Though she doesn’t use one of her favorite words, transport, she is describing the sensation of being transported into the realm of art, a world of pure forms and extasy (as she spells it) as well as being carried into the world of the work of art, such as the scenery in a painting or the joy of a sonata. Art is her lodge in a vast wilderness (which she wrote in her copy of the Aeneid).
I suppose the question she is asking here is what is it about art – from both the artist’s point of view as well as the connoisseur’s – that alters our reality? What exactly is going on when we look at a painting that transports us to another world, causes us to weep when we read a line of Keats, or makes us believe, if just for a moment, that we are in the presence of God when we hear Beethoven’s Ninth? What mystical information is being transmitted from the physical object that is art – the canvas, the sheet of paper, the musical instrument – which transforms our emotional state, our inner reality?
Emily doesn’t seem to have an answer as to the specifics of how art works, her solution is merely to allow “Art” to “stun” her, to transport her as if she were in a “Balloon” and were carried along the “celestial” currents of the invisible “Ether” of art. She is content to enjoy what “Art” can do – she’s not so much interested in the how. And perhaps this is how the earliest artists also felt when they crawled through dark and narrow caves with only a portion of animal fat to light their way so that they could recreate the world as they saw it. They didn’t care how they were impelled to do this, they only knew they must – perhaps they thought it was part of their relationship with some sort of God which compelled them and when we look at the art they left behind it’s hard to not feel a reverence for their craft.
Such is the overwhelming power of art; God itself resides there.
Emily describes three forms of art in this poem: painting, music, and poetry and I feel she is also ordering them so that the most important (to her) completes the poem. The first, painting, she describes not just the act of viewing a painting, but she is also interested in its creation. She uses the word “stir” which evokes the painter mixing their oils, and she describes “how the fingers feel” as if we are the artist holding the brush which makes the canvas come alive with its subject. In a sense she is talking us into the space that exists between the artist and the art, a “rare – celestial” space that, while it does not exist in reality, does in fact exist in reality simply because the work of art was created thus something whose “bright impossibility” has transformed the thoughts and imaginations of the artist into a physical reality on the canvas.
But she’s not just saying that the artist has captured an image – she uses the word “bright” which also implies light, as in seeing – but that this physical object evokes an emotional response. This piece of wood with stretched canvas upon which animal fats and ground plant matter are mixed and smeared in such a way that it transcends the mere physical limitations of the frame and expands outward so that we actually feel the art, it gets inside us and causes us “torment” even though there is no villain in the room, and “Such sumptuous – Despair” even though we’re just looking at some wood, fabric, and oil.
Having broken free of the physical limitations of the frame, she moves on to music which is even more unusual in that music does not exactly exist the way normal physical objects do. When we hear a piece of music we are hearing a series of notes, but music doesn’t exist as a whole and physical entity whose boundaries we can define, music occurs because the notes, once inside of us, are transformed into some cohesive substance of the mind. Emily describes this sensation as the invisible gas which fills a “Balloon” and the invisible gas – “Ether” – which desensitizes the patient and allows them to be susceptible to the surgeon, in this case the composer whose invisible notes float as if they are a free-floating “Ether” which drugs the unsuspecting mind and reshapes our typically rigid frame of consciousness into something more sublime.
Finally she hints at how the patient (both as in the sense of the audience being like the artist’s patient, as well as those who are willing to take the time to appreciate art), once they are under the influence, are stunned, as if Zeus’ “Bolts” had struck them down and were working some miracle upon them. She also suggests that “The License to revere” is something that is loaned to us, that it is a “privilege” which means it is not something which belongs to us. Zeus’ “Bolts” are his alone to strike us with, we can only stand in awe of such a gift but cannot produce our own. However, once struck with this “Bolt” the will of the gods is now working through us, we become the instrument of the gods, our actions are like the vibrations of the reed or the stirring of “the fingers” and in this state we are “Enamored” that we have been given this rare “privilege”, we are “impotent” to explain it or even stop it, and if we are wise we are “content” to allow it to happen.
Thus we are like the canvas, the musical instrument, and the poet’s notebook – we are the canvas of the Gods who work though us and allow us to touch them through art, to touch the infinite, to experience the forms, to transform matter into a wand which can so alter our emotional state that once in that state it will begin to alter our physical state too by pointing us in new directions, by shining a light on a world we never knew existed before and thus allows us to transform our lives.
We literally become new people through art. And that is magical.