Shelby Foote’s Keats

In the first chapter of his novel Shiloh, Shelby Foote has Lieutenant Palmer Metcalfe of New Orleans say the following about his thoughts while falling asleep on the eve of battle:

I had thought I wouldnt sleep. It seemed I ought to make some sort of reckoning, to look back over my life and sit in judgment on what I’d done. But it was not that way. After two days in the saddle and a night in the rain I suppose I was tired enough. Anyway, I went to sleep with nothing on my mind except those few scattered images of my father with his empty sleeve and my mother who was only a portrait (bride of quietness I called her once, remembering the words from Keats, looking up at her looking down out of the frame, immortal like the Greek girl on the urn) and Sherman surrendering to me on tomorrow’s battlefield. Before I even had time to tell myself I was losing consciousness, my thought began to take on that smooth bright-flecked whirling image that comes with sleep; I was nowhere, nowhere at all.

The words in bold are an allusion to Keats’s justly famous “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” but with some interesting inversions.

First, the similarities: The commonality is ecphrastic, that is, Metcalfe speaking of his mother and Keats speaking of the “bride” are verbal descriptions of a visual object. But in neither instance can we be sure that the speaker is actually looking at the object in question. In Metcalfe’s case, he certainly isn’t; in Keats’s case, we can be fairly certain he does not have one particular object of Greek art in mind, and therefore by definition can’t be looking at it. Finally, both Metcalfe’s mother and Keats’s virgin are silent because they are only pictures, present as those forever frozen in a particular moment that is not present. This is, peculiarly, the way in which they can be “immortal.”

Next, the inversions: Metcalfe speaks of a real person, whereas Keats doesn’t; that real person is his mother, and therefore a matron, whereas Keats’s girl is “ever virgin,” for she is pursued but–being in a static picture–never caught; Metcalfe’s mother is in a framed painting, whereas Keats’s girl is on a round piece of pottery (it is Metcalf’s “thought” that is a “whirling image,” not the portrait of his mother); Metcalfe’s mother is, apparently, alone, whereas Keats’s girl is surrounded by other figures; finally, Metcalfe’s mother “look[s] down” from above, almost as if from the afterlife or a world beyond, whereas Keats’s girl is firmly planted in this world.

I would suggest that from these last few features (circularity vs. flatness; the lone figure vs. the figure enmeshed in her world; the vertical aspect to engagement with the picture) we might say that Keats’s picture is better suited for an idealized earthly and immanent immortality, and Foote’s better communicates mortality within immortality, the unavoidable rupture between earthly life and death, with any suggestion of eternal life removed to a transcendent world beyond: the life not of memory only, perhaps, but also of that land where all are young and at rest with the “bride of quietness.” Virginal purity is reached only there, through life, suffering, and death here.

Is that overreading? Perhaps. But the train of thought would not be out of place on the cusp of bloodshed and death.

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