The day before, feeling anxious and needy, and yearning for the consolations of poetry, I had dropped into a bookshop after work, and picked up The Selected Poems of John Keats in Oxford World Classics. Instead of reading, however, I had frittered the evening away on Facebook and other social media. At around midnight I got hooked on a dating website, browsing face after face for that elusive sense of recognition, and at 3 o‘clock in the morning, as so often of late, I was lying in the dark stark staring awake. I tried a few of the poems, but although I heard the sounds, I was too keyed up to enjoy their music. I turned instead to the introduction, hoping, I suppose, for a sense of what I was missing, but it soon became obvious that there was nothing I could read for profit or pleasure. Unable to focus my attention, – craving images, not words, – and a broader bandwidth, perhaps, than poetry provides, – I re-entered the rapids of the internet, my overwrought cortex renouncing control, and yielding instead to the random promptings of the limbic system. I hadn’t given up altogether, however, and in a final, faint-hearted bid to whet my appetite for books, I idly typed ‘Keats’ in the key bar and clicked on Google images. Among the faces that appeared was a photographic portrait, which I knew it could not be since the poet died two decades before the first daguerrotypes.
This, it turned out, was one of several pictures taken from The Somnambulists,¹ a book by Joanna Kane, who had photographed several pieces from the plaster cast collection of the Edinburgh Phrenological Society. The results are haunting and beautiful. Bathed in eery, metallic light, these individuals, some of whom died two hundred years ago, seem at once ghostly and vividly alive.²
I developed a fascination for other such casts of great figures. There was nothing morbid in this. I did not want to see the eyes rolled back in their sockets, or the gaping mouths à la Marat, but to discover what my literary heroes had looked like in the living flesh, before death dissolved their features forever – and, contrary to what I thought at first, these are life masks, not death masks, which to me makes them all the more transfixing and beautiful.
I do wonder, all the same, why I cannot satisfy myself with the body of work, but desire to see or imagine the body of the artist himself, but I am not alone in this regard, as evinced by the long list of movies about famous authors, a genre notable for such hogwash as Nicole Kidman’s aping of Virginia Woolf with tobacco-stained fingers and prosthetic honker, or the kind of girly trash illustrated by the following snippet of dialogue from a recent biopic (2018) : ‘That’s Shelley…’/ ‘Gorgeous, isn’t he?’ But we easily forget that for most of human history literature was in essence an oral phenomenon that required the presence of a physical performer. In Homer, to take a single example, this occurred on festive occasions once the company ‘had put aside desire for food and drink’, the composition declaimed by a storyteller with hand on breast, or sung by a bard accompanying himself on the lyre or kithara. Poetry and narrative (which were not separate genres) served to create a bond between participants, forging a sense of collective identity and extolling the values they shared.
The printing press changed all of that. Reading a book often feels like an act of communion, such is the mysterious power of words, but we read alone, and of the various vehicles for artistic expression, literature has to be the least embodied.³ Hence, no doubt, the survival of the codex in a flood of digital media, the physical book standing in for the flesh and blood author herself. Hence, too, the perennial popularity of lectures and book festivals which are consciously conceived to create a sense of occasion and of heightened, consecrated presence. Take, for instance, the spare, illuminated stage and adamantine sparkle of pitchers and water glasses. Or the rasping pocks and blurts of clip-on microphones as host and guest(s) settle soundlessly in their chairs. Or the hosting interviewer’s panegyric of his guest and litany of prize-winning works, followed soon afterwards by the opening question and sonic conflagration at the first authorial pronouncement from the stage, the voice both amplified and weirdly disembodied as it reverberates around the conference hall… Subsequently, once the book has been sufficiently discussed and a relationship established between interviewer and interviewee – and, vicariously at least, between the latter and his audience, – there is a palpable loosening of formality as discussions are ‘opened’ to questions from the floor, following which, this section of the ritual is brought to a close by the priestly holding aloft of said author’s newest offering… The event culminates, however, for the readers at least, – in a one-on-one meeting with the author himself, the much queued-for and expensive hardback editions, signed by him and dedicated to his reader, prized by the latter as physical proof of social interaction, however flimsy and brief. (Such encounters may even be consummated, later on and in private, between the homesick author and his or her besotted admirer)).
There were no book festivals as such in ST Coleridge’s day, but the man was by all accounts a prodigious talker and in constant demand on the lecture circuit of Regency England. Reading the following extract from one of Hazlitt’s essays it is not hard to see why:
«At a distance, and in the dim light of the chapel, there was to me a strange wildness in his aspect, a dusky obscurity… His hair (now, alas! grey) was then black and glossy as the raven’s, and fell in smooth masses over his forehead. This long pendulous hair is peculiar to enthusiasts, and to those whose minds tend heavenward… His forehead was broad and high, light as if built of ivory, with large projecting eyebrows, and his eyes rolling beneath them like a sea with darkened lustre. ‘A certain tender bloom his face o’erspread’, a purple tinge as we see it in the pale thoughtful complexions of the Spanish portrait-painters, Murillo and Velasquez. His mouth was gross, voluptuous, open, eloquent; his chin good-humoured and round; but his nose, the rudder of the face, the index of the will, was small, feeble, nothing – like what he has done.»
Needless to say, poetry lives a life of its own, independently of the poet who composed it, but surely this description of STC’s physical appearance can only colour our response to the poetry itself? Tint and taint it too, no doubt, since Hazlitt hardly conceals the bitterness he felt before his former idol’s political apostasy, Coleridge having long since renounced the radical ideals still dear to the essayist.
The point here is this. Reading this passage, it seems as though the poems were a kind of emanation, bodied forth ectoplasmically from the heaving, breathing, blustering figure of Coleridge himself; and if, as Hazlitt suggests, a writer’s outward form is indeed a 3D image of his inner life, and that same 3D image molds in turn the products of his mind, then we have much to learn from the imprint of his features in wet plaster of Paris.
Plaster erodes relatively fast, slowly returning to dust over the years, the features smoothed over and partially erased, but even in the oldest masks there is a fantastic level of detail, most of which would never be visible in the living flesh and under normal light conditions: the finest pleats and wrinkles, the pocks, pimples, scars and blemishes, the pumice of jowl and chin, tiny monticles of in-growing bristles (There is an additional thrill in noting the tiny craters formed in wet plaster of Paris by burst air bubbles, identical to those one sees in an Aero chocolate bar). This is where things start to get weird, however, since for all their morphological accuracy, on the one hand, and wealth of surface detail on the other, it is striking how very different they frequently are from their flesh and blood originals, a fact that can be easily ascertained by examining the casts of well-known faces.
This should not really surprise us considering how difficult it is to obtain an accurate likeness whatever the medium employed. Take the figures at Madame Tussaud’s. Waxen lucency and uncanny stillness aside, despite the detailed and complex biometrics, lengthy and numerous sittings, and photographs taken of the sitter from every conceivable angle, they never look right.
In the case of plaster casts, the plaster sags on occasions, giving people a pouty or groggy expression, and trout mouths too are not uncommon. Some people look younger, but most look old beyond their years, and it is sometimes hard to tell the sexes apart. Many acquire an oddly patrician air. Ringo Starr looks like Cardinal Richelieu, and Beethoven bears a troubling resemblance to Arnold Schwartzenegger. A surprising number – men and women alike – look like Blaise Pascal, as though, like him, they had consecrated their lives to austere meditations or the study of physics and metaphysics.
This raises an inevitable question: In short, how much can we really learn about another person from the study of his or her face? Should we look, for instance, for sensitivity or delicacy of feeling in the contours of the nostrils? For nobility of mind in the span of the brow, or for courage and determination in the set of the jaw? Is a nose really ‘the rudder of the face’, and ‘index of the will’, as Hazlitt suggests?
Most of us, I imagine, have caught ourselves peering into the face of a stranger dozing opposite us on a long train journey or slumped in the soporific warmth of a doctor’s waiting room, and felt a guilty, voyeuristic thrill as though we were mining their innermost selves without their knowledge. What captivates most, however, is not what faces show at such times but what they withhold when, released for a time from the curse of identity, the soul has withdrawn from the masquerade of social intercourse, and is heedless altogether of our ‘spectacled claws.’4
Faces, then, are not open books, but we are hard-wired to read them, and each one has its own special character, its suchness and rightness, a mute expressiveness uniquely its own. Each too has its story to tell, and if the geometry underneath is unchanging, the flesh must make its journey through time and go through the mill of material existence. We are all creatures of toil and ‘clocks of meat’ as Allan Ginsberg was pleased to remind us, and our sleeping faces show all too plainly the strains of our becoming, and bear the stamp of our defeats, – alas, – far more than our successes.
Whatever else we make of it, life is also a burden, a load we are glad to let go of when we surrender to sleep, our bodies left behind like unattended luggage. Earlier this year I underwent a minor operation, and while waiting inside my cubicle, – shivering buck-naked in my peppermint-green négligée, – I overheard the banter of two hospital attendants outside in the corridor. They were wheeling passed-out patients to or from the operating theatre, and when the one informed the other that there were ‘more where this one came from,’ they sounded just like warehouse employees shifting bags of rice.
The vexed issue of mind versus matter is made all the more concrete when it comes to life or death masks. Indeed, what makes these latter so eery is that the face is so tangibly present but the individual is just as tangibly not there, either in spirit or (as in the 2 instances cited above) in his carnal embodiment. A plaster cast, – dust wetted to a paste, caked over the subject’s features, then left to dry out – is merely an accretion of dead moments, time slowed down to a standstill, the likeness thus obtained a mere fossil of once-living flesh.
Life or death masks alike are barren moons, but surely everything changes when that person on the train or that patient in the recovery room opens his or her eyes, and his soul or her spirit shines forth like the Sun? Of the 4 (or 5) elements in Greek cosmology, plaster would be Earth, equivalent, therefore, to our own mortal clay. The eye, on the other hand, partakes of fire and water, of aether too (the fifth element added by Aristotle) which, if you subscribe to the dualist viewpoint, surely corresponds to our spiritual part.
This is felt most vividly, perhaps, when we gaze into the eyes of a lover, but if, as the saying goes, the eyes are indeed the mirror of the soul, it is equally true – as another saying goes – that love is blind, and when the spell wears off we sometimes wonder what we saw in the other. Not that this diminishes the glory of love, since, more than just a mirror of ourselves, – as cynics might presume – what we see in a lover’s eyes is our purest essence, which is the godhead, if you will, or Nature herself – the bliss of sheer Being in all its dazzling mystery. It is God Himself (or Herself?) whom we adore in the carnal and temporal (not to say temporary) objects of our worship, and the mistake we often make is to confuse the infinite with the finite portions of the people we love, the divine creature made in God’s image with the poor, struggling so-and-so whom chance brings our way – an elusive, conflicted, and ever-changing quantity made up in unequal parts of biological drives and cultural conditioning. We tend, what is more, to confuse the state of being in love with the act (or action) of loving, which is a process of gradual discovery and growing acceptance, – but, whatever the case may be, how much do we ever know about other people, even those with whom we share our closest intimacy?5 since, if the truth be told, we don’t even know our own thoughts and feelings half the time, and in the faces of other people we see mere hints of mental traffic, or the flash and glimmer of emotional states.
Joni Mitchell put it like this in one of her songs: There’s no comprehending/ Just how close to the bone and the skin and the eyes and the lips you can get/ And still feel so alone (Coyote, 1976)
David Foster Wallace expressed a similar sentiment, claiming one time that all of us live inside “a box of bone” no other party can penetrate or know – except, as he also often said, through the reading of good literature, by virtue of which ‘(we) feel human and unalone and that (we are) in a deep, significant conversation with another consciousness.’
I didn’t try Keats’ Sonnet To Sleep (1818) the other night, addicted as I am to the chemical coup de grâce of modern sleeping pills, – and also, as avowed earlier, to the shallow seductions of internet culture – but reading this poem I am able to share the agonies of sleeplessness with a fellow insomniac, whose “bright star” burned out 2 centuries ago, but who ‘gleaned… from his teaming brain’ this marvellous poem which, whilst it reveals – and revels in – the workings of the mind (despite the torments they trigger), also gathers and pacifies our spirits, and awakens us to the richness of our human experience.6
We have no need to know what John Keats looked like in person, or indeed to know a single thing about him. The poet himself is forever absent from his poems, but, despite the imagery they so brilliantly display, when we read them it seems to us we close our ‘gloom-pleased eyes’ and taste with him the bliss of facelessness.
1) ‘The Somnambulists: Photography Portraits from Before Photography’ by Joanna Kane, Dewi Lewis Publishing, copyright Joanna Kane (https://www.dewilewis.com/products/the-somnambulists)
2) Keats appears to be in a state of meditative bliss, his countenance glowing with prana, the energy of life which, according to hindu spirituality, flows in and out on the breath. William Blake is no less arresting. Although the visionary bard conversed with angels in his garden, he too was made of flesh and bone, and his face here is somewhat shiny as though the weather outdoors were unusually warm. Among the other celebs the head of ST Coleridge is rugged as an asteroid, while Wordsworth’s looks earthy and tuberous as though he had just been dug up.
3) A point illustrated by the example of Russian poetess Irina Ratushinskaya who, when sent to the gulag and denied pen and paper, used a matchstick and a bar of soap to write her poems, washing away all trace of her words as soon as they were committed to memory
4) O make me a mask and a wall to shut from your spies/ Of the sharp, enamelled eyes and the spectacled claws/ Rape and rebellion in the nurseries of my face,/ Gag of dumbstruck tree to block from bare enemies/ The bayonet tongue in this undefended prayerpiece,/ The present mouth, and the sweetly blown trumpet of lies,/ Shaped in old armour and oak the countenance of a dunce/ To shield the glistening brain and blunt the examiners,/ And a tear-stained widower grief drooped from the lashes/ To veil belladonna and let the dry eyes perceive/ Others betray the lamenting lies of their losses/ By the curve of the nude mouth or the laugh up the sleeve (Dylan Thomas)
5) A question asked – brilliantly and disturbingly – in the opening scene of David Fincher’s psycho-thriller ‘Gone Girl’: ‘When I think of my wife, I always think of her head. I picture cracking her lovely skull, unspooling her brains (which the spools of the movie will not succeed in doing), trying to get answers. The primal questions of any marriage: What are you thinking? How are you feeling? What have we done to each other?’
6) Save me from curious conscience that still hoards/ Its strength for darkness, burrowing like the mole;/ Turn the key deftly in the oilèd wards/ And seal the hushèd casket of my soul