To Feel Them Full:
Reading Empathy in Keats
When you read a lot of poetry, people tend to assume that you have grasped something ineffable. They might remark that you are a sensitive and empathetic person because you have spent so much of your life in the minds of others. As a reader, I will admit to sensitivity, but the suggestion that I am empathetic, or that I have accessed authors’ minds through their words, gives me pause. Merriam-Webster proffers two definitions of empathy: first, the capacity to experience vicariously the feelings, thoughts, or experiences of another; second, the imaginative projection of a subjective state onto an object. So, when we engage in empathy, do we take another into ourselves, or do we project our subjective state outward? The definitions conflict on a basic level, pointing out a larger cultural uncertainty around the concept. Can we actually access another’s interior life, or do we just imagine we can? How do people — especially writers and readers — relate to one another?
A historical comparison might help us clarify our thoughts about feelings. The emotional buzzword of the Romantic Era was “sympathy,” which signifies something subtly but significantly different from empathy. Sympathy suggests a shared affinity or sensitivity that causes two people to react to the same influence in a similar way; empathy refers to the ability to feel what others feel, to step inside them. Sympathy makes humbler claims regarding what we can know about others. It notes how one cause provokes a similar effect in two different people, but it leaves the mystery of the psychic relationship between them intact.
The poet’s disembodied hand 'haunts' readers, as ghosts — like poems — violate the boundaries of seemingly solid forms and the constraints of mortality.
John Keats (1795-1821), a poet both Romantic and romantic, has a reputation for “empathy,” even though that word first appeared in English nearly a century after his death. “If a Sparrow come before my Window,” he had told a friend, “I take part in its existence and pick about the gravel.” Still, like writers of the past and present, he possessed a desire for something like an induced empathy — the ability to situate an entire world in readers’ minds with just his art. In a letter to J.H. Reynolds, Keats states, “for axioms in philosophy are not axioms until they are proved upon our pulses: We read fine—–things but never feel them the full until we have gone through the same steps as the author.” My question is whether an author can make us follow in his steps so that we “feel them the full.” Can a poet induce in his reader the shared psychic state we call empathy?
Keats typically approached his empathetic aspirations with joy and generosity, but in its darkest manifestation, the desire to partake in another’s experience is a coercive impulse. Shared affinity becomes a matter of influence, and empathy becomes a tool of power. Few poems embody that desire for power better than Keats’s fragment, “This living hand” (1819). The bloody imagery of this poem alludes to a melding of reader and poet that suggests “empathy,” but contains a clear edge of desire and resentment:
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-calm’d — see here it is —
I hold it towards you.
Blood transfusions were cutting-edge medicine in Keats’s time — the first successful human transfusion took place in 1795, and the first scholarly article on the topic appeared in 1818. Blood was thought by some scientists to be the vital principle itself. As a student apothecary and surgeon, Keats would have been aware of these developments. The particular bitterness of this poem derives from the suggestion that the speaker can only be revived by the addressee’s transfusion, a sacrifice that will leave her “dry of blood.” (We do not know who Keats’s intended reader was, but scholars are often tempted to view it as meant for the poet’s fiancée, Fanny Brawne.) Why would the speaker’s hand “haunt” and “chill” the addressee, if there were not some perceived wrong that the speaker feels must be righted through this transference? The speaker does not specify the slight, but the intimacy of bodily transfusion and of haunting, the passion behind “earnest grasping” and “red blood,” and the supposed desire of the addressee to sacrifice herself, all suggest a close relationship.
When we read Keats’s words, do we revive a piece of his mind? In being read, does Keats flex his power over us from the icy silence of the tomb?
Upon close reading, however, the speaker envisions not an actual blood transfusion from the addressee’s heart to the speaker’s veins, but attempts to plant a fantasy of self-abnegation in the reader, to stack a dream inside a dream like a set of Russian nesting dolls. There is the poem itself, its own world, and the wish inside the poem — a wish that belongs to the speaker but is projected upon the addressee and reader quite successfully. Keats writes his own reader into being, while we as readers easily place ourselves in the position of the addressee. The shifts from present to conditional tense in the second line and from conditional to present in the seventh occur so quickly that the poem gains extra immediacy by seeming to unfold in the present, rather than in the fantasyland of the conditional. Keats uses his insistent, sometimes ghoulish, bodily imagery to push against the boundaries between his fantasies and those of others.
Reader and writer always perform a kind of dance: the writer attempting to impress an image or idea into the reader, even from beyond the grave; the reader animating static words on a page to give the writer new life. Yet in this work, it feels as if the poet manipulates us to an unusual degree. The intensity of its imagery and the insistence on the poet’s disembodied hand — his offering of it — make conventional boundaries between poet, speaker, reader, and addressee shift and blur. “Hand” signified both a body part and handwriting in Keats’s day, and the poet insists that a writer’s words can outlive him. The poet’s disembodied hand “haunts” readers, as ghosts — like poems — violate the boundaries of seemingly solid forms and the constraints of mortality. When we read Keats’s words, do we revive a piece of his mind? In being read, does Keats flex his power over us from the icy silence of the tomb? These elements imply an interpenetration of reader and author, an experience that suggests that poetry can erode the borders of the self, and even the perception of time.
“This living hand” opens and closes with an image of the speaker’s hand. It is “capable of earnest grasping,” but what does it grasp? Presumably, the poet-speaker holds a pen, yet Keats’s final image is of the hand held toward the reader. Does the poet’s hand grasp for us or offer itself up? While Keats’s language is pointedly neutral, the combination of resentment and desire in the poem suggests a gesture of desperation. We still channel the author Keats through his words, but the historical John Keats could not know that his poetry, particularly this scrap jotted on the manuscript of another poem, would gain an audience. He had little earthly fame at his death; his only power either to console or control resided in his writing, his ability to influence others with his words. To compel a fantasy is a coercive ambition, and perhaps illustrative of the power dynamic embedded in our largely white, male canon. But Keats’s desire is also sympathetic, coming from a poet so dogged by death. Is his aim in this poem so far from the aim of “good” poems that are somehow less manipulative? Is his desire so foreign to us? I think not.
I once debated the nature of empathy with a writer friend I thought I loved. I insisted that we were all our own primary subjects. “Even writing about someone else, it’s all what we imagine or project onto them,” I claimed. “Empathy is an extension of our sense of self to include others, rather than a dissection of others’ psyches.”
“I think of empathy as the ability to feel what someone else feels,” he replied. “It’s the most beautiful thing in the world. It’s not taking someone else into you — it’s you, moving out into the world. True honesty. Real vulnerability. It’s the thing that keeps us all together.”
Even in conversation with someone I hoped would become a lover, I was skeptical of any straightforward connection between minds or bodies. Selves appear so ephemeral, to chart the borders of your own self with the precision necessary to define it — let alone to enter into someone else’s contours — seems incredible. It would be arrogant to assume that level of understanding. But I longed for it, even as I let the subject go.
I might not believe that empathy in the sense of shared consciousness exists, but Keats challenges my skepticism. In his best poetry, I not only feel his presence but believe that he has willed me into his work as well. All great poetry can attain a similar effect, yet “This Living Hand” is special because I fight with it. Keats’s power game makes me feel as if I have squared off with him, wrestled with an angel of poetry, and awoken stunned and perplexed. There is something almost supernatural at work between our minds, even if materially speaking there is only ink on paper. Is this a trick, or is it the essence of poetry?
Keats's power game makes me feel as if I have squared off with him, wrestled with an angel of poetry...
Mary Huber is a freelance editor focused on art writing and criticism. She has previously worked for Hauser & Wirth, David Zwirner Books, and frieze magazine.