’s like trying to break through consciousness to another level of consciousness, to some sort of abstracted Platonic eidolonic intellectual beauty – not the beauty of “Green to the very door“, or “sportive woods run wild”, or “star-shaped shadow of blossom on a white stone’ – an absolute beauty, simple, pure, uncontaminated with a mixture of human flesh and colors. But actually it’s the same thing as Wordsworth, because Wordsworth, by then, had so abstracted his notion of mind-manifestation, that, in poetry, looking back on it, saying you can’t get it again, Shelley’s doing it too. A young fellow, too. Very early already he was sort of giving up. 1816. [Allen reads, in its entirety, Shelley’s “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty”, pausing only twice, to note, in the third stanza, “Thy light alone” – “Intellectual beauty – thy light alone..”, and stanza 5, “I called on poisonous names on which our youth is fed” – “David Bowie, or something – I called on poisonous names on which our youth is fed” – The poem concludes “Whom SPIRIT fair, thy spells did bind/ To fear himself, and love all human kind.”] – That’s a really powerful moment. That’s total inspiration. He couldn’t be sharper or more brilliant, like the title, “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty”. “I shrieked and clasped my hands in ecstacy” – There’s nobody in English poesy who was so overt, so far-out, so flipped out, so open, so unspeakably enthusiastic, so completely given to his inspiration. So Shelley is the angel poet in that sense, because his head is the most transparent and purely luminous of all the poets.
Later on in the 19th Century, there are a lot of more mature, duller, souls, who didn’t have the same transcendental insight as Shelley. Actually Shelley was a great scholar, who knew all the Gnostic writings, incidentally (Shelley knew that myth of the Garden of Eden that I was speaking of). He was a great learned scholar in transcendental mysteries and had gone through all of the books of Thomas Taylor, the Platonist (Thomas Taylor, being a man who had assembled all of the fragments of Gnostic writings from the Ancients, including the Delphic Oracle texts, little fragments of Pythagorus, like, “Everything we look upon when awake is death, and when asleep, dream”. Pythagorus – “Everything we look upon when awake is death, and when asleep, dream” – Thomas Taylor. Taylor was a scholar of Blake’s time (or earlier) who assembled all these magical fragments, put them together translated into books, and these books circulated into Blake’s hands, into Shelley’s hands, into Coleridge‘s hands. The American cat who was on a commune in New England, Bronson Alcott, went to England, specifically, to collect all Thomas Taylor’s writings and bring them back for the Brook Farm Commune experiment [sic – Allen confuses Alcott’s “Fruitlands” with George Ripley‘s Brook Farm experiment here]. Do you know Brook Farm, the 19th Century American Transcendentalist Communard Free Love Doing-What-We’re-Doing-Now (Commune)? It was one of the first experiments, or among the first experiments, in communal consciousness-raising, drawing from Vedantic and Vedas and Vedantic texts, also drawing from the Western Vedanta, or Western Gnostics. Alcott brought these texts back and loaned them to (Ralph Waldo) Emerson who made his little notes in them. Probably the reached Herman Melville too. And in Melville’s crazy, cranky novel, Pierre (or (is it in) The Confidence Man?), there’s a funny chapter on the Gnostic philosopher, Plotinus Pliniemon, who hangs around Wall Street, accosting people, trying to sell his pamphlet about the nature of the illusory universe. So what I’m trying to point out is that there is this tradition in the West of doubt as to the reality of things and understanding that things really are here, actually.
Student: That line from “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty” where he says, “Depart not – lest the grave should be/ Like life and fear, a dark reality” doesn’t seem to doubt the idea of life and fear at any rate.
AG: No, except he says life is a dark reality, fear is a dark reality, the grave is a dark reality, but, you, Intellectual Beauty, come and wipe all this out. And shine from the top of the skull, and illumine me with some transcendental insight, where my life-fear and all that will be just shadows of one illumination from the central source of the Universe. And for a definition of that, the last stanzas of “Adonais” are the best statement of what he finally concluded.
My original intention was to read all of “Adonais” aloud, because I think it’s one of the strongest mantras in the English language, but I’m respecting also the notion of my getting it on, and getting on to modern stuff. I’ll just read the last seven or eight stanzas, or whatever will state his case. It’s an elegy on the death of his friend John Keats. It was written after Keats’ death. He was mad because he thought Keats had been put down by the Academy, or by the book-reviewers – had been a neglected poet. Keats was actually a really beautiful perfect observant mellow kid poet, died young, 24, but totally mellow. His mind was exact – right here on the world. He was able to write about a wine-glass – “beaded bubbles winking at the brim” – where is that? (well, we’ll find it later) – What is the line, “beaded bubbles winking at the brim”? A wine-glass with “beaded bubbles winking at the brim” – That’s a really perfect observation (like “Green to the very door”). In other words, the whole point of poetics is to get inspiration you have to tie your mind down also to totally accurate observation of what’s in front of your eyes. Imagism, in a sense. So Keats, a great poet, and Shelley, who knew him, his friend, cursing the world for killing Keats, calling on the Gods to take him to some place of honor. The opening stanza I’ll read and then I’ll get into a later stanza [Allen reads the opening stanza of Shelley’s “Adonais”, followed by stanzas 39 to 55 – “The soul of Adonais, like a star/ Beacons from the abode where the Eternal are”] – He made it again. And at the very instant of making it, “The breath might I have invoked in song/ Descends on me” – so he’s named his inspiration.
Student: Is that the whole poem?
AG: No, I just read the last half. The first stanza and the last half. But it’s worth hearing the whole thing, because it builds up to the cum in the very end [tape ends here].