The Diamond Path: A Study of Individuation

in the Works of John Keats

by Maureen B. Roberts, PhD









I have no hesitation in confessing that this book was from the start a labour of love rather than a merely academic exercise. Indeed, throughout the writing of it I maintained the sense of unravelling the story of a kindred spirit whose sometimes tortuous inner journeyings, like my own unveiled vistas of grandeur, danger and wonder that few external scenarios could hope to rival. For such expansive inner realms act as stages for dramatizations of the boundless inventiveness of the human imagination through which, in Blake's well-known words, one is able

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour

The imagination has always been the prime faculty of the soulful mode of consciousness through which come the visions and dreams that have formed the stuff of great and enduring art throughout the ages. In our own time - and notably in critical circles - where even the notion of direct inspiration is mocked or marginalized, such imaginative leaps beyond, or rather beneath surface rationality seem misguided. Yet visionary artists continue to trust the imagination as the well-spring of inspiration, refining it to mediate the timeless truth and knowledge of the unconscious.

No artist has ever better typified the 'Negative Capability' of this relatively egoless yet utterly self-consuming frame of mind than John Keats. In one sense the overall aim of this book is to show how by the age of twenty-five Keats had arrived - without the guidance of either a therapist or a guru - precisely where more plodding individuals (such as myself) have needed a large chunk of a statistically normal lifespan to reach. Keats' prodigious rate of psychological maturation - unrivalled in any case I have examined - awed and intrigued me in a way that no other artistically captured record of individuation ever has. The process which for me began in my late twenties and stretched over some twelve years, was for Keats compressed into roughly four years and ended, as this study aims to show, not with his tragic death at the age of twenty-five but rather with his culminating vision in the technically unfinished yet psychologically satisfying The Fall of Hyperion. Hence while the majority of critical studies of Keats have until now stressed possible influences on and sources for the poet's works and philosophy of life, this book redresses a critical imbalance by foregrounding the individuation process which is implicit in Keats' poetry and letters. This approach is consequently not primarily biographical or historical, but rather textually oriented and accordingly focuses on ideas rather than on facts that would normally be cited as evidence of 'influence' or 'source' in Keats' works.

Jungian individuation as self-realisation involves, as does the Romantic imagination, the struggle to unify recreatively through the balance and synthesis of psychic opposites. Extending this basic premise, this book surveys the development of Keats' poetry in terms of a basic pattern of transformation in which an initially unified state of consciousness is divided, then 're-collected' as a higher unity through a process of maturation. In this context, two important uniting symbols - the diamond orb in Endymion and the square edged stone at the end of The Fall of Hyperion - form the two ends of a thread of development along which Keats' poetry is self-creative through its healing of the "dis-ease" of inner division to reform the unified self. The same pattern of 'unity lost and restored' manifests, for example, as the creative tension (explored in Chapter Five) between the integrated Apollonian self and the Dionysian self-divided sufferer who is in principle synonymous with Milton's Satan. Keats accordingly inverts the significance of the Miltonic Christian Fall by ascribing a positive potential to the Dionysian transitional state of paradox. Within this perspective the poet's philosophy of "Soul-making" reflects the Gnostic striving of the divine "spark" as the latent individuality of the self to ascend through the ambivalent space of individuation to conscious realisation.

Keats' quest for redeeming self-knowledge like my own reflected his own maxim, in turn a distillation of the essence of individuation: "That which is creative must create itself." The idea of individuation is, however, all too often assumed by reductionists - whether of a literary or scientific persuasion - to be just another theory put forward conveniently to simplify the sobering complexity of human life. To such dismissive claims I reply that simplicity - in the sense of an overriding unity of self-creative intent and vision - certainly permeates the thought of both Jung and Keats. But one also finds therein complexity of a kind common only to living organic systems - an interrelatedness of individual features subsumed by the sense of the whole as being - in an ultimately inexplicable sense - much more than the sum of its parts. Simplicity, in other words, is nothing to be ashamed of, particularly when it emerges naturally as an instance of those universally occurring, spontaneous processes of order which in matter as well as in mind continue to mystify holistic scientists and Jungians alike.

Romantic critics, it must be said, have on the other hand consistently failed to see the forest for the trees. To understand (rather than merely analyse) a forest one must venture in, touch and sniff, wander about, absorb its living ambience. When attempting to convey the living reality of imaginative vision, however, time and again - not least in literary critical circles - one comes up against a bleak wall of intellectualism that stubbornly continues to feed on the obsolete 'myth' of objectivity - itself a legacy of pre-Einsteinian science. Being what Jung would describe as an 'intuitive introvert', I have always found this attititude to be not only amusing but also at times annnoying, unfairly biased (given that Western consciousness leans collectively toward logic and extraversion), and frustrating in the extreme. Ironically, though, it is relativistic science and quantum theory which have by and large been responsible for subverting the reductively empirical paradigm of knowledge. Romanticism, too, is never a purely objective idiom, yet seldom, if ever, does the criticism applied to it avow this perspective of the complementarity of subjective and objective points of view. In Romanticism the experiencing subject is always integral to what is being portrayed or - as in quantum physics - to what can be known. Given the not altogether recent shifts in the scientific paradigm, it is perhaps surprising, then, that such a curious discrepancy persists between the Romantic ethic of consciousness and that of most of its critics.

In light of the preceding ideas, the approach adopted throughout this study will, as Prof. White has already hinted, of course seem horribly unfashionable to some scholars; yet I decline to plead guilty on this count. In fact, I prefer to turn the tables and so choose instead to rebuke Romantic critics for clinging to an outmoded episteme that fails to do justice to the unashamedly passionate spirit of Romanticism in general. Of course it is easier to cling to theories of textuality that flourish within the narrowness of academic specialization, which in turn reinforces what I would call the 'illusion of expertise' often, dare I suggest, as a smokescreen for a lack of the kind of wisdom that can only be gained through the uncompromising kind of lives that the Romantic poets, without exception, plunged themselves into. In their relentless quest for a synthesis of universal and individual truth, the Romantics seldom played it safe, and in some instances - not least of all for Keats - the personal cost was high indeed.

Far from being merely verbal artifices of poetry, certain of Keats' mythic visions - at least in my understanding of them - proved, as I have already hinted, to have more in common with the healing quests of the vision poets, dream incubators and prophets of the ancient shamanic traditions than with cold abstractions that demand little personal cost in terms of that peculiar inner wounding - explored by Keats in the Hyperion poems - which in turn is able to impart its unique brand of healing to the world. Shamans of all traditions, able to 'feel the giant agony of the world' (to quote Moneta in The Fall of Hyperion), bravely venture on behalf of others down to the depths of unconscious landscapes in order to retrieve needed wisdom and healing, encountering along the way beings who give advice, offer challenge, and ask or answer important questions - as indeed Mnemosyne/Moneta does in The Fall. Romanticism, again dissonant with the mode of criticism applied to it, is consistently, intuitively and spontaneously eclectic and syncretistic.

Viewed within this perspective, Jungian individuation is not primarily an intellectual construct but is rather an at times agonizing, at times blissfully self-transcending core experience which throughout history, and notably in the mystical traditions of both East and West, has under various guises referred to the same centring shift of consciousness in which one realizes one's deepest or innermost being as essentially unified and divine. In this book, in order to illustrate thematic parallels between Romanticism and mysticism I have foregrounded examples of this core experience found in the Western mystical traditions of Platonism, alchemy and Gnosticism. Similarly, though, the Hindu Brahman, the Chinese Tao, the Shaivite Paramashiva, the Qabalistic En-Sof, the Sufi Truth and the Buddhist Void are all centring and unifying modes of knowledge and existence which transcend the dualities of inner and outer, human and divine. Accordingly, it is the power to embrace and transcend the extremes of existence in a uniting vision of truth that constitutes the overriding virtue of mystical intensity.

If ever a man lived - and died - intensely (whilst, I might add, retaining a fine sense of humour and a disinterested sense of wonder throughout), that man is John Keats, and if this book inspires others to seek out or to delve more deeply into this remarkably human poet's life and works, it will have achieved its aim.


The majority of critical studies of Keats have until now stressed possible influences on and sources for the poet's works and philosophy of life. While not denying the usefulness of previous approaches, this controversial work redresses a critical imbalance by foregrounding the individuation process which is implicit in Keats' poetry and letters. This approach is consequently not primarily biographical or historical, but rather textually oriented and accordingly focuses on ideas rather than on facts that would normally be cited as evidence of 'influence' or 'source' in Keats' works. Accordingly, this study attempts to locate Romanticism within the Western mystical traditions of alchemy, Gnosticism and Platonism, all of which stress innate knowledge as intuitively holistic.

As the first comprehensive study of Keats' works from a Jungian perspective, The Diamond Path traces an innately driven process of personal development as it is reflected in the mythic pattern of 'unity lost and restored' in the poet's works as a whole. As such this study will be of interest not only to those concerned with applying Jungian principles to textual criticism, but also to any who wish to explore how the unfolding of a great Romantic poet's personal myth addresses questions of meaning and existence that remain unresolved to this day.

[Manuscript Length: Approx. 90,000 words excluding Notes]
c.1998 Maureen B. Roberts

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Last Updated: 30 dec 99