Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Why Do I Laugh Tonight - No Voice Will Tell

I came across this short poem by John Keats the other day, Why Do I Laugh Tonight - No Voice Will Tell. It is short, so I will repeat it without the risk of putting you, gentle reader, to sleep.

Why did I laugh tonight? No voice will tell
No God, no demon of severe response
Deigns to reply from heaven or from hell
Then to my human heart I turn at once:
Heart, thou and I are here, sad and alone,
Say, why did I laugh? O mortal pain!
O darkness! darkness! Forever must I moan
To question heaven and hell and heart in vain?
Why did I laugh? I know this being's lease
My fancy to it's utmost blisses spreads
Yet would I on this very midnight cease
And all the world's gaudy ensigns see in shreds
Verse, fame and beauty are intense indeed
But death intenser, death is life's high meed.
John Keats was a Romantic English poet who barely made it to his 25th year. He travelled to Italy because he suffered from tuberculosis. His death was rapidly aided by his doctors who treated him for this condition by starving him for a stomach condition and bleeding him to reduce the phlegm that the tuberculosis created. In part, Keats' obsession with mortality stems from the early deaths of his mother and father when Keats was 8 and 14 years of age. As a Romantic poet, Keats railed against the cynically objectivity of the Enlightenment philosophers like Voltaire. Keats died in Italy in 1821. The hope of a rational age during the Enlightenment ended with Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo in 1815. Some would argue it ended earlier when Napoleon exchanged the idea of "Liberty, Equality, and Brotherhood" for Empire. Equally culpable, was the rise of Capitalism which mad rich men richer and the poor poorer. Life, as Thomas Hobbes had remarked earlier in another century, "Short, nasty, and brutish."

In Why Do I Laugh, Keats ponders the unknowable question of God's existence. He answers  with his own cynical existentialist response - because I am here.

A cynic is often described as one who is scornfully and habitually negative. There is nothing new in cynicism.The ancient Greeks coined the phrase. Voltaire as a pre-eminent philosopher of the Enlightenment, epitomized the word, combining it with his own touch of satire. For example, his phrase "It is the best of world's and couldn't possibly be better," from Candide, is in fact a statement of the opposite. The world is utterly cruel and deprived and all within it vile and self-possessed.

John Keats might have altered the delivery of the message, but the cynicism is still there. Death is intense in its effect than greater than the laughter that short life can bring.Where does all of this leave us. Does it matter what philosophy we adopt? Is life so short and so cruel as to not matter? Perhaps the answer lies in the last lines of another of Keats' poems, Ode on a Grecian Urn. "Truth is beauty, beauty is truth, that is all ye know, and all ye need to know." Laugh because it feels good.

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