On Poetry’s “Pure Serene”

/ /

Keats’s sonnet “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer” is the first great poem by this much beloved poet, which seems only right and fitting: the poem’s impetus and core is his relation of a conscience-altering experience with poetry. Homer’s epic plain, that “wide expanse,” was, on this particular occasion, part Ancient Troy, part folio page, part single-family dwelling, Clerkenwell, Central London, in the small hours of a cool October night in 1816. Keats was in the company of his friend and former tutor, Charles Cowden Clarke. The phrase from the poem I quote in my title is Keats’s way of characterizing the atmosphere—the mental, physical, spiritual space he entered—on that momentous night, when, with Clarke, he read from George Chapman’s translations of The Iliad and The Odyssey till dawn, then walked home and, still enthralled, drafted this monument to what had happened to him.

The phrase has come to represent in my mind not just the atmosphere of Homer’s epics but the entire meditative preserve accessible through poetry in general and through poetry alone. My “pure serene” comprises the quiet, intimate, at once sensuous and cerebral space a reader may enter when immersed in a poem, especially one from the printed page; the “demesne” the reader inhabits that is at once the world of the poem, the world of the page, and the objective world that includes the page. Poetry’s pure serene: it’s a world we sometimes enter almost as if we were being absorbed into the page itself, descending into the white space between printed lines, printed letters. And it’s my guess that the phenomenological reality of that world is one of the hooks which poetry on the page sinks into people who become lovers of it, a lack of contact with it one of the reasons keeping many would-be readers of poetry from the enjoyment and enrichment poetry on the page might provide.

But I’d like to disambiguate between that experience of reading from printed books which is so often sentimentalized—the smell of ink, paper, and glue; the heft and visual stimuli—and the kind of experience I’m talking about, though admittedly the latter owes something to the sensory impressions of the former. Frances Mayes points out that the first line of Keats’s sonnet, “Much have I travell’d in the realms of gold,” may refer among other things to the “gilt on the sides of books,” so maybe Keats wanted to include his physical response to reading as well as his spiritual and intellectual responses. Anyway, my subject involves both a mental space and a sensuous one. At its meditative best poetry’s pure serene offers something that will seldom ever come through an electronic screen. It is not only too quiet, too analog; it is also too solitary (even when that solitude may be accompanied by another reader—like Keats’s Charles Cowden Clarke—who becomes through the reading experience an extension of oneself). The reader wanders into the world of the poem and the world of the page, then kicks out even the poet and resides alone.

Here’s the passage from Keats’s poem:

Oft of one wide expanse had I been told That deep-brow’d Homer ruled as his demesne; Yet did I never breathe its pure serene Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:

Notice that for Keats the “pure serene” is something a person may “breathe,” like air, or maybe “the ether.” He likens it to a physical experience and to the senses, as he does in the poem’s conclusion, where he pictures for us those Spaniards first encountering the Pacific Ocean looking “at each other with a wild surmise— / Silent, upon a peak in Darien.” Significant, perhaps also, is the way Keats’s line corresponds to Ovid’s assertion in the Tristia that good poetry, the best poetry, only comes from a sereno, literally “cloudless,” mind (Carmina proveniunt animo deducto sereno; / nubila sunt subitis tempora nostra malis…), and reminds me also of Seamus Heaney’s remark that a poet should approach the writing of poetry in a state of complete “insouciance,” a word whose French etymological root means “untroubled, undisturbed,” like a cloudless sky. In a videotaped interview from 1984, Heaney quotes the actual phrase “pure serene,” likening it to Czeslaw Milosz’s “motionless point,” the timeless universal which, Heaney asserts, “really is the function of the artist to contemplate,” even while acknowledging that at times of great suffering a poet’s indifference to that suffering “seems an affront to human life.” Thus, both for poet and reader, the pure serene is a quiet, uncluttered, untroubled physical and mental space perfect for silent meditation.

In his essay “Keats’s Chapman’s Homer, Justice’s Henry James,” William Logan writes off Keats’s “pure serene” as “romantic guff,” but he does offer information useful to my discussion, calling it

perhaps a nod to Coleridge’s “Hymn Before Sun-Rise” or Henry Cary’s translation of Dante, which Keats owned and where the phrase occurs twice. Through the previous century, the phrase appeared often enough in scientific and medical papers or travel journals as an adjectival phrase describing the atmosphere (“the sudden mixture of the pure serene air above the clouds”) [Stephen Hales, Statical Essays: Containing Haemastatics, 2nd edition (London, 1740). Logan’s endnote].

That quote from Hales, “the sudden mixture of the pure serene air above the clouds,” is so close to a metaphor for the experience I’m talking about I could almost forgive Logan his slight of Keats’s language for having uncovered it. But that’s it, or something like it: a “simplifying quiet,” as Logan calls it elsewhere in the essay, a place where, as I would put it, Frost’s “stay against confusion” might occur; on a lyric poem’s island of crisp type surrounded by a sea of white space.

I don’t intend this as an argument for printed books. It’s an exploration of an experience I’ve had reading poetry, on hundreds? thousands? of occasions, and that I suspect others have had as well. And I don’t like the idea of reading or writing as therapy, which seems reductive, trivializing, if not in fact bone-headed, like recommending sex for its cardiovascular benefits, or riding a motorcycle to save gas. People who say they don’t like poetry make me think they must not have ever breathed the pure serene, and that’s too bad. Further, it makes me wonder how that problem might be corrected—for them and for young people who might be given a lifetime of satisfaction, enrichment, and joy if they could only somehow be nudged toward having an experience like Keats had, like I’ve had, like many—most?—other lovers of poetry have had: the experience of poetry’s pure serene.

One of the reasons this phenomenon occurs with poetry and not prose is the obvious one that poetry invites prolonged concentration on small parcels of language, in fact almost demands that readers, upon finishing the last line of a poem, immediately return to the top and start over. And in doing so for the purpose of reading poetry and losing myself in the world of the poem and the world of the page I can achieve a way of being alone with myself I have found nowhere else. I’m in the world of the poem, it is almost real to me; and I am in the world of the page, which is before my eyes, illuminated by the light in the room, and the page is a part of a book whose weight I can feel in my hand. I’m both in the room, under a reading lamp or beside a window, and also slowly, simultaneously immersed in a sensation of having entered the page, as if I were walking around among the poem’s printed letters, the white space between lines become an aisle, the words structures, the experience of reading heightened, become meditative. I’ve entered a different realm, poetry’s pure serene. It’s been said that every poem creates its own world, its own dimension. Of necessity that world will have some basis in the world we all know and refer to as “reality.” I’m asserting yet another dimension.

Experienced readers of poetry on the printed page who then encounter poems on sites like or will find off-putting video insets or ads, poor page-proofing, and the general clutter of a commercial webpage, and even when the poem is presented as just black type on a white screen, readers must resist scrolling too far down to spare themselves the comments section. But therein lies the problem, I think: we know there’s bound to be a comments section, feel that the poem has been reduced to something that appears on a screen. It’s somewhat like the phenomenon of hearing a favorite song on the radio and knowing unseen others are sharing the experience. Except that, in this case, rather than making the experience exhilarating, it makes it a little depressing. Although there are certainly pleasures to be enjoyed by the communal experience of the poetry recitation, and these pleasures antedate the written word, the reader who loves a poem also wants to be alone with it, which is one of the ways, maybe, poems are different from the songs that make up contemporary popular music.

My characterization of the poetry reading experience may sound frivolous, but I don’t believe it is. Because a reader can’t step into poem’s physical space without simultaneously stepping into its thematic space, the poet’s donnée. This is not a parlor game, no form of escape. Rather, it’s a way of climbing inside this other dimension—the world of the poem + the world of the page + the world we live in—and through a kind of osmosis absorbing them, having our sensibility rearranged, and exiting in slightly altered form. Because, again, printed poetry itself offers something that cannot be found anywhere else and though it may not be primary to human existence, it is real and, as many centuries of readership testify, profound.

Although her aims are different from those I’m pursuing in this essay, G. Gabrielle Starr, in her book Feeling Beauty: The Neuroscience of Aesthetic Experience, may shed some light on poetry’s pure serene. She notes, for instance, that motion and motor imagery are central to poetry because, like music, poetry “is metrical, involving temporal regularity as well as moments of surprise,” and she further explains that “visual imagery and vision may feed into or build on motor imagery because vision allows for (and in sighted persons is preparatory to) motion.” Thus, our seeing a poem’s lines on the page, those lines having rhythm, and our associating rhythm with movement are likely part of the equation. These factors come together during the act of reading poetry and are joined by a given poem’s imagery as well as its ideas and emotions to create an experience involving the body and mind in a fashion unique to poetry.

Experiencing poetry’s pure serene is a way of our both inhabiting a given poem and having the poem inhabit us. It happens, this phenomenon, when the poem’s effect on us is such that we want to possess it somehow. We want to make it a part of us. Elaine Scarry, in Dreaming by the Book, asserts that flower imagery’s ubiquity in poetry—as well as its appeal, its resonance and power—results from the flower’s being the perfect representation of the imagination. Scarry explains that as readers we “interiorize the flower—we seize upon the flower as the proper object of the imagination—because it expresses the distinct quality of cognition at work in imagining.” This may remind some readers of Novalis’s “blue flower,” which he conceived as the poet’s inspiration because it represents something not quite attainable, the vague object toward which the imagination drives, a symbol for the soul’s yearning in its terrestrial reflection of the heavens. But the poem itself, I might add, is also the perfect representation of the imagination, because, as Scarry further notes, poems are different from works of prose. Both are made of “monotonous small black marks on a white page,” but unlike prose, poetry contains instructions for making sound, “like the musical score . . . the page does not itself sing but exists forever on the verge of song.” She goes on to note that “because of the sound of the poem, the palpable touch of the interior parts of the mouth glancing across one another even in silent reading, and because of the visual scanning of the lines, the material surface of the poem is closer to the material surface of” a painting than is prose. Like a painting, then, a printed poem has a physical presence, and like a piece of music, a poem has the ability to move the reader just by its sound. If we consider seriously Walter Pater’s assertion that music is the art toward which all others aspire because of its ability to communicate directly, without the need to represent anything, poetry goes visual art one better by combining both visual and auditory stimuli. And, of course, on the printed page, it also offers a tactile stimulus, not to mention an olfactory one that many readers will associate with the artistic work itself.

As it does with beautiful flowers, the brain of the lover of poetry, upon finding a new poem it admires, wants to interiorize it, ingest it, possess it. True lovers of poetry want to make the poems they love part of themselves, which is why they commit them to memory, so that they can carry them around always. Additionally, their interiorizing of these poems—chosen for various reasons: their perceived beauty, for instance, or their ideas or emotions, but perhaps most especially because of their mystery—may be a result of their attempts to unlock the poems, to solve that mystery. Nick Hornby, in Song Book, a collection of essays about his favorite pop tunes, attributes to Dave Eggers the idea that the reason we become obsessed with new songs we like and want to hear them over and over is that we want to ascertain for ourselves what it is about them that makes them so compelling to us. It’s the old never-ending cycle: we’re compelled to listen to them over and over to discover what it is about them that makes us want to listen to them over and over. Except that, as Hornby admits, with most pop songs we eventually unravel the mystery and lose our desire to hear them repeatedly, and sometimes even to ever hear them again at all.

Not so, I think, with the poems we fall hard for. Not only do we want to ingest and interiorize them, not only do we commit them to memory—at least our favorite lines, though oftentimes in their entirety—we still want to return to them on the page. And this I think is an aspect unique to the reading of poetry and to the kind of experience it can offer: when lovers of poetry return, on the page, to a favorite poem they’ve long-since committed to memory, it’s because they wish to be absorbed in poetry’s pure serene. They want to see the lines and stanzas, the words and letters, the white space. They want to reenter the world of the poem + the world of the page + the world we live in. Reciting silently, in our heads, a poem we love while enduring the multiple annoyances of, say, an airport gate lounge can be both calming and enjoyable. Reciting aloud a poem we love to like-minded friends at a dinner party can be fun, rewarding, and meaningful, and may spark or add to an interesting conversation. But just as with a song we’ve heard so many times we can call it up at will in the jukebox of our heads, there’s no match for being alone with it in its proper state—present in space, concrete, physical.

Robert Frost’s “Mowing” occupies an important place in my poetical experience. It’s the poem that helped me internalize the idea that a great poem is not only a melding of sound and sense, it’s a song in which sound and sense are the same thing. One cannot be separated from the other. The sound a poem makes is also the sense it makes. And “Mowing” is still one of my favorite poems, representing for me what “Thunder Road” represents for Nick Hornby—the track he says he’s listened to more than any other—except that, whereas Hornby does find estimable fault with Springsteen’s anthemic song, I don’t have a single, substantive complaint about Frost’s marvelous early sonnet.

Here it is as you can find it innumerable places, though unfortunately some of them, including the first American edition of A Boy’s Will from Henry Holt (1915), cannot accommodate its longer lines and the ends of some of them have to be dropped and indented; and being able to follow those lines all the way to their end in one, long throw is the best possible circumstance:


There was never a sound beside the wood but one, And that was my long scythe whispering to the ground. What was it it whispered? I knew not well myself; Perhaps it was something about the heat of the sun, Something, perhaps, about the lack of sound— And that was why it whispered and did not speak. It was no dream of the gift of idle hours, Or easy gold at the hand of fay or elf: Anything more than the truth would have seemed too weak To the earnest love that laid the swale in rows, Not without feeble-pointed spikes of flowers (Pale orchises), and scared a bright green snake. The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows. My long scythe whispered and left the hay to make.

I love the poem’s quietness, its solemn, earnest tone, the physical world it creates through its imagery and invites the reader into. I love its particular stays against confusion, the most prominent of which have to do with the satisfactions of physical labor, the particular satisfaction of mowing high grass and leaving its cuttings to dry, the sensory impressions of working alone in a quiet place, the kind of personal reflection inherent in such a situation. I love the long throw of those pentameter lines, several of which contain twelve and one even thirteen syllables, their anapestic substitutions being central to the particular rhythm the poem achieves. That Frost is able to close it out with a line that both provides an image and drives home the poem’s major theme makes it one of the most satisfying poems I know.

But what is more important is how these characteristics invite readers into the poem’s pure serene. It’s a whole world on a page. I cannot separate my enjoyment of the poem, my admiration for it, the satisfaction and solace it provides me, from its existence as a physical object, both directions for a voicing and a monument to visit and revisit throughout my life. To immerse myself in it is, partly, to enter that page, to enter it the same way I would, say, a hay meadow beside a stand of trees where I have several hours of lonely manual labor ahead of me. Finishing my work and returning home, if someone were to ask me what it meant, the only legitimate way I could answer would be to tell them, “You had to be there.” In other words, you had to have been alone in that hay meadow, had to have felt the weight of the scythe, the burning sensation in your muscles. You had to have heard its whispering sound. You had to have felt the heat of the sun and had to have felt the silence of that wood. And about what the poem itself means? There is likewise no substitution for experiencing it in the flesh, on the page. One has to walk among those words and letters, come to the end of those lines and turn back to start the next one. Those marks of punctuation—the colon at the end of line eight, for instance—are like bright green snakes. In fact, line twelve’s “bright green snake” is like a bright green snake, startling readers when they scare it out of hiding. Moreover, Frost embeds in the poem a direct connection between the physical landscape the sonnet describes and the graphic landscape of a poem, a “swale in rows”—that is, a meadow with its tall grass laid in relatively even rows through the pattern of the mower’s action—being a kind of simulacrum of lines on a page, and vice versa. As a good classicist, Frost could not fail to see the connection between his lines and the origin of the word verse, derived from versus, the “turn” a farmer makes at the end of a row.

In the episode on Frost in the Voices & Visions PBS documentary series produced in the 1980s, the filmmakers dramatize the “scene” the speaker presents in “Mowing,” showing a lone mower in a field working with his scythe. They also quote a letter from Frost to a friend in which he confesses about the poem “I come so near what I long to get that I almost despair of coming nearer.” But in light of my argument, one of the more interesting aspects of the presentation is how the filmmakers choose to superimpose the poem over the dramatized scene and have it move toward the viewer while a recorded recitation by Frost plays as a voice over—until its words and lines literally seem to pass through the screen, as if the viewer were entering the poem’s physical space. As if the filmmakers were trying to replicate the experience of entering poetry’s pure serene.

To enter poetry’s pure serene is to enter—mentally and physically, sensuously and cerebrally—the poem, and to have the poem simultaneously enter us. I believe that all other encounters with poetry—even live recitations by the poets themselves—are inferior to the experience of being alone with it on the page, absorbed in its black marks on white paper, absorbed in the world of the poem + the world of the page + the world we live in. The poem’s voice, tone, imagery, ideas, and emotions are part of it. How it looks on the page is part of it. Where the reader is physically, mentally, and emotionally upon entry is part of it. But where all those things come together, in poetry’s pure serene, is a place unique in the universe.