‘Iago as much as Imogen’
Moby Dick Arises from the Deep, Gilbert Wilson
From The Chronicle Review:
The poet most likely to practice and evoke ethical imagination is not “poetical,” in the sense of flamboyant or opinionated. Thinking of Shakespeare, Keats, who was Shelley‘s contemporary, claimed that the most powerful versifier “has no identity” at all, for “he is continually … filling some other body.” He inhabits shade as much as light, Iago as much as Imogen.
The chameleonesque Keats had a preternatural talent for this “negative capability,” his phrase describing the ability to be “in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” Adept at suspending the prejudices that so often accompany dogmatic surety, especially in moral contexts, he could adapt to myriad perspectives, and relished doing so.
As a close friend once reported, Keats, while describing his appreciation of Spenser’s description of a whale, “hoisted himself up, and looked burly and dominant, as he said, ‘what an image that is—sea-shouldering whales!’” Keats could expand into a leviathan; he could also contract, telling another friend that he was able to imagine a billiard ball delighting in “its own roundness, smoothness and rapidity of its motion.” He felt himself transmuted in other instances into a tormented bear, a sparrow picking at gravel, and a woman whose leopardlike seductiveness caused him to “forget [him]self entirely” and “live in her.”
Neither Keats’s nor Shelley’s ethics of identification justifies nefarious behavior, of course. True, the empathetic imagination, as Keats claims, can shock the “virtuous philosopher.” But just because a poet occupies an Iago or a Robespierre doesn’t mean that she endorses the villain’s actions. The purpose of suspending stereotypes is to make one more sensitive to the irreducible intricacies of the real, and so be better able to forge informed judgments about what is right and wrong.