On Gusto in Poetry

Sandy Solomon

Sandy Solomon

The word “gusto” went through a hard patch in the late 20th century when the advertising industry expropriated the word to talk about beer, but now—years later—perhaps we can return to William Hazlitt’s notion of gusto in art. Hazlitt, an essayist and lecturer whose ideas profoundly influenced John Keats, thought that all objects, from their essential qualities, trigger some “truth of feeling.” He believed that when artists come close to embodying the truth of feeling in an object, they capture its gusto, the “power or passion defining any object.”

These days, a discussion of William Hazlitt’s ideas may require a brief detour to take stock of the critic himself. He was, by all accounts, a strange fellow. Coleridge, a friend of William’s father, reported the youthful Hazlitt’s manner to be “singularly repulsive—brow-hanging, shoe-contemplative, strange,” and recalled spending his first two hours with the young man “conversing with W.H.’s forehead.” Hazlitt set out to become an artist, but concluded after a few years that he was better at drawing the defining strokes of a scene than at filling in the details; so in 1812 he moved to reporting, writing essays, and lecturing, a change for which the rest of us must be grateful.

Reading William Hazlitt’s wonderful essays about art in general, and poetry in particular, I can understand why John Keats pronounced Hazlitt’s depth of taste among the “three things to rejoice at in this Age.” Keats met Hazlitt in the fall or winter of 1816. Many of Hazlitt’s theories (on human disinterestedness, sympathetic imagination, and the value of instinctive over consecutive thought, for example) struck a resonant chord with Keats who found in these ideas articulation of his own understanding of poetry. The two men shared liberal political beliefs, a fondness for Shakespeare and good theater, and an appreciation of good writing tout court. (Keats wrote to Leigh Hunt that a May 1817 article by Hazlitt ended in a sentence that appeared to him “like a Whale’s back in the Sea of Prose.”) And they liked each other: just six months before Keats left England for Italy, the painter Benjamin Haydon reported seeing the two men in a corner of the room, “really rejoicing.”

I got interested in Hazlitt’s ideas because of their influence on Keats’ poetry. In Hazlitt’s collection of essays, The Round Table, Keats could read in the essay, “On Imitation,” that “to the genuine artist, truth, nature, beauty are almost different names for the same thing.” In Hazlitt’s book on the “natural disinterestedness of the human mind,” Keats could find what Walter Jackson Bate called “brilliant treatment of the sympathetic potentialities of the imagination.” Then in January 1818, Hazlitt produced a series of lectures on English poets which Keats read and also mostly heard delivered. Refined and adapted to Keats’ own vocabulary, the ideas and wording of the first of these lectures, On Poetry in General, began to appear in Keats’ letters shortly thereafter and soon found their way into his poetry as well.

Take a look at Keats’ poem, “Ode on Melancholy.” “Aching pleasure” and “drink deep,” seem to me to have close cousins in that first Hazlitt lecture on poetry in which Hazlitt talked about power or beauty that strives to “enshrine itself…and to relieve the aching sense of pleasure.” He also observed that “the keenness of immediate suffering…makes us drink deeper of the cup of human life.”

Others have discussed the way in which Hazlitt’s ideas simmered, melded, and altered in Keats’ mind and imagination to enter his prose (a mid-twentieth century essay by Clarence Thorpe is a good place to start), but the juxtaposition of a few quotes will help to make the case here.

Hazlitt observed in his lectures on poetry that poetry “signifies the excess of the imagination beyond the actual or ordinary impression of any object or feeling.” Before the lecture series was over, Keats was writing, “I think Poetry should surprise by a fine excess and not by Singularity.”

Letter from  Keats to Richard Woodhouse (27 October 1818). Courtesy of Harvard University, Houghton Library.

Hazlitt observed that “we can no more take away the faculty of the imagination, than we can see all objects without light and shade.” Keats wrote the following autumn, also drawing upon Hazlitt’s ideas of disinterestedness and of gusto: “As to the poetical Character…it has no self—it is everything and nothing—It has no character—it enjoys light and shade; it lives in gusto, be it foul or fair, high or low, rich or poor, mean or elevated.”

Like most good critics, Hazlitt looked to the subtle and complicated effect in art; he impelled his reader to look more closely at a given image or turn of phrase at the same time as he stepped back from the work of art to appreciate its broad lines; and he did so by taking the artist’s point of view. Hazlitt’s interest in how art communicated feeling coupled with his fascination with artistic technique were part of what made his observations so appealing to Keats. And those ideas have remained appealing for generations of readers since.

Including me. On my first reading of On Poetry in General, I wanted to get up from my seat in the library, to elbow complete strangers, and to say, “Listen to this.” And I wanted to take Hazlitt’s ideas about gusto in the visual arts and apply them to poetry.

Hazlitt on Gusto in Art

Gusto is the “living principle” in an object, which produces “an impression on the senses, distinct from every other object, having something divine in it, which the heart owns and the imagination consecrates,” Hazlitt wrote. The artist then embodies in art the gusto that he or she perceives in life.

I find it interesting, however, that for Hazlitt, gusto in art is not absolutely imitative. In fact, the peculiar attraction of a work of art is that it helps the observer to see again, to see differently. In his essay, On Imitation, Hazlitt writes, “imitation renders an object…a source of pleasure, not by repetition of the same idea, but by suggesting new ideas, by detecting new properties, and endless shades of difference, just as a close and continued contemplation of the object itself would do.”

Those “shades of difference” come primarily from the perceiving sensibility, that of the artist and that of the observer both. The artist’s sensibility is like a stamp upon the work; each sensibility is different. A work of art, if it has gusto, will create a similar impression upon the observer as that of the initial observation on the artist.

In his discussion of gusto, Hazlitt makes certain assumptions:

  • Art with gusto interprets one sense through another—“the impression made on one sense excites by affinity those of another,” Hazlitt wrote. In the image of a summer field with flowers, for example, the observer might read the feeling of heat and the smell of flowers.
  • Images with gusto contain a “living principle” so that to the observer they seem endowed with their own feeling. Feeling is inherent in them. Imagine Titian’s rendering of flesh, which seems, according to Hazlitt, “sensitive and alive all over; not merely to have the look and texture of flesh, but the feeling itself.”
  • Art with gusto captures the whole character of a scene by distinguishing the character of different objects in that scene. The observer would “distinguish [these objects] by their effect on the different senses.” Imagine a still life with a glass plate and a rose—these two objects produce different visual impressions in the way they absorb and reflect light, for example.
  • At the same time, in art with gusto every circumstance should add to the overall effect of the scene. Imagine a painting of a stormy day. Even though the image of thrashing trees would look different from that of a man clutching his hat, the net effect would be to evoke wind and rain.
  • And art with gusto contains a sense of movement. For Hazlitt, the perception of beauty is integrally linked to the implication of movement. “All motion is beautiful that is not contradictory to itself…that is either sustained by the same impulse, or gradually reconciles different impulses,” he wrote. And he faults the landscapes of the seventeenth century French painter, Claude, for being without gusto: the “trees are perfectly beautiful, but quite immovable.”

For Hazlitt, the overarching quality of gusto in art seems to be that it leaves “a sting behind it in the mind of the spectator.” Other writers describe the sense of feeling life at the other end of a fishing line; think of Roland Barthes’ punctum. Gusto is that definite but subtle tug of recognition that we feel when we come across something alive and true in art.

Hazlitt on Poetry

In his Lectures on the English Poets, Hazlitt sets out to describe what poetry is and what makes it work for the poet and the reader. In so doing, he distinguishes poetry from other arts. He writes, “Painting gives the object itself; poetry what it implies…painting gives the event, poetry the progress of events; but it is during the progress, in the interval of expectation and suspense…that the pinch of interest lies.”

If, in a painting with gusto, power or passion infuses the object or image, we might infer that, for Hazlitt, in poetry with gusto, power, or passion infuses not only the object or image described, but also the poem’s movement. In Hazlitt’s notion of “the progress of events,” I think about such questions as the poem’s juxtaposition of images or the energy in its words and sentences. But what seems to interest Hazlitt also is a poem’s intensity or power. Milton, Hazlitt wrote, “has great gusto. He repeats his blows twice; grapples with and exhausts his subject. His imagination has a double relish of its objects, an inveterate attachment to the things he describes and to the words describing them.”

Self portrait *oil on canvas  *70 x 60 cm
William Hazlitt (1778-1830), “Self portrait” from around 1802

So first, gusto in poetry comes from its movement—that is to say, from poetry’s very form. A reader must move through language and through time in the reading of a poem. And second, gusto in poetry comes also for Hazlitt from some essential quality of life in what that poetry describes or evokes. “Poetry puts a spirit of life and motion in the universe,” he wrote. “It describes the flowing, not the fixed.” That sense of movement in the universe combines with a sense of movement in the perceiving sensibility: poetry describes “feelings of pleasure or pain by blending them with the strongest movements of passion, and the most striking forms of nature.”

Hazlitt associates the idea of movement with that of vividness in poetry. Poetry “is the natural impression of any object or event, by its vividness exciting an involuntary movement of imagination and passion.” The poem that successfully evokes life, will, by rendering the character of that which it describes in all its complexity, move us beyond its informing passion to a higher level of knowledge. Hazlitt wrote: “We do not wish the thing to be so; but we wish it to be such as it is.”

Part of the power of poetry, for Hazlitt, comes from this capacity to affect the reader on more than one level. “Impassioned poetry is an emanation of the moral and intellectual part of our nature as well as the sensitive—of the desire to know, the will to act, and the power to feel; and ought to appeal to these very different parts of our constitution in order to be perfect.” In the writing and reading of a poem “these different parts of our constitution” interact; Hazlitt would seem to find essential to a good poem the movement it evokes between thinking and feeling. He further assumes that this movement is mediated by the imagination. As Hazlitt says more explicitly elsewhere, “the flame of the passions, communicated to the imagination, reveals to us, as with a flash of lightning, the inmost recesses of thought, and penetrates our whole being.”

I love Hazlitt’s observation that “poetry is the language of the imagination and the passions.” But what attracts us to poetry to begin with? Hazlitt has an idea of power that cannot be held in check. The imagination, then, represents those objects “not as they are in themselves, but as they are moulded by other thoughts and feelings into an infinite variety of shapes and combinations of power.” This same quality is what attracts the reader who, from love of excitement, is drawn to the expression of strong feelings. And why are readers drawn to this sense of power? The best answer, he said, is “Because we cannot help it. The sense of power is as strong a principle in the mind as the love of pleasure.

From the movement of passion in poetry comes its sound. “Poetry is only the highest eloquence of passion….It is the perfect coincidence of the image and the words with the feeling we have, and of which we cannot get rid in any other way, that gives an instant ‘satisfaction of thought.’”

Strong feeling is closely related to music. “Mad people sing. As often as articulation passes naturally into intonation, there poetry begins,” Hazlitt says. As Robert Frost notes that “voices behind a door” evoke “the sound of sense” even when the listener can’t hear individual words (“pure sound—pure form”), so too for Hazlitt the pattern of words in poetry suggests intonation and therefore, suggests meaning.

Gusto in Poetry I

So what is gusto in poetry? I now want to think about ways we might apply Hazlitt’s assumptions about gusto in art first to gusto in poetic images, and then to the gusto in whole poems.

In poetic images with gusto, the reader feels a sense of power or passion. This feeling is stronger when

  • the image is portrayed through more than one sense so that “the impression made on one sense excites by affinity those of another;”
  • the image seems to embody a “living principle,” to have feeling within it;
  • the image has qualities that make it distinct from the qualities of other images in the poem (yet the details chosen to describe each image contribute to the entire arc of the poem) and
  • the image has movement in it, real or implied.

Take, for example, the following passage in Keats’ poem, “To Autumn”:

Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies.

The image of the gnats as they rise and fall on the wind is powerful because their look and sound, known through different senses, are captured in words like “wailful” and “mourn,” which accurately describe not only the physical but also the emotional truth. The “light” wind that “lives or dies” is another image that again describes the physical fact and the attached metaphysical concern. In fact, in the parallel “aloft or sinking” and “lives or dies” Keats also “repeats his blows twice,” as we see both the physical world and its emotional corollary.

A poem is, of course, the sum of its images and events, but in its entirety a poem has its own dynamic, one that is a function not just of what it describes, but also of how it uses words and sounds to fashion that description; not just of what happens in each image or event, but also of what happens between and among those images or actions.

An example of how Hazlitt looked at gusto in a whole literary work may be found in one of his lectures on Shakespeare, in which he describes not how one sense may interpret another, but rather how one passion may interpret another. He writes, “The passion in Shakespeare is…passion modified by passion, by all the other feelings to which the individual is liable, and to which others are liable with him… We know the results, we see the process.”

So here’s part of what I take and elaborate from Hazlitt about gusto in poetry. In poetry, the best representation is complex: “such as it is.” Feeling plays against feeling as each object, each event in sequence evokes its own distinguishing feeling or conflicting feeling.

The poem acquires its gusto not just from what it describes—that is to say, from the vivid rendering of the physical and emotional world through telling images—but also from its movement through different perceptions of what is true, its movements among different kinds of perception (i.e., through feeling, thought, and sensations of the physical world), and the way in which the reader feels these movements in time. So too, the language itself may have gusto: it may convey meaning almost by intonation alone, creating the “perfect coincidence of the image and the words with the feeling we have” or the language may be compelling, something to chew on or to disrupt expected ways of expression. Any of these characteristics may combine, then, to give a poem its particular power or passion.

Gusto in Poetry II

John Keats (1795-1821)

Poems with gusto are all about vivid evocation of life and that involves complexity—the play of feeling against feeling, thought against thought, all grounded in a physical sense of the world. Poems that for me are most moving actually combine the two, the way Keats’ “To Autumn” carries physical description and prevailing emotion in the same words. As Hazlitt says, movement is in and of itself beautiful, but by linking movement to the poem’s feeling the poem carries the reader still further. Without complexity of feeling, the reader will not find that same tug of recognition.

So let’s consider for a moment different ways a reader’s perceptions may move in a poem. A poem may describe actual and imagined movement through images (images that may also imply movement in the immediate past or future) or action—and associate with that movement other kinds of knowing and sensing.

Images may stop time yet infuse it with a sense of immanence as, for example, the union of Psyche and Cupid in Keats’ “Ode to Psyche,” in which Keats portrays the two sleeping in an embrace that has been and will be again (“ready still”) more active (“Their lips touch’d not, but had not bade adieu”). In this poem Keats gives the calm breath of sleep; he defines simultaneously the state of emotion as well as the physical fact. By giving first the breath and then the lips that breathe and also thinking about the lips that kiss, he moves the scene in time and action. The lovers are still, but we imagine the ways in which they have moved and therefore the ways in which they will move.

They lay calm-breathing, on the bedded grass;
Their arms embraced, and their pinions too;
Their lips touch’d not, but had not bade adieu,
As if disjoined by soft-handed slumber,
And ready still past kisses to outnumber

Other poems, like, for example, Philip Larkin’s “The Witsun Weddings,” which ends with the train braking (“the tightened brakes took hold”), take physical movement and convert it into something more. Larkin evokes the stomach churning abrupt stop, the body experiencing a physical sensation of continued forward movement, as a “sense of falling, like an arrow-shower/Sent out of sight, somewhere becoming rain.” Then, even more wonderfully, Larkin transforms the flight of arrows—almost through the word “shower” with all its pre-wedding associations—into rain, a softer, fuller, more natural and, I feel, sadder coming to earth, which will correspond to the end of this journey and the beginning of the newly wedded lives the speaker has been observing.

….We slowed again,
And as the tightened brakes took hold, there swelled
A sense of falling, like an arrow-shower
Sent out of sight, somewhere becoming rain.

Other poems, like Edward Thomas’ “Adlestrop,” offer imagined movement. In “Adelstrop,” the speaker remembers seeing only an empty platform and the name, “Adlestrop,” as he sat, in a stopped train, and looked out at that sign. The actual movement Thomas describes is the way in which we are able to know again, know better. In this way, the speaker finds himself seeing the natural world beyond the platform and then:

…for that minute a blackbird sang
Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.

As the ear listens and listens, the imagination, attached to a depth of sound, moves “farther and farther” into the English countryside. This poem puts the reader into the moment of hearing as the ear, greedy for more, picks up fainter birdsong behind the near-ground birdcalls. And at the end, the poem has attached—both for us, and for the speaker who remembers—to the otherwise empty name “Adlestrop” not only the infinite richness of natural life, but also a kind of happiness.

Here, then, is what poetry can do. It can combine its details to communicate more than one aspect of the truth: to communicate both thought and feeling; describe both physical and emotional facts; capture conflicting impulses; hold more than one meaning, more than one thought, more than one feeling; describe different kinds of sensation; encourage the reader to know more than one moment in time. What gives these moments in the poem more power than other moments is the way in which they involve the reader’s imagination. They stimulate an energetic consideration of what is. In this way, the work involved in comprehending the whole through the relationship among its parts excites the reader’s sensibility.

Gusto comes from more than one dimension of an image and from more than one way of understanding it. It comes as well from the communication of meaning and feeling by more than one means, on more than one level. Syntax may support meaning and feeling. So, too, may the play of sound and meter (either to emphasize a meaning or provide additional, undercutting information). The patterns can be incredibly intricate—from the pacing of each unit of syntax to the variations in meter, from the way in which expectation is built and then satisfied, frustrated or transformed. But in a good poem, every circumstance adds to the final effect of the scene, and the poem moves steadily through small realizations and admissions through a greater arc of movement. In a good poem, the reader’s understanding advances steadily with and through the poem to realize its distinctive form of gusto.

To return to Larkin for a moment, let me give an example of how syntax can carry this movement, to demonstrate what it is describing. We can see the absolutely untranslatable result in Larkin’s “Mr. Bleaney,” which opens as the speaker is considering renting a room once rented by Mr. Bleaney. The speaker takes possession of the room (he agrees to rent it part way into the third stanza), and then he weighs in the next two and a half stanzas the information he has gathered about the previous tenant as he begins to inhabit the other man’s life: “I know his habits…Likewise their yearly frame.” Then in the final two stanzas—in one sweeping long sentence—comes the amazing movement of syntax that merges the hypothetical sensibility of Mr. Bleaney with that of the suffering speaker. The poem moves through a stanza of physical description (the senses of sight and touch merging with images of alienation and death) to a stanza of metaphysical thought in which the physical room becomes coffin-like and close). The end of the poem—its “I don’t know”— moves from the speaker’s being unable to imagine the previous tenant’s thoughts to an acceptance that the life he has imagined applies all too well to his own life, and the resigned sigh—“I don’t know”—of having to carry on anyway.

But if he stood and watched the frigid wind
Tousling the clouds, lay on the fusty bed
Telling himself that this was home, and grinned,
And shivered, without shaking off the dread

That how we live measures our own nature,
And at his age having no more to show
Than one hired box should make him pretty sure
He warranted no better, I don’t know.

Syntax, then—the order and movement of words—can carry the description (here, from the perspective of the shared room) and can shift among different kinds of perception in ways that may greatly enhance a poem’s gusto.

Take, for example, Keats’ image of Joy’s grape in “Ode to Melancholy,” an image that enacts the realization at the heart of the poem.

Though seen of none save him whose strenuous tongue
Can burst Joy’s grape against his palate fine.

Keats locates the imaginary consumption of a grape inside the body of the reader so that when we read “burst Joy’s grape” we are imagining how it feels and how it tastes. The genius of these lines is that they capture the physical action in the order in which the body would feel it: the way the grape skin resists the pressure of the mouth and then suddenly gives way, releasing the pulp, the seeds and the juice and filling the mouth with its taste.

“Ode on Melancholy” (1819), thought to be in his brother George’s handwriting, housed at the British Library

Keats’ word order is important in conveying the action. The poem gives us the active tongue, the objective (to be able to burst) and that which is to be acted upon, the grape. Finally, the poem gives us that which provides the necessary resistance, the palate. We see the tongue closing on the grape with that objective in mind, and then, through the word, “fine,” we have a sense of the taste released (the palate was incorrectly thought to be the place in the mouth where the taste registered). At that moment—and Keats has very clearly described a specific moment when the grape bursts—Melancholy is visible.

The moment when taste floods the palate is thus a metaphor for the moment when Joy floods the human soul, the same moment when Melancholy appears. To savor Joy means to see Melancholy; the destructive associations with the word, “burst,” attach themselves to the idea of the loss of joy in the moment of joy. The reader sees, that is to say, understands, and understands not just intellectually but also emotionally (through the identification with the one whose strenuous tongue presses up) and physically (in the sensations evoked and remembered). Here is the most arresting aspect of Keats’ gusto—the capacity to make a gesture that is what the poem means and feels.

To me, poems that demonstrate that which they describe are able to achieve the highest kind of gusto. If, along the way, they contain images and writing with gusto and if they give us the perceiving sensibility in interesting ways, then they are that much more memorable.

Thinking About Gusto Today

Hazlitt was writing about representational art, of course, but modern paintings could be said to have their own kind of gusto even if that gusto links more to our fascination with the paintings’ energy than to their rendering of the physical world. For example, we may find gusto in the energy created by close combinations of color or by dynamic lines. How would this kind of analysis of gusto apply to some kinds of modern poetry, poetry less intent on representation of a scene, less dependent on the syntax’s line? That will be for others to consider.

Whatever the period, William Hazlitt’s ideas about gusto apply to poetry in ways that help me read better. When I look at a poem for the first time, I wait for that moment of recognition—that tremble in the divining rod, that tug of feeling on the other end of the line—the moment when I feel something come alive. Then I read again to appreciate better what made that poem affect me so strongly. Poems work in such complex ways that the answer is often itself complicated; I have given some examples of places to look for gusto, but these examples are in some sense a simplification. In a good poem, for example, how the sentence plays against line, the meter changes and turns, the language sounds and evokes, and so on will probably strengthen the force of its images.

But just as, when I’m visiting an art gallery, I like to look around a room for the pictures that interest me most and to sense/analyze for myself why (for example, because that representation of a field seems to shimmer with afternoon light as if the wind were blowing it, the way I know light to shimmer on blown grass in the afternoon; or because that image of a face seems to hold profound sadness around the eyes and in the mouth the way I read sadness in other people’s faces), so too as I am reading poetry, I want to sit down with poems I find most affecting to try to appreciate their gusto.

And just as Hazlitt found some visual artists to be better at infusing the human form with gusto and others better at depicting living landscapes, so too I find gusto in poetry is usually strongest in one aspect of a poem. Some writers demonstrate best the gusto of the physical world; others have a knack for depicting the movement of emotions, captured in tiny gestures of diction and tone. I like thinking about where a particular talent lies and how it manifests itself; about the distinctive sensibility that has produced the work I’m reading.

I depend upon my own sensibility, like a Geiger counter, to feel for gusto in poetry. The notion of gusto provides an opening to a life force in art that, as Hazlitt instructs with a dramatic alteration to Blake’s observation, “the heart owns and the imagination consecrates.”

Writing Prompt

Write a poem that culminates in an image with gusto, an image that you describe both in its distinctive physical qualities and in its emotional resonance for you, emotional resonance that summarizes what you’ve discovered in the course of writing the poem.

Sandy Solomon

Sandy Solomon is the author of Pears, Lake, Sun (University of Pittsburgh Press). Her poems have appeared in such journals as The New Yorker, New Republic, Partisan Review, Threepenny Review, Gettysburg Review, and Ploughshares. Poems are forthcoming in Plume and Vox Populi. She teaches in Vanderbilt University’s Creative Writing Program. Her website, terribly out of date, is www.sandysolomon.com.