Walter Jackson Bate (essay date 1945)

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SOURCE: "The Apprenticeship: The Early Sonnets," in The Stylistic Development of Keats, The Humanities Press, 1958, pp. 1-19.

[In the following excerpt, originally published in 1945, Bate analyzes the style and structure of Keats's early poetry, particularly the sonnets. Bate explores the influence of Leigh Hunt, most notably in Keats's word and image choices, and in Keats's use of the caesura and metrical variations.]

"So this Poem must rather be considered as an endeavour than a thing accomplish'd: a poor prologue to what, if I live, I humbly hope to do."

—From the rejected Preface to Endymion.

Few poets have elicited more analysis and discussion since the close of the last century than has Keats. His poetry, with the aid of his letters, has been studied from almost all angles; it has been re-interpreted biographically and philosophically, and has been placed more clearly in its contemporary setting. There has been no proportionate scrutiny, however, of the stylistic and especially the metrical excellence of Keats's verse, the peculiar course of its progress, the relation of its development to his own critical theories, and the exact character of the influence on it of other poets. It may be assumed that such a scrutiny would prove rewarding. For during the four or five years of his active writing career, Keats attained a mature and penetrating insight into the workings of his art which few poets have possessed, while at the same time he developed from a gifted but awkward apprentice to a poet of the most dexterous craftsmanship. The progress of both his stylistic craftsmanship and his critical awareness is closely interwoven, and, viewed together, they reveal the poetic mind at work in an illuminating manner.

The peculiar excellence of Keats—that quality with which he is most closely identified and which sets him apart from the majority of English poets—is the consummate stylistic manifestation, at once intense and restrained, of a passionate desire for absorption in what for him was poetical. His conception of what was poetical underwent progressive change, but it was almost always directed to the specific and the concrete. Throughout Endymion, it is emphasized that the concrete must be accepted and cherished as the only means of knowing the ideal, while even as early as "Sleep and Poetry" there is an insistence that the successive stages through which the poet must pass—from that of the "laughing school-boy, without grief or care," through the "realm of Flora and old Pan," to the final stage of full response to the pain and sorrow of human life—are stages in which the attention of the poet is focussed upon the particular. "The excellence of every art is its intensity, capable of making all disagreeables evaporate from their being in close relationship with Beauty and Truth."1 This "intensity" is the concentrated identity and individual meaning or truth of a particular.2 As Keats wrote to Shelley, "A modern work, it is said, must have a purpose, which may be the God. An artist must serve Mammon… . You might curb your magnanimity, and be more of an artist, and load every rift of your subject with ore."3 It is by a concentration, not an expansion or abstraction, of the "intensity" imbedded within the particular that the poet simultaneously gratifies the imagination and the intellect with beauty and with truth.

A delight in the concrete and a confidence in its reality were deeply intrenched in Keats's mind, and the most cursory examination of his manuscript revisions discloses his instinctive working towards concrete concentration. Thus, to take a few instances from the "Eve of St. Agnes," an addition of specific detail marks the revision of

A drooping lamp was flickering here and there
(xl, 6)


A chain-droop 'd lamp was flickering by each door,

and of

he scarce could brook
Sighs, at the thought of those enchantments cold,
And Madeline asleep among those legends old

(xv, 7-9)


he scarce could brook
Tears, at the thought of those enchantments cold,
And Madeline asleep in lap of legends old.

The opening of the eighth stanza was originally written

She danc'd along with vague uneager look,
Her anxious lips full pulped with rosy thoughts.

Keats crossed out "look" and substituted "eyes," and by degrees transformed the weak prettiness of the second line into something approaching "intensity": "Anxious her lips, her breathing quick and short." In the stanza about the feast, he first wrote

While he from forth the closet brought a heap
Of candied sweets …

He perceived the lack of strength in "sweets," crossed it out, and put the more specific "fruits" above it. Even "fruits," however, was not sufficiently detailed, and so he enumerated individually

candied apple, quince, and plum, and gourd,
And jellies soother than the dairy curd,
And lucent syrops smooth with cinnamon.

"Dairy curd" became the more concrete "creamy curd," and "lucent syrops smooth with cinnamon" was strengthened by the substitution of "tinct" for "smooth."4

"Touch," wrote Keats, "has a memory";5 and perhaps a part of this same instinctive working towards the tangible particular is Keats's tendency, in his maturer verse, to ally his other sensory images more closely with the sense of touch and consequently render them stronger and more concrete. Thus he revised

Unclasps her bosom jewels, one by one
("St. Agnes," xxvi, 3)

to read

Unclasps her warmèd jewels one by one.

In the alteration of the line

Pale, lattic'd, high, and silent as a tomb
(ib., xiii, 5),

where an appeal is already made to the senses of sight and hearing, an epithet addressed to the sense of touch is added:

Pale, lattic'd, chill, and silent as a tomb.

Incense is made almost tangible by being called "soft" and pictured as hanging:

I cannot see what flowers are at my feet
Nor what soft incense hangs upon the boughs
("Nightingale," 41-42).

Or again, to take three similar instances from the Fall of Hyperion:

… the touch
Of scent
(I, 23-4)
… the moist scent of flower
(I, 404)
… the small warm rain
Melts out the frozen incense from all flowers
(l, 98-99)

It was this same devotion to the concrete particular which led Keats, as he grew older, to regard human life with a zest and a gusto reminiscent of Chaucer and of Shakespeare. In a letter written to his brother, Tom, during the Scottish tour, Keats describes an old peasant woman: "Squab and lean she sat and puff'd out the smoke while two ragged tattered Girls carried her along. What a thing would be the history of her Life and sensations."6 In his copy of Matheo Aleman's The Rogue, or the Life of Guzman de Alfarache, he underlined the words, "His voice lowd and shrill but not very cleere, " and enthusiastically wrote in the margin: "This puts me in mind of Fielding's Fanny 'whose teeth were white but uneven '; it is the same sort of personality. The great man in this way is Chaucer." "Scenery is fine," he wrote to Bailey, "but human nature is finer. The Sward is richer for the tread of a real, nervous, English foot."7 "Wonders," he explained to his publisher, "are no wonders to me. I am more at home amongst Men and Women. I would rather read Chaucer than Aristoto."8 In the letter to Woodhouse in which he stressed the negative quality of the poet's own identity and the ability of the poet to enter, by an imaginative intuition, into the "identities" of the concrete particulars about him—the identities of the "Sun, the Moon, the Sea and Men and Women"—Keats added:

When I am in a room with People if ever I am free from speculating on creations of my own brain, then not myself goes home to my self: but the identity of every one in the room begins to press upon me [so] that I am in a very little time an[ni]hilated—not only among Men; it would be the same in a Nursery of children.9

"Nothing seemed to escape him," wrote Severn, who often accompained Keats on his walks:

… Even the features and gestures of passing tramps, the colour of one woman's hair, the smile on one child's face, the furtive animalism below the deceptive humanity in many of the vagrants, even the hats, clothes, shoes, wherever these conveyed the remotest hint as to the real self of the wearer.™

In the chapter on Lear in his copy of Hazlitt's Characters of Shakespear's Plays, he both sidemarked and underlined a passage which, he wrote in the margin, "has to a great degree the hieroglyphic visioning":

We see the ebb and flow of the feeling, its pauses and feverish starts, its impatience of opposition, its accumulating force when it has time to recollect itself, the manner in which it avails itself of every passing word or gesture, its haste to repel insinuation, the alternate contraction and dilatation of the soul.11

It was precisely this "ebb and flow of the feeling," this "alternate contraction and dilatation of the soul," this "same animal eagerness"—as Keats wrote in a letter to his brother—that underlies the "alertness of a Stoat or the anxiety of a Deer" (an "instinctiveness" which is "the very thing in which consists poetry"), momentarily glimpsed, for example, in the old peasant woman met during the Scottish tour, in the "smile on one child's face," in the "furtive animalism" in the faces of the passing vagrants: it was this hidden intention and movement which Keats called the "electric fire,"13 equally at work within an Iago or an Imogen,14 in a sparrow or even a billiard-ball,15 which gives every object and every creature its peculiar individuality and meaning, and which can be grasped only by an intuitive fellow-feeling on the part of the poet—this was for Keats both Beauty and Truth and, as he insisted,

is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

This "intensity" which Keats sought to detect and express was imprisoned within the concrete, and the concrete was a part of its nature and its truth. Whether his attention was directed to the beauty and significance of the tangible, inanimate world or to the specific natures of the human beings about him, that which held his fascination, which demanded the "annihilation" of his own identity, and which was indeed the very stuff of poetry and of truth for him was the distinctive meaning and individuality of the particular. From his craving for absorption in what varyingly constituted for him the poetical, but which was almost always the specific and concrete, arise the entire temper of his maturer verse and particularly his effort to secure the utmost tangible completeness of expression. It is hardly an exaggeration, indeed, to contend that it was this same desire for completeness which gave impetus and direction not only to an impassioned though disciplined intensity of epithet and image, but also to his faculty, as his craftsmanship developed, for drawing with increasing skill upon whatever phonetic, metrical, and general stylistic devices might simultaneously weight the richness and strengthen the texture of his lines.

It is the elucidation of the nature of this stylistic achievement which is the primary concern of this analysis. Attention must first be given, however, to that initial period of his writing when Keats, after composing a few lyrics in the conventional style of the century before, adopted numerous metrical and stylistic devices for securing a combined luxury and freedom—a combination he associated, at least in his early practice, with the intense and weighted expression which was a conscious goal in all his verse. The technical character of his early writing has perhaps little intrinsic interest. Despite the rapidity with which his critical insight matured, Keats's stylistic advance was by no means an immediate one. Until after the composition of "Isabella," he did not often rise above eclectic imitation, laxity, and occasionally fitful and perhaps misguided attempts to attain discipline and restraint. Yet there is ample warrant for the disjecta membra which strew the opening pages of this study. For analysis of Keats's stylistic progress before he wrote Hyperion discloses indications which, in their broad outline, sketch a consistent and distinctive development. It also helps to reveal, perhaps even more than the delineation of phrasal borrowing, the extent to which this gifted apprentice was indebted to various predecessors in English poetry, and the manner in which he sought and adapted from them stylistic devices to fit his immediate purpose.

The Early Sonnets

A large portion of the verse which Keats read, first at the school in Enfield with Charles Cowden Clarke and especially later with George Felton Mathew, to whom he addressed his first poetic epistle, was composed of the sonnets, odes, elegiac quatrains, and Spenserian stanzas of the century before; and the somewhat pale shadow of this reading is strongly apparent over much of the verse he wrote before the close of 1815. The kinship of this verse, in imagery and general temper, with eighteenth-century non-couplet verse has often been noticed. Like that of Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Byron, however, the earliest extant verse of Keats is perhaps even more closely allied with the eighteenth century in versification than in diction, image, and sentiment.16 But Keats quickly rejected eighteenth-cen tury convention, and his rejection of it in the lyrical form was curiously feverish and many-sided. "The imagination of a boy is healthy," he wrote in the Preface to Endymion, "and the mature imagination of a man is healthy; but there is a space of life between, in which the soul is in a ferment, the character undecided, the way of life uncertain, the ambition thicksighted: thence proceeds mawkishness. … " The state ment is perhaps even more applicable, in some respects, to the early sonnets than to Endymion. Although his earlier use of other lyrical forms is closely patterned after his eighteenth-century predecessors alone, and although his employment of the couplet mirrors at most only two or three strong separate influences, none of them greatly dissimilar in nature, yet the stylistic peculiarities of his early sonnets are manifold in number and diverse in origin, and seem to have been culled, unconsciously or at will, from almost the entire body of his reading.

In the verse written immediately after his earliest, eighteenth-century phase and before "Isabella," Keats's attempt to secure a sensuously rich and luxurious medium of expression freuently resulted in looseness and languor, and the models which he followed at the time were largely such as to encourage this result. The sources of his early vocabulary have often been outlined.17 His rather extreme tendency, for example, to use abstract nouns ending in -ment and -ing ("languishment," "embracement," "foldings," "mutterings," and the like); his excessive employment of y-ending adjectives ("palmy," "surgy," "pipy," and "slumbery"); and his frequent use of adverbs constructed from the present participle (such as "lingeringly" and "smilingly"); these somewhat mannered laxities, not to mention other and even less happy ones, are largely traceable to Hunt, Chapman, and William Browne. Together with such verbal influence from these poets there are a phraseology and a use of image—particularly in the early sonnets, as Raymond Havens has pointed out—which, as in the very earliest of Keats's verse written before 1816, are closely akin to the Delia Cruscans and to other eighteenth-century sonneteers. This combination of diverse influences, however, is perhaps more clearly revealed in other stylistic respects. Despite the momentary surge in the 1790's of sonnets written in the Shakespearean rhyme-scheme, the Petrarchan pattern (abba abba, with varying sestet) regained its dominance with the turn of the century, partly owing, perhaps, to Wordsworth's use of it. Capel Lofft's upholding of its superiority in his Laura (1814) and Leigh Hunt's assiduous advocacy" are characteristic. The sonnet-form chosen by Keats was substantially that Petrarchan sonnet which—frequently varied in rhyme-schemes, abounding in vocatives and run-on lines, and employing specific peculiarities of pause and turn—was largely introduced by Thomas Edwards and Benjamin Stillingfleet, and which was employed with varying success in the latter half of the eighteenth century by Thomas Russell and the Delia Cruscans, by Mary Tighe, Anna Seward, and Helen Maria Williams, and by Bowles, Southey, and Coleridge.20 But within the conventional rhyme-frames of Keats's sonnets written before 1818, containing though they do stylistic patterns equally conventional, there also appear peculiarities of prosody and general structure which are in no way conventional and which seem to have been gathered from Shakespeare and Fletcher, from Milton and Wordsworth, possibly from Chapman and William Browne, and above all from Leigh Hunt. The eighteenth-century sonnet was often characterized by structural laxity, particularly by a breaking-down of strict division between individual quatrains and octave and sestet.21 Against this particular laxity, if hardly against any other, Leigh Hunt offered fitful opposition in both precept and practice. Although Keats's two earliest sonnets, "On Peace" and "To Byron," over-run strict division, it is noteworthy that in only one22 of the twentyone sonnets of the 1817 volume is there any lack of a marked break between octave and sestet, and that in only five23 is a similar break absent in the quatrains of the octave. In the first quatrain of the octave, moreover, Keats, like Hunt, occasionally made use of an end-stopped opening line, expanding and in some way illustrating this initial statement in the remaining three lines:

Glory and loveliness have passed away;
For if we wander out in early morn,
No wreathèd incense do we see upborne
Into the east, to meet the smiling day.

The poetry of earth is never dead:
When all the birds are faint with the hot sun,
And hide in cooling trees, a voice will run
From hedge to hedge about the new-mown mead.24

The example of Hunt, however, is perceptible in stylistic peculiarities which far transcend mere structural formation, and which lead less to restraint than to a deliberate negligence. Among such peculiarities is a liberal and distinctive use of stress-failure and trisyllabic feet, in which the influence of Chapman may likewise be discernible.25 Perhaps a further instance is the treatment of inversion of accent. The initially inverted foot—as in

  ʹ    ˘
Much have / I travell'd in the realms of gold,
  ʹ  ˘
Oft of / one wide expanse had I been told—

had long been extolled in eighteenth-century prosodic writing as a legitimate variety which in no way violated the metrical integrity of the line,26 even Pope, careful though he was of varying the iambic measure, had used it very freely.27 One is tempted to believe that it was precisely because, next to stress-failure, initial inversion was the commonest metrical variation of the preceding century that Hunt cut its use in his own verse, and sought other devices for avoiding metrical monotony. Keats followed Hunt—though the example of Chapman may also have encouraged him28—and likewise avoided any extensive use of initially inverted feet in his early sonnets: they total only 2.3%,29 and the frequency is low not only in comparison with the verse of the preceding century, including the sonnets, but with Keats's own later verse as well.

Because it was felt that it broke, in some measure, the skeletal structure of the iambic line, medial inversion of accent—as in the line,

 ˘́     ʹ     ˘   ʹ          ʹ   ˘        ˘   ʹ      ˘ ʹ Took hap / py flights. / Who shall / his fame / impair
(Written on the Day, 13),

or as in

  ʹ     ʹ    ˘    ʹ        ʹ      ˘       ˘   ʹ        ˘́     ʹ Small bus / y flames / play through / the fresh / laid coals
(To My Brothers, 1),—

had, during the course of the eighteenth century, been carefully avoided in practice and roundly condemned in theory. Bysshe, rather more lenient than many Augustan prosodists, had none the less only a bad word to say for it;30 even the tolerant Daniel Webb censured it severely. The body of the pentameter line, said Webb,

is never more musical than when it consists entirely of iambic: on the contrary, two trochees in succession have an ill effect, as:

   ʹ  ˘     ʹ  ˘     ˘   ʹ  ˘  ʹ     ˘      ʹ
Gen'rous converse, a soul exempt from pride.31

Anselm Bayly likewise censured medial inversion,32 as did Johnson and others.33

Now although in his Examiner review of the 1817 volume, he expressed disapproval of the double medial inversion of Keats's

  ˘́   ʹ    ˘    ʹ       ʹ   ˘      ʹ  ˘     ˘   ʹ
How man / y bards / gild the / lapses / of time,

Hunt had always commended the use of at least some medial inversion; he had at some length criticized the lack of it in eighteenth-century poetry,34 and had himself employed it to what was still considered a rather unusual degree (1.7%).35 However much Keats was later to diminish, if not absolutely abolish it, medial inversion of accent is sometimes found in his early sonnets (.9%).36 Yet it is by no means as frequent as it had been in Hunt's sonnets, and Keats's use of it occurs mainly in his early couplets (1.7%),37 where metrical license was more deliberately sought by him.

The problem of pause or cæsura had been a large one in eighteenth-century verse, and care in cæsural placing had in general been as much exercised by the poets as it had been preached by the prosodists.38 It had been felt that, since the iambic line as a unit concludes with a strong syllable, the pause should consequently come after a strong syllable, as in

Why did I write? (x) What sin to me unknown
Dopp'd me in ink, (x) my parents', or my own?

(Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot, 125-126).

From a quarter to a third of the lines, however, were allowed to have the pause in the precise center (immediately after the fifth syllable, that is)—the cæsura thus being feminine and occurring after a light stress, as in

Soft were my numbers; (x) who could take offence
While pure description (x) held the place of sense?
Like gentle Fanny's (x) was my flowerytheme,
A painted mistress, (x) or a purling stream

Since it was believed, too, that a cæsura towards the close of the line rendered the line top-heavy, and turned the latter half into something of a short tail—as in

I wish'd the man a dinner, (x) and sate still

it was likewise maintained that the cæsura should preferably come in the first half of the line.

It was in general felt throughout the eighteenth century that any balance of the decasyllabic line was impossible if the cæsura came before the fourth syllable or after the seventh. The syllables after which the cæsura might appear were consequently narrowed down to the fourth, fifth, and sixth. A sparing use of the sixth-syllable-pause resulted from the preference for a cæsura in the first half-line; and the premium upon a masculine cæsura necessitated care against over-use of the pause after the lightly-stressed fifth syllable. A rather extreme partiality was consequently shown during the eighteenth century for the cæsura which came precisely after the second foot, or fourth syllable. From 25% to 30% of the lines, however, had it in the center, after the fifth syllable, and from 5% to 10% after the sixth; on only rare occasions might the pause be otherwise placed. Leigh Hunt argued against such restriction of pausing,39 and his argument found practical illustration in his own verse. More than any other writer of his day, he consistently placed the cæsura as frequently in the second half-line as in the first, and even more after an unaccented syllable than one which was stressed. His sonnets, like his other verse, are replete with second-half-line and feminine cæsuras, the excessive use of which, as the Augustans were well aware, gave a continued falling rhythm, often resulting in lassitude and weakness:

The throng of life has strengthened, (x) without harm;
You know the rural feeling, (x) and the charm …

… . .

'Tis now deep whispering (x) all about me here,
With thousand tiny hushings, (x) like a swarm …

(To Barnes, 2-3, 5-6).

No other contemporary writer consistently varied his cæsuras with the liberality of Hunt, and the early sonnets of Keats, in this respect, follow Hunt's sonnets to a marked degree.40

After syllable:
2: 2.7% (8)
3: 3.4% (10)
4: 23.8% (70)
5: 34% (90)
6: 15.9% (47)
7: 12.5% (37)
8: 1.3% (4)
Double or triple caesuras: 8.5% (25)
After syllable:
2: 2.8% (4)
3: 3.5% (5)
4: 22.1% (31)
5: 30% (42)
6: 16.5% (23)
7: 12.8% (18)
8: .6% (1)
11.4% (16)41

This frequent tendency to use a late and feminine cæsura—as in

Kind Hunt was shut in prison, (x) yet has he,
In his immortal spirit, (x) been as free

("Written on the Day," 2-3)—

is perhaps the most noteworthy single metrical peculiarity of the early verse of Keats, and, except for Hunt, distinguishes Keats from almost the entire body of previous writers of English pentameter. "I shall have," he wrote, "The Reputation of Hunt's elevé. His corrections and amputations will by the knowing ones be traced";42 and the statement was not made without warrant.

Despite the extent to which the shadow of Hunt is cast over the early sonnets of Keats, other influences, though to far less degree, guided their technical construction. Repetition of word or phrase, for example, is frequent:

E'en then, elate, my spirit leaps, and prances;
E'en then my soul with exultation dances

("Woman! when I behold thee," 6-7).

Minion of grandeur! think you he did wait?
Think you he nought but prison walls did see?

("Written on the Day," 5-6).

He of the cloud, the cataract, the lake,

… . .

He of the rose, the violet, the spring

("Great spirits now," 2, 5).

Yet do I sometimes feel a languishment

… . .

Yet do I often warmly burn to see

("Happy is England," 5, 12).

This repetition or parallelism of phrase and of line is almost totally absent in sonnets since the Elizabethans (except, on rare occasions, those of Thomas Russell, and Charlotte Smith), and equally lacking in the sonnets of Keats's contemporaries. It is perhaps safe to assert that it was caught directly from Shakespeare, whose sonnets Keats had been attentively reading, and that such repetition forecasts, in a relatively crude manner, far subtler rhetorical devices of parallelism and antithesis which abound in the later sonnets, and in which the influence of Shakespeare is clearly discernible.43 Shakespearean influence may perhaps be detected also in the alternate-rhyming quatrains at the opening of the cdcdcd sestet, where—as in Shakespeare's use of the alternately-rhymed quatrains of his sonnet—independent alternate with dependent clauses:

And, as I feasted on its fragrancy,
I thought the garden-rose it far excell'd:
But when, Wells! thy roses came to me,
My sense with their deliciousness was spell'd

("To a Friend," 9-12).

The early sonnets of Keats, finally, in marked contrast to those he wrote later, make abundant use of the feminine ending, as in

Sweeter by far than Hybla's honied roses,
When steep'd in dew rich to intoxication…
And when the moon her pallid face discloses,
I'll gather some by spells, and incantation

(Had I a man's fair form," 10-11, 13-14).

The feminine endings in the sonnets of the 1817 volume total 8.4%. Milton had used the feminine ending sparingly in his sonnets (3.8%); the sonneteers of the eighteenth century had avoided it almost entirely, while Hunt and Wordsworth employed it hardly more than Milton. It is not improbable that, in Keats's partiality in these sonnets for the femining ending, the influence of Shakespeare—whose feminine endings in the sonnets total 7.4%—is again manifest, although Keats may also have found encouragement in Fletcher.

A tendency to make a marked division of the first quatrain towards the close of a run-on third line is sufficiently frequent in these sonnets to be designated as a mannerism:

How many bards gild the lapses of time!
A few of them have ever been the food
Of my delighted fancy,—I could brood
Over their beauties, earthly, or sublime.

The poetry of earth is never dead:
When all the birds are faint with the hot sun,
And hide in cooling trees, a voice will run
From hedge to hedge about the new-mown mead.

To one who has been long in city pent,
'Tis very sweet to look into the fair
And open face of heaven,—to breathe a prayer
Full in the smile of the blue firmament.44

Such a division is reminiscent in structure of Wordsworth's

It is a beauteous evening, calm and free,
The holy time is quiet as a nun
Breathless with adoration; the broad sun
Issinking down in its tranquillity.

Although a somewhat similar division is found at rare intervals in the sonnets of Milton, Hunt, and Mary Tighe,45 it occurs with relative frequency only in Wordsworth,46 and it is not improbable that Wordsworth was the source of this mannerism in Keats's early sonnets.

Run-on lines are numerous in these sonnets, and often continue for three lines together:

Had I a man's fair form, then might my sighs
Be echoed swiftly through that ivory shell
Thine ear, and find thy heart; so well
Would passion arm me for the enterprise.

After dark vapours have oppress'd our plains
For a long dreary season, comes a day
Born of the gentle South, and clears away
From the sick heavens all unseemly stains.

Leigh Hunt, on the whole, had employed run-on lines in his sonnets with some moderation (18.4%),47 and, except for Anna Seward and Thomas Warton, it is improbable that the sonneteers of the preceding century had used run-on lines much more than this. In the sonnets of Keats's 1817 volume, however, run-on lines total 30.9% (91). Although Milton (41.4%)48 may have furnished him with some encouragement, there is some evidence that the frequency of the run-on line in Keats's early sonnets is partially owing to the example of Wordsworth (30.2%),49 who, following Milton, had been quite liberal in his use of it.

Patterned though they are in general after the eighteenth-century sonnet (as his other, earlier lyrics were patterned after the eighteenth-century treatment of their respective forms), the stylistic texture of Keats's early sonnets was woven of many and diverse strands. He drew upon rhyme-schemes conventional in many sonneteers of the eighteenth century, and also adopted from them stylistic devices which were largely peculiar to their own use and which he later took sedulous pains to avoid. At the same time, Keats turned chiefly to Hunt for prosodic guidance in these sonnets, and where Hunt led, Keats unhesitatingly followed. For example, except in the sonnet "To Byron," written before he knew Hunt, Keats abandoned the eighteenth-century cæsural placing of his earliest verse, and to quite a remarkable degree followed Hunt. Like Hunt, too, he tightened the structure of the octave quatrains, made abundant and peculiar use of the trisyllabic foot, and, with the example of Chapman also before him, employed medial inversion with perhaps more liberality than had been common for over a century. Like Shakespeare, he attempted various patterns of parallelism; with the practice of both Shakespeare and Fletcher to encourage him, he drew plentifully upon feminine endings, which had almost passed from English pentameter verse. Nor did the sonnets, finally, of Milton and Wordsworth, with their frequent run-on lines, fail to leave their impress. For the bulk of Keats's early sonnets, from whatever angle they are viewed, were largely experimental, and were consequently open to any stylistic suggestion that seemed to contribute towards the smooth and easy yet varied and luxurious medium of expression which Leigh Hunt had commended and which Keats desired to attain; and the metrical manner in which the sonnet was at first treated by Keats, even more perhaps than such matters as diction or imagery, is almost a microcosm in which were concentrated the heterogeneous influences of his reading.


1 To George and Thomas Keats, December 21, 1817, Letters, ed. M. B. Forman (New York, 1935), p. 71. Subsequent references to Keats's Letters are to this edition.

2 For discussion of this in some detail, see the essay by the present writer on Negative Capability: the Intuitive Approach in Keats (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1939), esp. pp. 47-78.

3 August, 1820, Letters, p. 507.

4 Three similarly concrete revisions may be instanced from the manuscript of the ode To Autumn: "Who hath not seen thee? for thy haunts are many" was altered to "Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?" "Or sound sleep on a half reapèd field" became "Or on a half-reap'd furrow sound asleep"; and "Spares for one slumbrous minute the next swath" was transformed to "Spares the next swath and all its twinèd flowers."

5Lines to Fanny, 4.

6 July 3-9, 1818, Letters, p. 174.

7 March 13, 1818, ibid., p. 111.

8 November 17, 1819, ibid., pp. 439-440.

9 October 27, 1818, ibid., p. 228.

10 William Sharp, Life and Letters of Joseph Severn (1892), p. 20.

11 Printed for R. Hunter and and J. Oilier (London, 1817)—now in the Harvard Keats Memorial Collection—p. 157.

12 February 14-May 3, 1819, Letters, p. 317.

13Ibid., p. 316.

14 To Woodhouse, October 27, 1818, ibid., p. 228.

15 "If a sparrow comes before my Window I take part in its existence and pick about the Gravel" (to Bailey, November 22, 1817, ibid., p. 69). Cf. the lines in "The Poet":

' Tis the man who with a bird,
Wren or Eagle, finds his way to
All its instincts

It is Woodhouse's Scrap-Book (now in the Morgan Library) which is responsible for the unusual and interesting story that Keats "affirmed that he can conceive of a billiard-Bali that it may have a sense of delight from its own roundness, smoothness & volubility & the rapidity of its motion." Keats (Oct. 27, 1818) had explained to Woodhouse his theory of "negative capability." Woodhouse is here commenting on Keats's letter, and adds: "I believe him to be right with regards to his own Poetical Character—And I perceive clearly the distinction he draws between himself & those of the Wordsworth School… . The highest order of Poet … will have so high an imagn that he will be able to throw his own soul into any object he sees or imagines, so as to see feel be sensible of & express all that the object itself wod see feel be sensible of or express. He will speak out of that object so that his own self will with the Exception of the mechanical part be 'annihilated.'—and it is the excess of this power that I suppose to speak, when he says he has no identity. As a poet, and when the fit is upon him, it is true… . Let us pursue Speculation on these Matters: & we shall soon be brot to believe in the truth of every syllable of Keats's letter, taken as a description of himself & his own ideas and feelgs."

16 See Appendix A, pp. 189-191.

17 See especially de Selincourt's admirable Appendix in his Poems of John Keats (3rd ed., 1912), pp. 576-580.

18Influence of Milton on English Poetry (Cambridge, Mass., 1922), pp. 538-541.

19 See in particular his article "On the Nature and Property of the Sonnet," in his Book of the Sonnet (1867), I, 8-15.

20 See Appendix B, pp. 191-194.

21 See p. 192, below.

22 The atrocious sonnet, "Ah, who can e'er forget."

23On Leaving Some Friends at an Early Hour, To G. A. W., "O Solitude," "Woman! when I behold thee," and "Ah, who can e'er forget."

24 See also, "Great spirits now on earth," "Many the wonders," and "How many bards."

25 See Appendix C, pp. 194-196.

26 See, for example, John Newbery, Art of Poetry (1762), I, 11; John Mason, Essay on the Power of Numbers (1749), p. 43; Lord Kames, Elements of Criticism (Edinburgh, 1762), II, 384-385; Dr. Johnson, Rambler, No. 86; Lord Monboddo, Origin and Progress of Language (Edinburgh, 1774), II, 388 n.; and William Mitford, Inquiry into the Principles of Harmony in Language (2nd ed., 1804), p. 99. See also among the prosodists of Keats's own day, John Carey, Practical English Prosody and Versification (1816), p. 42.

27 Initially inverted feet in the Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot, for example, total 5.4% (113).

28Iliad, I, 1-130: 2.1% (20).

29 A total of 57; figured from the 21 sonnets of the 1817 volume.

30Art of English Poetry (4th ed., 1710), pp. 5-6.

31Observations on the Correspondence between Poetry and Music (1749), p. 107n.

32Music, Poetry, and Oratory (1789), p. 108.

33Rambler, No. 86. It is of special significance that even Lord Monboddo—who, regarding Milton with reverence, was usually ready to sanction his metrical liberties (if not those of other poets), and who avenged Johnson's occasional harsh words on Milton's versification with even harsher epithets applied to Johnson's poetical ear—felt himself compelled to doubt the legitimacy of

  ʹ     ʹ     ˘   ʹ     ˘  ˘       ʹ  ˘     ˘   ʹ
Burnt af / ter him / to the / bottom / less pit.

Milton's intention, he agreed, was variety, and the inversion was consciously made; but it nonetheless "breaks the measure of the verse altogether" (Origin and Progress of Language [Edinburgh, 1774], II, 388). Sentiment against medial inversion was still strong after the turn of the century. See, for example, John Carey, p. 43, and William Crowe, Treatise on English Versification (1829), pp. 81-83 and 319n.

34 See in particular the second edition of the Feast of the Poets (1815)—a copy of which Keats owned—pp. 34-35n.

35 (14); from the twelve Petrarchan sonnets published before 1818 (the sonnets To Barnes, To Alsager, and To Kosciusko, the five sonnets To Hampstead, The Poets, To the Grasshopper and the Cricket, Engraving of a Portrait of Rafael, and "A steeple issuing"). Cf. the excessive medial inversion in Chapman, in whom Keats may also have found precedent: Iliad, I, 1-130: 3.5% (32).

36 (23); from the twenty-one sonnets of the 1817 volume.

37 See Appendix E, p. 201.

38 See pp. 203-209, where, in Appendix G, the eighteenth-century theory of pause is discussed at some length.

39 See especially the adverse analysis of Pope's cæsural placing in the second edition of Hunt's Feast of the Poets (1815), pp. 31-41.

40 In the tabulation for Keats, the entire twenty-one sonnets of the 1817 volume have been included. In the count for Hunt, ten sonnets were analyzed (the sonnets To Barnes and To Kosciusko, Engraving of a Portrait of Rafael, The Poets, To the Grasshopper and the Cricket, "As one who after long," "Sweet upland," "Winter has reached thee," "The baffled spell," and "A steeple issuing"). Here, and in all subsequent statistical notes, numbers in parentheses refer to number of occurrences. And in this and in all following tabulations of cæsuras, the number of the syllable after which the pause is stated to occur is not necessarily the actual syllable, numerically speaking, but rather the syllable which it takes in the theoretical scansion of the ten-syllable line. Thus, in the line "Of all the unhealthy (x) and o'er-darken'd ways," the pause would be said to come after the fifth syllable—that is, in the precise center; although, owing to an elidable trisyllabic foot, it is actually after the sixth syllable.

41Cf. Pope's Rape of the Lock, II: 2nd: 4.2% (6); 3rd: .7% (1); 4th: 45.8% (65); 5th: 27.4% (39); 6th: 8.4% (12); 7th: 2.1% (3); 8th: 2.1% (3); double or triple cæsuras: 9.1% (13).

42 To Bailey, Oct. 8, 1817, Letters, p. 53.

43 See later, pp. 120-125.

44 See also, e.g., To a Friend Who Sent Me Some Roses, To G. A. W., and To My Brother George. This peculiarity of division may in infrequent instances be found in a quatrain other than the first, as in this immature and rather embarrassing quatrain:

From such fine pictures, heavens! I cannot dare
To turn my admiration, though unpossess'd
They be of what is worthy,—though not drest
In lovely modesty, and virtues rare'

("Light feet, dark violet eyes," 5-8).

45 See, for example, Milton's sonnets to Vane and to Lawes, Hunt's To Barnes, and Mrs. Tighe's "Poor, fond, deluded heart." I am aware of no other sonneteers teers who have employed this division, except possibly by accident, before Wordsworth.

46 Typical instances are "Inland within a hollow vale," "Well may'st thou halt," "A Poet—he hath put his heart," and To Touissant L'Ouverture.

47 From the twelve Petrarchan sonnets which Hunt published before 1818 (see above… [n. 35]), and of which 31 lines are run-on.

48 (107); figured from all the English sonnets.

49 (144); figured from the thirty-four Miscellaneous Sonnets which were published before 1816 (Pt. I, 1-3, 5, 8-9, 12-14, 23-28, 30-33, 35-36; Pt. II, 2, 4, 10-12, 18, 20, 22-24, 29, 31, 36).


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John Keats 1795–1821

English poet and dramatist.

See also, Hyperion Criticism.

John Keats, today renowned as a leading poet of the Romantic movement, was viciously snubbed by many contemporary critics and by other poets. During his lifetime, Keats struggled against the obstacles of his lower-middle class social standing, limited education, early association with the "Cockney School" of poetry, and poor health, as he sought to develop his skills as a poet and advance his poetical theories. Even after his premature death at the age of twenty-five, and well into the nineteenth century, Keats's poetry continued to be disparaged as overly sensitive, sensuous, and simplistic. By the twentieth century, however, his position within the Romantic movement had been revalued by critics. Keats continues to draw scholarly, critical, and popular attention. Issues examined by modern critics include Keats's political leanings; his theories regarding poetic imagination and "negative capability"; the rapid development of his poetry from the Cockney style to his more complex efforts, such as Hyperion, The Fall of Hyperion, and his later odes; and Keats's treatment of women in his poetry.

Biographical Information

Keats, the oldest of four children, was born in London in 1795 into a working, middle-class family. He lost both his parents at an early age; his father died when Keats was seven, and his mother died six years later. The Keats children were then placed within the care of a guardian. While attending the Clarke school in Enfield, Keats did not display any proclivity toward literature until the age of fifteen, when his friend Charles Cowden Clarke, the son of the school's headmaster, helped to interest Keats in mythology and travel-lore. At about the same time, Keats's guardian apprenticed the teenager to an apothecary-surgeon. Keats entered medical school and in 1816 passed the examinations required to become a surgeon. That same year, Keats met Leigh Hunt, who published the liberal journal the Examiner. In 1817, Keats published a volume of poems, which is typically characterized as an immature effort, although the few reviews the volume received were not wholly unfavorable. The 1818 publication of Endymion is regarded as a transitional effort by Keats, in which the influence of Hunt and his Cockney

style is still detected in the use of colloquialisms, and in the luxurious and sentimental style. Yet the poem also displays an increasing level of skill and maturity that would culminate in Keats's next volume of poetry, Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St. Agnes, and Other Poems (1820). This publication would also be Keats's last; shortly after the publication of Endymion, the first symptoms of tuberculosis, the disease that had killed his mother and his brother Tom, began to trouble Keats. In the autumn of 1820, in an effort to stabilize his health in Italy's fair climate, Keats left England, what remained of his family, and his love, Fanny Brawne. Keats died in Rome five months later.

Major Works

Endymion, while still displaying some of the flaws of Keats's earlier poetry, was also graced with mythological, poetical, and artistic imagery. The story itself, chronicling the love of Endymion and Diana, is based in myth, although Keats's knowledge of it was taken from other English renderings of the myth, as Keats never learned Greek. The primary theme of the poem has been described by critics Samuel C. Chew and Richard D. Altick (1948) as "the quest of a unity transcending the flux of the phenomenal world." Keats's Hyperion, published in his 1820 volume of poetry, was followed by the incomplete The Fall of Hyperion, which is regarded by most critics as Keats's attempt to revise the earlier work. Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion, like Endymion, focus on mythological themes; the story centers on the Titans' fall to the triumphant Olympians. Some critics have suggested that the history of the French Revolution played some role in Keats's construction of the poem. Other works considered to be among Keats's greatest are the odes published in the 1820 volume, including "Ode to Psyche," "Ode to a Nightingale," and "Ode on a Grecian Urn." The poems examine such themes as the relationship between art and life, and the nature of human suffering.

Critical Reception

One issue modern critics have studied is the discrepancy between the initial, often negative, reception of Keats and his poetry and the stellar literary reputation Keats enjoys today. Marjorie Levinson (1988) focuses her study on the barrier posed by Keats's social standing, pointing out ways in which his lower-middle-class status affected his work and influenced the negative reviews offered by his critics. Concentrating on politics rather than class status, Nicholas Roe (1992) similarly maintains that Keats's potential political subversiveness was the reason his poetry was deprecated by contemporary critics. Like Roe, Morris Dickstein (1983) examines Keats's politics, demonstrating that early on, Keats was associated not only with Leigh Hunt's poetry, but also with his liberal politics. Dickstein further argues that Keats makes his revulsion for the politics of the day and his desire for social and political progress explicit themes in both his poetry and his letters.

Keats's letters are often studied by critics to gain insight into his poetical theories. Wolf Z. Hirst (1981) examines Keats's letters to his family and friends and discusses what the letters reveal about Keats's theories of "negative capability," the truth of Imagination, and "soul-making." Hirst interprets that by negative capability, Keats was referring to the ability of a poet to suppress his ego, to be "capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason… ." Keats's letters also reveal his belief that human suffering is a necessary experience in the processes of personality development and soulmaking, and that what the imagination apprehends as beauty must be truth. These theories are also reflected in Keats's poetry, and critic A. E. Eruvbetine (1984, 1987) examines the qualities of Keats's poetic imagination and of beauty as an aesthetic ideal, as displayed in his poems. Eruvbetine argues that to Keats, imagination served as the "true voice of feeling," that through the imaginative experience truth was revealed and new experiences could be envisioned. In the essay on beauty, Eruvbetine asserts that beauty represented to Keats a medium for accessing truth. While truth and beauty were apparently resolved into a single aesthetic ideal, the critic notes, beauty remained the focus of the ideal.

In addition to exposing his poetical theories, Keats's letters also conveyed his mixed emotions about the love of his life, Fanny Brawne. Critics such as Margaret Homans (1990) examine Keats's remarks to and about Fanny Brawne in his letters as a means of understanding the way in which women are portrayed in his poetry. Homans likens the objectification and distancing of Brawne in the letters to Keats's objectification of women in his poetry, and to the poet's attempts to exclude female readers from gaining access to his poems. Similarly, in Karla Alwes's 1993 study of Keats's exploitation of the female "not only as an ideal to be achieved but as an obstacle to that achievement," Alwes suggests that Keats's difficult relationship with Brawne is related to the depiction of the female in "La Belle Dame sans Merci," in which the critic argues "the male is seen as most vulnerable."

In addition to these areas of scholarship, modern critics still study Keats's poetry in more traditional ways, analyzing his imagery, style, and the structure of his poems. For example, Richard Harter Fogle (1949) explores the way in which the "concreteness" of Keats's imagery affects the metrical structure of his poems; François Matthey (1974) examines the development of the structural complexity of Keats's poetry; Jack Stillinger (1990) asserts that through narrative analysis Keats's poems can be better understood; and John A. Minahan (1992) investigates Keats's use of music in his poetry.

Most modern students and scholars appear to be interested in Keats as an individual and as a poet, noting that to fully appreciate the poetry, one must fully appreciate the man. As Jerome McGann (1979) argues, Keats must be approached historically, rather than in the strictest literary sense, if analysis of his poetry "is to achieve either precision or comprehensiveness."

Samuel C. Chew and Richard D. Altick (essay date 1948)

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SOURCE: "John Keats," in A Literary History of England, edited by Albert C. Baugh, Appleton-Century-Crofts, Inc., 1948, pp. 1241-51.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1948, Chew and Altick offer a brief overview of Keats's life and works. The critics conclude by observing the impact of Keats on Victorian arts and literature.]

Keats,1 like Théophile Gautier, was "a man for whom the physical world exists." His genius was objective and concrete, moving not so readily in the world of abstract thought as in the world of imaginative realization.2 Yet critics who regard him as the lover and creator of sensuous beauty are opposed by those who contend that he is a great philosophic poet.3 The truth probably lies between these two extremes. Efforts to synthesize his ideas do not carry conviction, for later views of life would, had he lived longer, probably have been as much subject to change as had been those of earlier date. All that can be discerned clearly is the drift from romantic egocentricity towards objectivity. The problem of his development is one of the most fascinating of literary studies because of the wealth of evidence both in his poems and letters and in the records accumulated by his friends.4 The swiftness of his progress is almost without parallel in the history of the arts. There were retardations and perturbations, returning eddies which swept him upstream to points which he had left behind; but always his exalted conception of poetry made him dissatisfied with each stage as it was reached and determined to press on further. What his goal might have been we cannot say. He expressed the hope to live to write "a few great plays"; but there is little evidence to support the opinion that his true bent was towards the drama. On better grounds it may be held that with longer life he would have written more, and greater, narrative poetry, in which human characters portrayed with psychological insight would have moved before a background of romantic beauty.5 But this is mere speculation. What we know is that in the three or four crucial years (1816-1819) there was a struggle between what Keats thought of as the Wordsworthian conception of the poet's function and what he thought of as the Shakespearean, a struggle, that is, between the opposing ideals of a reasoned humanitarianism and an objective dispassionateness of suspended judgment.

Born in London in the milieu of an humble trade but of people self-respecting and fairly well-to-do, John Keats (1795-1821) at an early age lost his father; then his mother; and then the grandmother who after his parents' death had given him a home. The terms of a trust deprived him of the share in a modest estate which would have relieved him of anxieties and perhaps prolonged his life. At school at Enfield (1803-1811) he made friends with Charles Cowden Clarke, the son of the headmaster. There are records of Keats's vivacious personality, pugnacity, sense of humor, and love of sport, but not of any special interest in literature till at the age of fifteen Clarke helped to awaken in him a love of mythology and travel-lore. In 1811 his guardian apprenticed him to an apothecary-surgeon at Edmonton.6 His reading of The Faerie Queene resulted in 1813 in the first poem that is still extant, an "Imitation of Spenser" of little value. The influence which the poems of Mary Tighe had upon him has been exaggerated.7 That Keats knew and admired Mrs. Tighe's Psyche (1805) is indubitable; but most of the parallels noted between her poetry and his are due to their common use of conventional and sentimental diction. Nothing is unimportant in tracing the development of such a genius; but the student must turn to larger treatises for the details of Keats's juvenilia. Among them is an "Ode to Apollo" in the manner of Gray, and sonnets addressed to the memory of Chatterton, to Byron, and to Leigh Hunt (lately released from prison). The influence of Byron was ephemeral; that of Chatterton subtly pervasive; Hunt's for a time paramount.

In October, 1815, Keats became a medical student in the London hospitals. A verse epistle to a friend, G. F. Mathew, is in a genre descending from Drayton. For the run-on couplets with many double rimes and accented light syllables there was Elizabethan precedent as well as Hunt's example; but the displeasing colloquialisms are due to Hunt's vulgarization of the Wordsworthian principle of simplicity of diction. With the desire to emulate The Story of Rimini Keats began a romantic narrative, but this "Specimen of an Induction to a Poem" got no further than the title indicates, for the story refused to "come." Of "Calidore," an offshoot from The Faerie Queene, only the opening episode was written. The jauntiness of the narrative shows that Hunt, not Spenser, was Keats's model. The luscious vocabulary includes some of Hunt's favorite words, notably those soft adjectives ending in y which for so long were blemishes on Keats's style. In the "Epistle to My Brother George," written in August, 1816, Keats debated the choice between surgery and poetry as a profession; by September, as we learn from the "Epistle to Charles Cowden Clarke," the die had been cast. Then suddenly, as though to put the seal upon an irrevocable decision, in October he wrote the sonnet "On First Looking into Chapman's Homer,"8 drawing a magnificent simile from Robertson's narrative of Balboa's first sight of the Pacific Ocean and another from Bonnycastle's narrative of Herschel's discovery of Uranus. We feel that to the excitement of the exploration of the earth, the heavens, and the golden realms of poetry Keats was adding the ardor of the exploration of his own poetic powers. This impression connects the Chapman sonnet with "Sleep and Poetry," upon which he was engaged in the autumn, after he and Hunt had become friends. This poem, which contains the famous description of Hunt's study at Hampstead, is the fullest expression of Keats's discipleship. Hunt's teaching is recognizable in the survey of the three schools of English poetry: the "Italian," which was dominant from Chaucer to Milton; the "French," in which a foppish and barbaric "crew" obeyed the rules dictated by Boileau; and the new, "natural" school of which Wordsworth is the master and to which Hunt and, by implication, Keats himself belong. A contrast is drawn between the poetry of natural loveliness which is presided over by "Flora and old Pan" and the poetry which reveals "the agonies, the strife of human hearts." The need to choose between the two kinds remained the burning problem in Keats's thought.9 In a companion poem without title, beginning "I stood tip-toe upon a little hill," Keats described the stimulus to the poetic faculty afforded by natural beauty and developed the Wordsworthian doctrine that the poets of ancient Greece were inspired by that beauty to create myths. This piece is, then, a sort of proem to Endymion.

Intimacy with Hunt reached a climax on the day when the two poets crowned each other with laurel. Of the effusiveness and affectation of this "intercoronation" episode Keats was soon ashamed, as he confessed in an "Ode" in which he asked forgiveness of Apollo. He had now met Benjamin Robert Haydon, the painter and art-critic, lately victorious in his battle for recognition of the Phidian workmanship and supreme aesthetic value of the Elgin marbles.10 Haydon's efforts to emancipate the young poet from discipleship to Hunt bore first fruit in the sonnet "On Seeing the Elgin Marbles." The first period in Keats's career was rounded out in March, 1817, when his first volume, entitled simply Poems,11 was published. The few reviews, though slight, were not altogether unfavorable. Keats had progressed far enough to accept the admonition to eschew affectation and shun bad models.

Endymion,12 which marks a transitional phase in Keats's development, was written between April and October, 1817. A close study of Shakespeare's diction, style, and imagery began early in this year.13 The study of Milton and of Dante (in Cary's translation) was encouraged by a new friend, Benjamin Bailey, a theological student, who also turned the poet's thoughts towards humanitarianism. The incubus of Hunt's bad taste could not be shaken off easily; colloquialisms, vulgarisms, and a soft lusciousness of style and sentiment mar Endymion, particularly in the amorous passages; but on the other hand there are exquisite felicities, single lines of terse grandeur, and (memorably in the "Song of Sorrow") a prodigal wealth of imagery drawn from poetry, mythology, and the fine arts. The too abundant use of run-on couplets, imitated not so much from Hunt as from Drayton, William Browne, and other poets of the English Renaissance, gives a slipshod effect that is due not to carelessness but to faulty taste. The reviewers who noted that the rimes often seem to dictate the sense rather than the sense the rimes made a valid criticism. Keats took the story of the love of Endymion and Diana from Drayton's The Man in the Moon and perhaps from the same poet's Endimion and Phoebe. Some suggestions seem to have come from Lyly's court-satire, Endimion, and others from allusions to the myth in other Renaissance poets. Lemprière's Classical Dictionary and other books of reference were at hand. The interwoven episodes of Venus and Adonis, Glaucus and Scylla, and Alpheus and Arethusa came from like sources. Drayton had used the moon as a symbol of Ideal Beauty; but Keats's central idea, the Platonic theme of the quest of a unity transcending the flux of the phenomenal world, came in the main from Spenser's Four Hymns, with suggestions from Shelley's Alastor.14 The thread of this theme, though never broken, is often lost to sight in the luxuriant decorative detail. Endymion passes through four stages of experience, to each of which one of the four books of the poem is devoted. On his progress towards the attainment of "fellowship with Essence" he experiences the beauty of Nature; of Art (and more especially of Poetry); of Friendship; and of Love. The Renaissance concept of friendship as the love of man for man Keats converted, under the influence of Wordsworth, into philanthropy or universal humanitarianism. Unlike the Platonists of the Renaissance, he placed love higher than friendship; but, as he afterwards recognized, he failed to mark the distinction between the Uranian and Pandemian Aphrodite and fused and confused spiritual and physical love. Keats was dissatisfied with Endymion and even before its completion he had passed beyond it into another stage. This being the case, it might have been wiser, and certainly would have served his prospects better, had he left the poem unpublished. For the manners of the malignant reviewers there is neither excuse nor forgiveness; but the magnanimity with which Keats faced ridicule was due in part to his recognition that in some of their strictures there was justice.

Frequent personal contact with Wordsworth disillusioned Keats, because of the elder poet's complacency, egotism, and didacticism; and as a consequence there was during the winter of 1817-1818 a drift away from humanitarianism. The counterbalance was an ever-deepening appreciation of the impartiality and impersonality of Shakespeare. This antithesis may have been sharpened for Keats by Hazlitt's comment upon the "intense intellectual egotism" of Wordsworth and his observation that Shakespeare enters so completely into his various characters as "scarcely to have an individual existence of his own."15 It may have been with this distinction between objective and subjective genius in his memory that Keats evolved his famous doctrine of "Negative Capability."16 By this not very happily chosen term he meant, he said, "When a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason." As examples by contrariety he chose Wordsworth, who imparted a direct philosophical view of life, and Coleridge, who was "incapable of remaining content with half-knowledge." The poetic ideal after which Keats was here reaching is that of imaginative insight and suspended judgment, "a selfless sympathy" not only with other human beings but with all life. Of himself he said that he could enter into a sparrow's personality and "pick about the gravel."

While seeing Endymion through the press, Keats planned with John Hamilton Reynolds'7 a series of narrative poems based upon stories from the Decameron. Since this project was an outgrowth from Hunt's recommendations of Italian literature as affording subjects for poetry, it is not surprising to note in "Isabella, or The Pot of Basil"18 a reversion to the cloying diction of Hunt. Yet there is an increased firmness of style, and the handling of ottava rima is masterly. The digressions, such as the invocation of Boccaccio and the complaint to Melancholy, are in imitation of old conventions. The touches of the macabre anticipate a taste of the eighteen-twenties.

Shortly after the publication of Endymion (April, 1818) Keats was separated from his brother George, who with his bride set sail for America. The illness of his second brother, Tom, who was now stricken with tuberculosis, proved to be a severe test of the ideal of suspended judgment, and we find Keats expressing his longing for a fixed philosophy based upon reason.19 It may be, however, that students of Keats have taken these fluctuations of opinion too seriously, for Keats's nature was of a chameleon-like sensitiveness to his surroundings. How strong the influence of Wordsworth was upon him still is shown in the famous letter in which he likened life to "a mansion of many apartments."20 Of these, two only were as yet open to him: "the infant or thoughtless chamber" and "the chamber of Maiden-Thought." In the latter "we see nothing but pleasant wonders, and think of delaying there for ever with delight." At his present point of growth he was conscious of passing thence, of being "in a mist," unable to balance good and evil but aware of the "burden of the mystery." Keats expressly drew the analogy to Wordsworth's case (as recorded in Tintern Abbey) and believed that the elder poet had explored those further chambers, those "dark passages" which were as yet closed to himself.

A strong vein of humanitarianism continued to manifest itself in Keats's letters during the walking-tour with Charles Armitage Brown in the summer of 1818. The friends visited the Lowlands of Scotland, the Lake District, and, for a fleeting moment, Ireland. By overtaxing his physical powers this tour hastened Keats's decline. The vicious attacks on Endymion in the Quarterly and Blackwood's were accepted with the nobly philosophic remark: "I was never afraid of failure, for I would sooner fail than not be among the greatest."21 But later these hostile reviews undermined his confidence, as he came to realize that by warning the public away from him they had deprived him of the hope of winning a livelihood from poetry.

In the late summer of 1818 Keats began work on Hyperion.22 The theory that The Fall of Hyperion, the "dream" version commonly regarded as an attempt to recast the original poem, is really a preliminary draft23 has met with no acceptance; but the alternative view which accepts the traditional chronological order probably over-simplifies the problem. The view which, though it rests upon internal evidence, best meets the case is that Keats began Hyperion under the influence of Wordsworth, composing the introductory colloquy with Moneta in which the goddess upbraids him for having been "a dreaming thing, a fever of thyself" and declares that none can usurp the heights of poetic power save those "to whom the miseries of the world are misery."24 In revulsion from this humanitarian sentiment he may have set aside this introduction and made a new beginning with the objective and Miltonic version of which he had completed two books and begun a third by the spring of 1819. The sensuousness, subjectivism, and exuberant beauty of the fragmentary third book reflect the heightening of Keats's personal emotion consequent upon his meeting with Fanny Brawne, with whom he had fallen passionately in love.25 This ardent feeling, which for a time conquered the despondency caused by his brother's death in December, 1818, burns brightly in the theme of Hyperion. From allusions in Renaissance poetry and from works of reference Keats took the story of the fall of the Titans and triumph of the Olympians. The celestial warfare is reminiscent of Paradise Lost, of which there are many echoes in the diction; and such stylistic features as repetition, inversion, elliptical construction, and elaborate simile come from close study of Milton.26 The landscape and imagery owe something to Keats's recent impressions of rugged mountain scenery; and the marmoreal quality of certain passages (notably the opening scene) are suggestive of his contemplation of Greek sculpture. To all this he gave a modern coloring. Whether or not the history of the French Revolution was in the back of his mind as he wrote, his theme is progressive evolution. Up the Scale of Being evolution must move, towards the ideal. Each generation of the gods is supplanted by another more beautiful, for "the first in beauty should be first in might."

The change in tone in Book III is a modulation from Hyperion to the poem which occupied Keats early in 1819. In "The Eve of St. Agnes" youthful, romantic love is set against a background of family feud, coarse carousing, storm, and bitter cold. Memories of Romeo and Juliet and Cymbeline and of the Gothic romances27 are here combined with quaint superstitions and folkrites about which Keats had read in Ben Jonson, Burton, and Brand's Popular Antiquities. Keats's creative art was at its happiest and most spontaneous in this poem. The diction is of a flawless purity. Though the Spenserian stanza is employed and the sensuous imagery and lavish adornment of the narrative are suggestive of Spenser, there is nothing that is merely imitative. The reliance upon elaborate and vivid presentation rather than upon suggestion differentiates the quality of Keats's romanticism from Coleridge's.

But alarming symptoms of tuberculosis were developing, among which are to be numbered the torments of jealousy expressed in the first ode "To Fanny." It is likely, as Rossetti suggested long ago, that there is a connection of thought and mood between this ode and the fragmentary "Eve of St. Mark."28 According to the old belief, those who watch in the porch of the parish church on this eve will see shadowy forms pass into the portal. The forms that do not pass out again are of those who are doomed to die within the succeeding year. Is it Fanny who watches by the churchdoor? Is Keats the lover who passes in, not to reappear? In April, 1819, he wrote "Bright Star" (miscalled his "Last Sonnet"), and shortly afterwards the agonizing second ode "To——" [Fanny] and "La Belle Dame Sans Merci," that miraculously weird evocation of the femme fatale which exalts to the highest imaginative plane the fatal thraldom in which Keats found himself.

He was now discontented with the sonnet form which he had used with such mastery, and while expressing his dissatisfaction in the irregular sonnet, "If by dull rhymes our English must be chain'd," he experimented with three new patterns which proved to be unsuccessful. Keats's music tends to move in stanza lengths. His "continuous verse" is either diffusive or else falls into such well defined paragraphs as the opening movement of Hyperion, which is precisely the length of a sonnet. The theory is acceptable that these experiments in new sonnet forms led directly to the series of odes composed in the late spring and early summer of 1819.29 The scanty external evidence as to their order of composition may be supplemented by study of the links of thought between the odes and the growth and decline of mastery of the form. The "Ode to Psyche" was probably written first. It is more in the tradition of the pseudo-Pindaric than are the other odes; a formal pattern has not yet been established. The Wordsworthian theme that the poet is the myth-maker provides a link, not present in the other odes, between the "Psyche" and Keats's earlier thought. The "Ode to a Nightingale," in which the happy world of natural loveliness is contrasted with the human world of pain, is flawless in design and expression and almost perfect in the development of its theme.30 It seems likely that it preceded the "Ode on a Grecian Urn" where another contrast is developed, that of the permanence of art with the fleetingness of human passion. For all its beauty this ode is not quite flawless,31 and the oftquoted conclusion is open to the charge of ambiguity.32 The "Ode to Indolence" is on a lower level of achievement, and both in subject and treatment reflects the poet's spiritual apathy after a period of intense creation. A study of the sources in literature, art, and personal experience of Keats's imagery in the odes, of their varying stanzaic patterns or approximations to pattern, and of the beautiful, tenuous links among them (as of the night-moth, the Grecian vase, Lethe, and drowsiness) is one of the most rewarding of literary investigations.

By midsummer of 1819 Keats's health was failing and he was living under the pressure of dire poverty. While staying in Winchester he and his friend Charles Brown collaborated upon a tragedy with the hope that they might dispose of it to the theatre and that Edmund Kean would assume the title-rôle. This drama, Otho the Great, is on a historical theme of the tenth century and involves the rivalry of two brothers and a conflict between father and son. The tradition is that Brown supplied the characters and action, scene by scene, and that Keats wrote the dialogue from this outline; but it is probable that Keats shared the responsibility for the general plan and concept. The question is of no great importance, for though there are a few passages of fine poetry in the play,33 as a whole it must be adjudged a failure.

Another attempt to win attention with something in a popular vein is of much more consequence. This is "Lamia," composed in the late summer. The story of the serpent-woman who fell in love with a youth of Corinth and was detected and exorcised by Apollonius, the philosopher, Keats drew from Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy. Dryden's verse was the model for the firmly wrought couplets with well-spaced triplets and alexandrines in which it is composed; and the astringent style of the latter part of the poem is also suggestive of Dryden. The contrast between the romantic beauty and mystery of Part I and the intrusive cynicism in Part II is, indeed, remarkable. It is probably explicable on biographical grounds. A little earlier Keats had written what he described as the "flint-worded" letters to Fanny Brawne—hysterical, passionate outcries of agony in the face of consuming love and jealousy, encroaching disease, and the ever-more-certain threat of death with work unfinished and ambitions unrealized. In these letters he affirmed his dedication to poetry and resolve to reject the distractions of love.34 About the same time he wrote in a mood of desperate cynicism three stanzas expanding the narrative of the meeting of the lovers in "The Eve of St. Agnes." These were ruinously out of keeping with the rest of the poem, and Keats afterwards wisely let himself be persuaded to suppress them. But they help to account for the satiric element in "Lamia." Is there autobiographical symbolism in the story of Lycius and the serpent-woman?35 Is "the tender-personed lamia"—who is beautiful, mysterious, and not malign—the Poetic Imagination? Is her lover, Lycius, the poet Keats? Does the feast at Corinth symbolize the publication of his poems? Are the guests the reading-public? If this interpretation holds, then Apollonius symbolizes the reviewers who destroyed the Imagination and—tragic prescience on Keats's part!—brought about the poet's death.36

What remains to tell is a story of decline. The ode "To Autumn," for all its gorgeous sensuousness, shows no intellectual advance. The Fall of Hyperion is (if the view here adopted be generally accepted) an attempt to dovetail the original Wordsworthian opening into the second, Miltonic fragment, with other revisions under the influence of Dante's Purgatorio. There was a passionate revulsion of feeling expressed in a letter to Fanny Brawne on October 10, 1819, and in the moving but languorous sonnet "The Day is Gone." An effort to write a chronicle play, King Stephen, was beyond Keats's strength, and the opening scenes remain a fragment of high but uncertain promise. "The Cap and Bells," patterned upon Ariosto and Don Juan and combining fairy-lore and topical allusion in a satire on the Prince Regent with side-glances at Lord Byron, was tragically alien from Keats's genius and was set aside. At the close of the manuscript of this fantasy are found the beautiful and terrible lines beginning "This living hand," without title but undoubtedly addressed to Fanny Brawne.

During 1820, which he called his "posthumous year," Keats wrote no poetry. In February came the first hemorrhage from the lungs. He was watched over by Brown, then by the Hunts, and then by Mrs. Brawne and Fanny. In the spring he prepared his last volume for the press, and in July was published Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St. Agnes, and other Poems,37 the greatest single volume of English poetry of the nineteenth century. In September, with his faithful friend Joseph Severn, he sailed for Italy in search of health. The quest was hopeless. He died in Rome on February 23, 1821, and was buried in the old Protestant Cemetery, close to the pyramid of Caius Cestius which serves as a beacon for pilgrims to his grave.

The evidence of Shelley's letters supplements the impression from Adonais that Shelley was not aware of the greatness of Keats's accomplishment. The elegy is a chivalrous protest against Keats's detractors; but together with Byron's pitying scorn of one who had let himself "be snuffed out by an article" it helped to keep alive the false tradition that Keats was a weakling. The loyal friends who preserved Keats's letters and assembled a vast quantity of records of his life provided for posterity the means to refute this conception. But even the temporary prevalence of this opinion and the association of his name with the "Cockney School" did not long retard his fame and influence. That influence is visible in the poetry of Darley and Hood, Tennyson and the youthful Browning. After 1848, the year when R. M. Milnes's biography of the poet with his letters and literary remains appeared, the poetry of Keats became the greatest single influence upon the poetry and painting of the Victorian generation.38 Emphasis upon the value of Keats's thought is a phenomenon of the criticism of our own day.


1Poetical Works and Other Writings, Hampstead Edition, ed. M. Buxton Forman (8v, 1938), based on ed. H. Buxton Forman (5v, 1900) with additional material; Poems, ed. Ernest de Selincourt (1926), with admirable commentary; Poetical Works, ed. H. W. Garrod (1939), with full collation of texts; Complete Poems and Selected Letters, ed. C. DeW. Thorpe (1935); Letters, ed. M. B. Forman (2v, 1931).—Sir Sidney Colvin, John Keats: His Life and Poetry, His Friends, Critics and After-Fame (1917; revised, 1925); Amy Lowell, John Keats (2v, 1925); R. M. Milnes (Lord Houghton), Life, Letters, and Literary Remains of John Keats (2v, 1848; Everyman's Library, 1927); C. L. Finney, The Evolution of Keats's Poetry (2v, Cambridge, Mass., 1936), to which the present chapter is much indebted; Lucien Wolff, John Keats, sa vie et son oeuvre (Paris, 1910); Albert Erlande, Life of John Keats, trans. by Marion Robinson (1929); H. I' A. Fausset, Keats, a Study in Development (1922); Dorothy Hewlett, Adonais: A Life of John Keats (Indianapolis, 1938); B. C. Williams, Forever Young (1943); E. V. Weller, Autobiography of John Keats, Compiled from his Letters and Essays (Palo Alto, Cal., 1933); Edmund Blunden, Shelley and Keats as They Struck Their Contemporaries (1925); Edmund Blunden, Keats 's Publisher: A Memoir of John Taylor (1781-1864) (1936).—Among studies primarily critical, not biographical, are: C. DeW. Thorpe, The Mind of John Keats (1926); H. W. Garrod, Keats (1926); J. Middleton Murry, Keats and Shakespeare: A Study of Keats's Poetic Life (1925); J. M. Murry, Studies in Keats (1930; enlarged, 1939); W. J. Bate, Negative Capability: the Intuitive Approach to Keats (Cambridge, Mass., 1939) and The Stylistic Development of Keats (1945); A. W. Crawford, The Genius of Keats (1932); John Keats Memorial Volume, ed. G. C. Williamson (1921); Robert Bridges, "A Critical Introduction to Keats," Collected Essays (1929), IV, originally the introduction to Keats's Poems in the Muses' Library (1895); A. C. Bradley, "The Letters of Keats," Oxford Lectures on Poetry (1909), pp. 209-244; Bush, ch. III.—D. L. Baldwin and others, Concordance (Washington, D. C, 1917).

2 This antithesis is stated in unqualified form by J. M. Murry, Keats and Shakespeare, p. 7.

3 For these opposing views see Royall Snow, "Heresy concerning Keats," PMLA, XLIII (1928). 1142-1149, and M. E. Shipman, "Orthodoxy concerning Keats," ibid., XLIV (1929). 929-934. The first effort to interpret Keats as a philosophic and not merely a sensuous poet was F. M. Owen, John Keats (1880). Today this view is represented in its extreme form by J. Middleton Murry. For the interpretation of Keats as a sensuous poet see H. N. Fairchild, The Romantic Quest, ch. XXII.

4 Hunt, Clarke, Haydon, Dilke, Mathew, Reynolds, Severn, and other friends left their testimony. The two men to whom posterity is most indebted are Richard Woodhouse, who made manuscript collections of Keatsiana which have been used by many scholars, and Charles Armitage Brown, whose Life of John Keats, ed. D. H. Bodurtha and W. B. Pope, remained in manuscript till 1937. For the squabbles over rival claims to be Keats's first biographer see the introduction to this biography. See also Some Letters and Miscellanies of Charles Brown, ed. M. B. Forman (1937).

5 This was A. C. Bradley's opinion. See Oxford Lectures on Poetry (1909), p. 239. For the unusual view that Keats would not have accomplished greater things had he lived see G. R. Elliott, "The Real Tragedy of Keats," PMLA, XXXVI (1921), 315-331.

6 Sir W. Hale-White, Keats as a Medical Student (1925) and Keats as Doctor and Patient (1938).

7Keats and Mary Tighe: The Poems of Mary Tighe with Parallel Passages from the Works of John Keats, ed. E. V. Weller (1928).—A stronger and longer lasting influence was that of C. M. Wieland's romantic poem, Oberon, which Keats knew in William Sotheby's translation (1798). See W. W. Beyer, Keats and the Daemon King (1947).

8 C. L. Finney, The Evolution of Keats's Poetry, I. 121-128; G. W. Landrum, "More concerning Chapman's Homer and Keats," PMLA, XLII (1927). 986-1009; B. I. Evans, "Keats's Approach to the Chapman Sonnet," Essays and Studies by Members of the English Association, XVI (1931). 26-52.

9 Though Keats kept political questions almost entirely out of his poetry (unless, as some have thought, Hyperion reflects the French Revolution), his letters reveal liberal opinions which by no means merely echo Hunt. He sympathized with Cobbett, with the prosecuted radical publishers, and with the victims of the "Peterloo Massacre." He was opposed to the Holy Alliance and to the restored, reactionary Continental dynasties. See H. G. Wright, "Keats and Politics," Essays and Studies by Members of the English Association, XVIII (1933). 7-23.

10 S. A. Larrabee, English Bards and Grecian Marbles (1943), ch. IX.

11Poems of 1817, Noel Douglas Replica (1927).

12 Published 1818. Type-facsimile, ed. H. C. Notcutt (1927). See Leonard Brown, "The Genesis, Growth, and Meaning of Endymion," Studies in Philology, XXX (1933). 618-653.

13 See C. F. E. Spurgeon, Keats's Shakespeare, a Descriptive Study Based on New Material (1928).

14 Keats's indebtedness to Shelley, in Endymion and elsewhere, is demonstrated (and exaggerated) in L. J. Thompson, More Magic Dethroned (1925). The desire to retain his "unfettered scope" kept Keats from responding to Shelley's advances in 1817; and in 1820 he was too ill to respond.

15 Hazlitt, "On Mr. Wordsworth's Excursion" and "On Posthumous Fame," The Round Table; Works, ed. Waller and Glover, I. 113 and 23.

16 Keats, Letters, I. 77 (December 28, 1817).

17 On Reynolds see below, ch. XIV.

18 For his material Keats went not directly to Boccaccio but to an English version first published in 1620. See H. G. Wright, "Keats's Isabella," (London) Times Literary Supplement, April 17, 1943, p. 192.

19Letters, I. 132. This was in March, 1818. Three months earlier Keats had expressed the oft-quoted aspiration "0 for a Life of Sensations rather than of Thoughts!" (ibid., I. 73). Professor Finney (op. cit., I. 301) argues that Keats has here in mind Wordsworthian or Hazlittian empiricism. "The sensations which a man receives from natural objects, he [Keats] believed, produce strong passions or emotions in him and induce a state of ecstasy in which his imagination, stimulated by his passions, apprehends or intuits truth in the form of being." The context of the letter hardly supports the weight of this interpretation. Contrast H. N. Fairchild's matter-of-fact interpretation of Keats's use of "sensation" (The Romantic Quest, p. 414).

20Letters, I. 156.

21Ibid., I. 243.

22 Facsimile of Keats's autograph manuscript of Hyperion, ed. E. de Selincourt (1905).

23 Amy Lowell, The Life of John Keats, II. 339-348.

24The Fall of Hyperion, I. 148-149; 168-169.—The theory here outlined is that of C. L. Finney, The Evolution of Keats's Poetry, II, ch. V.

25 Whether or not Fanny Brawne appreciated the greatness of her lover's genius is a hotly disputed problem. Over against the notorious letter in which she expressed the wish that his memory might be permitted to die must be set the evidence in the Letter of Fanny Brawne to Fanny Keats, ed. Fred Edgecumbe (1936).

26 On Keats's indebtedness to Milton see in general R. D. Havens, The Influence of Milton on English Poetry (1922), ch. X.

27 M. H. Shackford, "The Eve of St. Agnes and The Mysteries of Udolpho," PMLA, XXXVI (1921). 104-118.

28 In an undated letter (August, 1820?) to Fanny Brawne (Letters, II. 548) Keats refers to a poem which he has in mind but which his health does not permit him to write. Rossetti believed that the reference was to the unfinished Eve of St. Mark. The overlapping of ideas between this poem and The Cap and Bells may also be significant. See C. L. Finney, The Evolution of Keats's Poetry, II. 566-567; and, more specifically on this poem, W. E. Houghton, "The Meaning of Keats's Eve of St. Mark," ELH, XIII (1946). 64-78.

29 This theory was first advanced by H. W. Garrod, Keats (1926).

30 "Almost perfect"—the description of the nightingale's song as a "plaintive anthem" in the final stanza contradicts, and jars ever so slightly upon, the earlier indications of its happiness and ecstasy. What had been purely objective becomes subjective.

31 The flaw is in stanza v; the ugly repetition of sound in "O Attic shape! Fair attitude!"

32 The best discussion of "Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty" is in J. M. Murry, Studies in Keats (ed. 1930), pp. 71-92.

33 For example, Ludolph's speech at IV, ii. 18.

34Letters, II. 400-403 (August 17, 1819).

35 C. L. Finney, The Evolution of Keats's Poetry, II. 696-702.

36 This interpretation accounts for the denunciation of "cold Philosophy" and meets Robert Bridges's objection, Collected Essays (1929), IV. 127, that the poem should not have ended with the death of Lycius.

37Poems of 1820, Noel Douglas Replicas (1927).

38 See G. H. Ford, Keats and the Victorians. A Study of his Influence and Rise to Fame (New Haven, 1944).

Principal Works

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Poems (poetry) 1817

Endymion: A Poetic Romance (poetry) 1818

Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St. Agnes, and Other Poems (poetry) 1820

Life, Letters, and Literary Remains of John Keats (letters and poetry) 1848

Another Version of Keats's "Hyperion" (poetry) 1856

Letters of John Keats to Fanny Brawne (letters) 1878

Letters of John Keats to His Family and Friends (letters) 1891

The Complete Poetical Works and Letters of John Keats (letters and poetry) 1899

Richard Harter Fogle (essay date 1949)

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SOURCE: "Concrete and Abstract Imagery," in The Imagery of Keats and Shelley: A Comparative Study, Archon Books, 1949, pp. 184-240.

[In the following excerpt, published originally in 1949, Fogle examines the characteristics of what many critics describe as the "concreteness" of Keats's imagery. Fogle demonstrates that Keats's technique of focusing his perceptions upon single objects results in the extraction of "the last drop of beauty and meaning" and also affects the metrical structure of the poetry.]


Critics are generally agreed that the imagery of Keats is "concrete." Robert Bridges, for example, in comparing his "Sleep and Poetry" with Wordsworth's Tintern Abbey, points out "the extreme difference between Keats' objective treatment and Wordsworth's philosophising," citing to show the contrast the older poet's

The coarser pleasures of my boyish days
And their glad animal movements

over against Keats's

A pigeon tumbling in clear summer air;
A laughing schoolboy, without grief or care,
Riding the springy branches of an elm.1

A. C. Bradley declares that Keats tends to "a concrete method of treatment; to the vivid presentment of scenes, individualities, actions, in preference to the expression of unembodied thoughts and feelings."2 A. Clutton-Brock contrasts the "concreteness" of Keats with the "abstractness" of Shelley: to the former, he says, "excellence was in minute particularity," the aim of the poet "to draw everything in its peculiarity."3 Sir Sidney Colvin remarks that "Keats could only think in images, and almost invariably in images of life and action."4

Keats's bent toward the description of concrete objects is, in point of fact, evident even in his earliest verse; in the midst of the artificiality of the "Imitation of Spenser," his earliest known poem:

There saw the swan his neck of arched snow,
And oar'd himself along with majesty;
Sparkled his jetty eyes; his feet did show
Beneath the waves like Afric's ebony … ,

and in such a juvenile effusion as the "Specimen of an Induction to a Poem," which begins with

Lo! I must tell a tale of chivalry,
For large white plumes are dancing in mine eye,

and concludes

… so will I rest in hope
To see wide plains, fair trees and lawny slope:
The morn, the eve, the light, the shade, the flowers;
Clear streams, smooth lakes, and overlooking towers.

His friends have borne witness to this proclivity in the young Keats. "He was fond of imagery," says Henry Stephens, an acquaintance in medical school; "the most trifling similes appeared to please him."5 The sentimental George Felton Mathew observes somewhat regretfully that "His eye admired more the external decorations than felt the deep emotions of the Muse. He delighted in leading you through the mazes of elaborate description, but was less conscious of the sublime and the pathetic."6

In his later, mature verse Keats also writes customarily about objects. The "Ode on Indolence" is typical of his method. Under his hand three abstractions, Love, Ambition, and Poesy, are powerfully projected into the world of life, form, and movement:

One morn before me were three figures seen,
With bowed necks, and joined hands, side-faced;
And one behind the other stepp'd serene,
In placid sandals, and in white robes graced …
(ll. 1-4)

The "Ode on a Grecian Urn" originates, I think, in the intense contemplation of a lovely shape.7 The "Ode to Psyche" centers about a static, sensuous image of lovers locked in each other's arms. And the magnificent "To Autumn" is composed of human figures on a background of natural beauty.

In the Letters one sees how powerfully Keats is affected by shapes of physical beauty. A casual meeting with a cousin of his friends, the Reynolds, lives in his memory for weeks.

She is not a Cleopatra, but she is at least a Charmian. She has a rich eastern look; she has fine eyes and fine manners. When she comes into a room she makes an impression the same as the Beauty of a Leopardess… . I always find myself more at ease with such a woman; the picture before me always gives me a life and animation which I cannot possibly feel with anything inferior—I am at such times too much occupied in admiring to be awkward or on a tremble. I forget myself entirely because I live in her. You will by this time think I am in love with her; so before I go any further I will tell you I am not—she kept me awake one Night as a tune of Mozart's might do… .8

Of the same lady he says elsewhere, " … the voice and the shape of a Woman has haunted me these two days."9 Later, in deeper vein, he tells Fanny Brawne that her beauty is a necessary condition of his love:

Why may I not speak of your Beauty, since without that I could never have lov'd you. I cannot conceive any beginning of such love as I have for you but Beauty. There may be a sort of love for which, without the least sneer at it, I have the highest respect and can admire it in others: but it has not the richness, the bloom, the full form, the enchantment of love after my own heart.10

The forms of Nature and of Art impress themselves upon him with equal force. Much of the early "I Stood Tiptoe" is a joyous catalogue of natural objects. The gorgeous but uneven Endymion is studded with descriptions of Nature unequalled in their kind. "Like poor Falstaff," says Keats, "though I do not babble, I think of green fields. I muse with the greatest affection of every flower I have known from my infancy—their shapes and coulours [sic] are as new to me as if I had just created them with a superhuman fancy."11 The painter Haydon declared of him, "he was in his glory in the fields. The humming of a bee, the sight of a flower, the glitter of the sun, seemed to make his nature tremble; then his eyes flashed, his cheek glowed, his mouth quivered."12

His response to the forms of Art was no less powerful. "Sleep and Poetry" "originated in sleeping in a room adorned with busts and pictures."13 His two sonnets on the Elgin Marbles evidence his feeling for plastic art: a feeling more notably exemplified in the sculptural Hyperion and the "Ode on a Grecian Urn."14 He was a lover and connoisseur of painting, and a frequenter of galleries.15 To Haydon, on the latter's ambitious Christ's Entry Into Jerusalem, he wrote enthusiastically,

I am nearer myself to hear your Christ is being tinted into immortality—Believe me Haydon your picture is a part of myself—I have ever been too sensible of the labyrinthian path to eminence in Art (judging from Poetry) ever to think I understood the emphasis of Painting… . I know not you[r] many havens of intenseness—nor ever can know them—but for this I hope no[u]ght you adchieve [sic] is lost upon me… .16

This preoccupation with human, natural, and artistic objects is, I think, intimately related with certain typical qualities of Keats's poetic technique. He has an unrivalled ability to focus his perceptions upon single things, and to extract from these the last drop of beauty and meaning. He lingers over them, examines them from different aspects, repeats with gradually increasing force, in an effort to achieve the final word, the ultimate completeness of expression. In these terms various peculiarities of Keats's style and imagery are in part explainable.

So apparently trivial a matter as his habitual use of the accented -éd, a practice not followed by any of the other great Romantics, has its significance in this connection.17 The peculiar effect of this device is a kind of meditative lingering over the object described, an accentuation of the individual quality attributed to it, as in the instances of "globéd peonies" ("Ode on Melancholy"), "warméd jewels" ("The Eve of St. Agnes"), and "wild-ridgéd mountains" ("Ode to Psyche").18 This seems to be a result partly of the actual semantic value of the suffix thus accented, and partly of the slowing of pace consequent upon the extra syllable. One might further cite such examples as the "light-wingéd Dryad," "deep-delvéd earth," "embalméd darkness," and "muséd rhyme" of the "Ode to a Nightingale," in which the stress calls attention insistently to the essential quality with which Keats has endowed the object.

This focussing intensity of contemplation is also responsible for his close-packed repetition of adjectives or nouns, the "Sanguine, feverous, boiling gurge of pulse" of Hyperion, or the "hush'd, cool-rooted flowers, fragrant-eyed"19 of the "Ode to Psyche." In the latter poem this concentrative repetition is present on a larger scale:

… temple thou hast none,
Nor altar heap'd with flowers;
Nor virgin-choir to make delicious moan
Upon the midnight hours;
No voice, no lute, no pipe, no incense sweet
From chain-swung censer teeming;
No shrine, no grave, no oracle, no heat
Of pale-mouth'd prophet dreaming.
(ll. 28-35)

A tendency in the same direction is Keats's use of compounds. Drawing again from the "Ode to Psyche" because it is close at hand, we find soft-conched, cool-rooted, fragrant-eyed, silver-white, calm-breathing, soft-handed, pale-mouth 'd, eye-dawn, chain-swung, sapphire-regioned, virgin-choir, dark-cluster'd, moss-lain, and wild-ridged. Such an embarrassment of riches is unusual, but leafing casually through the Odes one comes upon side-faced, deep-disguised, summer-indolence, fever-fit, new-leav'd, and cool-bedded in Indolence, and Lethe-wards, light-winged, full-throated, deep-delved, purple-stained, spectre-thin, and leaden-eyed, in the "Ode to a Nightingale."20

Again, innovations and eccentricities complained of by austere commentators generally represent attempts by Keats to get at the heart of an object, mood, or situation. Admittedly the attempt is not always successful, especially in the earlier poems. Robert Bridges is correct in his assertion that "the melting, fainting, swimming, swooning, and panting words are overfrequent" in these.21 Keats is trying to achieve in their use the maximum of intensity and meaning through an expedient too easy, direct, and crude. At the same time, it should be noted how effective these "intense" words are when embedded in the denser fabric of his later work: in

… on a sudden, fainting with surprise …

("Ode to Psyche")

My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains

("Ode to a Nightingale")

Forever panting, and forever young …

("Ode to a Grecian Urn")

Keats's archaisms are often used with this purpose of intensifying and objectifying. Of Thea's plea to the fallen Saturn in Hyperion, "Open thine eyes eterne, and sphere them round," W. T. Arnold remarks that "A word could hardly be used in a more arbitrary and fantastical manner."22 Nor, be it added, in a manner more effective and satisfying. Saturn is, or has been until now, the ruler of the universe; his eyes are accustomed to piercing immensities. "Sphere them round" has suggestions of enormous grasp and power, appropriate to deity. Sphere coöperates with eterne to evoke ideas of a cosmic system of world beyond world in harmony under the sway of a single hand, that of the now-vanquished Saturn. Arnold objects also to the use of verbs as nouns as "A singular license in Keats' diction." To cite but one example of this usage, however, the "voices of soft proclaim" of Hyperion seems to me to be singularly felicitous.23 It has the soft, full tone and bursting plangency of a plucked harp string; and this effect is mainly attributable to the nervous terseness of the locution.

The static quality so often noted in Keats's imagery is evidence of this same desire to examine, to contemplate, to pierce to the heart of things. Keats is at once concentrated and leisurely; he will not leave an object until he has caught its essence. Thus the situation at the beginning of Hyperion epitomizes silence and motionlessness; nature and humanity are alike in the grip of a timeless and trancelike moment. This lack of movement is one of the reasons why Hyperion could never have been completed as an epic. Keats is too greatly interested in single objects, effects, and scenes to attend to the imperious demands of action. The massive quietude of the opening lines of the "Ode on a Grecian Urn" is another case in point. The urn is the "still unravished bride of quietness," the "foster-child of silence and slow time." The scenes of the sacrifice and the abandoned "little town" have the same movelessness as the urn itself. They live in a never-ending moment, and by this release from the demands of motion, which blurs outlines and hints at change and impermanence, they are preternaturally heightened and solidified.24

Linked closely with the prevailing slowness of Keats's imagery is the leisurely movement of his metres. It has been noted that whereas Shelley sings, Keats generally talks;25 he is too measured of pace, too deep of tone, for the higher notes of lyricism.26 And this slowness both contributes to and results from his power of focussing on the single object in its particularity.


The poetic process in Keats generally begins, I think, with deep and intense contemplation of concrete shapes and forms. This contemplation … is enriched by Keats's exquisite and comprehensive sense-perceptions. He is delicately receptive to impressions from Art, Nature, and Humanity in almost equal measure; being more concerned, perhaps, with Nature at the beginning of his career and with Man towards its end.

The unique quality of his poetic experience arises from his wholehearted love of the external world, at first instinctive and spontaneous,27 later conscious, complex, and philosophical. The rapturous enumeration of natural beauties in "I Stood Tiptoe" represents the early mode; the deeper and subtler perceptions of the "Ode to a Nightingale," the "Ode on a Grecian Urn," and the "Ode on Melancholy" reflect the later. The power and concentration of the contemplative attitude in Keats are a result of his conviction that appearances can be trusted to the full; that Beauty and Truth reside in the phenomenal world itself and may be found there if one will take the trouble to seek them out. As A. C. Bradley remarks, there is a tendency in Keats working "against any inclination to erect walls between ideal and real."28 Nor need one seek the unusual, the recherché, for the secret lies as well close at hand as far off.29 His natural landscapes are homely and English.

I have said that for Keats Beauty and Truth resided in the actual, the world of phenomena. This is true, however, only metaphorically. Human life and the world are not to him the be-all and end-all of existence, but the faithful mirror and reflection of the ideal. The finite is to him intimately related with the infinite.30 The action of Imagination upon the evidence offered by the senses provides us with the only knowledge we can have of that which lies beyond the senses. This correspondence of the Actual and the Real is described in a notable passage from one of Keats's most famous letters:

It is 'a Vision in the form of Youth' a Shadow of reality to come—and this consideration has further convinced me for it has come as auxiliary to another favorite Speculation of mine, that we shall enjoy ourselves here after by having what we called happiness on Earth repeated in a finer tone and so repeated… . Adam's dream will do here and seems to be a conviction that Imagination and its empyreal reflection is the same as human Life and its Spiritual reflection… . The Protrotype [sic] must be here after.31

Since "human Life and its Spiritual reflection" are thus closely related, two aspects of a single unity, then human life must be accepted in its entirety, with all its imperfections on its head. And since the relationship between Imagination and its reflection is the same, then it seems logical that imginative expression, or Poetry, should be the most faithful representation possible to humanity of the spiritual reflection of life, the embodiment of that Imagination whose prototype we shall see only hereafter. What Bradley calls "the real and the ideal" are not identical, and yet are inseparable. The reflection cannot exist without the reality, and it is not clear which is reality and which reflection.

Keats's doctrines of "negative capability" and "passive receptivity" are, I think, akin to this earlier idea.

… it is more noble to sit like Jove than to fly like Mercury—let us not therefore go hurrying about and collecting honey, bee-like buzzing here and there impatiently from a knowledge of what is to be aimed at; but let us open our leaves like a flower and be passive and receptive—budding patiently under the eye of Apollo and taking hints from every noble insect that favours us with a visit—sap will be given us for meat and dew for drink.32

If "real" and "ideal" are inseparable, then we need not search and struggle for the meaning of things, but submit ourselves quietly to their influence, "open our leaves" to them. The visible world is itself a symbol of a higher reality; then wherefore seek to burst its bounds, or rearrange according to our mind's desire an order already profoundly significant? Keats's confidence in the deep meaning of the everyday commonplaces of life and the world appears in his casual comparison of Shakespeare and Byron:

… they are very shallow people who take everything literally. A Man's life of any worth is a continual allegory—and very few eyes can see the Mystery of his life—a life like the scriptures, figurative—which such people can no more make out than they can the hebrew Bible. Lord Byron cuts a figure—but he is not figurative—Shakespeare led a life of Allegory: his works are the comments on it…33

The poet's rôle is that of the self-abnegating observer, not of the self-conscious philosopher. He seeks, indeed, to fathom the beauty and meaning of appearances, but this beauty and meaning reside in the appearances themselves and not in the reasoning intellect. He must be negatively capable,

capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason—Coleridge, for instance, would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half-knowledge.34

Feeling thus, that the poet should subordinate the "irritable reaching" of his ego to what he feels and sees, he was irritated by the elaborate reflectiveness of Wordsworth:

… for the sake of a few fine imaginative or domestic passages, are we to be bullied into a certain Philosophy engendered in the whims of an Egotist—Every man has his speculations, but every man does not brood and peacock over them till he makes a false coinage and deceives himself… . We hate poetry that has a palpable design upon us—and if we do not agree, seems to put its hand in its breeches pocket. Poetry should be great and unobtrusive, a thing which enters into one's soul, and does not startle it or amaze it with itself, but with its subject.35

Believing in the profound significance of man and nature as they are, Keats is a naturalistic poet, as Matthew Arnold and after him J. M. Murry have said. He expresses both his peculiar view of nature and his notion of the deliberate forbearance which the poet must exercise in "When I Have Fears:"

When I behold, upon the night's starr'd face,
Huge, cloudy symbols of a high romance,
And think that I may never live to trace
Their shadows, with the magic hand of chance …36

Since he has a deep conviction of the importance of human life and visible nature, Keats has also a profound need of acceptance. Nothing is irrelevant, nothing inharmonious, if properly understood. In a sense the history of his life and poetry is the chronicle of his efforts to absorb and assimilate the fullness of experience, under conditions of increasing difficulty, until the waters of adversity finally closed over his head. He sought not only "to see life steadily and see it whole," but also to discern the relations between its parts:

Now comes the pain of truth, to whom 'tis pain;
O folly! for to bear all naked truths,
And to envisage circumstance, all calm,
This is the top of sovereignty.

(Hyperion, II, 202-5)

His belief in the necessity of accepting the fullness of experience has its counterpart in what Professor Finney has called "the principles of excess, intensity, and spontaneity"37 in his imagery:

I think Poetry should surprise by a fine excess and not by Singularity—it should strike the Reader as a wording of his own highest thoughts, and appear almost a remembrance. Its touches of Beauty should never be half way ther[e] by making the reader breathless instead of content: the rise, the progress, the setting of imagery should like the Sun come natural too [sic] him—shine over him and set soberly although in magnificence leaving him in the Luxury of twilight—but it is easier to think what Poetry should be than to write it—and this leads me on to another axiom. That if Poetry comes not as naturally as the Leaves to a tree it had better not come at all.38

All should be complete, whole, rounded, and natural. In the reconciliation of elements towards which Keats's poetry tends there are no rough edges. In an early letter to his brothers this reconciliation is stated as the function of art: "The excellence of every art is its intensity, capable of making all disagreeables evaporate, from their being in close relationship with Beauty and Truth.'39

This is not to deny the reality of evil and pain, but to conquer them by establishing their place in the harmony of life, through imaginative insight. Keats early recognized beneath the smiling face of Nature a savage and fratricidal struggle:

… I saw
Too far into the sea, where every maw
The greater on the less feeds evermore.—
But I saw too distinct into the core
Of an eternal fierce destruction …

… . .

The Shark at savage prey,—the Hawk at pounce,—
The gentle Robin, like a Pard or Ounce,
Ravening a worm …

("Epistle to John Hamilton Reynolds," ll. 93ff.)

The society of men, furthermore, was in no way different from the society of beasts. There was the same fierce competition, the same selfishness. Yet this was inherent in the nature of things, and had therefore to be accepted. Disinterestedness pushed too far would overturn the system by which we live. "For in wild nature the Hawk would loose [sic] his Breakfast of Robins and the Robin his of worms—the Lion must starve as well as the swallow. The greater part of men make their way with the same instinctiveness, the same unwandering eye from their purposes, the same animal eagerness as the Hawk.40

Acceptance is all the more necessary since man and nature are indissolubly connected. Since unalloyed happiness does not exist in nature, it cannot exist in man. Perfectibilitarians and "Godwin-Methodists" like Shelley and Charles Dilke hope in vain for the millennium:

The point at which Man may arrive is as far as the paral[l]el state in inanimate nature and no further—For instance suppose a rose to have sensation, it blooms on a beautiful morning it enjoys itself—but there comes a cold wind, a hot sun—it cannot escape it, it cannot destroy its annoyances—they are as native to the world as itself: no more can man be happy in spite, the worldly elements will prey upon his nature.41

Yet this conclusion is not a gloomy one. The inevitable ills of human existence are to Keats the teachers, not the scourges, of mankind. The world, with all its tribulations, is not a "vale of tears,"42 but the "vale of Soul-making." Without its shaping influence man has neither soul nor identity. Says Keats,

I will call the world a School instituted for the purpose of teaching little children to read—I will call the human heart the horn book used in that School—and I will call the Child able to read, the Soul made from that School and its horn-book. Do you not see how necessary a World of Pains and troubles is to school an Intelligence and make it a Soul? A place where the heart must feel and suffer in a thousand diverse ways! Not merely is the Heart a Hornbook, It is the Minds Bible, it is the Minds experience, it is the teat from which the Mind or intelligence sucks its identity. As various as the Lives of Men are—so various become their Souls, and thus does God make individual beings, Souls, identical Souls of the Sparks of his own essence.43

Thus does he sweeten an acceptance which he has already considered to be not merely desirable but inevitable. This passage marks the high tide of his thought upon the relation of man to his environment, and constitutes his fullest explanation of the existence of evil.

This reconciliation was not easily won, nor was it evenly maintained. Keats's strong political opinions,44 the humanitarian feelings45 which were in him concomitant with his contemplative and empathie powers, and finally his personal misfortunes at times disturbed the harmonious balance of his hard-bought serenity. In the "ledger-men" passage of "Isabella," for example,46 his fiery indignation at the spectacle of social injustice breaks strangely, "like sweet bells jangled, out of tune and harsh," into the delicate romance. Significantly, he falls in the midst of his tirade into a type of verse more Byronic than Keatsian, but without Byron's lucidity and force:

The hawks of ship-mast forests—the untired
And pannier'd mules for ducats and old lies—
Quick cat's-paws on the generous stray-away,—
Great wits in Spanish, Tuscan, and Malay.

(ll. 133-36)

Realizing the incongruity of this interlude, the poet asks pardon of his original, "eloquent and famed Boccaccio,"

For venturing syllables that ill beseem
The quiet glooms of such a piteous theme.

He is right to do so; in this instance "disagreeables" are not evaporated by intensity of imagination.

The Fall of Hyperion portrays most searchingly the conflict between the poet and life, the demands of art and of humanitarianism, without being able entirely to resolve it. The resolution must be made:

"None can usurp this height," returned that shade,

"But those to whom the miseries of the world
Are misery, and will not let them rest …"

(ll. 147-49)

Yet it is not to be found in the tortured complexities of the Induction, nor in Moneta's recounting of the melancholy fate of the dynasty of Saturn. The Fall is deeply and unrelievedly sad: Hyperison's fall is all too clearly foreshadowed, but in this poem, unlike the earlier Hyperion, we hear nothing of the rise of Apollo. Keats broke off before that point was reached.

The Fall of Hyperion was written within the limits of August-December, 1819,47 by which time the burden of unhappy love, financial misfortunes, and ill-health had grown too great for equable endurance. The flawless "To Autumn," composed in September, presents the last example of his ability to reconcile the conflicting elements of life.48 But in "The Eve of St. Agnes" and in the great Odes, covering a period from January to May, 1819, are to be found the consummate expression of the Keatsian synthesis.


In the imagery of these poems Keats's acceptance of and delight in the world of phenomena; his perception of the relationship between this world and its reflection, the imaginative world of Art; the humor and irony49 generated by this perception and necessary to it; the close union of thought and sensation typical of him—all are expressed in a peculiarly spontaneous and concrete symbolism, which comes as naturally "as the Leaves to a tree," and as unobtrusively.

"The Eve of St. Agnes" is too often thought of as sheer faery romance, deliberately remote from actuality. It is indeed in the highest degree romantic, but it is erected four-square and solid upon a foundation of materials from the actual world. I would dissent from the verdict of those modern critics who, admitting the perfection of its technique, complain of its slightness.50 "St. Agnes" has a rounded fullness, a complexity and seriousness, and a balance which remove it from the realm of mere magnificent tourde-force.

The poem is built upon a carefully arranged series of contrasts.51 The young lovers, Porphyro and Madeline, are precisely balanced by the Beadsman and Angela, who typify the inexorable demands of time, accident, and death. They are a pair of memento mori's, like the slave in the chariot of the victorious general at a Roman triumph. The poem begins and ends in images of cold and of physical suffering. The Beadsman, "meagre, barefoot, wan," walking slowly along the chapel aisle with his lamp casting pale beams toward the castle, is a strange symbolic curtainraiser to the romantic drama. As the curtain falls the wheel of life comes full circle; the lovers flee to their happiness, but

Angela the old
Died palsy-twitched, with meagre face deform;
The Beadsman, after thousand aves told,
For aye unsought for slept among his ashes cold.52

It is important that Keats in one draft of the poem would have emphasized the irony of this conclusion savagely:

… with face deform
The beadsman stiffen'd, twixt a sigh and laugh
Ta'en sudden from his beads by one weak little cough.53

To return to the beginning, the drama may be said to commence with

At length burst in the argent revelry,
With plume, tiara, and all rich array,

Numerous as shadows haunting fairily
The brain, new stuff'd, in youth, with triumphs gay,
Of old romance.

(ll. 37-41)

This passage is highly self-conscious, ironic, and introspective. On the one hand, there is deliberate emphasis on fairy unreality. Keats is demanding directly of his reader the "willing suspension of disbelief necessary for the success of his play: this is the poet in his rôle of enchanter. Yet the enchanter frankly does not believe in his own magic, as is clearly evident from the overtones of "Numerous as shadows haunting fairily / The brain, new stuff' d, in youth… . " Perhaps "does not believe" is too strong; let us say rather that Keats warns us that these are creatures of imagination, who never were on land or sea. The imagery is deliberately vague; it evokes rather than pictures. "Argent" has almost no denotative force. Obviously it does not mean "silver," but has a value exclusively of emotion and association. Significantly the poet uses an abstract noun, "revelry," to describe the train, so that the individuality of the figures is lost in a dimly realized sense of the whole.

These verses work in a complex and even self-contradictory manner. They are a bridge between reality and romance, furnishing a kind of aesthetic distancing for the story. They impart to the loves of Madeline and Porphyro an ethereal and idealized quality, for the lovers belong to this atmosphere of vague glamour. They are also, however, a contrasting background for the main action, since the lovers are far more human and solid than these shadowy figures. In contrary manner, these figures are menacing, "barbarian hordes" and "hyena foemen" who threaten the happiness and even the existence of the hero and heroine. The passage, indeed, is richly ironic, exhibiting the poet both as spectator and participant, his characters as figures at once of fancy and reality. This is not the poetry of a simple romancer.

"The Eve of St. Agnes" is remarkable for spontaneous and unobtrusive but subtle symbolism, involving constant contrast, yet always resolving at the end into harmony. As the Beadsman and Angela set off Porphyro and Madeline, the cold of the winter night heightens the warmth of young love. The castle is a bulwark of romance against actuality; the lovers flee "into the storm," which is at the same time

… an elfin-storm from faery land,
Of haggard seeming, but a boon indeed …

The "little moonlight room" in which Angela interviews Porphyro is an ironic shadow of Madeline's chamber. "Pale, lattic'd, chill, and silent as a tomb," it contrasts with the warm colors amid which the meeting of the lovers takes place, while it serves also to introduce the "hush'd and chaste" quality of Madeline's surroundings.

Keats's natural and unforced symbolism is at its best in the going-out of the taper as Madeline enters her room:

Out went the taper as she hurried in;
Its little smoke, in pallid moonshine, died …
(ll. 199-200)

It is a gesture of finality; by the act of entering she has sealed her fate. Yet as always in Keats this dying of the taper is inseparably part of the naturalistic description of what takes place, and if we press the meaning too hard we lose the effect of the whole. Thus the "casement high and triplearch'd" and the feast "Of candied apple, quince, and plum, and gourd" are symbols of sensuous love, but should be touched upon lightly. The very linen in which Madeline sleeps suggests at once sensuousness and chastity:

And still she slept an azure-lidded sleep,
In blanched linen, smooth, and lavender'd,

while her sleep has a twofold meaning. It is the sleep of unawakened maidenhood, "Impossible to melt as iced stream." Yet Madeline is dreaming ardently of her lover and the joys which the future holds for her.

These motifs conflict yet harmonize. By images of cold and pallor the love of Madeline and Porphyro is restrained from becoming an affair of mere sensuality; the lovers are after all innocent. To be chaste is not to be bloodless, however, or to lack passion. This delicate balance is preserved in the color scheme of "The Eve of St. Agnes," which is for the most part silver and rose. The thread of silver commences faintly with the "argent revellers" and continues in the pale moon-shine with which the whole poem is bathed, until its spell is symbolically broken and the lovers must depart from the enchanted castle:

… the frost-wind blows
Like Love's alarum patterning the sharp sleet
Against the window-panes; St. Agnes' moon hath set.

The image of the rose is the counterpart of the silver image. Porphyro's first concrete hope of obtaining Madeline is "like a full-blown rose, Flushing his brow." In the description of the casement the two motifs merge. Most striking among the features of this window is "A shielded scutcheon blush'd with blood of queens and kings." This scutcheon throws "warm gules" and "Rose-bloom" upon Madeline. Yet this warm light originates with "the wintry moon," so that chastity and sensuousness are in this image wedded. Furthermore, she is enveloped not only in rose-bloom, but

… on her silver cross soft amethyst,
And on her hair a glory, like a saint:
She seem'd a splendid angel, newly drest,
Save wings, for heaven.

The rose image is repeated in the description of Madeline's sleep, which holds her as it were suspended, momentarily apart from life,

Blinded alike from sunshine and from rain,
As though a rose should shut, and be a bud again.

In this are mingled implications of virginity and fulfillment. A more definite but still delicate and subtle hint of sexuality is given in

Into her dream he melted, as the rose
Blendeth its odour with the violet,—
Solution sweet …

Finally, the two elements of sensuousness and restraint are once more mingled in

Say, may I be for aye thy vassal blest?
Thy beauty's shield, heart-shap'd and vermeil dyed?
Ah, silver shrine, here will I take my rest
After so many hours of toil and quest …

As Keats offers the reader a door into the castle and the poem at the same time, he also clearly indicates the point of exit in

And they are gone: aye, ages long ago
These lovers fled away into the storm,

which once more draws a line of demarcation between art and life in its raw and unselective actuality. The story belongs to the remote past, the lovers are long dead: but this imaginative projection of the essential values of young love is immortal. And these values are arrived at not by forgetting what everyday existence is like, but by using the mean, sordid, and commonplace as a foundation upon which to build a high romance.

Keats's sense of the fullness and complexity of human modes of experience, the irony begotten of this sense, and his acceptance of experience, are most notably present in the great Odes. Since I have in other connections discussed "To Autumn" and the "Ode on a Grecian Urn" at some length, and since the "Ode to Psyche" and the "Ode on Indolence" are in my opinion inferior to the others, I take the "Ode to a Nightingale" as my text, omitting the "Ode on Melancholy" for reasons of space.

Douglas Bush remarks of Keats's poetry in general, "From first to last Keats's important poems are related to, or grow directly out of … inner conflicts," and of the Odes he says

At first sight Keats's theme in the Ode to a Nightingale and the Ode on a Grecian Urn … is the belief that whereas the momentary experience of beauty is fleeting, the ideal embodiment of that moment in art, in song, or in marble, is an imperishable source of joy. If that were all, these odes should be hymns of triumph, and they are not. It is the very acme of melancholy that the joy he celebrates is joy in beauty that must die.54

This is valuable, but misleading in emphasis. There are indeed conflicts in Keats's poetry, but in the Odes cited by Professor Bush these conflicts are reconciled. The Odes do not express "the very acme of melancholy" any more than they express the very acme of joy. They express an exquisite awareness of the existence of joy and melancholy, pleasure and pain, and art and life. They express a feeling that these are inseparable, although not identical, and they express acceptance of this inseparability of the elements of human experience. In the "Ode to a Nightingale" Keats portrays a state of intense aesthetic and imaginative feeling, too poignant for long duration, which arises with the song of a bird and vanishes when the song is done. The poet records his emotion and its passing without comment.

The impossibility of maintaining this mood of exaltation is the condition of its existence, for it is relative, and describable only by comparing it with more commonplace states of mind. Also, no mood is simple and unalloyed by other feelings. Keats begins,

My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains
My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk …

This is not from grief, or envy of the nightingale, but from "being too happy in thine happiness." As in the "Ode on Melancholy,"55 he declares that intense pleasure is almost indistinguishable from numbing pain.

The "Nightingale" moves with the same steady advance and withdrawal as does the "Ode on a Grecian Urn." Its motion is circular.56 Stanzas II and III represent as it were a false start, after the mood has been established in I. The "draught of vintage" by whose magic power Keats would escape "The weariness, the fever, and the fret" of life is rejected. If the last five lines of stanza III are drawn from Keats's own suffering, that suffering is here sublimated.

Where Beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes,
Or new Love pine at them beyond to-morrow

has a serenity and ironic undertone not to be found in the poet's relations with Fanny Brawne.

The true beginning comes in stanza IV Keats flies to the nightingale

Not charioted by Bacchus and his pards,
But on the viewless wings of Poesy.

The poem reaches its full intensity in this stanza and the three following. This outpouring of imaginative exaltation is contrasted with the melancholy of the low-pitched stanza III, by itself unremarkable but functioning as an integral part of the poetic whole. As in the "Eve of St. Agnes" Keats uses life at its most unpromising as a point of departure. Only by being aware of sorrow can the poet devote himself wholeheartedly to joy, conscious the while that his respite will be brief. The soft and heavy texture of the imagery in IV and V reflects a spontaneous luxuriance of feeling and perception, a self-abandonment which is merely another aspect of his previous depression.

Stanza VI commences,

Darkling I listen; and for many a time
I have been half in love with easeful Death.

The vivid sensuousness of the two preceding stanzas has been leading toward this. Death itself may offer the fullest sense of Life: "Now more than ever seems it rich to die." If the "Nightingale" is a lament for the brevity of life and joy, as Professor Bush has said, these are sentiments difficult to explain; but if the poem is simply an imaginative reflection of the complexity and intensity of human experience, Death may quite reasonably be viewed as its culmination.57

The spell is deepest in stanza VII, of which M. R. Ridley has said that it "would, I suppose, by common consent be taken along with 'Kulba Khan,' as offering us the distilled sorceries of Romanticism."58 In these lines the apparent contrast between the immortality of the Bird and the fugitive temporality of its hearers is strongly insisted upon.59

No hungry generations tread thee down;
The voice I hear this passing night was heard
In ancient days by emperor and clown:
Perhaps, the self-same song that found a path
Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home
She stood in tears amid the alien corn …

Yet this opposition is not real. The "sad heart of Ruth" is as enduring as the nightingale, and after the same fashion. The temporal Ruth died long ago, the eternal Ruth lives on in poetry. Nor can one separate the temporal from the eternal, for it is by virtue of her grief, her exposure to accidental circumstance long since passed away, that she remains alive. So with the "magic casements" which follow, but with a difference. Paradoxically, these are immortal because they have long since vanished, or alternatively because they never in cold fact existed. This paradox is the essence of their charm and their reality; viewed faintly across long vistas of time, or created consciously by imagination from diverse materials seized from the actual world, they have a unique being of their own. They exist as fully as the stubbornest, most intractable actuality, but they arise from actuality and cannot live apart from it. In this stanza the notions of temporality and timelessness do not conflict, but are brought together in harmonious relationship.

It is not mere accident that Keats breaks off here, at the peak of imaginative intensity, on the word "forlorn," which has its feet in two worlds. For the value and identity of the imaginative experience depends upon its transience; it is only one mode, albeit the highest, among many. With consummate irony and psychological truth "forlorn" breaks in like the tolling of a bell to signal the end of his emotional exaltation. The "faery lands" were "forlorn" because remote and strange; the word itself is enchanted. The second "forlorn" is homely and familiar, with a half-humerous ruefulness; it dwells upon the common earth, to which the poet now returns.60

The final stanza fills out the perfect rondure of the poem in a slow withdrawal, symbolized by the retreat of the bird itself so that objective description and subjective emotion are fused. The fading-away is slow and regular,

Past the near meadows, over the still stream,
Up the hill-side; and now 'tis buried deep
In the next valley-glades …

and in the last two verses the process of withdrawal, now solely within the poet, comes to a smooth and quiet end:

Was it a vision, or a waking dream?
Fled is that music:—Do I wake or sleep?

Keats does not moralize after the event, nor utter lyric cries of pain, as he might be expected to if he were writing, for example, about the sadness of mutability. He has been writing about a full and rich experience, and having described that experience he stops.


1 Introduction, Poems of John Keats, ed. G. Thorn Drury, I, xxxv-xxxvi.

2Oxford Lectures on Poetry, p. 238.

3 "Keats and Shelley—a Contrast," in The John Keats Memorial Volume, ed. G. Williamson, p. 116.

4John Keats, p. 63.

5 Quoted by Colvin, op. cit., p. 31.

6Ibid., p. 25.

7 See above, pp. 172-73.

8The Letters of John Keats, pp. 232-33. Hereafter to be referred to as Letters.

9Ibid., p. 217.

10Ibid., p. 357.

11Ibid., p. 465.

12The Autobiography and Memoirs of Benjamin Robert Haydon, I, 301.

13 Leigh Hunt, quoted in John Keats: Complete Poems and Selected Letters, ed. C. D. Thorpe, p. 70.

14 On this point see Colvin, op. cit., especially pp. 414-17; C. D. Thorpe, The Mind of John Keats, pp. 127-37; S. A. Larrabee, English Bards and Grecian Marbles, pp, 204-32.

15 See his careful criticism of the work of Haydon's protégé Cripps, and his comment on Benjamin West's Death on the Pale Horse.Letters, pp. 50-51, 71.

16Ibid., p. 129.

17 Ernest de Sélincourt points out that Keats is not entirely consistent in his use of the stressed -éd.—Preface, The Poems of John Keats, p. v. In the great majority of cases, however, the e is either pronounced or else elided.

18 See W. J. Bate, Negative Capability, p. 62.

19 Note "fragrant-eyed," an exception to the -éd rule which corroborates de Sélincourt.

20 The compound is peculiarly a feature of Keats's mature style, more especially of the Odes. One finds them earlier, as for example in the impressive "their surly eyes brow-hidden" of Endymion (II, 645), in the "Tall oaks, branch-charmed" of Hyperion (I, 74), and in "sole-thoughted" in The Eve of St. Agnes (1. 42), but not in the same abundance. They are not, on the other hand, particularly prevalent in the late Fall of Hyperion, Prince Otho, or The Cap and Bells.

21Op. cit., p. lxxxiv.

22 Introduction, The Poetical Works of John Keats, p. xliii.

23Loc. cit. I do not assert that Keats's archaisms are invariably happy, but merely that they are concentrative and intensive in purpose and effect. See Arnold's examples, "When this planet's sphering time shall close" (Endymion); "Twelve sphered tables, by silk seats insphered" (Lamia); "no mad assail"; "with glad exclaim," etc.

24 Cf. J. M. Murry, "Beauty is Truth," Studies in Keats, New and Old, pp. 71-92.

25 By A. Clutton-Brock, op. cit., p. 63.

26 See above, pp. 97-99, on the prevalent slowness of Keats's metres. There are exceptions, of course, like the "Song of the Indian Maiden" in Endymion, Fancy, Robin Hood, and the Lines on the Mermaid Tavern. Even the shifting dance of his tetrameters, however, has more of the smooth and weighty roll of L 'Allegro and Il Penseroso than of the speed and lightness so often present in Shelley's verse.

27 "The 'passiveness' of Keats is simply the passiveness of delight … his characteristic attitude is that of the delighted watcher or listener."—John Bailey, "The Poet of Stillness," in The John Keats Memorial Volume, p. 30.

28Op. cit., p. 237.

29 "… another of his chief characteristics … is his close relationship with common nature: he is forever drawing his imagery from common things, which are for the first time represented as beautiful… . "—Bridges, op. cit., p. xcv.

30 Cf. the "Hymn to Pan," Endymion, I, 296-302:

… be still the leaven,
That spreading in this dull and clouded earth
Gives it a touch ethereal—a new birth:
Be still a symbol of immensity;
A firmament reflected in a sea;
An element filling the space between;
An unknown …

31Letters, p. 68.

32Ibid., p. 104. Cf. What the Thrush Said, ll. 9-12:

O fret not after knowledge—I have none,
And yet my song comes native with the warmth.
O fret not after knowledge—I have none,
And yet the Evening listens.

33Ibid., p. 305.

34Ibid., p. 72.

35Ibid., p. 96.

36 Cf. To Homer:

Standing aloof in giant ignorance,
Of thee I hear and of the Cyclades,
As one who sits ashore and longs perchance
To visit dolphin-coral in deep seas.
So thou wast blind!—but then the veil was rent;
For Jove uncurtain'd Heaven to let thee live,
And Neptune made for thee a spumy tent,
And Pan made sing for thee his forest-hive;
Aye, on the shores of darkness there is light,
And precipices show untrodden green;
There is a budding morrow in midnight,—
There is a triple sight in blindness keen;
Such seeing hadst thou, as it once befell
To Dian, Queen of Earth, and Heaven, and Hell.

See also The Poet, to whose sight

The hush of natural objects opens quite
To the core: and every secret essence there

Reveals the elements of good and fair;
Making him see, where Learning hath no light.
(ll. 4-7)

37 C. L. Finney, The Evolution of Keats's Poetry, I, 245.

38Letters, p. 108.

39Ibid., p. 71.

40Ibid., p. 316.

41Ibid., p. 335.

42 Cf. Shelley, Hymn to Intellectual Beauty, ll. 17-18:

Why dost thou pass away, and leave our state,
This dim vast vale of tears, vacant and desolate?

43Letters, p. 336.

44 See C. D. Thorpe, "Keats's Interest in Politics and World Affairs," PMLA, XLVI, 1228-45.

45 See C. D. Thorpe, The Mind of John Keats, pp. 74-78ff.

46 See G. B. Shaw, "Keats," in The John Keats Memorial Volume, p. 175.

47 See J. M. Murry, "The Date of Hyperion," Keats and Shakespeare; C. D. Thorpe, John Keats: Complete Poems and Selected Letters, p. 381n.

48 " … for the last time in this world his own free master, he found all his disciplined powers, of observation, of imagination, of craftsmanship, combining in one moment of power to produce the most serenely flawless poem in our language… . "—M. R. Ridley, Keats' Craftsmanship, p. 289.

49 " … earnestness … may certainly account for his want of humour."—Bridges, op. cit., p. ci. "He had an exquisite sense of humour… . "—Haydon, op. cit., I, 301. I prefer the word of Haydon, who knew Keats, and I find strong corroborative evidence for my preference in the Letters.

50 " … in its kind, even though that kind be slight, it is not far short of perfection."—Ridley, op. cit., p. 96.

51 This element of contrast has of course been recognized. See E. de Sélincourt; "The Warton Lecture on Keats," in The John Keats Memorial Volume, pp. 14-15, Finney, op. cit., II, 549, 559; Amy Lowell, John Keats, II, 170-71.

52 "It is the old story of the cruelty of nature. For two who are happy, life demands the insatiable toll of death."—Lowell, op. cit., II, 171.

53 Quoted from Ridley, op. cit., p. 190.

54Mythology and the Romantic Tradition in English Poetry, pp. 82, 107.

55 Ay, in the very temple of Delight
Veil'd Melancholy has her sovran shrine …
(ll. 25-26)

In the Ode on Melancholy Keats emphasizes the close relationships between different modes of experience even more thoroughly than in the Nightingale:

Make not your rosary of yew-berries
Nor let the beetle, nor the death-moth be
Your mournful Psyche, nor the downy owl
A partner in your sorrow's mysteries;
For shade to shade will come too drowsily,
And drown the wakeful anguish of the soul.
(ll. 5-10)

Melancholy in its simple state is invisible; it is beheld only by him "whose strenuous tongue / Can burst Joy's grape against his palate fine."

56 Olwen Ward Campbell, Shelley and the Unromantics, p. 230.

57 Cf. Why Did I Laugh, with its conclusion,

Verse, Fame, and Beauty are intense indeed,
But Death intenser—Death is Life's high meed.

58Op. Cit., p. 227.

59 One must agree here with Amy Lowell that to object that the nightingale is obviously not immortal (see Bridges, op. cit., p. lxiv) is to miss the point, although her manners in this argument are enough to provoke a saint (John Keats, II, 252). She has certainly provoked H. W. Garrod (Keats, pp. 113-14), whose saintliness as regards Miss Lowell is non-existent.

60 Cf. Cleanth Brooks, Modern Poetry and the Tradition, p. 31.


I. Texts

Keats, John. John Keats: Complete Poems and Selected Letters. Edited by Clarence DeWitt Thorpe. New York: Doubleday, Doran, and Company, Inc., 1935.

——. The Letters of John Keats, 3rd edition. Edited by Maurice Buxton Forman. London and New York: Oxford University Press, 1947.

——. Poems of John Keats. Edited by G. Thorn Drury, with an introduction by Robert Bridges. London: George Routledge and Sons, Ltd.; New York: E. P. Dutton and Co. 2 vols.

——. The Poetical Works of John Keats. Edited by William T. Arnold. London: Kegan Paul, Trench and Company, 1884.

II. Scholarship and Criticism

Bailey, John. "The Poet of Stillness," The John Keats Memorial Volume, q. v.

Bate, Walter Jackson. Negative Capability: The Intuitive Approach in Keats. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1939.

Bradley, A. C. Oxford Lectures on Poetry. London: Macmillan and Co., Ltd., 1917.

Brooks, Cleanth. Modern Poetry and the Tradition. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1939.

Bush, Douglas. Mythology and the Romantic Tradition in English Poetry. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1937.

Campbell, Olwen Ward. Shelley and the Unromantics. London: Methuen and Co., Ltd., 1924.

Clutton-Brock, Arthur. "Keats and Shelley—a Contrast," The John Keats Memorial Volume, q.v.

Colvin, Sir Sidney. John Keats: His Life and Poetry, His Friends, Critics, and After-Fame. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1917.

Finney, Claude Lee. The Evolution of Keats's Poetry. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1936. 2 vols.

Garrod, H. W. Keats. Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1926.

Haydon, Benjamin Robert. The Autobiography and Memoirs of Benjamin Robert Haydon (1786-1846). Edited from his journals by Tom Taylor, with an introduction by Aldous Huxley. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company. 2 vols.

Larrabee, Stephen A. English Bards and Grecian Marbles: The Relationship Between Sculpture and Poetry, Especially in the Romantic Period. New York: Columbia University Press, 1943.

Lowell, Amy. John Keats. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1925. 2 vols.

Murry, John Middleton. Keats and Shakespeare: a Study of Keats's Poetic Life from 1816 to 1820. London: Humphrey Milford, Oxford University Press, 1925.

——. Studies in Keats: New and Old, 2nd edition. London and New York: Oxford University Press, 1939.

Ridley, M. R. Keats ' Craftsmanship: A Study in Poetic Development. Oxford: the Clarendon Press, 1933.

Sélincourt, E. de. "The Warton Lecture on Keats," The John Keats Memorial Volume, q. v.

Shaw, Bernard. "Keats," The John Keats Memorial Volume, q. v.

Thorpe, Clarence DeWitt. "Keats's Interest in Politics and World Affairs," PMLA, XLVI (1931), 1228-45.

——. The Mind of John Keats. New York and London: Oxford University Press, 1926.

Further Reading

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Stillinger, Jack. "John Keats." In The English Romantic Poets: A Review of Research and Criticism, edited by Frank Jordan, pp. 665-718. New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1985.

Bibliographic study covering editions of Keats's works, biographies of Keats, as well as general criticism, "specialized" studies, and criticism of individual works.


Bewell, Alan J. "The Political Implication of Keats's Classicist Aesthetics." Studies in Romanticism 25, No. 2 (Summer 1986): 220-29.

Studies the relationship between the politics of Hyperion and the aesthetics of the poem, stating that the political message of the poem is mediated by the reader's recognition of the conflict between life and art in the poem, as represented by the Titans. The Titans, Bewell observes, "never fully escape being seen as sculptures."

Brantley, Richard E. "Keats's Method." Studies in Romanticism 22, No. 3 (Fall 1983): 389-405.

Examines Keats's poetry as informed by both empiricism and grace, that is, as being simultaneously "tough-minded" and "tender-minded."

Goellnicht, Donald C. "The Politics of Reading and Writing: Periodical Reviews of Keats's Poems 1817." In New Romanticisms: Theory and Critical Practice, edited by David L. Clark and Donald C. Goellnicht, pp. 101-31. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1994.

Reviews Marjorie Levinson's arguments regarding Keats's lower-middle-class background as the primary factor in both his approach to poetry and in the attacks by Keats's contemporary critics on his work. Goellnicht then examines early reviews of Keats's poetry and argues that class-based perspectives such as Levinson's "to some degree reproduce those of Keats's first readers."

Lau, Beth. "Keats's Mature Goddesses." Philological Quarterly 63, No. 3 (Summer 1984): pp. 323-41.

Traces the development of Keats's "mature, earthbound, humanitarian muses," arguing that between the idealized goddesses and demonic goddesses depicted in Keats's early and later poetry, respectively, are found goddess figures who function as guides rather than lovers, and who "reflect a balanced, comprehensive attitude toward life and art."

Ross, Marlon B. "Beyond the Fragmented Word: Keats at the Limits of Patrilineal Language." In Out of Bounds: Male Writers and Gender(ed) Criticism, edited by Laura Claridge and Elizabeth Langland, pp. 110-31. Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1990.

Maintains that Hyperion represents Keats's "coming into discursive power" and that in order to be accepted as a "great" poet, Keats attempts to recreate poetic discourse in such a way that other poets who come after him will be compelled to "use language according to [Keats's] re-formation of it."

Sallé, Jean-Claude. "Negative Capability." In A Handbook to English Romanticism, edited by Jean Raimond and J. R. Watson, pp. 187-89. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1992.

Offers a brief interpretation of Keats's theory of negative capability.

Schoonmaker, Donald. "The Bittersweet of Keats's Liberal Imagination." In English Romanticism: Preludes and Postludes, edited by Donald Schoonmaker and John A. Alford, pp. 71-96. East Lansing, Mich.: Colleagues Press, 1993.

Argues that Keats "deepen[s] the liberal ideal" in terms of his "psychological assumptions about human nature." Schoonmaker explains that Keats's belief in "empathetic openness" suggest Keats's complex views regarding the culture necessary to support a liberal society.

Scott, Grant F. The Sculpted Word: Keats, Ekphrasis, and the Visual Arts. Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1994, 222 p.

Book-length study of Keats as the Romantic writer most "obsessed" by art; examines Keats's treatment of art in his poetry, including the poem on the Elgin marbles, "The Eve of St. Agnes," and "Ode on a Grecian Urn," among others.

Waldoff, Leon. "From Abandonment to Scepticism in Keats." Essays in Criticism XXI, No. 2 (April 1971): 152-58.

Studies Endymion as a turning point for Keats, in that it "reflects the psychological origins of Keats's scepticism about dreams and permanence."

——. Keats and the Silent Work of Imagination. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1985, 215 p.

Book-length treatment of Keats's views regarding the poetic imagination. Discusses Endymion, "The Eve of St. Agnes," "La Belle Dame sans Merci," the later odes, "Lamia," and The Fall of Hyperion in an effort to reveal the "concept, theme, and role of imagination" in Keats's work as well as the way in which Keats's theory of the poetic imagination develops throughout his brief career.

Wolfson, Susan J. "Keats's 'Gordian Complication' of Women." In Approaches to Teaching Keats's Poetry, edited by Walter H. Evert and Jack W. Rhodes, pp. 77-85. New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1991.

In discussing methods of teaching Keats's poetry and his attitudes toward women, examines Keats's tendency to depict "ecstatic or visionary experience as an encounter with a female or feminized figure."

Additional coverage of Keats's life and works is contained in the following sources published by Gale Research: DISCovering Authors; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 96 and 110; Poetry Criticism, Vol. 1; and World Literature Criticism, 1500 to the Present.

Patricia M. Ball (essay date 1968)

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SOURCE: "Egotistical and Chameleon: Byron, Shelley, and Keats," Ch. 4 in The Central Self: A Study in Romantic and Victorian Imagination, The Athlone Press, 1968, pp. 103-51.

[In the following excerpt from her chapter, Ball argues that Keats 's poetry is marked by both egotism, in the poet's focus on his poetic vision as well as his own emotional needs, and by his chameleon-like response to his subject matter, that is, his ability to identify with and lose himself in the object of the poetry.]

… Keats in his letters darts like a bird above the rough ground where his poems stumble and fight their way forward. The letters perceive in flashes, the poems must fulfil his precept—nothing is real until it is experienced. They are the means by which Apollo is made a god: experience becoming consciousness. The process is necessarily incomplete; its difficulty, never underestimated in his own judgment, increased with the growing complexity of life, its crosscurrents and whirlpools of desires, ideas, people and events. But his poems written within such a concentrated span of years reveal the intimacy of chameleon and egotistical, the singleness of their ambition, with a particular clarity. Despite his classification of himself as chameleon, the poems as much as the letters show strong egotistical awareness. In the Odes he writes directly from this centre, impressing himself upon his materials and making out of them a personal universe. The nightingale and the Grecian urn are properties of his vision, annexed to his emotional need, helping to focus his own situation. This is the road of egotistical realization. But his claim to be chameleon in his responses is also borne out, and his capacity for sinking himself into the tactile, sensuous recognition of objects and living creatures is one of the most lauded of his gifts, with "The Eve of St Agnes" the prime example. In his longer poems, the effect is analogous to Shelley's work, for the use of myth to enact his own perceptions with egotistical zest is joined by smaller but most accomplished exertions of chameleon power. Only the area of specialization is different: where Shelley is elementally responsive and drawn to intangibles, Keats is attuned to the life of the earth in grass and leaf, and the sensations of skin and palate.

These are obvious points about Keats. In parts of his work he clearly exercises the chameleon faculty and elsewhere, the egotistical, and he is capable of blending the two with his own temperament's version of Shelley's method. But the main effort of his poems is to discover how to manipulate the two modes in order to exploit them to the full as the means towards the creation of identity. Egotistical cannot merely be egocentric expression, chameleon cannot merely be taking on the being of a hare in frozen grass. He tries to find a way of writing which will convey simultaneously with these enterprises the act of self-realization, for this is the justification and meaning of both of them. If we look at his poems with this ambition in mind we see them as a distinctive kind of technical exploration inseparable from the business of soul-making which is their mission and raison d'être. He shares the quest with his fellow poets: but he pursues it in a more directly introspective way which his youth encourages and which is intensified by the rapidity of his development.

The journey from Endymion to Hyperion and then to The Fall of Hyperion shows his experimental search for a way of putting himself into the substance of the poem, as his basic problem may be described; he needs to behold his experiencing self in order to achieve the vital sense of emerging identity. These poems move from the first crude attempt to what we might call blueprint success in the revised Hyperion. Endymion is an apprentice poem from this viewpoint as from all others. Each book of the poem is introduced by a preamble spoken in his own voice, with a rather engaging mixture of high seriousness and nave excitement at his project:

… 'tis with full happiness that I
Will trace the story of Endymion.
The very music of the name has gone
Into my being, and each pleasant scene
Is growing fresh before me as the green
Of our own valleys; so I will begin
Now while I cannot hear the city's din …
(I, 34-40)

He is not content merely to tell the story—Endymion has moved him strongly and this fact must be recorded as part of the resultant work. He elaborates on this emotional stimulus in the introduction to the second book. Records of history are unfavourably contrasted with the effect on us of imaginative accounts of love and its sorrows:

… in our very souls, we feel amain
The close of Troilus and Cressid sweet.
Hence, pageant history! hence, gilded cheat . .

… the silver flow
Of Hero's tears, the swoon of Imogen,
Fair Pasterella in the bandit's den
Are things to brood on with more ardency
Than the deathday of empires.

(II, 12-14, 30-4)

And so to Endymion's woes again. This is more than a tribute to romance: it is Keats noting how vicarious emotion becomes immediate and enters into the web of his experience. The process is as important as the outcome, and he recognizes it as pertinent to his story of Endymion. Although only marginally observed in these formally modelled introductory sections, his creative situation is already seeking to take its place as a feature of the poem it engenders.

Endymion and the Hyperions meet as Keats's attempts to mythologize his mind, to locate in such stories a repository for his own feeling and perception. He is not dramatizing, entering emitional realms otherwise foreign to him, but breathing new life into ancient forms from his own spirit. That this in itself is only a partial satisfaction to the Romantic imagination is demonstrated by the history of his efforts to write Hyperion. In the first attempt the story of the fallen Titans and the advent of the Olympians is simply and epically narrated. There is no preamble, and therefore, no overt presence of the mind in which the story is taking root and growing into fresh life. This does not prevent the tale from being a piece of egotistical creation but, as Byron might put it—where is Harold? As he felt the need for the reacting mind itself to be by some means actualized, so Keats's poem clearly did not satisfy its author in its plain-tale form. A dimension is missing. Late in this first version, he tries by the conventional invocation of the Muse in Book III to supply the deficiency: but this serves only as a rather jerky piece of scene shifting—'O leave them, Muse', and is no advance from Endymion, threatening indeed to freeze the poem in an unyielding formality which makes it impossible to depict what is desired, that is, the creator in relation to the created.

Hence the changed method of the second Hyperion. Here Keats is in the poem. He contemplates himself as he moves towards the point at which the story is born, portraying this evolutionary experience as a 'poet's dream'. He achieves here, first of all, an intensified version of the encounter poem so favoured by his contemporaries. As we have seen, the poets like to tell stories, to be in other situations and at the same time to receive and react emotionally to the story so lived through. Ancient Mariner and Wedding Guest, Shepherd and Traveller, Giaour and Monk, Julian and Maniac: to these we can now add Keats's meeting with his dream-self and Moneta, which is to make possible the further encounter with the fallen gods. Thus on a purely egotistical level he adopts what has in the main been a device for leading chameleon or semi-chameleon experience to an egotistical consequence. In The Fall of Hyperion, it is a method wholly designed to bring 'himself home to himself', as he says in his letters.1 He observes himself in the throes of growth and developing vision, and he is the commentator on and the participant in his evolution. He encounters his enlarged perception, and he watches himself winning his taxing way to this ability to 'see as a God sees' (I, 304). At once the Mariner and the Guest, he witnesses his progress towards Moneta, his journeys into the profound oceans of experience. This recourse to dream-commentary is also, more directly, comparable to Coleridge's mirror-structure, as in The Nightingale, where self-realization is achieved through the reflection of experience by others; but again, Keats shows a more resolutely exclusive egotistical concentration, self-mirroring without mediators. In his second handling of the Hyperion story, therefore, Keats arrives at one way of solving the problems of the poetry of self-creation. Using the device of dream experience, he avoids the violation of poetic unity and also the awkward naïveté of Endymion's introductory voice.

A similar movement, and a similar struggle to find technical answers to satisfy his needs, can be seen taking place with less arduous introspection, in the three narrative poems. As he moves from Endymion, and from one Hyperion to the other, converting his raw material into a richer substance, so he develops from "Isabella" through "The Eve of St Agnes" to "Lamia." Each of these poems corresponds roughly to each of the egotistical works of myth, in that the method employed at the three stages is parallel, allowing of course for the differences inherent in the egotistical-chameleon contrast. For in his narrative poems Keats writes in the more outgoing spirit found in the Lyrical Ballads and Byron's Tales, and his problems are those of the narrator-voice, not so immediately his own as in Endymion or the second Hyperion. But his goal is the same: how to make his creative relationship with the material an inter-woven part of the poem's fabric. This preoccupation is never far from his mind. "Isabella" is not just 'a story from Boccaccio' recast into verse, and Keats is quite aware that his approach and the nature of his engagement with the tale is more complex than that of the straightforward ballad-monger who is merely the vehicle through whom the story communicates its own effect. As with Endymion, where he must set down his sense of emotional rapport with his hero's pangs, so in "Isabella" there is a naïve acknowledgement in the course of the poem that he finds his storytelling in itself an experience worthy of being communicated. To remain the window on the tale is not enough. He first shows that he has one eye on what he is doing instead of both fixed on the story when he pauses to invoke Boccaccio, asking his 'pardon' for the attempt to retell his tale, and assuring him that he is not seeking to improve on 'old prose in modern rhyme' (xx). That his is all the same a changed story, and perhaps a more difficult one to handle is admitted later, where he seems overcome by macabre emotion as Isabella delves in the forest grave:

Ah! wherefore all this wormy circumstance?
Why linger at the yawning tomb so long?
O for the gentleness of old Romance,
The simple plaining of a minstrel's song!

The impossibility of returning to simplicity and straight report is written into this very consciousness of having left it; the shift of centre from the story to the story-teller has irrevocably taken place. He is aware that he reacts to the 'yawning tomb' and every other situation and mood, and his whole concern is with what the story is doing to him, not the objective communication of it. Hence his dwelling on 'wormy circumstance': his emotions lead him, not Boccaccio. There is a kind of overflow of his feelings at times, giving such verses as that beginning

Moan hither, all ye syllables of woe,
From the deep throat of sad Melpomene!


His inclination is to write an emotionally annotated poem, and part of "Isabella's" awkwardness lies in his only being able fitfully to indulge, not to use this personal response to the material. The power of anonymous narration is lost because the pressure of the self-conscious storyteller is felt, but he cannot handle this presence confidently, nor is he completely committed to it throughout. The poem suffers; but it points the direction in which he must move.

That is, on to "The Eve of St Agnes" and beyond it to "Lamia," as he goes from one Hyperion to the other. The role of the narrator in "The Eve of St Agnes" is that of the immediate recipient of the action. This is a stage past objective storytelling, and Keats, having shaken off the gaucheness of "Isabella," has discovered how to use the sensitive presence of a commentator and integrate it with the scenes described. He no longer wavers between an imitation of plain narrative, and the indulgence of his own emotions with exclamations of distress to register the mood; he finds the chameleon method of disciplining and unifying the material, while keeping it related to himself. "The Eve of St Agnes" is less a story told than a series of impressions, an affair of substances and sensuous response rather than flowing action and dramatic manoeuvre, and this tactile assault of the poem makes us aware of the intimate presence of the poet. This is somewhat paradoxical, for what is forced on our attention is the quality of each detail in itself; the poet is obtrusive only by the very intensity of his submission to the effects he experiences. He is not acting as a window, but as a highly responsive organism evaluating his material before he offers it. His penetration of and fusion with the scenes evoked is part of what the poet offers us. All is quickened by the creative spirit as it takes possession of what it beholds. The effigies aching in their 'icy hoods' (II), Madeline and her 'warmed jewels' (XXVI), Porphyro's helmet-plume 'brushing the cobwebs' (XIII). These and all such are authentic acts of chameleon identification, but they confirm what Coleridge claimed of Shakespeare's protean power—that 'he remains always himself,2 and Keats in "The Eve of St Agnes" is clearly the poem's consciousness. He finds himself in what he realizes so acutely outside himself: it is ultimately his own boundary he extends. He gives himself to his story, and it enriches his own being.

But this process, so crucial to his imaginative ambition, is merely carried out in the poem, not simultaneously assessed as the operation it is. And no less will satisfy Keats: he aims not only to become the sparrow on the gravel, but to know that he has achieved this metamorphosis. At moments in "The Eve of St Agnes," the narrative voice is heard speaking as a witness and in this it is comparable to The Idiot Boy and Christabel. He stage-manages: 'these let us wish away, And turn, sole-thoughted, to one lady there' (V); and the poem ends with a sudden step back so that the story is set in distant perspective as well as concluded as the experience of the hour:

And they are gone: ay, ages long ago
These lovers fled away into the storm.
That night the Baron dreamt of many a woe,
And all his warrior-guests with shade and form
Of witch, and demon, and large coffin-worm,
Were long be-nightmared. Angela the old
Died palsy-twitch'd, with meagre face deform;
The Beadsman, after thousand aves told,
For aye unsought-for slept among his ashes cold.

This is the creator consciously placing himself in a valedictory relationship with his material, but for the most part the poem proceeds by the power of its chameleon submission, active from moment to moment. Keats would have such narratives active in this way and reflexive too; his letters are sure of this, and clear on its central importance, but his poems only have time to begin the search for the means of achieving it. The second Hyperion is a diagram of what he wants, and all the other poems involving some kind of narrator voice coupled with egotistical vision or chameleon action participate in the quest to consummate the relationship more adequately. The attempts range from the ingenuous Endymion to the sophistication of "Lamia."

He was more satisfied with "Lamia" than with either "Isabella" or "The Eve of St Agnes."3 Although it may be difficult for us to endorse this rating completely, since the level of performance in "Lamia" seems more uneven than that of the consistently fine "Eve of St Agnes," still the poet's instinct for his progress is not to be taken lightly, and in "Lamia" he takes a step forward in his struggle to solve the major problems of his creative life. The narrator of "Lamia" receives the impact of the story as he tells it, and his control of the action is that of a mind aware of the significance of the whole experience, neither fitfully communicating a display of its emotional response by sudden exclamations as in Endymion and "Isabella," nor yet merely living the scene and situation as in Hyperion the first and, with full chameleon energy, in "The Eve of St Agnes." Nor is the poem diagrammatic: the blend is more subtle. Keats manages to suggest a circuit of experience which elsewhere he does not master. He combines an inwardness of presentation, the empathic movement from himself into object, with the subjective result of this engagement.

Detail is vivid as in "The Eve of St Agnes"—sandals 'shuffle o'er the pavement white' (I, 355), the 'cold, full sponge' is pressed on hands and feet (II, 192),—but it is never isolated in its impact. Neither are the incidents and emotions of the story. Each moment is a relative, not a self-sufficient experience, for the whole of the story dominates its parts. This is how Keats's subjective assimilation manifests itself and becomes a feature of the poetic statement: the tone of the scenes and episodes is dependent on the context of ultimate disaster, and the awareness of an inevitable progress to grief and disillusion conditions his handling at every stage. He knows more than these characters as he lives their history, and this knowledge is integrated into his narrative; he is moved with the life of the actors and their world, but he writes also as the mind which has been taught and illuminated by the story it tells. He portrays in "Lamia" not only the spectacle of his experience expanding by his sympathetic enactment of this tragedy but the advent of the new self which is reached out of this submission. His mind is seen developing from what it feeds on, a stage further on the way to the full growth of its self-experience, its identity.

Doom hangs over Lycius and Lamia; the poet knows this from the outset and yet he learns it by travelling through their story also. He knows his verse cannot leave the lovers in their first happiness, but 'must tell For truth's sake what woe afterwards befell' (I, 394–5). He begins Part II able to generalize about the fate of love, with a bird's-eye (and Byronic) command of probabilities; but the proving on the pulses through the specific situation is the way to mature recognition, and "Lamia" captures the process of conversion from the experience as it is absorbed to the resultant perception. 'For all this came a ruin' (II, 16): this is the text, the beginning and the end of the poem, and the added dimension, modifying all the scenes and distinguishing the poem as a structure from the other narratives, which do not blend each moment's experience with the controlling realization of its fruits.

In the light of his drive for self-evolution, Keats's ambition to write plays takes on at first sight a contradictory appearance. But as his letters and the three narrative poems just discussed show, Keats's sense of his chameleon nature is the complement to, rather than the opponent of his equally intense and single-minded quest for his 'identity'. He is the final proof that to the Romantic these are polar not antagonistic urges. Undoubtedly his desire to write drama would have met head on his other passion for self-delineation, but it is much more probable that the tension so set up would have proved highly creative than that the two would have engendered only mutual frustration and stalemate. In Keats lay the seeds for a drama transformed by collision with this seemingly contrary force of egotistical energy; and in this potential development, the whole Romantic tendency is summed up. So the kind of work Keats might have produced is not entirely unknown: like his contemporaries, in their plays and their taste for the encounter narrative poem expecially, he moved towards a poetic form which involved the dramatic, the ability to be 'all things to all people', with the egocentric experience of the recording, growing, evaluating individual being. The logic of his development—hinted at in his handling of Act V of Otho the Great—looks to some kind of experiment in the field of monologue. Had he lived to pursue his poetic journey, his work might well have obviated the need for such a study as this which seeks to show the continuity between the Romantics and their Victorian successors. It is partly because Keats did not demonstrate the continuity fully by his own evolution that the clues in the work of the other Romantic poets have been so little understood.

Did Keats then actually write any monologues? The narrative poems I have discussed contain obvious gestures towards some exploitation of the speaker-to-listener situation—Lycius and Apollonius, for example. But on the whole, these poems explore the rather different relationship between the narrator and his story, and the former situation arises more incidentally. In his most straightforwardly egotistical poems, his Odes and sonnets, Keats comes nearest to comprehending the monologue and its opportunities. These are self-discovery poems, but they often adopt the mode of speaker and listener. The 'listener' may be a Grecian urn or Kosciusko, Fanny or Spenser, but the poem needs this other presence to provoke the poet to speak, and in this a monologue rather than a soliloquy situation is adumbrated. Keats favours direct address, finding him-self brought to clarification and the illuminated scrutiny of a mood or an experience by the interaction, the implicit exchange, between him and the object or person fixing his attention. This is Romantic empiricism once more, involving that sense of occasion and the stimulating psychological shock of encounter and relationship which brings about a release of imaginative power.

In this context, Keats's sonnets show themselves to be experimental poems. He tries out ways of bringing himself home to himself, using the form as a psychological note-book containing moments of importance: strong emotion ('Keen, fitful gusts …'); perceptive glimpses of some truth he must prove to himself ('After dark vapours …'); a sudden discovery ("On Looking into Chapman's Homer"); or impulses within himself whose significance he feels but cannot grasp ('Why did I laugh tonight?'). In all of them, there is immediacy of experience and the ambition to master it, and the tone is that of one moved to a dramatically reverberant utterance rather than the whisper of private, inner thinking. Even where there is no other presence exerting its formulating pressures, he acts as a listener to his own speech, as in 'Why did I laugh tonight?', a sonnet written as he said 'with no agony but that of ignorance'.4 This is a poem charged with promise for the future of his research into the best methods of handling the complex Romantic condition of a vigilant self-consciousness, refining itself as an instrument for evaluation and enlightenment.

He could not himself pursue the challenge. But with his fellow egotistical and chameleon poets, he pioneers enough territory to hand on to the poets who follow a rich, if difficult, inheritance.


1 Woodhouse, 27 October 1818; Rollins, [Letters of Keats, edited by H. E. Rollins, 2 vols., Cambridge, 1958] i, p. 387.

2 See above, pp. 7–8.

3 Woodhouse, 21–22 September 1819; Rollins, ii, p. 174.

4 George Keatses, 19 March 1819; Rollins, ii, p. 81.

François Matthey (essay date 1974)

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SOURCE: "Pyramidal Structure," in The Evolution of Keats's Structural Imagery, Francke Verlag Bern, 1974, pp. 145–93.

[In the following essay, Matthey argues that Keats employs within his poetry an increasingly complex structure, characterized by "rising and falling" imagery and symmetrical patterns, in order to complement the themes of the poems and heighten their emotional effects.]

A Sentimental Journey

The letters (27th April and 3rd May) in which Keats informs Reynolds of the completion of "Isabella" put an end to the young poet's evolution, so far as the structure of his poems is concerned. Indeed events take a dramatic turn as Keats and his brother Tom leave Devon unexpectedly on May 4 or 5, rushing back to London. And the next few weeks seem to have been a very busy time. The cause of the turmoil is the sudden change brought about by George's plans and the introduction into the group of a new partner, his young wife Georgiana. May letters are extremely scarce. On the 17th Tom informs Marian Jeffrey of George's departure for America, of John's projected trip to Scotland and of his own intention of crossing over to the Continent in order to recover his health. Only on the 21st does the poet write to Bailey, and the tone is very different from the usual discussions about poetry. The retirement and confinement imposed by Tom's sickly life, explode into activity. A whirlwind seems to take hold of the brothers' destinies: George, "out of employ", decides on emigrating and "will marry before he sets sail"; John himself will start with Brown for a long walking tour. The decision appears as a necessary remedy against the depressing feelings provoked by George's plans. "I am now so depressed that I have not an Idea to put to paper—my hand feels like lead—and yet it is an unpleasant numbness it does not take away the pain of existence" (21 May 1818, To Bailey; no. 83, I, 287). The heart-ache has nothing of the virtues of indolence and the creative dreams of imagination in "Sleep and Poetry".

Contradictory sentiments struggle within the poet's mind. The letter is interrupted and resumed four days later. Generously the elder brother has encouraged George in his scheme of settling in America ("This for many reasons has met with my entire consent"), but the strain already imposed on him by Tom's illness,—"Lord what a Journey I had, and what a relief at the end of it" (4 June 1818, To Marian and Sarah Jeffrey; no. 84, I, 290)—added to the despair of losing George's company in the circumstances, leads him to the very verge of suicidal thoughts: "I am in that temper that if I were under Water I would scarcely kick to come to the top" (25 May 1818, To Bailey; no. 83, I, 287). Moreover, topping the anguish of Tom's state of health and the void of George's absence, a third sentiment seems to gnaw at the poet's heart: his more than tender feelings for Georgiana Wylie, George's young wife. It is not one separation that George's plan now means, but two: "I feel no spur at my Brothers going to America and am almost stony-hearted about his wedding." Though he immediately adds "All this will blow over", his incapacity to concentrate on any other subjects shows how deeply the event moves him. The many invitations of these weeks prove the kind attempts of his friends to overcome his depressed state of mind, and prevent him from retiring "into the backward Bin", to be like wine in the cellar, "the more falerne … at the drinking" (ibid., 288). The joke is a smile through tears, a play on words inspired by his intimate forlorness and the Horatian evocation of Falernian wine Interiore nota Falerni.1 Like all deeds requiring much courage the pun left a profound mark on Keats till it found an outlet in the "Ode to a Nightingale". The seclusion of the "draught of vintage, / Cool'd a long age in the deep-delved earth" (12), also finds its counterpart in the "forlorn" (71 and 72) mood of the last part of the poem.

For the time being Keats appears divided between a will to assert his authority as the head of the family and a need for warm understanding and love, for the comfort of "throwing oneself on the charity of one's friends" (ibid., I, 288). There is no room for aestheticism in all this; it is a very human reaction to the bitterness of separation, and Bailey must remain content with the hope of a problematic visit, "for we must have many new thoughts and feelings to analize, and to discover whether a little more knowledge has not made us more ignorant" (ibid., 288). The "little more knowledge" can only be the experience of the unfore-seen total change in the course of life, and the ignorance derives from the birth of powerful contradictory feelings through the tangled web of which the young man cannot see, and to some extent refuses to see. Is it exaggerated to say that intimate preoccupations blocked Keats's evolution at that time; that he stuck to the truths he had evolved about poetry and the structural imagery that should support it, till things would settle in his heart and make it possible to explore some other dark passage of the "Mansion of many Apartments"? A sort of irritability can be felt throughout the correspondence written in the weeks preceding his departure for Scotland with Brown. Important letters, as we have said, are very few. Bailey is again the recipient of his confidence a fortnight later. The depressed and depressing mood has not abated. "Now I am never alone without rejoicing that there is such a thing as death" (10 June 1818; no. 86, I, 293). The letter again swarms with the expression of personal feelings and attempts to analyze and understand his relations with those nearest to his heart. It seems evident that he already knew his brother Tom was condemned, but never said so clearly and hid the fact from George in order not to upset his plans and spoil his fresh happiness. We can then re-live the division of the young man's affection: "My Love for my Brothers from the early loss of our parents and even for earlier Misfortunes has grown into an affection passing the Love of Women' (ibid., 293). And here can be judged his clear sense of the future: "I have a Sister too and may not follow them [his brothers] either to America or to the Grave—Life must be undergone." It is hard to understand why H. E. Rollins chooses to interpret "a sister" as being his recently married sister-in-law, Georgiana Keats.2 Undoubtedly, the sister he is referring to is Fanny whom he does not want to abandon in the custody of Richard Abbey. Together with Tom, but for different reasons she requires the poet's care; for the sake of both of them he must reject the insinuating thoughts of death.

But there is a new partner in the family group, one that has become very dear to Keats's heart, amazingly rapidly in fact. "I had known my sister in Law some time before she was my Sister and was very fond of her. I like her better and better—she is the most disinterested woman I ever knew—that is to say she goes beyond degree in it—To see an entirely disinterested Girl quite happy is the most pleasant and extraordinary thing in the world—it depends upon a thousand Circumstances—on my word 'tis extraordinary. Women must want Imagination and they may thank God for it—and so may we that a delicate being can feel happy without any sense of crime. It puzzles me and I have no sort of Logic to comfort me" (ibid., 293). The endearment is certain though the praise is not quite explicit. What does Keats mean? This quality of disinterestedness supposes a disposition free from prejudice and self-seeking which must have responded in all simplicity to the young man's thirst for affection and human warmth in his present perspective of bereavement. He had just given praise to Bailey for a similar attitude. "The world is malignant enough to chuckle at the most honorable Simplicity … Yes, on my soul, my dear Bailey, you are too simple for the World—and the Idea makes me sick of it … You have all your Life (I think so) believed every Body—I have suspected every Body" (ibid., 292), which, of course, is a deprecation of himself caused by the stress of the time. That simple response to his need for friendship made him morbidly irritable when talking to his friends for fear of sentimentality. Kindness in a girl would provoke a sentimental reaction approaching love. Was the poet aware of a greater depth in his sudden affection than he would confess? The phrase about Georgiana "feeling happy without any sense of crime" tends to show that Keats was conscious of somewhat ambiguous sentimental entanglements on his side. The coldness of separation at Liverpool—"I left the next morning before George was up for Lancaster" (2 July 1818, To Fanny Keats; no. 94, I, 310)—may be attributed to a desire to breaking with his brother without any unmanly sentimentality. On the 26th he will confess to Tom: "I in my carelessness never thought of knowing where a letter would find him on the other side" (26 July 1818, To Tom; no. 100, I, 351). Bewildered hurry is evident. But was it on account of George only? Hardly three days have elapsed when he addresses George and Georgiana, hoping they have not sailed yet (27 July 1818; no. 92, I, 303). The young wife is the object of an outburst of deep affection. The letter is in fact meant for her: "Ha! my dear Sister George, I wish I knew what humour you were in that I might accomodate myself to any one of your Amiabilities." The acrostic to Georgiana's name follows, a weak poem in de Selincourt's opinion. This is very true, and its weakness derives from a divided feeling and the difficulty of not betraying too much of that

Great Love in me for thee and Poesy

The possible declaration to the inspiring "muse" is reined in by the acrostic form which imposes a mask of convention, making the poem a mere tour de force. It is remarkable that he hardly ever troubled his poor brother Tom with a confidence of his feelings for their sister-in-law. Yet it is possible to read between the lines of the abrupt declaration: "With respect to Women I think I shall be able to conquer my passions hereafter better than I have yet done" (26 July 1818, To Tom; no. 100, I, 351). With his friends he was more open about the extraordinarily quick affection he had experienced in the case of George's wife: "I have felt the pleasure of loving a sister in Law. I did not think it possible to become so much attached in so short a time.—Things like these, and they are real, have made me resolve to have a care of my health" (13 July 1818, To Reynolds; no. 96,I, 325). For a desire to see George and Georgiana again has already seized him. The notion of a "visit to America" is brewing: "I intend to pass a whole year with George if I live to the completion of the three next" (22 July 1818, To Bailey; no. 99, I, 343). The sense of bereavement haunts him throughout the Scotland trip; he abandons the description of landscapes and people, rarely discusses problems of poetic creation, but is preoccupied by his own inward trouble. It makes him more and more interested in his friends' marriage plans (13 July 1818, To Reynolds; no. 96, I, 325; and 18 July, To Bailey; no. 99, I, 342), and causes him to analyze his attitude to women. The whole of his letter to Bailey of July 18 treats of his shyness in the society of women on account of his small size and of his aggressive reaction to the "evil thoughts" and "malicious spleen" engendered by their presence. It is amazing to see what a clear conscience he had of his psychological complex. Among women he says, "I cannot speak or be silent—I am full of Suspicions and therefore listen to no thing—I am in a hurry to be gone—You must be charitable and put all this perversity to my being disappointed since Boyhood—Yet with such feelings I am happier alone among Crowds of men, by myself or with a friend or two [ … ] I must absolutely get over this—but how? The only way is to find the root of evil, and so cure it 'With backward mutters of dissevering Power'. That is a difficult thing; for an obstinate Prejudice can seldom be produced but from a gordian complication of feelings, which must take time to unravell and care to keep unravelled" (ibid., I, 341–2).

Such personal analysis of his own predicament was, of course, what saved Keats from the destructive influence of the ghosts he was living with, but shied from when confronted with their embodied persons. The allusion3 to a passage of Paradise Lost meant to refer to his situation and that of Bailey betrays under-lying levels of preoccupation. The lines belong to the description of Paradise (IV, 268–272):

Not that faire field
Of Enna, where Proserpin gathring flours
Her self a fairer Floure by gloomie Dis
Was gatherd, which cost Ceres all that pain
To seek her through the World.

Did he not think of himself as of a disconsolate Ceres contemplating sailing to America in order to see again the Proserpine his brother Dis had untimely "gathered"? Even in the lines sent in the same letter, the traumatic break from those he love haunts his imagination which seems at times to contemplate a plunge into madness.

Aye if a madman could have leave to pass a healthful day
To tell his forehead's swoon and faint when first began decay,
He might make tremble many a Man whose Spirit had gone forth
To find a Bard's low Cradle place about the silent north.
Scanty the hour and few the steps beyond the Bourn of Care,
Beyond the sweet and bitter world—beyond it unaware;
Scanty the hour and few the steps because a longer stay
Would bar return and make a Man forget his mortal way.
O horrible! to lose the sight of well remember'd face,
Of Brother's eyes, of Sister's Brow, constant to every place,
Filling the Air, as on we move, with Portraiture intense
More warm than those heroic tints that fill a Painter's sense—
When Shapes of old come striding by and visages of old,
Looks shining black, hair scanty grey, and passions manifold.

("Lines written in the Highlands", 25–38; no. 99, I, 345)

The wound was never healed in spite of the pleasure of discovery offered by the walking tour with Brown. It focused the young man's attention on problems of self-analysis which supplanted the preoccupations about poetry itself. Scenery and a deeper consciousness of humanitarian problems in those poorer districts of the north were every day's accumulating lore. The land- and seascapes roused enthusiastic response, particularly the steep rise of crags and peaks. In Keats's descriptions of nature mountains are strikingly prominent; they were the as yet unknown features of the natural surroundings. Their shapes coincided with the imagery instilled during the past winter and spring. The link between theoretical views on poetry and a renewed experience of the truth of such abstractions could but reinforce the poet's convictions. In fact immediate reality proved difficult to turn into verse—"I cannot write about scenery and visitings" (13 July 1818, To Reynolds; no. 96, I, 325)—except when the scene happened to correspond to the high architectural structure of his dreams. Ailsa Rock inspired one of the few successful poems of that period: "Hearken thou craggy ocean pyramid …" (1).

The sonnet suggests the cataclysmic emergence of the mountain. The rock belongs to the world of immortality; it has the dramatic compactness of the risen Titans stunned to silence by defeat. The "heave to airy sleep" (6)—"Sleep in the Lap of Thunder or Sunbeams" (7)—relates it to the Giants whose epic had been maturing in the poet's mind throughout the previous months. The sestet hesitates between rising and falling movement until it dies into the silence of the thunderstruck indestructible mass:

Thy life is but two dead eternities—
The last in air, the former in the deep;
First with the whales, last with the eagleskies—
Drown'd wast thou till an earthquake made thee steep,
Another cannot wake thy giant size.

The sonnet is less pyramidal in its structural imagery than the crag it describes. The reversion to the Petrachan form of the sonnet seems to have made the poet hesitant as to whether he should move slowly downward, or after a marked rise die abruptly into silence. The final effect recalls the Chapman's Homer sonnet; the "giant" shape towers up impressively. But line 11 with its backward movement breaks the rhythm of the otherwise steady rise. The inverted symmetry of line 12 is certainly skilfully worked out, yet not quite as "unobtrusive" as might be wished.

Such scenery suggestive of epic grandeur was met with day after day, and it is surprising that the poet did not often find himself equal to the occasion. The weariness of the traveller may explain his inability to cope with the immediate experience. However his enthusiastic admiration for the rough magnificence of the country explodes in his letters. The description of the isle of Staffa with Fingal's cave "arched somewhat gothic wise" and the pillars of basalt "rising immediately out of the crystal" shows how sensitive Keats was to its suggestions of legends and myths, and how he linked it with the vaulted architecture of the Middle Ages. In the poem inspired by the place the description builds up an imagery that culminates in the line:

This Cathedral of the Sea.


But Lycidas "the pontiff-priest" of the monument cannot bear the "sacrilegeous presence" of mortals:

the stupid eye of mortal
Hath pass'd beyond the rocky portal.


He will therefore abandon the place, and the poem plunges to its end! Structurally after rising to the vaulted roof of the high nave, the movement drops steeply down to the water.

Keats himself was severe in his judgement of those verses: "I am sorry I am so indolent as to write such stuff as this" (26 July 1818, To Tom; no. 100, I, 351). The phenomenon is rather easy to explain: reality pressed too much on the "camelion poet" for him to be roused to full poetic inspiration on the spot. Keats was perfectly aware of the fact and re-inforced in his belief in the power of imagination as a way towards the apprehension of truth. "Fancy is indeed less than a present palpable reality, but it is greater than remembrance—You would lift your eyes from Homer only to see close before you the real Isle of Tenedos" (13 July 1818, To Reynolds; no. 96, I, 325). Therefore reality needs no comment or ornament; it is there, and there's an end of it. Fancy is creation, which remembrance is not. In poetry alone could be found a solution to his troubles, and forced back to London by ill-health, he soon plunged into the composition of Hyperion.

Creative activity, writing was a necessity. With his own sore-throat to nurse and the company of his ailing brother, life was hardly tolerable. His anguished cry to Dilke (21 Sept. 1818; no. 107, I, 369) gives some idea of the extent of his distress: "I wish I could say Tom was any better. His identity presses upon me so all day that I am obliged to go out—and although I intended to have given some time to study alone I am obliged to write, and plunge into abstract images to ease myself of his countenance his voice and feebleness." Negative capability was working its worst. His own spleen as to his brother and sister-in-law's absence had not subsided and his aching heart needed the outlet of his long October letter to allow his affection to speak out. "If you were here my dear Sister I could not pronounce the words which I can write to you from a distance; I have a tenderness for you, and an admiration which I feel to be as great and more chaste than I can have for any woman in the world" (14 Oct. 1818, To the George Keatses; no. 120, I, 392). It is a declaration of love with an effort to make it brotherly at the end. The young man's heart was no doubt far from being at rest, and a need for womanly presence and affection overcomes all other thoughts. It is not astonishing, therefore, to find the same letter relating the poet's meeting with Jane Cox, then with Isabella Jones, and his response to the presence of "disinterested" women endowed with "magnetic Power". But the imaginary character will always surpass the tangible reality. "As a Man in the world I love the rich talk of a Charmian; as an eternal Being I love the thought of you. I should like her to ruin me, and I should like you to save me" (ibid., no. 120, I, 396). Evidently he was making an effort to clear up troublesome feelings. It was easier to see things in that light from this side of the Atlantic.

The criticism of Endymion in the literary reviews could not contribute, of course, to soften the bitterness of Keats's soul, in spite of his proud and dignified attitude in the circumstances. "My own domestic criticism has given me pain without comparison beyond what Blackwood or the Quarterly could possibly inflict" (8 Oct. 1818, To Hessey; no. 110, I, 374). And all this was a mere nothing compared to his distress at the growing weakness of Tom and the increasing certainty of the approach of untimely death. It is a wonder then to think that Hyperion could be conceived even in its incomplete form during that period. But, as we have said, he was "obliged to write" to abstract himself from the reality of the sick man's room.

Towards Ethereal Regions: "Hyperion "

Hyperion is the fruit of the previous maturation of Keats's views on poetry, to which was added the experience of the grand scenery of the Scottish shores and mountains. It is difficult to judge a work that was never completed. But it is sufficient for our purpose to examine the general pattern of evolution of the poem, and confront it with the upward movement that could be expected at that stage of Keats's development. The Miltonian model followed in the first two Books corresponds to the imagery of defeated rebels crushed in despair in a world of darkness, then awakening at the call of some powerful spirit and refusing to succumb; and the discussions and plans that ensue. Therefore the rise is evident. The imagery of the beginning of Book I is entirely devoted to the creation of the funereal atmosphere of an underworld of the dead. The note of defeat is struck at the outset, with impressions of depth, darkness and hopelessness evoked in the very first line:

Deep in the shady sadness of a vale.

(I. 1)

The scene creating the appropriate atmosphere by a concentration of images which stress the three elements enumerated above extends over the first twenty-one lines. The "vale" (1) is "sunken" (2) "far from the fiery noon" (3). And the "fallen divinity" (12) of the god whose "bow'd head seem'd list'ning to the Earth" (20) reinforces the down-ward movement. Darkness and sadness combine to make the deep recess a sort of grave; no noise, no motion, away from the light of "morn" and its "healthy breath" (2), from the fire of the sun at the zenith, and the mild eyes of the stars. "Forest on forest" (6), "cloud on cloud" (7) enclose Saturn in their shades as in a natural tomb. And there silence and immobility reign. The god sits

quiet as a stone,
Still as the silence round about his lair.


His presence is suggestive of an Egyptian colossus in some funeral temple. "His old right hand lay nerveless, listless, dead" (18); there is "no stir of air" (7) and the rivers flow "voiceless" (11). The shadow of death has pervaded the imagery. Everything is deprived of life: "where the dead leaf fell, there did it rest" (10). And in lines 11–13—where the elements of darkness, silence and downfall are again intimately united—the noise from the stream is

deadened more
By reason of his fallen divinity
Spreading a shade.


Time came to a stop when Saturn dragged his shattered self to the hiding-place "and slept there since" (17), and the place enjoyed "the healthy breath of morn" (2) no longer.

It is important to note that Keats was confronted with a difficulty that did not exist in the model of a universe used by Milton in Paradise Lost. Milton's fallen angels were precipitated into a totally different world that imagination could describe in the most fantastic way. He was moving his characters in a cosmography that established a hierarchy of different worlds; his actors would travel through space and explore regions of light or obscurity. Keats was dealing with a mythological situation rooted in the earth. All his epic had to evolve in the same world. The only hierarchy could be the vertical disposition of elements, and such imagery alone could create the atmosphere of death, awakening from lethargy and conquest of areas of light and life. In fact what Keats does is to write the epic of the progress of beauty in the world, from primitive forms to more subtle and elaborate ones. It answered his views about the exploration of the "Mansion of many Apartments". Primitivism of life and shapes he had just experienced on his trip through Scotland. Happiness was not absent from the misery of Scottish cottages, true palaces when compared to the Irish ones. Mildness of colouring and shades of light softened the most rugged landscapes, and the flight of the eagle combined smoothness and majesty. The simplification of sharp divisions was nowhere to be found. Saturn is in a "vale", and not in some far away Pandemonium. Therefore the poet is obliged to play skilfully with the sensations produced by the natural elements, which are his basic material, in order to make the setting acceptable; he must render the rebirth credible without contradicting the normal picture of our surrounding world. Light does not necessarily exclude darkness; the qualities of silence are audible; and life exists in the presence of death.

That is why the "healthy breath of morn" exists (2), but the place is "far sunken" from it (2). Similarly Saturn's lair is "far from the fiery noon, and eve's one star" (3). The mention that Saturn is "grey-hair'd", by its very suggestion of great age, leads us to suppose that the god is not dead. Keats resorts to the negation of positive elements to reinforce the impression he means to produce, as in

Not so much life as on a summer's day
Robs not one light seed from the feather 'd grass.


The exuberance of a "summer's day" turns to nothingness, as it is reduced to a breath of air so weak, that it proves unable to blow away even one particle from the fluffy down of the dandelion's fleece! And the "vale" where death and defeat reign has not been deserted by the naiads peeping timidly from behind the curtain of the reeds. But the refreshing figures do not break the spell; on the contrary their presence adds to the mood of respectful silence through the absence of their wanton laughter. Their cool bodies do not deny the coldness of death:

The Naiad 'mid her reeds
Press'd her cold finger closer to her lips.

The whole attitude is one of profound respect inspired by misfortune and sorrow. Saturn, massive and statuesque, contemplates some inward vision, and his seeming lifelessness contains a deeper level of slumberous power:

His realmless eyes were closed;
While his bow'd head seem'd list'ning to the Earth,
His ancient mother, for some comfort yet.

A hidden potentiality of strength lies embedded in these lines where one feels the primitive forces of material earth still capable of gigantic heavings.

In the first section Keats has remarkably prepared the way for the subsequent development of his plot. The feminine form of Thea can now come and with her the huge stony statue will assume a more human and living aspect. She is, too, a hieratic figure, but she moves and her colossal shape escapes its matrix of hard, heavy stone.

But oh! how unlike marble was that face:
How beautiful, if sorrow had not made
Sorrow more beautiful than Beauty's self.
There was a listening fear in her regard,
As if calamity had but begun;
As if the vanward clouds of evil days
Had spent their malice, and the sullen rear
Was with its stored thunder labouring up.

A momentous capacity of action is condensed in the imagery of these lines, and they reveal a new way that Keats has found to humanize his massive characters by degrees and make them move into the unfolding plot. It takes time, like the slow rise of the tide against a cliff. The first real upward movement is Thea's command, "Saturn, look up!" (52). But the command is soon dismissed as a useless violation of the god's "slumbrous solitude".

The dramatisation of the poem through the many speeches is far more developed than in any of Keats's previous works. Each character expresses his or her own nature in adequate words; description tends to be limited and deals with the outward appearance, while the poet demonstrates his powers of "negative capability" in creating a variety of living well-defined personages. Each reveals a different personality through the medium of direct speech, and the human attitudes are true enough to show Keats's progress towards the drama. Thea's speech seems to die into silence and immobility, but it has moved something in great Saturn's heart, and slowly, but momentously the giant god will move into action:

And still these two were postured motionless,
Like natural sculpture in cathedral cavern;
The frozen God still couchant on the earth,
And the sad Goddess weeping at his feet:
Until at length old Saturn lifted up
His faded eyes …
(I, 85–90)

It is the first pulsation of life in the crushed god. He, in turn, calls to Thea to "Look up!" (I, 97 and 98). And though his speech is all despair at first, it ends with a vision of great deeds and actions, of "Gods thrown down" (I, 127), of "golden victory" (I, 126), of some other god

"… making way
With wings or chariot fierce to repossess
A heaven he lost erewhile."
(I, 122–124)

Inflamed by his revived hope, he gets up; and the change of attitude, the proud call for "another Chaos" (I, 145) out of which he could "fashion … another universe" (I, 142–143) sounds as high as Olympus. Some courage returns and the sunken shape of Thea also rises. She leads the way, and the image used to describe the dramatic and ominous change is one of upward flight:

the mist
Which eagles cleave upmounting from their nest.
(I, 156–157)

This takes place very near the middle of Book I, which numbers 357 lines altogether.

Now the second half of the Book shows another primeval god, Hyperion, threatened in his ancient "sovereignty, and rule, and majesty" (I, 165), but not yet vanquished, ready to act in support of Saturn. In this again the movement is an ascending one, and the imagery of Book I, in its totality can be considered as slowly climbing the upward slope. In his wrath Hyperion stands ready to startle the world with an untimely rising of the sun,

Full six dewy hours
Before the dawn in season due should blush,
He breath'd fierce breath against the sleepy portals,
Clear'd them of heavy vapours, burst them wide
Suddenly on the ocean's chilly streams.
(I, 264–268)

Yet the motion launched by the god's as yet unconquered power, and his will to vanquish the younger generation of immortals is thwarted, for in spite of his rising determination he has to submit to a greater order of things, so that "The sacred seasons might not be disturb'd" (I, 293).

His power is reined in and, if he is commanded by Coelus to rescue Saturn's fallen race, he must also abandon his manifested powers of light and venture down. "To the earth!" is Coelus' order (I, 345); and after Hyperion has been assured that his "bright sun" (I, 347), his "bright, patient stars" (I, 353) will be kept watch on,

Forward he stoop'd over the airy shore,
And plung'd all noiseless into the deep night.
(I, 356–357)

Darkness was the imagery at the beginning of Book I, and it is there at the end. But, at the same time, the will to fight against despondency and preserve hope has permitted a more spirited mood to swell higher and higher in the course of the passage, preparing the following events of the epic.

The steady rise of the god's determination to resist destruction and death shapes the structural needs of the poem as a whole, and the upward movement has slowly been set in motion. The Book itself, however, is composed on the up and down symmetry we have already met with and described. The "Look up" (I, 52, 97 and 98) and slow awakening of the fallen gods from death-like slumber is answered by the intimation at the back of Hyperion's mind:

"Fall!—No, by Tellus and her briny robes!"
(I, 246)

And his last act in the Book is to submit to Coelus' advice and "plunge" downward into darkness towards the earth. The Book has in fact its own up and down structure as if it were a separate poem in itself. Its centre is occupied by the impressive description of Hyperion's palace. It is the point of equilibrium where, for an instant, the passions expressed by the different characters are replaced by an image of the high dwelling of the old god of the sun. The vision is one of colourful light which contrasts with the darkness at both ends of the Book. At the same time the architecture builds up the expected summit of the pyramidal structure.

His palace bright
Bastion'd with pyramids of glowing gold,
And touch 'd with shade of bronzed obelisks,
Glar'd a blood-red through all its thousand courts,
Arches, and domes, and fiery galleries.
(I, 176–180)

"Pyramids", "arches", "domes" all three images are compressed here—precisely in the lines of Book I already mentioned…. The rise and fall of the composition is given its full equivalent in the three architectural elements chosen by the poet. And it appears then that Keats tries to combine a subtle interplay of pyramidal structures: the Book itself starts a general upward movement that should lead to the ancient gods' uprising and their final defeat by the new forces of a more elaborate world of beauty—unless Keats contemplated a reconciliation of the diverse generations!—and at the same time it is worked out on the model of an independent piece of verse with high flight from the glooms of death and a final descent into darkness again. This symmetry belongs to the subject itself. The curving path of the sun in the sky fashions the up and down inward motion. Hyperion himself makes it a characteristic feature of the perfection of his "lucent empire" (I, 239). His intimation of approaching defeat and decrepitude is expressed by the sudden absence of the regal qualities.

"The blaze, the splendor, and the symmetry I cannot see. "
(I, 241–242)

This highest palace of light is exactly what the poet is trying to build up out of the heavy material of nature and life, and the aim of his exertions is to transmute chaos into a consciously organized work of art.

The chaotic world of primeval forms' is the scenery fit for the meeting of the fallen gods in Book II. It brings us back to a vision of Thea and Saturn reaching

that sad place
Where Cybele and the bruised Titans mourn'd.
(II, 3–4)

There the defeated host is roused by Saturn's presence. To his cry "Titans, behold your God" (II, 110), they answer with grief and reverence, and raise their chained or fallen bodies. Saturn's speech brings life, his voice "grew up like organ" (II, 126), but his discourse hesitates between a call to fight and a yielding to the battered Titans' sufferance. Oceanus' and Clymene's speeches also preserve the subdued tone of acceptance. But Enceladus' wrath gives a new impulse to the action and fresh impetus to the dwindling upward movement of the epic.

"What, have I rous'd
Your spleens with so few simple words as these?
O joy! for now I see you are not lost:
O joy! for now I see a thousand eyes
Wide-glaring for revenge!"—As this he said,
He lifted up his stature vast, and stood.
(II, 320-325)

But this huge figure is not the final image; topping the swelling mass of discontented giants, an unexpected vision obliges all eyes to be raised. With it comes the recollection of Hyperion's unvanquished powers; the god of light himself appears. He stands on "a granite peak" and dominates the silent misery of the "fallen tribe" (II, 100) in an attitude that calls to mind the final image of the "Chapman's Homer" sonnet.

However the feeling is not totally one of hope in victory. There is a violent upward impetus created by Enceladus and some of his companions stepping up to meet the "King of Day", striding together

To where he towered on his eminence.
(II, 386)

But Hyperion himself is described as "dejected", and the hailing call to "Saturn" (II, 388 and 391) sounds echo-less "from their hollow throats" (II, 391). Thus here again the upward trend is held back, and the rising pressure towards revolt restrained and thwarted. The parallel with the final return to darkness in Book I is striking.

Just as we had a pyramidal and symmetrical structure in the imagery of the first Book, a kind of climax is realized in the middle of Book II. It is to be found in the central and all important passage of Oceanus' speech, which tells of the ancient order, and tries to make it acceptable that the new sovereignty should be overcome in turn. The old story of the rise and victory of Saturn's tribe over the former generation of gods fills lines 190-201.

"Thou art not the beginning nor the end.
From Chaos and parental Darkness came
Light, the first fruits of that intestine broil,
That sullen ferment, which for wondrous ends
Was ripening in itself. The ripe hour came,
And with it Light, and Light, engendering
Upon its own producer, forthwith touch'd
The whole enormous matter into Life.
Upon that very hour, our parentage
The Heavens and the Earth, were manifest:
Then thou first born, and we the giant race,
Found ourselves ruling new and beautous realms."

Speaking from the dark and chaotic vale of the defeated, Oceanus then places at the centre of Book II the praise to that supreme power given from high: Light. The debt to Milton—Paradise Lost (opening of Book III for instance) or Samson Agonistes (83-100)—cannot be clearer; but the way Keats transforms the Christian symbol into one of aesthetic beauty is worth noting. The imagery is the same as that of Satan's speeches glorifying Light or Samson's complaining of being deprived and exiled from Light, the sensuous perception of God himself. Here, however, the application of the corresponding imagery bears no relation to the Christian faith and myths. It is used to describe the passage from original chaos to an order of beauty, fine though still primitive in its forms. Now one of the poet's difficulties in going on with Hyperion might well reside in this theme, and in the impossibility for Keats to escape the Miltonian parallel. In terms of the Christian faith, Light has vanquished once and for all. Satan then could easily rise from various layers of shade and darkness towards the sphere where light reigns barring immediate contact with the unapproachable divinity. Keats in his perspective of the progress of artistic beauty, and never dreaming of rejecting the force and power of primitive beauty, was confronted with the impossible task of piling realms of light on top of each other. Hadn't the generation of Saturn and Hyperion already established an early domination of artistic beauty over original chaos?

It is practically impossible to guess what the whole of Hyperion would have been like. But if we accept the idea that some sort of rising structure of imagery would have ordered the composition of the whole—and we have shown it can be traced in the patterns of the two completed Books—it seems that Keats had in mind to build a mythological tale exemplifying the rise of achievement in poetry through ages of artistic development, as he had done briefly in "Sleep and Poetry". But instead of undergoing the fate of that generation when "A thousand handicraftsmen wore the mask / Of Poesy" ("Sleep and Poetry", 200-201), the poet seems to have meant to explore the new realms of the poetry of his days. After the "Strange thunders from the potency of song" (ibid., 231) were described the "poet Kings / Who simply tell the most heart-easing things" (ibid., 268). In other words the imagery of Hyperion corresponds in our opinion to the growth of poetic achievement in England, Romanticism being interpreted as the time of Apollo, succeeding Milton's grand style. We cannot agree with the critics who see in Hyperion Book III an inability of Keats to preserve the Miltonic tone of Books I and II, and a sort of decline of Keats's faculties. In Book III the poetry is different because it exemplifies the recent development of English poetry. The Delphic realms of the Muses replace the dark vale awakened by Hyperion's setting light. It is the world of "Flora and old Pan" again.

Let the rose glow intense and warm the air,
And let the clouds of even and of morn
Float in voluptuous fleeces 'er the hills;
Let the red wine within the goblet boil,
Cold as a bubbling well; let faint-lipp'd shells,
On sands, or in great deeps, vermilion turn
Through all their labyrinths; and let the maid
Blush keenly, as with some warm kiss surpris'd.
(III, 15-22)

After the homage due to his master, John Milton, this is the poetry of young John Keats as evolved through his admiration of romantic models. And it is the natural setting of Apollo's domain. But as Keats had hinted in previous poems and in his correspondence, this natural setting was not enough; it was necessary to pass onward and bring light to the darker passages of the "Mansion of many Apartments". Once again the striving god looks upward.

"Are there no other regions than this isle?
What are the stars? There is the sun, the sun!"
(III, 96-97)

The mere descriptive qualities of poetry are no satisfactory step; the exaltation of the young god reasserts the general rising tide of the epic. "The green turf" (III, 94) is not enough for his "step aspirant" (III, 93). He feels "in aching ignorance" (107); and the miraculous transmutation takes place:

"Knowledge enormous makes a God of me."
(III, 113)

This is the next stage to be reached, but a terribly abstract one that requires an overwhelming exertion of the imagination. The transformation of young Apollo into a God capable of reigning over the old Hyperion is expressed in terms which remind us of some of the lines discussed in connexion with Keats's early poems. It was

Most like the struggle at the gate of death;
Or liker still to one who should take leave
Of pale immortal death, and with a pang
As hot as death's is chill, with fierce convulse Die into life.
(III, 126-130)

Attention must be drawn to the fact that death into life takes place at the summit of the structure built up by the imagery in the portion of Book III that we possess, which we can infer, would have been near the middle of the Book. The young god is precisely being lifted to ethereal regions when the poem abruptly ends. The last word is "celestial". It is evident then that the "dying into life" theme is completely reversed if compared with Keats's early works. It no longer happens in some dark and cold underground recess, but "with a pang / As hot as death's is chill", and in some clear region of ether.

There, however, is the rub. Imagination cannot perpetually procure material for brighter and higher ethereal shrines; it must be acknowledged that the world of nature and the underworld offered wider and more varied scope for concrete images to the poet. Inspired by Milton's model Keats had already imagined the architectural brilliance of Hyperion's palace. The fresh setting of romantic nature had created the light, aerial atmosphere of Delos. Keats was now caught in the trap of needing to erect castles in the air ever more lucent, evanescent and impalpable. And if a more refined and light-hearted type of poetry had replaced the gigantic power of Miltonian rhetoric, was he, young Keats, actually able to match the "vast idea" ("Sleep and Poetry", 291) he had been following since the publication of Poems, 1817? Or would he only fail and make himself ridiculous, and look unberably pretentious? The symbolic light of Paradise Lost had given him a start, but directed him into what turned out, owing mainly to the impossibility of sufficiently renewing the descriptions of ethereal regions, to be a blind alley. Describing the descent into the various realms of natural elements was no doubt a far easier task than to convey the temptation of leaving the earth

" … when the liegeless air
Yields to my step aspirant."
(III, 92-93)

The newly evolved pyramidal structure could but prove a failure so far as epic poetry was concerned; at least it could not offer sufficient scope for a prolonged sojourn of the imagination among the realms of light, in the thin transparency of ether.

Overlapping Structures in "The Eve of St Agnes"

Far more successful was Keats's attempt at using the same structural imagery for his tale in Spenserian stanzas, the "Eve of St Agnes". The subject is rooted in earth; it is a poem of love and life, and not a myth on the progress of poesy under the inspiring domination of succeeding gods, with all the difficulties of building up their palaces in airy places and of solving the hierarchical problems of value between ancient and modern canons of beauty. The theme of passion in the witching hour of night is perfectly adapted to the mood of a young lover whose family affections have just been submitted to repeated maiming separations: the departure of George and Georgiana, and Tom's death. The sad experience of mortality had found morbid expression in the verse version of Boccaccio's tale The Pot of Basil, under the title of "Isabella", and could now be dismissed. His own eager heart, youth and vitality had gone to a recent acquaintance, Miss Brawne. Her presence met naturally with the young man's warm need for affection and, for easily understandable reasons already dealt with, for feminine affection. The new aesthetic plan of composition evolved by the poet fitted the subject of love admirably. What other higher summit of fulfilment could there be in the circumstances, than love at its warmest!

Thus the form of the poem fits, naturally and easily, the theme. There is a slow rise from the grave up to a paroxysm of passion, which subsides and dissolves again in the doubts inherent in all the paradises to which in mortal life we can attain. The progression starts in the middle of the wintry season, 21st January, and the curve followed by the poem is going to match the natural rhythm of the year: the awakening of spring, the splendour, then the full maturity of summer and autumn, till the approach of winter calls up some disquieting thoughts as to man's final destiny.

The start is given by the date "St Agnes' Eve" and the "bitter chill" of line 1 announces cold images, near relations of death. The owl is "a-cold" (2), the grass "frozen" (3), the Beadsman's fingers "numb" (5), his breath "frosted" (6) and the visible mist thus produced looks like his soul departing "for heaven" (8). Silence is the usual accompaniment to such a tomb-like environment. The hardly perceptible, upward flight of the breath, however, has set the pace onward. And slowly, very slowly, in stanza II, the "patient, holy man" (10) rises from among the statues of "the sculptur'd dead" (14) and something moves in the low chapel of the castle. His "lamp" (11) throws the first gleam of light and life under the vault inhabited by death. All the descriptive words are condensed expressions of death: the attitudes of both the Beadsman and the statues in prayer, the "meagre", "wan" (12) aspect of the man, the rows of "sculptur'd dead" (14), the prison-like atmosphere, the dumbness of the knights and ladies' prayers, the darkness and coldness of every detail that makes any witness's spirit become "weak" and "fail" (17). The "purgatorial" atmosphere is admirably translated into concrete terms in the last lines of the stanza through the poet's capacity to evoke "how they may ache (the sculptur'd dead) in icy hoods and mails" (II, 18)—another example of negative capability.

Very gradually life creeps in: sounds from "Music's golden tongue" (III, 20) reach "this aged man and poor" (21). But the dead are left alone to care for themselves and do penance for their sins. "Another way he went" (25). Thus we are left with an intimation of some rising from the grave. The curve leads upward: "scarce three steps" (20), but it is enough to indicate clearly the direction. The living world is above with its preparations for the reception of "a thousand guests" (IV, 33). Noise and light for a moment pour from the crowded world, down into the severing darkness and solitude of the silent vault. Four stanzas have thus been necessary to set up the symbolic scenery, the worlds of the living and the dead.

Then come the lovers. Both also belong to a world of estrangement. Their love is as yet but an idealized dream of passion which sets them apart from the rest of mankind, and separates them from the boisterous atmosphere of "revelry" (V, 37). Madeline walks in a mesmerized sort of state, indifferent to other people's presence. Though looking forward to "visions of delight" (VI, 47), she retains some links with the coldness of the underworld. The old and the "virgins" (47) seem to hold some mysterious communication, and suffer from the same separation from the warmth of life. Madeline is described as "lily white" (52); she keeps her "maiden eyes" "fixed on the floor" (VII, 57 and 58); she cools the ardour of many an "amorous cavalier" (60); she looks all languor with "vague, regardless eyes" (VIII, 64); her breathing is "quick and short" (65); she "sighs" (66) and appears "all amort" (70) "save to St Agnes" (71). And it is in this last circumstance that all the difference between her and the Beadsman lies. Life is there in front of her, near at hand, if the spell that keeps her within touch of the "purgatorial rails" (II, 15) can be broken.

Porphyro has already stepped higher into the warmth of life. If Madeline was intent on "visions of delight" (47), desires (54), "dreams, the sweetest of the year" (63), waiting for "the hallow'd hour" (66) and "all the bliss to be" (72), she remained very vague as to what all this could actually represent. Porphyro "with heart on fire" (75), "ventures in" (X, 82) with far more tangible purposes: "speak, kneel, touch, kiss" (81). His path stretches through real life, not that of music and revelry, but one of dangers and merciless enemies. He also, however, will have to compromise with impending death. He stands hidden

far beyond
The sound of merriment and chorus bland
(XI, 94-5)

and the way towards bliss passes through the "lowly arched way" (XIII, 109) resembling the narrow winding passage that allowed music to reach down to the chapel. His guide, "the old beldame" (90), is also a character closely connected with the grave, an "aged creature" (91) whose attribute is "an ivory-headed wand" (92), and we shudder in imagination at the touch of "her palsied hand" (97). The place where they step to shelter and talk is

a little moonlight room,
Pale, lattic'd, chill, and silent as a tomb.

Undoubtedly bliss is first of all an escape from the grips of death that marks profoundly all the elements of our mortal life. Stanza XV still retains some trace of the chill and death. Though "the aged crone" (129) laughs, and thus is transformed into a good old grand-mother, "As spectacled she sits in chimney nook" (131). Madeline's imagined dream is still described as "enchantments cold" (134). But at this stage old Angela loses something of the hag-like character which she retains, however, throughout the tale; she is attracted into the sphere of half-forgotten youth and life; her name suggests, perhaps, a debonair angel prone to forbearance of human weaknesses. She is irresistibly drawn to the side of life and full-blooded love by Porphyro's cajoling promises and threatening words (st. XV-XVI). The turn is marked in stanza XVI by the accumulation of bright and warm, colourful imagery:

Sudden a thought came like a full-blown rose
Flushing his brow, and in his heart
Made purple riot.

Angela still remains "A poor, weak, palsy-stricken churchyard thing" (XVIII, 155); but she will exact her last energies to help love to be victorious, and she busies preparing Porphyro's stratagem. Activity replaces the whispering of the conjuration. That we are slowly led upward towards some ceremony of blissful initiation is shown by her final determination:

"Ah! thou must needs the lady wed,
Or may I never leave my grave among the dead."
(XX, 179-180)

Porphyro can then be led up to "the maiden's chamber" (XXI, 187). It still retains some of the attributes of mortality; it is "silken, hush'd, and chaste" (187).

Madeline herself very gradually makes her way towards her room. She meets "old Angela" (XXII, 191) and kindly goes all the way down "to a safe level matting" (196). Only then can she escape fully the mortal influences and run "like ring-dove fray'd and fled" (198) towards full abandonment to the intensity of life. The dramatic entrance of the girl into her room marks an end:

Out went the taper as she hurried in;
Its little smoke, in pallid moonshine, died:
She clos'd the door.
(XXIII, 199-201)

Death is left, then, at the door, together with the retarding influence of old age and reason. The girl feels like bursting: "she hurried in" (199), "she panted" (201), "her heart was voluble" (204). She experiences in her pulse the entrancing pain of approaching bliss.

Strangely enough intensity of feelings calls back another image of death which balances that at the beginning of the stanza. She feels "As though a tongueless nightingale, should swell / Her throat in vain, and die, heart-stifled, in her dell" (206-207). But this is the death Keats would have called "rich" ("Ode to a Nightingale", 55) because it comes from excess of life and not from its lingering frustrations. It is a death which is in fact a melting into overflowing life.

The immediately following stanzas exemplify the feeling in a sensuous description of Madeline's room. The "high and triple-arch'd" window (XXIV, 208) with its stained glass panels shuts out "the wintry moon" (XXV, 217) and its light is transmuted into warm colours splashing "splendid dyes" (212) everywhere in the room: "Madeline's fair breast" (218) is touched with a tint of "warm gules" (218); "rose-bloom fell on her hands" (220) "and on her silver cross soft amethyst" (221), "on her hair a glory" (222). The painted statues and a "thousand heraldries (214) "blus'd with blood" (216). The rich decoration of carved "fruits and flowers" (210) announces the feast Porphyro is going to prepare for his conquered bride (st. XXIX-XXX). Even the "diamonded" panes of the window adds to the richness of the imagery. Madeline's undressing attracts attention to the precious clothes she wears: "wreathed pearls" (XXVI, 227) in her hair, "warm'd jewels" (228) without forgetting the perfume of "her fragrant boddice" (229). Her naked body does not stand in Pre-Raphaelite whiteness under the cold moonlight. "Her rich attire creeps rustling to her knees" (230), she stands "like a mermaid in sea-weed" (231), a cool image perhaps, yet suggestive of a scintillating rainbow. And when she lies on her bed, "the poppied warmth of sleep" (XXVII, 237) calms down her eager desire and preserves something of the red colouring of the general atmosphere. And there she remains "As though a rose should shut, and be a bud again" (XXVII, 243). It is real "paradise" (XXVIII, 244), but one feels all round the praying clutches of mortality. Porphyro creeps out of his hiding place, "Noiseless as fear in a wide wilderness" (250); "dim, silver twilight" (XXLX, 254) pours down from "the faded moon" (253). The noises from the revelry underneath "affray his ears" (260). But the young man wards off those dispiriting reminders in building up a sort of altar dedicated to his beloved. The preparation is described by the poet in a way that rouses all our senses in a complete unity of perception: the colours and shapes of the tablecloth, fruits and dishes; the scents from the ripe fruits, "lavender'd" linen (XXX, 263), spices and wood; the palatable meal of "delicates", exotic "dainties" (269 and XXXI, 271); the smoothness of material and the music in the background, as well as Porphyro's song (XXXIII). All the details tend to merge into a synaesthetic effect of uniquely powerful fascination.

It leads straight to the paroxysm of happiness, which paradoxically cannot be expressed otherwise than through the feeling of pain: "so my soul doth ache" (XXXI, 279). And Porphyro reaches a new level of sensation, while Madeline experiences the spell of St Agnes' "midnight charm" (XXXII, 282). She will awake to music (XXXIII), and reality very nearly mars her dream of love.

There was a painful change that nigh expell'd
The blisses of her dream.
(XXXIV, 300-301)

Signs of mortality reappear:

"How chang'd thou art! how pallid, chill and drear!"
(XXXV, 311)

Therefore she betrays an anxious desire to go back to the visions of her sleep with their seeming touch of eternity—"Those looks immortal" (XXXV, 313) as she calls them. At the same time the unrealized dreamings bring the pangs of "eternal woe" (314). In consequence, at the end of this excruciating journey of voluptuous passion there can be only a fall: either the dream remains a frustrating illusion,

"For if thou diest, my Love, I know not where to go;"

or it finds its accomplishment, and for a brief moment, actually satisfies the unbearable tension of the senses. It is the very last step up the ladder; further on there is only a tumbling down of sensations, a difficult adaptation to reality, and the memory of a lost paradise.

Stanza XXXVI brings both achievement and destruction:

At these voluptuous accents, he arose,
Ethereal, flush'd and [ … ]
Into her dream he melted, as the rose
Blendeth its odour with the violet.
(317-318, 320-321)

Meantime the frost-wind blows
Like Love's alarum pattering the sharp sleet
Against the window-panes; St Agnes' moon hath set.

The outside world of mortality presses in from every side. Darkness and cold have suddenly replaced the warm colourings of the stained-glass windows. A feeling of deception invades Madeline, no longer "ring-dove" flying lightly to her nest, but "A dove forlorn and lost with sick unpruned wing" (XXXVII, 333). Awakening is a sour experience, and Porphyro does his best to keep to the voluptuousness gained through his "quest" (XXXVIII, 338). He assumes responsibility and feels like "Thy beauty's shield, heart-shap'd and vermeil dyed" (XXXVIII, 336). Yet the image sounds empty now that the dream has been shattered. There is no escape except through the storm over "the southern moors" (XXXIX, 351).

The storm that rages outside will help the lovers to flee;

"… 'tis an elfin-storm from faery land
Of haggard seeming, but a boon indeed. "

However the atmosphere is one of panic and defeat. Madeline hurries "beset with fears" (XL, 352). The lovers rush "down the wide stairs" (355) among slumbering shadows of enemies, the flickering of lamps, ghost-like figures springing alive from a fluttering "arras" (358). Themselves "glide, like phantoms" (XLI, 361). Death, like sleep and silence, weighs heavily over the mortals sprawling everywhere, while "the wind's uproar" (359) drowns every other noise. "And they are gone" (XLII, 370), carrying away life and its possible escaping flights into moments of bliss and illusions of eternity. There is nothing left behind but woe, nightmare and the ultimate reality of death.

Angela the old
Died palsy-twitch'd, with meagre face deform;
The Beadsman, after thousand aves told.
For aye unsought for slept among his ashes cold.
(XLII, 375-378)

Here the images of the beginning recur; we have come back to the reality of passing time and old age, sickness and death. We have moved gradually from the silent and chilly cell of the underground chapel to the high chamber lit from heaven, an Eden of colours and profusion, a paradise secluded for a brief moment of bliss from the menace of the world and of reality. But the threat has always been there, ever present, repeatedly menacing the passionate ascent towards the ecstatic accomplishment of love. The position of the chapel, the dark passages and "level chambers", and Madeline's room allow the up and downward movement to take place. The growth of the imagery from the cold and darkness of death to the intensity and warmth of Madeline's room, from the barren stones haunted by lean characters to the splendour of the decoration upstairs and the rich variety of food, from the silence of the grave to the noise and turmoil of the reception, and up to the communication of souls through Porphyro's song, also correspond to the upward flight; on the contrary the escape down to the gates of the castle and out into the dark landscape of moors swept by the howling storm leads towards the last images of nightmare and death. Therefore we again have a composition based on a pyramid-shaped structural imagery. But this time the interplay of pyramidal structure and symmetry of composition is not quite what we have been accustomed to expect. It is more complex.

First of all the symmetry found in other works does not exist apparently. The slow rise of intensity up to the climax of the melting into Madeline's dream extends over thirty-six stanzas out of a total number of forty-two. The fall is abrupt; six times shorter than the upward climb to the "ethereal" moment. Is it, however, mere imagination to suppose a relation of proportions with the type of sonnet-form towards which Keats had evolved at the time? In Poems 1817 all the sonnets were of the Petrarchan form: two quatrains followed by a sestet. And we have argued that the structural imagery corresponding to Keats's definition was consequently rising "up to its climax" to fall abruptly into silence. Since then Keats had drifted towards the Shakespearian pattern: three quatrains and a couplet which created the possibility of imagery rising throughout the first twelve lines, with a less abrupt effect in the ending couplet. The sonnets written after the Scotland tour, in the winter and spring 1818-1819, are mostly of that kind. Now twelve lines to two is the exact proportion of rise and fall we find in the "Eve of St Agnes", i.e. six to one. Moreover the Spenserian stanza chosen for the poem bears some relation to the Shakespearian sonnet in the rhyme scheme which resembles closely the pattern of two quatrains, and of the ninth line, extended to an alexandrine, which allows an effect similar to that of the couplet in that it often rounds up the stanza as a complete sentence, and sounds as a conclusion. In the "Eve", for instance, there can be found but three cases of real enjambment where the eighth line of the stanza runs on into the alexandrine (see st. VI, XXIII and XXXVI). Therefore it can be said that the long final line plays a part similar to that of the couplet, and it is interesting to see that the proportion—which here must be counted in syllables—is again close to that of the sonnet (slightly nearer seven to one than six to one). The choice of the unit and the number of units finally retained for the complete poem might very well not be a matter of mere chance, and the influence of the sonnet form over the whole of Keats's evolution again appears prominent. The careful chiselling of the poem is testified to by the notes of Garrod's critical edition: whole stanzas were abandoned to attain the final unequal balance of rise and fall in the poem.

Had Keats then renounced the careful symmetry evolved elsewhere in his works? Not really; the poem starts with three stanzas picturing a world of cold, transfixed forms, and ends with three stanzas leading back to the same ghostly atmosphere, made even more nightmarish owing to the deception worked on Madeline's purity and the unsettled future that mars the elation of the lovers and their flight. If we now jump to the middle of the poem, we find that stanza XXI ends the six stanzas dedicated to the preparation of Porphyro's plan, while the six following ones are filled with Madeline's own arrangements for the St Agnes' Eve miracle dream. And thus little by little the very carefully worked out symmetry underlying the rise and fall of the structural imagery appears, partly unfolded, in a very elaborate type of composition. The plan of the poem can be described as follows:

The introduction (st. I-III) is the slow awakening of a frozen world. No theme is very well defined, the only link with the title being the cold atmosphere of winter time. The last line of stanza III shows the Beadsman sitting among "rough ashes"

And all night kept awake, for sinners' sake to grieve.

This is undoubtedly a sort of concluding mark of the episode. The first line of stanza IV turns away from the previous picture and points to a new direction, the link with the introduction being preserved through the image of the man himself:

That ancient Beadsman heard the prelude soft.

From stanza IV till the end of stanza X the poet has taken great care to blend one stanza intimately into another whenever a new element could have created a pause. The revelry in the castle fills stanzas IV and V, but in the middle of the latter the attention focuses on Madeline and through her we learn about the legend of St Agnes (VI) and her intention to comply with the rites attached to it (VII, VIII). But Madeline is still there at the beginning of stanza IX.

So, purposing each moment to retire,
She linger'd still. Meantime, across the moors,
Had come young Porphyro.

At the end of stanza X, on the other hand, the pause can be sensed. We know Porphyro to be in the midst of enemies

Save one old beldame, weak in body and in soul.

This creates an instant of expectation that dissolves in the exclamation at the start of the next stanza:

Ah, happy chance! the aged creature came.

Then the meeting of old Angela with Porphyro takes a dramatic turn as she entreats the young lover to flee, till at the end of stanza XIII, he evokes St Agnes' day, and thus changes the old guardian angel's mood (XI-XV).

The very beginning of stanza XVI marks a neat departure along a definite line. The first word stresses the transition:

Sudden a thought came like a full-blown rose.

Porphyro's plan and Angela's acceptance and arrangements for its accomplishment fill the six stanzas that bring the reader to the exact middle of the poem (XVIXXI). And, as already suggested, Madeline's own preparations also require six stanzas until she goes to sleep in the perfect equilibrium and neutrality of a work of pure art.

Blissfully haven'd both from joy and pain;
Claspx'd like a missal where swart Paynims pray;
Blinded alike from sunshine and from rain,
As though a rose should shut, and be a bud again.

This passage answers in practically exact symmetry, if we consider the total number of lines of the poem, the frustration felt by Porphyro when hearing of Madeline's purpose:

he scarce could brook
Tears, at the thought of those enchantments cold
And Madeline asleep in lap of legends old.


Sudden a thought came like a full-blown rose,
Flushing his brow, and in his pained heart
Made purple riot.

Can it be mere chance that the "rose" image should appear at both lines 136 and 243, equidistant from the beginning and the end of the poem? Here again we touch on the unbelieveable precision of Keats's artistry.

The diptych of Porphyro and Madeline in the centre of the poem is bound together by the presence of old Angela who, having guided the young man up to his hiding-place, retreats:

His poor guide hurried back with agues in her brain.
(XXI, 189)

The secondary character thus realizes in filigree the symmetrical ascent and descent in the middle of the plot. And the intricacy of the two overlapping structures stands out at the poem's central turning point.

Her fait'ring hand upon the balustrade,
Old Angela was feeling for the stair,
When Madeline, St Agnes' charmed maid,
Rose, like a mission'd spirit, unaware.

The downward movement that brings back Angela to the dark passages of oblivion and final death crosses the rising steps of Madeline and the heightening intensity of passion that will crumble only in the final stage of the story.

From the picture of Madeline asleep, we pass without transition to Porphyro, "Stol'n to this paradise, and so entranced" (244), that five stanzas (XXVIII-XXXII) are filled with the adoration of his sleeping beauty, the building of the altar as if for a sacrifice and the enjoyment of delaying "woofed phantasies" (288).

Another "chapter" starts with stanza XXXIII:

Awakening up, he took her hollow lute.

It shows Madeline's slow awakening, and discovery of her lover's presence, the reality of her dream. Though it reaches to the top of intensity with the melting of Porphyro into her dream, it also shows the disappointing confrontation of dream and reality, and the end of the blissful state of ecstasy. The cruel change occurs in the last three lines of the stanza (XXXVI), which naturally end in the urgent call of Porphyro to his love:

"Awake! arise! my love, and fearless be,
For O'er the southern moors I have a home for thee."

These seven stanzas end with this last dramatic utterance. The concluding three describe the flight in the narrative style, and die into silence.

If we now sum up this analysis, we discover, underlying the structural imagery of the growth and release of tension, another pattern based on a strict symmetry:

3 stanzas introduction

7 stanzas presentation of the theme and characters

5 stanzas Angela's ambiguous defense

6 stanzas Porphyro's plan

6 stanzas Madeline's preparation

5 stanzas Porphyro's adoration

7 stanzas union of the lovers (blissful, then anxious)

3 stanzas escape and conclusion

This points to the growing complexity of structure in Keats's art. The subtle parallelism and overlapping of two different plans of composition that he had mastered and often made to coincide before, opens a wider field of the potential meaning and ambiguity in his poetry. The architectural symmetry is there, a reliable support to any voyage of exploration and discovery along the clear or darker passages of his famous "Mansion of many Apartments". The imagery shows that the highest intensity is to be attained with the union of two ecstatic states of desire, but that it means a break in the idealizing dream. Such is the fate of all passionate, human quest for an impossible eternity: the paradoxical realization of immortality in the instant.

"La Belle Dame Sans Merci": The Letter Version and the Indicator Text

"The Eve of St Agnes" inevitably leads to the "Belle Dame Sans Merci". The title is quoted in the tale (st. XXXIII, 292), and the subjects of the romantic poem and the ballad have more than one point in common. The theme seems to have been borne in the poet's mind since the Scotland tour with Brown; indeed the letter addressed to his brother Tom (10 July 1818, no. 97, I, 327) starts with a sort of folk-song in forged local dialect, telling the strange cavalcade of a young bride to her wedding through "blustering weather" (38). Though it is for a "happy wedding" (42), the wild scenery of the beginning and the sudden sorrow that invades the poet at the end prefigure the cold solitudes of both the "Eve" and the "Belle Dame", and the tense despondency of their conclusions:

Whilst IAh is it not a shame?
Sad tears am shedding.
("Ah! ken ye what I met …", 43-44)

The lively picture of the galloping horses fills the central portion of the song with the figure of the bride "wrappit in her hood" (25); with her cheek "flush wi' timid blood" (27) she experiences the same emotion as Madeline, and when she turns "her daz'd head full oft" (29) towards her "bridegroom soft" (31), she reminds us of the "sidelong would she bend" ("La Belle Dame …", 23) describing the Belle Dame on the "pacing steed" (ibid., 21).

The poem, inspired by a wedding met on the way near Ballantrae, was to be sent to Dilke as a hoax, but Keats knew his friend would see through it, that it was no genuine folk-song. Yet he thought it good enough to while away a moment of Tom's sickening days. The last line ("Sad tears am shedding") proves once again how deeply affected and in some way frustrated the poet had been by George's marriage. It is not astonishing then that the subject should have haunted his subconscious mind to surge up in the spring of 1819 when his own heart was becoming definitely involved in his love for Fanny Brawne, and the problem of reconciling the "unpromising morning" of his life (13 Oct. 1819, To Fanny Brawne; no. 203, II, 223) and the impossibility of living without her. In the "Eve of St Agnes" Keats deals with the dream of intimate union with the beloved. The theme is the same in the "Belle Dame Sans Merci", but the break after the realization of bliss is more nightmarish. In fact everything is made more striking by the compactness of the ballad which numbers only twelve brief stanzas.

The plan of composition is clear and seems simple; the first three stanzas where the cold and withered landscape speaks of nearing winter, the dead season, are balanced by the last three. These dramatically plunge the reader into a charnel-house atmosphere inspired, perhaps, by a memory from the Scottish tour, the visit to Beauly Abbey near Inverness, on the day before Keats sailed back to London. It inspired Charles Armitage Brown with a number of grim stanzas describing the characters of the dead monks, now skulls and bones. Keats contributed a few lines to his friend's poem. One of his stanzas is interesting for us:

This lily-colour'd skull, with all
The teeth complete, so white and small,
Belong'd to one whose early pall
A lover shaded.
(X, 1-4)

Is it not a foretaste of the knight-at-arms, with his paleness, his aching and "haggard" (II, 6) quest in the withering season of the year?

I see a lily on thy brow
With anguish moist and fever dew,
And on thy cheeks a fading rose
Fast withereth too.
(III, 9-12)

And what about the final vision when the blissful ecstasy breaks down among the shouting of the "death-pale" (X, 38) host of "kings", "princes" (X, 37) and "warriors" (X, 38) who resemble Porphyro's enemies:

That night the Baron dreamt of many a woe,
And all his warrior-guests [ … ]
Were long be-nightmar'd.
("Eve", XLII, 372-5)

In the ballad they are described with gruesome details; their "starved lips" (XI, 41), the "horrid warning gaped wide" (XI, 42) make them near brothers of the skeletons of Beauly. And the coldness and silence of the beginning stretches again over the "lake" and the "wither'd sedge" where "no birds sing" (XII, 48).

Those two groups of three stanzas flank the six stanzas describing the adventure of the knight-at-arms meeting the lady, that "faery's child" (IV, 14) who has all the attributes of beauty, and also of that inspired, and inspiring character that haunts the tradition of romantic poetry: long hair, wild eyes, and a way of stepping that belongs to some unearthly part of the universe. Her "language strange" (VII, 27) is made of "moans" (20), songs and sighs. But her entrancing meaning, "I love thee true" (VII, 28), is an irresistible spell, a spell which finally lulls the knight to dreamful sleep (IX, 33). The symmetry is perfect. In stanzas I-III the knight-at-arms is questioned; there is no word here whose imagery does not belong to the sphere of cold, pallor, decay, silence, solitude and suffering. From IV to VI the knight narrates the story of his meeting with and wooing of the lady. Each starts with the personal pronoun I, while the next three stanzas (VII-IX) still tell of their growing passion with the lady at the centre of the picture. She has replaced the knight, reduced to passive enjoyment of total love. The imagery is entirely devoted to liveliness, and pleasant sensuous perceptions, until the spell breaks in the middle of stanza IX. The brusque change of pronouns from "And there she lulled me asleep" (IX, 33) to "And there I dream'd" (IX, 34) in two very similar lines of great simplicity provokes the sudden apprehension of a new solitude, and the exclamatory "Ah! woe betide!" (IX, 34) prepares us for the abandonment "on the cold hill side" (IX, 36).

Thus the nightmarish fall of the last three stanzas where the imagery of the first part recurs starts a little earlier than exact symmetry would require. Identically the initial I of st. IV-VI was already present in st. III, but representing another character. The she pronoun of st. VII-VIII also sounds for the first time in the second half of st. V. And the insistent repetition of "and there" in st. IX sounds twice before in st. VIII (30 and 31). Thus Keats develops what he had succeeded in doing in the "Eve of St Agnes", a subtle mixing of regularity with irregularity which is a characteristic feature of all great achievement in art.

Similarly, the very middle of the poem (st. VI) builds up a sort of perfect feeling of communion, the same idealized love as in the middle of the "Eve", where we have an identity of expectation in both Madeline and Porphyro. Here, in the ballad, the lady performs the sacrificial rite of dedication:

She found me roots of relish sweet.
And honey wild, and manna dew.
(VII, 25-6)

Therefore she assumes the responsibility of seduction and drives the bewitched knight towards the full accomplishment of love. But the climax is not reached without allowing a few disquieting features to creep in. The "elfin grot" (VIII, 29) sounds less innocent than the "faery's child" (IV, 14). The fact that "she wept, and sigh'd full sore" (VIII, 30) also gives the repeated "wild wild eyes" (VIII, 31) a new ambiguity. It can be interpreted either as overflowing passion, or the fear of some threat unknown to the knight with a shade of repentance, and the menace of impending madness. But the soothing "kisses four" (VIII, 32) seem to revalue everything in the light of passionate love-making. However, it can be said, as in the "Eve", that a perfect symmetry exists. It brings the knight to woo the lady, and then the lady to ensnare her prey. However, this well-balanced pyramid coincides with the wave of growing passion which extends the rising sensuality up to stanza IX where the climactic point of the poem is reached. The fall fills the last quarter. But along with the steady growth of the spell a sort of downward line is being drawn from the elation of the ride to the accompaniment of "a faery's song" (VI) down into the "grot" of stanza VIII, and thus the final awakening into the nightmare of man's mortality is unobtrusively prepared.

Are such detailed elements of the artistry of "La Belle Dame Sans Merci" sufficient to exemplify fully the growing subtlety of Keats's use of intricate rising and falling imagery combined with symmetrical patterns? And one may well wonder why the poem was not selected for the 1820 edition of Keats's works, together with "Isabella" and the "Eve of St Agnes"! It seems to us that the answer is simply a feeling of Keats's that his first letter version, perfect as we think it can be estimated, could still be improved. His comment in the letter to the George Keatses in America (21 April 1819, no. 159, II, 95) seems to point that way. Under the heading "Wednesday Evening", Keats writes the ballad and then adds jokingly: "Why four kisses—you will say—why four because I wish to restrain the headlong impetuosity of my Muse—she would have fain said 'score' without hurting the rhyme—but we must temper the Imagination as the Critics say with Judgment. I was obliged to choose an even number that both eyes might have fair play: and to speak truly I think two a piece quite sufficient—Suppose I had said seven; there would have been three and a half a piece—a very awkward affair—and well got out of on my side" (ibid., II, 97). All this is good fun, and it is pleasant to find Keats so high-spirited at the time. It also proves, however, that the poet was still undecided about some of the details of his ballad, that he thought it good enough for the entertainment of his brother and sister-in-law, but not yet sufficiently polished for his exacting critical taste. The poem was probably left dormant and was still in the same state when the manuscript was gathered for the 1820 publication. Blunden4 fixes the date of his sending it to Taylor and Hessey on 27 April 1920. A fortnight later "La Belle Dame" appeared in Hunt's Indicator. It was the "wretched wight" version. It certainly means that Keats, trying to resume work, had dispatched the manuscript of "Lamia", and the other poems of the 1820 volume, and then had unearthed his ballad and reshaped it, in a less medievalistic mood. Is Pre-Raphaelitism responsible for the strong tradition of the knight-at-arms version? or are modern readers more romantic than the Romanticists themselves? Modern editors seem to choose one text or the other according to unjustified personal preference, when they do not make a mixture of the two, selecting some of the Indicator corrections ("is withered" (3), "who cried" (39) etc.) and preserving the figure of the knight errant of ancient romance!

If one examines attentively the variations introduced by Keats in the light of the interplay of symmetries and imagery, it is immediately striking that his inverting of stanzas V and VI of the first version improves the balance at the centre of the poem. Stanza VI now describes the lover's offerings of "garland", "bracelets" and "fragrant zone" to his beloved; in stanza VII the lady presents her adorer with "roots of relish sweet", "honey wild and manna dew". The two scenes of wooing lovers make a fine diptych at the centre of the poem. The change of pronouns we commented on above is reinforced in the new order of stanzas. We pass from initial I of

I met a lady in the meads … (IV)
I set her on my pacing steed … (V)
I made a garland for her head … (VI)

to initial she within stanza VI

She look"d at me … (VI)
She found me roots … (VII)
She took me … (VIII)

It ends with the dramatic reversal

And there she slumber'd on the moss
And there I dream'd. (IX)

The change also proposes a more satisfactory progression along the path of seduction: the light foot, long hair and wild eyes of stanza IV lead naturally to the admiring contemplation of the lines:

I set her on my pacing steed
And nothing else saw all day long.
(Indicator: V, 17-18)

Then comes the faery's song. Entranced the young man adorns the lady's beauty; to the excitement of the senses of sight and touch ("For sideways would she lean" is a certain improvement, adding languor and weight, over the "sidelong would she bend" of the first version), then of hearing, the poet thus adds the scent of flowers in "garland", "bracelets" and "fragrant zone". The lady responds with the tasty offerings of delicate food. The avowal of love opens the "elfin grot". Contrary to the frustration of deprived nature in the opening and concluding parts of the poem, the central passage is a festival for the senses.

The contradiction that existed in the first version of the lover shutting "her wild wild eyes" (31) and the lady then lulling him "asleep" (33), has now disappeared. In the "elfin grot" the lady does not weep over the "victim"; she is now a real maiden yielding to the power of love:

She gaz'd, and sighed deep.

And the lover acts his part, as expected of a lover:

And there I shut her wild sad eyes
So kiss'd to sleep.


And there she slumber'd on the moss.

The accumulation of sibilant sounds cannot pass unnoticed, it creates the soothing effect of silence invading the bower of bliss and the heart of the lovers, when there is nothing more to say.

Inevitably the meaning of the scene changes with the altering of the imagery. The lady is no longer a sort of "lamia" entrapping some youth in destructive love of herself. She is left lying in her sleep, an image of gratified love, abandoned in full bliss, while her lover experiences the pang of separation owing to the awakening through his dream. In fact the evolution towards the abrupt fall into nightmare has been made more subtle. There are no tears and sore sighing, but a gaze which may be one of wonder or expectation, a deep sigh which denotes the final abandonment to overwhelming passion. The "wild wild eyes" have lost something of their madness in "wild sad eyes", to put on the first real touch of anxiety, or simply anticipation of the climactic, inevitable end of love experienced. Anyway the sadness leads to soothing sleep and the lady disappears in a far more tender mood than in the letter version of the poem. "She slumber'd on the moss" is all sweetness.

It is difficult not to attribute the changed atmosphere to Keats's situation in spring 1820, when he had recognized the true nature of his illness, and had declared himself condemned.5 The commiseration felt in the choice of "wretched wight" instead of the medieval figure of the knight, may bear the mark of a feeling of self-pity; moreover the whole poem becomes more of a human experience, especially in the simple bliss and sadness of true lovers. The dream becomes an irrepressible cry of anguish on the part of the young man who, beside his sleeping love, is suddenly invaded by his knowledge of the truth about himself and the approach of Death. "La Belle Dame Sans Merci" (39), who, now is not necessarily to be identified with the beautiful "faery's child". The inversion, emphasizing the pronoun, in the next line—"Thee hath in thrall" (40)—suppresses an unpleasant accumulation of "th" 's in close succession, and corresponds now to a tragic cry from the depth of the poet's heart. Thee has really become himself.

Seen in that light the Indicator text should be accepted as Keats's final version of "La Belle Dame Sans Merci". He has polished the lines that sounded unsatisfactory to his exacting ear (for instance "hill's side" has become "hill side"), replaced the improbable knightat-arms of the Middle Ages by a "wretched wight", his near kinsman; his beautiful lady, idealized by love into a fairy, turns out to be a sweet maid yielding to his passionate embrace, and she is left in blissful sleep while he follows the solitary path leading to the inevitable meeting with another ominous love, "La Belle Dame Sans Merci". The symmetry has been improved; the imagery made more coherent; so has the subtle interplay of regularity with irregularity, which creates the climax of painful bliss in stanza VIII, as was the case in the letter version.

If a date must be proposed for this unearthing of the poem and its revision, reference could be made to an April letter to Fanny Brawne (no. 257, II, 286) where Keats talks of some improvement in his health and is looking forward to "taking a walk with you upon the first of may". He goes on: "in the mean time undergoing a babylonish captivity I shall not be jew enough to hang up my harp upon a willow, but rather endeavour to clear up my arrears in versifying and with returning health begin upon something new; pursuant to which resolution it will be necessary to have my or rather Taylor's manuscript, which you, if you please, will send by my Messenger either today or tomorrow." This was done; Taylor received the manuscript on April 27. Is it not possible to imagine Keats going on "clearing up arrears in versifying" as his poor state of health permitted? And the result shows that his powers as a poet were not dwindling, but were simply thwarted by illness. Some of the feelings expressed in the "Belle Dame" second version can be compared to Keats's anxious feelings about his love addressed to Fanny Brawne during the same period. A March letter (no. 247, II, 277) comments on his disease and contemplates the horrid chance there was "of slipping into the ground instead of into your arms—the difference is amazing Love—Death must come at last." In their naked brevity the three statements could apply pretty well to the themes of the ballad. At a year's distance it echoes the lines of the 21 April 1819 letter to the George Keatses in which the original form of the poem appears. "I can imagine such happiness carried to an extreme—but what must it end in?—Death" (no. 159, II, 101). The identity of perspective is remarkable in spite of the sad evolution from the "living year" of 1819 to the despair of 1820. All this can only be conjectural, of course, but the suggestion is just probable enough not to be left out of this study. Whatever the time of the revision, it seems a confident assertion to state that the "wretched wight" version should be selected for all future editions of Keats's poems.

The "Fetters " of the Sonnet

The example of "La Belle Dame Sans Merci", as a case of an 1820 revision of a poem, is not unique, though Keats's activity was at a very low ebb owing to bad health. A few weeks after the publication of the ballad in the Indicator another of Keats's poems was delivered to be printed, the sonnet "On a Dream" ("As Hermes once …"). It had been composed shortly before the ballad, and must have been very dear to Keats and his circle of friends, seeing the number of transcripts that have remained. Keats seems, then, to have agreed to let Hunt offer it to the public after a last careful revision. One line shows an important and significant change from our point of view. Line 7 was altered from

But not olympus-ward to serene skies

(Dante manuscript in Ashley Library)

Not unto Ida with its snow-cold skies.
(in Indicator)

What is interesting here is, on the one hand Hermes' upward flight in the middle line of the sonnet, and on the other hand the cold image attached to it. Instead of the separation of lethal and life-blooded imagery, a sort of reconciliation of extremes takes place in the centre of the poem.

Hermes is a link between the nether and upper worlds in the ancient tradition of the Mediterranean. He then is a character well-suited for a poem that establishes an equivalence between the regions of ecstatic escape and the maiming deliverance of death. The god is shown shaking off, it seems, the ponderous fetters of this world for the bright, life-giving influence of the highest spheres. And yet Mount Ida is not the goal we have learnt to expect; the Muses' inspiring haunt is devoid of its usual qualities. Keats suppressed the epithet "pure" that had qualified the mountain in some intermediate version. Still, purity exists in the "snowcold skies" that surround its peak. The epithet, however, offers an image also suggestive of frustration. And therefore the summit of the pyramid coincides with dazzling frost and apparently empty desert. What should culminate in full intensity, meets with disappointing sterility. The negation at the beginning of the line prepares the refusal of the high aim to which Hermes was entitled to aspire. Opposite feelings are compressed together and made to coexist. Consequently the structural imagery of the sonnet modifies the rising line followed by similar pieces in Poems 1817. Instead of the elation rising to a climax, and the abrupt death into silence at the end, it reproduces the elaborate evolution encountered in longer poems. In spite of the negations, the imagery is there to build up the pyramidal structure, the curve rises in the first two quatrains to fall again. The third Shakespearian quatrain and the couplet are linked together to form a sort of sestet opposing the octave. Petrarchan and Elizabethan models are reconciled in a typically romantic synthesis.

It is evident that the sonnet bears close relation with the spirit of "La Belle Dame" and "The Eve of St Agnes". Indeed the "second circle of sad hell" (9),

Where in the gust, the whirlwind, and the flaw
Of rain and hail-stones, lovers need not tell
Their sorrows

resembles in an extraordinary way the atmosphere of Madeline and Porphyro's flight. The extended couplet retains something of the morbid dream of the "wretched wight":

pale were the sweet lips I saw,
Pale were the lips I kiss'd.

The sonnet ends, however, in an ambiguous impression of strange magic with the lovers floating "about that melancholy storm" (14). The lady has preserved "her fair form" but seems to undergo a sort of swoon nearing death, and the "storm" has lost some of its terror to answer the epithet of "melancholy". The floating impression cannot be assimilated to the imagery of a fall. It corresponds to that intermediate stage introducing the sestet: "the second circle of sad hell" (9), which sounds less desperate in its marginal position than hell itself.

What is found in the sonnet, then, is a great variety of former tendencies. Pyramidal structure and symmetry there are; but the imagery is not so clearly defined as in the other poems. The use of negative forms takes away the potential force of the rising movement; the fall is also assuaged by images which lessen the desperate depths of death and hell. Antitheses reconcile the pallor and sweetness of the lips, the entrancing beauty of the lady with the gust and storm, the sunny peak of Ida with the snow and the cold, the pleasant shade of Tempe with Jove's grief (8). Opposites exist side by side so that the imagery of rise and fall does not stand out so clearly as in Keats's other works of the same period.

Another element which also points to the spirit of experimentation in sonnet-writing is the breaking of the fourteen lines into irregular groups from the point of view of meaning. The first sentence extends with a marked enjambment right to the end of line 5. Then three further lines give the octave its normal dimensions. Yet the "but" at the start of the sestet is closely related to the negations of the previous lines:

Not unto Ida …
Not unto Tempe …
But to that second circle of sad hell.

Thus the traditional division is abolished. The third quatrain itself is of barely three and a half lines; in consequence the couplet is considerably augmented in length. When we refer to the fastidious considerations of Keats for the choice of the sonnets in Poems 1817, the publication of "On a Dream" during his life-time shows a renewed spirit of adventure, and a disdain of formal criticism on the part of the public, which is in line with his objection to the last sentence of the preface composed by his editors for his last volume of verse. Speaking of Hyperion they thought it a kindness to the poet to forestall the remarks of critics in the following apology. "The poem was intended to have been of equal length with Endymion, but the reception given to that work discouraged the author from proceeding." We hope our argument about the abandonment of the poem would have met with better approval on the part of the poet.

"On a Dream" is also an interesting poem for us, because it again stresses that perpetual tendency of Keats's art to evolve. He is found once more in the act of exploring the dark passages of the "Mansion of many Apartments" … Keats had turned towards the Shakespearian form of the sonnet, and thus towards a different perspective from that defined in the "Epistle to C. C. Clarke" (60-61). The couplet offered the possibility of a less abrupt break in the end. A rapid exploration of sonnets published posthumously will reveal something of the effort Keats devoted to experimenting new structures and interplay of images within the strict and limited pattern of such poems.

A good example of the new rise and fall of the imagery is given by a sonnet written in 1818 (September: "Four seasons fill the measure of the year". From the eagerness of spring in the first quatrain, one rises to the luxury of summer in the second. Here the poet feels that man approaches "his nearest unto heaven" (8). And yet summer time feeds on the memory of the previous season, and is only made of "Spring's honied cud of youthful thought" (6). Therefore it is to be wondered whether the "quiet coves" (8) of autumn are not the most bliss-inspiring nooks where man enjoys maturity and fulfilment, untouched by the agitation and feverish eagerness of the growing process: " … contented so to look / On mists in idleness" (10-11).

The line sounds like an epitome of the future ode "To Autumn". The poet feels like suspended out of time, protected by his own inward passivity, enjoying beauty undisturbed; letting "fair things / Pass by unheeded" (11-12). The couplet is definitely a fall with the images of winter's "pale misfeature" (13) and man's mortality as the final key note. But this is prepared in the third quatrain where the "coves" (8) of autumn—note the early start of the quatrain—, call to mind the seclusion of caves without the darkness attached to them. The feeling of furling "wings" (9) and the "mists" (10) also suggest a protective nest. And if beauty can exist "unheeded" (11), it also takes on a certain coldness; the "brook" naturally warbles and runs lively and pure, but its freshness has a cooling influence. It is not surprising to find it so near the evocation of winter time.

Thus this sonnet offers the pattern of a rise to the middle of the poem, repeating, in part, the movement of Petrarchan octaves. Then it reaches a sort of balance in the ambiguous third quatrain, a detached ecstasy, and dies smoothly in the couplet.

It is difficult to know which sonnets Keats would have preserved for publication eventually; but his Shakespearian sonnets offered him, undoubtedly, a field for trying all the variants that his "teeming brain" ("When I have fears …", 2) suggested. All types of different image-interplay are used. In his answer to a poem of Reynolds' (8 Febr. 1818), "Blue! 'Tis the life of heaven …", the imagery related to the blue colour drops from the wide expanse of the sky (1-4) to the level horizons of seascapes (5-8), and finally withdraws into the forest (9) and the most secret of blue flowers: the violet (12). The couplet—which extends over two and a half lines—concentrates on that "mere shadow" (13), the blue colour, that can speak in a girl's eye (14), and thus love opens wide the immense hope secreted in "fate" (14). The imagery here corresponds to a descent, or rather to a sort of distillation of the colour, which, as it diminishes in quantity is purified to its essence, and thus increases in intensity. Finally the perspective widens again as the distillate evokes life and intimations of future happiness (14). The last word "fate", though, is never completely exempt from disquieting undertones, so that here again, a certain ambiguity remains in spite of the healthy enthusiasm swelling outward from a "mere shadow" (13).

The two sonnets, written during the same period, in which appears the lady whom Keats had known at Hastings five years before, also end with extended couplets. "Time's sea hath been five years at its slow ebb" follows a nearly identical pattern of imagery. The first quatrain introduces the circumstances. Then the poet searches for remembrance, first, in the sky (5), then in the rose (7), and finally in the "budding flower" (9). Now that very concentration of perception leads to annihilation:

But my fond ear …
… doth devour
Its sweets in the wrong sense.

"Delight" (13) and "darling joys" (14) exist, but they suffer an "eclipse" (12) and are tainted "with grief" (14). The co-existence of opposite feelings becomes the key to the conclusion. Trying to analyse his sentiment, the poet goes down into the very core of intensity and seems to reach that limit of perception which engenders a numbness of the senses,—"the feel of not to feel it", as Keats put it in a stanza probably written in November or December 1818 ("In drear-nighted December", 21). It sounds like a pun, and Keats's friends and editors have altered the line to avoid the unpleasant noun "feel". Yet it should be preserved as the manuscripts have it, and accepted as one of those desperate attempts of artists' to express the inexpressible. "Delight" in the sonnet is "eclipsed" by "sweet remembering", and brings "grief". It sounds paradoxical; but, as can be seen in the "Eve" or "La Belle Dame", it is a feeling which increasingly haunts the poet.

The other poem of love, born of the same occasion, "When I have fears …", preserves an octave with rising imagery. After the evocation of his possible future works, compared to the reaping of rich corn and the filling of vast "garners" (1-4), the poet lifts up his eyes towards the sky with its strange constellations and mysterious shapes of clouds and darkness. The deciphering of the depths of the universe and the "magic" (8) of the exploration bring the poem to a first climax. Fame was the theme, while that of the second part of the diptych is love.

The poem rises anew to "the faery power / Of unreflecting love!" (11-12). And there we are suddenly left facing the endless solitude of the "shore / Of the wide world" (12-13). The image of the extended couplet (12-14) suggests the anguish of that tremendous void of a limitless horizon, before which the high bliss of fame or love vanishes, and both "to nothingness do sink" (14). This is still very similar to the rise and fall of "Time's sea hath been …". The fall does not occur without due preparation, as in other instances; in this case, the repeated negative words, or phrases, play an important part: "I never look" (5), "I cannot look" (7, 9). It is also the case in "When I have fears …". The haunting pressure of the "fears that I may cease to be / Before …" (1-2, and 3) recurs in the repetitions of "never" (7, 10 and 11). The negations destroy the imagined feelings of pleasure or bliss; it therefore introduces a coexistence of opposites, and this seems to become a characteristic feature of Keats's sonnets during the years 1818-1819.

In "To Homer", the rise and fall take place in the octave where the perspective of the sea in the first quatrain is replaced by that of Jove uncurtaining Heaven (6) for the blind poet, in the second. This rise, however, is counterbalanced in each quatrain by an imagery directed toward the depths of the sea or the earth. The "giant" ignorance of line 1 slopes down on the "dolphin-coral in deep seas" of line 4. Jove in Heaven (6) precedes Neptune and the "spumy tent of the sea" (7), and Pan with "his forest-hive" (8). So the sestet starts on the level of "the shores" (9), reminding us of the situation of the poet at the beginning of the sonnet, who saw himself "as one who sits ashore" (3). But this time the shores are "the shores of darkness", which do not exclude "light" (9). This sort of antithetic interplay fills the third quatrain.

Aye, on the shores of darkness there is light,
And precipices show untrodden green;
There is a budding morrow in midnight;
There is a triple sight in blindness keen.

The balance is strict to the last detail: the imagery of darkness comes first in lines 9-10, second in 11-12. The power of imagination transcends all the obstacles set up by obscurity to annihilate the poet's vision.

The couplet assimilates Homer's perception to that of Diana, described with the attributes of the triple Hecate, "Queen of Earth, and Heaven, and Hell." The pyramidal imagery reappears in that summary of the three domains explored by the poet.

The March 1819 sonnet "Why did I laugh to-night?" is entirely based on negative antithetic statements. The poet gets no answer to his question:

No God, no Demon …
Deigns to reply from Heaven or from Hell.

The next stage is to shrink from such extremes and try the inward core of one's self, the heart. The octave ends with an evocation of the triple, voiceless worlds of "Heaven and Hell and Heart" (8). If there is a pyramidal structure here, it is an inverted one. But the real rise and fall of the sonnet occurs in the sestet. It starts with the opening question "Why did I laugh?" (9) and immediately opposes actual life, "this Being's lease" (9), with the weight of its mortality, to "the utmost blisses" (10) reached through the powers of the imagination. The initial "yet" of the next line establishes the irreversible downward trend of the whole poem, though the couplet reveals in a vigorous antithesis the highest intensity of death:

Verse, Fame and Beauty are intense indeed,
But Death intenser—Death is Life's high meed.

Thus the paradox is driven to its utmost capacity of suggestion. Rise and fall coincide: the usually crushing experience of mortality is assimilated to the crowning climax of life's intensity.

The April 1819 letter to the George Keatses swarms with poetry, among which five sonnets. That entitled "On a Dream" we have already discussed…. Two bear the same title "On Fame". Both of these start in the Shakespearian manner, and in the first two quatrains follow the traditional presentation of the themes, with a clear interaction of imagery between octave and sestet. Both end with clinching lines dismissing fame and its enslaving worship. They therefore give an impression of freedom and elation in their conclusions.

The sonnet "On Fame", numbered XIII in the Literary Remains edition of 1848 should, we think, come after the other and be numbered XIV; in the letter it comes after the one beginning "How fever'd is the man". In some way it answers the question ending this same sonnet:

Why then should man…
Spoil his salvation …?

The worshipping of Fame is a mistaken creed; running after Fame is useless; salvation is to be found in acceptance of the world as it is. Once this has been achieved, it is not impossible to imagine Fame crowning the contented poet without his toiling for it. Fame is personified: "She is a Gipsey" (5), and "like a wayward girl" (1) she remains indifferent to those who woo her, and yields to those whose "heart" is "at ease" (4), and capable of being "content without her" (6). The third quatrain is marked by the insistent phrase "A very Gipsey is she" (9) and establishes the necessity of scorn. This is the articulation between the two parts of the sonnet. The octave had concentrated on Fame herself, the sestet proposes a line of conduct; the wanton should be despised and forgotten. It culminates in the couplet which advises disdain as a way to win her love.

The sonnet is rather direct in its meaning without any rich interplay of imagery. But it can be said to be firmly built, and it organizes itself round the opposition of what Fame is like and how it should be treated; it proves once again, if that were necessary, Keats's virtuosity in handling the delicate and exacting poetical structure of the sonnet.

The other sonnet "On Fame" starting "How fever'd is the man" shows that the task of reconciling form and content could be too much for the poet, and that he had to decide for himself whether the imagery and meaning should be coerced into the traditional rhyme patterns, or whether strict respect of form should be subordinated to more important considerations of beauty. At the time Keats must have felt the sonnet form as an overpowering burden, a restrictive ruling authority instead of a subtle mould to force the poet's message into shape. Hence a sort of revolt that shakes the rhyme pattern of three sonnets out of the five transcribed in the April letter to the Keatses in America.

In that second poem "On Fame" (number XIV in Literary Remains 1848), the sestet is effected by the poet's incapacity to insert his meaning into words fitting the normal, echoing rhymes. The third quatrain starts as usual (e f e), but the fourth line does not rhyme though it clearly ends what should be a quatrain. The "crystal space" of line 12 is echoed by the last word of the next line: "grace" (13). This, however, cannot be called a couplet from the point of view of meaning. And the last word "miscreed" (14) rhymes with "feed" (10). The scheme goes thus: e f e g g f. Even in the variations of Petrarchan sestets used by Keats in his early sonnets no such liberty had been taken with the traditional form. The lines struck out and corrected in the autograph manuscript testify to the poet's hesitations and struggle with the rhymes of the last lines. He finally decided in favour of meaning and imagery over strict formalism. Whether he would ever have published such a sonnet is impossible to say, but in its final stage it seems to us far more "loaded with ore" than its companion.

Indeed the sonnet offers a series of antithetic images in the octave. Each term is soon contradicted; the fever of line 1 is opposed to the "temperate blood" of the next; the completeness of "life's book" is destroyed in its "leaves" (3); "maidenhood" and "rob" (4) sound still more violently contradictory. The second quatrain preserves the theme of self-destruction, but applied to a natural imagery that makes it unbelieveable and unacceptable: "the rose" plucking herself (5), "the ripe plum" wiping off its "bloom" (6). In contrast with the fresh beauty of the bashful "Naiad" (7), who would not soil her "pure grot" with "muddy gloom" (8), the "elf" (7) is a sinister hobgoblin. The turn is marked at the beginning of the sestet by the stressed "but" (9), and the images of the "rose" (9) and the "ripe plum" (11) reappear to express the confident abandonment of natural things to their earthly condition, content to be generously what they are. The rose offers herself to the greed of bees and the kisses of the wind (9-10). The bloom covering the "ripe plum" may be "dim attire" (11); still it has its incomparable perfection of delicacy: touch it, it is gone for ever. "The undisturbed lake" of line 12 could be the cool haunt of the Naiad (7), and the image is suggestive of that passiveness which culminates in acceptance of all the goodness of the earth and enticing, comforting guesses at profound truths. The smooth surface of the lake has "crystal space" (12) which opens immense scope towards both the depths of the watery world and the limitless heights of the reflected sky. All this is pure negative capability absorbing the material world and turning out to be a source of ultimate, if transitory, knowledge and wisdom. The clinching lines implicitly conclude in favour of such reconciliation with mortality in a question:

Why then should man, leasing the world for grace,
Spoil his salvation for a fierce miscreed?

"Grace", "salvation", "miscreed"—which implies the existence of a true creed—, the theme is ultimately a religious one, the confession of the poet's faith, a reconciliation with the "forked" nature of man.6 It may be noted that we have abandoned Garrod's reading in line 13, i. e. "teasing the world for grace", for Rollins' "leasing". We think that the regular interplay of opposites throughout the poem justifies the latter's deciphering of Keats's handwriting. "Tease" and "spoil" go the same way towards destruction, while "lease" offers a more positive attitude of exchange and eagerness regarding "grace" which is suddenly discovered menaced in the next line. It fits in with the preceding contrasts of images.

The structure of the sonnet is remarkably firm, with its answering echoes between octave and sestet, in spite of the irregularity of the rhyming pattern in the latter part. If it ends with a certain feeling of elation, it is more an interior feeling than a clear, sensuous image. On the contrary the octave apparently plunges towards the "meddling" influence creative of darkness and "muddy gloom": and the sestet ends with the lease unfortunately spoiled by a "fierce miscreed". But the interaction of antitheses, negations of negative imagery and questioning provokes a general effect similar to that of the lake image (12), which strikingly conjures up out of the clear depths of its waters a perspective of the pure span of the sky and air. The conclusion then is a warning, and therefore offers the possibility of escape from the dangerous quicksands of a "fierce miscreed".

"To Sleep" is another irregular Shakespearian sonnet. The first two quatrains follow the traditional pattern abab cdcd. Then there is one line rhyming with b, and one rhyming with c. And the sonnet ends with a third quatrain efef. The abortive draft in the Hampstead Milton—12 lines only—is a witness of the poet's entanglement in the struggle of rhymes and meaning. In that version the third quatrain is left unfinished. In the (30 April) letter version lines 9 and 10 of the draft—

Then shut the hushed casket of my soul
And turn the key round in the oiled wards

—have been practically preserved, but have become respectively lines 14 and 13:

Turn the key deftly in the oiled wards
And seal the hushed casket of my soul.

These lines were a fit conclusion for the poem. They are perfect in their imagery and harmony to let the sonnet slip away into silence and sleep. However they did not rhyme as a couplet, and the solution we now have, unconventional as it is, was probably built up backwards from the conclusion, to fill the missing link between the octave dedicated to a eulogy of sleep and its beneficial action, and the ideas now given prominence at the end. Sleep appears as a divinity to be worshipped and praised, capable of bringing moments of bliss: "forgetfulness divine" (4). The imagery is centered on the soothing power of darkness and silence: "embalmer"—"still midnight" (1)—"careful fingers and benign" (2)—"gloom-pleas'd eyes"—"embower'd from the light" (3)—"enshaded"—"forgetfulness" (4)—"soothest sleep" (5)—"poppy" (7)—"bed"—"lulling" (8). Then the tone of invocation turns to religious awe: "forgetfulness divine" (4)—"if so it please thee" (5)—"thine hymn" (6)—"wait the amen" (7)—"charities" (8). The concentration of words tending to create the atmosphere of calm serenity, of regenerating power and high submissive gratitude is extreme.

Then the sestet introduces the tension of sleepless nights. It is very skilfully linked to the worshipping of the previous lines by the prayer "save me" repeated twice (9 and 11). The disturbing agitation of the day appears like light shining "upon my pillow" (10); darkness increases the questioning of the mind and works blindly "burrowing like a mole" (12). Though Keats comments on these last sonnets saying: "I have for the most part dash'd of [f] my lines in a hurry", the last two lines of "To Sleep" are most remarkable for the density of their imagery. They sum up the silent and stealthy invasion of sleep which occurs in the octave—"Turn the key deftly in the oiled wards" (13)—recalling the "careful fingers" of the beginning (2); and the "hushed casket of my soul" (14) stresses the silence and suggests the secrecy and mysterious torments already present in the sestet: "many woes" (10)—"burrowing like a mole" (12). Inevitably there creeps into the mind a remembrance of Shakespearian caskets teasing everyone into a search for the hidden truth and beauty secreted in one of them. If this was written "in a hurry", how far could perfection of achievement be brought in such a poet!

And yet the difficulty of complying with the requirements of such strict form as the sonnet implies found expression in the last sonnet copied in that same journal letter, extending from Febr. 14 to May 3 1819: "If by dull rhymes …". It is preceded by a brief comment "I have been endeavouring to discover a better sonnet stanza than we have. The legitimate does not suit the language over-well from the pouncing rhymes—the other kind appears too elegiac—and the couplet at the end of it has seldom a pleasing effect—I do not pretend to have succeeded." The sonnet is a very interesting testimony to Keats's virtuosity at the time. He rejects the rhyme pattern, but not rhyming. The new scheme sounds as follows: abc abd cab cde de. Three rhymes are repeated three times, one only twice; the arrangement of sentences and rhymes corresponds closely to the intention mentioned in the poem, i. e. to "find out"

Sandals more interwoven and complete
To fit the naked foot of poesy.

The poem is more than a clever tour de force. It exemplifies what it precisely discusses theoretically. Instead of hovering in high abstraction, the poet shows what he means, and though the attempt was not repeated, it is a gallant piece of work with beauties of its own. Once more its qualities lie in the correspondence and interplay of images which also answer the notion of "sandals more interwoven"; the phrase could easily be taken for a motto describing Keats's efforts to load more and more his poetry "with ore" (see his later remark: 16 Aug. 1820, To Shelley; no. 285, II, 323). The first tercet introduces the subject, and compares the strict arrangement of verse lines in a sonnet to Andromeda in fetters. The beauty of the prisoner is not denied, but it means sufferings; and, if, as said above, the rhymes are qualified as "dull" (1), this applies to their arrangement in rigid patterns. The virtue of rhyming lines is not rejected. The image of the "sandals" in the second tercet is closely related to that of the chained, naked princess on the legendary rock. The sandals seem to be made for Andromeda and not only for "the naked foot of poesy" (6). Poesy still sounds in the reader's memory when he meets with "the lyre" in the next line (7); the necessity of industry and "attention" (9) in the practice of the instrument makes the passage to the fourth tercet easy. "Sounds" and "syllabes" are indeed the poet's material, rare and precious like gold: "Midas' coinage" (11). Hence the "misers" (10) that poets should be, using their "ears" (9) to clean away all that could mar the beauty of poetical form: "Jealous of dead leaves in the bay wreath crown" (12). Otherwise they would produce again "pained loveliness" (3). And the clinching lines concentrate on the necessity to "free" poetry (13). Total freedom however is impossible; anarchy would go against the very essence of poetry. But instead of the chains and fetters of the beginning, the restrictive reins should be made of "garlands", which preserves the interweaving image of line 5. As in the second sonnet "On Fame" (XIV) and in "To Sleep" the imagery of the conclusion refers to that of the octave. Here the "wreath crown" (12) and the "garlands" (14) echo, while they contrast with, the chains and fetters of the first tercet, and hark back to the "interwoven sandals" of the second. In a sort of symmetry the problems of restricting rules embrace the evocation of the music of poetry. In fact the whole technique of the writing of poetry is touched on in a discussion of its strictest model in prosody. The "If by dull rhymes …" sonnet could be described as composed of two sestets dedicated respectively to form and sounds, the raw material of the poet's job. The last two lines conclude. The logic of the poem is also worthy of notice. The hypothesis of the first tercet leads to the three proposals:

Let us find out …
Let us inspect …
…let us be

The third is skilfully placed at the end of the line to avoid the rigid monotony of regularity. The conclusion is well marked by the initial "So" (13) of the last sentence. All this may be refused the name of a sonnet, but it proves Keats's understanding and mastery of poetic technique, his ceaseless search for a perfection that would unite shape, music and meaning, his capacity for invention and his disdain of inevitable condemnation on the part of readers. The poet in some way explodes a form that can no longer resist the inward pressure of the load of meaningful imagery he intends to force into it. The odes written in 1819 and printed in the Lamia volume are the ripe fruit of his intense struggle with the exacting forms of poetical patterns. It is also typical of him that he printed no sonnet in the collection and seems to have considered them at the time as experiments to polish further in later days.


[All quotations unless otherwise stated are taken from:]

Garrod H. W. The Poetical Works of John Keats. 2nd ed. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1958.

Rollins, Hyder E. The Letters of John Keats 1814-1821. 2 vols. Cambridge: University Press, 1958.

1 Horace Odes, II, 3, 8.

2 H. E. Rollins, op. cit. I, 293, footnote 1.

3 "When I see you the first thing I shall do will be to read that about Milton and Ceres and Proserpine" (no. 99, I, 340).

4 Blunden, London Mercury, IV (1921), 141.

5 Keat's first hemorrhage occurred on 3 February 1820, according to Brown's Life of John Keats, quoted in Rollins, op. cit., II, 251, footnote 3.

6King Lear, III, iv, 3 quoted by Keats in the journalletter to the George Keatses of 21 April 1819; No. 159, II, 101.

Priscilla Weston Tate (essay date 1974)

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SOURCE: "The Mature Myth: From the Odes through 'The Fall of Hyperion: A Dream'," in From Innocence through Experience: Keats's Myth of the Poet, No. 34, edited by Dr. James Hogg, Institut fur Englische Sprache und Literatur, Universitat Salzburg, 1974, pp. 84-147.

[In the following essay, Tate explores how Keats's later poems reinforce his "myth of the poet." Tate explains that several major themes—including identity, "soulmaking," the visionary nature of a poet's quest, the role of the imagination, and the relationship between beauty and truth—exemplify Keats's belief that the role of the poet is to achieve a "mythic understanding of human life."]

In the last great year of his productivity, Keats was to write not only the great odes ("Ode to Psyche," "Ode to a Nightingale," "Ode on a Grecian Urn," "Ode on Melancholy," and "To Autumn") but "Lamia" and the fragmentary The Fall of Hyperion: A Dream, an attempt at recasting the original version. The February-April journal letter to the George Keatses, which preceded the writing of this poetry, culminated in the inclusion of the first of the odes, "To Psyche." It is important to remember that it is in this letter that the "vale of Soul-making" passage occurs (II, 102-04), that Keats had been speculating on the place of man in the universe, and that it is perhaps in this passage that he comes to a kind of acceptance or working through of problems which had plagued him throughout the short years of his maturity. He was trying to resolve the difficulties in discovering the nature of his own identity.1 The doctrine of the soul-making letter might be called, after Finney, the expression of Keats's "empirical humanism."2 That is, he had come to accept the idea of the identity as created by the response of individual people to the "sensuous and emotional experience"3 which life presents. A belief in immortality would not be a necessary part of his thought but could well be an accepted one not expressed (although Keats was poignantly to wish on his deathbed that he could at least have the solace of being able to accept the traditional answers to death). Even his mature, selfprovided answers to difficulties are firmly a part of his binding to the earth. To the end, Keats was to view all experience as it was related to human beings in their life on earth.

After the journal letter mentioned above, no letters survive until May, after the completion of the odes. By the time his correspondence picks up again, the odes, with the exception of "To Autumn," had been written. These odes constitute a literary phenomenon which would be difficult to match with that of any other poet.

Critics have often treated the odes as though they were written deliberately as a sequence, although Robert Gleckner points out the difficulties of such an approach if one examines all the evidence, including other poems written during this same period.4 H. W. Garrod, for example, in 1926 wrote that the odes were "a sequence … not of time but of mood."5 A more recent critic has suggested that these poems "are not only products of what Keats himself called 'Negative Capability,' but taken together are a uniquely full account of what it is like and how it develops."6

It is not necessary to treat the odes as a sequence, but certainly there are basic themes that tie them one to another. Bate, for example, sees only "To Psyche" as not illustrating a meditation on "process, and either the acceptance of it, or the hope to escape from it, or both in dramatic interplay with each other…."7 The reader may find in all of the odes the union of opposites and the recognition that man must accept the differing kinds of human experience. They can be seen as "explorations of the soul-making doctrine,"8 examining "the tremendous discovery that the limits upon human experience have been placed generously far."9

A traditional view is the one expressed by De Selincourt: "They are the expression in varying keys of emotion of a mind which has loved the principle of beauty in all things, and seeks in a world of change and decay, among the fleeting forms of loveliness, for something permanent and eternal."10 Through all of these interpretations of the odes as a group there runs an agreement that they represent some kind of high point in Keats's career. Although critics continue to argue their particular biases, sensitive readers of all kinds continue to find in the odes something which touches the chords of their common humanity.

In the light of this particular study, the odes can be seen as the coming to fruition of Keats's myth of the poet.… In the odes the reader finds represented and bound together the major themes of Keats's myth: identity, soul-making, the visionary nature of the poet's quest, the imagination, and the linking of beauty and truth. Each poem can be admired individually—indeed, the odes have been some of the favorite poems of the New Critics because they can be read without reference to outside sources. But the poems also fit the Keatsian canon from whatever viewpoint it is being examined. Even the form employed is relevant to a great portion of his work, being linked to the sonnet form which he used throughout his career and to earlier ode forms such as the "Hymn to Pan" and "Ode to Sorrow" in Endymion. In each poem there is an idea which ties it to the myth of the poet, sometimes by the use of a direct "I" as in the "Ode to a Nightingale" and "To Psyche" and sometimes through situation as in "Ode on Melancholy."

"Ode to Psyche"

The "Ode to Psyche," which has received less critical attention than any of the other odes (except perhaps the "Ode on Indolence") is the first to appear, being included in the journal letter under the April 30 date along with the following remarks:

The following Poem—the last I have written is the first and only one with which I have taken even moderate pains—I have for the most part dash'd of [sic] my lines in a hurry—This I have done leisurely—I think it reads the more richly for it and will I hope encourage me to write other thing[s] in even a more peacable and healthy spirit. You must recollect that Psyche was not embodied as a goddess before the time of Apulieus the Platonist who lived after the Augustan age, and consequently the Goddess was never worshipped or sacrificed to with any of the ancient fervor—and perhaps never thought of in the old religion—I am more orthodox that [sic] to let a hethen Goddess be so neglected" (II, 105-6).

It must also be noted that the poem appears immediately after the soul-making passage, a juxtaposition which has led one critic to believe that Psyche "serves as the emblem of the soul and … was granted immortality only after she endured the realities of human experience."11 The poem in one way, then, can be read as a partial answer to a recurring question in Keats's myth of the poet: how does an individual person achieve his identity? For Psyche the identity becomes real through the imagination of the poet who will be her "priest, and build a fane / In some untrodden region" (49-50) of his mind. She achieves her identity in a kind of roundabout way: the poet does the responding to the world for her and then creates a live goddess who has become literally what her name suggests—a soul.

Of what significance is the choice of Psyche for Keats's vehicle in the ode? Kenneth Allott has insisted on the importance of the reader's

need to be aware how closely ideas on the meaning and function of myth were bound up with Keats's attempt to make sense of the human situation…. Figures drawn from religious myths—and to Keats Christianity was simply the last of the great mythologies—may be understood sympathetically … as personifications of certain kinds of human need or self-knowledge…. This is Keats's personal extension of a mode of mythological explanation which was then a commonplace.12

Perhaps Keats was intrigued by the possibility of actually entering into the process of creating a goddess, much as the Greek poets did whose spirit he admired. However, the poem is not the same substance as the story of Apuleius, which he had read, although he took details for his description from that story and probably from Mary Tighe's Psyche.13

The first stanza of the poem contains references to the dream or the vision which appear throughout Keats's major poetry: "Surely I dream to-day, or did I see / The winged Psyche with awaken'd eyes?" (5-6). The odes following "To Psyche" refer to the same phenomenon, most notably the "Ode to a Nightingale": "Was it a vision, or a waking dream? / Fled is that music:—Do I wake or sleep?" (79-80). There is at least an implied questioning of the poet's experience in each of the odes. Has his fancy cheated him, or is his vision a valid insight into reality? Perhaps the central problem of the poem is, as Ward suggests, the meaning and the functions of the imagination.14

The following lines describe what the poet has seen: alone, he "wander'd in a forest thoughtlessly" (7) and inadvertently came upon the secret meeting place of Cupid and Psyche, where they are seen

side by side
In deepest grass, beaneath the whisp'ring roof
Of leaves and trembled blossoms, where there
A brooklet, scarce espied:

In contrast to the lovers on the Grecian urn, these two do embrace and are "ready still past kisses to outnumber" (19) because they do not become cloyed by the intensity of the experience. There is here no "breathing human passion … / That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloy'd, / A burning forehead and a parching tongue" ("Ode on a Grecian Urn," III).

Like the "Eve of St. Agnes," "To Psyche" is a celebration of love as one means of approach to imaginative experience. It is the poet's vision of the lovers in stanzas one and two which results in the imaginative rhapsody of the poet's thoughts in the last three stanzas. Realizing that Psyche is the "latest born and loveliest vision far / Of all Olympus' faded hierarchy!" (24-25), the poet is sad in the realization that Psyche has not had the worship she deserves, no altars or choirs or priests to do her service. Keats introduces here the religious terminology which recurs through the poem.

Perhaps here again is Keats's appreciation of human love, although it is expressed in this poem as a love between immortals. However, Psyche had been mortal before her transformation. It is a possibility that Keats thought of the fruit of human love as one way to achieve immortality. In his own life, he knew that he probably would not have children of his own and was afraid that he had not created any work great enough to make him immortal in the eye of the public. He might have seen in the love of George and Georgiana and the fruit of their union a means for a part of him to live on. All this is speculation, of course, but the element of love is a strong one in "To Psyche" and in his letters to and about his brother and sister-in-law.

The poet's recognition of his dependence upon his own imagination is expressed when he says, "I see, and sing, by my own eyes inspir'd" (43). The possibility begins to emerge that he as the poet can give Psyche the immortality she deserves, even though she was born

too late for antique vows,
Too, too late for the fond believing lyre,

When holy were the haunted forest boughs,
Holy the air, the water, and the fire;

His work as a poet will take the place of traditional religious trappings: "So let me be thy choir, and make a moan / Upon the midnight hours" (44-45).

The transition to religious terminology is now complete; in the last stanza the poet will be her "priest, and build a fane / In some untrodden region" (50-51) of his mind. The pairing of thought with extreme emotional commitment in this stanza is interesting. Thë altar for Psyche is in a part of the poet's brain that has not been touched before, and it is here that "branched thoughts" are "new grown with pleasant pain" (52-53). Here again is the union of pain with pleasure which has been evident in several poems of Keats's maturity, such as "La Belle Dame" and "The Eve of St. Agnes." The sanctuary dedicated to Psyche will be decorated "With the wreath'd trellis of a working brain" (60), a statement bearing out Keats's awareness for the necessity of the development of the mind.

Perhaps the poet's references to the past as a time when "holy were the haunted forest boughs, / Holy the air, the water, and the fire" (38-39) stress the idea of the importance of the imagination and his feeling that his own time was deficient in a community sense of awe in human experience. It certainly calls up the Wordsworthian description of the origin of Greek myth in the fourth book of The Excursion. There was, in primitive times, a free play of imagination; man saw no barrier between himself and the natural world. There was an I-Thou relationship between man and his world, not an I-It relationship.15 Man was intended to be a creature of the imagination, not to be "so far retir'd / From happy pieties" (40-41) as he had become in Keats's time. Thus the creation of a special place of worship for Psyche (or the soul, or by extension, the imagination) will be a rich place, covered "With all the gardener Fancy e'er could feign, / Who breeding flowers, will never breed the same" (62-63). As a priest of the soul, the poet promises to her "a rich indolence which will safeguard its natural gift for delight and restore to wholeness whatever the world beyond the mountains has broken down."16

The "Ode to Psyche," then, takes its place in Keats's myth of the poet because it is concerned with the imagination, the dream or vision, and human love. The poem itself describes a highly imaginative experience; but, if it is to have a meaning as a work of art, it must be more than simply fanciful. It should, in Keatsian terms, be a friend to man. It is in its statement that the creative imagination can be re-established as supreme and that it can not only see but create in living form what it sees just as the poet is able to create Psyche and give her a place in which to dwell. Even if her deification takes place in the poet's mind, she becomes real to him, and through his experience she can become real for other human beings. The goddess Psyche was a fortunate choice for the imagination because she as a goddess is half way between the mortal and the immortal.17

"Ode to a Nightingale"

If the "Ode to Psyche" embodies a concept of the imagination, so does the "Ode to a Nightingale," in a different way and with a different kind of understanding. The "Ode to Psyche" seems to be a poem in praise of the imagination and its powers; the nightingale ode brings the reader back again to earth, to the midst of Experience, and, in a sense, indicates that at times "the fancy cannot cheat so well / As she is fam'd to do, deceiving elf" (VIII).18 "To a Nightingale" represents the questioning, unsatisfied imagination in Keats's myth of the poet, in which the persona, the "I" as poet, is disillusioned with the answers that he is able to provide for himself through his imagination. Like several of the odes, the poem arises from the interaction of the imagination of the poet with something outside himself: a bird, an urn, autumn personified, or melancholy represented as a figure. In this poem it is a bird which calls the imagination into play, singing "In some melodious plot / Of beechen green" and singing "of summer in fullthroated ease" (I).

A temporary union of the poet and the bird through the visionary imagination exists in stanza I, but it begins to fade; the poet has entered into the bird's happiness of song, yet his "heart aches" and "a drowsy numbness pains" his senses. Why should his heart ache when he has been able to enter into the song of the bird, to become in a sense the sparrow picking about in the gravel? (I, 186). From the beginning of the ode there is the implicit union of melancholy and happiness, pleasure and pain, that occurs throughout Keats's poetry and letters. The poet's aching heart recalls another important concept in Keats's mythic understanding of human life, that any kind of intensity in the limited mortal world (except perhaps the intensity of art), even when it is pleasurable, ends in some kind of pain because it cannot last or it becomes cloying to the senses. The passion of Psyche and Cupid is immortal and thus continues unabated for eternity; the union of the poet and the bird can be only temporary, and the knowledge of the fleeting nature of the transcending of mortality and the moments of the attainment of a Higher Innocence winds throughout the thought of the entire poem.

In stanza II, for example, the poet in his cry for "a draught of vintage! that hath been / Cool'd a long age in the deep-delved earth" is longing for some "supporting intoxication"19 to prolong the experience of his imaginative fusion with the bird. The song of the bird is of summer, that time of ripeness before the maturity of autumn and the frosts of winter which complete the cycle of life and death. In the nightingale's song the poet finds himself able to go beyond human experience, yet he realizes that the nightingale itself, despite its song, cannot actually know the experience of man. Thus, although the nightingale will never know "The weariness, the fever, and the fret / Here, where men sit and hear each other groan" (III), there is a kind of sadness in the knowledge that it has lacked the kinds of Experience necessary to bring man through the "vale of Soul-making." Through the song of the bird the poet is able to forget his human weariness and escape for a short time into another realm "beyond the bourn of care" ("Lines Written in the Highlands," 29), but he eventually comes back to the real world, to the bonds which tie him to the earth. Another significance of the poet's desire for wine may be symbolic of his longing to believe that he can move through Experience without pain and that he hopes to enter into "the inwardness of the sensory in such a way as to be at ease in empathy… . "20 But there is always the knowledge of the impossibility of a permanent state of being "at ease," because the empathy of the poet makes him experience not only his own sorrows but those of the people who surround him.

Thus the poet's desire to "drink, and leave the world unseen, / And with thee fade away into the forest dim" (II) only takes him back to the real world that the bird has never experienced. The third stanza recalls his 1818 poem "To J. H. Reynolds, Esq.":

It is a flaw
In happiness, to see beyond our bourn,—
It forces us in summer skies to mourn,
It spoils the singing of the Nightingale

The picture of human experience which the poet gives in the third stanza is pure Experience, unredeemed by any imaginative or religious act of grace: there are groans of pain, the palsy of age, the death of young men (a phrase which surely recalls the death of his brother Tom in the past December), the quick fading of beauty, and the changing of a love which cannot remain new and unchanging. Even the process of thought makes one "full of sorrow"—not the sorrow that leads to wisdom, but the sorrow coming from "The thought that we are mortal makes us groan" (I, 179). The knowledge here is a knowledge of despair because man is helpless to elude his mortality. It remains for the "Ode on Melancholy" to stress the union of joy and sorrow.

Stanza IV returns to the longing to escape, but this time by a different means, "Not charioted by Bacchus and his pards, / But on the viewless wings of Poesy." The response to the poet's plea for escape does not come in the form that he had originally wished for it but through the acceptance of the situation in which he finds himself alone on earth, separate from the bird, with no light to guide him in a growing darkness.21 In the fifth stanza the darkness is complete; he cannot see around him but he can use his other senses to experience what is there:

I cannot see what flowers are at my feet,
Nor what soft incense hangs upon the boughs,
But, in embalmed darkness, guess each sweet
Wherewith the seasonable month endows
The grass, the thicket, and the fruit-tree wild;
White hawthorn, and the pastoral eglantine;
Fast fading violets cover'd up in leaves;
And mid-May's eldest child,
The coming musk-rose, full of dewy wine,
The murmurous haunt of flies on summer eves.

The imagery of these lines requires special attention. The references to natural growth suggest the "flowery band" from Endymion (1. 7) that unites the poet with the earth. But also associated with the natural world is the notion of the movement of process, because the violets are "fast-fading" and the musk-rose is "mid-May's eldest child," which is already past its prime and on the way towards death. Thus the suggestion of death which has been present from the beginning of the poem in connotative words like "opiate," "Hemlock," and "Lethe-wards" becomes explicit. The darkness is "embalmed," the "soft incense" calls to mind the watchful state of tapers burning around a corpse, and the violets are "cover'd up in leaves" instead of showing their blooms for all the world to see and enjoy. The natural things which are mentioned all have short lives.

It is in the sixth stanza that Keats "approaches that supreme act of the Romantic Imagination … , the fluid dissolve or fadeout in which the limitations of time and space flee away and the border between being and non-being, life and death, seems to crumble… . "22 Indeed, because of the fifth and sixth stanzas, critics such as Pettet have felt that the "Ode to a Nightingale" is principally about a "basic contradiction, the loving and loathing of death… . "23 The reader must keep in mind, however, that Keats is separate from the bird, musing on the many times he has been "half in love with easeful Death." The "half in love" and the word "easeful" should be noted. In the past the poet's treating Death as a lover, calling "him soft names in many a mused rhyme" has been a means of escape. However, in the sixth stanza his attitude seems to have changed: "Now," he muses, "more than ever seems it rich to die, / To cease upon the midnight with no pain, / While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad / In such an ecstasy!" This is an idea that Keats touches on in his letters, especially to Fanny Brawne, that of death as the most intense experience possible and therefore one of the most desirable. He wrote to her, for example, "I have two luxuries to brood over in my walks, your Loveliness and the hour of my death. O that I could have possession of them both in the same minute" (II, 133). The desire for intensity of experience, even if it is unpleasant, is a Romantic characteristic: "I wish for death … to deliver me from these pains, and then I wish death away, for death would destroy even those pains which are better than nothing" (II, 345). Keats had written in "Why did I laugh tonight?" the lines "Verse, Fame, and Beauty are intense indeed, / But Death intenser—Death is Life's high meed." Somehow it seems to the poet that being able to experience death at the moment of intensity of union with the bird's song would be to capture and hold the intensity, to make it like the love of Endymion and Cynthia or of Cupid and Psyche, intense throughout eternity instead of limited by the human world.

But there is an odd change here from the previously mentioned sonnet; the last lines of the stanza point in a different direction: "Still wouldst thou sing, and I have ears in vain—/ To thy high requiem become a sod." Now it suddenly seems impossible to repeat in a "finer tone" the intensity of experience. Perhaps the bird will go on forever, but death would simply bring oblivion rather than the longed-for escape or eternal participation in the infinite. Wasserman rightly points out that the nightingale becomes immortal to the poet only at the point when Keats begins to emphasize his own limited condition.

It is the suggestion of the bird's immortality through his song that has been heard throughout man's history, like the poems of poets who have "souls on earth" and "souls in heaven too" ("Bards of Passion," 38-39) that takes Keats beyond himself. In this stanza, Blackstone believes, the poet "achieves a universal vision"24 because he looks away from his own condition and includes himself in all "hungry generations" from the past, both high and low and sees in the figure of Ruth "all mortals who have had the spiritual aspiration for the meaning of life and have realized that in this alien world they cannot attain the full purpose of their being."25 Human beings are linked in many ways, one of them being their sorrows, represented by "the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home, / She stood in tears amid the alien corn," and another being their dreams, represented by the "Charm'd magic casements, opening on the foam / Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn." Thus, in the seventh stanza, although the poet recognizes that he is not immortal and that his momentary intensity of union with the nightingale cannot last forever, he links himself through Experience with the rest of humanity.

The poet begins in stanza VIII the "journey homeward to habitual self (Endymion II. 276). The ecstasy of the bird's song becomes a "plaintive anthem" which fades away from his hearing. The poet must leave his dream-world and come back to the earth that is his home. Indeed, the poet accuses the fancy here of a kind of unfaithfulness of promise when he says "the fancy cannot cheat so well / As she is fam'd to do, deceiving elf." The poem can only end with a question instead of an affirmation: "Was it a vision, or a waking dream? / Fled is that music:—Do I wake or sleep?" In this poem Keats is in the midst of Experience and cannot be sure that the imagination will deliver her promise. Has his vision really given him an insight into truth, or is he only "a dreaming thing" who "venoms all his days" (The Fall of Hyperion, 168 and 175)? This ode toys with the question which is to become a main theme of The Fall of Hyperion, the meaning of the visionary imagination. In Keats's own life, by May of 1819 he

had uttered his Everlasting No. In the previous month he had written "La Belle Dame Sans Merci," his Center of Indifference. But late in May, 1819, Keats was strong-spirited enough to elicit from these shattering visions the Everlasting Yea of his "Ode on a Grecian Urn."26

This ode, like the one to Psyche, is a part of Keats's myth of the poet. Here he looks at the world of Experience and asks how it can be transcended. Tentatively, he suggests that it is transcended by the imagination, but he is not absolutely certain at this point that he is right. He questions the imagination here, as he does in "Lamia," but in both poems the evidence seems to suggest that man's life is the richer for having had the imaginative experience, even if he feels that it has cheated him in some way. There is the grasping for the ideal which is a theme in a great deal of his poetry, the empathic response to objects in the world, and the linking of death and beauty as beauty and truth are to be linked in the "Ode on a Grecian Urn." Keats tries to see human experience as a whole in this poem, as a mythic poet must do in order to give significant shape to his experience.

"Ode on a Grecian Urn "

In beginning a discussion of the "Ode on a Grecian Urn," that most widely treated of the odes, it is well to bear in mind Philip Hobsbaum's remarks:

The variations of reading are not so bewildering as they have been made out to be. It is true that any one … may seem to be different from any other. But such variation is one that testifies to the impossibility of interpreting, once for all, so complex a work of art as a great poem. Rather, we must be content to isolate those aspects which seem most relevant to our needs … and, in directing attention towards them, hope that they will prove a way into the poem which will produce a response to it as a whole. Such variations, indeed, may be a timely reminder that the critic's work is, of its nature, a mode of discussion.27

It is also well to recall that this ode in many ways is a culmination of ideas that Keats has expressed in various forms throughout his career, because it is in this poem more than any other that the reader finds "the agonies, the strife / Of human hearts" ("Sleep and Poetry," 124-25) reconciled with eternity. The "Ode on a Grecian Urn" is a concrete representation of the "vast idea" which Keats sensed as early as "Sleep and Poetry" and certainly is an example of what Keats believed one purpose of poetry to be, "that it should be a friend / To sooth the cares, and lift the thoughts of man" ("Sleep and Poetry," 246-47). Even in Endymion Keats had indicated something of what he was to say in the later poem:

No, there are throned seats unscalable,
But by a patient wing, a constant spell,
Or by ethereal things that, unconfin'd,
Can make a ladder of the eternal wind,

… . .

And, silent as a consecrated urn,
Hold sphery sessions for a season due.

Once again in this poem, the imagination is a theme. In the epistle "To J. H. Reynolds, Esq." Keats had spoken of the "imagination brought / Beyond its proper bound" (78-79). In that poem the imagination led the poet into a kind of "Purgatory blind" (80); in the "Ode on a Grecian Urn" the imagination comes close to its "proper bound" and is able to become something of a stabilizing force instead of a cheating fancy.

The reader must also keep in mind Keats's statements about beauty and truth and their necessary linking with the imagination: "What the imagination seizes as Beauty must be truth—whether it existed before or not" (I, 184). The last lines of the poem do not give as much difficulty if they are read within the context of the poem and of Keats's work as a whole as they do if they are read in isolation.28

A comparison of the "Ode on a Grecian Urn" with the "Ode to a Nightingale" offers the reader two different approaches to the myth of the poet. The "Ode on a Grecian Urn" represents, it would seem, one of the best examples in Keats's own writing of his doctrine of Negative Capability and his distinction of himself as a "camelion Poet" (I, 387) rather than an egotistical one. In the nightingale poem Keats is present as the "I"; however, in the poem about the urn, he is detached and is only to become a part of the urn's experience as he empathically experiences what the urn offers to him. Keats does ask questions in the first stanza:

What leaf-fring'd legend haunts about thy shape
Of deities or mortals, or of both,
In Tempe or the dales of Arcady?
What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?
What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?

These questions, however, are not an "irritable reaching after fact & reason" (I, 193) but simply curiosity in the presence of a pictorial scene on a vase. The same curiosity is true for the questions in the fourth stanza. Certainly in this poem, as perhaps in no other, "the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration" (I, 194), at least for the space of the poem. The poet allows himself to be projected into the urn and what it has to say through its existence as a work of art that is "a friend to man." Still, the irony is present; although there is an empathic sharing between the poet and the urn, they remain two separate entities.

Because the "Ode on a Grecian Urn" has undercurrents of questionings along with some acceptances, it truly fits into Keats's myth of the poet, indicating something of the religious nature of the myth or the substitution of myth in his poetry for traditional religious beliefs. As noted in the first chapter, there was a tendency in Romantic poetry to assume a religious function, and the urn takes its place as a part of Keats's credo, just as the soul-making letter does. As Bate points out, "This commitment to remain honest to human reactions—to explore the heart with its questionings and doubts—sustains the second voice that interplays with that of the odal hymn; and it is one of the several considerations we forget when we concentrate on the two closing lines of the poem… . "29

In an urn, the poet finds a microcosm of humanity, captured for all time in frozen attitudes. In this microcosm the poet discovers "a portrayal of a tiny portion of the verities of the ages which it is art's business to perceive, interpret, and preserve."30 The paradox of the "unravish'd bride of quietness" is prefigurative of the paradoxes throughout the poem and suggestive of the nature of human existence as a whole. The urn is captured in a moment of readiness to give itself, as a bride is ready to give herself to her husband and as the lovers pictured on the urn are shown just at the height of ecstasy about to be enjoyed. The "unravishing" of the urn may refer to the message it has to convey; perhaps no one yet has accurately understood what the urn has to offer. It is quiet because it literally cannot speak; indeed, works of art are created with the hope that there will be someone who will bring them to fruition by a "greeting of the Spirit which will … make them wholly exist" (I, 243). As a "sylvan historian," the urn is able to give man what straightforward narrative history cannot always provide: "the validity of myth—not myth as a pretty but irrelevant make-belief [sic], an idle fancy, but myth as a valid perception into reality."31 Also, in the first stanza there is the paradox of frozen movement; the figures on the urn are caught in the midst of an activity which will never be completed but which can be studied precisely because it is arrested for the mind and eye to take in.

Stanza two develops the paradox, this time that "Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard / Are sweeter." There is a suggestion of this same idea in a December 1818 letter to the George Keatses, when Keats is speaking of their separation and believes "That will be one of the grandeurs of immortality—there will be no space and consequently the only commerce between spirits will be by their intelligence of each other—when they will completely understand each other—while we in this world merely comp[r]ehend each other in different degrees—the higher the degree of good so higher is our Love and friendship" (II, 5). Perhaps this is the kind of unheard melodies the poet writes of in the poem, those which the imagination can treasure up from its experience and can recreate to produce something entirely new. The musical sound of the pipes is not necessary for the poet's appreciation of the urn, just as the physical presence of his brother and sister-in-law is not required for their feeling of family closeness. The lines also suggest those previously quoted from Endymion, that the "seats unscalable" can be mounted "by ethereal things" such as the "ditties of no tone" in the urn and can make possible the "sphery sessions" which open the possibility of seeing beyond man's mortality. The artist can be enabled to achieve a vision of Higher Innocence even though he must return to the mortal world. But the urn, because of its content, like that of a poem, can "tease us out of thought" (V) by calling the imagination into play. The imagined tunes which are heard coming from the "pipes and timbrels" (I) have no jarring notes and can be perfect to the hearing as it would be impossible for the real music to be.

Yet there is in the next lines a note of irony along with the appreciation:

Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave
Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;
Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal—yet, do not grieve;
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!

There has been a concern with the transcience of life and its processes since the earliest of Keats's poetry; the "Hymn to Pan" in Endymion is an example. In the "Ode on a Grecian Urn" the processes of life leading to death are assumed, but they exist in a negative form of not coming to fruition. For Keats, lacking the intensity of the physical would have been a tragic state although he longed at the same time for the ideal. Indeed, Charles Patterson argues that passion and permanence occur throughout the poem and that the poet never indicates directly that permanence is better than passion but balances the two rather consistently.32 The reader is tempted to accept the view that there is no question about the superiority of the vision of art over real life until the end of the poem.

Stanza three carries out the same kind of imagery in the boughs of trees "that cannot shed / Your leaves," the "piping songs for ever new," and the "happy love! / For ever panting, and for ever young." Human passion does cloy: the instances in Keats's poetry when it does not occur usually in the union of a mortal and an immortal or two immortals. But the artist who creates an object which is man's friend must first realize and experience the "breathing human passion" that "leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloy'd / A burning forehead and a parching tongue." Part of the nature of being human is this kind of experience. Even Apollo in Hyperion had to become fully human before he could become a god. And for Keats the experience of love was one of the heights of human experience. The world of art can paradoxically portray the experience, but in the urn it is in its perfect form from which it will never change. Yet, is there something of a sorrowful tone here? Although the experience is painful, man's life would be the poorer for having missed it. Keats had said that "Wisdom is sorrow," and perhaps an ideal existence would not allow the experiences which constitute the "vale of soul-Making."

Stanza four continues the note of sadness introduced in the previous lines, making it more explicit than it was previously. The figures on the urn are going to a sacrifice of some kind; there is a priest leading a heifer, and the town is empty because everyone has gone to the festival. In ordinary life there would be no necessary sadness in the procession away from the town, but when the desolation becomes eternal, a sadness of tone enters:

And, little town, thy streets for evermore
Will silent be; and not a soul to tell
Why thou art desolate, can e'er return.

The tone is more poignant than that of the second stanza. If art is permanent, then there will never be a chance of explanation of why the town is emptied forever. In miniature, the post sees the desolation through which human beings must pass as they leave their Innocence and enter the world of Experience. One critic has suggested that the people going to the sacrifice are "dynamically static figures … frozen between heaven and earth in a mythic journey of life."33 It is not possible for them to complete the journey even though man can learn from having their various attitudes caught for him in the shape of the urn. There is a sense of reality in the procession, representing "the intrusion of disenchantment, another breath of reality blowing against the dream… . "34 The urn is beautiful, but it speaks of and to the sadness of the mortal condition.

Thus in the last stanza the poet finally describes the figures as a "brede / Of marble men and maidens overwrought," instead of stressing the ecstasy and the pleasure present in the first stanza. The urn is once again addressed as a "silent form"; it has been silent all through the poem, but the poet has caused the reader to feel that the urn is speaking to him. Its scenes in the last stanza "tease us out of thought / As doth eternity." At the beginning of the poem the viewer, with the poet, is ready to accept the urn as the perfection of beauty. By the end of the poem, however, the poet has allowed his thought to intrude upon his empathic response to beauty. That is why, perhaps, the urn is addressed as a "Cold Pastoral!" in the last stanza. The love here is not described as "For ever warm and still to be enjoy'd"; instead, one has the feeling that the poet is remembering the possibility of joy available to man and feeling the lack of warmth in the urn as an art object. It still remains, however, "in midst of other woe / Than ours, a friend to man"—fulfilling one of the functions of art:

Life, alas! is not as we would have it; but it ought to be, and, with the aid of the Grecian urn, can be felt for a moment to be: imagination, concentrating on the beauty of the urn and ignoring the discordant and indocile facts, attains a higher reality, compared with which actual life seems thin and unreal… . it remains there, a permanent incitement to warm imaginings of an ideal life, a purely beautiful reality.35

The last two lines of the poem have occasioned probably more discussion than any other two lines of English poetry:

When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say'st,
'Beauty is truth, truth beauty,'—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

The problem seems partly to stem from bibliographical details: there is no holograph manuscript form of the poem, and the transcripts surviving have differing marks of punctuation.36 The other difficulty is in deciding precisely who speaks which part of the lines. There seem to be three possibilities: the urn speaks the "Beauty is truth …" and the poet the rest, addressed to man; the urn speaks all of it, addressed to man; and the urn the first part, then the poet the second, addressed to the urn. Each of the three possibilities can be absorbed into the purposes of this study, because each indicates something about the nature of human experience and art and the relationship of these two.

Earl Wasserman holds the first interpretation, suggesting that the poet has gradually come into the poem as poet and that the demonstrative pronoun that refers to the entire clause containing the "Beauty is truth" statement. According to him, the poet is saying that man's most important knowledge is that there is something which can go beyond his mortal world; in this poem it happens to be a Grecian urn which remains as a friend:

Only this meaning can be consistent with the dramatic action of the poem, for it not only does not deny that in the world beauty is not truth, but also assimilates that fact into a greater verity. The sum of earthly wisdom is that in this world of pain and decay … art remains, immutable in its essence… .37

Bate is representative of those who believe the last two lines are to be read as the word of the urn to man. He bases his contention on bibliographical evidence and the fact that Keats in his letters and other writings does not often baldly equate abstractions such as beauty and truth:

Aloof from the brevity and sharp claims of human life, the urn is not only freer but also more limited: freer to advance the message it does in a way that no human being could confidently do, and yet, as a work of art, limited to the realm in which its message applies. The message is like itself: "teasing," perpetually available for certain valuable human experiences, and altogether oblivious of others… . But it is not all that man knows or needs to know… .38

A third possibility is that the poet speaks the last lines but addresses them to the urn.39 The urn, perfect though it is, "is lacking in the warmth of reality."40 In the realm of the ideal, perhaps the statement "Beauty is truth, truth beauty" is all that it is necessary to know, but for man it is not. The readings of Wasserman and Bate would accord with this idea even though they identify the speakers differently.

Others have offered varying interpretations of the lines: " … beauty is the truth of things here in this world; beauty lies in the phenomenon itself, not in the counterfeit representation of it in art alone".41 Truth can also be read as "reality"42 in this poem, "total reality properly understood … and the true significance of things in our world and in the ideal one… . "43

Nearly all interpretations point toward one idea: art can offer man some kind of hope and knowledge beyond his physical world, even though his own mortality is limited. Art can be a friend to man, as Keats said that it should be, and that is one message of the Grecian urn. In fact, the poem can be read as a kind of move in miniature from Innocence through Experience and into a fleeting glimpse of a Reorganized Innocence which the world of art provides. There is a comfort to be offered to man, if he will but take it. Essentially, the movement of the poet within the poem is in this way: he begins with pure admiration, begins to question by implication that the urn is perfect in form but lacks human warmth, and ends by realizing that the urn can be a comforting force by its beauty and its calm while human life goes on as it always has. Art offers the possibility of reconciling our humanity and its imperfections with the ideal world "beyond the bourn of care."

"Ode on Melancholy"

The "Ode on Melancholy" takes a form unusual for Keats, in which he directly addresses an unknown listener to the lyric, but its subject matter is in a long tradition well-known to him through Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy. However, instead of regarding melancholy as a disease which should be treated and cured, Keats takes a different approach: savor the melancholy, he suggests, by entering into it and enjoying it as much as possible. In writing a poem about melancholy, Keats is also embodying a principle of his mythic concept of the poet, that the writer sensitive enough to write good poetry is the one most likely to be aware of the nature of sorrow and joy. As he does in the other odes, Keats turns to moments that by their nature cannot last and yet must be captured in order to be understood.

A reader unfamiliar with the poem would recognize the subject in the first stanza only from the title, because the word "melancholy" does not appear there. He would simply know that he is being exhorted not to do certain things: not to look for forgetfulness, not to seek out poisons, not to let death emblems be symbolic of his soul, and not to let the "downy owl" be "A partner in your sorrow's mysteries." All of these are suggestive as symbols of sadness and perhaps death. The last two lines of the stanza introduce the paradoxes that are maintained throughout the poem: "For shade to shade will come too drowsily, / And drown the wakeful anguish of the soul."

Now it is apparent that the poet is going to celebrate some of the characteristics of melancholy rather than to treat it in the conventional manner as something undesirable. Sleep and waking are contrasted here. Whereas sleep has been regarded in poems such as "Sleep and Poetry" and "To Sleep" as beneficial, in this ode the importance of being "wakeful" is stressed, even in the midst of pain and sorrow, the "anguish of the soul." The true poet can know the real nature of anguish only if he remains awake to participate in it. The poet sees two possibilities in the state of melancholy; he can either dull his awareness of the state by resort to a pain-killer or make it a part of his heightened sensitivity stimulated by the experience of melancholy. As a poet, he chooses the second approach and advises his listener to do the same in order to have a completely full human experience.

Stanza two gives specific suggestions of the procedure to follow in order to prolong this "wakeful anguish of the soul." The poet describes the "melancholy fit" as coming

Sudden from heaven like a weeping cloud
That fosters the droop-headed flowers all,
And hides the green hill in an April shroud.

The imagery in these lines, like that in the last stanza, is suggestive of the letter he wrote in March of 1819:

This is the world—thus we cannot expect to give way many hours to pleasure—Circumstances are like Clouds continually gathering and bursting—While we are laughing the seed of some trouble is put into … the wide arable land of events—while we are laughing it sprouts is [sic] grows and suddenly bears a poison fruit which we must pluck. (II, 79)

In a world like this, human beings can expect a "melancholy fit" often.

Critics note the use of phrases like "April shroud," in which the paradox of the poem is contained in a few words. The rain brings life, but the very act of bringing life means that death will follow as part of the normal process.44 As with the other odes, the items which the poet chooses for his catalogue all come from the realm of the transient: the listener is urged to "glut" his "sorrow" on a "morning rose," the "rainbow of the salt sand-wave," "the wealth of globed peonies," and the "rich anger" of his mistress. The last-mentioned phrase is reminiscent of one from the letters: "Gorge the honey of life. I pity you as much that it cannot last for ever, as I do myself now drinking bitters" (I, 370).

The third stanza brings the paradox to fruition in the alignment and union of Beauty, Joy, and Melancholy. Once again, each item enumerated is short-lived:

She dwells with Beauty—Beauty that must die;
And Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips
Bidding adieu; and aching Pleasure nigh,
Turning to Poison while the bee-mouth sips:
Ay, in the very temple of Delight
Veil'd Melancholy has her sovran shrine,
Though seen of none save him whose strenuous tongue
Can burst Joy's grape against his palate fine;
His soul shall taste the sadness of her might
And be among her cloudy trophies hung.

The appreciation of things which must be lost is deepened by the very sense of loss, as Keats was to write to Rice in 1820: "How astonishingly does the chance of leaving the world impress a sense of its natural beauties on us" (II, 260). Joy seems always to be in the process of leaving, and pleasure is described paradoxically as "aching Pleasure," emphasizing the idea that the very knowledge of brevity makes experiences more full of joy. One critic has seen this ode as the completion of the nightingale and the urn odes, because it "explores the thought that not only are joy and sorrow inextricable, but the deepest joys also hold the deepest sorrows."45 Thus, only those who have extreme sensitivity, like the poet, will ever find it possible to understand what melancholy really is. And note that finding melancholy is an active process; the sensitive person must have a "strenuous tongue" in order to "burst Joy's grape against his palate fine." Only this kind of man can enter empathically into the life around him. These images underline the importance of the physical world to Keats and his binding to the earth. But, as always, his concrete images lead away from themselves, teasing us out of thought as did the Grecian urn:

Joy's grape—the sour-sweet fruit—is the final taste of life and the conclusive image of the odes: a poignant beauty achieved through a palpable act of possession, in which taste and touch, the most intimate of the means of sensuous discovery, unite in the final conquest. Yet at this moment of symbolic achievement the flush of exultation chills, and the poet finds himself face to face with a mysterious veiled figure waiting at the center of his experience. Like the young Apollo at Mnemosyne's approach, he does not recognize her at first; he knows only that there is "purport in her looks for him," of a revelation still to come, some final experience of her might. And so the odes, like the month which produced them, end on a note of troubled foreboding.46

There is in the last stanza an implicit assumption that beauty and truth are involved with one another through the imagination. Beauty is seen most intensely through sadness; wisdom emerges from suffering, and in this process man comes to truth. A part of wisdom is the knowledge of the "impossibility of keeping joy and pain distinct in the imaginative man… . "47 Thus is introduced a theme that is carried out in The Fall of Hyperion.

"Ode on Indolence"

The "Ode on Indolence," generally regarded as being the last composed of the group of odes and the least important from a literary and critical standpoint, describes a mood which Keats has mentioned in his letters from the beginning of those which survive.48 This mood ranged in Keats's life from a "sterile and unhappy torpor" to a "passive, sensuous receptivity"49 which nourished his creativity. In fact, a letter in March of 1819 contains the seed of the ode written some months later: "Neither Poetry, nor Ambition, nor Love have any alertness of countenance as they pass by me: they seem rather like three figures on a greek vase—a Man and two women—whom no one but myself could distinguish in their disguisement. This is the only happiness; and is a rare instance of advantage in the body overpowering the Mind" (II, 79).

The poem in essence describes a desire to escape by means of an indolence in which

Ripe was the drowsy hour;
The blissful cloud of summer-indolence
Benumb'd my eyes; my pulse grew less and less;
Pain had no sting, and pleasure's wreath no flower.

The indolence spoken of here is almost a kind of sleep or death; it becomes a "soft embalmer," which is capable of closing "the hushed Casket of my Soul" ("To Sleep"). The poet, in fact, does wonder why the figures did not go away and leave him "Unhaunted quite of all but—nothingness" (II). He is in such a state of indolence that he does not recognize the three figures until they have passed by for the third time, when he recognizes them as Love, Ambition, and his "demon Poesy" (IV).

The tone of stanzas five and six changes from that of the previous ones, which emphasize by their language a kind of languor and lack of interest and care. In the final stanzas the poet's torpor has been invaded by the figures, who intrude upon his consciousness and force him to recognize them. His recognition is bitter, for he finds no pleasure in any of the three:

O folly! What is love! and where is it?
And for that poor Ambition! it springs
From a man's little heart's short fever-fit
For Poesy!—no,—she has not a joy,—
At least for me,—so sweet as drowsy noons,
And evenings steep'd in honied indolence;
O, for an age so shelter'd from annoy,
That I may never know how change the moons,
Or hear the voice of busy common-sense!

It is as though Keats wants to escape into the kind of world he created in his innocent view of life in Endymion, but the difference is that here he knows that he cannot re-enter the imaginary world forever but will have to return and take up his life where he left it. Poesy has no appeal for him in this state because it means hard work, facing the "strife / Of human hearts ("Sleep and Poetry" 124-25), which he would rather forget at this time.

This ode has less to do specifically with Keats's mythopoeia than any of the others and has its main interest for the reader in biographical material: "The interest of the poem lies in the unexpected confessions that emerge in the last two stanzas. What had started as a mere rendering of a mood of passivity begins to betray a divided attitude crossed by inconsistent attempts at self-persuasion."50

The summer months following the rapid completion of the odes were another time of lying fallow for Keats. He wrote in July to Reynolds, "I have of late been moulting: not for fresh feathers & wings: they are gone, and in their stead I hope to have a pair of patient sublunary legs. I have altered, not from a Chrysalis into a butterfly, but the Contrary, having two little loopholes, whence I may look out into the stage of the world …" (II, 128). It was difficult for him to write when he felt the pull and distraction of financial worries. He even wrote to his sister that he might "be forced to take a voyage or two" (II, 111) in order to earn money as a ship's surgeon. However, he was able to write to Sarah Jeffrey with some determination, "My brother George always stood between me and any dealings with the world—Now I find I must buffet it—I must choose between despair & Energy—I choose the latter—though the world has taken on a quakerish look with me, which I once thought was impossible—" (II, 113). By August he could write to Benjamin Bailey, "I am convinced more and more every day that (excepting the human friend Philosopher) a fine writer is the most genuine Being in the World—Shakespeare and the paradise Lost every day become greater wonders to me—I look upon fine Phrases like a Lover" (II, 139).

During these months Keats was writing "Lamia" and beginning to recast Hyperion. In addition he collaborated with Charles Brown on the writing of Otho the Great, which they hoped to see produced with Edmund Kean as the principal actor, in order to provide some financial relief.

"Lamia "

"Lamia" seems to have pleased Keats, perhaps because he hoped it would please the public: "… I am certain there is that sort of fire in it which must take hold of people in some way—give them either pleasant or unpleasant sensation. What they want is sensation of some sort" (II, 189). His judgment seemed satisfied, because the poem occupies the first place in the Poems of 1820; of "Isabella" he had written to Woodhouse that it had "too much inexperience of live [sic], and simplicity of knowledge in it," but he felt "there is no objection of this kind to Lamia" (II, 174).

However, many readers have not been entirely satisfied with the poem, although they have been given "either pleasant or unpleasant sensation." One difficulty is that critics cannot agree on a single interpretation of the poem. Some, such as John Roberts,51 have seized on the lines from Part II as embodying the entire meaning of the poem.

Do not all charms fly
At the mere touch of cold philosophy?
There was an awful rainbow once in heaven:
We know her woof, her texture; she is given
In the dull catalogue of common things,
Philosophy will clip an Angel's wings,

Others, represented by Middleton Murry, have leaned toward an entirely biographical interpretation, seeing Lamia as Fanny Brawne and Lycius as Keats.52 Finney reads the two halves of the poem as separate pieces.53 Each seems to pursue his own argument.

It is true that on first reading the poem may seem to be something of a misfit in the Keatsian canon. The tone is different in that there is the element of the satirical, which Keats used in a sustained fashion only in the unfinished "Cap and Bells." His attitude has even been called one of "defiant egotism."54 The use of myth, too, is different because it is "brisk, objective, detached" and has "at least some elements of the comic"55 instead of his earlier projection of self into the creatures of mythology, such as Pan in Endymion and Thea in Hyperion.

However, a close study of the poem reveals its essential kinship with others of the major poems, although the technique may differ from most and the resolution of the poem does not have the same kind of reconciliation that may be found in poems such as the "Ode on a Grecian Urn." "Lamia" does move close to the themes of The Fall, which was to follow, although it remains fragmentary and "Lamia" is a finished poem. "Lamia" may be said, like the "Ode to a Nightingale," to represent the questioning side of Keats's myth of the poet. There is a bitterness of tone in parts of the poem, yet there still remains the idea that Lycius would have been the poorer without his experience with Lamia, even though he eventually dies as a result of it.

This poem is concerned primarily with the imagination but is written in a dramatic narrative style which tempts readers to assume that various parts can contain the full meaning of the whole poem. However, dramatic statements must be considered in their contexts before one comes to any kind of conclusion as to their meanings. The imagination in this poem has gone "beyond its proper bound" ("To J. H. R.," 79), and the poem demonstrates some of the results of this kind of journeying of the imagination. One treatment that sets this poem apart from the others which deal with the imagination, as the odes do, is that the reader sees imagination and reality in two different lights which seem contradictory. The imagination in Keats's myth is supposed to tell man something of himself; in this poem the imagination is divorced from the real world and remains entirely visionary, although Lamia does try ironically to enter the real world by sending her spirit out into it. But Lycius wants the entirely imaginary world, and to him reality is harsh and cold. Yet it must be recognized that it is the reality which prevails at the end when Lamia and Lycius die and Apollonius, the sage and philosopher, lives.

If Lycius represents in any way the poet, he does so as an example of what the poet should not be. He tries to escape Experience through imaginary means rather than to use the imagination to transcend the human condition, as it does in the "Ode on a Grecian Urn." It is important to note that Lycius has remained aloof from the world before the lamia appears to him; he is usually alone: "Over the solitary hills he fared" (I. 233), and Lamia sees him as "he pass'd, shut up in mysteries, / His mind wrapped like his mantle" (I. 241-42). It is he who responds to her, as the knight responded to La Belle Dame. The only knowledge which he has obtained up to this point has come from Apollonius, his teacher, who can be said to represent human experience only in one aspect. Consequently, after Lycius removes himself even further from reality by retreating into the enchanted palace with Lamia, his return to the real world, the move into Experience, kills him rather than leading to a Higher Innocence. His imagination does not function as it should; he allows himself to remain too long "beyond the bourn of care, / Beyond the sweet and bitter world,—beyond it unaware!" ("Lines Written in the Highlands," 28-29). He has lost "the sight of well remember'd face" ("Lines," 33), and when reality is thrust upon him in the shape of Apollonius, it is too late for him to adjust. Thus, "Lamia" takes its place in the myth of the poet by expressing negatively the meaning of the poet, the imagination, the identity, and love.

Part I of the poem begins with a pairing of two immortals, Hermes and a nymph. However, the treatment of the figures gives a light tone to the opening section of the poem, which differs from the bitterness which is noticeable in much of the rest of the poem. The description of Hermes is humorous; he is "ever-smitten: (I. 7), "bent warm on amorous theft" (I. 8), burning with "a celestial heat / … from his winged heels to either ear" (I. 22-23), and is "full of painful jealousies / Of the Wood-Gods, and even the very trees" (I. 33-34). He appears to be a love-sick young boy in search of a nymph, reminiscent of the whitehanded nymph of the early poems. There is even some "cheerful mockery."56 The whole of the relationship between Hermes and the nymph is one of a sensuous, physical nature. When the long-hidden nymph is made to appear by the magic of Lamia, authorial comment informs the reader that

It was no dream; or say a dream it was,
Real are the dreams of Gods, and smoothly pass
Their pleasures in a long immortal dream.
(I. 126-28)

These lines suggest a foreboding of what is to happen in the remainder of the poem. The gods can afford to live in a dream-world, where every dream becomes truth; human beings in their limited mortal condition must be satisfied with considerably less, and when they give themselves up to this dream-world and refuse to leave it, tragedy can be the only outcome.

If the dream is to survive, as it did with Madeline and Porphyro, it must be as a result of commitment to each other rather than to a desire to live in a dreamworld. Recall that the mortal lovers, Madeline and Porphyro, left the castle and went out into the storm. Hermes and his lover, however, at the close of the first section enter into their eternal relationship:

But the God fostering her chilled hand,
She felt the warmth, her eyelids open'd bland,

And, like new flowers at morning song of bees,
Bloom'd and gave up her honey to the lees.
Into the green-recessed woods they flew;
Nor grew they pale, as mortal lovers do.
(I. 140-45)

All the imagery suggests physical fulfillment without cloying: the warmth of blood pulsing through veins and giving up "honey to the less," like emptying the cup of pleasure. The immortal lovers disappear into the green woods, suggestive of verdure and life unending. They never grow pale as did the knight after his encounter with La Belle Dame or as the lovers on the Grecian urn would have done had they consummated their love.

It is perhaps because of the mingling of the humorous and the serious in the opening section that many have seen no relationship of it to the rest of the poem. Wasserman suggests that the first section might have been "a guess at heaven," with the rest meant to be "the perceptible reality seen from the perspective of that guess."57 There are certainly parallels and contrasts, whether or not they are as strong as they could be. Edward Norris is surely wrong when he describes Hermes as the representative of Keats's "more ambitious side—the seeker after knowledge."58 There is nothing ambitious about Hermes except his determination to satisfy his physical needs. He is not concerned with the meaning of his experiences. It is enough for him to satisfy the senses without having to interpret, for he never has to return to the mortal world.

Lamia, however, is a complex creature. Keats would have known her story from Burton's Anatomy, and the Hermes episode is an addition to his sources. Keats makes Lamia into a sympathetic character, although she is an illusion and remains one. From her first appearance, when she asks the help of Hermes to make her into a woman, the reader learns that she is "touch'd with miseries" (I. 54) and that physically she is a combination of snake and woman:

Her head was serpent, but ah, bitter-sweet!
She had a woman's mouth with all its pearls complete:
And for her eyes: what could such eyes do there
But weep, and weep, that they were born so fair?

… . .

Her throat was serpent, but the words she spake
Came, as through bubbling honey, for Love's sake,
(I. 59-65)

She is compassionate; it is Lamia who has made the nymph invisible to keep her pursuers from her. Her transformation is painful: "She writh'd about, convuls'd with scarlet pain" (I. 154).

Also, from the beginning, Lamia must be seen as a paradoxical character. Indeed, all three of the major characters must be recognized as paradoxical, for not one of them is to be approved in every way.59 Their natures may be the result of the fact that Keats, through the poem, "looked at life, and not merely at the limited area of his own life, as a whole, with all its essential contradictions."60

Although Lamia is a beautiful woman, the reader must keep in mind that she is still basically a serpent in disguise and that she combines opposites within herself by being

A virgin purest lipp'd, yet in the lore
Of love deep learned to the red heart's core:
Not one hour old, yet of sciential brain
To unperplex bliss from its neighbour pain;
(I. 189-92)

The last line should lead a reader familiar with Keats's other work to suspect her. It is always one of the functions of the genuine imagination and the true poet to see the union of contraries, to experience pain and bliss together, not to try to separate them from one another. Thus Lamia can offer only the pleasant by her magic powers; she is able to divide two things which must go together in completely meaningful human experience. Part of the loss of Innocence is the recognition that pleasure and pain both exist. An attempt to recover Innocence without concomitant experience and pain is doomed to failure. Lamia, therefore, can never be human, even though she might desire to be.

This desire of Lamia to be human is tragically ironical, for it is her non-human powers that Lycius actually loves, through all the trappings which she provides for their physical pleasures by her magic abilities. The reader is told that Lamia before her transformation, was able, like Shelley's Witch of Atlas, to send her spirit abroad to populated places: "And sometimes into cities she would send / Her dream, with feast and rioting to blend" (I. 213-14). In fact, it is during one of these journeys that she has fallen in love with Lycius.

Lycius, on the other hand, has given most of his life to study. He has not been a devotee of the senses. Lamia says, '"Thou art a scholar, Lycius" (I. 279) and suggests that his attitude toward life cannot provide '"serener palaces, / 'Where I may all my senses please'" (I. 283-84). But once Lycius turns to the senses, his dedication is complete. He is then described as "from one trance … wakening / Into another" (I. 296-97) and is enthralled by the magic at once. He is not even aware of being transported from one place to another; he is "blinded Lycius" (I. 347) and so remains until his death. As long as he is content to remain in his blinded state, the dream-world can survive, but once he tries to force reality into the mold of his illusion, his chances for life as a whole human being are banished.

By the conclusion of Part I, Apollonius has been introduced. At his first appearance, Lycius draws close to Lamia, as though for protection, and tells her that Apollonius has been '"my trusty guide / 'And good instructor; but tonight he seems / 'The ghost of folly haunting my sweet dreams'" (I. 375-77). The foreboding of ill appears here; it is as though Lycius knows but does not want to admit that Apollonius may be able to see through the illusion that Lamia is creating. He does not want anything to intrude on his happiness, just as the poet in the "Ode on Indolence" does not want to "hear the voice of busy common-sense" Apollonius can be seen as a part of Lycius himself, that is, his rational aspect, which works beautifully in the ordinary world of human experience, but which may act as a block to the visionary imagination.

When Lycius enters the palace which Lamia has erected through conjuration, he fully accepts the illusion. For a time they are satisfied, having drunk the "pure wine / Of happiness" (Endymion III. 801-02). Each evening they recline on a couch

Where use had made it sweet, with eyelids closed,
Saving a tythe which love still open kept,
That they might see each other while they almost slept;
(ll. 23-25)

Theirs approaches the immortality of passion of Hermes and the nymph, Venus and Adonis, and Cupid and Psyche in the "Ode to Psyche":

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….
("Psyche" II)

Yet, "For all this came a ruin" (ll. 16). Love himself is jealous of their seeming completeness of happiness. Lycius is recalled to the human world of Corinth by "a thrill / Of trumpets (ll. 27-28). Then, in a parallel to the first book, it is the spirit of Lycius instead of Lamia that "pass'd beyond its golden bourn / Into the noisy world almost forsworn" (ll. 32-33). From this point in Book II, Lycius is not content to accept Lamia on her own terms; rather, he feels impelled "to reclaim / Her wild and timid nature to his aim" (ll. 70-71). He begins to ask mortal questions which are out of the realm to which Lamia belongs:

'How to entangle, trammel up and snare
'Your soul in mine, and labyrinth you there
'Like the hid scent in an unbudded rose?'
(ll. 52-54)

He wants to have Lamia on mortal terms rather than her own and proposes a wedding feast in order to exhibit her and thus to arouse the jealousy of his friends. Perhaps his desire is a reflection of untold parts of the story. Because Lycius has been a solitary figure, he probably has not been a part of the society of Corinth. Now he has a chance to enter that society with a great flash.

The dream now begins to fade. Lamia agrees to submit to the wedding festivities even though she probably senses that something evil will come from it, requiring only that Lycius not invite Apollonius to the feast. For the first time she shrinks from Lycius, an indication perhaps of her realization that their dream will not be able to survive the harsh reality of the world. Nevertheless, she bids her "viewless servants" (ll. 136) to make the splendid palace ready for the celebration.

Here the author comments as narrator:

O senseless Lycius! Madman! Wherefore flout
The silent-blessing fate, warm cloister'd hours,
And show to common eyes these secret bowers?
The herd approach'd; each guest, with busy brain,
Arriving at the portal, gaz'd amain,
And enter'd marveling; for they knew the street….

… . .

Save one, who look'd thereon with eye severe,
And with calm-planted steps walk'd in austere;
'Twas Apollonius: something too he laugh'd,
As though some knotty problem, that had daft
His patient thought, had now begun to thaw,
And solve and melt:—'twas just as he foresaw.
(ll. 147-62)

The attitude of Lycius toward the people is one of scorn, indicated by the words "herd" and "busy brain." These are men of no imagination; they are trying to remember why it is that the street is familiar to them although they cannot remember the house. Apollonius, on the other hand, acts as though he finally understands the implications of the earlier behavior of Lycius in passing him by. If he has taught his pupil to use his mind, to forego the use of the imagination, then he would be displeased at this evidence that Lycius is not heeding all that he has been taught as a pupil of Apollonius. The philosopher acts as he must in the light of his training: '"yet must I do this wrong, / 'And you forgive me'" (ll. 168-69).

After a description of the festivities, the narrator begins a lament for Lamia and Lycius, in lines which have caused a great deal of comment:

Do not all charms fly
At the mere touch of cold philosophy?
There was an awful rainbow once in heaven:
We know her woof, her texture; she is given
In the dull catalogue of common things.
Philosophy will clip an Angel's wings,
Conquer all mysteries by rule and line,
Empty the haunted air, and gnomed mine—
Unweave a rainbow, as it erewhile made
The tender-person'd Lamia melt into a shade.
(ll. 229-38)

These lines must not, however, as some have read them, be forced to bear the entire meaning of the whole poem. Instead, they represent extreme views of both the imagination and philosophy. They indicate a misuse of the two forces, which should be complementary to one another. It is not necessary to accept M. H. Abrams' judgment that "Keats accedes to the fallacy … that, when a perceptual phenomenon is explained by correlating it with something more elementary than itself, the explanation discredits and replaces the perception—that only the explanation is real, and the perception illusory."61 His statement must be weighed against the context of the poem and Keats's comments in his mature letters, such as his reference to "the human friend philosopher" (II, 139). The difficulty in the modern world is one which Keats sensed in writing these lines and one which is implied in Abrams' comment: science sometimes would make the poet seem to have to reject the imagination, but he is not required to do so. In fact, Philip Freund has made it a point to demonstrate in his last chapter that science has its own mythology.62

A philosopher who knows nothing of dreams would want to "Conquer all mysteries by rule and line"; a dreamer who refuses to accept anything from philosophy and science would desire to accept the "awful rainbow" without understanding what makes it up. A healthy imagination could absorb both, but Lycius and Apollonius do not represent either the healthy philosopher or the healthy poet. Rather, Lycius is a dreamer, whom Keats condemns bitterly in The Fall of Hyperion, and Apollonius is "the dull brain that perplexes and retards" ("Ode to a Nightingale") and refuses to accept any part of the fancy or the imagination.

When Apollonius fixes his eye "without a twinkle or stir / Full on the alarmed beauty of the bride" (ll. 246-47), Lamia dies. Ironically, it is Lycius who cries, '"Begone, foul dream!'" (ll. 271) as he realizes what is happening. His is the cry of "the bewildered indignation of the disappointed romanticist, who has learned nothing from his experience except perhaps to despise it."63 Lycius cannot realize that he has been a dreamer rather than a poet. The reader must remember, however, that the description of Apollonius given by Lycius occurs after Lamia's death and that his view does not necessarily reflect that of the poet or narrator:

'Shut, shut those juggling eyes, thou ruthless man!
'Turn them aside, wretch!

… . .

'Corinthians! look upon that grey-beard wretch!
'Mark how, possess'd, his lashless eyelids stretch
'Around his demon eyes!'
(ll. 277-89)

Lycius is striking out at the man who has deprived him of his happiness and his dream. His sustenance taken from him, Lycius dies, unfit to live in the mortal world again. Yet, the reader is likely to feel with Bloom that "if death awaited Lycius in Lamia's folds, it would have been a death better worth the dying, and better worth the poet's imaginings."64

"Lamia" has threads of themes from other poems, especially the concern with the nature of the poet. Lycius represents a negative value and misplacement of the imagination. He is committed to a delusion rather than a vision, and thus his path can lead only to unhappiness and destruction. The poet must concern himself with humanity in order "to bring us sustaining visions of a beauty often lacking in our lives… . "65 The evidence of "Lamia" is the evidence of a false move through Experience and a deluded attempt to believe that a Higher Innocence has been reached when, in fact, it is not Innocence at all but an evasion of life. One critic has suggested that the evil in Lamia is that she, by the use of her powers, has taken Lycius away from the mortal world which must sustain a man on his journey through life.66 Douglas Bush's comments are a useful summary of attitudes toward the poem:

Since most of Keats's chief poems are concerned with the nature of poetry and the poet, we may assume that Lycius represents not merely a lover but a poet, although a projection of only one part, and not the strongest part, of Keats himself. Like Endymion, Lycius is captured by what he takes to be an ideal and immortal love; luxuriating in his bower of bliss, he does not heed either the trumpets of action or the wisdom of philosophy. He is a mortal dreamer who gladly retreats from reality into a world of fantasy. In demanding marriage he is not, as the poet's later ironical comment puts it, profaning secret joys (ll. 146 f.), but is trying to make a dream substantial and lasting. Unlike Endymion, he does not grow into devotion to the real; unlike Apollo, he does not attain comprehension of the world of suffering. Rather, Lycius is—somewhat like Tennyson's innocent Lady of Shalott—a cloistered artist who lives on illusions and is killed by the shock of reality—that is, in "Lamia," by philosophic truth. Yet Apollonius is a coldhearted realist who can only see through everything—a very imperfect symbol of what Keats meant by philosophy. Thus none of the three chief figures represents an ideal; they are all more or less fatally flawed parts of an ideal.67

"To Autumn" and The Fall of Hyperion: A Dream, the last two major poems that Keats was to write, are also the two poems which perhaps more than any other single poems embody Keats's mythopoeia. Each, in its own way, is about the journey of the soul of Everyman from an untested Innocence, through the crucible of Experience, and into a Higher Innocence from which man is able not only to grasp his own experience but to exist with it and prevail. One of the most nearly unique qualities of Keats's major poems is their subject matter. Although Keats often treats the problem of the artist, he is at the same time writing of the human condition. His poetry, therefore, can be read on an aesthetic level, but there is a consistent binding to the earth and an acknowledgement of the poet's kinship with total humanity, not with just those who, like himself, are devoted to art.

"To Autumn"

"To Autumn," which on a surface reading would seem to be a poem of serenity, is on a closer reading quite close to the theme of the first Hyperion, that "a new good is purchased only at the price of the loss of a former good."68 Like the other odes, this one has its parallel in a letter: "I never lik'd stubble fields so much as now—Aye better than the chilly green of the spring. Somehow a stubble plain looks warm—in the same way that some pictures look warm—this struck me so much in my Sunday's walk that I composed upon it" (II, 167). This poem, with the others of Keats's maturity, reflects themes and concerns which have been with him since the beginning, particularly the idea of the processes of nature and of life. In this poem there is a "mature understanding"69 of nature instead of "Nature's gentle doings" ("I Stood Tip-Toe," 63). And, although autumn is personified and arrested in a kind of stasis, it is seen only as a part of the continuing organic process of all life. The stasis can be appreciated only when it is contrasted with the awareness of time's constant movement.70 The season itself "is a boundary, a space between two opposite conditions, a moment of poise when one movement culminates and the succeeding movement has scarcely begun."71

"To Autumn" is also an excellent example of Keats's myth-making, in which what begins as a personification ripens into a sense of beauty, harmony, and mystery at the heart of existence, all captured in a mythic way. In the first stanza autumn is addressed as the "Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, / Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun" which has acted in a conspiracy to bring growing things to a fullness not reached before by spring or summer. Yet even in the beginning, along with the appreciation of the season's ability "to load and bless / With fruit the vines," there is a sense that the fulness will end in decay, in order to begin the processes of life all over again.

Surely the second stanza asserts Keats's kinship with the spirit of the Greeks whose mythology he admired, because it captures their sense of the life projected into their gods:

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap'd furrow sound asleep,
Drows'd with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cyder-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.

Here autumn is seen almost as a goddess who rules over the changing season. Captured by its beauty and plenty, she drowses, in a sense wishing to spare what she knows must come to pass. There is also the implication of a desire on the part of the poet to arrest the season at its peak, as he had wished to prolong his intensified state in the "Ode to a Nightingale." The last line emphasizes the understanding of time as organic process, as autumn watches "the last oozings hours by hours." Always there is the sense that autumn is both the ending and the beginning of something.

The third stanza is touched with poignant beauty:

Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,—
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft!
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

Although there is "a harmony at the heart of things, apparent at no other moment of the year,"72 there is also a sadness in the knowledge of that harmony, which has been won by the labor of Experience. It is only the abandonment of Innocence and the conscious choice to move into the "dark passages" (I, 281) of Experience that can result in a serenity of vision.73 It seems significant that the last stanza closes with images of sound and movement; nothing in the final lines is static.

This short lyric does beautifully what Keats said a poem should do, "surprise by a fine excess and not by Singularity—it should strike the Reader as a wording of his own highest thoughts, and appear almost a Remembrance" (I, 238). "To Autumn" illustrates this principle of poetry for many readers, perhaps because of "the familiar archetypal relevance of the association to our feelings of sequence in our own lives."74 Bate has summarized the major preoccupation of Keats's poetry which are found in the last important lyric that he wrote: the "ideal of energy caught in repose," "the association of expectance, of waiting, with autumn," and "his inability to conceive fulfillment without a spring of promise still implicit within it."75

The Fall of Hyperion: A Dream

The last of Keats's major poems, The Fall of Hyperion: A Dream, unfortunately remains only as a fragment. In attempting to recast the original Hyperion, Keats wrote an entirely different poem. It has been of great interest to students in the twentieth century because it uses the creation of a poem as the subject of a poem. Of course, Keats is in the tradition of Wordsworth and Coleridge in The Prelude and Kubla Khan, a tradition continued in this century by, among others, Wallace Stevens, Archibald MacLeish, and Marianne Moore.

Keats is also concerned with man and his looking at "the self as it tries to come to terms with reality."76 Twentieth-century poets, too, have struggled with the identity of man and artist: Eliot's The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock and Robinson's The Man Against the Sky are example of this theme. As Robert Wagner points out, Keats is both the subject and the writer of his poem.77 In anticipating some of what was to be done in later years, Keats differed from his contemporaries in that he wrote subjective poetry but was able to transfer the meaning sometimes into a more detached and objective form.78 Read in the context of the Romantic tradition, The Fall "must be regarded as one of the major attempts within European romanticism to reconcile the imagination with a realistic and humane awareness of the suffering of mankind."79 Indeed, it can be seen as "very nearly the archetypal Romantic poem" because it contains "the great Romantic theme of the poet relating himself to the content of his own vision."80 Perhaps one of the major interests of the poem for later generations has been the fact that it is within the Romantic tradition but in some ways goes beyond that tradition.

Like the ode "To Autumn," The Fall indicates a kind of Higher Innocence, but the reader is also able to witness within the poem the actual movement from Innocence to Experience and the struggle, symbolized by the poet's climb up the steps, into a Higher Innocence. It is also clear that there is great pain and joy in the movement. Too, there is in the course of the poem the final condemnation of the purely visionary poet. There is in this last poem a fitting resolution, though fragmentary, of the difficulties of being a poet and of the realization that the myth of the poet can be a myth which is true for man. Part of the means of embodying this myth is the concern with vision, dream, and sleep, that have been noted since "Sleep and Poetry" and "Calidore."

From the opening lines of the poem, the reader encounters the concern with dream and vision:

Fanatics have their dreams, wherewith they weave
A paradise for a sect; the savage too
From forth the loftiest fashion of his sleep
Guesses at Heaven …
'But' Poesy alone can tell her dreams,
With the fine spell of words alone can save
Imagination from the sable charm
And dumb enchantment.
(I. 1-11)

Keats seems here to be indicating that dreams occur to all mankind and can be the means of understanding "Heaven." All men must make "Guesses at Heaven"; only the real poet, not the visionary poet, is able to tell the dreams in such a way that they can become like Adam's dream, truth in the real world. Then he states one major theme of the poem:

Whether the dream now purpos'd to rehearse
Be poet's or fanatic's will be known
When this warm scribe my hand is in the grave.
(I. 16-18)

The first person is introduced here; the reader is not to have a kind of impersonal statement but the personal encounter of the "I" found in the "Ode to Psyche" and "Ode to a Nightingale."

Casting the poem in the shape of a dream-vision is of importance, although Keats "writes less a poetry of vision than a poetry about the human need and use of it."81 It is as though he is saying that there must be vision and dream before there can be truth, but the poet who is to speak to man's heart must have more than just a vision or a dream. The poem certainly has kinship with the genre of the dream-vision, which Keats would have known through Chaucer and Dante; the form is especially important in stressing "the difference between everyday reality and the special reality of art" and in suggesting that "the latter can be approached only when the ordinary controls of will and consciousness are relaxed."82 Keats must still feel that a dream can reveal truth.83

The second paragraph of the poem relates the beginning of the vision, in which the poet finds himself in the midst of a lovely, garden-like atmosphere, where he sees

a feast of summer fruits,
Which, nearer seen, seem'd refuse of a meal
By angel tasted or our Mother Eve.
(I. 29-31)

In lines which recall the Nightingale ode, the poet drinks from "a cool vessel of transparent juice" (I. 40). The difference here, however, is that he drinks, "pledging all the mortals of the world, / And all the dead whose names are in our lips" (I. 45-46) and then falls into a deep swoon, which follows "the familiar pattern of a feast, a sleep, and an awakeneing to some new mode of being…. "84

Awakening within the dream which he is telling, the poet sees "the carved sides / Of an old sanctuary with roof august" (I. 61-62), older than anything he can remember having seen upon the earth. The appeal of the sanctuary is perhaps the same kind of appeal which Greek myth had for him: "fresh through all the generations, it comes to him charged with an emotion old beyond memory and yet his own."85

The poet next sees an altar, which is

To be approach'd on either side by steps,
And marble balustrade, and patient travail
To count with toil the innumerable degrees.
(I. 90-92)

Thus the idea of purgation and the imagery from traditional Christianity appears from the beginning.86 The first words that he hears from Moneta, with whom he will have a confrontation shortly, are '"If thou canst not ascend / 'These steps, die on that marble where thou art'" (I. 107-8).

The next lines ring with a similarity to the changing of Apollo in the first Hyperion:

Prodigious seem'd the toil; the leaves were yet
Burning—when suddenly a palsied chill
Struck from the paved level up my limbs,
And was ascending quick to put cold grasp
Upon those streams that pulse beside the throat:
I shriek'd, and the sharp anguish of my shriek
Stung my own ears—I strove hard to escape
The numbness; strove to gain the lowest step.
Slow, heavy, deadly was my pace: the cold
Grew stifling, suffocating, at the heart;
And when I clasp'd my hands I felt them not.
One minute before death, my iced foot touch'd
The lowest stair; and as it touch'd, life seem'd
To pour in at the toes: I mounted up,
As once fair angels flew
From the green turf to Heaven—
(I. 121-36)

As with the first Hyperion, there is a dying into life. The innocent self must die in order for the mature self to take its place. Perkins is correct in assuming that this scene more broadly suggests that the poet moves slowly into an awareness of human predicaments than just in moving back to life from death.87 It is only through moving up the steps that the poet is able to purge himself with a "healing despair" which "is a part of the allegory of life, a process in the making of a soul."88 The poet here raises the eternal question and cry of man endeavoring to find out who he is and what his purpose is: '"What am I that should so be saved from death?'" (I. 138).

The debate between the poet and Moneta which follows has occasioned more critical commentary than any other single part of the poem. Perhaps distinguishing who Moneta is and what she might represent is wise before looking specifically at the words exchanged by the pair. She can be seen as a representation of "the archaic way of thought—imaginative rather than discursive … , undissociated, mythopoeic."89 Therefore, she has a kind of knowledge which has faded from the world and which only the sensibility of the poet is able to intuit and pass on to other human beings. Thus she lives in the most ancient of temples. Images of light and sorrow are associated with her, indicating that she can be "a bringer of truth through conscience, or through sympathy with the suffering which is as old as the world."90 Or perhaps she is "the embodiment of the collective memory of tradition"91 which remains present in her mind as scenes which are perennially available to those sensitive enough to participate in them. One of her functions is to act as a kind of scourge, to enable the poet to see himself as he must be.

Moneta's first speech warns the poet of the dangers of being a visionary who has no ties to the earth or to his fellow human beings:

'Those whom thou spak'st of are no vision'ries,'
Rejoined that voice—'They are no dreamers weak,
'They seek no wonder but the human face;
'No music but a happy-noted voice—
'They come not here, they have no thought to come—
'And thou art here, for thou art less than they—
'What benefit canst thou, or all thy tribe,
'To the great world? Thou art a dreaming thing,
'A fever of thyself—think of the Earth;
'What bliss even in hope is there for thee?
'What haven? every creature hath its home;
'Every sole man hath days of joy and pain,
'Whether his labours be sublime or low—
"The pain alone; the joy alone; distinct:
'Only the dreamer venoms all his days,
'Bearing more woe than all his sins deserve.'
(I. 161-77)

There are echoes of other poems. When the poet questions his being there, he exclaims that there must be others '"Who feel the giant agony of the world'" (I. 157), which reminds readers of the lines from "Sleep and Poetry." Keats had then expressed a desire to write poetry that would speak of "a nobler life, Where I may find the agonies, the strife / Of human hearts (123-25). There is always the possibility that art will be treacherous and not fulfill what it promises.92 Some of the most telling lines are those in which Moneta suggests that pain and joy are distinct, as Lamia could "unperplex bliss from its neighbor pain" (192). It is a mark of Keats's poetry that for the poet no such separation can be possible.

The poet's attempt to justify his work is contained in these lines:

' … sure not all
'Those melodies sung into the World's ear
'Are useless: sure a poet is a sage;
'A humanist, physician to all men.
'That I am none I feel, as vultures feel
'They are no birds when eagles are abroad.'
(I. 187-92)

Here is evidence once again of the kind of religious function which poetry can have. In addition, there may be a significance in the comparison of the physician and the humanist to the poet: " … in The Fall illness is used not simply as a metaphor for various emotional states but as a symbol of the poet's own consciousness… . The self-cured physician here becomes Keats's image of redemption through poetry."93

Moneta distinguishes even more clearly between the poet and the dreamer in the following lines:

'Art thou not of the dreamer tribe?
'The poet and the dreamer are distinct,
'Diverse, sheer opposite, antipodes.
'The one pours out a balm upon the World,
'The other vexes it.'
(I. 198-202)

At the poet's request, Moneta begins to tell her story, and he can tell by her voice that she is crying, shedding "Long-treasured tears" (I. 221). She has been waiting through the ages for someone to come to her for the help and knowledge that she can offer. She cannot force her knowledge on anyone, and only those who are worthy can be permitted to see the visions which play and replay themselves within her brain. Her very power is a curse to her, but it can be a wonder to the poet because he will see her visions "with those dull mortal eyes … , / 'Free from all pain, if wonder pain thee not'" (I. 247-48). The irony is, of course, that if he is a poet instead of a dreamer, the wonder will become pain because he will empathically share in the drama which unfolds before him through Moneta's brain. In Keats's last poetry as well as in his early writing, there is emphasis on the idea that truth must be experiential to have validity. If the poet simply watched the scenes in Moneta's brain, he would remain a visionary and could never hope to become a "physician to all men."

The lines which follow are the poet's description of Moneta's face and his desire to experience what she feels as pain:

Then saw I a wan face,
Not pin'd by human sorrows, but bright blanch'd
By an immortal sickness which kills not;
It works a constant change, which happy death
Can put no end to; deathwards progressing
To no death was that visage; it has past
The lily and the snow; and beyond these
I must not think now, though I saw that face—
But for her eyes I should have fled away.

… . .

I ach'd to see what things the hollow brain
Behind enwombed: what high tragedy
In the dark secret chambers of her skull
Was acting, that could give so dread a stress
To her cold lips, and fill with such a light
Her planetary eyes; and touch her voice
With such a sorrow.
(I. 256-82)

In Moneta's face there is captured something that has not been seen in Keats's poetry before, a process that does not have an end. Yet in the arrest of stasis, there is still change. Her sickness is more than human because she is more than human. It is for this reason that some have compared her to a kind of Christ figure who takes the suffering of the world upon herself. But she does not die a physical death; she simply dies in spirit over and over because of the suffering she endures with her knowledge.

The poet is granted by Moneta the "power … of enormous ken / To see as a god sees" (I. 303-04), which enables him to enter into her brain and actually participate in the scenes which remain constant there. Those scenes are represented by the inclusion of some passages from the first Hyperion, those in which Saturn and Thea appear. It is possible that these scenes are meant to represent a whole reservoir of material for poetry which has not been used in recent years.94 The burden of what the poet sees is so great that he often prays "Intense, that Death would take me from the Vale / And all its burthens" (I. 396-98).

Since the poem is only a fragment, there is no way to ascertain what Keats would have done with it if it had been continued. The short and fragmentary Canto II consists of Moneta's telling of the coming of Hyperion, which was recorded in the earlier poem. But it is evident in what does remain of the poem that Keats was trying to ascertain what the role of the poet could be for his time and for those times to follow. In the first version, Keats was writing about a kind of progress, that of beauty in the world. Here, Wilkie contends, Keats writes of man's progress as he grows; "… the two poems are doctrinal to man but not to an age or nation."95 Keats is concerned with poetry as a human object rather than an abstract one.96

The Fall can be read as a miniature working out of the myth of the poet. The poet in the vision loses the Innocence that he presumably has when he enters the garden at the beginning. Climbing the purgatorial steps represents the agony of moving through Experience. It is important to note, however, that although the abandoning of earlier views is necessary, there still is an aura of sadness at the loss of Innocence.97 But the glimpse of Higher Innocence that the poet receives through Moneta's vision is worth the loss. If the poem had an ending, the poet would very likely return to the real world from his dream. Then the test would be whether he could embody his vision into a poem that had real reaming for human beings who would read it in the hope of seeing into the heart of their humanity.

The imagination in this poem is tempered with restraint. Although the reader is in the midst of agony, the language is almost austere. Here too truth becomes real as it is experienced through participation in Moneta's vision and through the use of the imagination within its proper limits. The intensities of life are here in this poem, as they are in others; here the intensity is that of death, which Keats has previously called "life's high meed" ("Why did I laugh tonight?") and the intensity of the sorrow in Moneta's face. The pain of her face also illustrates the idea that intensities can make disagreeables evaporate. The poet of The Fall is also the poet of Negative Capability. At first he questions, but then he is content to be shown and to let himself absorb what is offered to him. And certainly this poem is a "vale of Soul-making," in which pain and suffering are clearly the means by which the poet is enabled to ascend the steps and emerge in a higher state, to reorganize his functions in preparation for returning to the earth.

The mythopoeic poet views his universe and interprets it as an organic whole; in a culture where there is no predominantly accepted myth to give his experience a shape, he is forced to create his own. Sometimes the mythmaking is startlingly original, as in Blake's poetry. Sometimes traditional Greek and Roman mythology or Christian symbolism is put to new uses. Keats is related in this way to both the tradition of mythopoeia as it runs through English poetry and to his own literary period, during which poets as well as other artists found it necessary to shape their own mythologies and to replace the older cosmological frames that were disintegrating under the forces of the modern world.

Why is it that generations have continued to respond to the poetry and the letters of John Keats? Perhaps it is that he is both of his own time and transcendent to it. He was involved with humanity, as others of his time were; yet he reflects the theme of the artist's isolation and suffering which was to become prominent in the twentieth century.

In the poetry and the letters of Keats, then, the reader finds a touchstone of experiences that are common to all humanity shaped into Keats's central myth of the poet, which embodies his interpretation of experience. The reader finds a concern with birth, death, and rebirth—the initiatory nature of human experience—embodied in the major poetry, especially the two Hyperions. These two poems speak to man as man and to man as artist. In "La Belle Dame Sans Merci" and "Lamia" the reader participates in that miring in Experience and that failure to learn which haunts man throughout his life. He wants to transcend his experience and move on to that calm which can come through a Higher Innocence, but he often learns that although the moments of vision are few, they are yet worth the trouble and pain, as portrayed in the vision of Moneta's face in The Fall of Hyperion and in the reconciliation of opposites in "To Autumn." Man's sensitive response to the natural world appears, especially in "To Autumn," "On the Grasshopper and the Cricket," and in the "Hymn to Pan" from Endymion. Finally, the major theme which has such appeal for modern man, that of the artist as alienated and set apart for a special task, comes through with a power and poignancy rarely matched by other poetry in The Fall of Hyperion.

Keats saw in traditional myth and in the mythic vision of life an embodiment of the legacy of the past and a way to know himself as man. Thus the myth that he created comes alive for others, because man tends to respond to myth when it reveals something that touches his experience as a human being. Keats was willing to take the risk as an artist and to make the leap of faith that ordinary men are frequently not willing to make. He was unafraid to trust his intuitive perceptions, although he also appreciated the knowledge which man is able to glean from books. His knowledge of beauty and truth is always linked to man's experience on earth, firmly bound to mankind, because he tested his intuitions on his pulses. Thus he was able to gain "for himself vision and possession of the experience engendered between his own soul and the life around him, and to communicate that experience, at once individual and collective, to others… . "98 Although Keats died young, he possessed the poetic power

To see as a god sees, and take the depth
Of things as nimbly as the outward eye
Can size and shape pervade.
(The Fall I. 303-05)

Keats left the testament of that power in his major poems and in some of the most sensitive letters ever written by a poet.


1 Aileen Ward, John Keats (New York, 1967), p. 278.

2 Claude Finney, The Evolution of Keats's Poetry (Cambridge, 1936), II, 581.

3 Ibid., p. 603.

4 Robert Gleckner, "Keats's Odes: The Problem of the Limited Canon," Studies in English Literature, 5 (1965), 577-85.

5 H. W. Garrod, Keats (Oxford, 1926), p. 97.

6 John Holloway, "The Odes of Keats," Cambridge Journal, 17 (1952), 425.

7 Walter Jackson Bate, John Keats (New York, 1966), p. 512.

8 Robert Gittings, John Keats (Boston, 1968), p. 314.

9 Charles I. Patterson, The Daemonic in the Poetry of John Keats (Urbana, 1970), p. 167.

10 E. De Selincourt, ed. The Poems of John Keats, by John Keats (1905; rpt. New York 1961), p. 1x.

11 Robert D. Wagner, "Keats: 'Ode to Psyche' and the Second 'Hyperion,'" Keats-Shelley Journal, 13 (1964), 30.

12 Kenneth Allott, "Keats's 'Ode to Psyche,'" Essays in Criticism, 6 (1956), 271.

13 Finney, II, 615.

14 Ward, p. 279. Another interpretation of the ode, based on Freudian psychology, is that the ode can represent the expression of a death-wish, that there is "a conflict between the life and death wishes and, on a deeper, more truly Romantic and Keatsian plane, a commingling of the forces of love, beauty, and creativity and those of melancholy, despair and death—with the latter emerging as dominant." See Lloyd N. Jeffrey, "A Freudian Reading of Keats's Ode to Psyche," The Psychoanalytic Review, 55, No. 2 (1968), 289-306.

15 There is an echo here of Buber's terminology, but the idea is from Chapter I of Before Philosophy (New York, 1951), pp. 11-36.

16 Allott, p. 300.

17 Leonidas Jones, "The 'Ode to Psyche'": an Allegorical Introduction to Keats's Great Odes," Keats-Shelley Memorial Bulletin, 9 (1958), 23. Hereafter abbreviated as KSMB.

18 Bate's order of the poems will be used because there is no definite way to date the composition of the poems. He discusses them in the following order: "Ode to Psyche," "Ode to a Nightingale," "Ode on a Grecian Urn," "Ode on Melancholy," "Ode on Indolence," and "To Autumn," (Chapter XIX, pp. 486-524.)

19 Ibid., p. 504.

20 Earl Wasserman, The Finer Tone (Baltimore, 1953), p. 191.

21 Bate, p. 506.

22 Bloom, Visionary Company, p. 400.

23 E. C. Pettet, On the Poetry of Keats (Cambridge, 1957), p. 273.

24 Bernard Blackstone, The Consecrated Urn (London, 1959), p. 328.

25 Wasserman, p. 217.

26 Ibid., p. 223.

27 Philip Hobsbaum, "The Philosophy of the Grecian Urn: A Concensus of Readings," KSMB, 15 (1964), 6-7.

28 For a summary of critical opinion about the poem in general, see Hobsbaum's article. A useful collection of excerpted comments about the poem is that of Harvey T. Lyon, Keats' Well-Read Urn: An Introduction to Literary Method (New York, 1958). Particularly stimulating discussions of the poem are Bate's on pp. 516-520, Wasserman's on pp. 58-62 of The Finer Tone, and Blackstone's on pp. 330 ff. of The Consecrated Urn.

29 Bate, p. 511.

30 Clarence Thorpe, The Mind of John Keats (New York, 1926), p. 135.

31 Cleanth Brooks, The Well-Wrought Urn (New York, 1947), p. 152.

32 Charles Patterson, "Passion and Permanence in Keats's 'Ode on a Grecian Urn,'" ELH, 21 (1954), 212.

33 Peter Skutches, "Keats's Grecian Urn and Myth," Iowa English Yearbook, 8 (1963), 49.

34 Pettet, p. 325.

35 F. R. Leavis, Revaluation (1936; rpt. New York: George W. Stewart), p. 254.

36 Articles dealing with the bibliographical questions are Alvin Whitley, "The Message of the Grecian Urn," KSMB, 5 (1953), 1-3, and Jack C. Stillinger, "Keats's Grecian Urn and the Evidence of the Transcripts," PMLA, 73 (1958), 447-8.

37 Wasserman, p. 60.

38 Bate, pp. 518-519.

39 G. St. Quintin, "The Grecian Urn," Times Literary Supplement, 5 Feb. 1938, p. 92.

40 Kenneth Allott, "The Meaning of the Odes," in Kenneth Muir, ed., John Keats: A Reassessment (Liverpool, 1958), p. 70.

41 Charles Patterson, "The Keats-Hazlitt-Hunt Copy of Palmerin of England in Relation to Keats's Poetry, Journal of English and Germanic Philology, 60 (1961), 40.

42 Cecil Bowra, The Romantic Imagination (Cambridge, 1949), p. 146.

43 Patterson, "Passion and Permanence," p. 219.

44 Bate, p. 522.

45 Ward, p. 286.

46 Ibid., p. 287.

47 Murry, Keats, p. 248.

48 See, for example, I, 133, 233, 287, 344 and II, 5, 51, 84, 116, 134, and 239 for samples of comments.

49 Bush, Keats, p. 149.

50 Bate, p. 528.

51 John Hawley Roberts, "The Significance of Lamia," PMLA, 50 (1935), 550-61.

52 John Middleton Murry, Keats and Shakespeare (London: Humphrey Milford, 1926), p. 159.

53 Finney, II, 667 ff.

54 Ibid., p. 704.

55 Bate, p. 544.

56 Georgia S. Dunbar, "The Significance of the Humor in 'Lamia,'" KSJ, 8 (1959), 18. She goes on to state that Lycius and Lamia take love too seriously and thus are a contrast to Hermes and the Nymph.

57 Wasserman, The Finer Tone, p. 163.

58 Edward Norris, "Hermes and the Nymph in Lamia" ELH, 2 (1935), 323.

59 Perkins, p. 265.

60 Gittings, Keats, p. 337.

61 M. H. Abrams, The Mirror and the Lamp (New York: 1954), p. 307.

62 Philip Freund, Myths of Creation (New York, 1965), pp. 271-94.

63 Robert D. Wagner, "Keats: 'Ode to Psyche' and the Second 'Hyperion,'" KSJ, 13 (1964), 38.

64 Bloom, Visionary Company, p. 381.

65 Evert, Aesthetic and Myth, p. 286.

66 Bernice Slote, Keats and the Dramatic Principle (Lincoln, 1958), p. 147.

67 Bush, John Keats, p. 161.

68 Arnold Davenport, "A Note on 'To Autumn,'" in John Keats: A Reassessment, ed. Kenneth Muir (Liverpool, 1958), p. 101.

69 Jack Stillinger, "Introduction: Imagination and Reality in the Odes of Keats," in Twentieth-Century Interpretations of Keats's Odes: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Jack Stillinger (Englewood Cliffs, 1968), p. 9.

70 B. C. Southam, "The Ode 'To Autumn,'" KSJ, 9 (1960), 97.

71 Davenport, p. 96.

72 Sherwood, p. 264.

73 F. R. Leavis, Revaluation: Tradition and Development in English Poetry (New York, 1936), p. 272.

74 Bate, p. 583.

75 Ibid., p. 584.

76 Ibid., p. 587.

77 "Wagner, p. 35.

78 G. R. Elliott, "The Real Tragedy of Keats," PMLA, 36 (1921), 320.

79 Stuart M. Sperry, "Keats, Milton, and 'The Fall of Hyperion,'" PMLA, 77 (1962), 83.

80 Bloom, Visionary Company, p. 389.

81 Perkins, p. 219.

82 Irene Chayes, "Dreamer, Poet, and Poem in 'The Fall of Hyperion,'" Philological Quarterly, 46 (1967), 501. She also notes the similarities between this kind of thinking and eighteenth-century aesthetic theories which Keats seems to have known.

83 D'Avanzo, p. 66.

84 Gittings, p. 337.

85 Annie Edwards Dodds, The Romantic Theory of Poetry (London, 1926), p. 238.

86 Bate also notes the Christian symbolism and parallels.

87 Perkins, p. 281.

88 Dorothy Hewlett, "Some Thoughts on 'The Fall of Hyperion,'" Aryan Path, 34 (1963), 466.

89 Frank Kermode, Romantic Image (London, 1961), pp. 8-9.

90 Evert, p. 293.

91 Chayes, p. 505.

92 Bate, p. 598.

93 Ward, p. 328.

94 Chayes, p. 505.

95 Wilkie, p. 186.

96 John Rosenberg, "Keats and Milton: The Paradox of Rejection," KSJ, 6 (1957), 91.

97 Sperry, p. 80.

98 Bodkin, p. 8.

Jerome McGann (essay date 1979)

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SOURCE: "Keats and the Historical Method in Literary Criticism," in Modern Language Notes, Vol. 94, No. 5, December, 1979, pp. 988-1032.

[In the following essay, McGann first reviews the principles of historical literary analysis and then argues for the significance and necessity of using the historical approach in studying Keats's work, despite the "virtually unanimous decision of Western literary critics " that historical analysis is irrelevant to the understanding of Keats's poetry.]

Conflicts between formal or stylistic analysis and historical scholarship are a traditional problem in literary studies. In the field of hermeneutics, where the lines of disagreement tend to sharpen, the best commentators—Lionel Trilling, for example—have generally aimed for, and achieved, various pragmatic agreements. Few critics would take seriously any suggestion that Byron's poetry could be adequately interpreted without bringing a fair amount of historical and biographical information to bear.1 On the other hand, a text-only approach has been so vigorously promoted during the last thirty-five years that most historical critics have been driven from the field, and have raised the flag of their surrender by yielding the title "critic" to the victor, and accepting the title "scholar" for themselves.

This division of labor has produced a fundamentally unstable situation because it is based upon unresolved and, what is worse, unexamined tensions and conflicts. The problems appear, at first, in a purely practical form: for the student needs to know how he is to decide whether (or in what way) historical and biographical information is needed for interpretation. Confronted with a particular text, we cannot always tell at what points (if any) we ought to press for some particular "extrinsic" material or approach.2 Textual problems of these sorts are widespread, nor are they a function of a certain sort of poem (like a topical satire) or a certain type of writer (like, say, Byron). They exist because of general critical assumptions about "the mode of existence of a literary work of art."3 The introductory remarks in Paul deMan's well-known essay on Keats amount to a literary consensus not only about that author, but about the nature of poetry itself:

In reading Keats, we are … reading the work of a man whose experience is mainly literary…. In this case, we are on very safe ground when we derive our understanding primarily from the work itself.4

DeMan is a brilliant critic, and he knows perfectly well that no reading of a poem—not even a poem by Keats—can take place in a bell jar. This is why he is so careful to say that we must "derive our understanding primarily from the work itself," for with that "primarily" he allows himself the option to invoke, when he feels that it is necessary, "extrinsic" material of various sorts. The maneuver is a theoretical blind which sets free the insight of his shrewd practical criticism. But the problems of theory and of method only arise more insistently than ever: how are we to decide—even if we grant deMan's premises about Keats—when to admit "extrinsic" materials and approaches?

Such practical decisions will always remain problematic so long as the critic agrees to accept the great commonplace of 20th century literary criticism: that a poem is fundamentally a word-construct, a special arrangement of linguistic units, or—as we now like to say—a "text."5 Once that idea is accepted, the originally heuristic categories "extrinsic" and "intrinsic" are instantly reified, and the so-called poem becomes alienated from its social setting. Consequently, the practical problem I initially pointed toward—how does a person decide when to invoke historical materials or methods?—reveals itself as fundamentally a procedural question. A comprehensive theory will show that we need not doubt the relevance of "extrinsic" methods and materials; rather, what the critic must weigh are the problems of how best and most fully to elucidate the poem's (presumed) networks of social relations.


A proper general theory of poetry ought to free one from the mare's nest of pseudo-problems created by those several generations of critics who agreed to enter the prison house of language. What follows is a summary and extrapolation of certain key ideas set forth by the so-called Bakhtin School of criticism, a small group of Marxist critics from the Soviet Union who made an early attack upon formalist approaches to poetry.6 The Bakhtin School's socio-historical method approaches all language utterances—including poems—as phenomena marked with their concrete origins and history. In P. N. Medvedev's formulation:

Every concrete utterance is a social act. At the same time that it is an individual material complex, a phonetic, articulatory, visual complex, the utterance is also a part of social reality. It organizes communication oriented toward reciprocal action, and itself reacts; it is also inseparably enmeshed in the communication event. Its individual reality is already not that of a physical body, but the reality of a historical phenomenon. Not only the meaning of the utterance but also the very fact of its performance is of historical and social significance, as, in general, is the fact of its realization in the here and now, in given circumstances, at a certain historical moment, under the conditions of the given social situation.7

Medvedev goes on to specify methods for analyzing contextualized language, and for defining more particularly the sociology of poetic utterance. By developing the concept of "social evaluation" Medvedev lays the ground for a general theory of poetic construction.

The material of poetry is not language understood as the aggregate or system of linguistic possibilities (phonetic, grammatical, lexical). The poet does not select linguistic forms, but rather the evaluations posited in them. All the linguistic characteristics of the word that remain after the abstraction of these evaluations are not only unable to be the material of poetry, but cannot even be examples of grammar.

For instance, a linguistic example is a conditional utterance; a pure linguistic form only lends itself to symbolic designation. A linguistic form is only real in the concrete speech performance, in the social utterance.8

Or, in a still more concise formulation: "The material of poetry is language … as a system of social evaluations, not as the aggregate of linguistic possibilities."9

Nevertheless, to recognize these "extrinsic" connections of the poetic utterance with its surrounding environment is to risk falling into a crudely reflective theory of poetry. Poetic utterances differ from every other form of language use in a special way which defines the character of poetic or literary form. Elaborating upon his analysis of poetry in terms of the concept of social evaluation, Medvedev puts the matter this way.

Every epoch has its sphere of objects for cognition, its own sphere of epistemological interests. The object enters the epistemological purview and becomes the focus of its social energy only to the extent that the actual needs of the given epoch and the given social group dictate. Social evaluation determines the choice of objects for cognition, just as it determines the poet's choice of a theme. Social evaluation also organizes the scientific utterance on all stages of scientific work. But it does not do so for the sake of the utterance. It organizes the work of cognition itself, and the word only as a necessary but dependent aspect of this work. Here evaluation is not complete in the word.

The poetic work is a different matter.

Here the utterance is detached both from its object and from action. Here social evaluation is complete within the utterance itself. One might say its song is sung to the end. The reality of the utterance serves no other reality. Social evaluation pours out and concludes in pure expression. Therefore, all aspects of the material, meaning, and concrete act of realization without exception become equally important and necessary.10

Poetry, that is to say, is a type of expression which forces its language to exhaust itself within the limits of the poetic experience as such. Poetic language, we say, is not directed to any extra-poetic use. But we must not take this correct idea to suggest that poetic experiences take place outside of history and specific social environments. To say that the forms of poetic language are exhausted in the particular poem would be correct, but to say that they are exhausted in the poetic experience could be misleading. The poetic language of specific poems has no extrapoetic use, but specific poetic utterances—specific poems—are human acts occupying social space; as such, they most certainly are involved with extra-poetic operations. For poetry is itself one form of social activity, and no proper understanding of the nature of poetry can be made if the poem is abstracted from the experience of the poem, either at its point of origin or any any subsequent period.11 The special character of poetry and art—its universal or eternal aspect so-called—is that it permits its audience to encounter the human experience of the poem as finished, not only in respect to the poem's immediate, specified circumstances, but in terms of all human history (past and future). The poem, like all human utterances, is a social act which locates a complex of related human ideas and attitudes. Unlike non-aesthetic utterance, however, poetry's social evaluations are offered to the reader under the sign of completion. That sign of completion is what formalists recognize as their object of study; i.e., the integral language construction of the poem, or what is called "the text." But this "text" is not what we should understand as "a poem." Rather, what we ought to see is that "text" is the linguistic state of the "poem's" existence. No poem can exist outside of a textual state any more than a human being can exist outside of a human biological organism. But just as a person is not identical to his particular human body, so neither is a poem equal to its text.12

The special procedures which are appropriate for the study of the poem's text are what literary critics—especially modern ones—most often concentrate upon. An exclusive attention to the poetic text, rather than to the entirety of the poetic event, will necessarily produce a narrow critical focus. But this matter is not my immediate concern. For the present what we need to see is that the poetic text functions primarily as the sign of the poem's completion. In every poem, we encounter a localized and time-specific set of human circumstances which—because of their placement in artistic space—enter our experience as if their connections with all of human history were clearly present. The poem seems aware of this historical totality—its integral form is the sign of this seeming knowledge—and it persuades its reader that such a totality is not just a poetic illusion, but a truth. What is crucial to see, however, is that this experience of finality and completion—of the poem as trans-historical—fundamentally depends upon our initial experience of the poem's complete, social particularity.


The Bakhtin School did not go on to develop, or even to outline, a methodological scheme for a proper historical criticism.13 Of course, such a scheme is implicit in all the practical historical criticism which different critics and scholars have produced (from the most particular bibliographical descriptions to the most broadly ranging studies in Kulturgeschichte). Generally speaking, historical critics acknowledge that such a scheme should emerge out of a dialectic between the work of art's point of origin, on the one hand, and its point of reception on the other.

The distinction between point of origin and point of reception is fundamental to any historical analysis. Without more precise distinctions, however, we will find that problems of definition arise at every juncture.14 At this point, therefore, I want to describe—briefly, but as completely as I can—the basic procedural forms which should govern a complete historicist project in literary criticism. These procedures are the practical derivatives, as I see them, of the theoretical formulations of the Bakhtin School.

Writing verse is not, by itself, a social act. Only when the poem enters social circulation—in MS copies, in private printings, or by publication—does a work begin its poetic life. Once born, however, a poem opens itself to the widest possible variety of human experiences.

To determine the significance of a poem at its point of origin demands that we study its bibliography. That subject is the sine qua non of the field, for in the study of the poem's initial MS and printed constitutions we are trying to define the social relationship between author and audience which the poem has called into being. It makes a great difference if, for example, an author writes but does not print a poem; it also makes a difference whether such a poem is circulated by the author or not, just as it makes a very great difference indeed when (or if) such a poem is printed, and where, and by whom.

The expressed intentions, or purposes, of an author are also significant for understanding a poem. At the point of origin those intentions are codified in the author's choice of time, place, and form of publication—or none of the above, by which I mean his decision not to publish at all, or to circulate in MS, or to print privately. All such decisions take the form of specific social acts of one sort or another, and those acts enter as part of the larger social act which is the poem in its specific (and quite various) human history.

What we call "author intention" all appears in his particular statements about his own work. Those statements may be part of a private or even a public circulation during his lifetime, but as often as not they only appear after, when (for example) conversations or letters or other ephemeral writings are posthumously given to the world (an event that likewise occurs under very specific circumstances). All publications of such material are of course social acts in their own right, and they always modify, more or less seriously, the developing history of the poem.

Once the poem passes entirely beyond the purposive control of the author, it leaves the pole of its origin and establishes the first phase of its later dialectical life (what we call its critical history). Normally the poem's critical history—the moving pole of its receptive life—dates from the first responses and reviews it receives. These reactions to the poem modify the author's purposes and intentions, sometimes drastically, and they remain part of the processive life of the poem as it passes on to future readers.

From any contemporary point of view, then, each poem we read has—when read as a work which comes to us from the past—two interlocking histories, one that derives from the author's expressed decisions and purposes, and the other that derives from the critical reactions of the poem's various readers. When we say that every poem is a social act, we mean to call attention to the dialectical relation which plays itself out historically among these various human beings.

The traditional function of historical criticism has always been taken to involve the study and analysis of these past sets of relations. Roy Harvey Pearce's famous essay "Historicism Once More" shows this quite clearly. But the historical method in criticism, to my view, involves much more, since every contemporary critic, myself at this moment included, focusses on something besides a poem written, read, and reproduced in the past. The critic focusses as well on the present and the future, that is to say on the critic's audience, in whom he discerns the locus of his hopes for the project which his criticism is. Any reading of a poem that I do is a social act not primarily between myself and (say) Keats's work, but between myself and a particular audience.

Since this is always the case, the same sort of historical awareness which we would bring to bear on the past history of a poem must be introduced into every immediate analysis. In this case, the analysis must take careful account of all contextual factors that impinge on the critical act. Most crucially, this involves the need for precise definitions of the aims and the limits of the critical analysis. Like its own object of study ("literature"), criticism is necessarily "tendentious" in its operations. The critic's focus upon history as constituted in what we call "the past" only achieves its critical fulfillment when that study of the past reveals its significance in and for the present and the future.

I should add that everything I have noticed here is always involved in every critical act, whether the critic is aware or not that such matters are involved in his work, and whether the critic is an historical critic or not. (A person may, for example, give a reading of "La Belle Dame Sans Merci" in total ignorance of the poem's bibliographic history. Students do it all the time, and so, alas, do some scholars. Nonetheless, that history is always present to a person's critical activity despite his ignorance of that history, and even despite his ignorance of his ignorance. It is simply that the history is not present to his individual consciousness.) One of the principal functions of the socio-historical critic is to heighten the levels of social self-consciousness with which every critic carries out the act of literary criticism.


Let me now illustrate how these procedures operate by looking at a few poems by Keats.15 I want to start with a simple example of the way an historically oriented perspective can work from small details to open up for exploration large and significant literary matters. The first example, then, will try to demonstrate not historical method so much as the tactics one naturally employs when one operates within an historical method in literary analysis. This initial example is meant to prepare the ground for the subsequent more rigorous analyses. I should reemphasize here that the illustrations are all taken from a poet for whom historical analysis—by the virtually unanimous decision of western literary critics—has no relevance whatsoever.

The following lines are from an early poem of Keats, "To George Felton Mathew."

Too partial friend, fain would I follow thee
Past each horizon of fine poesy….
But 'tis impossible. Far different cares
Beckon me sternly from soft 'Lydian airs',
And hold my faculties so long in thrall
That I am oft in doubt whether at all
I shall again see Phoebus in the morning;
Or flushed Aurora in the roseate dawning;
Or a white naiad in a rippling stream;
Or a rapt seraph in a moonlight beam;
Or again witness what with thee I've seen—
The dew by fairy feet swept from the green
After a night of some quaint jubilee,
Which every elf and fay had come to see,
When bright processions took their airy march
Beneath the curvèd moon's triumphal arch.
(11-12, 17-30)16

The passage first drew my attention when I tried to understand, clearly, what scene Keats was trying to represent for his reader ("reader" in general, but also, specifically, Gèorge Felton Mathew). Who are those elves and fays, what is that jubilee, where are the bright processions, when were those nights? Is it some scene from mythology, from art? Is it purely imaginary and not to be specified beyond the poem?

None of Keats's editors or commentators answered these questions, or even raised them. But Miriam Allott, in her fine edition, implicitly acknowledged the relevance of such queries when she quoted George Felton Mathew's remark that "when Keats wrote his epistle to me … he was walking the hospitals."17 That is, when Keats wrote his epistle, the lines "far different cares / Beckon me sternly from soft '"Lydian airs'" contained a specific and personal reference encoded within a more generalized remark. The generalized reference was for the public at large, whereas the personal reference would be available only to what Byron used to call "the knowing ones."

Keats had begun his work at Guy's Hospital in London in October, 1815, and he wrote these lines as part of a verse epistle to Mathew in November, 1815, after Keats had read a poem Mathew had just published. In the passage at hand, Keats is telling Mathew that he is too busy at the hospital to write poetry, and he wistfully regrets the imaginative pleasures that he and Mathew shared together. These pleasures are objectified in those nymphs and fays and jubilees and processions—all commonplace examples of the artifices of poetry.

But this list of poetical paraphrenalia is not a recollection of some "fairy rings and moonlit groves of Mathew's verse";18 it specifically recalls certain actual occurrences which Keats, his brother George, Mathew, and Mathew's cousins shared during the summer of 1815. Mathew could still remember, many years later, that it "pleased me much to see [Keats] and his brother George enjoy themselves so much at our little domestic concerts and dances"19 during that summer.

To see that the passage refers to specific historical events is perforce to be made aware of the extreme artificiality of the poetic style, and to be reminded as well how much of Keats's early verse typifies such a style. Throughout the poetry of 1814-1817 the men and women Keats actually moves among are variously called "fays," "elves," "nymphs," "swains," and he employs as well a whole array of related Aesopian language to speak of other, equally ordinary matters. Later, under Hunt's influence, this artificial manner began to develop along a number of other lines, and the result we have come to call the Cockney style, which dominates both the 1817 volume and Endymion. Of course, the general characteristics of Keats's early verse are well enough know to academics. I raise the matter again, in this context, only because the significance of this Cockney style—its specifically poetic significance—is not very widely recognized, even among specialists. Only by reading such poetry in a sharply specified historical frame of reference are we able to see, at this date, the aesthetic domain which Cockney verse attempted to conquer, and hence to describe precisely not merely the abstract characteristics, but the felt qualities of its poetic structure.

When critics today talk about Keats's Cockney poetry they dismiss it as some sort of aberrant juvenile necessity, one of those odd preludes to genius with which the history of art is generally marked. Here is a good critic's good summary of the technical characteristics of that "precious, luscious, plaintively sentimental kind of verse" we call Cockney poetry:

As experiments in what he calls 'unaffected' or artless language, his verses sometimes degenerate into colloquial chatter; and adopting the manner of Spenser and seventeenth-century Spenserians, he writes a precious, luscious, plaintively sentimental kind of verse. There is no fusion, but just a queer juxtaposition of the natural and the archaic. The other characteristics of Hunt's poetry—especially of his vocabulary and versification—stem from his desire to secure a medium of expression which is both luxurious and lively, and have been noted in detail by De Selincourt, Claude Finney, W. J. Bate, and other critics and commentators: use of abstract nouns expressing a concrete thing or idea; abundance of present participles; predilection for adverbs formed from present participles, and delight in the use of -y adjectives; divergence from the closed couplet resulting in extreme looseness of structure; liberal use of double rhymes, trisyllabic feet, and varied medial pauses; stress-failure; accentuation of final syllables of polysyllabic rhyme words. Hunt apparently confused freedom with laxity, and these stylistic devices—or aberrations—had undoubtedly a pernicious influence on the young Keats who studied A Feast of the Poets and the Story of Rimini with avidity.20

If we return to the early reviewers who named and defined the Cockneyism of Hunt and Keats, we find all of these qualities enumerated, and most of them deplored. We also find, however, a pattern of negative remarks on the "uncleanness of this school"21 as well as recurrent references to the "slang" of its style and its general effort at a casual and colloquial manner. Indeed, the other recurrent charge, of vulgarity, is only explicable in such a context. The reviewers who make this charge are censuring not merely the erotic subjects in Keats's poetry but Keats's peculiarly mannered treatment of sexual images and subjects.

Feed upon apples red and strawberries,
And choose each pleasure that my fancy sees;
Catch the white-handed nymphs in shady places
To woo sweet kisses from averted faces,
Play with their fingers, touch their shoulders white
Into a pretty shrinking with a bite
As hard as lips can make it….
("Sleep and Poetry," 103-109)

I stood tip-toe upon a little hill,
The air was cooling, and so very still
That the sweet buds which with a modest pride
Pull droopingly, in slanting curve aside,
Their scantly leaved and finely tapering stems,
Had not yet lost those starry diadems….
("I Stood Tip-Toe," 1-6)

"Vulgar" is a precise and accurate description of passages like these. But we will not understand the meaning of that charge unless we see that it is delivered from a certain perspective. The reviewers who censure Keats's vulgarity consistently see him from a class-conscious perspective. Keats is low born and ought not to be writing poetry in the first place; he lacks the appropriate education for the office. That social judgment, as is well known, generates the notoriously ad hominem ridicule which some of the reviewers heaped upon Keats. But that social judgment also generates the related, and apparently "technical" point: that Keats's style violates poetic propriety by treating a "high" subject in a "low" diction and colloquial manner. In fact, the attack upon the Cockney School is in many respects a repetition of the attack upon Wordsworth's program in the Lyrical Ballads. In both cases the more traditional critics insist that a common lexicon and a colloquial style in poetry are only proper within certain prescribed—normally, comic—limits.

Against this background let us look at the following passage from the Edinburgh Magazine's review of the 1817 volume:

He seems to have formed his poetical predilections in exactly the same direction as Mr. Hunt; and to write, from personal choice, as well as emulation, at all times, in that strain which can be most recommended to the favour of the general readers of poetry, only by the critical ingenuity and peculiar refinements of Mr. Hazlitt. That style is vivacious, smart, witty, changeful, sparkling, and learned—full of bright points and flashy expressions that strike and even seem to please by a sudden boldness of novelty,—rather abounding in familiarities of conception and oddnesses of manner which shew ingenuity, even though they be perverse, or common, or contemptuous. The writers themselves seem to be persons of considerable taste, and of comfortable pretensions, who really appear as much alive to the socialities and sensual enjoyments of life, as to the contemplative beauties of nature. In addition to their familiarity, though,—they appear to be too full of conceits and sparkling points, ever to excite any thing more than a cold approbation at the long-run—and too fond, even in their favourite descriptions of nature, of a reference to the factitious resemblances of society, ever to touch the heart. Their verse is straggling and uneven, without the lengthened flow of blank verse, or the pointed connection of couplets. They aim laudably enough at force and freshness, but are not so careful of the inlets of vulgarity, nor so self-denying to the temptations of indolence, as to make their force a merit.22

Certain phrases here are extremely interesting: the repeated comment on Keats's excessive "familiarity" and poetic colloquialism, as well as the recurrent sense that the poetry is also—perhaps paradoxically?—marked by a smart mannerism. The general view is that Keats's work is a tissue of self-conscious artifice and poetic conceits.

Today we do not think of Keats's early poetry as "vivacious, smart, witty, changeful, sparkling, and learned." But the early reviewers—whether they praised, censured, or merely described Keats's work—did see the poetry in this way. Such descriptive terms necessarily offer an odd contrast to the views of twentieth century critics, who customarily see Keats's early work as mawkish, self-indulgent, sentimental. The explanation of this notable difference of views is not my present concern, but it could be found through an analysis of the ideological structures of modern critical opinions.

For my present purposes, what I want to emphasize is this: that the Cockney style of Keats is sentimental to modern ears only because it is also, self-consciously, "smart, witty … and learned." As the reviewer notes, the style is marked by colloquialism and familiarity, and a lively, cosmopolitan chattiness. Indeed, this chattiness—recall the passage I quoted above from the verse epistle to Mathew—is directly, intimately related to the mannered and artificial style of the poetry. A close, modern analogue to the sort of work produced in Keats's early epistles, or in "Sleep and Poetry" and "I Stood Tip-toe," is the verse style recently cultivated by Frank O'Hara and the New York School in general.


The previous example illustrates the tactical procedures which typify an historical approach, as well as the way historical information tends to open up new dimensions for a more comprehensive and precise critical analysis. I now want to extend that discussion by showing, through a series of illustrative examples, how and why poetic analysis requires an historical method if it is to achieve either precision or comprehensiveness. This demonstration takes for its subject the idea of "context" and tries to explain the special relevance of this for poetry, as well as the necessity of an historical method for elucidating the specifically pertinent contexts which penetrate every poem we read.

"La Belle Dame Sans Merci" is a great and famous poem, and has been much commented upon; yet for all that attention, its physical text has not been much analyzed, nor ever satisfactorily. One is made especially aware of this problem because of Jack Stillinger's new edition of Keats, which Harvard Press announces as "Definitive."23 In the Harvard edition the poem is printed in the physical form all of us, probably, have always read. The interesting thing is that this is not the text which Keats himself printed. Many questions arise in such a situation, but to an historical critic the bibliographical question will be the fundamental one; for in that question we begin to elucidate the poem's critical history. Astonishing as it may seem, that history remains to this day tangled and even mystified, despite the fact that the material for unravelling it is largely ready to hand.

Keats wrote his poem in April, 1819. He did nothing with it immediately, but later published it, in May, 1820, in Leigh Hunt's weekly literary periodical The Indicator. It appeared there signed simply "Caviare," which was an allusion to the line in Hamlet "'twas caviare to the general" (Act II, Scene 2). This text is the only one Keats ever published, for he did not choose to print the poem in his 1820 collection, an interesting fact in its own right (the volume was published in June). The poem first entered Keats's collected works in 1848, in Richard Monckton Milnes' Life, Letters, and Literary Remains, of John Keats. In this 1848 printing, however, the text was taken from a copy of the poem made by Charles Brown. No one knows the source of Brown's text, though editors have conjectured, not implausibly, that it was made from a (now lost) holograph fair copy. This 1848 text, derived from Brown's copy, is the one we all now read, and it differs greatly from the text printed by Keats himself. The new Harvard edition also prints the Brown/1848 text.24

Under the circumstances, the prima facie bibliographic facts would normally, and without any question, demand that an editor—especially an editor in 1978—print The Indicator text, not the Brown/1848 text, for it is The Indicator text which, so far as we can tell, most closely corresponds to the author's final, active intentions. The question then naturally arises: why has the post-authorial critical tradition from 1848 to the present normally printed, read, and studied the poem in the Brown/1848 text? For a study of that tradition, particularly during its past fifty years or so, shows that editors and commentators are aware of the problem and have all along deliberately chosen not to print The Indicator text.

Arguments have been made to suggest that the Brown/1848 text more closely represents Keats's final intentions, but they are all suppositious, and have persuaded no one. The history of the criticism further shows that the choice was in fact made because certain key readers felt that The Indicator text was not so good a poem as the other.25 An impressionistic argument was set off against a bibliographic one, and the former has prevailed. At this point I am not trying to make a case for restoring the authority of The Indicator text, but merely to understand the history which descends upon us, in a largely invisible form, whenever we read "La Belle Dame Sans Merci." In order to elucidate such material we would have to begin by studying both texts of the poem in relation, primarily, to their respective initiating contexts on the one hand (the literary and historical contexts circa 1819 and 1848), and to the people most involved in establishing both texts (that is, Keats, Fanny Brawne, Brown, Hunt, and Milnes).

Without attempting to develop an exhaustive analysis along these lines, let me merely indicate a few important matters. The first line of The Indicator text reads

Ah what can ail thee, wretched wight …

rather than, as in Brown/1848:

Oh what can ail thee, knight-at-arms….

The difference is important, in the literary context of the period, for "wretched wight" is a locution which had acquired—in the course of its belated Spenserian history through the late 18th and early 19th century—a distinctly ironic overtone.26 The phrase is a consciously archaic signifier used by poets, in certain limited contexts, to tell the reader to stand at a critical distance from the signified. When Keats opens his ballad with this phrase, then, he is also introducing a personal note into the poem by letting his reader glimpse the poet in his self-consciousness as an artist. More specifically, Keats shows his reader that he, as a poet, stands at a slightly critical distance from his subject.

In this respect, the "wretched wight" usage supports the general tonal approach which characterizes The Indicator version of the poem. Unlike Hunt's Examiner, The Indicator was a non-political publication which devoted itself to literary and artistic matters.27 Byron published in The Examiner and The Liberal, not in The Indicator. But if it was not a political publication as such, The Indicator was decidedly tendentious in its aims. Hunt established the magazine as an alternative to the more traditional periodicals of the day. Thus, when Keats signed his poem "Caviare," he was, once again, adopting a self-conscious pose for the reader, only in this case he was glancing at his ballad in relation to the prevailing literary climate. The Hamlet allusion shows us that Keats means to share a mildly insolent attitude toward the literary establishment with his readers in The Indicator, who are presumed to represent an undebased literary sensibility.

Everyone would agree that these facts illuminate how the poem would have been originally received, and understood, by readers of The Indicator. The more important point, for the present, is that this history continues to affect the way people read the poem today. Our present text is the product of a long historical struggle, carried out in the Lilliputian land of bibliographers and literary critics, to suppress one form of the poem and to elevate another. Understanding this history helps to define the differences between the two physical texts, but it likewise helps to explain what the Brown/1848 text presently means by showing what meanings it has forbidden to us.

The Brown/1848 text shows many more variants than the one already mentioned, and their cumulative effect is pronounced. Perhaps the most important result of the Brown/1848 changes was to make the character of the knight more sympathetic to the reader and the character of the elfin lady less so. In The Indicator the lady does not have "wild, wild eyes" but "wild sad eyes," and she does not lull the knight to sleep. The "kisses four" with which he shuts her eyes in Brown/1848 are very different in The Indicator:

And there I shut her wild sad eyes—
So kissed to sleep.
And there we slumbered on the moss….

Here we see that The Indicator's kisses are given in a mutual exchange, and that both fall asleep together after their lovemaking. This last fact seriously diminishes the demand made upon the reader by the Brown/1848 text to see the lady as a bewitching siren.

After 1848 readers of Keats characteristically saw the elfin lady as a sort of demon lover who had ensnared the unsuspecting knight. This is still an influential way of reading the poem, though with the coming of the ironies of the twentieth century the issue has sometimes been seen as more problematic than that. A persuasive case could be made showing that Brown and Milnes share the immediate responsibility—not merely in fact, but by ideological design—for giving us the idea that the elfin lady is simply demonic, a sort of uncomplicated lamia. (It was a commonplace of Victorian criticism that the lady of Keats's "Lamia" narrative was unambiguously evil.) Brown's attitudes toward women in general, and his crude behavior to Fanny Brawne in particular, are notorious. For his part, Milnes had an enormous library of erotica and pornographic works, and he was the principal figure behind the introduction of Sade's books into English culture. It was Milnes who later specifically introduced the young Swinburne to Sade and other pornographic writers.28

Furthermore, Brown was one of a group of Keats's friends who strongly opposed Keats's inclination, which Keats shared with Hunt, of giving no quarter to his establishment enemies (i.e., to those who controlled the publishing world of that day).29 Both of the poems which Keats published in The Indicator were signed "Caviare," and neither was printed in the 1820 volume, whose publication was overseen by Keats's conservative friends. The other poem was Keats's great Paolo and Francesca sonnet, whose bibliographical history is at least as interesting, and very similar to, the history we have been following.

This sonnet, written in mid-April, 1819, comes to us in two holograph copies, the draft (written on a blank leaf in Keats's copy of H. F. Cary's translation of Dante) and the fair copy (which Keats sent in his journal letter of 14 February-3 May 1819). Keats later published the poem in June 1820 in The Indicator, but he did not include it in the 1820 volume. The standard editions of Keats from Milnes to the present have always published the text which derives from Keats's early MSS or the copy Brown made from them.

The Indicator has three substantive variants which are unique to it, but these have usually been dismissed by Keats's editors.30 Stillinger's recent commentary is both lucid and typical:

The Indicator text … has "a" in 8, and unique variants that almost surely ought to be disregarded in 7 ("Not unto" for "Not to pure") and 10 ('"mid" for "in" and "world-wind" for "whirlwind")…. Keats presumably supplied copy for the Indicator version—he was living at Hunt's at the time the poem was published—and possibly by dictation, since the erroneous "world-wind" sounds much like Keats's "whirlwind." The Indicator's variants in 7 and 10 are almost certainly corruptions '"mid" perhaps an editorial change by Hunt).31

The argument for refusing The Indicator reading in line 7 is a textual one: "'Not unto Ida' in 7 looks like a copyist's or printer's mistake based on the similar wording in the next line."32 Although the point is a good one, Keats's situation at the time of publication makes it something less than conclusive, especially since Keats almost certainly read a proof of the sonnet before it was printed.

In the case of line 10 we really have no good textual or bibliographical grounds for rejecting The Indicator's readings as "erroneous" or "corruptions." Stillinger's arguments against '"mid" are pure supposition; and even were it true that Hunt suggested the reading '"mid" we would have to conclude that Keats agreed to it. As for that most important variant of all, The Indicator's "world-wind," once again Stillinger must resort to supposition. For it is clear that no copyist or printer would be likely to misread "whirlwind" as "world-wind." A copyist or a printer might conceivably read the unusual usage "world-wind" as the more common word "whirl-wind," but an error occuring in the reverse order is, to say the least of it, unlikely. Stillinger's extraordinary suggestion that the poem was printed from a dictated copy is advanced because, as a skilled textual critic, Stillinger knows that The Indicator's "world-wind" can hardly be a copyist's error.

Why, then, have editors continued to print "whirlwind" instead of The Indicator's reading? Three reasons suggest themselves immediately. First, Milnes printed the poem in 1848 from the Brown MS copy, and that printing exercised great authority over later editors. Second, The Indicator's text of the sonnet lost some of its attraction when, in the twentieth century, its text of "La Belle Dame Sans Merci" fell out of favor. Third, our knowledge of Keats's debt to Cary's translation of Dante tends to support the "whirlwind" reading. When Keats first wrote his sonnet he certainly borrowed this word, as well as other verbal usages, from Cary.33 Under the circumstances, one can easily take "worldwind" not for a deliberate change, but as a strange corruption.

I think we have to see, however, that "world-wind" is not a textual error but a purposeful change. The "Not unto Ida" in line 7 may be a corruption, but the whole of line 10 has to be presumed to by Keats's deliberate work.

The importance of these bibliographical issues for our understanding of Keats's sonnet appears very clearly when we make a full return to The Indicator text and read the poem in its original constitution. There the sonnet is titled "A Dream, after Reading Dante's Episode of Paolo and Francesca," and it is signed "Caviare." Under the ideological circumstances which The Indicator localizes, and which I have already discussed, the reading "world-wind" acquires a powerful significance which affects the whole sonnet. The word emphasizes the virtually allegorical meaning which the fate of Paolo and Francesca represented for Keats in 1819. They suffer not in a "whirlwind" but in a "worldwind," that is, in the storm of a "world" antagonistic to everything which the lovers represent (recall, in this context, the end of "The Eve of St. Agnes"). It is unnecessary to re-emphasize here what students of Keats have known and commented upon for a long time: that this theme is pervasive in Keats, and that it grows particularly obsessive after 1818, for reasons that are well known, and that have as much to do with his love for Fanny Brawne as they do with his literary career and his financial problems.34


When we look at "La Belle Dame Sans Merci" and the Paolo and Francesca sonnet in the light of the foregoing material, we are likely to feel, first, that the two poems have at least two important texts. In both cases one can show with a fair degree of conclusiveness that The Indicator texts represent Keats's last deliberate choices, and that later editors have returned to Keats's earlier versions of both poems. From a bibliographical point of view, this situation indicates that editors have been choosing the less authoritative texts of both poems. On the other hand, since all the texts in question derive pretty directly from Keats himself, the dominant editorial tradition has established its own bibliographical argument. We are not dealing here with textual errors, but with textual options.

But one must see as clearly as possible where these options take their origin, for in that information one begins to see the "meaning" of the later editorial choices, and hence the meaning of the poems as they have been constituted by various readers and critics. Colvin and others believe that "wretched wight" is a poor substitute for "knight-at-arms." It seems to me, however, that the issue is not a neutrally "aesthetic" one, but rather that it involves a choice between a more and a less "romantic" version of the ballad.35

As we have already seen, The Indicator's ballad is slightly self-conscious of its romance materials. That self-consciousness arises directly from Keats's decision to print his poem, and hence to place it, and himself, in a specific relation to his audience. The Brown/1848 text, on the other hand, represents a poem which Keats gave to a very different audience (that is, to the circle of those close to him). Under those circumstances, Keats (originally) wrote a much less self-conscious ballad; but even then he felt called upon—when he sent the poem to his brother and sister-in-law—to append an ironic commentary:

Why four kisses—you will say—why four because I wish to restrain the headlong impetuosity of my Muse—she would have fain said 'score' without hurting the rhyme—but we must temper the Imagination as the Critics say with Judgement. I was obliged to choose an even number that both eyes might have fair play: and to speak truly I think two a piece quite sufficient—Suppose I had said seven; there would have been three and a half a piece—a very awkward affair—and well got out of on my side….36

This (private) communication shows us the sort of position into which Keats put himself, and his poem, in its early version. These comments are the "private" equivalent of everything which Keats meant to imply when he signed his poem "Caviare" in the version he chose to make "public." It would not be difficult to show that Keats's ironic remarks in his letter have helped to support the more complex readings of the poem developed in the twentieth century.37

From the outset, then, the ballad was written in such a way, and under such circumstances, that urged its readers to stand at a slightly critical distance from the poem's materials. The best criticism of the poem has always responded to those urgings. When Keats finally printed his poem, he behaved as any good artist does when he comes before the public: he revised the poem so as to define—through those public and conventional devices which readers of poetry at that time would recognize—the "meaning" of the poem which he meant it to carry. That is to say, the poem's appearance in The Indicator—the event of it and the physique of it alike—was of a determinate character: from that printing Keats's audience was meant to recognize, and respond to, the poem's self-conscious and slightly critical treatment of its romance subject.

Though later readers of Keats did not usually have access to The Indicator version, the "spirit" (as it were) of that version was kept alive in the critical tradition. This occurred partly because Keats's letters have always been of great interest to his readers, and partly because the bibliographic issue has remained a nagging scholarly problem. In the case of the Paolo and Francesca sonnet, however, The Indicator's poem has not been nearly so accessible. As a result, that aspect of the poem which is defined by The Indicator's "worldwind" has not been strongly preserved in the critical tradition. This neglect has weakened the life of the sonnet.

A polemic for the stylistic superiority of "world-wind" over "whirlwind" can and ought to be made. Readers should be asked to consider whether "world-wind" does not noticeably strengthen the sonnet by forcing it to operate in multiple ways even at its surface levels. "World-wind" not only suggests everything contained in "whirlwind," it adds the polemically allegorical dimension I have already noted. In addition, however, this portmanteau word allows the reader to experience Keats forcibly drawing a connection between Dante's "whirlwind" and Keats's "world." This equation results in the startling critical reevaluation which the sonnet contains: that Dante's lovers suffer, not in the misery of their sinful love, but in the cruel assaults of an indifferent and hostile world. Like Byron's fine translation of the Paolo and Francesca episode, this great sonnet represents a Romantic reinterpretation of Dante precisely analogous to the Romantic reinterpretation of Milton carried out by Blake and Shelley.

But the sonnet's power does not come simply from its illustration of a central concept of Romantic Love.38 Rather, it appears (first) in the poem's ability to tell its audience that only the poetic imagination is able to understand the conflicts between a social existence and personal love. Keats's poem tells us that Dante saw these contradictions. But when Keats emphasizes the distance between his sonnet and the original passage in Dante—when, for example, he writes "world-wind" for "whirlwind" and titles the sonnet "A Dream" based on Dante—then he is telling his audience something Dante does not tell: that Dante understood the pathos of Paolo and Francesca because he was a poet, and that only poetry has the power to reach such insights.

This implicit assertion is, like the poem's idea of Love, deeply Romantic. Yet the poem has something further to say—a more grim assertion which emerges as a terrible function of the poem's ideas about love, the "world," and poetry. For the sonnet's "melancholy" tone also asserts that the conflicts between the World and Romantic Love cannot be resolved in the terms defined by the poem. Poetry itself is affected by these conflicts. The sonnet tells us—finally, desperately—that poetry's power to see these contradictions carries with it the fate of ineffectuality. Here, at all levels, we see a situation in which everything is to be endured, but nothing is to be done.


The particular cases of "La Belle Dame Sans Merci" and the Paolo and Francesca sonnet show how the general historical method, outlined earlier, might be applied to specific and current problems in criticism. Each part of the general method must be able to be uniformly invoked when any literary work is under study, but particular cases will always be demanding different critical emphases. In the case of the "Ode on a Grecian Urn," for example, we do not have a problematic textual history comparable to the ones I have just been discussing. The ode does have a famous textual crux in the final two lines, as we know from the poem's critical history, and the crux seriously affects the poem's internal syntax. Nevertheless, the textual issues here are quite different because the two possible texts for lines 49-50 of the ode are both traceable directly to Keats. Moreover, careful bibliographical analysis will show, and has already shown, that the two readings are not, finally, incompatible at the level of textual criticism. The textual problems in the ballad and the sonnet, on the other hand, are not yet solvable at such a level—simply because the issues have not yet been so thoroughly discussed and analyzed as have the comparable issues in the ode.39

Yet the ode has its own special problems, one of which appears in the contempt with which many twentieth century critics look upon that great obsession of older Keats critics: I mean the quest for the "original" urn of the poem. Even Walter Jackson Bate, perhaps the most distinguished living critic of Keats's life and work, patronizes the labors of those older scholaradventurers:

Attempts continue to be made to determine a particular vase or urn that Keats may have had in mind when he wrote the ode. Especially with a poem so distinguished for its universality, one thinks of Keats's own remark … that 'they are very shallow people who take everything literal.'40

But the "universality" of the ode is surely no more extensive than the "universality" of any great poem. Moreover, this "universality" is a direct function of certain historical specifics. It makes a difference—a marked difference—that Keats decided to publish the poem first in The Annals of the Fine Arts. This small bibliographical point locates a set of contextual facts of the greatest relevance to any interpretation of the ode.

In the same way, it makes a great difference whether or not we see the ode as an attempt to describe a "real" urn. Scholars now tend to agree with Ian Jack on this matter:41 That the ode's urn is a composite imagining based upon Keats's knowledge of various artifacts (vases, sculptures, and paintings) which he saw either directly or in illustrated books of Greek antiquities. Nevertheless, two points must be insisted upon. First, Jack's widely accepted conclusions could never have been formulated at all had not older scholars spent so much labor searching after that "original" urn. Second, the impetus for that scholarship was supplied by certain characteristics of the poem as Keats originally published it.

The corollary of the first point is that all current interpretations of the ode which treat the urn as an imaginary object are only justified on the basis of certain past historical research. Nor is this merely a point in professional decorum, a request that we pay our dues to our worthy scholarly forebears. The crucial interpretive point is that the urn of the ode is an imaginary object in a very specific, historical sense. The ode's urn is placed before its readers (both past and present) as an ideal example of such vases. Keats's urn—in the context alike of his poem, its place of original publication, and the Romantic Classicism which both represented—aims to be taken as both a real concrete object and as an ideal; for it is central to the Romantic understanding of Greek art that such art actually produced, at its finest moments, perfect and complete embodiments of a perfect and complete idea of The Beautiful. The Annals of the Fine Arts, which printed Keats's poem was one of that age's chief ideological organs for disseminating such ideas.42

Consequently, part of the poem's fiction—and this is why scholars spent so much time trying to find the "original" urn—is that the urn it describes is an actual urn comparable to the Townley, Borghese, or Sosibios vases. Not to grasp this fact about the poem means that we do not see the importance of when the poem was written, and by whom, and where it was published. But the poem itself insists that we react to its historical dimensions, and in so doing it forbids that we understand its "universality" outside of the ode's special historical context. To see this elementary point more clearly all we need do is imagine that the poem was written fifty years before or after 1819. It would make a difference.

The poem's fiction—that its ideal subject is an actual urn—asks its readers to try to visualize, in a concrete way, the urn of the poet's imagining. Yielding to the poem's direction in this way will profoundly alter how we read the ode, and may even enrich our grasp of the poem's purely verbal art. Let me give an example.

Only one critic, so far as I am aware, has noticed that the phrase "leaf-fringed legend" involves a pun.43 Furthermore, no critic has ever remarked on the fact that the urn has given a specific answer, in the poem itself, to the poet's initial question about that legend. When they were conducting their searches for the ode's original urn, those older scholars were attempting to answer many of the same questions which the poet raises in the poem: as if, should they be able to find that original urn, they might then be able to see in fact what men or gods Keats was speaking of. In any case, they did not have to search far to answer the question about the "leaf-fringed legend." The urn itself supplies the answer when it says to Keats: "Beauty is truth, truth beauty." A reader can easily fail to see these aspects of the poem if he is concentrating his attention on the verbal surface. But it all leaps to one's awareness as soon as a person looks past the words to the scene being described, and to the objects that occupy that scene; as soon as a person, that is to say, begins to read more in the spirit of those older scholars, with their deep (if excessively empiricist) historical awareness.

After the poet's initial address to the urn in the poem's first two lines, he quickly moves into his series of questions. At the moment my interest is only in the first of them, where the word "legend" is employed in a typically Keatsian fashion: it means both a particular story from ancient myth or history, as well as an inscription. With the phrase "leaf-fringed legend," then, Keats is in part asking the reader to see something typical of certain Greek funerary vases: that they carried inscriptions, or legends, characteristically surrounded by elaborate leaf decorations. Keats apparently asks his question of the urn because (according to the poem's fiction) he cannot clearly see the faded characters of the Greek inscription. Indeed, we are probably meant to take the poem's famous Beauty-Truth apothogem not as the urn's actual inscription (translated, perhaps?) but as Keats's substitute for an inscription which had grown too faded to be read any longer (as, according to the moral of the "Ode to Psyche," all the ancient myths and legends of the Olympian hierarchy had faded). Those characters (in both senses) are illegible, yet Keats's poetic urn can still speak, as if it were some literalized example of the idea of a poem as a speaking picture.


These discussions of the ballad, the sonnet, and the ode have been chosen because they illustrate some of the critical powers which an historical method of criticism can supply. The examples are also meant to show that the general taxonomic structures of the historical method sketched earlier are not all equally useful or pertinent at different times. Changing circumstances alter the immediate relevance of particular methodological categories.

Furthermore, particular poems are defined in terms of certain relatively fixed structures (e.g., those of form and genre for the works themselves; or those of sex, nation, class, and geographical location for their authors and commentators). Because such forms are historically stable (some of these are more stable than others), they pre-exist the critical discussion and often determine the relative usefulness of different categories within the general taxonomy of the historical method.

For example, the sort of textual discussion which is presently relevant to the ballad and the sonnet and which has been, in the past, equally relevant to the ode, will never be relevant to the poem we now know as "To Fanny" ("What can I do to drive away")—never, that is, unless the bibliography of the poem undergoes, in the future, some drastic alteration (e.g., if a MS of the poem were to be discovered, or if some hard evidence were to turn up which pinpointed the date of composition more specifically). On the other hand, although the poem has no textual problems to be sorted out, the textual history is important. Furthermore, "To Fanny" raises all sorts of issues which are peculiarly relevant to it, and which have little relevance (for example) to either the ballad or the ode.

The special problems raised by "To Fanny" begin to define themselves in the poem's early textual history.44 No MS survives and Keats never printed the poem himself. It was first printed by Milnes in 1848 from a (now lost) transcript which he had from Charles Brown. This transcript Brown made from a holograph MS given by Keats to Fanny Brawne, who allowed Brown to copy it sometime before 1829. The poem seems to have been written late in 1819, probably around October.

When Milnes printed the poem in 1848, his prefatory remarks left no doubt as to the intimate nature of the work.45 His printing, in other words, established the tradition of biographical criticism which has dominated the later critical commentary on this poem. But Milnes' edition was not forcing its readers to adopt some "subjectively biassed" view of "To Fanny"; on the contrary, Milnes took the most appropriate vantage possible on the poem, and the one most in the spirit of Keats's own purposes and intentions. This poem was written to and for Fanny Brawne, and was even given to her by Keats. It is not, in other words, a "public" poem the way "La Belle Dame Sans Merci" or the ode are, and always were, "public."

On the other hand, the poem is not, nor was it ever, a "private" poem strictly speaking (by "private" I mean a poem written but never deliberately communicated to anyone else: in Keats's case, for example, a poem like "This living hand, now warm and capable"). "To Fanny" is, rather, a "personal" poem—by which I mean simply to distinguish it in a position between the other two categories, and to indicate thereby that its most immediate contextual range is defined in biographical terms, rather than in historical or psychological ones. Consequently, if a person were to read this poem without giving paramount attention to its biographical materials, he would be introducing a special bias into the critical act. In such a case, the criticism would be forcing upon the poem an "extrinsic" approach precisely analogous to the sort of "extrinsic" approach we recognize in biographical or Freudian readings of (say) "Lamia." Special critical studies of these sorts are often important and useful, or course, but in relation to "Lamia" we have to see that they are specialized. In the case of "To Fanny," it is the purely formal or stylistic reading which would constitute the specialized approach. Poems like this one are, by virtue of certain pre-emptive definitions created out of their historical circumstances, formally and, as it were "by nature," biographical works.

A reading of "To Fanny" therefore always begins, consciously or otherwise, at the biographical level; if it does not, we cannot understand the simple lexical references of the poem's words. To read the poem—ultimately, to develop a full critical analysis—requires that we be aware of Keats's peculiar financial situation at the time; of the special circumstances of his love for Fanny Brawne (their relationship had just entered a new phase); and of the state of his physical health (the fact, in particular, that he had not yet suffered the haemorrhage of February 1820 which betrayed his fatal illness). It also requires that we be aware of his special feelings for his siblings, and especially for his brother George in America, who was on the verge of financial ruin. Finally, the poem demands our understanding of Keats's utter commitment to the life of imagination and a poetic career, and of the conflicts which these pursuits engendered both in his attitudes toward the quotidian world around him and in his feelings for Fanny Brawne.46

All of these details taken by themselves would be properly called "biographical" in nature. But the total set of relations which these details establish when they are considered together constitute a biographical nexus which reveals the forceful presence of larger, sociohistorical frames of reference. Keats's highly personal poem about Fanny Brawne localizes a set of tensions and conflicts which can only be adequately understood if we place the poem in a more comprehensive historical context. Why Keats, for example, should establish in his poem a dialectic between his erotic feelings for Fanny Brawne and his sublimated devotion to his (also feminine) "Muse" is partly explainable in biographical terms, but finally requires the more comprehensive context of Romanticism to be understood. And that larger, predominating ideological context only acquires its analytic frame of reference within the still larger context of the history of the early nineteenth century. In short, biographical criticism only receives its complete set of analytic possibilities when it is placed in the controlling framework of a general socio-historical methodology.


Biographical criticism is, taken by itself, a pseudohistorical method, though in our culture it is the critical path which still seems most closely connected with actual human history. Formally oriented critics have been wary of the approach for precisely that reason. But the fundamental problem with a strictly biographical (or psychoanalytic) criticism is not that its method imports "extrinsic" materials into the analysis. On the contrary, biographical analysis falters because it maintains the poem, and the poetic analysis, in the artificially restricted geography of the individual person. Such a criticism is aware that the artist writes in a dialectical relation to the objective world, but it is unaware that this relationship is fundamentally social rather than personal or psychological, and hence that objective history exerts a shaping influence upon the poetry.

Though biographical and psychoanalytic criticism remain in practice, a collateral type of pseudo-historical criticism dominates the field today, especially in the United States. In this case, the historical focus is upon literary history, which becomes the ultimate framing context for studying poems, poetic forms, and patterns of literary transmission. "World" or "epochal" history is deliberately removed from the analysis, or it is subordinated to literary categories, because of the premises of the general approach: that history at large can only enter literature via a system of artistic mediations, and these mediations are the necessary and immediate focus of attention.

The premises of this position—about the mediating function of literary categories—are strong, and they would be assented to by most historical critics. Literary mediations must indeed be the critic's focus of attention. Nevertheless, certain practical conclusions generally flow from this approach, and these conclusions expose a basic theoretical weakness. To hold a literary analysis within a purely poetic space is to ensure the conclusion—rampant in such criticism—that the subject of literature is—literature. Indeed, such conclusions are inevitable in a method which makes no serious attempt to analyze, and thereby explain, the special human significance of artistic mediations. Because the mediations are regarded as ultimate, they become mystified categories—indeed, fetishes.

A particularly apt example of this method is observable in Geoffrey Hartman's famous essay on Keats's "To Autumn."47 The purpose of his essay, he says, is to examine a special sort of poem, one "without explicit social context," and to explore "its involvement in social and historical vision." Hartman goes on to say that his "use of the concept of ideology [in the essay] will seem half-way or uncritical to the Marxist thinker." Nevertheless, he feels justified in using the term because, in his view, and contrary to more traditional readings of the poem, "To Autumn" is a poem that "has something to say: that it is an ideological poem whose very form expresses a national idea and a new stage of consciousness." Hartman's method, then, will be both historical and non-historical:

In uncovering Keats's ideology I remain as far as possible within terms provided by Keats himself, or furnished by the ongoing history of poetry. … Keats's poem is indeed an event in history; not in world-history, however, but simply in the history of fiction. …48

One would want to argue with Hartman's essay on more fronts than I have opened up here through these selective quotations. I confine myself to these remarks in order to focus on Hartman's idea that "To Autumn" is a poem "without an explicit social context." What Hartman means by this statement is that "To Autumn" does not make the immediate factual context circa September 1819 an explicit part of his poem. It differs, in this respect, from the "Ode to Psyche" and the "Ode to a Nightingale," for example, or—even more obviously—from Shelley's "The Mask of Anarchy" (which was written around the same time as "To Autumn").

Hartman's engagement with "To Autumn" is part of the poem's non-explicit social context, and one of the functions of criticism is to analyze the ideology of significant critical engagements like his. But I must pass by that subject here, interesting though it is, and return to Keats's poem. For if the social context of a poem achieves its first visibility in the immediate context of the reader of the poem, the poem's explicit social context achieves its first constitution at its point of origin. Let us turn now to that social context and examine what Keats has made explicit in his poem.

To understand the "explicit social involvement" of "To Autumn"—or of any literary work for that matter—demands that we reconstitute the initial stages of the poem's socialization. This means that we ask ourselves the question: when and where and by whom was the poem originally published? Defining these particulars allows us to see once again the initial historical moment of the poem's explicit and continuing social involvement, a moment that has often been removed from immediate consciousness by the passage of time. That initial moment of publication constitutes the first explicit appearance of the poem's meaning (a meaning that arises in the communication-event involving the author's expression and the reader's response). The special importance of this moment lies in its priority: whatever changes may occur in later readings of the poem, all subsequent responses derive in some way from the initial event.

"To Autumn" was first published in Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St. Agnes, and Other Poems, the so-called 1820 volume (published 1 July 1820). The character of this book—widely and, generally speaking, very favorably reviewed49—is intimately related to the "meaning" of "To Autumn." To elucidate the nature of this relationship we have to see the book, and its original context, very clearly.

The publishers of the 1820 volume were Taylor and Hessey, who also published Endymion in 1818. It was Endymion (not the 1817 volume, published by Oilier) that had been the immediate target of the hostile reviews of Keats, and the poet was not the only person who suffered in that literary world-wind. Consequently, when Keats approached Taylor and Hessey again, in the latter part of 1819, about publishing the new book of poems he had been planning, they were interested but wary. They had no intention of bringing out a volume that would call down again the sort of hostility and ridicule which greeted Endymion.50

Keats's struggles with his publishers over the 1820 volume are well known. At first it seemed that the poems would not be published at all, but a stroke of luck—the decision (later rescinded) by the Drury Lane Theatre to stage Otho the Great—changed Taylor's mind about Keats's new poems. If the play were to be performed, a book of poems might just have a chance of succeeding, despite the apparently hostile predisposition of the periodical establishment.51

The key fact in the pre-publication history of the 1820 poems is the insistence by Keats's publishers that the book not contain anything that would provoke the reviewers to attack (they were especially concerned about charges of indecency and political radicalism). Keats struggled with them over these issues, but he was eventually persuaded to follow their line. The two poems published in Leigh Hunt's Indicator did not find a place in the 1820 volume, and the reason for this is that Keats and his publishers did not want to give the reviewers any occasion for linking Keats's new work with the politically sensitive name of Leigh Hunt. For his part, Keats was also worried about the book's reception, but his concerns were slightly different. His principal interests were to show (a) the strength of his poetical technique, and (b) that he was not a "sentimental" or "weak-sided" poet.52

The 1820 volume, in other words, was constructed with a profoundly self-conscious attitude about that climate of literary opinion which prevailed at the time. It was designed as a book that would not provoke the critics in the ways that Endymion had done earlier. Indeed, Keats reacted so explosively to the notorious "Publisher's Advertisement" to the 1820 poems because he felt that the paragraph would call up the whole of that painful history surrounding Endymion's public reception, and expose him once again to the same set of charges.53

This history is important because it reflects the set of dialectical relations which converge in Keats's book. All of the 1820 poems were written in the post-Endymion period and they show very clearly the depth of Keats's response to his earlier treatment at the hands of the reviewers. Many of the new poems were deliberately written with an eye to attracting the favorable attention of the public (this is especially apparent in the case of the three narrative poems in the book).54 In the final event itself we see how successful Keats and his publishers were, for the book was received well, even warmly, in almost every quarter. Keats wrote, in his 1820 poems, what most readers at the time were quite pleased to hear.

The special character of Keats's 1820 volume manifests itself very clearly if we compare it to some other books published around that time. Byron's Don Juan volumes—especially Cantos I-II (1819) and Cantos VI-VIII (1823)—were deliberately written to provoke discussion and conflict, and the same is true of all of Shelley's works published in 1819-1820: Rosalind and Helen, for example, or Prometheus Unbound, or Oedipus tyrannus (the last a work of such inflammatory character that its publication had to be suppressed). Keats's 1820 poems, however, were issued not to provoke but to allay conflict. In sharp contrast to a poem like Prometheus Unbound, Keats's mythologically oriented works in his new book presented their early readers with ideas about art, myth, and imagination which did not open an explicit ideological attack upon the book's audience. The Lamia volume represented Keats's effort to show his readers how they might, by entering his poetic space, step aside from the conflicts and tensions which were so marked an aspect of that period. The whole point of Keats's great and (politically) reactionary book was not to enlist poetry in the service of social and political causes—which is what Byron and Shelley were doing—but to dissolve social and political conflicts in the mediations of art and beauty. (I should note here that although the 1820 poems were politically reactionary at the time of their publication, they were deeply subversive at the time of their rediscovery by the Pre-Raphaelite Circle).55

All of these matters constitute an "explicit" part of a poem like "To Autumn," for they were (quite literally) made explicit in the event of the poem's publication. Today the explicit character of these subjects only reveals itself to an historical analysis, since analysis alone can overcome the loss of memory which necessarily occurs over a period of time. Yet such an analysis is important not merely for recovering a lapsed memory of the past. It reveals as well the dynamic relations which play themselves out at all points in the history of the poem's transmission. Our present responses to "To Autumn" are closely tied into this entire historical development, whether we are aware of it or not.

Having reconstituted the essential features of the ode's publication history, we are now in a position to move to the next phrase of the analysis. In this case—because of the prevailing anti-historical climate of opinion epitomized in Hartman's essay—what is needed is a further exploration of the original circumstances surrounding Keats's poem.


Keats has, for example, chosen a slightly yet recognizably archaic style for his poem about autumn. The season, that is to say, is personified, even directly addressed in its personified character. Furthermore, this personified figure is suggestively related to mythic divinities like Ceres and Bacchus, thus reinforcing the poem's self-consciously assumed archaic quality.56 The poetical machinery is carried very lightly, however, and the second stanza explicitly superimposes images of contemporary peasant laborers on the androgynous figure of the pagan divinity. Finally, the agricultural laborers and the mythic being assume highly stylized poses in the poem. They are picturesque figures, that is to say, and the reason is that they enter the poem via Keats's experience of them in the artistically mediated forms of various 18th century paintings and engravings, and the landscapes of Poussin and Claude.57 The explicit fiction of the poem, then, is not to present a series of "natural" images of autumn, but rather to deliver autumn over to the reader's experience in a series of framed pictures—in forms, that is to say, which already emphasize the fact that art mediates human experience. Into the context of these poetic materials the ode introduces, with equal explicitness, the subject of the seasonal change from summer to winter with all its traditional thematic associations: living and dying, maturing and decaying, staying and leaving.

The significance of these themes in the poem must, however, remain at an inexplicit level without the application of an historical analysis. Indeed, the meaning of these thematic meanings is poetically defined by the historically specific ideological mediations invoked by the poem—in this case, by the specific materials Keats has drawn from the fine arts.

Let me explain this further. It is clearly important to know that "To Autumn" contains allusions to pictures done in the tradition of Poussin and Claude. But it is equally important to know how Keats himself understood and interpreted this tradition of painting. In fact, Keats's ideas about these matters, as scholars have known for a long time, run parallel to Hazlitt's ideas—are, indeed, drawn from Hazlitt's writings, conversations, and public lectures. Keats's poem alludes at once to the historical tradition in the fine arts and to Hazlitt's Romantically interpretive extension of that tradition. "To Autumn" makes explicit, in its verbal picture, what Hazlitt made explicit in discursive prose in another context. The landscapes of Poussin, he tells us, like those of Claude,

carry imagination back two or four thousand years at least, and bury it in the remote twilight of history. There is an opaqueness and solemnity in his colouring, assimilating with the tone of long-past events: his buildings are stiff with age; his implements of husbandry are such as would belong to the first rude stages of civilization; his harvests are such … as would yield to no modern sickle; his grapes … are a load on modern shoulders; there is a simplicity and undistinguishing breadth in the figures; and over all, the hand of time has drawn its veil.58

"To Autumn" draws its set of attitudes from the same ideological well which here serves Hazlitt. These attitudes have even been given a name by scholars: Romantic Classicism.

Let me return now to the problem of the meaning of "To Autumn's" thematic meanings. The poem's special effect is to remove the fearful aspects of these themes, to make us receive what might otherwise be threatening ideas in the simpler truth of certain forms which the poet presents as images of The Beautiful. This effect is produced by so manipulating the mythological and artistic mediations that the reader agrees to look at autumn, and to contemplate change and death, under certain precise and explicitly fictional guises. The reader accepts the invitation because these mediations, though recognizably fictional, nevertheless promise a real, human benefit: the beauty of the mediations can transform one's felt response to the ideas of change, death, decay. Keats's poem is itself the proof that such historically generated fictions, self-consciously embraced, can have this consoling power.

Up to this point, the textual analysis has only attempted to bring to light some of the historical specifics latent in the traditional line of criticism which has received its most finished statement in Hartman's essay. But from the vantage of an historical methodology the analysis has only just begun, for what we now have to develop is an explanatory context for the analysis. Thomson's famous poem about autumn, for example, does not concern itself with the consolations of fictional mediations. Why does Keats's poem do so?

In Thomson's poetry, and eighteenth century verse generally, when the theme of human mortality is taken up in the context of natural processes, human values emerge as a part of what have recently been called "the sciences of the artificial."59 In Windsor-Forest and The Seasons we observe how human practical arts, including the art of politics, place Nature—including human nature—under control and regulation. But in "To Autumn"—and here the poem is typical of its age—the factor of human control is not found in the practical arts, but in myth and in the illusions of the fine arts (both of which are made to stand for poetic artifice in general). In "To Autumn" Beauty is not only Truth, it is Power. But what is it, we want to know, which drives Keats to place his faith in poetry as the most distinctively human achievement, rather than in the practical and the useful arts?

The most general and explicit answer to this question was formulated by Wordsworth in his "Preface" to the Lyrical Ballads, and by Shelley in his great Defence of Poetry. Both argued from the current state of affairs, which they saw as destructive of a truly human life. Science, or Natural Philosophy, as well as the allied practical arts, did not seem to be ameliorating the conditions of human life; if anything, these forces only exacerbated suffering and social injustice. The Romantic maneuver—both from the left and from the right wing—was to turn to poetry and the fine arts as the only available instrument of human melioration.

The Romantic program developed along two distinct strategic lines. On the one hand, poetry was employed as a weapon to be used in the context of an explicit, and accepted, audience which the poet aimed to persuade, reinforce, or attack. Though Blake consciously adopted this strategy, only his work between 1790-1795 shows consistently effective practical results. Shelley and Byron use this strategy throughout their careers with repeated success. The other strategy, which dominates the work of Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Keats, received its most important formulation in Wordsworth's "Essay Supplementary" (1815) where he said that poets would now have to create their own audiences.60 Here Romanticism developed its patterns of "internalization," as they have been so memorably called, because it was unwilling to make contracts with the audiences available to it. Keats, who is especially typical of this Romantic line, showed how poetry could establish "a world elsewhere." In that alternative geography, personal and social tensions could be viewed with greater honesty and intellectual rigor.

"To Autumn" asks us to believe—to willingly suspend our disbelief—that all autumns are the same. We must imagine them to be, universally, the "season of mists and mellow fruitfulness." But Keats asks us to believe this because he knows, as we know, that it is not true. Such an autumn of perfect harvests and luxurious agricultural abundance is an autumn in the mind. City people, industrialized communities, do not know of these autumns except in the memories of art; and in the country such abundance is rare indeed, particularly in the early nineteenth century. In fact, 1819 brought in a good harvest in England, and the year was notable for its abundance precisely because of the series of disastrous harvests which characterized many of the years immediately preceding.

Keats encountered his imaginative autumn when he fled his "little coffin of a room at Shanklin"61 for the ease and tranquil beauty of Winchester, where he wrote "To Autumn" in the middle of September. His letters from 12 August to the beginning of October—the period of his Winchester sojourn—recur to his feelings of pleasure and relief. Winchester, and his time there, are repeatedly seen as a respite from the tensions not only of his own personal affairs, but of the contemporary social scene at large. The massacre at St. Peter's Fields (Peterloo) took place four days after Keats arrived in Winchester, and he was glad to feel removed from the political turmoil which followed in its wake. "We shall have another fall of Siege-arms,"64 he wrote to Woodhouse, but even as he followed the events of August and September in the Examiner's radical reports, he found Winchester a wonderful refuge: "This Winchester is a place tolerably well suited to me; there is a fine Cathedral, a College, a Roman-Catholic Chapel, a Methodist do, an independent do,—and there is not one loom or any thing like manufacturing beyond bread & butter in the place. It is a respectable, ancient aristocratical place—and moreover it contains a nunnery."63 Winchester has for Keats an old world, even a slightly archaic quality about it which he consistently recurs to in his letters. "The abbottine Winchester,"64 he calls it in a letter to his brother. The city and its environs are magical in their ability to carry him away to a charmed world far removed from the quotidian press of his money affairs and the dangerous political tensions of his society.65 "The Eve of St. Mark" begins as a tribute to this environment and "To Autumn" is its finished expression:

How beautiful the season is now—How fine the air. A temperate sharpness about it. Really, without joking, chaste weather—Dian skies—I never lik'd stubble fields so well as now—Aye better than the chilly green of the spring. Somehow a stubble plain looks warm—in the same way that some pictures look warm—this struck me so much in my Sunday's walk that I composed upon it.66

This well-known passage from the letters locates the ode's point of origin. No one but Ian Jack has remarked on the important reference to painting in the passage, and not even Jack notes what Keats has in fact said here: that the subject of "To Autumn" is explicitly the relationship between natural scenes and their expression in a certain tradition in the fine arts.

All of these biographical details illustrate Keats's special point of engagement with a number of large cultural and political issues which bore upon his age, and which had equally particular effects on everyone else, and which produced equally particular responses. (Shelley, for example, wrote a whole series of poems immediately after Peterloo in which he attacked the terrorist policies of the government forces.) "To Autumn" is only fictionally a poem about "any" autumn, or autumn "in general." Such an autumn is, the poet tells us, a myth, or an artistic reconstruction of a myth. Hartman discusses "To Autumn" as a poem about poetic fictions, and in this respect much of the foregoing analysis can be seen as merely supplying greater specificity to his sense of the ode. To study this work's allusive use of the pictorial arts is to see more clearly the exact form of the poem's chief fictionalizing devices. But in the specification of the poem's fictions we also acquire further explanatory powers. For now we can ask yet another question: why does Keats resort to pictorial tradition for his poem's fictionalizing models? Why not depend more exclusively on, for example, literary models?

One way of answering this question is to recall briefly the long critical tradition which has responded to the poem's "impersonal" quality.67 "To Autumn's" words seem aspiring to the condition of pictorial silence, where images present themselves in arranged groupings and sequences. In such a work the poet—as so many critics have said—seems almost to have achieved a state of negative capability: to have removed himself from his poem and to have erased his self-consciousness. Like the Grecian urn, the images in "To Autumn" are "silent forms" which "tease us out of thought."

Although this does seem to me to be the poem's ideological argument, it is not the poem's artistic achievement. For the "impersonality" achieved in the poem is an explicit function of a conscious desire, as one clearly sees in those great and famous lines which open the final stanza:

Where are the songs of spring? Aye, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too. …

Keats's autumn is the emblem of a condition freed from all weariness, fever, and fret, and his effort to describe such an autumn "impersonally" is the sign of his own attempt to achieve such a condition himself. But these lines remind us that the poem has been born in a desire, and that Keats's ideal autumn is not an impersonal or even an abstract autumn, but the dream of a mind that recalls the lost promise of the spring. Keats imagines such an autumn—he writes this ode—because he needs to develop some means for silencing that melancholy question: "Where are the songs of spring?" Instead of the songs of spring—the poems of desire and self-conscious thought—Keats offers the song of autumn—the poem of fruitfulness and picturesque sensation.69 What is crucial to see, however—and this is what the above passage shows us—is that "To Autumn" dramatizes Keats's selfconscious polemic for an art of sensations rather than an art of thought. The poem is not impersonal, it is tendentious and ideological in quite specific ways. Its message is that the fine arts, and by extension imagination generally, are more humanly productive than any of the other more practical sciences of the artificial. More even than this, "To Autumn" argues for the power of a specific type of imaginative art, that is, for an art that can imagine the sufficiency of the imagination.

The poem tries to persuade its readers that human beings sometimes have need of its imaginings, that the poetic fictions of the fanciful (as opposed to the polemical) imagination can be as objectively real and socially functional as any more work-a-day realities. Criticism, for its part, turns upon such poems and tries to explain how and why poets and readers might be prepared to believe, early in industrialized nineteenth-century England (or at some later point in time and place), that such a myth—that such fantastic and "romanticized" poetry—can be "useful" and full of power.

The explanation necessarily asks us to see, very clearly, that the poem's autumn is an historically specified fiction dialectically called into being by John Keats as an active response to, and alteration of, the events which marked the late summer and early fall of a particular year in a particular place. Keats's poem is an attempt to "escape" the period which provides the poem with its context, and to offer its readers the same opportunity of refreshment. By this I do not mean to derogate from Keats's poem, but to suggest what is involved in so illusive a work as "To Autumn" and in all the socalled escapist poetry which so many readers have found so characteristic of Romanticism.70 For the preoccupations of the Romantic style came to pass a fearful judgment upon the age which generated its various forms of artistic extremity. Already in Keats we begin to hear whispers of the motto of his great inheritor, D. G. Rossetti: "Fiat ars, pereat mundus." And why not? The viewless wings of poesy will carry one to the havens of intensity where pleasure and pain, life and even death, all seem to repossess some lost original value. This is the reflexive world of Romantic art, the very negation of the negation itself, wherein all events are far removed from the Terror, King Ludd, Peterloo, the Six Acts, and the recurrent financial crises of the Regency, and where humanity escapes the inconsequence of George IV, the absurd Prince Regent, the contemptible Wellington. Here evil itself will appear heroic, Satanic, Byronic—not banal, like Castlereagh.

Without historical analysis we can at best—and this is what Hartman has achieved—see Keats's poem as an elaborately structured poetic artifice. The poem is, he says, an "imagined picture … self-harvesting like the poet's own thoughts."71 And this is both a correct, and a traditional, view. But it is a view which agrees to read the poem simply, that is, wholly in terms of Keats's own artificially constructed fantasy. It takes the poem to be true, exclusively true, when in fact such a work—like all human works—is true only in the context of its field of social relations. The Romantic idea of imagination becomes, in Hartman's essay, a universal rather than an historical phenomenon. Hartman's is, then, a neo-Romantic reading of an old Romantic poem, and this fact itself tells us much about the judgment upon our own age which is implicit in Hartman's nostalgic commentary.


I want to conclude with two sets of remarks. First, permit me to re-emphasize what, in my view, this sort of historical method undertakes to perform. Traditionally, literary criticism has been divided into three separate provinces: Analysis, Explanation, Evaluation. In the modern period, historical methods have been allowed to govern the second of these provinces (Explanation); formal (or intrinsic) criticism, on the other hand, is taken to govern the first province (Analysis). The third province, Evaluation, is currently ungoverned, and has been ever since the demolition of the classical science of Evaluation as it was embodied in the theory of decorum.

My argument here is that the historical method—and specifically a sociological poetics—must be recognized not only as relevant to the analysis of poetry, but in fact as central to analysis (that is, to the study of the so called "purely poetic" or "intrinsic" aspects of literature). Though I have not argued here the necessary consequence of such a view, it should be evident that to establish the pertinence of historical method to the field of literary analysis is tantamount to establishing the hegemony of historical method to literary studies in general. This is not to say that more specialized literary investigations should be discouraged; quite the contrary. But it is to say that the governing context of all literary investigations must ultimately be an historical one. Literature is a human product, a humane art. It cannot be carried on (created), understood (studied), or appreciated (experienced) outside of its definitive human context. The general science governing that human context is socio-historical.

The second point I want to make is related to the first. I cannot develop here the arguments which would be needed to demonstrate, theoretically, the crucial significance of historical method for the analysis of the aesthetic effect of literature. But I would like to conclude with some directory remarks on that subject.

The locus classicus in Marxist aesthetics for a discussion of this matter is in Marx's Introduction to the Critique of Political Economy. In a famous passage Marx poses for himself the difficult problem of explaining why the great artistic products of Greece—an admittedly "primitive … social order"—should "still constitute with us a source of aesthetic enjoyment and in certain respects prevail as the standard and model beyond attainment." His answer to this question has been something of an embarrassment to Marxist aesthetics ever since.

A man cannot become a child again unless he becomes childish. But does he not enjoy the artless ways of the child and must he not strive to reproduce its truth on a higher plane? Is not the character of every epoch revived perfectly true to nature in child nature? Why should the social childhood of mankind, where it had obtained its most beautiful development, not exert an eternal charm as an age that will never return? There are ill-bred children and precocious children. Many of the ancient nations belong to the latter class. The Greeks were normal children. The charm their art has for us does not conflict with the primitive character of the social order from which it had sprung. It is rather the product of the latter, and is rather due to the fact that the unripe social conditions under which the art arose and under which alone it could appear can never return.72

Although Marx's comments are confused and wholly lacking in analytic rigor, his nostalgia for "the glory that was Greece" is the emotional sign of an important, and characteristically Marxian, insight. This passage shows Marx's profound sense of the pastness of the past, and of the importance which this differential has for all aesthetic experiences.

Neither Marx nor his immediate followers were able to develop the necessary analysis which these insights called for. The next step toward such an analysis was not taken until certain Russian critics gave a name to what Marx naively saw as the charm of a childlike art. The name is "estrangement."73

The aesthetic effect of literature is profoundly related—paradoxical though it may seem—to the reader or viewer's sense of history. Aesthetic effect depends upon the distancing of the art work, the estrangement of it, its isolation from our immediacy. We say that it seems to occupy a place outside of time, as it were. But this is merely a way of saying that art works are forever placed in history, that is, in the vertical and horizontal circumstances which define human events. The apparent immobility of art, Bate's "universality," is a function of the reader's historical sense, which registers the distance between the (past) object and the (present) experience.

This estrangement effect, however, cannot begin to be analyzed without an historical method. Nor will a method that confines itself to literary history suffice, for art at all times is a part of a human activity which transcends the limited materials and special history of art itself. Thus it has often, and properly, been said that poetry holds a mirror up to human life. But something more must be said. For poetry does not hold a mirror up to an immobilized "Human Nature"; it reflects—and reflects upon—human nature in its social and historical reality. The celebrated estrangement effect of art is simply the sign of art's own inherent historical dimension vis-a-vis its audience. To analyze, in literature, this deeply felt distance between us and our pasts requires the precise specification of historical details—from the merest facts picked up in a gloss, to the most sharply defined general categories of ideological order.

Literature focusses moments of intense feeling, of deep human sympathy, and these experiences occur because all readers of poems register in their feelings the social and historical gulfs which, even while they separate and define exact differences, ultimately join together by calling out human sympathy—that special feeling of a social union which, in our historical experience to this period, has remained, like Wordsworth's cuckoo, something "longed for, never seen." What remains to be seen is the human limits which history imposes even on those famous words. Their meaning, their power—indeed, their ability to transcend their own historical limits—all depend upon the existence of those specific limits; and our appreciation of such power and transcendence equally depends on our ability to understand the fact of those limits, and to analyze it. Failing such things, I do not see how we can reciprocate the transcendence of Romantic verse, or feel anything but shame when we read such poetry.


1 Even an anti-historical critic like Northop Frye recognizes that this demand which Byron makes on criticism is an indication of a more widespread problem in literary studies. See his Fables of Identity (New York, 1963), 174. But Frye does not propose a method for coping with the problems he sees.

2 I take the term "extrinsic" from the heuristic distinction between "extrinsic" and "intrinsic" approaches to literature set forth in René Wellek and Austin Warren's widely circulated handbook Theory of Literature (New York, 1949).

3 The formulation is Wellek and Warren's, Theory of Literature.

4 "Introduction," John Keats: Selected Poetry (New York, 1966), xi.

5 This idea is so fundamental to modern English and American critics that one even finds it advanced by commentators who profess an historical, social, even Marxist orientation. See, for example, Evan Watkins, The Critical Act (New Haven, 1978), 158-159.

6 M. M. Bakhtin is perhaps best known for his books Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics (Ann Arbor, 1973), and Rabelais and his World (Cambridge, Mass., 1968). But so far the most important work to come out of this school, and to have been translated, is P. N. Medvedev/M. M. Bakhtin, The Formal Method in Literary Scholarship (Baltimore, 1978), a theoretical study of immense importance. Medvedev and Bakhtin, along with V. N. Volosinov, worked in close association in the Soviet Union in the late 1920s. Known as The Bakhtin School, they fell from favor, and into obscurity, in the 1930s, but interest in their work was revived late in the 1960s. For historical details see the "Introduction" to The Formal Method and "Introduction" to V. N. Volosinov's Freudianism: A Marxist Critique, trans. I. R. Titunik and ed. in collaboration with Neal R. Brass (New York, 1976); see also the translator's "Introduction" to Volosinov's Marxism and the Philosophy of Language, trans. Ladislav Matejka and I. R. Titunik (New York, 1973). Volosinov's brilliant essay "Discourse in Life and Discourse in Art" is reprinted in the Freudianism volume (Appendix I) and it anticipates many of the insights of The Formal Method, through the style of approaching the problems each takes up is quite different. On "context," e.g., Volosinov says:

In life, verbal discourse is clearly not self-sufficient. It arises out of an extraverbal pragmatic situation and maintains the closest possible connection with that situation. Moreover, such discourse is directly informed by life itself and cannot be divorced from life without losing its import.

The kind of characterizations and evaluations of pragmatic, behavioral utterances we are likely to make are such things as: "that's a lie," "that's the truth," "that's a daring thing to say," "you can't say that," and so on and so forth.

All these and similar evaluations, whatever the criteria that govern them (ethical, cognitive, political, or other), take in a good deal more than what is enclosed within the strictly verbal (linguistic) factors of the utterance. Together with the verbal factors, they also take in the extraverbal situation of the utterance. These judgements and evaluations refer to a certain whole wherein the verbal discourse directly engages an event in life and merges with that event, forming an indissoluble unity. The verbal discourse itself, taken in isolation as a purely linguistic phenomenon, cannot, of course, be true or false, daring or diffident.(p. 98)

7The Formal Method, 120.

8Ibid., 122.

9Ibid., 133.

10Ibid., 126-127.

11 Compare Volosinov, "Discourse in Life and Discourse in Art," op. cit., p. 98:

Aesthetic communication, fixed in a work of art, is, as we have already said, entirely unique and irreducible to other types of ideological communication such as the political, the juridical, the moral, and so on. If political communication establishes corresponding institutions and, at the same time, juridical forms, aesthetic communication organizes only a work of art. If the latter rejects this task and begins to aim at creating even the most transitory of political organizations or any other ideological form, then by that very fact it ceases to be aesthetic communication and relinquishes its unique character. What characterizes aesthetic communication is the fact that it is wholly absorbed in the creation of a work of art, and in its continuous re-creations in the co-creation of contemplators, and does not require any other kind of objectification. But, needless to say, this unique form of communication does not exist in isolation; it participates in the unitary flow of social life, it reflects the common economic basis, and it engages in interaction and exchange with other forms of communication.

12 The distinction here between "poem" and "text" seems to me related to what Coleridge and Shelley were trying to articulate when they distinguished between "poetry" and "a poem." See Biographia Literaria, chaps. XIII-XIV, and A Defence of Poetry.

13 The clear purpose of The Formal Method and the other theoretical works of the Bakhtin School cited above is a critical rather than a synthetic one. Nevertheless, these works repeatedly suggest, though never in a systematic way, various positive analytic procedures which a sociological poetics might follow.

14 For example: what are we to understand as the point of origin? Is it the work's date of composition? The date of publication? And what difference would it make? Correspondingly, how do we distinguish current critical activity from the critical acts of the past? And is editorial work performed after a writer's death part of the work's critical history, or is it rather to be related to the work's point of origin? I believe that theoretical questions of these sorts—others will easily come to mind—begin to dissolve as soon as one develops a coherent methodology.

15 Because the subjects of this discussion will necessarily appear to be material recovered from the past, I may seem to be setting aside the immediate context, and hence avoiding what I have called criticism's "future project." But in fact the present context and the future project are both self-consciously present in the rhetorical structure and aims of this paper. Keats has been deliberately chosen, for obvious reasons, and the poems to be discussed have not by any means been randomly selected (no one ever acts randomly). Were I to be discussing historical method with a different audience—undergraduates, say—I would probably choose different texts altogether and reorganize the entire structure of the paper. As I have already argued, all criticism seems to me, by definition, tendentious in character. A critic will be working within an historicist method to the degree that he tries not merely to be personally self-conscious about his polemical aims, but to keep his audience aware of those aims at all times.

16 The lines here, and elsewhere, are quoted from Miriam Allott's fine edition, The Poems of John Keats (London, 1970). I have preferred this to Jack Stillinger's edition, just published, because Allott's edition is more useful historically (it is well annotated). Stillinger's edition is purely textual.

17 Allott ed., p. 25, n. to lines 17-18.

18 Aileen Ward, John Keats. The Making of a Poet (New York, Compass Books ed., 1967), 51.

19 See The Keats Circle: Letter and Papers 1816-1879, ed. H. E. Rollins (Cambridge Mass., 1965) II, 184-188. Over thirty years later Mathew's cousin Caroline also remembered the revels quite clearly, but she had in the meantime developed some rather stern moral attitudes, so that she could not recall the scenes very fondly: see The Keats Circle II, 189-191. See also J. M. Murry, Studies in Keats (London, 1930), chap. 1.

20 Bhabatosh Chatterjee, John Keats: His Mind and Work (Bombay, 1971), 211.

21 My discussion here is in debt to John O. Hayden's fine synthetic description of contemporary reactions to "The Cockney School" in his The Romantic Reviewers (Chicago, 1968), pp. 176-215. In the present instance, see p. 189.

22 "On the Cockney School of Poetry," Edinburgh Magazine (Oct. 1817), p. 256.

23The Poems of John Keats (Cambridge, Mass., 1978).

24 For a good brief synopsis of the essential bibliographical data see Jack Stillinger, The Texts of Keats's Poems (Cambridge, Mass., 1964), 232-234 and Stillinger's edition, 643-644.

25 Sidney Colvin, in his John Keats (London, 1920), vehemently denounces The Indicator text on aesthetic grounds, and explicitly calls upon "the Oxford University Press" to revise its edition by removing The Indicator text. His argument (which is typical of this approach) deserves full quotation because it has been so influential (pp. 469-470):

During those unhappy months at Kentish Town Keats's best work was given to the world. First, in Leigh Hunt's Indicator for May 20, La Belle Dame sans Merci, signed, obviously in bitterness, 'Caviare' (Hamlet's 'caviare to the general'), and unluckily enfeebled by changes for which we find no warrant either in Keats's autograph or in extant copies made by his friends Woodhouse and Brown. Keats's judgment in revising his own work had evidently by this time become unsure. We have seen how in recasting Hyperion the previous autumn he changed some of the finest of his original lines for the worse: and it is conceivable that in the case of La Belle Dame he may have done so again of his own motion, but much more likely, I should say, that the changes, which are all in the direction of the slipshod and the commonplace, were made on Hunt's suggestion and that Keats acquiesced from fatigue or indifference, or perhaps even from that very sense of lack of sympathy in most readers which made him sign 'Caviare.' Hunt introduced the piece with some commendatory words, showing that he, at all events, felt nothing amiss with it in its new shape, and added a short account of the old French poem by Alain Chartier from which the title was taken. It is to be deplored that in some recent and what should be standard editions of Keats the poem stands as thus printed in the Indicator, instead of in the original form rightly given by Lord Houghton from Brown's transcript, in which it had become a classic of the language.

It is surely a perversion in textual criticism to perpetuate the worse version merely because it happens to be the one printed in Keats's lifetime. No sensitive reader but must feel that 'wretched wight' is a vague and vapid substitute for the clear image of the 'knight-atarms,' while 'sigh'd full sore' is ill replaced by 'sighèd deep,' and 'wild wild eyes' still worse by 'wild sad eyes': that the whimsical particularity of the 'kisses four,' removed in the new version, gives the poem an essential part of its savour (Keats was fond of these fanciful numberings; compare the damsels who stand 'by fives and sevens' in the Induction to Calidore, and the 'four laurell'd spirits' in the Epistle to George Felton Mathew): and again, that the loose, broken construction—'So kissed to sleep' is quite uncharacteristic of the poet: and yet again, that the phrase 'And there we slumbered on the moss,' is what any amateur rimester might write about any pair of afternoon picknickers, while the phrase which was cancelled for it, 'And there she lullèd me asleep,' falls with exactly the mystic cadence and hushing weight upon the spirit which was required.

26 See "wight" in the OED, where the word's history of two interlocked meanings is clearly set forth. Essentially, the two meanings are epitomized in Spenser's use of the term in The Shepheardes Calender on the one hand, and The Faerie Queene on the other. In the latter case the term develops through the literature of heroic romance and carries no ironic overtones. In the former, however, the word signifies a base individual and is used in mild contempt and derision. By the time the word reaches the nineteenth century, its archaic character is established, so that its romance meaning (as used in some of Walter Scott's poems, for example, in Marmion VI, xx) is continually threatened by an ironic overtone. This situation occurs not simply because "wight" is seen to be an archaic word, but because the word itself carries its own ironic history in its alternate tradition. The entire process emerges quite clearly in the influential opening stanzas of Byron's Childe Harold, Canto I, where the ironization of the romance usage is complete. That Keats was aware of these matters is plain enough from his treatment of romance materials in other poems written around the time of the ballad. See especially "On the Character of C. B."

27 On the significance of the "Caviare" signature see Gittings, John Keats, 400, and Colvin, op. cit. n. 27. On the matter of The Indicator's ideological function see Leigh Hunt, Autobiography, ed. J. E. Morpurgo (London, 1949), 280, 489 n. 8.; and Edmund Blunden, Leigh Hunt and His Circle (New York, 1930), 146-150.

28 Brown was a misogynist, and his behavior toward Fanny Brawne was especially contemptible: see Aileen Ward, 249-250, and Gittings, ibid., 285, 337, 363, 385. For Milnes and his library see The Swinburne Letters, ed. Cecil Y. Lang (New Haven, 1959) I, xlvi.

29 Brown was one of the principal people who encouraged Keats to try to make his way as a hack London journalist and dramatic writer. He also sought to separate Keats from Hunt.

30 See immediately below. But this count does not include the poem's title and signature in The Indicator, though both are especially important elements of the poem and ought to be considered as important "variants."

31 Stillinger, The Texts of Keats's Poems, 226-227.

32 Stillinger, The Poems of John Keats, 636.

33 See Robert Gittings, The Mask of Keats (Cambridge, Mass., 1956), esp. 26-33.

34 See Gittings, John Keats, chaps. 22-24 and Ward, chaps. 11-12.

35 By "romantic" here I mean simply that the Brown/1848 text does not distance itself from itself the way The Indicator text does. The former is a more selfabsorbed and self-absorbing text, whereas the latter is more self-conscious and critical.

36The Letters of John Keats, ed. Hyder Rollins (Cambridge, Mass., 1958) II, 97.

37 See Colvin's remarks in the passage quoted in n. 27 above. See also Robert Gittings, John Keats: The Living Year (London, 1962), 113-121, and Walter Jackson Bate, John Keats (Cambridge, Mass., 1963), 480.

38 See Frederick L. Beaty, Light From Heaven (DeKalb, Ill., 1971), chap. 7. Beaty does not, however, emphasize the social reflex of this attitude toward love.

39 See Stillinger, The Texts of Keats's Poems, 246-247, and Allott, 537-538n.

40 Bate, 510-511n.

41 Ian Jack, Keats and the Mirror of Art (Oxford, 1967), chap. XIII.

42 See Ibid., chap. III.

43Ibid., 283 n. 13.

44 Stillinger, The Texts of Keats's Poems, 264-265.

45 See The World's Classics reprint of Milnes's work (Oxford, 1931), 229.

46 Allott's notes and commentary (686-689) on the poem bring together many of the pertinent biographical references.

47 "Poem and Ideology: A Study of Keats's 'To Autumn'," in The Fate of Reading (Chicago, 1975), 124-146.

48 These quotations are taken from pages 124-126.

49 Cf. Hayden, Op. Cit., 196-204.

50 See Ward, 315-316, 332-333.

51Ibid, 341.

52 See The Keats Circle, I, 90-97 and Letters II, 174.

53 See Ward, 363, and Allott, 764.

54 See the Letters II, 139, 174; Allott, 326-327, 450-451 , 614-615; and Ward, 289, 315, 333.

55 It is, I hope, unnecessary to point out that the "reactionary" and the "subversive" character of Keats's poems is, in this context, a function of particular historical circumstances, and that the fundamentally critical aspect of the poetry persists through these changes. In both cases we see that Keats's poems refuse to be reconciled with the "actual world," though in each case the poems pass their critical judgments on the world from differing points of vantage. For a fuller theoretical discussion of this point see Theodor Adorno, "Reconciliation Under Duress," in Aesthetics and Politics (London, 1977); see especially pp. 159-160: "Art and reality can only converge if art crystallizes out its own formal laws, not by passively accepting objects as they come. In art knowledge is aesthetically mediated through and through…. In the form of an image the object is absorbed into the subject instead of following the bidding of the alienated world and persisting obdurately in a state of reification. The contradiction between the object reconciled in the subject … and the actual unreconciled object in the outside world, confers on the work of art a vantage point from which it can criticize actuality. Art is the negative knowledge of the actual world…. Only by virtue of [aesthetic dis tance] can a work of art become both work of art and valid consciousness."

56 Ian Jack discusses the Ceres allusions in his essay on "To Autumn" in Keats and the Mirror of Art (Oxford, 1967), chap. XV. Bacchus he does not discuss, but that divinity's history in art and poetry shows him frequently represented as a handsome youth with fine, long-flowing hair.

57 See Jack's discussion, ibid.

58 Quoted in Jack, 69.

59 Herbert A. Simon, The Sciences of the Artificial (Cambridge, Mass., 1969).

60 Prof. James Chandler has pointed out to me that this idea was not originally Wordsworth's. He first had it from Coleridge (see Wordsworth's letter to Lady Beaumont of 21 May 1807).

61Letters II, 141.

62Letters II, 175.

63Letters II, 189.

64Letters II, p. 201.

65 See, e.g., Letters II, p. 209.

66 Letters II, p. 167.

67 Hartman's essay explicitly builds on this tradition. See especially p. 146 of his essay, where he concludes: "Even fruitfulness is not a burden in 'To Autumn.' This, at last, is true impersonality."

68 The self-consciousness of these lines is anticipated in the poem at lines 9-11. There Keats suggests, by pathetic fallacy, a charming mood of querulousness in his poem's bees.

69 One could easily develop here a (useful) biographical analysis by associating the "songs of spring" with the great "spring odes" Keats had written a few months before. In this analysis, "To Autumn" would be seen not merely as an acceptance of the idea of "fruitfulness," but also as the resort to that idea.

70 That Romanticism is a reactionary and "escapist" art movement is a critical commonplace. One can (and should) assent to this view, but only after one also sees that the "reaction" of Romanticism is also an intense expression of critique. See above n. 55, and Arnold Hauser, The Social History of Art (New York, 1958) III, 196, 174-176. Perhaps the most profound expression of this view of Romanticism can be found in the first detailed commentary on the subject in Heine's great essay on the Romantic Movement: see "The Romantic School," in Heinrich Heine: Selected Works, ed. Helen Mustard (New York, 1973).

71 Hartman, op. cit., p. 143.

72 Quoted in Berel Lang and Forrest Williams, Marxism and Art (New York, 1972), p. 38.

73 The concept of estrangement, as developed by the Russian Formalists and subsequent epigones, is used in a much more limited frame of reference than the one I am developing here. See also the Bakhtin School's trenchant critique of the concept in The Formal Method, passim, but especially pp. 60-62.

Wolf Z. Hirst (essay date 1981)

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SOURCE: "The Letters," in John Keats, Twayne Publishers, 1981, pp. 32-50.

[In the following essay, Hirst demonstrates the significance of Keats's letters, asserting that within them, Keats reveals the details of his theories regarding "negative capability, " "soul-making," and the "truth of Imagination."]

I General Characteristics

Keats's 251 surviving letters provide a detailed record of his three most creative years and of the last year, when he no longer wrote poetry. They give us a clear picture of his personality, trace his development as a poet, and are full of spontaneous pronouncements on the nature of poetry which have become starting points for countless discussions on aesthetics. We come across phrases like "negative capability," "truth of Imagination," and "Soul-making" so often in criticism that we tend to forget the informal context in which such expressions first appeared.

Although, taken as a whole, Keats's letters may be seen as a fairly coherent body of thought, they consist of a series of insights scattered almost at random and interspersed with trivialities. Parts resemble lectures, others travelogues or pieces of journalism, and others again read almost like a diary. Four letters are verse epistles. Beside brief notes of four to six lines there are several lengthy journal-letters scribbled in installments; the longest, written to George and Georgiana from 14 February to 3 May 1819, extends over fifty pages (II, 58-109). The letters serve as a repository for puns and jokes as well as for aesthetic and ethical maxims, for slight verses as well as for magnificent poetry. They give us the circumstances under which many of Keats's poems were composed. Sometimes they are self-judgments, sometimes they judge the work of others. Often Keats copies finished poems into his letters, but at times he seems to be dashing off impromptu verses some of which he revises and publishes later. In at least one instance he consciously uses part of a letter (II, 93-94) as a rough draft: a passage consisting of a jocose critique of a friend's work (Reynolds's Peter Bell, a parody of Wordsworth) is later published as a review in Hunt's Examiner.

A lively sense of humor pervades the letters. In the midst of a serious discussion Keats may spring a jest upon his correspondents or else he may prepare them for a sustained piece of fun, as in the passage to his sister-in-law beginning "I want very very much a little of your wit my dear sister" and ending as follows: "While you are hovering with your dinner in p[r]ospect you may do a thousand things—put a hedgehog into Georges hat—pour a little water into his rifle—soak his boots in a pail of water—cut his jacket round into shreds like a roman kilt or the back of my grandmothers stays—sow off his buttons" (II, 92-93). Since poetry-writing is the central subject of Keats's serious discussions, it also repeatedly becomes the butt of his wit. Thus he can ridicule his friend's exertions: "Brown has been walking up and down the room a breeding—now at this moment he is being delivered of a couplet—and I dare say will be as well as can be expected—Gracious—he has twins!" (II, 66). More often he deflates his own poetic efforts. After copying the "Ode to Psyche," the first poem with which, he claims, he has "taken even moderate pains," he appends the comment "Here endethe ye Ode to Psyche" (II, 105, 108). The lines "And there I shut her wild wild eyes/With kisses four" from "La Belle Dame sans Merci" receive the following commentary:

Why four kisses—you will say—why four because I wish to restrain the headlong impetuosity of my Muse—she would have fain said "score" without hurting the rhyme—but we must temper the Imagination as the Critics say with Judgment. I was obliged to choose an even number that both eyes might have fair play: and to speak truly I think two a piece quite sufficient—Suppose I had said seven; there would have been three and a half a piece—a very awkward affair—and well got out of on my side—(II, 97)

Frequently the same letter combines the trivial with the momentous: all the above quotations are taken from the long journal-letter to George and Georgiana which culminates in the famous "vale of Soul-making" passage (II, 102). We depend chiefly on the letters and on poems first appearing in the letters for Keats's humor, there being almost none in the three volumes of poetry published in his lifetime.

No proof from the letters is needed for Keats's gift of conveying sense impressions in memorable language, but it is interesting to note how the prose of Keats's letters reminds us of particular sensations immortalized in his greatest poetry. The earth-cooled wine of the second stanza of "Ode to a Nightingale" appears, in a letter to Fanny Keats written about the same time, as "a little claret-wine cool out of a cellar a mile deep" (II, 56). The poet whose "palate fine" tastes a bursting grape at the end of the "Ode on Melancholy" would give Dilke (in a letter he never sent) an unashamedly luscious description of swallowing a nectarine: "It went down soft pulpy, slushy, oozy—all its delicious embonpoint melted down my throat like a beatified Strawberry" (II, 179). Keats's talent for observing and delighting in nature and his power of drawing a reader into his experience are exhibited in his first letter from the Lake District: the spectacle of the Ambleside waterfall is a pleasure which Keats, characteristically, invites his brother to "taste" (I, 300-301). Vignettes such as the description of the old woman Keats and Brown met on their return from Belfast (I, 321-22) or the imaginary conversation involving Hunt, Gattie, Hazlitt, Mrs. Novello, and Oilier (II, 14) gives us an idea of what Keats might have accomplished had time permitted him to fulfill his "greatest ambition," his promised "revolution in modern dramatic writing," with "a few fine Plays" (II, 139, 234).

Yet Keats is always aware that he is writing a letter, not a dissertation, a travelogue, or a dramatic sketch, and he never forgets his correspondent. The tone of his letters to friends differs markedly from the tone he adopts toward his sister or toward Fanny Brawne and changes abruptly within the same letter to George and Georgiana whenever he turns directly to his sister-in-law. There are more subtle nuances in his attitude to different friends. Keats's letters to Reynolds and Bailey, for example, include some of his most profound reflections on art and life side by side with lighthearted banter, and one letter to Bailey, who at that time was completing his clerical studies, even contains sexual slang (I, 175),1 but nevertheless we detect a slightly more respectful tone in Keats's approach to the latter. He knows that the written word, no matter how intimate, can never capture the familiarity of oral communication: "Writing has this disadvan[ta]ge of speaking. One cannot write a wink, or a nod, or a grin, or a purse of the Lips, or a smilelaw! One can-[not] put ones finger to one's nose, or yerk ye in the ribs, or lay hold of your button in writing" (II, 205). More than once Keats would like to know what "humour" the recipient of his letter is in (I, 303, 324). He sometimes tries to guess his correspondent's mood by giving his own or to catch the intimacy of conversation by depicting the exact physical circumstances under which he is writing, as when he says: "the fire is at its last click—I am sitting with my back to it with one foot rather askew upon the rug and the other with the heel a little elevated from the carpet" and requests that his brother and sister-in-law give him a similar description of themselves (II, 73).

Evidently Keats must attach some importance to his letters, since he asks his sister to preserve them (I, 156). He suggests to George and Georgiana by way of a jest that he might print them one day (I, 305); and when two years later in a letter to Fanny Brawne, to whom he usually writes in a very different vein, he makes a similar joking comment (II, 282), we wonder whether he may not have been half aware of the intrinsic value of his letters. Today we accept Eliot's judgment that they are "the most important ever written by any English poet."2

II Keats's Personality as Reflected in the Letters

The warm humanity and charm for which the poet was remembered by family and friends show through his letters. Keats reveals himself as a generous, genial, and courageous man whose self-confident ambition is balanced by a healthy awareness of his own foibles and tolerance toward those of his fellows. He exhibits profound attachment whenever he writes to his sister Fanny, to Tom, or to George and Georgiana, who has become a second sister to him. At times he becomes unabashedly tender, as when he writes to his brother and sister-in-law: "embrace each other—thank heaven for what happiness you have" (I, 391), and later: "Your wants will be a fresh spur to me," or: "I will not omit any exertion to benefit you by some means or other" (II, 185, 210), a promise he faithfully keeps when in January 1820, in dire financial straits himself, he helps to fill George's needs from the family inheritance. Feeling acutely his sister's confined life under the guardianship of the Abbeys and his own enforced separation from her (I, 202, 214, 343; II, 33, 60), he tries to cheer her up by regaling her with accounts of his work and travels or amuse her with rhymed reminiscences of his childhood (I, 154, 310-15). Even when he undertakes to coach her for her confirmation, he avoids a patronizing tone and signs himself "Your affectionate Parson John" (II, 49-51).

The letters to Fanny Brawne, on the other hand, are characterized by an uncontrollable passion and self-contradiction. Keats tears himself away from his beloved in order to work and blames her for being able to bear their separation. Possessiveness and jealousy alternate with self-sacrifice; recriminations are followed by declarations of love. After writing Fanny an "excessively unloverlike and ungallant," indeed a "flint-worded Letter," he ends with: "O my love, your lips are growing sweet again to my fancy—I must forget them" (II, 141-42); he has been afraid of her "being a little inclined to the Cressid" and adds in the same breath: "but that suspicion I dismiss utterly and remain happy in the surety of your Love" (II, 256). His accusations show how unfounded his jealousy is: she has gone to town alone, perhaps she has smiled in the company of others (II, 290, 304). After demanding "You must be mine to die upon the rack if I want you," he attempts to recant but immediately reverses himself once more: "No—my sweet Fanny—I am wrong. I do not want you to be unhappy—and yet I do" (II, 291). Keats is of course aware of these inconsistencies and of his role as a mad and jealous lover. But his real feelings toward Fanny Brawne may be more complex than he realizes. Keats's sincerity allows us a momentary glimpse into his heart that should give us pause: "I look not forward with any pleasure to what is call'd being settled in the world; I tremble at domestic cares—yet for you I would meet them" (II, 133). His apprehension that they "should what people call, settle—turn into a pond, a stagnant Lethe—a vile crescent, row or buildings" (II, 138) seems to mask an anxiety that their relationship might stifle his poetic growth.

Geniality, generosity, devotion, passion, ambition, altruism, tolerance, courage—these traits almost complete the personality reflected in Keats's letters. But perhaps what is most characteristic about the emerging portrait is a unique blend of tact and straightforwardness. There are different nuances of apology to Bailey (I, 292, 340) and Reynolds (I, 325). Imaginative wit or a simple joke camouflages Keats's embarrassment at being obliged to acknowledge or ask for a loan (I, 145-46, 147-48; II, 154-55). The poet's resourcefulness and sense of humor usually extricate him also from the awkwardness of confessing that he should have written earlier (I, 226, 240, 289; II, 134), though when the victim is Fanny Brawne he refuses to take lightly even a delay of only four days (II, 140). His repeated admission that he is lazy and does not like letter-writing (II, 37, 51, 219) is best explained by the confession that he "cannot force [his] letters in a hot bed" (I, 288).

The four surviving letters from the last voyage and sojourn in Italy while Keats was dying of consumption still retain this remarkable fusion of discretion and frank spontaneity, at the same time bringing home to us both his tragic fate and his fortitude in bearing it. "Land and Sea, weakness and decline are great seperators [sic], but death is the great divorcer for ever," Keats writes to Brown from aboard ship (II, 345). Perhaps the most poignant words ever written to Fanny Brawne are from the letter which Keats, too broken to write to his fiancée directly, addressed to her mother. Throughout the letter he has restrained his feelings, and only in the postscript he turns directly to his beloved with the words: "Good bye Fanny! god bless you" (II, 350). The last letter was to Brown and ends: "I can scarcely bid you good bye even in a letter. I always made an awkward bow. God bless you!" (II, 360). Ricks justly calls this last farewell "the least awkward bow ever made," one that "brings tears to the eyes."3

III The Truth of Imagination

For all their wit, charm, and poignancy, the letters are of most interest to us for what they tell us about Keats's speculations on art and life. The thought expressed in the letters constitutes a set of developing ideas rather than a closed philosophical system, but there is a remarkable consistency in his approach. Always open to new experience, Keats leaves room for doubt, selfquestioning, and ambiguity. He easily submerges his own point of view and casts himself into the role of another. He is not narrowly and aggressively intellectual: knowledge is to be acquired not by means of abstract analysis but through the senses, the heart, the imagination. Thus his speculations often drift toward aesthetics. In the letter on "the truth of Imagination" written to Bailey on 22 November 1817 (I, 183-87),4 he begins by trying to smoothe over a quarrel between Bailey and Haydon and explaining that even when insulted he would not break off a friendship. This exhibition of tolerance at the expense of "principle" reminds him "in passing" of the nature of "Men of Genius," who, unlike "Men of Power," "are great as certain ethereal Chemicals operating on the Mass of neutral intellect—[but] they have not any individuality, any determined Character, any "proper self." From the later definitions of "negative capability" and "the poetical Character" (I, 193-94, 386-87) it becomes clear that Keats is here thinking of the mind which, impartially open to all new impressions, acts imaginatively yet imperceptibly, and effects its changes like a catalyst without imposing its own characteristics and preferences—a disinterested mind which does not seek to dominate others through dogma or rules of conduct.

Bailey's "momentary start about the authenticity of the Imagination" provokes Keats into a famous declaration of faith:

I am certain of nothing but of the holiness of the Heart's affections and the truth of Imagination—What the imagination seizes as Beauty must be truth—whether it existed before or not—for I have the same Idea of all our Passions as of Love they are all in their sublime, creative of essential Beauty. (I, 184)

Robert Ryan has shown that Bailey's doubts concerned the efficacy of the imagination, as distinct from reason, in comprehending life after death, and that "affections" and "passions" are used synonymously with "desire" in theological writings of the time. This explanation certainly clarifies the letter's subsequent excursion into the "here after"; and Ryan argues persuasively that for Keats anything the heart desires and the imagination conceives on earth may be fulfilled in heaven.5 But Keats's reply to Bailey that "What the imagination seizes as Beauty must be truth" is no less relevant to art than to religion. Perhaps Bailey's "momentary start" about the imagination inspired Keats's affirmation of the "truth of Imagination" and of the creativity of passions, and he gradually adopted this theory in purely aesthetic contexts; but more probably he was already "certain" about the part of imagination and passion in artistic creation, and Bailey's theological point prompted him to apply this insight "as auxiliary to another favorite Speculation" of his concerning life in the beyond.

Keats states his belief that whatever is beautiful is as real as a fact known to be true; indeed, as he cryptically tells us in "Ode on a Grecian Urn," "Beauty is truth" (although in the letter he does not go on to claim that truth is beauty). Whereas beauty is perceived and created by the harmonizing imagination fed by "the Heart's affections," truth is independently apprehended by the analytical intellect; yet Keats thinks of the products of imaginative endeavor as truth. In the letter "truth" simply appears to mean "reality." Keats implies that a work of art on paper, on canvas, or in stone, whether still in the artist's brain or recreated in the mind of the audience, is as real as a natural phenomenon whose existence is an undeniable "truth." The composition of a passage of Endymion becomes "a regular stepping of the Imagination towards a Truth" (I, 218). "What the imagination seizes as Beauty" is never a mere fantasy divorced from actuality.

Nevertheless the imagination transcends everyday reality because of its power to create something "whether it existed before or not." By perceiving an existent object as beautiful the imagination announces a truth, by creating beauty where there was none before it establishes a new truth, a new reality. The expression "whether it existed before or not" also presupposes a rejection of the mimetic theory of art. The only criterion for the imagination's creation of truth is beauty, not the imitation of existing models: the Grecian Urn Keats creates in his ode is real even if not based on the reality of a particular vase. The imagination is self-fulfilling and thus "may be compared to Adam's dream—he awoke and found it truth." In Book Eight ïf Paradise Lost Adam's dream becomes reality with the creation of Eve, who has not existed before outside the dream itself. Rejecting the step-by-step argumentation of philosophical inquiry, Keats exclaims: "O for a Life of Sensations rather than of Thoughts!" In his account of the influence of Hartley and association psychology, James Ralston Caldwell has demonstrated that "what Keats means by a life of sensation, is the life of the imagination, a life solidly grounded in bygone events of eye, ear, palate, etc., but modifying, refining, and ramifying them into infinitely complex chains of [associations]."6 Based on his own experience, the fruit of the poet's imagination must be truth.

Next Keats speculates on how the life of sensations provides the raw materials for happiness in the "here after," where "we shall enjoy ourselves … by having what we called happiness on Earth repeated in a finer tone and so repeated." The wider the range of our sensations on earth, the more scope the imagination acquires to produce in the beyond a happiness which is a more refined version of the terrestrial variety. But since imagination, though rooted in experience, is not confined to experience, it may bring into being a happiness in heaven only desired but never attained on earth, just as it can create worldly beauty which did not exist before. Keats contrasts his "delight in sensation" with Bailey's "hunger … after Truth," his own "simple imaginative Mind," which is self-sufficient in enhancing any experience or memory thereof, with Bailey's "complex Mind—one that is imaginative and at the same time careful of its fruits—who would exist partly on sensation partly on thought." Bailey's life of thought demands that he "increase in knowledge and know all things" as part of his prospect for "eternal Happiness." On the other hand the mind that lives on sensation alone lets no thought of future bliss interfere with the momentary sensation: "I look not for it [happiness] if it be not in the present hour," Keats writes, "nothing startles me beyond the Moment. The setting sun will always set me to rights—or if a Sparrow come before my Window I take part in its existince and pick about the Gravel." This last sensation beautifully illustrates Keats's power of empathy, of participating in the life of another being. It is the sympathetic imagination that allows him to project his feeling into the sparrow.

IV Negative Capability

In his letter to Bailey Keats gives an early description of that tolerant, self-effacing, sympathetic, and imaginative attitude—that denial of the ego which modern criticism associates with "negative capability,"7 the term Keats coined a month later. At the same time, however, his own procedure illustrates the negatively capable approach. A man of imagination, who has no "determined Character," no "proper self," looks into the heart of a friend in order to forgive, and so completely forgets himself as to participate in the life of a sparrow before his window. Although the letter is obviously an attempt to reason, an argument answering Bailey, it substitutes what we call imaginative insight or a series of intuitive flashes for a chain of reasoning in which one point develops logically from the previous one, for what Keats calls "consequitive reasoning," of which he writes as follows: "I have never yet been able to perceive how any thing can be known for truth by consequitive reasoning—and yet it must be—Can it be that even the greatest Philosopher ever arrived at his goal without putting aside numerous objections." At this point Keats ironically tries to reason while questioning the soundness of the reasoning process and abandons this process while defending it. After admitting that he does not understand consecutive reasoning he postulates its validity: " … and yet it must be." This reversal is a blind assertion or an imaginative leap—it is not logical reasoning. Having questioned, then asserted consecutive reasoning as a valid method, Keats questions it once more and leaves the matter open ("However it may be"), but goes on to reject a life of "Thoughts" for himself. The incongruity, however, of invoking the nonrational faculty against consecutive reasoning in order to save the latter is more apparent than real. As a disputant in an intellectual argument with his friend Keats confesses his logical inconsistency; but his method of intuiting a conclusion contrary to his own analysis, by revealing his aversion to logical reasoning, reinforces his faith in "the Heart's affections and the truth of Imagination." Since he is "certain of nothing" but these two, or, as he says elsewhere, "never can feel certain of any truth but from a clear perception of its Beauty" (II, 19), he concedes immense latitude in philosophical inquiry and debate. By emphasizing his own undecidedness and inconsistency, by acknowledging the powers of consecutive reasoning while claiming that he does not know how they work, and by accepting Bailey's rational approach which his own doubts undermine Keats gives proof of that tolerance which in this letter he calls "Humility and capability for submission" and later the capability "of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts."

The formulation of this quality as "negative capability" occurs in the letter to George and Tom of 21 December 1817:

… at once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in Literature & which Shakespeare posessed so enormously—I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason—Coleridge, for instance, would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half knowledge. This pursued through Volumes would perhaps take us no further than this, that with a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration. (I, 193-94)

Only the imaginative mind has negative capability. The acceptance of uncertainty and doubt merely implies recognition of an opponent's point of view, but the word "Mysteries" suggests, in addition, a state different from ordinary experience: it has associations with a higher mode of existence, with divine revelation, with what is shut to reason though accessible to the imagination. Keats condemns the quest for certainty as "irritable" because it encourages dogmatism and because ultimately it is doomed to failure. Since "fact & reason" can only take us up to a point and no further, we should be capable "of remaining content with half knowledge." By "a fine isolated verisimilitude" Keats seems to mean an imaginative insight or discovery as distinct from a conclusion reached by consecutive reasoning. The consecutive person is less interested in verisimilitudes than in proven facts, which present themselves not in isolation but in relation to other facts. Seeing all phenomena in their logical interrelationships, he will always attempt to verify his discovery, even one intuitively seized, and abandon it in his futile effort to fit everything into a perfect whole. The negatively capable person, on the other hand, accepts "a fine isolated verisimilitude" independently, without forcing it into a system by trying to answer all the questions it may raise. The great poet comes closest to negative capability, because his only criterion of truth is beauty and not, for example, logic or science which keeps "reaching after fact & reason." The last sentence of the passage, with its refusal to pursue the argument further by consecutive reasoning, with the carefully qualifying "perhaps," and with its appeal to an indeterminate "sense of Beauty," provides another example of the negatively capable attitude which Keats already exhibited in the letter to Bailey and which he is now defining; and yet he cannot be quite unaware of the irony of expressing his faith in the supremacy of beauty in a tone of certainty so incompatible with the spirit of negative capability which he is here trying to convey to George and Tom.

How "the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration" Keats illustrates earlier in the same letter where he establishes the criterion of intensity. He is commenting on Benjamin West's painting Death on the Pale Horse and apparently contrasting it with the same painter's King Lear:8

It is a wonderful picture, when West's age is considered; But there is nothing to be intense upon; no women one feels mad to kiss; no face swelling into reality. the excellence of every Art is its intensity, capable of making all disagreeables evaporate, from their being in close relationship with Beauty & Truth—Examine King Lear & you will find this examplified throughout; but in this picture we have unpleasantness without any momentous depth of speculation excited, in which to bury its repulsiveness—(I, 192)

As in the letter to Bailey, consecutive reasoning becomes irrelevant when imagination apprehends truth in terms of beauty; only in the earlier letter the focus was on creation and here it is on the effect of a work of art. To Bailey Keats wrote that passion is "creative of essential Beauty" and now he indicates how a beautiful painting or play arouses passion: through intensity. As Bate has shown, Keats's theories of imagination and negative capability were influenced by William Hazlitt, and the concept "intensity" by Hazlitt's expression "gusto" (although the similarity between the last two terms has been exaggerated).9 For Keats the beauty in a work of art (its truth imaginatively conceived) harmonizes all discordant qualities by means of a process of concentration and refinement compelling us to submit to its full sensuous impact, which excites our imagination, and the imagination in turn causes sensations which enhance, enrich, and intensify experience. The expression "no women one feels mad to kiss" may refer to the female figures in Death on the Pale Horse, but Keats probably also means that a painting like West's King Lear (in which there are no women), unlike his less intense Death on the Pale Horse, arouses a feeling as overpowering as sexual passion. The expression "swelling into reality" may suggest that in a great painting a face seems to be taking on a third dimension. But for Keats the word "swelling," repeatedly associated with ripening (as in Endymion, I.836, II.59, III.799, and "To Autum," 7), has undertones of fulfillment. The "reality" is that of the actual world of natural process, where flowers and human faces bloom and fade, but where they are alive. In a great work painted or sculptured objects like the dead and frozen figures on a Grecian urn seem to come to life under art's intensity.

While art enriches our experience by capturing reality in its most pregnant moments, it also creates a different reality, which transcends everyday actuality. By means of a process analogous to distillation in chemistry,10 but imaginative and therefore ultimately inexplicable in terms of consecutive reasoning, an audience somehow experiences as pleasurable what would be painful in real life. Thus the work of art bypasses the problem of evil; or, more precisely, though it depicts evil, it refuses to treat evil as an issue, since "the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration."

Keats again and again invokes the patient, open, and imaginative approach of negative capability. Mental growth, like physical maturation, cannot be forced: in poetry, as in nature, everything will come to fruition in its own good time. If the "ripening of the intellectual powers" is gradual, all the better "for the purposes of great productions" (I, 214). It is one of Keats's axioms "That if poetry comes not as naturally as the Leaves to a tree it had better not come at all" (I, 238-39). In a letter to Reynolds of 19 February 1818 Keats suggests that once "a certain ripeness in intellect" has been attained, the mind's play upon "Poesy or distilled Prose" becomes a "delicious diligent Indolence," rather like the flower's receptivity than the honey-bee's impatient buzzing in pursuit of goals. Such freedom and openness to new impressions imply a tolerance toward the speculation of others and an eventual meeting between minds that have set out "in contrary directions" (I, 231-32).

In allowing things to come of themselves without irritably striving after them, the mood of diligent indolence is reminiscent of the "wise passiveness" of Wordsworth's 1798 poem "Expostulation and Reply."11 Keats admires Wordsworth but condemns the latter's didactic manner:

… are we to be buillied into a certain Philosophy engendered in the whims of an Egotist…. We hate poetry that has a palpable design upon us…. How beautiful are the retired flowers! how would they lose their beauty were they to throng into the highway crying out, "admire me I am a violet!… (I, 223-24)12

Since Wordsworth feels he has "to put down his halfseeing" (I, 224) as if it were an absolute rule to be followed, he apparently lacks Keats's capability of remaining in uncertainty and of accepting his own ideas as no more than half-knowledge; otherwise it would be all the more presumptuous on his part trying to dictate them to others. Even in "Expostulation and Reply," where he pleads for a wisely passive attitude to nature, Wordsworth sounds quite certain about what he advocates. Keats is less sure of himself; at least he does not tend to impose his judgments as certainties to be dictated to others. After his praise of indolence, receptivity, and intellectual tolerance, and after writing a poem on the potential creativity of indolence ("O thou whose face"), he concludes: "Now I am sensible all this is a mere sophistication, however it may neighbour to any truths, to excuse my own indolence…. It is [no] matter whether I am right or wrong either one way or another … " (I, 233). Here he quite openly adopts a negatively capable attitude toward his own theory of negative capability. His philosophical noncommitment seems to know no bounds. It is not surprising that he is self-effacing on the question of religion in a letter to the future parson Bailey, but he can even become "so very sceptical as to think Poetry itself a mere Jack a lanthern to amuse whoever may chance to be struck with its brilliance." The discussion which follows contains affirmations as well as skepticism,13 but both are equally disowned by one more expression of negative capability: "I have not one Idea of the truth of any of my speculations—I shall never be a Reasoner because I care not to be in the right…" (I, 242-43). Keats presses the acceptance of doubt to the point of negating his opinions, leaving himself in uncertainty about uncertainty.

In a letter to Woodhouse of 27 October 1818 this withholding of final judgment has evolved into a denial of the poet's self-hood. Keats is clarifying the earlier distinction between Wordsworth's writings, which have the ulterior motive of drawing attention to the author and his ideas, and "unobtrusive" poetry, "which enters into one's soul and does not startle it or amaze it with itself but with its subject" (I, 224), that is, which has no purpose beyond itself. Now acknowledging the older poet's unique sublimity, Keats contrasts Wordsworth's imposition of his identity upon readers with his own goal of what elsewhere he calls "annulling self" (I, 323) by living in the subject described and thus bringing out its poetic nature:

As to the poetical Character itself … the camelion Poet … is the most unpoetical of any thing in existence; because he has no Identity—he is continually in for—and filling some other Body—The Sun, the Moon, the Sea and Men and Women who are creatures of impulse are poetical and have about them an unchangeable attribute—the poet has none; no identity…. (I, 386-87)

The non-Wordsworthian poet resembles the chameleon, because he changes his identity with the subject he imagines or describes so that he is left with no identity of his own. But Keats ends the letter by asserting his self as appreciative friend and correspondent. He is usually aware of the irony and paradox involved in his negatively capable attitude: the relativism inherent in his insistence on uncertainty countered by his absolute faith in the truth of imagination and a poet's sense of beauty, his attack on consecutive reasoning by means of consecutive reasoning and his intuitive defense of it, the suggestion that his wise passiveness may be an excuse for laziness, his skepticism about skepticism, and now the necessity of emphasizing his identity as the grateful John Keats writing to the generous Richard Woodhouse even while insisting that he has no identity.

V The Burden of the Mystery

A basic paradox lies in Keats's insistence that for the great poet the sense of beauty overcomes all other considerations and his growing conviction that a life of sensations without thought is not enough if a poet is to become great. His assiduous quest for knowledge and philosophy (I, 271, 274; II, 116) jeopardizes his wise passiveness and seems more in line with the busy bee than the receptive flower. An individual no longer allows his mind to ripen naturally when he pursues knowledge into "the terra semi incognita of things unearthly; and cannot for his Life, keep in the check rein" (I, 255). Keats recognizes the irony of "reading Voltaire and Gibbon, although [he] wrote to Reynolds the other day to prove reading of no use" (I, 237). In his letter to Reynolds of 3 May 1818 he substitutes for the sensation-thought dichotomy of 1817 a "difference of high Sensation with and without knowledge," and clearly opts for the active acquisition of "extensive knowledge" (I, 277).

Later in the same letter occurs the famous parable of life as a "Mansion of Many Apartments." We first step into an "infant or thoughtless Chamber," and then, with "the awakening of the thinking principle," enter a "Chamber of Maiden-Thought." When we find "that the World is full of Misery and Heartbreak, Pain, Sickness and oppression," the second chamber "becomes gradually darken'd," a state in which "We see not the ballance of good and evil" and "feel the 'burden of the Mystery.'" Keats intends to follow Wordsworth in exploring the dark passages leading out of the second chamber (I, 280-81). The phrase "burden of the Mystery" refers, as in its source in "Tintern Abbey," to the heavy and the weary weight / Of all this unintelligible world" (38-40). A negatively capable person should accept mystery without experiencing it as an oppressive weight. So long as Keats relied for certainties solely on the imagination, was content to be passive, allowed his intellect to ripen gradually, and accepted what he learnt as half-knowledge, he did not feel the need to explore mystery. The active pursuit of knowledge has made mystery into a burden, and, ironically, knowledge in various fields is now required to ease this burden (I, 277).

But the negatively capable attitude has been reaffirmed from another direction: in the feeling of uncertainty about all traditional moral values. Keats relates the burden of the mystery specifically to the moral chaos of a universe in which we can no longer see "the ballance of good and evil." The poet was always haunted by the idea of innocent suffering, exemplified for him in the suffering of women (I, 209, 292), and he recognized the inevitability of "Heart-vexations": "a man should have the fine point of his soul taken off to become fit for this world" (I, 188). In the negative capability letter Keats saw the sense of beauty overcoming all considerations of evil, mere disagreeables which evaporated in art's intensity, so that a poet's moral values became irrelevant to his work. Speculating further on Wordsworth's poetry, which he earlier condemned for its imposition of ideas, Keats now realizes that the sense of beauty need not obliterate consideration of "Misery and Heartbreak, Pain, Sickness and oppression." The evil of the amoral universe which we behold in the darkened Chamber of Maiden-Thought cannot simply be burned away by the poet's intense torch: it still weighs down upon him, and he admits his failure to cope with it. It is for this reason that Keats eventually bestows the highest rank upon "the human friend Philosopher" (II, 139).

VI Soul-Making

On 19 March 1819, near the middle of his long journal-letter to George and Georgiana, Keats tries to come to terms with the problem of evil by relating it once more to the aesthetic experience. Distinguishing now sharply between the moral detachment of aesthetic contemplation and the moral involvement of his philosophical inquiry, he places philosophical truth above the beauty of poetry. The starting point of his speculation is his own reaction to the misfortune of his friend Haslam. Keats's realization of how far he is "from any humble standard of disinterestedness" leads him to reflect that most people tend to act with the same purposive, instinctive self-interest as a hawk, a lion (or, for that matter, a robin) pursuing its prey. Instinctive, spontaneous, energetic conduct is beautiful even when morally reprehensible: "Though a quarrel in the streets is a thing to be hated, the energies displayed in it are fine; the commonest Man shows a grace in his quarrel." An action may be unjust yet entertaining, and an idea may be false yet amusing. Just as we derive pleasure from animal destructiveness or a street fight, so "a superior being" observing our mental activity may be amused by our reasoning though erroneous (II, 79-80). Such an attitude toward suffering and error in real life resembles the moral detachment with which we view a work of art. The philosopher within Keats hates the quarrel whereas the poet in him admires the energies displayed in it. As Keats wrote to Woodhouse six months earlier. "What shocks the virtuous philosop[h]er, delights the camelion Poet" (I, 387). Now Keats judges poetry, with its evasion of the moral aspect of an action and its refusal to distinguish between truth and error, to be "not so fine a thing as philosophy—For the same reason that an eagle is not so fine a thing as a truth" (II, 81). Yet the poet's amoral approach has its moral value: evil is an intrinsic part of the universe, and an appreciation of the beauty of instinctive life even in scenes of wrong and misery may help to reconcile us to the inevitable.

A month later Keats returns to the ineluctability of suffering: mortality would become unbearable if society were to improve till mankind achieved extreme happiness. "But in truth I do not at all believe in this sort of perfectibility," Keats confesses. Instead he proposes the perfectibility of the individual personality or what he calls the "soul" (taking immortality for granted for the purpose of his argument). Substituting the phrase "vale of Soul-making" for the traditional "vale of tears," Keats compares the world to a school, the intelligence or mind to an illiterate child learning to read, the heart to a hornbook or children's reading primer, and the soul to the child who has learned to read. Just as children learn to read at school from a hornbook, so intelligences, "sparks of the divinity," become souls when "they acquire identities … by the medium of a world like this" and through the agency of the human heart (II, 101-102). Thus suffering becomes an indispensable part of personality development or the soul-making process:

Do you not see how necessary a World of Pains and troubles is to school an Intelligence and make it a soul? A Place where the heart must feel and suffer in a thousand diverse ways! Not merely is the Heart a Hornbook, It is the Minds Bible, it is the Minds experience, it is the teat from which the Mind or intelligence sucks its identity—(II, 102-103)

"Intelligence" (for Keats the equivalent of "mind") and heart cooperate in soul-making.

Keats always felt that whatever is grasped intellectually must be submitted to emotional experience, but in the famous letter to Bailey of November 1817 he sees intelligence and heart in two opposing categories making conflicting demands upon him: on one side thought and consecutive reasoning and on the other sensation and the heart's affections which feed the imagination. In that letter he chooses sensation over thought and is certain of the heart's affections and the truth of imagination but puzzled about consecutive reasoning. He is, however, already aware of the paradox of rejecting consecutive reasoning by his own reasoning and acknowledges the compromise of Bailey's "complex Mind" which "would exist partly on sensation partly on thought" (I, 186). Philosophy is never merely abstract thought for a poet who judges everything "by larger experience," for whom philosophical axioms must be "proved upon our pulses" (I, 279), and who only a month earlier, immediately after ranking philosophy above poetry, writes that "Nothing ever becomes real till it is experienced" (II, 81). In the soul-making process the rival demands of heart and mind are fully reconciled. The mind or intelligence is essential as the embryo of the soul, and the heart, as Bible or nourisher of the mind, retains the importance it had in 1817. Intelligence depends on the heart to mediate experience; and as the intelligence proceeds to interpret this experience it acquires an identity.

This description of "identity" or the "identical soul" does not contradict Keats's earlier assertions that men of genius have no individuality and that the poet has no identity. Keats uses "identity" in two very distinct senses. In the letters to Bailey and Woodhouse identity is something fixed, a "determined Character" or "an unchangeable attribute," so that the poet has no identity because he temporarily takes on the qualities of each of his created characters by living in them for the moment (I, 184, 387). In soul-making, on the other hand, identity is formed in an ongoing process involving continual "provings and alterations and perfectionings" (II, 103). In this profounder sense identity is not a self-contained "unchangeable attribute," but the personality as it constantly transforms itself in the light of experience. It takes "a series of years" of adult life to form a character and create a sense of identity (II, 102; I, 392). This identity or soul is the total of the collaboration between heart and mind in their reactions to "a world of Circumstances" (II, 104), but it need never reach a final form: it is subject to development so long as the heart can suffer and the mind apprehend.

This difference between fixed and evolving identity is clarified in Keats's statement that his friend Dilke "cannot feel he has a personal identity unless he has made up his Mind about every thing." The incessantly unfolding personality emerging from the soul-making process does not depend on a consistent or clearly defined set of opinions for its sense of identity. Dilke, however, feels that he must take a stand on every question, so that other people and he himself may know once and for all who and what he is. His identity is fixed because defined by his intellectual positions, and there is little readiness on his part to submit these to the test of the heart in order to modify them. Dilke lacks negative capability: he cannot bear the uncertainty which results from the self-obliteration involved in casting himself into another's role and taking another's point of view. "The only means of strengthening one's intellect," Keats continues, "is to make up ones mind about nothing—to let the mind be a thoroughfare for all thoughts. Not a select party" (II, 213).

The doctrine of soul-making is therefore not a repudiation of negative capability as has sometimes been suggested,14 but rather a reaffirmation of it. One could of course argue that Keats advances his conjectures with an air of conviction incompatible with the negatively capable attitude, for although at one point he describes his theory as a mere "faint sketch" (II, 103), he is less tentative in his manner than he was a month before when he admitted that he was "straining at particles of light in the midst of a great darkness" (II, 80). But he writes in a no less decisive tone about the truth of imagination and—we have seen that he was aware of the paradox—about negative capability itself. Negative capability is incompatible with the man of power's "proper self," with the irritable search for finalities by consecutive reasoning, with a didactic "egotistical sublime" (I, 387), and with the self-assertiveness of the made-up mind; it undermines the fixed identity but leaves the door open for the freely developing personality. In the vale of soul-making the intelligence abides in perpetual uncertainty awaiting instructions from its mentor, the heart. With negative capability intelligences never lapse into rigidity but remain open to new impressions, continually adjusting their positions "till they acquire identities, till each one is personally itself," till each one is a soul (II, 102).

Negative capability is the Shakespearean quality to which Keats aspires throughout his creative life. David Luke is right in pointing out that Keats does not really consider this quality "a negative condition," adding appropriately that it is "a state neither of ignorance nor of paralysis."15 Negative capability frees a thinking man from the weary weight of the unintelligible world by raising mystery to the province of the imagination, and it permits a poet to submerge his identity in that of others whenever he composes or meditates on poetry. Keats's repeated suppressions of self in his works reinforce a native susceptibility to new experience and a capacity for growth; whereas, in turn, his evolving soul is the best guarantee for his talent to forget his own self in the subject of a new poem. On returning to actuality and selfhood he does not bask in any final certainty: neither as poet nor as man has Keats a fixed identity. He cannot afford one if he wants to remain creative.


1 See Gittings, John Keats, [(London, 1968)] p. 451.

2 T. S. Eliot, The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism (1933; rpt. London: Faber, 1975), p. 100.

3 [Christopher Ricks, Keats and Embarrassment (Oxford, 1974)] p. 219.

4 For detailed analyses of this letter see Newell F. Ford, The Prefigurative Imagination of John Keats: A Study of the Beauty-Truth Identification and Its Implications (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1951), pp. 20-38, and Jack Stillinger, The Hoodwinking of Madeline and Other Essays on Keats's Poems (Urbana, 1971), pp. 151-57. See also chapter 4, sections III and IV, chapter 6, section I, and chapter 6, note 13 below.

5 Robert M. Ryan, Keats: The Religious Sense (Princeton, 1976), pp. 129-37.

6 James Ralston Caldwell, John Keats's Fancy: The Effect on Keats of the Psychology of His Day (1945; rpt. New York, 1965), pp. 155-56. See also R. T. Davies, "Some Ideas and Usages," in Kenneth Muir, ed., John Keats: A Reassessment, 2nd ed. (Liverpool, 1969), p. 135, and for a detailed discussion, Stuart M. Sperry, Keats the Poet (Princeton, 1973), pp. 3-29.

7 Most critics widen the concept of negative capability well beyond the letter in which the word occurs, although a few attempts have been made to narrow down the use of the term. Thus Leon M. Guilhamet ("Keats's 'Negative Capability' and 'Disinterestedness': A Confusion of Ideals," University of Toronto Quarterly 40 [1970-71]: 2-14) distinguishes the term from disinterestedness and Arthur Clayborough ('"Negative Capability' and 'The Camelion Poet' in Keats's Letters: The Case for Differentiation," English Studies 54 [1973]: 569-75) from the poet's lack of identity, but both scholars admit that the concepts overlap. The term "negative capability" occurs only once in Keats (Letters, I, 193).

8 S. R. Swaminathan, "Keats and Benjamin West's King Lear," Keats-Shelley Journal 18 (1969): 15-16, shows that Keats is probably referring to West's painting and not, as has been generally held, to Shakespeare's play.

9 Bate, John Keats, pp. 239-45, 255-60. See also Muir, "Keats and Hazlitt," in Reassessment, p. 142; M[eyer] H. Abrams, The Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic Theory and the Critical Tradition (1953; rpt. New York: Norton, 1958), pp. 134-36; John Jones, John Keats's Dream of Truth (London, 1969), p. 189. Caldwell, p. 175, and Herschel M. Sikes, "The Poetic Theory and Practice of Keats: The Record of a Debt to Hazlitt," Philological Quarterly 38 (1959): 407, equate the two terms outright. Robert Ready has shown in "Hazlitt: In and Out of 'Gusto,'" Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 14 (1974): 537-46, that Hazlitt's "gusto," referring chiefly to painting and pictorial effect in literature, is subservient to "interest" and "does not belong in the higher provinces of literary art" (p. 540). Keats's more comprehensive "intensity," however, is simply "the excellence of every Art," and Keats's letter as a whole stresses art's disinterestedness. Unlike "gusto," "intensity" excites "momentous depth of speculation" and leads to an imaginative apprehension of the beauty perceived as a truth. Whereas Keats draws attention to Shakespeare's "intensity of working out conceits" (Letters, I, 188), Hazlitt, in his brief discussion of literature at the end of his essay "On Gusto" (Geoffrey Keynes, ed., Selected Essays of William Hazlitt [1930; rpt. London: Nonesuch Press, 1948], p. 613), contrasts Shakespeare's gusto with his lack of intensity. Abrams rightly groups both Hazlitt's "gusto" and Keats's "intensity" with expressive theories of aesthetics under the title "Varieties of Romantic Theory" (p. 125) which break away from the mimetic and pragmatic theories of neo-classicism. On the other hand, as R. T. Davies, "Keats and Hazlitt," Keats-Shelley Memorial Bulletin 8 (1957): 4, has demonstrated, what Keats associates with intensity Hazlitt attributes to imitation. The shift toward a modern theory of the communication of experience is therefore more evident in Keats than in Hazlitt.

10 Sperry, pp. 44-46, quotes scientific dictionaries and treatises to show that Keats is borrowing terms from chemistry.

11 Most books on Keats refer to Wordsworth's influence. There are extended discussions in Clarence De Witt Thorpe, The Mind of John Keats (1926; rpt. New York, 1964); Claude Lee Finney, The Evolution of Keats's Poetry (1936; rpt. New York, 1963); Murry's Keats; Thora Balslev, Keats and Wordsworth: A Comparative Study (Copenhagen: Munksgaard, 1962); and Miriam Allott, "Keats and Wordsworth," Keats-Shelley Memorial Bulletin 22 (1971): 28-43.

12 These words read like a gloss on Immanuel Kant's description of art as "purposiveness without a purpose" in his Critique of Judgment (1790), which Keats could hardly have read.

13 For Keats's idea that poetry, like "every mental pursuit takes its reality and worth from the ardour of the pursuer" (I, 242) see Bate, John Keats, pp. 241-42, 550; Helen Haworth, "Keats and the Metaphor of Vision," Journal of English and Germanic Philology 67 (1968): 376; George Borstein, "Keats's Concept of the Ethereal," Keats-Shelley Journal 18 (1969): 100-101; John Jones, pp. 75-76, 117, 122, 169; Bhabatosh Chatterjee, John Keats: His Mind and Work (New Delhi, 1971), pp. 283-84; Sperry, pp. 68-70; James Land Jones, Adam 's Dream: Mythic Consciousness in Keats and Yeats (Athens, Georgia, 1975), pp. 36-38; Stuart A. Ende, Keats and the Sublime (New Haven, 1976), pp. 59-60; Ryan, p. 155; and Ronald A. Sharpe, Keats, Skepticism, and the Religion of Beauty (Athens, Georgia, 1979), pp. 33, 48-50, 94, 100, 130. The poet's skepticism is discussed at length by Ryan and Sharp, the latter finding Keats more radically and consistently skeptical, seeing, for example, even in Keats's reference to the "here after" (I, 185) an "ironic perspective on immortality" (p. 19). Similarly Sharp (p. 172) disagrees with Ryan's view of the passage on "Soul-making" (II, 101-104) as showing that "Keats seems fairy confident about immortality at this time" (p. 209). Both scholars adduce cogent arguments, and although at least in the earlier of these two passages Keats does seem to be leaning toward belief in some form of afterlife, we cannot be sure whether his words indicate more faith than doubt; we receive only a half-knowledge of what the poet remains content to express as a mere "favorite Speculation" (I, 185) or to convey by means of taking immortality "for granted for the purpose of showing a thought which has struck" him (II, 102). Sharp repeatedly (and rightly) emphasizes Keats's "deep and abiding skepticism about the possibility of knowing with certainty any kind of transcendent or higher reality" (p. 5), but when he writes of "a conception of spirituality that does not depend on—that in fact denies—transcendent reality" (p. 4, italics mine), he imputes an un-Keatsian lack of negative capability to the poet.

14 E.g. by Douglas Bush, John Keats: His Life and Writings (London, 1966), p. 126, and Guilhamet, p. 9.

15 David Luke, "Keats's Letters: Fragments of an Aesthetic of Fragments," Genre 11 (1978): 222.

Morris Dickstein (lecture date 1983)

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SOURCE: "Keats and Politics," in Studies in Romanticism, Vol. 25, No. 2, Summer, 1986, pp. 175-81.

[In the following lecture, given in 1983 and published in 1986, Dickstein argues that critics have wrongly "walled off Keats from the unseemly political passions of his contemporaries, " and goes on to identify the political aspects of Keats's poetry.]

It is no doubt a thankless task to try to open up the question of "Keats and Politics" in a ten-minute paper, especially in a setting so unpolitical as a panel on "Aesthetic Creation in Keats." Try to imagine a comparable session devoted to something called "aesthetic creation" in Byron, or Shelley, or even Wordsworth; the very incongruity suggests how adamantly we have walled off Keats from the unseemly political passions of his contemporaries. "Of the major [Romantic] poets," says Carl Woodring, with just the right tinge of irony, "Keats is thought to have evaded most successfully the impurities of political reference."

No less than massive and deliberate evasion would indeed have been required for a poet whose active career spanned the four years from Waterloo to Peterloo, when England was abuzz with working-class unrest, middle-class agitation for reform, an economic crisis, a crushing burden of taxation left over from the Napoleonic wars, frequent public demonstrations, the suspension of Habeas Corpus, the arrest of booksellers, treason trials and executions, and finally the lethal assault on peaceful petitioners at St. Peter's Field near Manchester in 1819. The second flowering of English romanticism—perhaps, as Marilyn Butler suggests, the most remarkable creative upsurge in English history—was also a period of popular discontent and government repression reminiscent of the 1790's.

Of course this turbulence took place before rapid travel and instant communications had created the global village. Though many of the battles of what Keats called "the present struggle in England" are mentioned in his letters, especially those to his brother and sister-in-law in America, these political rumblings often seem almost as distant from his mind as the sparkling beau monde of Regency society. Keats is always explicit about his political allegiance—"on the Liberal side of the question" rather than "the arbitrary side"—but his imagination seems to draw him elsewhere, toward the kind of sensuous art the later nineteenth century came to think of as "pure poetry."

Yet Keats was very close, personally and politically, to two of the most embattled liberal journalists of the age, Hazlitt and Leigh Hunt. In his slim first volume of 1817, Keats celebrated Hunt's poetry, his politics, and his release from two years' imprisonment for slandering the Prince Regent—a gesture of solidarity which later drew the righteous wrath of Blackwood's Magazine and marked Keats indelibly (and unfairly) as Hunt's protégé in politics as in poetry. The modern reader cannot help but be shocked by the thread of mean ideological bias, the frank party spirit, that runs through the attacks on Keats. Early in 1819 Keats avenged himself a little on his reviewers by copying with gusto several choice pages of Hazlitt's stupendous invective against William Gifford, the malevolent Tory editor of the Quarterly Review ("You are the Government Critic," Hazlitt had written, "a character nicely differing from that of a government spy—the invisible link, that connects literature with the police").

After having complained himself in the same journalletter that the reviews, especially the Quarterly, were growing too powerful, and after comparing their received wisdom to religious superstition, which persuades and debilitates in proportion to its falsehood, Keats recorded with relish Hazlitt's opening address to Gifford ("Sir,—You have an ugly trick of saying what is not true of any one you do not like; and it will be the object of this letter to cure you of it"). A few months later, in a brilliant polemical introduction to his collection of Political Essays, Hazlitt laid down the gauntlet to all defenders of legitimacy and detractors of Bonaparte, the Bonaparte who, according to Hazlitt, "put his feet upon the neck of kings, who would have put their yokes upon the necks of the people." Keats echoed this essay in one of his letters, though he did not share Hazlitt's admiration for Bonaparte. Though Keats did not have what Shelley called "a passion for reforming the world," he might well have agreed when Byron wrote: "I have simplified my politics into an utter detestation of all existing governments."

A critic might argue that this highly politicized context in which Keats's friends and peers lived and wrote makes politics all the more eloquent in its absence from his poetry. One could reply that the evasion of politics is also a significant political gesture, especially in a period of reaction like the Regency era. As Herbert Marcuse argued in Eros and Civilization, the aesthetic cultivation of sensuous and Utopian values is itself a "negation" of the established order, a "Great Refusal." Marcuse himself is following the lead of one of the great works of romantic theory, Schiller's Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Mankind. Marcuse suggests that the cults of childhood, of romantic love, and even of the Middle Ages point the reader to a Utopian realm of freedom or to human values cast in mythic form, in figures like Narcissus, Orpheus, Apollo, and Prometheus. The very idea of the autonomy of the imagination can be seen as a critical response to a corrupt, repressive social order.

As applied to Keats this would be mere dialectical speculation, were it not for the fact that from the beginning he makes the recoil from politics one of his explicit themes. One of the early sonnets to Hunt that brought down the wrath of J. G. Lockhart in Blackwood's fancied that though Hunt's body had been "shut in prison" "for showing truth to flatter'd state," his spirit had been wandering through bowers with Spenser and soaring "with daring Milton through the fields of air," taking "happy flights" to "regions of his own his genius true" ("Written on the Day That Mr. Leigh Hunt Left Prison"). Escape is precisely the point here: the escape from vile political trammels into a realm of imaginative freedom where poetry creates a second nature.

Each of the quasi-political sonnets takes the form of a graceful tribute—to Kosciusko, the Polish liberator, for example—that evokes a refreshing alternative world, a refuge from the one in which "glory and loveliness have passed away." This recoil from the sordid actualities of Regency life culminates in the important prologues to each of the four books of Endymion, which denigrate history and the epic world of warfare and empire as a "gilded cheat! / Swart planet in the universe of deeds!" The active life is no fit subject for poetry. The fates of the famous heroines of romance "are things to brook on with more ardency / Than the death-day of empires." Lockhart's review quoted a similar passage from the prologue to Book III ending, "Are then regalities all gilded masks?" to show that this young "bantling" of Hunt had "already learned to lisp sedition," an especially serious charge in 1818.

The meandering plot of Endymion, which begins with the vague Byronic malaise of a morose shepherd-prince, and concludes with an unconvincing Utopian union of the real and the ideal, is built around the same kind of evasive action: the abdication of tribal or political authority in a quest for more profound inward experience.

This brings us to another implicitly political element in early Keats. Paul de Man—whose great contributions to the study of romanticism deserve special tribute here—once described Keats's imagination as "prospective" rather than "retrospective," and in "Sleep and Poetry" Keats first introduced the theme of growth, change, and development which his later work, especially the odes and the Hyperion poems, both pursued and exemplified. Surrounded by earnest humanitarians like Shelley and Hunt, Keats announced that he would eventually abandon the realm "of Flora, and old Pan," to experience "the agonies, the strife / Of human hearts." The same developmental pattern is a key theme of some of his most important letters, such as the Mansion of Life letter of 3 May 1818 and the soul-making letter of 21 April 1819. We tend to remember both accounts as paradigms of personal growth, yet each in fact concludes with descriptions of larger historical and religious progress. He attributes the human depth of Wordsworth, for example, and his moral advance over Milton, not to individual genius but to the general growth of enlightenment—"a grand march of intellect," which "subdues the mightiest Minds to the service of the time being, whether it be in human Knowledge or Religion" (Letters [1958] 1: 282).

In an important letter of 18 September 1819, Keats sketched out his theory of progress in social and political terms. He praises "the example of England" as an early polestar of freedom to the Continent, and cites the contribution of "the liberal writers of france and england" to the overthrow of tyrannical authority in the French Revolution. "That has had an unlucky termination," he says, because the ruling classes have used the revolution as a bugbear to spread fear and arrest progress. "It put a stop to the rapid progress of free sentiments in England; and gave our Court hopes of turning back to the despotism of the 16 century. They have made a handle of this event in every way to undermine our freedom." Keats seems to have been fired by Hazlitt's reading of recent history, published just days before the Peterloo massacre, and by the weeks of political turmoil which followed the bloody event. "They spread a horrid superstition against all innovation and improvement—The present struggle in England of the people is to destroy this superstition. What has roused them to do it is their distresses" (Letters 2: 193). Writing just a month after the massacre and only a few days after the orator of St. Peter's Field, Henry Hunt, had received a tumultuous reception from his followers in London, Keats sees the popular agitation for reform as a resumption of progress towards political freedom and even religious enlightenment, which had been put to a "temporry stop" by the fears aroused by the French Revolution. He takes this to be an ethical imperative: "This is no contest between whig and tory—but between right and wrong."

As James Chandler pointed out in a paper prepared for another MLA session, the unrest of 1819 made many in England, especially the younger generation, think again about the Revolution. But Keats had expressed equally strong sentiments against the government eleven months earlier, in which he predicted that the eerie political calm of the moment would soon be shattered. "As for Politics," he writes on 14 October 1818, "they are in my opinion only sleepy because they will soon be too wide awake." Thus begins a long, complex political fantasia that damns reformers and reactionaries alike. On the one hand, "There is of a truth nothing manly or sterling in any part of the Government." On the other, "There are many Madmen In the Country, I have no doubt, who would like to be beheaded on tower Hill merely for the sake of eclat… but there are none prepared to suffer in obscurity for their Country—the motives of our wo[r]st men are interest and of our best Vanity—We have no Milton, no Algernon Sidney." Of Napoleon he writes, with the same balance of blame, "I cannot but think he has done more harm to the life of Liberty than anyone else could have done: not that the divine right Gentlemen have done or intend to do any good… . The worst thing he has done is, that he has taught them how to organize their monstrous armies" (Letters I: 396-97). Despite its suppression, the unrest of 1819 evidently increased Keats's respect for reformers as it reinvigorated his faith in progress.

The poem in which Keats comes closest to working out the pattern of historical change proposed in his 1819 letter is Hyperion. If I had time I would want to argue that all of Keats's longer narrative poems have vital political subtexts. Consider, for example, the cruel, repressive authority figures who make war on young love in "Isabella, "The Eve of St. Agnes," and "Lamia." All the men in "Lamia," from the god Hermes to Lycius and Apollonius, are controlling and manipulative. The framework of romance and melodrama make these stories appear timeless, though Keats starkly depicts the murderous brothers in the first poem as capitalist exploiters of the labors of the poor and the colonized. These poems are parables of the clash between the freedom of the lovers and the cold, restrictive minds of their tormentors.

In "Lamia" this becomes more complex, for the harsh Apollonius is an aspect of the mind of Lycius himself. Keats, like Shelley, had acute intuitions of what later came to be called "sexual politics." He saw love as a form of yielding—melting to the other—and the will to power as something grasping, appropriating—what Lycius does when he forces Lamia into a public wedding, which she at first resists. Lycius himself compares this to a triumphal display of booty after a conquest (Book II. 57-64). When he subdues Lamia's will, we are told, "She burnt, she loved the tyranny." Lamia has come the full distance from being the seducer, as manipulative as the men, to becoming a very human, vulnerable, and finally willing subject. The terms of love are also terms of power—political terms.

The fourth long poem in the 1820 volume, Hyperion, deals more explicitly and subtly with historical themes. Very few critics have even paused to acknowledge Kenneth Muir's suggestion in 1952 that the French Revolution and the revolutionary climate of 1818-19 "contributed to, if it did not suggest, the subject of the poem." Nor have they bothered to reflect on Leigh Hunt's pregnant description, in his late Autobiography, of the poem's "transcendental cosmopolitics." Instead they have continued to deal with it in terms of its epic ambitions, its sonorous impersonality, and the Miltonic "stationing" of the verse and the characters. In short, solely as a piece of "aesthetic creation." The theme of progress in Oceanus' speech has most often been discussed as a metaphysical abstraction—something that deals with mythological time rather than the historical moment.

But Hyperion has a plot, like Keats's other narrative poems. It cannot be adequately analyzed as a lyrical effusion or a tissue of cross-references to other poets or to Keats's shorter poems (as Helen Vendler has recently done). "As he brooded on his subject," says Muir, "it began to acquire a contemporary significance." In these last days of George III, so bitingly evoked by Shelley in his "Sonnet: England in 1819," the dethronement of Saturn could hardly be described without some political resonance. Very succinctly, the poem is about the replacement of an old order which is timeless, static, and ruled by a Lear-like monarch "blind from sheer supremacy," by a dynamic new order attuned to Keats's and Oceanus' notion of progress, as embodied in the young god Apollo, whose painfully acquired "knowledge enormous" of "creations and destroyings" ushers in the 19th-century philosophy of history. Yet at the same time Apollo's deification is also the transformation of the individual—and the growth of humanitarian sympathy—foretold in "Sleep and Poetry" and "burned through" again and again in the odes. Saturn, like the pathetically reduced Napoleon of Byron's ode to the fallen emperor—

'Tis done—but yesterday a King!
And armed with Kings to strive—
And now thou art a nameless thing:
So abject—yet alive!

has lost his identity by losing his kingly role. Apollo, on the other hand, has gained identity by assimilating a knowledge of history, not as abstract information but as proved upon his pulses in a personal ordeal. Saturn's suffering has left him blank, blighted, and uncomprehending; Apollo's fierce convulsions have destroyed his "aching ignorance" and filled him with human knowledge. Saturn's ordeal belongs to the deaththroes of the past; Apollo's will be resumed in personal terms as the ordeal of the poet as seer and witness in The Fall of Hyperion.

"Didactic poetry is my abhorrence," wrote Shelley in his preface to Prometheus Unbound, a poem closer to Hyperion than any other romantic work, for it is also about the toppling of a sovereign whose absolute power has blinded him and made him cruel yet vulnerable. In that preface and in "A Defence of Poetry," Shelley expresses his belief that visionary verse can affect the future more powerfully than political propaganda, by transforming our moral imagination. Poetry "strips the veil of familiarity from the world" and "contains within itself the seeds at once of its own and of social renovation." Keats himself once said that he "would jump down Aetna for any public good." Whatever his differences with Shelley as an artist, as summarized in their great exchange of letters in the summer of 1820, there is every reason to think they shared the goal of ultimate social renovation by way of the disinterested exertions of art, of aesthetic creation that—far from turning in upon itself—aims at a renewal of both self and society.

A. E. Eruvbetine (essay date 1984)

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SOURCE: "Beauty: the Keatsian Aesthetic Ideal," in Studia Anglica Posnaniensia, Vol. 17, 1984, pp. 251-69.

[In the following examination of the function of beauty in Keats's poetry, Eruvbetine maintains that beauty is idealized by Keats because it serves as the medium for apprehending truth. While Keats resolves beauty and truth into one aesthetic ideal, Eruvbetine explains, beauty is the primary concept and the focus of the ideal.]

When Keats wrote "Sleep and Poetry" in the summer of 1816, he expressed the wish for "ten years that [he] may overwhelm/[Himself] in poesy; so [he] may do the deed/That [his] soul has to itself decreed" (96-8). However, as early as January 1818, when he wrote the sonnet titled "when I have fears," he was almost certain of the imminence of a death that would inevitably prevent him from overwhelming himself in poesy or beauty, and from gleaning and storing the riches or beauties with which his brain teemed. Therefore, like one writing his own epitaph, he states in a letter to Fanny Brawne, February 1820, "If I should die, I have left no immortal works behind me—nothing to make my friends proud of my memory—but I have lov'd the principle of beauty in all things and if I had had time I would have made myself remember'd."1

Evident in this "memorial" is Keats's consideration of immortal works as great poetic creations that derive their profundity and immortality from being able to embody, in an effective manner, the essential beauty which the poet perceives in all things. Since he also implies that these "eternal works" are the sources of the immortality of their creators, it is natural that, in contemplating his impending early death, Keats should express disappointment at the possibility of not having enough time to produce works that would truly reflect his love of beauty after his death. Nevertheless, he draws some consolation from his love of the principle of beauty in all things because he believes that "the supreme thing in life is beauty" (F. R. Leavis 1936: 238). Aware that the love of beauty is the ultimate human achievement from which all enduring acts of creation spring,2 Keats maintains that his love and knowledge of the essential beauty of the world—however inadequately this beauty may by embodied in his poetic works—are sufficient to give him some measure of eternity.

Essentially, Keats views all great or immortal poetic works as "beauties" through which all real poets gain immortality. In "How Many Bards Gild the Lapse of Time," for instance, he maintains that all the important poetic works of previous generations are "beauties, earthly and sublime" (4). As the title of the sonnet suggests, the poetic beauties and the poets who created them are one and the same; hence, the bards can gild the lapse of time and continuously exhibit their beauties in a timeless context. The earthly nature of these beauties signifies their existence in the normal world while their sublime quality remains a tribute to their eternity. Keats's wish to overwhelm himself in poesy may thus be seen as a wish to explore the essential beauty in the world, while the "deed/That [his] soul has to itself decreed" may be seen as that of ultimately creating lasting beauties from those he enjoys. For him, all previous aesthetic works are eternal creations that constitute the mass of beauty which poets create "from grand materials" and the "events of this wide world" ("Sleep and Poetry", 81), and put into "etherial existence of the relish of all (Letters 1952:170).

Implicit in this equation of great artistic works with beauties is Keats's belief that immortal works are enduring embodiments of the principle of beauty in all things. Keats feels that poets fashion these beauties from materials in the phenomenal world and from man's experiences of existence. In other words, he maintains that all subjects, be they sources of pleasure or pain, are potentially replete with the beauty that informs the whole world. This assumption underlies his treatment of various subjects in his poems. He also believes that love or the love of beauty is the aesthetic ideal which inspires all poets to seek and depict the beauty of the world: "Wherever beauty dwells, / In gulph or aerie, mountains or deep dells / In light, in gloom, in star or blazing sun, / [Love] pointest the way and straight 'tis won" (Endymion, III, 94-71). Beauty, as revealed by love, becomes the irresistible Keatsian muse of poetry. It is the poetic muse that inspires the investigation of that poetic beauty which unites the apparently contradictory elements of human life. Keats's fascination with this kind of muse is thus more than what Leavis regards as the poet's worship of a beauty that is "a concentration upon the purely delightful in experience to the exclusion of the 'disagreeables'" (Leavis 1936:237).


This Keatsian conception of beauty or of the aesthetic ideal is, in some respects, Platonic. For instance, the poet's contention that beauty is immanent in all things is more Platonic than Hazlitt's conditional statement in the "Essay on Beauty" that beauty "is in some way inherent in the object" (Hazlitt 1902-6:68). Keats's view is, in this respect, analogous to the Platonic idea in which "beauty in every form is one and the same" (Symposium 1948:51)—making his ideal some form of abstraction: "The mighty abstract idea I have of the beautiful in all things stifles the more divided and minute domestic happiness" (Letters: 261), he declares. For him, a poet's duty consists of seeking, exploring and depicting this beauty which inheres in nature and man's life, and which in a way, is a substitute for the Wordsworthian "Presence."3 His belief that poets attain immortality through the eternal existence of their beautiful works also parallels the Platonic, since "men who are creative in their souls" create beauties that guarantee them the respect of posterity (Symposium: 50-51). In fact, Keats refers to immortal works of beauty as "souls of poets" that serve as the means by which they "hold lofty converse/with after times" ("Epistle to George Keats", 72-3).

Nevertheless, the notion of beauty in Keats's works is un-Platonic in some other respects. For instance, the poet does not regard an individual example of beauty or "personal beauty as a trifle" that is an imperfect shadow of "the beauty absolute" (Symposium: 50-51). Rather, he conceives of specific instances of beauty as "particles" that are integral parts of the essential beauty in all things. The concept of an abstract beauty that exists apart from particulars is alien to the Keatsian system. His "abstract idea of beauty" is conterminous with the "mass of beauty" formed from the various particulars: "An amiable wife and sweet Children I contemplate as part of that Beauty, but I must have a thousand of those beautiful particles to fill up my heart" (Letters: 1261), he declares. Moreover, Keats does not believe in the Platonic progression from particular beauties to the absolute or ideal beauty—a progress "from the beauties of the earth upwards to the beauty absolute." The Platonic steps or stages leading to the absolute beauty—"from one to two to all fair forms, and from fair forms to fair practices, and from fair practices to fair notions … and from fair notions to the notion of absolute beauty or the essence of beauty" (Symposium: 52)—are irrelevant to Keatsian system. For Keats, a passionate concentration on anything, irrespective of whatever Platonic stage the object is classed, leads the poet to the discovery of the essential beauty in all things.

Keats's idiosyncratic definition of essential beauty explains why he always stresses what Goldberg refers to as "the corporeality of beauty rather than its abstracted quality" (Goldberg 1969:77). The poet usually identifies specific examples of this beauty rather than discusses its abstract qualities. For instance, he calls the myth of Endymion "A thing of beauty", talks about specific beauties which he finds in the works of other poets, and expresses his commitment to creating beauties in his own works. For him, Shakespeare's sonnets abound in beauties: "I ne'er found so many beauties in the Sonnets—they seem to be full of many fine things said unintentionally in the intensity of working out conceits" (Letters: 69). Also, in the sonnet titled "On Seeing a Lock of Milton's Hair," Keats summarizes Milton's achievements in terms of the beauties he creates: "By all that from thy mortal lips did roll/And by the kernel of thy earthly love/Beauty, in things on earth, and things above/I swear" (19-22). And, in the "Ode to Apollo," after depicting the particular beauties that the poets he considers to be great contribute to Apollo's eternal music, he concludes by calling all the beauties created by these bards and Apollo, "eternal music:" This eternal music represents the vital beauty which is also the aesthetic ideal.

To consider the beauties created by poets like Milton and Shakespeare, among others, as constituting part of the principle of beauty in all things implies that Keats regards poetic creations as veridical realities. Indeed, he maintains that these beauties exist side by side or in conjunction with the other realities in the world. For him, the current of beauty flows through products of the poetic imagination as well as through all things in the phenomenal world. This conviction of Keats is even more obvious in his discussion of the nature of "Etherial things" (Letters: 120) because he attributes the same measure of reality to Shakespeare's passages as he attributes to natural elements like the sun, moon and stars. He contends that poetic beauties—insofar as they are products of the aesthetic imagination—are integral parts of the beauty of the world: "What the imagination siezes as Beauty must be truth—whether it existed before or not" (Letters: 72) he maintains. Thus, poetic works are true because they are real—making truth, beauty and reality, the same in this context.

This equation of beauties with truths or realities informs Keats's statements on the immortality of aesthetic works and their creators. Evidently, if beautiful works do not really exist after the mortal lives of their creators, then it is impossible to talk of the eternal existence of poets. Since aesthetic works eternally reflect their creators' visions of the aesthetic ideal of the world, it follows that what is of prime importance in the poets' lives—their distinctive perceptions of the world's beauty—lives on for ever. Hence, all great poets can be seen as being in constant communication with later generations.

The undying poetic beauties are, to Keats, the enduring souls of poets that are in communion with posterity. "The living pleasures or beauties of these bards" become "richer far posterity's award" ("Epistle to George Keats," 67-8). Poets of later generations have a double heritage of beauty. Inheriting the creations of the "dead" poets as well as the world from which they originally created, poets of later times are able to appreciate the dual existence of poets of former times. Keats emphasizes this point in "Bards of Passion and of Mirth":

Thus ye live on high, and then
On the earth you live again;
And the souls ye left behind you
Teach us, here, the way to find you
Where your other souls are joying
Never slumber'd, never cloying.

The true poets have a timeless and dual existence because their works serve as sources of, and guide to, the principle of beauty in all things. The benefits which later generations of poets derive from the immortal works produced by former epochs are identical with those they gain from the beauty in nature and in their personal experiences of existence. Thus, inherited poetic beauties are as real as those personally experienced by poets in their lifetime.

For Keats, the task of discovering and depicting the essential beauty in great works and in life itself is not easy. Since it entails the aesthetic use of the human imagination, only poets who are capable of rising above their selfish identity by means of the poetic imagination can intimately experience an external event and perceive its beauty. The reality or validity of all poetic works is based on the truth of the poetic imagination: "What the imagination siezes as Beauty must be truth, whether it existed before or not" (Letters: 72). The reality of poetic creations, expressed abstractly in the "Ode on a Grecian Urn" as "Beauty is truth, truth beauty," is reinforced in Keats's works by references to particular examples of beauty. All these beauties are, for Keats, raised by art above the uncertainties of time and space; hence, "A thing of beauty … will never/Pass into nothingness" (Endymion, I, 1-3).

The timeless existence of aesthetically fashioned things is guaranteed by their truth, but any individual wishing to partake of this truth must personally or imaginatively experience it. In the "Ode on a Grecian Urn," Keats insists that this truth, which exists only through the medium of beauty or the beauty which exists through the medium of truth, is the aesthetic ideal that all men must embrace if they are to live complete and worthwhile lives: '"Beauty is truth, truth beauty'—that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know" (V, 9-10). The truth-beauty of beauty-truth which is Keats's poetic capsule of the ideal of human existence in the world, can be known by only those who are capable of intimately experiencing the beauty in art and life—"for even axioms in philosophy are no axioms until they are proved on the pluses" (Letters: 152). Through intense experiences, the poetic individual gives free rein to the beauty within him which naturally flows out and unites with the beauty that flows through all things in the world. Coleridge aptly describes this process as "a silent communion of Spirit [or Beauty] with the Spirit [or Beauty] in nature"4—a process that simultaneously creates and releases the beauty in the material world. Thus, "the 'greeting of the Spirit' is itself as much a part of nature or reality as its object" (Bate 1963:517).

The manner in which a receptive reader perceives and participates in the truth-beauty of an immortal work is, for Keats, identical with that in which a poet apprehends and participates in the beauty of his own world. In partaking of the beauty of art, the reader is actually reliving the poet's experience: "We read fine things," Keats states, "but never feel their beauties to the full until we have gone the same steps as the Author" (Letters: 154, 72-3). Just as the poet's imagination enables him to transcend his selfish nature in order to capture the beauty of his subject, so also does the reader's imagination aid him in his attempt to appreciate the beauty of art.

Keats insists that the reality of the beauty in any experience is usually established through a passionate employment of the poetic imagination. All proper involvements with beauty entail an intimate use of the human imagination: "all our passions … are in their sublime, creative of essential beauty." Sublime passions, in the Keatsian system, are basically intense feelings that can intimately perceive the beauty which is immortalized in great works. Since the individual's intimate sensations are invariably true to him, Keats contends that the beauty which the individual apprehends in a state of passionate excitement must be true. Intense or sublime passions—insofar as they inform the poetic imagination—are the means to the discovery and subsequent depiction of the world's essential beauty, and they also serve as the means to the authentication of the created beauty.

For Keats, the human passions do not only guarantee beauty's truth, they also ascertain truth's reality by clearly defining the beauty of truth. He writes, "I never can feel certain of any truth but from a clear perception of its Beauty. A year ago, I could not understand in the slightest degree Raphael's cartoons—now I begin to read them a little" (Letters: 28l). His belief that the human passions cannot effectively respond to truth except by perceiving its beauty explains why he approaches all experiences through their beauty. He contends in "On First Looking into Chapman's Homer" that the truth of Homer's immortal works became patent to him when he attained a clear perception of the Homeric beauties in Chapman's translation. Symons is thus correct in declaring that "With [Keats], beauty was always a part of feeling, always a thing to quicken his pulses" (Symons 1909: 303).

Inasmuch as the human passions cannot, within Keats's system, directly perceive truth except through the medium of its beauty, and inasmuch as the authenticity of truth depends upon the passions, the certainty of any truth depends principally on its beauty. Moreover, since human passions authenticate all things and experiences by perceiving beauty in them, it is reasonable to conclude that whenever Keats refers to the aesthetic ideal as beauty, he also assumes its truth or reality. And although he resolves beauty and truth into a single aesthetic ideal, beauty still remains the primary term and focal point of the ideal. Little wonder then that he maintains that "with a great poet the sense of beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all considerations" (Letters: 77).


Keats's enthronement of beauty as his poetic idol has unfortunately misled many critics into regarding him as an unquestionable aesthete. Arthur Symons, for instance, explicitly declares the poet an aesthete when he remarks that "Keats, when the phrase had not yet been invented, practised the theory of art for art's sake" (Symons 1909:306). Although Symons does not rigidly apply the stadards of the nineteenth century Aestheticism in his determination of the value of Keats's writings, Leavis correctly argues that "Keats's aestheticism … does not mean anything as the cutting off of the special valued order from direct vulgar living … as is implied in the aesthetic antithesis of Art and Life" (Leavis 1936:257). Since Keats's notion of beauty is always informed by the harmonious relationship between art and life—a relationship which enhances the distinctive qualities of art and life—beauty as conceived by Keats is radically different from the beauty in the extreme views of pre-Raphaelites like Rossetti and Johnson.

Leavis does not only succeed in identifying the main weakness in an unqualified hailing of Keats as an aesthete, he also attributes to Keats a form of aestheticism that is even more objectionable than that suggested by Symons. His belief that Keats's distinctive idea of beauty is that of "the delightful in experience to the exclusion of the 'disagreeables'" (Leavis 1936:255) is incongruent with Keats's notion of beauty. What Leavis sees as Keats's version of aestheticism seems no more than a disguised support for the erroneous consideration of Keats as a poet of sheer sensuous luxuries.

Basically, Leavis, like Garrod, believes that Keats's beauty is identical with the "exquisite sense of the luxurious" (Garrod 1939:42). However, while Garrod maintains that Keats's "'exquisite sense of the luxurious' luxuriates to consummate effects in 'Isabella' and 'The Eve of St. Agnes'" (Garrod 1939:43), Leavis sees all the poems as illustrations of Keats's relish for the purely delightful in experience. The great odes are, for Leavis, the ultimate manifestations of Keats's addiction to hedonistic beauty. He even distorts the poet's treatment of the theme of melancholy to suit his limited definition of Keats's aestheticism, insisting that the "Ode on Melancholy" is "one of the most obviously decadent developments of Beauty-addiction—of the cult of 'exquisite passions' and 'finest senses'" (Leavis 1936:260). Even intense passions (which in Keats's view are the touchstone of the reality of beautiful things) become, for Leavis, the means for the poet's perpetration of his decadent cult of delightful beauty.

The only useful purpose served by Leavis's objection to Symons' rather unqualified consideration of Keats as an aesthete is to point out that Keats's idea of beauty is not abstract or transcendental. But this usefulness is nullified by his mistaken account of Keats's definition of beauty and the way this beauty operates in the world. He is obviously wrong in suggesting that Keats's idea of beauty precludes the "disagreeables" and solely cultivates the sybaritic. As has been indicated earlier, Keats maintains that beauty is present in both pleasant and unpleasant circumstances of life. The element of beauty celebrated in poems like "On the Sea" and "Hadst Thou Liv'd in Days of Old" is quite different from that celebrated in "On Sitting Down to Read King Lear Once Again" and The Hyperion fragments. Thus, while the beauty of natural phenomena in "I Stood Tip-toe" and that in "Hadst Thou Liv'd in Days of Old" illustrate Leavis's sense of the delightful, the tragic beauties of Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion illustrate a kind of beauty that transcends mere sybaritism. In fact, most of Keats's poems illustrate the interpenetration of the painful and the pleasurable aspects of beauty. The great odes and the Hyperion fragments demonstrate the complexity of the notion of beauty in Keats's works. Evidently, Keats's concept of beauty is more subtle and complex than Leavis's statements suggest.

Douglas Bush does recognize the complexity of Keats's concept of beauty. Aware that Keats describes beauty in pleasant and upleasant experiences of life, he remarks that the central assumption in Keats's works is that "In a world of inexplicable mystery and pain, the experience of beauty is the one sure revelation of reality". He argues, "if beauty is reality, the converse is likewise true, the reality of man's experience of suffering can yield beauty in itself and in art" (Bush 1957: 22). In like manner, Gerard maintains that "There is truth (in a somewhat Platonic sense) in the Elysian vision of the first scene captured in the 'Ode on a Grecian Urn' and there is beauty in the vision of ordinary life, suffering and death described in the second scene" (Gerard 1962:22). Similarly, Wigod's identification of the difference between the tragic beauty of the Hyperion fragments and the "Epistle to J. H. Reynolds", and "the warm, pulsating beauty" of poems like "Isabella" and "The Eve of St. Agnes" (Wigod 1957:117) is valuable only if these different elements of the Keatsian aesthetic ideal are regarded as inseparable parts of the essential beauty in all things.

Keats's apparent worship of beauty can, however, be broadly regarded as a form of aestheticism, Saito seems to reflect the distinctive complexion of Keatsian aestheticism when he maintains that the poet "engages in art for life's sake" (Saito 1929:42). Saito's declaration will, of course, fully represent Keats's position if it also implies that the poet engages in life for art's sake, for the harmonious interrelation of art and life is of cardinal importance in Keats's aestheticism. Sharp also correctly defines the poet's position—in spite of the broad religious significance that he attributes to the poet's aestheticism—when he states that Keats's notion of beauty is "human and functional" (Sharp 1979: 34). In fact, Keats's aestheticism derives its distinctiveness from making the beauty of art and life serve some practical purposes in the lives of human beings.

Keats believes that, because the loveliness of beautiful things increases eternally, they become "joys for ever" by providing those who partake of their beauty "with a quiet bower … and a sleep / Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing" (Endymion: I 30-34). All beautiful things in art and life are thus life-enhancing, for they are "a cheering light / Unto our souls, and bound to us so fast, / That whether there be shine, or gloom o'ercast / They must be with us, or we die" (Endymion: I, 30-34). As "friends to man, in the midst of our woe," these beauties "soothe the cares and lift the thoughts of man" ("Sleep and Poetry", 246-7). Thus, as poets create beautiful things and reveal those already in the world, they are actually wreathing

A flowery band to bind us to the earth,
Spite of despondence, of inhuman dearth
Of noble natures, of gloomy days,
Of all the unhealthy and o'er darkened ways
Made for our searching eyes: yes, in spite of all,
Some shape of beauty moves away the pall
From our dark spirits.
(Endymion, I, 6-13)

For Keats, all created and revealed beauties combine to produce "An endless fountain of immortal drink/Pouring into us from heaven's brink" (23-4) to give us comfort in this "World of Pains and troubles" (Letters: 363).

Since Keats insists that the intense experiencing of the pains and pleasures of existence yields the essential beauty of the world to the individual, it is important to reiterate that his belief in the soothing and consoling effects of the poetic ideal does not imply that beauty is a means of escape from the bitter realities of the world. Rather, the Keatsian aesthetic ideal "binds us to the earth" (Endymion: I, 7), enabling the poetic individual to partake intimately in both the delightful and the disheartening situations in life as he seeks the harmony of existence. Essentially, Keats's concept of the poetic ideal of beauty weds two distinct but related elements—the sybaritic and the tragic. The sybaritic (which partly parallels what Leavis refers to as the only real indicator of Keats's aestheticism) "soothes the cares of man," while the tragic aspect of beauty (which Leavis considers to be absent from Keats's concept of the ideal) "lifts the thoughts of man" ("Sleep and Poetry", 246-7). Intense human experiences reveal the harmonious relation of these elements of man's life and the world to the passionate individual.


The foregoing discussion has established the complex and all-embracing nature of the Keatsian ideal of beauty which is variously referred to as "streaks of light," "eternal music," "souls of poets," "essential beauty," "the poetical in all things", and "Beauty is truth, truth beauty."5 The numerous shades of meaning suggested by these references fall into two main categories—beauty as the theme and beauty as the style of poetry or art. As the theme of all immortal works, Keats conceives of beauty as true knowledge, the source of power, and as a pointer to the comprehensive "moral order" of the world. As the style of poetry or art, beauty is organic form, the source of creative excellence.

Whether as style or theme, the Keatsian ideal is autheticated by sensations. The poetic state of passionate excitement (capable of discovering the aesthetic ideal and free from the limitations of the purely intellectual division between pain and pleasure) is able to embrace the immanent beauty of the world and reveal the harmony and wholeness of human experiences. Hence, intense passions perceive and create beauty by bringing together opposing extremes (Caldwell 1945:170). In Endymion, for example, Cynthia, while involved in the pleasures of love, becomes suddenly aware of a feeling of pain which causes her to ask, "is grief contain'd/In the very deeps of pleasure?" (II, 823-4). A typically Keatsian answer to this question can be drawn from the "Ode on Melancholy":

Ay, in the very temple of delight
Veil'd Melancholy has her sovran shrine,
Though seen of none save him whose strenuous tongue
Can burst Joy's grape against his palate fine:
His soul shall taste the sadness of her might,
And be among her cloudy trophies hung.
(lll, 5-10)

The presence of Melancholy's shrine in the temple of delight is only recognized by those who can intimately feel delight. This perception of beauty in which opposing conditions are united is the source of real joy in the Keatsian world view.

The care of man in this world is, for Keats, soothed by the fervent participation in the beauty formed from the coalescence of opposing extremes. In "The Eve of St. Agnes", for instance, Madeline's ability to discern the relationship between her dream and reality, to perceive the qualities of her ideal in the "physical" or real Porphyro, and to accept the interpenetration of the spiritual and the material, enables her to partake of the essential beauty of the world which gives her joy in her love for the human rather than the spiritual Porphyro. Madeline is wise enough to realize that her encounter with the angelic Porphyro in a dream is no more than an encounter with partial beauty.

Like the knight-at-arms in "La Belle Dame Sans Merci", Madeline awakens from a sweet dream and experiences the apparent contrast between the dream and reality. Her initial reaction to the normal world after the dream—alarm at "the painful change" (XXXIV, 3) and feeling of "eternal woe" (XXXV, 8) or anguish—is identical with that of the knight-at-arms. Nevertheless, while the sensing of change and feeling of woe aid Madeline in her attempts to establish a harmonious link between her dream and reality, they cause the knight-at-arms to bemoan the lost bliss of the dream and to substitute anguish for joy. By perceiving the unity of the angelic and real Pophyro, Madeline awakens from the illusions of her dream and embraces the beauty which unites the dream and reality. In the intensity of joy, the opposition between dream and reality is eliminated: "Into her dream he melted, as the rose / Blendeth its odour with the violet/Solution sweet" (XXXVI, 5-8).

Unlike Madeline, Lycius in "Lamia" is also an unfortunate victim of the destructiveness of false beauty or joy emanating from a partial perception of the nature of the world's beauty. Lycius's misfortune arises from his inability to distinguish between false beauty or joy on the one hand, and true beauty or joy on the other. The mirage-like nature of the beauty and joy which Lamia offers him is obvious to the reader early in the poem. Lamia is "not one hour old" before she shows signs of having a "sciential brain" which can "unperplex bliss from its neighbour pain, / Define their pettish limits, and estrange / Their points of contact" (I, 191-4). She puts her unusual powers to work almost immediately and creates a world of absolute bliss in which pain is non-existent. Then she prevails upon Lycius, and makes him to abandon the real world for the Lamian one of airy bliss.

Overcome by Lamia's beauty, Lycius is unable to detect the inherent fallacy in Lamia's argument in which the normal world of Corinth is seen as "empty of immortality and bliss" (I, 278). As a student of Philosophy, he ought to have recognized the airy nature of the Lamian world absolute bliss. Also, if he were able to understand the essential beauty of life, he may have saved himself from the agony and death which attend the destructions of his illusions. "Tangled in Lamia's mesh", he yearns to escape from his mortal nature (I, 295). His recoil from Apollonius after his involvement with Lamia (I, 362-377) represents what to Keats is a desire to run away from the intensely beautiful fate of mankind.

Apollonius's role at the end of the poem has led to the common belief that the Lamian world of the lovers would have been saved from utter destruction if the Philosopher had not mercilessly destroyed it with cold facts. Keats even rails against Apollinius's approach to the airy world of beauty and bliss:

Do not all charms fly
At the mere touch of cold philosophy?
Philosophy will clip an Angel's wings,
Conquer all mysteries by the rule and line,
Empty the haunted air, and gnomed mine—
Unweave the rainbow, as it erewhile made
The tender-person'd Lamia melt into shade.
(II, 229-30; 234-8)

For the poet, Apollonius represents a kind of truth that is devoid of the complementing aspect of beauty. In fact, Apollonus is unreceptive to the world of love in which Lycius is caught. Being unable to experience intimately the beauty of his philosophical truths, Apollonius cannot penetrate the substratum of truth in the Lamian beauty. Since his approach to his ward's experience is based on the conflict between truth and beauty, he can be regarded as an advocate of the unhealty fragmentation of human experience—a fragmentation which destroys the sense of wholeness necessary in the perception of beauty.

In spite of Apollonius's villainy, Lycius is himself responsible for both the destruction of his airy world and his subsequent death. His ignorance of the illusory foundation upon which the Lamian world is built causes him to seek its authentication in the real world. By arranging a public marriage, Lycius exhibits his ignorance of the true nature of visionary experiences. Keats reveals Lycius's ignorance and folly when he asks, "senseless Lycius!, Madman!, wherefore flout/The silent-blessing fate, warm cloister'd hours/And show to common eyes these secret bowers?" (II, 157-9). By making his secret dream-world public, Lycius inadvertently invites its destruction. Moreover, by escaping from the world of pain into that of absolute bliss, he renders himself vulnerable to pain. His inability to cope with the pain attendant upon normal human existence reveals how far he has escaped from reality and its everlasting beauty. Consequently, incapable of "bearing naked truths" (Hyperion: II, 202), Lycius loses both his life and bliss: "And Lycius's arms were empty of delight/As were his limbs of life, from that same night" ("Lamia:" II, 307-8).

Lycius's fate, for Keats, can befall anyone who is unable to experience the beauty in this world of apparent contradictions. Basically, beauty is the point of contact between "bliss … and its neighbour pain" ("Lamia": I, 191-4). Hence, whoever is unable to partake of the world's beauty is prone to self-destruction like Lycius. In the "Ode to a Nightingale," for example, the poet is saved from utter destruction or death by his ability to apprehend the beauty which unites the real world of pain and the nightingale's world of ideal melody. Through intense passionate involvement in beauty, the poet is able to take part in all that both worlds offer without being lost in either of the worlds. As in "Lamia," the two worlds are apparently in opposition to each other. The nightingale's world is a counterpart of the Lamian one, while Corinth and the real world are the same

… where men sit and hear each other groan;
Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last gray hairs,
Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies; …
And leaden-eyed despairs
Where Beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes,
Or new Love pine at them beyond tomorrow.
(III, 4-10)

In contrast to these stark realities of existence is the nightingale's world of bliss and unceasing melody.

Although the distinction between the world of bliss and that of pain is fundamentally the same in "Lamia" and in the "Ode to a Nightingale," there is a remarkable difference in the manner in which the protagonists of both poems react to the opposing worlds. While Lycius's total absorption in the Lamian bliss excludes the possibility of the opposite, the poet's delight in the nightingale's song does not prevent him from understanding the painful possibilities of the real world. Consequently, while Lycius and the poet enjoy complete involvement in visionary bliss, only the poet retains an intense feeling of the opposite state, a beauty which enables him to return to the normal world unscathed: "Forlorn! the very word is like a bell/To toll me back from thee to my sole self/Adieu! the fancy cannot cheat so well" (VIII, 1-3). In the case of Lycius, the fancy cheats so well that there is nothing capable of tolling him back to his "sole self. Absorbed in his dream-world, Lycius loses the necessary self-consciousness which can make his transition to the real world possible.


Since in Keats's view beauty provides the point of aesthetic unity between opposites, it follows that beauty is the link between art and life. In a sense, the Lamian world is comparable to art, while the world represented by Apollonius symbolizes the unpleasant truths of life. In fact, the ideal offered by the Lamian existence is a false ideal of beauty, for it is unrelated to the realities of normal existence. It is a from of artistic escapism which cuts the individual loose from life. Lycius is thus unlike the poet who, though receptive to the ideals which the nightingale's song offers in the ode, remains truly conscious of the beauties of the real world. The nightingale's ideal complements that of the real world; it does not replace "the world of circumstances." Art is not viewed as the source of escape from the world; rather, it is seen as capable of furnishing the receptive individual with the beauty which "binds us to the earth/Spite of despondence".

The balance which the aesthetic ideal of beauty maintains between art and life is also aptly depicted in the "Ode on a Grecian Urn". On the urn, some intense aspects of the world and of human experience are poetically represented. In the second stanza, for instance, the trees portrayed are eternally green with leaves, a youth is portrayed singing continually, and a bold lover, for ever poised for a kiss, is shown in relation to his lady who is in an eternal gesture of reciprocating:

Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave
Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;
Bold lover, never, never, canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal—yet, do not grieve;
She cannot fade, though thou hadst not thy bliss,
For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!

"The trees that can never be bare" are products of an artistic "arrest" of that process of change which is integral to the yearly seasonal cycle. Since in actuality "four seasons fill the measure of the year," the poem, by presenting the effect of one of the four seasons on the trees, cannot represent more than a fraction of life's reality. The eternally green trees exist through an imaginative prolongation and intensification of part of the whole truth or beauty of the world. Hazlitt refers to this kind of poetic enhancement of part of reality as "the abstraction of anything from the circumstances that weaken its effect, or lessen our admiration of it [and] it is also the filling up of the outline of truth or beauty "(Hazlitt 1902-6:429). To perceive the essential beauty in these trees, it is not enough to regard the abstracted or enhanced summer-beauty of the trees as the total reality. This kind of beauty must be seen in perspective or in relation to the beauty of the other seasons. The artistic prolongation of one condition, therefore, must not be mistaken for the whole truth of beauty.

The fair youth who "can not leave / His song" is also an artistic intensification of an aspect of human activity. The truth and beauty of one who sings eternally is restricted to the artistic milieu. However, since the youth's song indirectly points to other possible events in the real world, it is a useful contribution to life. Similarly, the lover's unchanging poise for a kiss is related to the normal world by its capability for suggesting other truths of life. The lover cannot kiss because his "move" is "frozen" just before the act takes place. This aesthetic arrest of the lover's action raises it above change and time, both of which are crucial factors in man's normal existence. While this artistic arrest guarantees the lover constancy, it denies him of the warmth and consummation that are possible in real life. Yet, the warmth of real life cannot be frozen as in art, because change is an integral part of its existence. Since art and life have distinctively different beauties, no one of them can become a complete substitute for the other. The "arrested moment" in art cannot replace the "changing instant" in life. Art and life must complement each other in order to produce the essential beauty that is coterminous with true knowledge in Keats's world.

A knowledge of this beauty which underlies all experiences is, in Keats's view, a source of power or sovereignty for the individual. Apollo, for example, is deified in Hyperion as a result of his knowledge of the unity of all things in beauty. His intimate experiencing of the aesthetic ideal makes his power immediately obvious to all who see him, for there is "a glow of beauty in his eyes" (II, 237). Apollo himself maintains that "Knowledge enormous makes a God of him" (III, 113). Therefore Balslev is correct in asserting that "the basic idea of Hyperion is beauty as the governing principle of the world (Balslev 1962:101).

In a sense, even Oceanus's mere recognition of Apollo as the new and powerful embodiment of the beauty which rules the world confers a measure of power on him. It is no mere coincidence that Saturn, in his moment of utmost grief turns to Oceanus for consolation:

"O speak your counsel now, for Saturn's ear
Is all a-hunger'd. Thou, Oceanus,
Ponderest high and deep; and in thy face
I see, astonied, the severe content
Which comes of thought and musing: give us help."
(II, 162-6)

Saturn recognizes Oceanus's feeling of contentment in spite of the woes of the Titans. Oceanus seems to have imbided the beauty which gives him solace by understanding the course of events that led to their fall.

Though Saturn asks for "some shape of beauty [to move] away the pall/From [his] sad spirits", his receptiveness to beauty seems to diminish as Oceanus discloses what truth he discovered in his rumination. Oceanus's preamble to the truth emphasizes the inherent beauty in the apparently hopeless situation of the fallen gods:

"Now comes the pain of truth, to whom 'tis pain;
O folly! for to bear all naked truths,
And to envisage circumstances, all calm,
That is the top of sovereignty".
(II, 202-5)

Power or sovereignty is the reward for an intimate experiencing of the beauty inherent in the disheartening changes of human life. Oceanus is himself given power over his fellow Titans because of his equanimity in the face of trying conditions. He becomes the guide and governor of his mates because he understands the bitter-sweet nature of their fall and the nature of responsibility that goes with Apollo's good reign.

Oceanus first reviews the historical process or natural evolution which brought the Titans to power some time ago:

First there was Chaos and parental Darkness, from those ferment at the ripe hour for wonderous workings came light. And light joining with the progenitor, Darkness, "forthwith touch'd/The whole enormous matter into life" (II, 196-7). The Heavens and the Earth were then manifest; mysteriously they united to bring forth the Titans, among whom Saturn was the first born. Then the Titans found themselves ruling new and beautious realms. (Wigod 1972:112)

Having established the circumstances that brought the Titans to power, Oceanus proceeds to relate them to those that now lead to their fall:

"On our heels a fresh perfection treads,
A power more strong in beauty, born of us
And fated to excel us, as we pass
Into glory that old Darkness: nor are we
Thereby more conquer'd than by us the rule
Of shapeless Chaos …
… for 'tis the eternal law
That first in beauty should be first in might:
Yea, by that law, another race may drive
Our conquerors to mourn as we do now".
(II, 212-7; 229-31)

Thus, the fall of the Titans is not caused by their weakness alone but by the continuous process of evolution which decrees beauty as the ultimate reason for change of leadership.

For Oceanus, the perception of the undistorted truth about the rise and fall of the Titans entails the necessary beauty which lessens the tragedy of the fall. Since the Titans themselves did come to power through circumstances that were beyond their control, it is only fair that they should be prepared for evolutionary changes that may dethrone them. Moreover, just as they were conscious of the various changes that took place as they came to power, so are they expected to have been able to predict their imminent fall from the changes that they now see in the system of the world. It ought to have been clear to them that the eternal law which made them more beautiful than Chaos and Darkness is also capable of bringing into existence Apollo, who is more beautiful than Saturn, as a signal of a new era. Oceanus correctly argues that the Titans must be content in the knowledge that their successors are worthier than themselves and that they, the Titans, have successfully completed their task in the everchanging and inevitable evolutionary process.


Apollo's reign is symbolic of the poet's reign in the sense that the sovereignty or power of the poet springs from his ability to apprehend and create the essential beauty of existence. Apollo's intimate feeling of the supremely opposite elements of existence has a direct counterpart in The Fall of Hyperion. Moneta maintains that the poet is able to gain admission into the temple of Saturn because of his sincere concern about the plight of man. Moneta insists that "None can usurp this height / But those to whom the miseries of the world / Are miseries, and will not let them rest" (I, 146-9). Therefore, the moment the poet realizes that "Every sole man hath days of joy and pain" (I, 172), and that only a proper or an aesthetic response to joy or pain in this world is the key to unlocking the secret treasure-house of the essential beauty of the world, he attains a new life which consists of a mastery of life's contradictions—a life so good that he can communicate it to others through the medium of his art. Any poet who, for Keats, is able to attain power through his knowledge of the aesthetic ideal,

" … has felt
What 'tis to die and live again before
His fated hour, that [he] has power to do so
Is [his] safety; [he] hast dated on [his] doom."
(I, 141-5)

The poet's power comes from his intense experiencing of existence which yields the beauty that he communicates to his fellow men. He "rules" over others by giving them the balm that can make their lives pleasant.

The beauty which the poet knows also entails a strong and comprehensive moral sense that is useful in attempts to solve problems in human life. His belief in the practicality of this moral sense informs his offering of "a poetic comfort" to his friend Bailey. Disgusted with the supposed villainy of the Bishop of Lincoln which prevented his friend from procuring a curacy soon after his studies in Oxford, Keats wished "for a recourse somewhat human … of the Beautiful—the poetical in all things—for a Remedy against such wrongs within the pale of the World!" (Letters: 64). In Keats's view, if all men were able to partake of the essential beauty of life, the world will be a better place because the poetic ideal subsumes a sense of comprehensive morality; hence, great works "Benefit … the 'Spirit and pulse' of good by their mere passive existence" (Letters: 111).

The aesthetic ideal is also, for Keats, the imprint of form and structure in all great works of art. His belief in beauty as the "formal cause" of poetic works is partly discernible in his axioms of poetry. In the first axiom, he maintains that "Poetry should surprise by a fine excess and not by a Singularity—it should strike the reader as a wording of his own highest thoughts, and appear almost a Remembrance" ((Letters: 116). The first part of this axiom sets up the "exuberance of things of beauty" (Saito 1929:96) as a necessary condition for good poetry. The exuberance of things of beauty refers here to abundant aesthetic disposition of images and metaphors in poetic creations.

In the second axiom, "fine excess" is firmly related to the framework which provides structural coherence for the ideas in art. Since this philosophical structure of a poem is, for Keats, based on the highest thoughts of man, it is reasonable to assume that Keats views the reader's highest thoughts as intimately true and beautiful. The profound thoughts may then be regarded as the basic knowledge of beauty. And since the great thoughts encountered in the reading of a poem "appear almost as a Remembrance", it follows that the reader and the poet, inasmuch as they have intimate passionate experiences of life, perpetually share some profund thoughts about life—thoughts that are products of their perception of the beauty in all things. The reader and poet share the beauty and truth of existence that are depicted in poetry or art in general. Essentially, the manifold stylistic devices, and highest thoughts of men found in poetry reflect the beauty of the world and of man's life.

The second axiom is really an amplification of the first. In it, Keats maintains that "the touches of beauty should never be half way thereby making the reader breathless instead of content: the rise, the progress, the setting of imagery must like the sun come natural to him—shine over him and set soberly … in magnificence, leaving him in the luxury of twilight" (Letters: 116). Beauty in this axiom is specified as imagery because in Keats's view imagery incorporates elements of style and poetic ideas. Thus, he insists that imagery, that complex of style and ideas, must be skillfully made to elicit a feeling of contentment from the reader. For him, this feeling of contentment results from the reader's response to the essential beauty that signifies the world's harmony; hence, "The excellence of art is its intensity, capable of making all disagreebles evaporate from being in close relationship with beauty and truth" (Letters: 76).

Keats's belief in the aesthetic ideal of beauty underlies his approach to criticism too. Since he feels that "with a great poet the sense of beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all considerations" (Letters: 77) it is understandable why he insists that the major task of criticism is the revelation and assessment of the beauty in the works. He states that his "love of beauty in the abstract makes [him] a severe critic of [his] own writings" (Letters: 242). For instance, he seeks to verify the truth of beauty in Hyperion when he asks Reynolds to "put X to the false beauty proceeding from art, and one // to the true voice of feeling." (Letters: 419)

In conclusion, it is pertinent to remark once again that the Keatsian aesthetic ideal of beauty embraces virtually everthing that the poet reveres in great or immortal works of art. Beauty is for him the focal point of all profound ideas and organic form in art. Since the reality of beauty is guaranteed by the intense feeling of life and its experiences, all great works of art are beauties to Keats. Hence, Keats's life-long aspiration was to add "a mite to the mass of beauty" already in existence as a means of ensuring his own immortality.


1 See John Keats's Feb. 1820 letter to Miss Fanny Brawne in The Letters of John Keats (1951:242-3).

2 The Keatsian idea of immortal acts of creation is reminiscent of the Platonic notion of creativity which regards all human achievements as products of man's soul. See Plato's Symposium (Jowett 1948:46).

3 See "Tintern Abbey" 93-102.

4 Quoted from Coleridge's manuscripts by J. H. Muirhead (1930:195).

5 See "To George Felton Mathew", "Ode to Apollo", "Bards of Passion and of Mirth", and "Ode on a Grecian Urn".


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Garrod, H. W. 1939. Keats. Oxford. Clarendon Press.

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Goldberg, M. A. 1969. The poetics of romanticism. Yellow Springs: Antioch Press.

Hazlitt, W. 1902-6. The collected works of William Hazlitt. Ed. A. R. Waller and A. Gloves. 12 vols. London: Dent.

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Keats, J. 1973. Keats: poetical works: Ed. H. W. Garrod. London: Oxford University Press.

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Plato, 1948. Symposium. Trans. B. Jowett. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill.

Saito, Takeshi. 1929. Keats' view of poetry. London: Cobden-Sanderson.

Sharp, R. A. 1979. Keats: scepticism and the religion of beauty. Athens: University of Georgia Press.

Symons, Arthur. 1909. The romantic movement in English literature. London: Constable.

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Wordsworth, W. 1904. Wordsworth: poetical works. Ed. Hutchinson T. London: Oxford University Press.

A. E. Eruvbetine (essay date 1987)

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SOURCE: "John Keats's Notion of the Poetic Imagination," in Studia Anglica Posnaniensia, Vol. 20, 1987, pp. 163-77.

[In the following essay, Eruvbetine examines Keats's conception of the poetic imagination, stating that to Keats, the poetic imagination enabled the poet to "suspend his rigid instinctive and egotistical identity," and to become his subject by exploring and capturing the distinctive characteristics of the subject. Eruvbetine identifies several qualities of Keats's poetic imagination and argues that Endymion illustrates the qualities and function of the imagination.]

The Romantic sensibility derives its distinctness from a high sensitivity to the strength and weaknesses of the human imagination. Keats, like most other Romantics, placed high premium on, and evolved a theory of, the imagination which serves as the foundation upon which he built his poetic career. Essentially, he conceives of the poetic imagination as the faculty that enables the successful poet to suspend his rigid instinctive and egotistical identity, take on the existence of his subject, explore it thoroughly, and capture its distinguishable characteristics in art or poetry. Regarding all great poems as aesthetic records of poets' intimate experiences in this complex world, he views the poetic imagination (insofar as it aids poets in objective explorations and depictions of human experiences, and insofar as it broadens and enriches man's knowledge of the world) as the "Genius of poetry" (Forman 1931 (henceforth Letters): 1, 243).

Keats regards the aesthetic or poetic imagination as a special manifestation of the human imagination in his scheme for the education of poets which is latent in his consideration of the world as "a vale of Soul-making" and speculations on "the Chambers of human mind" (Letters, II, 362-5 and I, 155-8). For him, the imagination is an integral part of the principle of consciousness. In its ideal manifestation, the Keatsian aesthetic imagination, is a power which, in the words of Coleridge, enables the poet to bring "the whole soul of man into activity, with the subordination of its faculties to each other according to their relative worth and dignity" (Shawcross 1907:II, 12—Coleridge). It accounts for the poet's mature and realistic apprehension and portrayal of man's life in the world. On the other hand, Keats maintains that the human imagination sometimes functions "unpoetically." He contends that while the poetic manifestation of the imagination realistically apprehends and effectively depicts man and his world, the 'unpoetic' manifestation of the imagination unrealistically apprehends and ineffectively portrays man and his world.

Since the poetic genius is the ideal manifestation of the human imagination, Keats sees it as only potentially present in all human beings. He maintains that, given the diverse and often contradictory functions of the human imagination, all those who aspire to be real poets must learn to distinguish between the poetic and the unpoetic activities of the human imagination. The course of education in the discrimination between the poetic and unpoetic forms of the imagination is latently integrated with Keats's programme of Spirit-creation in which he views the attainment of Soul-state as essentially coterminous with the actualization of the aesthetic potential of the human imagination. In the Keatsian system of spirit-creation, the poetic imagination is born in the "chamber of Mature-Thought" while the unpoetic capabilities of the imagination are manifest in the "chamber of Maiden-Thought".1 Each birth of poetic consciousness in the chamber of Mature-Thought signals the birth of a great poet. Since all poems in Keats's view are expressions of the imagination, they naturally reflect the measure of success which their creators have attained in the process of actualizing the poetic potential of their imaginations.

The world's harmony is perceived and depicted by the poetic imagination in two distinct but related ways—the creation of poetic dreams or what he calls "empyreal reflections," and the vitalization of the veridical world or what he regards as the "spiritual repetitions of human life" (Letters, I, 73). In capturing the complexity of human life, the poet's dream world and his vitalized reality are related to, but not confused with the actual. Both worlds are brought into a kind of unity in which the distinctive features of the vitalized, real, and dream worlds are intensified by the poetic imagination.


The visionary mode of the poetic imagination is revealed by Keats in his use of Adam's dream as an analogue of the poetic activity: "The imagination may be compared to Adam's dream (Paradise Lost, VIII, 470-I) he awoke and found it truth" (Letters, I, 73). While all dreams are like poetic activities because they are subjective, not all dreams are necessarily poetic manifestations of the imagination to Keats. In "To J. H. Reynolds Esq.," he identifies three kinds of dreams; the first and second are unpoetic because they respectively establish the bright and dark conditions of life as sole realities while the third is an aesthetic vision because it presents the dark and bright sides of life in relation to each other. In Keats's view, dreams of perpetual brightness (13-2), dreams of eternal heavens created by fanatics (The Fall of Hyperion, I, 1-2), and dreams of "external fierce destruction" ("To J. H. Reynolds", 67-88)—as long as they are presented as the only truths of human existence—make their creators "mere dreaming things" (The Fall of Hyperion, I, 168) and not poets. Only dreams informed by the broader perspectives of human existence make their creators poets because such dreams show "a regular stepping of the imagination towards a truth" (Letters, I, 98).

Since Keats regards the poet's dream as a creation of the poetic imagination, it is appropriate to differentiate the poetic dream from all other dreams by calling it a 'vision'. Keats himself would have accepted this differentation in terminology because, not only does Woodhouse recall the poet's preference for making "A Vision" instead of "A Dream" the subtitle of The Fall of Hyperion, Keats also makes a clear distinction between the poet and the mere dreamer in The Fall of Hyperion:

The poet and the dreamer are distinct,
Diverse, sheer opposite, antipodes.
The one pours out a balm upon the world,
The other vexes it.

(I, 199-202)

Poetic visions reflect the world's harmony either by presenting the relations between various aspects of the world or by concentrating on a single aspect of reality, exploring it thoroughly, and revealing its place in the larger scheme of things. There is nothing in the Keatsian system that prohibits the poetic imagination from basing its visions on only the seamy or unseamy side of things. In fact, the poetic imagination's ability to concentrate on a segment of truth, explore it intimately and stretch it to its limits without substituting or confusing it with the sole truth or other segments of reality is what Keats call "Negative Capability" (Letters, I, 77).

In Keats's works, pleasant and unpleasant visions are placed within broader contexts of human existence. In "I Stood Tip-toe", for example, the visions of the consummation of the love between Cupid and Psyche (143-150), and the languished love of Pan for Syrinx symbolize the bright and dark conditions of life respectively. In the intense feelings accompanying both visions, the opposition between the two aspects of love seems to disappear. The joys of love symbolized by the fulfilment of the love of Cupid for Psyche are qualified by the attendant tremor and ravishment (147) while the anguish of Pan and Syrinx is made 'sublime' by being described as "balmy pain" (153). The interpenetration of pain and pleasure is present in both visions.

Keats graphically illustrates how a poetic vision is generated when he compares the activity of the poetic imagination to that of a spider spinning a beautiful web from its inside: "almost any Man like the spider spin from his own inwards his own airy Citadel—the points of leaves and twigs on which the spider begins her work are few, and she fills the air with a beautiful circuiting" (Letters, I, III). This statement seems to suggest that the poet creates out of his inner self, apparently oblivious of the external world, but a careful examination shows that the poet's works have direct contact with the world of objective reality. Just as the existence of the spider's web greatly depends on the leaves and twigs, so also does the truth of the poet's works and visions spring from their relation to the objective world. Therefore, poetic visions are not substitutes, but creations that enhance the significance of the veridical world by their peculiar relation to it.


While visions constitute "the empyreal reflections" of life by the poetic imagination, the enhancing of qualities of actual objects through a process of intensification is what Keats calls the "spiritual repetition of the actual". The enriching of objects and experiences can, in part, be done by the poetic genius through the vitalization of past events or through a personal recreation of historical happenings; hence, for Keats, individuals who have successfully actualized the aesthetic potential of their imagination can intimately participate in the activities of generations other than their own. He avers, "as my imagination strengthens, I do not live in this world alone but in a thousand different worlds" (Letters, I, 261). His ability to live in a thousand different worlds is part of the reward for a proper use of his imagination while the thousand different worlds that he is capable of living in can either be visionary or historically true worlds. Thus, the two distinct manifestation of the poetic imagination—visionary creation, and animation of the real—are shown to be related and not mutually exclusive.

Keats demonstrates the poetic imagination's ability to vitalize historically true worlds by describing his intimate participation in the customs and traditions of previous Ages:

We with our bodily eyes see but the fashions and Manners of one country for one age—and then die. Now to me manners and customs since passed, whether among the Babylonians or the Bactrians are as real, or even more real than those among which I live. (Letters, 1, 281)

The poet partakes of the essence of past traditions and customs by recreating and living 'personally' in the past generations. In recalling and recreating the previous customs, the poetic imagination highlights and intensifies some element of the customs, making them richer than, and even different from, their historical originals.

Keats illustrates the modifying ability of the aesthetic imagination, when he discusses the possible modification in an individual's recall of a singer's face:

Have you never by being Surprised with an old Melody—a delicious place—by a delicious voice, felt over again the very speculations and Surmises at the time it first operated on your Soul—do you not remember forming to yourself the singer's face more beautiful than it was possible and yet with the elevation of the Moment you did not think so—even then you were mounted on the Wings of the Imagination so high. (Letters, I, 73)

"Forming to [oneself] the singer's face more beautiful than it was possible" suggests the imagination's power of intensifying the aspect of reality being reproduced. Coleridge calls this imaginative ability the "modifying or coadunating power" while Wordsworth refers to it as the "endowing or modifying power"2.

The imagination, for Keats, also modifies concrete objects or even creates entirely 'new' ones from them. Writing to Haydon, he avows, "I look upon the Sun, the Moon, Stars, the Earth and its contents as materials to form greater things" (Letters, 1, 131). For him, the poetic imagination draws upon objective reality or natural phenomena in creating things that are subjective but real. It either highlights aspects of its subjects as is the case in the recall of the singer's face, or uses objective things as starting points in creativity as is the case in the spider's web analogue. Natural objects can be bases for the vitalization of the actual and for the creation of visions.

The imagination's visionary and naturalized activities are also evident in Keats's classification of poetic subjects or "Ethereal things under three heads—Things real—things semireal and nothings. Things real such as existences of the sun, Moon & Stars and passages of Shakespeare. Things semireal such as love, the clouds & c … and Nothings" (Letters, I 120-1). His examples of real things are interesting in the sense that natural phenomena like the sun and the moon are regarded as having the same measure of reality as passages of Shakespeare. Passages of Shakespeare represent all great works of art that eternally reflect some valuable part of man's knowledge of his life and world. Though subjective, the works continue to exert as much influence on man as objective things like the moon and stars. "Things semireal" do not exist independent of the human consciousness. They derive existence from the interaction of man with the world. Things that are 'nothings' (like dreams and visions) exist in the consciousness of man, virtually independent of the external world.

All Keats's poems can be rewardingly viewed as products of the poetic imagination's operation on materials classed "under these three heads". For instance, in the "Ode on a Grecian Urn", the urn, as a great work of art that is comparable to passages of Shakespeare, can be said to be a real thing; the lovers depicted in the second stanza may be viewed as semireal because their existence is guaranteed partly by the external world and partly by the subjective world of the individual; and the imaginary melodies from the "soft pipes, that/Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone" (II, 2-3) are "nothings" because they are fanciful, deriving their reality solely from the subjective world of the poet. Similarly, in Endymion, the protagonist's love for the Moon goddess is a thing that is semireal; his fascination with the Moon and the other natural creatures is a fascination with real things; and his dream in which he beholds Cynthia (like his imaginative voyages into the sea, earth and sky) is a 'nothing'.

Since the poetic creation of visions from the subjective and objective worlds, and the vitalization of materials in both worlds are essentially subjective, Keats establishes bases for demonstrating their truth. The truth of an aesthetic vision and a vitalized object respectively depend on the effective reflection of the reality of man's existence in this world and the original or normal object. Moreover, Keats offers the intensity of sensations to complement the effective reflection of reality by visions and modified experiences of the world. He speculates, "probably every pursuit takes its reality from the ardour of the pursuer—being in itself a nothing—Ethereal things may at least thus be real". Within the Keatsian cosmos, all aesthetic creations—be they visions or intensified actualities—"require a greeting of the spirit to make them wholly exist" (Letters, I, 120-1) because "What the imagination seizes as Beauty must be truth … for all our passions as of love … are all in their sublime, creative of essential Beauty" (Letters I, 72-3). Sublime passions are mainly intense feelings, while "essential Beauty" is the aesthetic ideal. Intense passions elevate the soul of man to heights where he can personally partake of the harmony of existence which justifies the poet's assertion that a state of excitement is the only state for the best of Poetry (Letters, II, 407).


All great poets are, in Keats's view, "simple imaginative minds" whose lives are based on "Sensations rather than thought" (Letters, I, 73). The simple imaginative mind (as the essential poetic mind) is, for him, different from "the complex mind—one that is imaginative and at the same time careful of its fruits, to whom it is necessary that years should bring the philosophic mind", (Letters, I, 74-5). This unshakable faith in the profundity and truth of the poetic activities of a simple imaginative mind is a corollary of his belief that a life of sensation subsumes philosophical understanding and makes poetry the "true voice of feeling" (Letters, I, 154 and II, 419). As Trilling correctly observes, for Keats, "sensations generate ideas and remain continuous with them" (Trilling 1951:12).

Keats's reliance on the intensity of sensations as a means of determining the truth of imaginative experiences and of discovering the essential beauty in all things is partly reminiscent of William Duff's consideration of the imagination as "the faculty whereby the mind not only reflects upon its own operations but which assembles the various ideas conveyed to the understanding by the canal of the senses" (Duff 1767). The understanding is different from the mere intellection which Kant calls the activity of the mind unregulated by the imagination, because Keats insists that "Memory should not be called knowledge" (Watson 1880). Only an idea that has been tested on the pulses constitutes the true Keatsian knowledge. In the words of Coleridge, the poet is a man who "carries the simplicity of childhood into the powers of manhood" (Shawcross 1907:II, 148—Coleridge).

Though Keats maintains that poetic flights should be propelled by the passions, he also insists upon the necessity of extensive knowledge: "An extensive knowledge is needful to thinking people—it takes away the heat and the fever; and helps by widening speculation to ease the Burden of Mystery" (Letters, II, 407). Since mystery largely arises from ignorance, any visionary flight undertaken in a state of ignorance is (no matter how intensely passionate the visionary may be) bound to be unpoetic. Keats asks, "Or is it that imagination brought/Beyond its proper bound … /Lost in a sort of Purgatory blind/Cannot refer to any standard law of earth or heaven?" ("To J. H. Reynolds", 78-82). Lycius's fate is an obvious answer to this question. He is unable to refer to any standard law of earth or heaven and therefore has so limited a knowledge of life that he cannot speculate on it. His intense passions hustle him faster to death and oblivion than would otherwise be the case.

Keats graphically illustrates the great dangers (short of death) involved in an intensely passionate imaginative activity that is unguided by knowledge:

The difference of high sensation with and without knowledge appears to me this: in the latter case we are falling continually ten thousand feet deep and being blown up again without wings and with all the horrors of a bare shouldered creature—in the former case, out shoulder is fledged, and we go thro' the same air and space without fear. (Letters, I, 151)

Knowledge creates a link between the visionary and normal worlds. Without this knowledge, any visionary flight may become purposeless and turn into "An awful mission" because "when the soul is fled/To high above our head/Affrighted do we gaze/After its airy maze" ("God of the Meridian", 5; 9-12).

An imaginative flight accompanied by intense sensations but unregulated by extensive knowledge is what Keats sometimes calls fancy. He maintains that, in writing Endymion—a long poem, "Fancy is the Sails and Imagination is the Rudder" (Letters, I, 55). The aesthetic genius or the ideal manifestation of the human imagination is regulated by a true knowledge of life which serves as the control in any artistic flight. Therefore, when Keats agrees with those critics who say that "we must temper the imagination with judgement" (Letters, II, 357), he implies that the unpoetic manifestation of the human imagination which may be regarded as fancy must be tempered by judgement. And yet, in the poem titled "Fancy", he seems to equate fancy with the poetic imagination because the power of fancy celebrated in the poem (the spreading of a film of familiarity over strange things and spreading a film of strangeness over familiar things) is analogous to the modifying power of the imagination which is evident in the poetic creation of visions and in the vitalization of actualities.

Keats's concept of fancy is thus closer to that of Wordsworth and opposed to Coleridge's definition of fancy as "the aggregative or associative power" as distinguished from the imagination which is the "shaping and modifying power" (Raysor 1907:I, 193-4). He implicitly endorses Wordsworth's assertion that the imagination is not only a "shaping and modifying power" but also an associative and aggregative power. However, he disagrees with Wordsworth and Coleridge in their belief that fancy operates on "fixities and definities" while the imagination operates on "the plastic, the pliant and the indefinite" (Hutchinson 1971 and Raysor 1907:I, 202). In fact, he feels that the poetic imagination is capable of converting "definies and fixaties" into "plastic, pliant and indefinite materials".


Keats has a consistent hypothesis about how the aesthetic imagination transforms or modifies its subjects in the process of perceiving and creating visions or vitalized actualities. Generally, it is in consonance with John Locke's empiricism which postulates that man can build the most complex ideas from sensations and the mind's reflections on the sensations3. John Locke sees the interaction between sensations and the intellect as inevitable but he does not clearly postulate an intermediary faculty like the imagination—as Keats, many Romantic poets, and transcendentally oriented philosophers like Kant do—in order to actuate the interaction between the heart and the mind. Moreover, David Hartley's (1966 [1749]) physiologically determined associationist theory (developed out of Locke's hints on the subject) will be acceptable to Keats if the implied sensations are made explicit because Keats (though not directly concerned with abstract ideas) believes that the human passions or feelings form the basis for most associations.

This associative power of the imagination in poetic creativity which Wordsworth explains in terms of the psychology of poetic creation or composition in his 1815 preface, is what Keats sometimes refers to as the faculty of invention. He states, "Endymion will be a test, trial of my powers of imagination. Endymion will test chiefly my invention … by which I must make 4000 lines out of one bare circumstance" (Letters, I, 55). He believes that, and demonstrates how, the imagination is capable of taking a single incident exploring it intimately by testing it on the pulses of the poet, inventing other possible incidents from those suggested or associated with the initial one, and sincerely capturing all these in art. Therefore, in embarking upon the task of writing Endymion, Keats views the "one bare circumstance" (the Moon goddess" visit to Endymion) as an event with limitless possibilities. When he declares that "Byron describes what he sees—I describe what I imagine" (Letters, II, 452), he is really talking about how his imagination is able to create new experiences from single incidents like visit of the Moon goddess to Endymion. William Duff (1767) terms this imaginative power "the plastic power of inventing new association of ideas, and compounding them with infinite variety", and argues that the effective use of this power is the hallmark of originality.

In the fourth stanza of the "Ode on a Grecian Urn", Keats is able to draw upon the plastic power of the imagination in associating various images carved on the urn, and creating from these associations images of his own which he presents in "scenes and objects which never existed in nature":

Who are these coming to sacrifice?
To what green altar, O mysterious priest,
Lead'st thou that heifer lowing at the skies,
And all her silken flanks with garlands drest?
What little town by river or sea shore,
Or mountain built with peaceful citadel,
Is emptied of this folk, this pious morn?
And, little town, thy streets for evermore
Will silent be; and not a soul to tell
Why thou art desolate, can e'er return.

The poet is an active participant in the sacrificial scene. He first creates a kind of sacrificial procession headed by the priest. Secondly, he relates the procession suggested by "this fold" to an indefinite "little town". Thirdly, the procession out of the Town immediately suggests the image of a deserted place which the poet aptly captures. Fourthly, however, with the suggestion of the desolation of the town comes an implicit realization of the fossilized nature of the people of the emptied town. And fifthly, in the final tercet of the stanza, the poet expresses his deep feeling of regret at the apparent absence of a chronicler, possibly one amongst the former inhabitants of the town, who can tell why the town is deserted. Paradoxically, the desolation of the city is depicted by a poet who, though "in reality" has not been part of the procession of sacrifice, has imaginatively become part of the actions that are now recreated, intensified, and relived in poetry.

In spite of his belief in a fairly systematic pattern of association in the operations of the poetic imaginations, Keats recognizes an unconscious or involuntary element involved in all poetic activities.

To Haydon, he writes:

Believe me Haydon, your picture is part of myself—I have ever been too sensible of the labyrinthian path to eminence in Art (judging from Poetry) ever to think I understand the emphasis of painting. The innumerable compositions and decompositions which take place between the intellect and its thousand materials before it arrives at that trembling, delicate and snail-horn perception of beauty. (Letters, I, 139)

This Keatsian view of inspiration is termed "a variation of the Platonic theory of inspiration" by Finney (1936:I, 213). Keats believes that strong pressures from distrinctively defined stimuli can exert inescapable influence on the poet's imagination and lead to some kind of involuntary imaginative activity, accomplished in a poetic mood that is analogous to the Wordsworthian "wise passiveness".

While Keats's view of inspiration is in consonance with the Platonic postulate of artistic inspiration, it is opposed to the Platonic sophistry which equates 'inspiration' with 'possession' in the Socratic declaration that "poets are only interpreters of the gods by whom they are severally possessed"4. When he avers, "I see and sing by my own eyes inspired" ("Ode to Psyche", 43), Keats states the central paradox in his notion of inspiration; he is inspired by the goddess and yet he is inspired by himself. He writes to Haydon: "I remember that you had notions of a good genius presiding over you. I have of late the same thought, for things which I do half at Random are afterwards confirmed by my judgement in a dozen features of Propriety. Is it too daring to fancy Shakespeare the Presider?" (Letters, I, 30). His choice of Shakespeare as Presider is acknowledgement of the strong impact which the aesthetic world of Shakespeare has on him. What is important is that the Shakespearean world has become so much a part of his life that his imagination can unconsciously draw upon it in ways that defy rational associationist explanations. Put differently, various Shakespearean ideas and images are unconsciously "composed and decomposed" by the imagination in the complex process of creativity.


Keats's distinctive concept of the poetic faculty was present … from the beginning of his poetic and critical career. His poems, therefore, betray his ceaseless efforts to explore in order to confirm and exemplify his general view of the poetic imagination. While he began testing out his insights in the very first poem he wrote, he strongly believed that Endymion provided him with a larger scope for testing and demonstrating his understanding of the poetic genius. By making Endymion's search for Cynthia start with a dream or vision of the goddess, Keats establishes a good base for making Endymion's pursuit of Cynthia symbolic of the nascent poet's quest for the poetic capability of the human imagination. Endymion's numerous ordeals also represent tests which the poet must undergo before actualizing the poetic potential of his imagination. And just as Endymion discovers the many possibilities and limitations of his imagination as he undergoes the various ordeals, so also does the poet learn to distinguish the poetic from the unpoetic manifestations of the human imagination. Thus, in Endymion, various qualities and functions of the imagination are revealed and examined as a means of establishing and depicting the nature and activities of the poetic imagination.

By initially making Endymion unreceptive to the significance of the Pan festival, Keats sets the stage for the protagonist's great quest for enlightenment. The main issue, in a sense, is that Endymion's ignorance of the importance of the worship of Pan reflects his apparent ignorance of the real meaning of his vision of Cynthia. Like the aspiring poet, Endymion is poised to seek and experience what the vision means to him personally. His "wakeful anguish of the soul" ("Ode on Melancholy", I, 10) sets him apart from the other Latmians. His plight is thus like that of the aspiring poet in The Fall of Hyperion whose soul is deeply touched by the conditions in the world (1, 147-9). All through the first book of Endymion, the protagonist erroneously regards the visionary world as mutually exclusive from the Latmian. In other words, the Poet-in-training considers his dream-world to be better than, and separate from the veridical world.

However, insofar as Endymion is able to counter Peona's argument about the fanciful nature of imaginative or poetic experiences by asserting the authenticating function of intense feelings in all visionary activities he is on the right path to "redemption from a barren dream".

His sincere reliance on the truth of his sensations which differentiates him from the confused "knight-at-arms" in "La Belle Dame sans Merci" provides him with a sense of mission but not necessarily the goal because the ideal which he associates with the dream is yet to be tested on his pulses. His dream prefigures an ideal but his understanding of the ideal is still confused and limited. He even perceptively states the ideal he hardly understands:

Wherein lies happiness? In that which becks
Our ready minds to fellowship divine,
A fellowship with essence; till we shire,
Full alchemiz'd, and free of space.

(I, 777-80)

And yet, he does not perceive how the ready minds of the Latmians have been beckoned (albeit in an 'innocent' manner) to have fellowship with the essence in the worship of Pan. His mere statement of the aesthetic ideal is not coterminous with an intimate understanding. His state of mind parallels that of an individual who has stumbled upon a philosophical axiom which he repeats to others even though he is yet to find out its deeper significance.

The celebration of ideal love in the introductory section of the second book of Endymion is an attempt to reveal an intimate bond between love and the beauty that was celebrated in the first book. Furthermore, the praise of ideal love highlights the symbolic link between Endymion's quest for the love of Cynthia and the poet's search for the aesthetic ideal or his struggle to actualize the poetic potential of his imagination. The joys and pains of love represent the joys and pains of imaginative adventures and demonstrate the identity of the paths of love and poetry (II, 36). The relation between art and love is established in the poem when Endymion beholds Cynthia in a dream, making Cynthia the ideal of art and love which the Latmians symbolically acknowledge in their worship of Pan. The act of worship by the Latmians spring from love and a belief in an imaginative truth. Since he is unable to exercise the emphatic quality of his imagination, he is temporarily barred from the essence of his dream and from the significance of the festival of his subjects.

Endymion's meeting with Venus and Adonis in the underworld is important in his quest. The myth of Adonis and Venus—because it is an imaginative representation of the cause of seasonal changes in the real world—dramatizes the interrelation between the ideal and actual, between the artistic and normal worlds. Evert rightly points out that the Venus-Adonis myth is particularly relevant to Endymion because he is a mortal who seeks an immortal lover: "Since Adonis is a mortal who achieved immortality as the beloved of a goddess, he is an appropriately encouraging sign to Endymion at this stage of his trial" (Evert 1965: 129). But Endymion neither perceives this relation between him and Adonis nor fully comprehends the message of the myth. However, he is greatly impressed by Adonis's awakening to the splendour of spring. Endymion's soul imaginatively associates the natural beauty that is integral to the awakening of Adonis from slumber with the beauty that engendered his initial dream about Cynthia. He recreates the dream, Cynthia reappears, and a consummation takes place (II, 686-700).

The consummation of love between Endymion and Cynthia in this scene is, as has been noted by most critics, sensual. While Pettet's characterization of the scene as that of "unabashed eroticism, vulgar and sickly sentimental by turns" (Pettet 1957: 171), is rather harsh, it nevertheless aptly represents the feeling of most critics about the apparent indecency of the scene. Yet, the scene serves an important purpose which most critics often overlook. It faithfully depicts the protagonist's new but mistaken definition of the ideal which he seeks. In the first book of the poem, Endymion conceives of the ideal as spiritual and unrelated to the material world, but in the second book, he views the ideals as erotic, for he celebrates the sensual as the essence:

Now that I have tasted her sweet soul
All other depths are shallow: essences,
Once spiritual, are like muddy less,
Meant but to fertilize my earthly root,
And make branches lift a golden fruit
Into the bloom of Heaven.

(II, 904-9)

Evidently, Endymion confuses the ideal with the erotic. It is therefore reasonable to suggest that his prayer for Alpheus and Arethusa is less humanitarian than is usually supposed by some crities of Keats's works. It may well be that he wishes them a consummation that is basically sensual in nature. How can his wish for their happiness go beyond his present understanding of this ideal life of lovers?

Since Endymion's wish for the fulfilment of the love of Alpheus for Arethusa reflects his limited understanding of love at this stage, it is necessary that he should learn more about love, especially its disinterested sympathy. After all, the love which the Latmians expect from him is that which transcends mere animal fulfilments. The pathetic figure of Glaucus coupled with the penetrating message of the scroll make very strong impact on him. His self-centred life is almost automatically changed as he willingly takes part in the revival of the ship-wrecked lovers. He also participates in the celebration that go beyond those mundane elements which he was once inclined to regard as the essence. Though rather unconscious of this new outlook on the love that he has now willingly embraced, Endymion is prepared for a meeting with the Indian maiden. In his initial meeting with her his unconscious knowledge comes to the fore, making his love for her a disinterested one that is geared towards helping her out of her sorrow.

His love of the Indian, however, occasionally leads him to temporary relapses in which he considers the actual to be the sole reality that is unrelated to the ideal. His lament, "I have clung / To nothing, lov'd nothing, nothing seen / Or felt but a great dream' (IV, 136-8), while it is another wrong reaction to the situation before him, propels him towards the ultimate realization that the ideal and the ordinary are inseparably fused. The Indian maiden's initial rejection of his love is an answer to his unfounded fears about dream ideals, and this rejection helps him to reexamine his vision. He then later realizes that the "spirit form" of the Indian is Cynthia while the "material form" of Cynthia is the Indian maiden. This realization signals the attainment of the real goal of his quest and represents the poet's actualization of the aesthetic potential of his imagination.

Just as the crowning experience of Endymion's quest is his winning of Cynthia's love, so also is the highest prize for the aspiring poet the attainment of the aesthetic ideal. The achievement of the ultimate goal is a factor of Endymion's or the poet's intimate realization of the relevance of the dream or visionary world to the Latmian or normal world. While his intense feelings are the guarantee for an eventual victory, the various ordeals serve as means for testing his visions against reality. By finally understanding the aesthetic use of the human imagination, Endymion or the poet is able to partake intimately of the aesthetic ideal which manifests itself in the interrelation of dreams and reality, of the vitalized actuality, the ideal and the actual. Thus, in Endymion, Keats demonstrates the truth of visionary experiences and the reality of imaginatively modified experiences.


Keats's conception of the poetic imagination is, therefore, a unified one. Thorpe expresses an aspect of this truth when he suggests that Keats believes that the poet flies" to his dream world but in his flight he does not escape reality, rather he carries with him, to shape and inform his vision, the stored up experiences of a life spent in a sympathetic contact with his fellow men" (Thorpe 1926: 94). And Stillinger states the other aspect when he maintains that a poetic flight to the dream world furnishes the poet with experiences that he draws upon in his normal life (Stillinger 1971). Considered in conjunction with one another, what Thorpe and Stillinger state, represents the complete Keatsian conception of the poetic imagination, a conception which Wasserman effectively reflects in what he calls the "mystic oxymoron:" "Between the realm of the merely human … and the immortal … there is in the Keatsian cosomology," says Wasserman, "the knife-edge where the two meet and are indistinguishably present" (Wasserman 1953: 15). Thus, for Keats, the poetic imagination is a faculty which, capturing the interpénétration of the ideal and the ordinary in the realm of "mystic oxymoron," creates poetic visions and also vitalizes veridical reality within the framework of a passionate and comprehensive knowledge of the world and life.


1 The "Chamber of Mature-Thought" here serves as a complement to John Keats's own phrase "the Chamber of Maiden-Thought".

2 See Shawcross (1907: II, 56—Coleridge) and William Wordsworth's preface to the 1815 volume of poems (Hutchinson 1971).

3 This is the central idea in John Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding 1690.

4 Plato's Ion (Kaplan 1975: 17-20). It is important to note that there is a marked difference between 'inspiration' and 'possession' in Plato's works.


Duff, W. 1767. An essay on original genius.

Evert, W. H. 1965. Aesthetic and myth in the poetry of Keats. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Finney, C. L. 1936. The evolution of Keats' poetry. 2 vols. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Forman, M. B. (ed.) 1931. The letters of John Keats. 2 vols. London: Oxford University Press.

Hartley, D. 1966. Observations on man. Gainesville: Scholars Facsimiles and Reprints. Hutchinson, T. (ed.) 1971. Wordsworth: poetical works. Rev. by E. D. Selincourt. London: Oxford University Press.

Kaplan, Ch. (ed.) 1975. Criticism: the major statements. New York: St. Martin's Press.

Locke, J. 1695. Essay concerning human understanding. London: Awnsham and John Churchill.

Pettet, E. 1957. On the poetry of Keats. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Raysor, T. M. (éd.). 1930. Shakespearean criticism. 2 vols. London: J. M. Dent.

Shawcross, J. (ed.). 1907. Biographia literaria. 2 vols. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Stillinger, J. 1971. The Hoodwinking of Madeline and other essays on Keats's poems. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Thorpe, D. W. 1926. The mind of John Keats. New York: Russell & Russell.

Trilling, L. (ed.). 1951. The selected letters of John Keats. New York: Farrar, Straus and Young.

Wasserman, E. R. 1953. The finer tone: Keats' major poems. Baltimore: J. Hopkins Press.

Watson, J. (ed.) 1880. The philosophy of Kant. Glasgow: James Maclehose.

Marjorie Levinson (essay date 1988)

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SOURCE: An introduction to Keats's Life of Allegory: The Origins of A Style, Basil Blackwell, 1988, pp. 1-44.

[In the following excerpt, Levinson surveys aspects of Keats's life and writing within their original social context and studies the relationship between his life and works, noting that Keats was born into a lower social class than many other Romantics, including Wordsworth, Byron, and Shelley. After discussing the way social disadvantages affected Keats's writing, Levinson reviews some of the early criticism of Keats's work, particularly that of Byron.]

The true cause of Mr. Keats's failure is, not the want of talent, but the misdirection of it … [T]here is a sickliness about his productions, which shews there is a mischief at the core. He has with singular … correctness described his own case in the preface to Endymion [sic:] 'The imagination of a boy', he says, 'is healthy, and the mature imagination of a man is healthy; but there is a space of life between, in which the soul is in a ferment, the character undecided, the way of life uncertain, the ambition thick-sighted: thence proceeds mawkishness'. The diagnosis of the complaint is well laid down; his is a diseased state of feeling arising from the want of a sufficient and worthy object of hope and enterprise, and of the regulating principle of religion.

Josiah Conder, Eclectic Review, September 1820

He outhunted Hunt in a species of emasculated pruriency, that … looks as if it were the product of some imaginative Eunuch's muse within the melancholy inspiration of the Haram.

Blackwood's, January 1826

There is a cool pleasure in the very sound of the word vale. The English word is of the happiest chance … It is a sort of Delphic Abstraction—a beautiful thing made more beautiful by being reflected and put in a mist.

Keats, marginal note on Paradise Lost I: 321

[Keats] says he does not want ladies to read his poetry: that he writes for men …

Richard Woodhouse to John Taylor, letter, 20 September 1819

The Argument

There's no need, I think, to defend the statement that our commitment to a canonical Keats runs deep. Anyone who has thought critically about Keats in the past five years must appreciate the difference between the Keats commentary and the kinds of inquiries conducted on the poems of the other Romantics. This business of a canonical Keats is not a matter of explicitly idealizing or redemptive readings.1 I'm talking about the assumptions that organize our practical understanding of the relations between Keats's life and writing and the social context in which they both materialized.

Keats, like Shakespeare, is a name for the figure of the capable poet. The best Keats criticism (Lionel Trilling, John Bayley, Christopher Ricks), and the smartest (the Harvard Keatsians), mark out the canonical extremes and define a range of problems, many of which are addressed in this study.2 These greatly disparate critiques, sketched toward the end of this chapter, are both founded on a single premise, one which opposes tout court the governing thesis of the contemporary criticism of Keats's poetry. We all agree to know the man and his writing by their eminent authenticity: Bayley's 'Gemeine', Ricks's 'unmisgiving' imagination, Eliot's epistolary idiot savant, Vendler's true craftsman. In order to produce this knowledge, we put what the contemporary reviews called Keats's 'vulgarity' under the sign of psychic, social, and textual unselfconsciousness: roughly, the sign of sensuous sincerity. Further, by the providential tale of intellectual, moral, and artisanal, development we find coded in Keats's letters, we put the vulgarity which cannot be so sublimed in the early verse and show its gradual sea-change into the rich, inclusive seriousness that distinguishes the great poetry. Thus do we rescue Keats's deep meanings from his alluring surfaces, his poetic identity from his poetical identifications. By and large, we read the poetry as a sweet solution to a bitter life: a resolution of the actual contradictions. The writing is not, we say, an escape from the real but a constructive operation performed upon it so as to bring out its Truth, which is also a new and deeply human Beauty. We describe, in short, a transformation of experience by knowledge and by the aesthetic practice which that knowledge promotes. The word that best describes this critical plot is romance: a march from alienation to identity. The governing figure of this narrative is the Coleridgean or Romantic symbol and its rhetorical device the oxymoron: irreducibly syncretic ideas. The hero of our critical history is a profoundly associated sensibility and his gift to us is the exemplary humanism of his life and art.

Trilling, Bayley and Ricks have discriminated a stylistic 'badness' that occurs throughout Keats's poetry: a certain remove whereby Keats signifies his interest in his representations and, we might add, in his own expressiveness. In so doing, these critics approximate the response of Keats's contemporaries, analyzed below. However, by emphasizing the psychic investment rather than the social remove which prompts it (and, by focusing mimetic and rhetorical rather than subjective disorders), Bayley and Ricks bring Keats's discursive alienations into the dominant romance.3 Following these powerful writers, we read Keats's lapses from the good taste of innocent, object-related representation and transparent subjectivity as a determined consent to his own voluptuous inwardness and to the self-conscious recoil. By this willed abandon, Keats transcends both enthrallments, thereby releasing the reader into a more generous (in today's parlance, 'intersubjective') relational mode. In other words, those critics who acknowledge the stylistic vulgarity of Keats's writing put it in the redeemable field of creaturely instinct and defense, and not in the really unsettling category of externality, materiality, and ambitious reflexiveness. When Keats nods, we say, it is because he dares to nod ('swoon', 'sink', or 'cease'), not because he tries too hard.

The early reviews tell a different story. The most casual survey of this commentary (1817-35) reveals a response so violent and sustained, so promiscuous in its blending of social, sexual, and stylistic critique, and so sharply opposed to mainstream modern commentary as to imply a determinate insight on the part of Keats's contemporaries and a determined oversight on the part of his belated admirers. While we're all familiar with Blackwood's Cockney School attack (Lockhart's rebuke of Keats's literary presumption ['so back to the shop Mr. John, back to "plasters, pills, and ointment boxes, …'" ]), we have not attended very closely to the sexual invective, and not at all to the relation between those two discourses. Time and again, the poetry is labelled 'profligate', 'puerile', 'unclean', 'disgusting', 'recklessly luxuriant and wasteful', 'unhealthy', 'abstracted', and 'insane'.4 More specifically, it is graphed as a stylistically self-indulgent verse: prolix, repetitive, metrically and lexically licentious, overwrought. The diatribes culminate in the epithet 'nonsense'.

We have always related the savaging of the early poetry to the anomaly of Keats's social position and to the literary blunders which follow from that fact: generally, problems of diction, rhetoric, and subject matter, all of them reducible to the avoidable (and, finally, avoided) misfortune of Keats's coterie. Because we situate these blunders at a certain level and within a very contained biographical field, and because we isolate them from the beauties of the so-called great poetry, we have not understood the deeper insult of Keats's writing, that which explains the intensity and displacements of the early response and the equal but opposite distortions of the twentieth-century view.

From the distance of today, one can detect in those vituperative catalogues a governing discursive and even cognitive model. Keats's poetry was characterized as a species of masturbatory exhibitionism, an offensiveness further associated with the self-fashioning gestures of the petty bourgeoisie.5 The erotic approbrium pinpoints the self-consciousness of the verse: its autotelic reflection on its own fine phrases, phrases stylistically objectified as acquired, and therefore misacquired property. The sexual language of the reviews was, of course, an expedient way to isolate Keats, but it is also a telling index to the social and existential project outlined by Keats's style. In his overwrought inscriptions of canonical models, the early readers sensed the violence of Keats's raids upon that empowering system: a violence driven by the strongest desire for an authorial manner and means, and for the social legitimacy felt to go with it. In the alienated reflexiveness of Keats's poetry, the critics read the signature of a certain kind of life, itself the sign of a new social phenomenon. Byron's famous epithet for the style of the Cockney writers, 'shabby genteel', puts the matter plainly.

The grand distinction of the under forms of the new school of poets is their vulgarity. By this I do not mean that they are coarse, but 'shabby-genteel', as it is termed. A man may be coarse and yet not vulgar, and the reverse … It is in their finery that the new under school are most vulgar, and they may be known by this at once; as what we called at Harrow 'a Sunday blood' might be easily distinguished from a gentleman … In the present case, I speak of writing, not of persons. (Extract from letter to John Murray, 25 March 1821)

If we were not already convinced of Byron's ear for social nuance, we would only have to recall Keats's confession, 'I look upon fine Phrases like a Lover'.

Like our own criticism, the early reviews read in Keats's poetry 'a life of Allegory', but the meaning they develop by that allegory lies in the realm of social production, not aesthetics, metaphysics, or humanistic psychology. To those early readers, 'Keats' was the allegory of a man belonging to a certain class and aspiring, as that entire class was felt to do, to another: a man with particular but typical ambitions and with particular but typical ways of realizing them. A world of difference separates this hermeneutic from the 'poignantly allegorical life', an adventure in soul-making, which has become today's John Keats.6 By respecting the social-sexual compounding evidenced by those reviews, we recover the sense of danger underlying our formalist and rhetorical readings of Keats's middling states: his adolescence, his literariness, his stylistic suspensions, his pronounced reflexiveness. We focus Keats's position—sandwiched between the Truth of the working class and the Beauty of the leisure class—not as a healthy both / and but as the monstrous neither / nor constructed in the reviews. We see that the problem of Keats's early poetry is not its regressive escapism (its instincts, so to speak), but its stylistic project: a social-ego enterprise. The deep contemporary insult of Keats's poetry, and its deep appeal (and long opacity) for the modern reader, is its idealized enactment of the conflicts and solutions which defined the middle class at a certain point in its development and which still to some extent obtain. We remember that Keats's style can delineate that station so powerfully because of his marginal, longing relation to the legitimate bourgeoisie (and its literary exemplars) of his day. In emulating the condition of the accomplished middle class (the phrase is itself an oxymoron), Keats isolated the constitutive contradictions of that class. The final fetish in Keats's poetry is precisely that stationing tension.

By the stylistic contradictions of his verse, Keats produces a writing which is aggressively literary and therefore not just 'not Literature' but, in effect, anti-Literature: a parody. We will see that Keats's most successful poems are those most elaborately estranged from their own materials and procedures and thus from both a writerly and readerly subjectivity. The poetic I describe, following the lead of Keats's contemporaries, is the opposite of 'unmisgiving'.7 The triumph of the great poetry is not its capacious, virile, humane authenticity but its subversion of those authoritarian values, effects which it could not in any case, and for the strongest social reasons, realize. This is the triumph of the double negative. The awfulness of the early work, by contrast, is explained as an expression of the single, or suffered negative: a nondynamic reflection of Keats's multiple estrangements and of the longing they inspired. The accomplished poetry may be considered the negative knowledge of Keats's actual life: the production of his freedom by the figured negation of his given being, natural and social. To say this is not to consecrate Keats a precocious post-modernist, only to take seriously the social facts and meanings embedded in his representations and in the contemporary reception. It is to see in 'the continuous manner in which the whole is elaborated' a parodic reproduction of the social restrictions that marked Keats as wanting: unequipped, ineffectual, and deeply fraudulent.8

Keats did not accomplish by this greatly overdetermined stratagem the goodness he craved: that plenitude of being he worshipped in the great canonical models and which he images in Autumn's breeding passiveness. What he did produce by what Shelley called 'the bad sort of style' was a truly negative capability. I call this power 'virtual' to bring out its parodic relation to authorized forms of power, 'virtuoso' to suggest its professional, technically preoccupied character, and 'virtuous' by reference to its imposed and contrived limitations… . To generate this verbal sequence is also, of course, to put as the ruling stylistic and social question the question of Keats's virility: to begin, that is, where the early commentary leaves off. We will take Keats's own phrase, the 'wreathed trellis of a working brain', as a figure for Keats's negative power: his inside-out, thoroughly textualized and autotelic accomplisment. In the celebrated poise of Keats's poetry, we read the effect of the impossible project set him by his interests and circumstances: to become by (mis)acquiring; to become by his writing at once authorized (properly derivative) and authorial (original); to turn his suffered objectivity into a sign of his self-estranged psyche, and to wield that sign as a shield and an ornament.

The project of this book is to read the meaning of a life in the style of a man's writing, and then to read that writing, that style, and that life back into their original social context. What I describe is a self-consciously distanced and totalizing study on the order of Sartre's Saint Genet.

The Life

The facts of Keats's life are too familiar to bear recounting here. I refer the reader to Aileen Ward's unsurpassed biography and to the important work of Walter Jackson Bate and Robert Gittings.9 Below, I elaborate those aspects of the story that bear directly on Keats's stylistic development.

To observe that Keats's circumstances put him at a severe remove from the canon is to remark not only his educational deficits but his lack of those skills prerequisite to a transparent mode of appropriation: guiltless on the one side, imperceptible on the other. He knew some French and Latin, little Italian, no Greek. His Homer was Chapman, his Dante was Cary, his Provençal ballads translations in an edition of Chaucer, his Boccacio Englished. Keats's art education was largely by engravings and, occasionally, reproductions. His absorption of the accessible English writers was greatly constrained by his ignorance of the originals upon which they drew and by his nonsystematic self-education. To say all this is to observe Keats's literally corrupt relation to the languages of poetry: his means of production.

We might also consider a more mundanely mechanical aspect of Keats's composition. Throughout his life, Keats felt compelled physically to escape his hard, London reality in order to write. A great deal of the poetry was conceived or composed at a number of modest, middleclass and, as it were, publicly designated resorts: Margate, Shanklin (the Isle of Wight), Burford Bridge (Surrey). Keats could afford only the leanest accommodations, ofcourse, and often he adjourned to these spots alone and off-season. When even these small excursions were not possible, Keats sought his escape on Hampstead Heath, in the British Institution, or in a friend's wellfurnished living room. In short, the graciously conformable bowers and dells enjoyed by Wordsworth and Coleridge were no more available to Keats than were the glory and grandeur of Greece and Rome, Byron's and Shelley's enabling resorts.

'Romantic retirement' gains a whole new dimension with Keats. Imagine the solitude of a young man in a seaside rooming house in April, a borrowed picture of Shakespeare his only companion: a man with nothing to do for a set period of time but write the pastoral epic which would, literally, make him. Compare this withdrawal to the seclusion of a writer musing in his garden, deserted by his wife and literary friends of an afternoon; or to the isolation of two English aristocrats, recognized poets both, galloping along the Lido and relishing their escape from the cant of high society and from its official voices. Better yet, imagine a conversation poem, a social verse, or a lyrical ballad by Keats; project from Keats's pen a sublimely inspired ode on the order of Shelley's 'Mont Blanc', or a Defence of Poetry, or a pamphlet on the Convention of Cintra. The experiment should point up the problematic nature for Keats of those elementary and, in the period, normative literary effects: authority, authenticity, and ease.

Apropos that last and deeply Romantic effect, ease, we recall that Keats hadn't the luxury for a 'wise passiveness'. His early detection of his disease, Tom's condition, the time constraints imposed by his medical training, his assumption of responsibility for his sister, his haste to make a name so he could marry Fanny: all these familiar facts precluded the meditative quiescence which enabled in the other Romantics a rhetoric of surpassing naturalness.10 Wordsworth's compositional program was simply not an option for a man who could not wait upon memory's slow digestive processes. Nor could Keats draw upon his everyday life, a monotonous struggle to get by and get ahead, for the interest, surprise, and suggestiveness which Byron and Shelley found in their large circumstances. Keats's necessary writing trips were hasty and purposive; the work of this simulated leisure was the production of pleasure, precondition for the rich, selfless, and suspended literary exercise which was Keats's dream of art. The result of these sad, self-vexing outings is a poetry evincing the paradoxes by which it is made. A poetry too happy by far, too full by half. When Shelley disdainfully rejected Keats's advice, 'load every rift with ore', he knew what he was about. He registered the class implications of Keats's plenitude, and knew that he, for one, did not have to plump his poems to the core.

Before we can begin re-reading Keats, we must really imagine what we know. We must see very clearly, as John Bayley saw, that Keats was a man whose almost complete lack of control over the social code kept him from living his life. He could not write his poetry in the manner he required, marry the woman he loved, claim his inheritance, hold his family together, or assist his friends. He could not, in short, seize any of the appurtenances of manhood. Keats was as helplessly and ignominiously a 'boy' poet as Chatterton, and Byron's 'Mankin' was a viciously knowing insult.

The range of paradoxes which Byron and his contemporaries observed in Keats's poetry is ultimately referrable to the fact that it was not given to Keats, a poet in Shelley's 'general sense', to be a poet in the most pedestrian, professional, 'restricted' sense. Keats had to make for himself a life (the training at Guy's; then, getting by on his allowance; finally, when the money ran out, the projected career of ship's surgeon), while writing a poetry that was, structurally, a denial of that life.11 At no time did Keats make any money from his writing. (One wonders how, exactly, Keats applied the title of 'poet' to himself. How did he introduce himself in ordinary social interactions?) The oddly abstract materialism of the poetry—its overinvestment in its signs—takes on a new look when we remember both Keats's remove from his representational manner and means, and also his want of those real things that help people live their lives. Is it any wonder that the poetry produced by this man should be so autotelic, autoerotic, so fetishistic and so stuck? Should it surprise us to find that his dearest fantasy—a picture of somebody reading, a window on the one side, a goldfish bowl on the other—takes the form of a multiply framed, trompe-l'oeil still life? 'Find the subject', we might call it; or, what is the same thing, 'Find the frame'.

Keats's poetry was at once a tactical activity, or an escape route from an actual life, and a final construction: the concrete imaginary to that apparitional actual. What was, initially, a substitute for a grim life became for Keats a substitute life: a real life of substitute things—simulacra—which, though they do not nourish, neither do they waste. At the very end of his career, Keats began, I believe, to position this parodie solution as part of the problem. 'Lamia' is Keats's attempt to frame the problematic of his life and writing and thus to set it aside.

It is crucial to see, as Bayley saw, that the deep desire in Keats's poetry is not for aesthetic things or languages per se (that is, Byron's 'finery'), but for the social code inscribed in them, a code which was, to Keats, a human transformational grammar. Indeed, all Keats's meditations on art and identity (typically, plasticity), should be related to his abiding desire, to live. The real perversion of Keats's poetry is not its display of its cultural fetishes but its preoccupation with the system felt to organize those talismanic properties. Keats could have had all the urns, Psyches, nightingales, Spenserianisms, Miltonisms, Claudes, and Poussins he wanted; he was not, however, permitted possession of the social grammar inscribed in that aesthetic array, and this was just what Keats was after.

We illuminate Keats's legitimacy problem by way of the originality anxiety that seems to have beset most of the Romantic and what used to be called pre-Romantic poets. The past only lies like a weight on the brain of those who inherit it. Or rather, the past imposes a special kind of burden on those individual talents who feel themselves disinherited by the Tradition, and, thus, excluded from the dialectic of old and new, identity and difference. Wordsworth's celebrated defense of his poetical innovations—'every author, as far as he is great and at the same time original, has had the task of creating the taste by which he is to be enjoyed'—must be understood as the statement of a man so assured of his entitlement that he can trust his originality to be received as intelligible and valuable. (That Wordsworth's confidence was not always confirmed is not the issue here.) Keats, by contrast, could not begin to invent an original voice without first and throughout establishing his legitimacy: roughly, his derivativeness.

Chatterton, the poet with whom Keats felt the strongest affinities, developed a most economical solution to this problem. By his perfect reproduction of 'the medieval', Chatterton not only established that epochal concept as a normative style, thereby sanctioning his persona, Rowley, and that figure's verse, he produced as well and dialectically, for the knowing reader, the originality of the entire oeuvre (viz. poems, charts, maps, coins). Theoretically, Rowley's canon at once created the taste, which it represented as already venerable and prestigious, and offered itself as the only artifact capable of satisfying it.

Practically speaking, however, Chatterton couldn't begin to fashion the readership he needed. Indeed, the logic of his enterprise compelled him to do all he might to malform—misinform—his audience. The literariness of his poetry was strictly a function of its documentary, antiquarian presentation. The aesthetic dimension of the writing only materialized under the pressure of a fundamentally historical interest, and in that case, of course, the literary credit was Rowley's. Chatterton's successful negotiation of the technical imperatives set him by his social facts required his entire self-effacement, as a man and a writer. A rare intuition of this paradox surfaces in the controversy prompted by the hoax poems. We find considerable puzzlement among Chatterton's detractors, and ingenuity on the part of his defenders, regarding the anomaly of a writer who would seem to have preferred the inferior reputation of translator-editor to the glory of proper poetic genius: that is, originality.12 To us, of course, Chatterton's perversity indicates how completely over-determined a choice he faced. His election of the lesser fame, scholarly authority, was in fact an embrace of the bad originality of the counterfeiter. In that vexed ideal, we read the situation of the writer whose mastery consists exclusively in his self-violation.

Keats sidestepped Chatterton's final solution. By the self-signifying imperfection of his canonical reproductions (a parodic return upon his own derivativeness), Keats drew upon the licensing primacy of the code even as his representation of that total form changed the nature of its authority. The pronounced badness of Keats's writing figures the mythic goodness of the canon, and, by figuring, at once exalts and delimits it. Thus did Keats plot for himself a scene of writing. By the double unnaturalness of his style, Keats projects the authority of an, anti-nature, stable by virtue of its continuous self-revolutionizing and secured by its contradictions. The proof of these claims is the rest of this book, but let me offer as a critical instance a reading of 'Chapman's Homer'.

On First Looking into Chapman's Homer

Much have I trevelled [travell'd] in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-browed [brow'd] Homer ruled as his demesne;
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold.[:]
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He stared [star'd] at the Pacific, [—] and all his men
Looked [Look'd] at each other with a wild surmise—
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

I have accented several words in the first three lines by way of amplifying the tone of Keats's address. Even if we were ignorant of Keats's social disadvantages, this fulsome claim to literary ease would give us pause. The very act of assertion, as well as its histrionically commanding and archly literary style, undermine the premise of natural authority and erudition. The contemporary reader might have observed as well some internal contradictions; not only is Homer the Golden Age, but not to 'have' Greek and not to have encountered Homer by the age of twenty-three is to make one's claim to any portion of the literary empire suspect. (Keats's acquaintance with Pope's translation is suppressed by the sonnet.) Keats effectively assumes the role of the literary adventurer (with the commercial nuance of that word) as opposed to the mythic explorer: Odysseus, Cortes, Balboa. More concretely, he advertises his corrupt access to the literary system and to those social institutions which inscribe that system systematically in the hearts and minds of young men. To read Homer in translation and after having read Spenser, Coleridge, Cary, and whoever else is included in Keats's travelogue, is to read Homer badly (in a heterodox and alienated way), and to subvert the system which installs Homer in a particular and originary place. Moreover, to 'look into' Chapman's Homer is to confess—in this case, profess—one's fetishistic relation to the great Original. Keats does not read even the translation. To 'look into' a book is to absorb it idiosyncratically at best, which is to say, with casual or conscious opportunism. Similarly, the substitution of 'breathe' for the expected 'read' in line 7 marks the rejection of a sanctioned mode of literary acquisition. To 'breathe' a text is to take it in, take from it and let it out, somewhat the worse for wear. It is, more critically, to miscategorize the object and in such a way as to proclaim one's intimacy with it. Both the claim and the title of Keats's sonnet are, in a word, vulgar.

One is reminded of Valéry's appraisal of museum pleasure: 'For anyone who is close to works of art, they are no more objects of delight than his own breathing'.13 Keats, we observe, rejoices in his respiration and goes so far as to fetishize the very air he admits. I single out the phrase 'pure serene' not only because it is structurally foregrounded but because it reproduces in miniature the method—the working contradiction—of the sonnet. What Keats 'breathes' is, ofcourse, anything but pure and Homeric (since he reads in translation and perversely with respect to canon protocol), and the phrase formally exposes that fact. We cannot help but see that 'pure serene', a primary reification, further calls attention to itself as a fine phrase, that Keats clearly looks upon as a lover. Not only is the phrase a Miltonic construction, but more recent usage would have characterized it as a sort of translator-ese. One thinks of Pope's 'vast profound' and indeed, of Cary's own 'pure serene', a description of Dante's ether (1814). Coleridge uses the phrase in his 'Hymn before Sunrise in the Vale of Chamouni', 1802. Keats's reproduction of the phrase designates both his access to the literary system and his mode of access—that of translator to Original. In effect, he intentionalizes the alienation he suffers by his social deficits. By signifying the restriction, he converts it into restraint: 'might half-slumbering on its own right arm'. Let me note here that the translation of an adjective into a noun, while etymologically justifiable, transforms Homer's pure and therefore insensible atmosphere—his aura—into a palpable particular: a detached literary style and a self-reflexive one at that. What figures in Homer as a natural and epochal expressiveness is in Keats, and first, a represented object. Only by performing that office does the Homeric value assume for Keats an expressive function.

The thing to remark is the way Keats produces the virtues of his alienated access to the canon. The consummate image of the poem—that which accounts for its overall effect of 'energetic … calmness'—is, obviously, that of Cortes / Balboa 'star[ing] at the Pacific' while 'all his men / Looked [Look'd] at each other with a wild surmise—/ Silent, upon a peak in Darien'. Cortes, we notice, is a 'stout' and staring fellow: a solid citizen. 'Stout' means, of course, 'stouthearted', but in the context, where Cortes's direct stare at the object of his desire is juxtaposed against the 'surmise' of his men (and the alliteration reinforces these visual connections), one feels the energy of the men and the stuck or frozen state of their leader. By their surmise—a liminal, semi-detached state—the men are 'wild', a word which in the Romantic idiom means 'free'. We clearly see that the relation of the men to that (etymologically) literal 'pure serene', the Pacific, is indirect and perverse. Who in that situation would avert his gaze?

Claude Finney has reminded us that according to Keats's sources, Balboa's men were forbidden the prospect until their leader had had his full gaze.14 We can see that the social discrepancy vividly sketched by Keats's original gets translated in the sonnet into an existential and selfimposed difference, and one that inverts the given power ratio by rendering the men, not the master, free and vital. One does not, I think, go too far in associating Keats with those capably disenfranchised men.

It is the stillness and strangeness of the men—their peculiar durée—which stations Keats's sonnet, all the gregarious exploration metaphors notwithstanding. Homer enters the poem as the Pacific enters the sensibilities of Cortes's men: through Chapman's / Cortes's more direct possession of / by the object of desire. Odysseus's extrovert energy animates Keats's sonnet but, again, perversely. In the Keatsian space, that energy turns self-reflexive, reminding us perhaps of Tennyson's 'Ulysses'. The poem looks at itself as the men look at each other. The virtue of both looks is their impropriety; what they refuse by that gesture is the Gorgon stare, the direct embrace of and by the authorizing Original. Keats's poem 'speak[s] out loud and bold' by not speaking 'out' at all. We finish the sonnet, which seems to be predicated on such a simple donnée, and we wonder where we have travelled. What happened to Homer, and to Keats for that matter? Why does Keats interpose between himself and his ostensible subject Chapman, Cary, Coleridge, Gilbert, Robertson, Herschel, Balboa, Cortes, and Cortes's men? Why does Keats leave us with this off-center cameo, an image of turbulent stasis among the extras of the cast when what we expect is a 'yonder lie the Azores' flourish by the principal? What is this poem? By the conventions it sets, it should strike us as a graceful display of literary inspiration and gratitude. But it seems other, and otherwise. How do we explain the real power of its slant rhyme?

Let me recall Hunt's comment on the sonnet: 'prematurely masculine'. By emphasizing the adverb for a change, we begin to see that Keats's unnatural (illicit) assumption of power, signified by the 'poetical' octet, does not qualify the 'masculinity' of the sestet, it constitutes it. The direct and natural compression of the sestet is the stylistic effect of the displayed disentitlement that is the functional representation of the opening eight lines. The pivot which constructs this before-and-after dynamic (the coordinates for a range of ratios: imitation-genuine, protest-power, struggle-ease) is, of course, the experience of reading Chapman. The experience takes place, significantly, in the breach between the two movements of the sonnet. Rather than imitate Chapman, Keats reproduces Chapman's necessarily parodie (that is, Elizabethan) inscription of Homer. The queerness of Chapman's 'mighty line, loud-and-bold' version is rewritten in Keats's own parodic Elizabethanism, and, through the queerness of the Cortes / Balboa image. It is the self-reflexive, fetishistic inscription of the canon—the display of bad access and misappropriation—that emancipates Keats's words. Keats's sonnet breaks free of Homer and Chapman by mis-giving both. By the English he puts on Homer's serenity (he reifies it) and on Chapman's 'masculine' extrovert energy, Keats produces the perpetual imminence which is the hero of his sonnet. In the Keatsian idiom, we could call that imminence or suspension a 'stationing', with an ear for the full social resonance of Keats's aesthetic word.15

The instance of this poem would suggest that Keats's relation to the Tradition is better conceived as dialogic (Bakhtin) than dialectic (Bloom).16 The poetry does not clear a space for itself by a phallic agon; it opens itself to the Tradition, defining itself as a theater wherein such contests may be eternally and inconclusively staged.17 The authority of this poetry consists in its detachment from the styles or voices it entertains. By this detachment, these styles become signatures: not audible voices but visible, material signs of canonical voices. These signs—like all such marks, inauthentic and incomplete—are not, ultimately, mastered by the master-of-ceremonies. And because they remain external to authorial consciousness, theirs is the empowering virtue of the supplement. In these magic supplements, 'Things semi-real', lies the terrific charm of Keats's poetry.

The contained badness of 'Chapman's Homer' constitutes its goodness, which is to say, its rhetorical force. The paradox hinges, naturally, on the word 'contained'. When Keats is great, it is because he signifies his alienation from his materia poetica, a fact that modern criticism and textual studies have suppressed.18 This alienation—inevitable, given Keats's education, class, and opportunities—was highly expedient. By it, Keats could possess the 'stuff of creativity' without becoming possessed by it. By 'stuff', I do not mean Bloom's primary, inspirational matter but the means and techne for exercises in literary production. Keats's poetry, inspired by translations, engravings, reproductions, schoolroom mythologies, and Tassie's gems, delivers itself through these double and triple reproductions as the 'true, the blushful Hippocrene'. That phrase describes ironically, precisely a substitute truth. Again, Byron understood these things; 'You know my opinion of that second-hand school of poetry.'


The early commentary has more to teach us. Byron's vivid epithets—'a Bedlam vision', a 'sad abortive attempt at all things, "signifying nothing" '—suggest that the masturbation trope was a most economical way of designating the poetry nonsense: not bad Literature but nonLiterature. In practical terms, it would seem that the association of Keats's poetry with masturbation was a way to isolate Keats without agonizing him.

We make sense of this tactic in two ways. First, the commonplace alignment of masturbation with madness suggests that whereas homosexuality was part of the normative heterosexual configuration—either a standard deviation or binary Other—masturbation was outside the curve: the age's 1/0, 'signifying nothing'.19 This speculation is consistent with the class affronts (revelations of practical and ideological projects) leveled by Keats's poetry and explored below. Second, while 'nonsense' attacks always suppress unwanted sense, this particular noncognition additionally implies a response to the subjective irreality of Keats's self-reflexive poetry. 'Frigging [one's] Imagination' is one thing; frigging an imagination tenanted by other minds is another and a double-perversity. ('Frig' means 'to chafe or rub', 'to agitate the limbs' [OED], and most commonly, of course, to copulate. The 'Imagination ' to which Byron refers is, thus, a male and female property; or, Keats was accused of masturbating / fucking a Nothing.) Byron's contempt for Keats's fetishistic relation to his acquired literary languages—borrowed 'finery'—masks a fearful insight into the subjective vacancy of Keats's writing. The 'Bedlam' association registers Keats's want of a proprietary subject-form: a voice distinct from the entertained canonical echoes and offering itself as a point, however 'bad', of readerly identification and authorial control. In Keats's poetry, the diverse cultural languages which we call the Tradition are both the means and the manner of representation, both object and subject. The 'self' upon which the verse reflects is, precisely, 'notself': a fetishized, random collection of canonical signatures. One can see that this bad imitation of that earnest Romantic exercise, self-reflection, was, in effect, a burlesque. Keats's operations objectified the naturalness (originality, autonomy, and candor) of all writerly origins, putting those transparencies at risk. Even Byron, that determinedly mad bad man, was threatened; Byronic irony, no matter how inclusive, is always recuperated by the biographical subject-form coded in all the poems. Keats's poetry is differently, but no more masturbatory than Wordsworth's or Byron's, the largest, most virile poets of the age. We could say that Keats offended his generation so deeply by practicing one of its dominant modes of literary production while showing his hand. The sexual slander developed in the reviews registers Keats's relation to the Tradition, understood as a limited-access code with powerful social functions, and the class contradictions which that relation stylistically defined. At the same time, the critique displaces those contradictions to the sphere of private life and pathology: a safety zone. Thus was a serious, or materially designing sensuousness converted into a grave sensual disease.

A juxtaposition of two professional responses to Keats's poetry gives us a practical purchase on the meaning of Keats's style. Wordsworth and Byron agreed on very little; their consensus on Keats argues their glimpse of that in his poetry which challenged a common interest or which exposed a contradiction at the center of both their very different practices.

Wordsworth's brisk dismissal of Keats's 'Hymn to Pan'—'a Very pretty piece of Paganism'—concisely maps the manifold of impressions I've been describing. By 'pretty', with its resonance to 'fancy' (Imagination's weak sister), and its evocation of the ingenious, the trivial, the overcultivated and infantile, Wordsworth suggests both the mechanical elegance of Keats's writing and its servility to an imperfectly discriminating appetite. The adjective describes a taste at once immature and effete, under- and overrefined, and in both cases unhealthy: an appetite for 'dainties' or for 'luxuries', baby-food or caviar.20 Wordsworth's disgust is the revulsion of a plain-eating, water-drinking man for a connoisseur of pulpy strawberries and claret. It is the contempt of a man who transcends class—an essential man addressing his peers in a language as limpid and restorative as mountain streams—for a man to whom class is a fetish, and whose language, impure and overcharged, must spoil the taste and the constitution of his readers. Putting the critique on the side of production, and with an ear to that 'Paganism', we might describe Wordsworth's Keats as a purveyor of substitute pleasures: real signs that provide lacks and differences.

Wordsworth's 'piece', while it describes, of course, the formal self-containment of the Hymn within Endymion, also marks out the thingness, partiality, and externality of Keats's attempt at an archetypal discourse of presence.21 The word suggests the essentially extraneous character of Keats's writing, if we can allow that solecism for a moment. Wordsworth is out to imply the sheer factitiousness of the verse, an interested representation of what is already for Keats a received idea or, following Wordsworth, a 'poeticism': 'the Pagan'. Wordsworth's 'ism' is his way of naming this double fetish. The singsong alliteration of the phrase, an imitative tactic, contrastively conjures the austere, holistic, deeply qualitative hedonism which is Wordsworth's Pagan: 'the pleasure which there is in life itself. The conceptual resonance amplifies the ontological logical corruptness of Keats's partial, purposive, and mechanical self-pleasuring. In a phrase (Wordsworth's), Keats's is a poetry of 'Outrageous stimulation'; we might say, the pleasure of the ornament.

By the memorable epithets Byron coined for Keats and his poetry ('a sort of mental masturbation—frigging his Imagination', 'Johnny Keats's piss a bed poetry', 'the drivelling idiotism of the Mankin', 'dirty little blackguard Keates', 'Self-polluter of the human mind'), Byron crystallized the sexual associations diffused throughout the more modulated responses. A more interesting phrase, however, is Byron's 'shabby genteel', quoted above, an expression which seems to emerge from a different perceptual field. In context, the phrase identifies Keats's vulgarity less with his motives (cheap thrills; supplemental delights), than with his methods. Specifically, Byron censures Keats's display of his literary entitlement. 'It is in their finery that the new under school are most vulgar … I speak of writing, not of persons'. Byron's 'finery', like Wordsworth's 'Paganism', designates those elements in the poetry which are perceptible as styles ('ery', 'ism'), because imperfectly appropriated, heaped heterogeneously together, and reflected on by an 'author' who is but the alter ego to those styles. 'I don't mean he is indecent, but viciously soliciting his own ideas into a state, which is neither poetry nor any thing else but a Bedlam vision … ' By his three-way equation, linking self-reflection, masturbation, and middle class acquisition and display, Byron clarifies the broad social offensiveness of Keats's poetry. As Byron well knew, a good deal of his own poetry and that of his contemporaries solicits its own ideas into a state. Byron had, of course, his quarrel with those serious self-reflectors, the Lakers, and his attack on Keats is no doubt part of that quarrel. But, Keats was a figure from the 'Mediterranean' side of the great North-South, serious-sensuous divide: Byron's side, that is. It would seem that Keats owes his rare achievement—at once Byron's and Wordsworth's whipping boy—to the manifest subject disorders of his discourse.22

Byron is repelled by Keats's psychic fane first, because it is filled with false things: not human qualities or even authorial properties, but props, or material signs of literary reality. Worse, everything acquired by the Keatsian consciousness, no matter how 'good' originally, gets falsified within that precinct. Fine becomes 'finery', cultivation becomes Culture, whole and living speech is rendered a quotation, and everything is as an artifact in an overwrought cabinet: framed, spotlighted, exhibited as possessions that are also signs of possession.23 Keats's 'solicitation' of his ideas was manifest because practiced on false-consciousness, and 'vicious' because tending to falsify (that is, reify) some privileged forms of consciousness. Keats's canonical 'abstractions' (the word recurs obsessively in the reviews) effectively exposed the canon as a construct, as authoritarian, and as subject to violation. This is to say, Keats's scavenging replaced the authority of Authority, a natural and internal quality, with that of a more literal, original author-ity: with the figure of the literary entrepreneur. No poetic style could have been more abhorrent to the respectively private and public transparencies of Wordsworth and Byron, or rather, to the class subject-forms projected by those good manners. Returning to Byron's 'nonsense' verdict: when self-reflection is projected as reflection on other poets' selves, when 'frigging [one's] Imagination' describes a dalliance with other men's surmises, when a signally autotelic poetry exposes the real interests served by its display of disinterest, and an autoerotic verse betrays the busyness—and business—of a working brain, then accusations of 'nonsense' make perfect sense.

Keats's strangely alienated reflexiveness carried, I believe, an even stronger social charge than the one I've just identified. We get at this meaning by setting Keats's methods against the Wordsworthian model, which we read as an exemplary Romantic form, and by glossing that comparison with another of Byron's colorful commentaries. The governing antinomy here is not legitimacy / originality but pleasure / work.

Wordsworth's poetry, like so much of Keats's, typically represents its coming into being as its reason for being, and also its chief delight. What distinguishes the Wordsworthian from the Keatsian method are its defenses against a mechanically divisive—analytic, one might say—reception. The devices of Wordsworth's poetry fend off a reading which would dissociate the verbal means from authorial and rhetorical ends, and, thus, set 'poet' against both 'human being' and reader, writing against speaking and reading. Wordsworth discourages this kind of attention first, by figuring the poem's formal materialization as a generically idealized human process: a development independent of authorial design and direction. Wordsworth's narrators loudly proclaim their passivity; and, their unself-consciousness invites us to identify narrator with poet. By these techniques, the work's semiotic center of gravity gets displaced to the reader, a postulated activity center. The narrator's encounter with an object, memory, or event is the condition of a narration which claims to be nothing but a self-accounting, offered to the reader as a humanizing opportunity. 'It is no tale; but, should you think, / Perhaps a tale you'll make it' ('Simon Lee'). One is meant to translate this disclaimer as follows: this is a tale, a tale of telling, but like all discourse, it is also a contract, a 'Thing semi-real'. To actualize the form, the reader must take it 'kindly', or according to the usage of essential humankind. Any suggestion of distinct and divisive purposiveness—'particular', interested, or class-specific self-consciousness—is neutralized by the textual gesture toward, if not a communicative, then a shared existential and social circuit. Wordsworth's pleasure becomes our delight when we cast off our minute particulars and make ourselves him; thus, of course, do we also discover the essential being within our historical being.

The framing devices of Keats's poetry do not, like Wordsworth's preemptive techniques, usher us into the poem, they frame us out. Think of the 'Ode on a Grecian Urn'. The final, bracketed epigram—formally, a parody of Wordsworth's closing, intersubjective immediacies—puts the entire poem and all its apparently human and authorial anguish in aesthetic space: museum space, to be precise. The triumph of this ode is its transformation of poetry into scripture, sound into silence, relief (the Truth of fantasy) into Relief (an art of surfaces: Beauty). 'End-stopped feel' is as good a phrase as any to describe the alienating closure of Keats's poetry.24

Moreover, Keats's poems tend rather to distinguish than to identify narrator (or lyric 'I') and writer. Rarely do we hear his verse as the utterance of an unmediated human voice. Even in so magical, so historically sincere a poem as 'La Belle Dame', one must remember than an anonymous working brain is continuously engendering and overhearing the reciprocally exclusive languages of the balladeer and 'knight-at-arms', low and high languages that can only engage within the artificial space of a sentimental ballad.25 Keats, like Wordsworth, teases us out of thought by making his method of representation his representational object in the sense of 'purpose'. The difference is that by fetishizing this purpose, Keats makes of it an 'object' in the material sense and a 'subject' in the philosophic sense. With these transformations, self-reflexiveness crystallizes as a mode of production with determinate social meanings and purposes, some of them having no immediacy for the reader, others possessed of the most threatening and, thus, rejected immediacy. Keats's double alienation, from the textual interior and from his audience, outlines the contradictions which make the work, contradictions invisibilized by subject-related writing and object-related sex. Keats's pleasure stands revealed as his work.

Again, consider the phenomenology of the Wordsworthian narration. The poet effortlessly reaps his memory of its rich and naturally integrated meanings. Indeed, by emphasizing both the strain of those lives which are often the originals of his mnemonic experience and the wise unconsciousness which fashions the inner verse, and, by arousing his readers to the challenge of their high and arduous calling, Wordsworth underscores the pure pleasure which is the poet's special gift: his character, even. The poet

is a man speaking to men: a man, it is true, endued with more lively sensibility, more enthusiasm and tenderness, who has a greater knowledge of human nature, and a more comprehensive soul … a man pleased with his own passions and volitions, and who rejoices more than other men in the spirit of life that is in him; delighting to contemplate similar volitions and passions as manifested in the goingson of the Universe, and habitually impelled to create them where he does not find them. (Preface to Lyrical Ballads, 1802)

By contrast, Keats's careful inventories of his overdecorated psychic interiors are at once pointless and busy, giving us something very like an inversion or parody of Wordsworth's wise passiveness. Keats's authorial exercise seems unrelated to the reader's imagined enjoyment, and to any of the more familiar forms of expressive gratification. The early readers, who recognized in Keats's ease a display of ease, experienced the verse as entirely dis-eased. Again, it is Byron who clarifies the social offensiveness of the Keatsian difference.

Here is the strange little fable Byron produced for the purpose of characterizing Keats's poetry.

The Edinburgh praises Jack Keats or Ketch, or whatever his names are: why, his is the Onanism of Poetry—something like the pleasure an Italian fiddler extracted out of being suspended daily by a Street Walker in Drury Lane. This went on for some weeks: at last the Girl went to get a pint of Gin—met another, chatted too long, and Cornelli was hanged outright before she returned. Such like is the trash they praise, and such will be the end of the outstretched poesy of this miserable Self-polluter of the human mind. (Extract from letter to John Murray, 4 November 1820)

We recall that during the Regency, as before, 'Jack Ketch' was an appellation for the common hangman, and, that the name and character were strongly associated with the puppet-play of Punchinello (OED). With this double-dangling as his starting point, Byron goes on to explore, as it were, the social and sexual nuances of the resonance attaching to Keats's name. The fiction he unfolds describes a particularly laborious form of masturbation, le coup de corde, a trick that requires the technical assistance, here, of a prostitute. The 'Italian fiddler's' busy contrivance is emphasized by his partner's fecklessness, and the comedy of the story (literally, a 'hoist by one's own petard' narrative) involves the exposure of a work-pleasure ratio where we least expect to find it, at the center of an autoerotic activity. (The joke is perhaps more pointed yet; Byron involves a distinctly lower-class character in a perversion associated with aristocratic refinement, ennui, and unself-consciousness—dare we say, hauteur. Presumably, one's valet would not leave one hanging. Byron's aspiring fiddler is punished for his violation of social, not sexual proprieties.) Byron's 'outstretched', a comment on the ambitiousness, elaboration and sexual tension of Keats's poetry, says it all. So does this extract from an 1820 review appearing in the London Magazine and Monthly Critical and Dramatic Review: 'he says nothing like other men, and appears always on the stretch for words to shew his thoughts are of a different texture from all other writers.' The reviewer recommends to the clever but overwrought lad, suffering from a sort of literary priapism, some country air, a change of diet, and an introduction to 'the retreat at York', a private madhouse.

What Byron is driving at is the contradiction which organizes both masturbation and the reproductive habits of the middle class. Below, I propose that the dream or the concept of masturbation is one of conscious unconsciousness: 'the feel of not to feel it', or, as in the Nightingale Ode, sensible numbness. (Here again, we detect a debased because reified version of that Wordsworthian paradigm, 'wise passiveness'.) Inasmuch as one is both worker and pleasurer, giver and receiver, subject and object in masturbation, the act should produce a rare psychic consolidation. However, both the technical groundplot (a part of the body is fetishized and overworked), and the absence of a distracting other to absorb the purposiveness of the activity and naturalize the techne, install with unusual force the divided psyche, which must know itself busy for luxury.

No one cared, of course, about Keats's exposure of the contradiction which informs masturbation. What did concern Wordsworth and Byron was the poetry's exposure of the relation between 'working brain' and the 'spontaneous overflow' or 'rattling on exactly as I talk' of Romantic poetry: that is, Keats's demystification of a prestigious idea of literary production. In the case of Wordsworth, we might call this method 'natural selection': a darkling deliberation effected by memory and emerging as a spontaneous, strictly processual value. Byron's worldliness, the counterpart to Wordsworth's naturalism, establishes authorial purpose within a psyche so profoundly socialized (so inherited, one might say), and accomplishes those purposes through audience reciprocities so exact, that calculation has no place to surface. Both protocols are commonplaces of Romantic criticism. Less obvious, perhaps, is the fact that while these myths of production negate what the poets conceived as the age's dominant material productive mode, the mechanical, they also rehearse a mode of social and ideological production.

In order to constitute its structural betweenness (a neither-nor, 'Nothing' state), an 'existence', the middle class had to expose the historicity of value, clearing the ground as it were for its own violation of inherited and naturalized values. At the same time, and so as to sanction this originality and safeguard its middling position, threatened on the lower front by imitation, and the upper by assimilation, the class in the middle had to represent its own, invented values as either ahistorical or as history's telos. The trick was to look valuably and essentially ambitious—history's coming class—and also eternal: a class dreamed by Adam, who awoke and found it real. One logical solution to this stylistic problem (we will see it in Keats) was the phenomenology of the nunc stans, or the look of an eternally coming class, in motion/in place forever. The display of ease, a contradiction in terms, was another device for converting nothingness into prolific tension. By its self-identification as a profitably consuming class, the bourgeoisie imitated the ontologically productive condition of the aristocracy. At the same time, the rhetorical orientation of this mimesis, as well as its fetishism (the effect of its semiotic interests), marked it as an ambitious gesture: literally, as wanting. The power of this mark, a negative originality, was, of course, its determined negativity. A class that is self-violating makes itself inviolable. That which has no center cannot be seized; what has no character cannot be defamed, and what is always and by definition moving is not easily removed.

I am describing a 'bad' solution to an ideological bind: on the one hand, the middle-class commitment to a program of social mobility (Keats's 'camelion poet': an ethic of becoming, or, less Romantically, a work ethic), and on the other, its longing for the authority connected with the generative passivity, stable identity, and 'quiet being' which was an influential fantasy of the leisure class. Keats, we shall see, motivates the contradiction in the style of the middle class but, because this was not 'naturally' his solution, and because it was, for him, greatly polyvalent, that style gets reified. Keats works at his pleasure and stations himself by that oxymoron. Wordworth, as we saw, tends to suppress that conflictual figure which is no less the agency of his art than of Keats's. Wordsworth's genius is to operate a kind of double-standard. Even as he identifies poet (for him, speaker) with reader-listener as both essential men, he splits apart production and consumption into respectively passive and active moments. The poet easily overflows with his own pre(consciously) meditated verse. The reader, however, is forbidden the spontaneous, inward delight which is the poet's prerequisite and prerogative. Indeed, the reader cannot emulate that noble ease without degrading it and himself, becoming but a seeker after 'the pleasure of Frontiniac or sherry'. Wordsworth's readers are instructed to work at their meanings, to 'find' tales in the things which the poet effortlessly makes available to them. By contrast, Keats's ambitiously masturbatory poetry correctly positions the work-pleasure contradiction in the act of production. Is it any wonder that Byron, a poet who reaped such profits by producing himself as an aristocrat for the delectation of the middle class, and Wordsworth, who did well enough by his 'habits of meditation', should have been so shaken by Keats?

To explore the virtues of Keats's bad stylistic solution, we move to a more abstract register. Oddly enough, this is the way we proceed to the most concrete textual place. Christopher Ricks's interest in the Keatsian pathology makes an excellent guide.

Ricks's Keats is a poet who abolishes his own and his readers' self-consciousness by a poetics of conscious discomfiture. Through its aurally and visually embarrassing representations, Keats's poetry induces in its readers a painful, but, since this is art, a contained self-consciousness. By entertaining what is, in its natural form, a consuming state of mind, the reader learns to surpass rather than suppress his embarrassment. This is what Ricks means by his accolade, taken from Keats: 'unmisgiving'. Keats constructs a canon so psychically capacious that it accommodates even self-consciousness, which it thereby deconstructs. To use the idiom of the theory from which Ricks's argument implicitly derives, the acting-out is also a working-through for both the poet and his reader.

By setting Ricks's psychological construct in social space, we find within his own argument the shadow of an answer to the question we have raised. Why did Keats's early readers find the poetry so precisely misgiving: solipsistic, fraudulent, falsifying, and perverse? Ricks studies Keats as a 'blushing' poet: a poet of adolescence and its special self-consciousness. We are reminded that blushing and genital engorgement, as by masturbation, are only nominally distinct processes. By reference to the social meanings we've teased from the early response to Keats's style, we associate one sort of self-consciousness (adolescent, sexual) with another: middle-class, social. Or, just as self-consciousness is the salient symptom of adolescence (signified by the blush and at once a cause and effect of masturbation), so does it signify the complex identity problems of a middle class in a middling stage, securing itself and its anxiety by its fetishistic possessive style. I'm suggesting that we draw an analogy between the marginal, insecure, or immature bourgeoisie of Keats's day and the modern state of adolescence. Both those middle classes are defined by memory (the longing for a child-hood, working-class, 'gemein', or 'primitive' unselfconsciousness: for example, Wordsworthian authenticity), and desire (a state beyond self-consciousness: Byron's adult, aristocratic coolness). Both, moreover, are constituted by that contradiction. In the accomplished bourgeois poet, this self-division translates into a 'high', philosophic self-consciousness, which is, we have seen, a good solution to two such identity problems (legitimacy / originality, pleasure / work). In Byron, the self-consciousness is also 'high', not in an intellectual sense but in a social register, where it signifies the political mastery that comes of self-possession. By the analogy, the 'low' self-consciousness of Keats's poetry—something like the awkwardness we feel in social situations—cannot be read as only the luckless effect of his ambitiousness, or as a reflection of ideal psychic processes. We must also construe this effect, the rhetorical form of a contradiction, as part of a project in its own right. Thus did Keats go about the business of making himself into that nonsense thing, the middle class.

Keats's poetry blushes more radically and purposively than Ricks suggests. It blushes at the level of style. This is a discourse which 'feeds upon' but does not assimilate its sources. It engorges—a transitive operation—in such a way as to make itself permanently, gesturally, intransitively engorged: 'stationed', in Keats's phrase. Keats's discursive procedures rehearse that protocol whereby the middle class of his day produced itself as a kind of collective, throbbing oxymoron: achieved by its ambitiousness, hardworking in its hedonism, a 'being' that defined itself strictly by its properties, or ways of having. In the style of Keats's poetry, we read the dream of masturbation: the fantasy of 'the perpetual cockstand', that solution to castration anxiety.26 In both the dream and the anxiety, we, like Byron, discern the genetic code of the middle class.

Derrida has taught us that the supplemental or additive character of masturbation is also its substitutive character.27 Derrida's word, 'le supplément', describes that which adds its own difference and subtractiveness: masturbation, writing. Derrida's fabulously suggestive concept is more deeply antinomial than I've made it sound. I naturalize the idea slightly with an eye toward summarizing the practical charm of the supplement for Keats. In the readings to come, we shall recover the more irrational, more precisely functional dimension of Keats's substitutions.

Masturbation may be conceived as a fantasy of pleasure without the death of perfect gratification: or, meaning / value without the loss of reflexive consciousness or the object. The fantasized masturbatory experience is one of energy and luxury; giving and receiving; high (cerebral) and low (genital); infinite metamorphosis contemplated by a center of consciousness keen to enjoy that lability. Ideally, or in imagination, masturbation establishes a psychic wholeness which knows itself to be dialectically contingent. Thus is it also vitally, capably incomplete.28 The defensive virtue of masturbation, understood as a fantasy of (in place of / in addition to) proper sex, is its protection against the drive which, correctly enacted, must obliterate the consciousness which would own that pure pleasure, that death. 'Now more than ever seems it rich to die, / To cease upon the midnight with no pain … Still wouldst thou sing, and I have ears in vain—/ To thy high requiem become a sod.' Masturbation—the part for / in addition to the whole, the fantasy for / plus the actual, the oblique for / with the direct, the sign for / alongside the thing—is a holding action: a way of holding on to a holding off. The formula could be recast in temporal terms. Masturbation, that unnaturally hasty act, dreams of a 'slow time': a duration which neither wastes nor realizes, at once history's negation and its fulfillment. 'Deathwards progressing / To no death was that visage'. (Or, for a categorical association, 'purposiveness without purpose', Kant's definition of aesthetic experience.) Many of our fondest moments in Keats's poetry describe this condition: 'Their lips touched [touch'd] not, but had not bade adieu.' (The very time signature of 'To Autumn' is a code for this kind of durée; it is also the subject and object of this undying poem.) Many describe a fantasy wherein the sign (let us say, the Tradition: an empowering reproductive apparatus), and the thing (John Keats, an author-original) are simultaneous but distinct: a métonymie dream, or a fantasy of being, put under erasure by having and, thus, violated, idealized, effectuated, and possessed. Another way to frame this fantasy is as an instant(iation) wherein Beauty (the sign of legitimacy: the signifying possession) and Truth (the natural, unspeaking attribute) do not antithesize or succeed one another, neither do they coalesce. They exist, rather, side by side: parallel, mutually delimiting total systems, value and 'existences', Symbolic and Imaginary zones. In class terms, a logical category, all these couplings describe a conjunction of having, a function of distance, difference, and loss, and being, the form of presence, identity, and plenitude. In class terms, a social category, this conjunction describes a proprietary style and function. Nowhere is this coincidence so clearly and economically expressed as in Keats's typically ambiguous 'of locutions, where the preposition is used both partitively (or genitively), and descriptively (for example, 'bride of quietness': belonging to quietness [having], and characterized by quietness [being]).

I have been describing a masturbation fantasy: the concept shadowed forth by Keats's strong practice. The special offensiveness of Keats's very early writing arises from its incomplete perverseness: its failure, thus, to realize that concept. (Byron's qualification, I don't mean he is indecent …', should be taken as part of the criticism; regarding the sexuality of Keats's writing, more would have been less.) The early poetry is bad in the commonplace colloquial sense: accidentally or passively imperfect. What vitiates it is the innocence of its self-consciousness, the intimacy of wish and word.

The poetry we call great is that which signifies—indeed, fetishizes—its alienation from its representational objects and subjects, and, thus, from its audience. This poetry is a discourse whose self-possession is a function of its profound structural dispossession; its pleasure is its knowledge of a 'wished away' / unavailable workaday world. 'Pleasant pain', 'a drowsy numbness pains / My sense', 'ditties of no tone', 'unheard' melodies. Each of these phrases, fetishized negations, captures the (il)logic of Keats's masturbatory exercise and of its social objective: a state of being at once 'first, and last, and midst, and without end'—a fair definition, that, of a state of nullity.

Finally, 'Lamia' evinces a badness that indicates a new scene of writing. Keats's bold plot in this last romance is to analyze materially and conceptually his own mode of literary production. The romance undoes itself even as it unfolds, and there is no interest in recuperating this deconstruction at another level. Neither are the contradictions motivated in the manner of the canonically central romances. 'Lamia' is the closest thing we have in the Romantic repertoire to a scientific poem.

To grasp these bad varieties, we must appreciate both the binding nature of Keats's social circumstances and the special opportunities he found in those binds. Even as we say this, we should remember what life, as opposed to proverbs, likes to teach us: that 'opportunities' are always part of the factual web, not breaks in that binding fabric. The virtues we make of necessity were there all the time, waiting to be released. Our virtuous inventions are necessity's best friend.


1 Alan Bewell's essay 'The Political Implication of Keats's Classicist Aesthetics' (Studies in Romanticism, 25, Summer 1986, pp. 220-9) represents the beginning of a departure from the critical norm for Keats studies. Bewell's sensitivity to the special political discourse of the writer situated by the polis on its underside or between its categorical positions, intimates a criticism beyond the margins of formalist, thematic, biographical, and metaphysical inquiry as these have developed in Romanticist scholarship over the past thirty years, and also, beyond the 'new historicism'. This last observation is part of an argument about the new historicism in Romantic studies (see Levinson, 'The New Historicism: What's in a Name', in Critical Readings of Romantic History: Four Literary Essays, ed. Levinson, forthcoming Blackwell's, 1988).

2 Walter Jackson Bate, John Keats (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1963); John Bayley, 'Keats and Reality', Proceedings of the British Academy, 1962, pp. 91-125; Douglas Bush, John Keats (New York: 1966); David Perkins, The Quest for Permanence (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1959); Christopher Ricks, Keats and Embarrassment (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1974); Lionel Trilling, 'The Fate of Pleasure' in Beyond Culture (London: Seeker and Warburg, 1955); Helen Vendler, The Odes of John Keats (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1983); Earl Wasserman, The Finer Tone (Baltimore, Md: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1953).

3 John Bayley shrewdly divines that Keats's badness is his goodness. Had Bayley pushed his aperçu a little further, he would have come up against the meanings shadowed forth by the contemporary criticism. He would, perhaps, have associated the vulgarity of Keats's poetry with the situation, activities, and interests of the burgeoning middle class. As it is, Bayley's interpretative construct neatly registers this association by negation. 'Das Gemeine'—a postulate of healthy, earthy, Elizabethan (that is, sociologically and psychically nonstratified) consciousness—is the mirror image of the nineteenth-century Keats, or of a poetry experienced as sick, pretentious, horribly contemporary, and thoroughly mannered. To the early readers, Keats's poetry was the expression of a 'folk' degraded by a bad eminence: the petty bourgeoisie.

4 All excerpts from contemporary notices are drawn from Donald Reiman, The Romantics Reviewed: Contemporary Reviews of British Romantic Writers (New York: Garland Publishing, 1972), C, I, 91-3; C, I, 95; C, I, 330-3; C, I, 339; C, I, 344-5; C, I, 385; C, I, 423-4; C, II, 470; C, II, 479; C, II, 531; C, II, 587-90; C, II, 614; C, II, 768-9; C, II, 807-8; C, II, 824-5; C, II, 829-30; and from G. M. Matthews, éd., Keats, The Critical Heritage (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1971), pp. 35, 129-31, 150, 208-10, 248, 251. Censored Byron material checked against Leslie Marchand, Byron's Letters and Journals, vol. 7, 1820 (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 1977), p. 217 (from letter to John Murray, 4 November 1820; Matthews lists it as 4 September).

5 The association of masturbation with the individualism and materialism of the early middle class is something of an established literary theme. Swift's Master Bates, the physician to whom Gulliver is apprenticed, teaches his student more than a middle-class trade, he teaches him the principles of acquisition and display (in Gulliver's case, anthropological), which constitute the middle class an ideological phenomenon over and above its economic being.

6 The much-quoted phrase 'poignantly allegorical life' is Bate's allusion to Keats's own observation that Shakespeare led 'a life of Allegory' (Letters of John Keats, ed. Robert Gittings, Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1970; 1979, p. 218).

7 'Unmisgiving' is Ricks's class term, taken from Keats, for the social, psychic, and rhetorical generosity of the poetry.

8 Fredric Jameson, Sartre: The Origins of a Style (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1961; 1984), p. vii. In the course of my current research, I've discovered two books, both marvels of textual and theoretical exposition, that coincide closely with my reading of Keats's strategic defenses against, as well as his longing for, social and canonical majority. I refer to Louis Renza's 'A White Heron' and the Question of Minor Literature (Madison, Wise.: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1984), pp. 11-19; and David Lloyd's Nationalism and Minor Literature: James Clarence Mangan and the Emergence of Irish Cultural Nationalism (Berkeley, Calif.: Univ. of California Press, 1987), pp. 19-26. I thank Renza for refreshing my memory of Leslie Brisman's Romantic Origins (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1978): specifically, Brisman's derivation of George Darley's originality from his 'posture of weakness'.

9 Aileen Ward, John Keats, the Making of a Poet (New York: Viking, 1963); W. J. Bate, John Keats, R. Gittings, John Keats (London: Heinemann, 1968). All source information from Claude Finney, The Evolution of Keats' Poetry, 2 vols. (New York: Russell & Russell, 1963); George Ridley, Keats's Craftsmanship (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1933); Ian Jack, Keats and the Mirror of Art (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1967); Miriam Allott, The Poems of John Keats (London and New York: Longman and Norton, 1970; 1972).

10 See Georg Lukács, History and Class Consciousness, trans. R. Livingstone (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1971), pp. 164-72. See also Fredric Jameson, Marxism and Form, Twentieth-Century Dialectical Theories of Literature (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press, 1971), on the worker's negative privilege: the lack of that leisure needed to 'intuit [the outside world] in the middle-class sense'. By the adjective 'middle-class' Jameson means the static and contemplative immediacy required by industrial capitalism's productive structures and relations.

11 Apropos Keats's medical training, see n. 22, ch. 6.

12 Marjorie Levinson, The Romantic Fragment Poem (Chapel Hill, NC: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1986), pp. 41-3, 239-40.

13 Quoted in Theodor Adorno, Prisms, trans. Weber and Weber (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1967; 1983). The essay from which that quotation derives, 'Valery Proust Museum', deeply informs my discussion.

14 Finney, The Evolution of Keats' Poetry, vol. 1, p. 126: 'When, with infinite toil, they had climbed up the greater part of that steep ascent, Balboa commanded his men to halt, and advanced alone to the summit, that he might be the first who should enjoy a spectacle which he had so long desired'. From Robertson's History of America.

15 In his notes on Milton, Keats comments on 'what may be called his stationing or statuary. He is not content with simple description, he must station … ', quoted in Jack, Keats and the Mirror of Art, p. 142.

16 To the extent that the inner voices in Keats's poetry tend to be maintained as signs, and also as signs of otherness, the 'we' experience central to Vološinov's dialogic analysis is missing. Keats's dialogism conforms more to the Bakhtinian model.

17 Allusions to the indeterminacy of Keats's gender (for example, 'Mankin', 'effeminate', 'boyish') should be taken as responses to Keats's mode of literary production or to the androgyny thereby implied. Keats's discourse 'mans' itself by a self-consciously autotelic receptivity, at once 'unmanning' the Tradition and, paradoxically, feminizing itself as well. Indeed, we might illuminate some of the more mysterious female figures in Keats's poetry by identifying them with the code or languages at once feared and desired by Keats: a phallic order. Aileen Ward's compelling defense of Fanny Brawne—her insistence that Keats loved Fanny precisely for the unpoetical distinctness of her character—is not contradicted by Keats's fascination with women like Isabella Jones: protean women who seemed, in addition, capable of transforming others, and, by liberating them from themselves, freeing them from their self-consciousness as well. Keats could love Fanny; he could use the Isabella Joneses of his life. What I'm suggesting is a loose association in Keats's poetry binding the phallic fetish-woman and the social code which Keats sought indirectly and defensively to embrace.

18 Jerome McGann, 'Keats and the Historical Method in Literary Criticism', MLN, 94 (1979), pp. 988-1032. McGann's discussion of the textual history of 'La Belle Dame' and of the Paolo and Francesca sonnet is an invaluable lesson in the ideological uses of textual scholarship.

19 See Tristram Engelhardt, Jr, 'The Disease of Masturbation: Values and the Concept of Disease', in Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 48 (1974), pp. 234-48; Engelhardt, 'Ideology and Etiology', Journal of Medicine and Philosophy, I (1976), pp. 256-68; Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, An Introduction, vol. 1, trans. R. Hurley (New York: Random House, 1978).

Louis Crompton's fine study, Byron and Greek Love (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1985), has opened our eyes to the homophobia of the early nineteenth century. The special ignominy I confer upon 'the masturbator' is not meant to contest or in any way qualify Crompton's representation. I am only elaborating the lesson we first learned from the Romantics. Namely, that Satan is always God's product, structural complement, and support system; that which threatens divinity because it reveals the machina in the deus is either not named, or it is named as a nonphenomenon. Not evil, but monstrous.

20 'Pretty' implies an imitation of 'nice', in the sense of 'exact' or 'appropriate'. 'Pretty' misses the mark, however, erring on the side of deficiency or excess, precisely because it imitates a fetishized Idea of the middle. Hence, perhaps, the adverbial usage: for example, 'pretty good', 'pretty warm'.

Apropos what Shelley called Keats's 'false taste'—its resonance for Wordsworth—here is Hunt's synopsis of Wordsworth's famous Preface (from Notes on The Feast of the Poets, 1814): 'the taste of society has become so vitiated and so accustomed to gross stimulants … as to require the counteraction of some simpler and more primitive food, which should restore to readers their true tone of enjoyment, and enable them to relish once more the beauties of simplicity and nature' (pp. 90, 91).

21 Wordsworth's critique of Macpherson runs along the same lines (see Essay, Supplementary to the Preface, 1815). Wordsworth does not attack Macpherson's hoax per se; in the Essay, he is careful to indicate his awareness of the doubtful authenticity of Percy's Reliques, and also his great admiration for that anthology. What he condemns in the Fingal collection is its fraudulent expressiveness. Macpherson's failure to feel his subject, and thus to communicate in a quick and quickening manner, is for Wordsworth the intolerable flaw.

22 The poetry's lack of intrinsic reference, its deep insincerity, was its great and largely unmet generic challenge.

But when the … arts have reached the period of more refined cultivation, they cease to be considered as means through which to convey to other minds the energies of thought and feeling: the productions of art become themselves the ultimate objects of imitation, and the mind is acted upon by them instead of acting through them from itself … [W]hen imitative skill has brought an art the nearest to perfection, it is then that its cultivation is the least allied to mind: its original purpose, as a mode of expression, becomes wholly lost in the artificial object,—the display of a skill. (Josiah Conder, Eclectic Review, September 1817)

On one level, this criticism marks out the difference between a classically mimetic and a Romantic-expressive mode. But this difference was, by 1817, a familiar one, and it seems not to trouble the writer unduly. The damaging fact of Keats's poetry was its expressive falseness. Where Wordsworth, for instance, offers himself in propria persona, Keats was felt to provide a tissue of received, heterogeneous, and often conflicting manners. That this was the source of the generic confusion is something Keats seems to have guessed. One feels in his penetrating characterization of Wordsworth's mode, 'the egotistical sublime', an implicit reading of his own style, the egotistical bathetic. Or, where ego should be, there is alienated, interested reproduction.

23 This discussion is informed throughout by Jean Baudrillard, For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign, trans. C. Levin (St Louis: Press, 1981); The Mirror of Production, trans. M. Poster (St Louis: Telos Press, 1975); and Simulations, trans. Foss, Patton, and Beitchman (New York: Semiotext (e), 1983).

24 John Jones, John Keats's Dream of Truth (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1969), p. 111. For the context of my phrase 'museum space' see Philip Fisher, 'A Museum with One Work Inside: Keats and the Finality of Art', Keats-Shelley Journal, 33 (1984), pp. 85-102.

25 Aileen Ward writes of 'La Belle Dame', 'One hesitates to press this poem for any meaning beyond itself, for it is poetry of a kind that, as Keats said of his favourite passage in Shakespeare, "One's very breath while leaning over these pages is held for fear of blowing these lines away'". (The Making of a Poet, p. 273).

26 Steven Marcus, The Other Victorians (New York: Basic Books, 1964; 1974). My understanding of the early response to Keats's poetry, and my argument for the complex purposes of that poetry, began with a reading of Marcus's extraordinary book.

27 Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, trans. G. Spivak (Baltimore, Md: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1974; 1976), p. 155 and passim, and pp. 141-64; Dissemination, trans. B. Johnson (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1981), pp. 75-171.

28 To recast the model in a familiar philosophic idiom, one may conceive the dream or the concept of masturbation along the lines of self-enriching alienation.

Margaret Homans (essay date 1990)

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SOURCE: "Keats Reading Women, Women Reading Keats," in Studies in Romanticism, Vol. 29, No. 3, Fall, 1990, pp. 341-70.

[In the following essay, Homans examines the reaction of female readers of Keats to his poetry, and observes the manner in which Keats viewed females and female readers. Homans also studies Keats's letters to Fanny Brawne, noting how he objectified and distanced himself from her; Homans compares this tendency to Keats's resentment of the power of female readers and to his attempts to exclude female readers from having access to his poetry.]

This paper began as an inquiry into women readers of Keats and the complex resistance—to borrow Judith Fetterley's term—they may have felt to his representation of them.1 But one can know very little about, for example, Fanny Brawne's apparent dislike of his dwelling on her Beauty, because Keats destroyed all her letters to him, a fact suggesting that, just as interesting as women readers' resistance to Keats, is Keats's resistance to women readers. Their resistance to him is at least in part the result of his design to repel their interest and advances, to resist being read by women readers, not only Fanny Brawne but others as well. This paper investigates both some real, historical women readers of Keats, and his construction of women readers as it emerges in a few of his letters and poems. Keats's views of women more generally, his reading of contemporary and prior women writers, and readings of Keats by contemporary and more recent women writers, to say nothing of a full rereading of the poems in the light of these concerns, are projects that I can only touch on here, and for which this paper can constitute only a preface.

At first glance, it might seem that women readers, then and now, would be especially sympathetic to Keats above the other high romantics. His lower-middle-class origins and lack of university education—he couldn't read Greek and kept getting the pronunciations of classical names wrong—make him a candidate for honorary membership in Virginia Woolf's "Outsiders' Society."2 Sneered at by his earliest reviewers for his upwardly mobile poetic aspirations, he was placed by John Lockhart not only in "The Cockney School of Poetry" but in the company of menials and women: "The just celebrity of Robert Burns and Miss Baillie has had the melancholy effect of turning the heads of we know not how many farm-servants and unmarried ladies; our very footmen compose tragedies, and there is scarcely a superannuated governess in the island that does not leave a roll of lyrics behing her in her bandbox."3 Lockhart goes on to describe Keats's career in medicine and his apprenticeship to an apothecary and urges him "back to the shop, Mr. John."

One of Keats's biographers, Sir Sidney Colvin, is baffled by Keats's lack of noble heredity. In the other chief poets, he writes, we can see "some strain of power in their blood" or at the very least some explanation in the landscape of their youth. But Keats was "born in a dull and middling walk of London city life."4 Like Lockhart, Colvin links gender and class in his account of Keats, although for an opposite purpose. He seems to have expended great energy in trying, in vain, to establish a pedigree for Keats, inquiring in parish after parish for records of the birth of Keats's father. Failing to find these, he works on the etymology of the name Keats, which, he writes, "may in some cases be a possessive form derived from the female Christian name Kate, on the analogy of … Maggs from Margaret: but the source accepted as generally probable for it … is the Middle-English adjective 'kete', a word of Scandinavian origin meaning bold, gallant" (Colvin 3-4). If Keats cannot be rescued from his unaccountably low birth, Colvin's subliminal logic seems to run, he can at least be rescued from it metonymically by rescuing him from the analogous taint of femininity: Keats does not belong to Kate, he is instead bold, gallant. Whether we look at Lockhart's placement of Keats among governesses, or Colvin's anxiety to distinguish him from them, if gender is a social construct, and if to be socially powerless is to be "a woman," then Keats can be classed among women.

Two more recent readers of Keats, Adrienne Rich and Barbara Charlesworth Gelpi, make something of the same point about Keats using different evidence, evidence that may however be linked to questions of social power as raised by Colvin and Lockhart. In a transcribed "conversation" the two women discuss the practice of labelling women's strengths as weaknesses in patriarchal culture. Rich mentions Nancy Chodorow's work on the "so-called 'weak ego boundaries' of women," which, the poet continues,

might be a negative way of describing the fact that women have tremendous powers of intuitive identification and sympathy with other people. And, yes, a woman could get totally lost in that—she can lose all sense of her own ego, but that is not necessary—it might be a source of power.

John Keats had weak ego boundaries.
Negative capability. Exactly. Any artist has to have it to some extent… . The male ego, which is described as the strong ego, could really be the weak ego, because it encapsulates itself.5

These two women, readers of Keats, make him an honorary woman by praising that in him which resembles what they have defined as feminine. Indeed, this gesture would appear to accord with many of Keats's own statements about his poetic stance. When Keats defines his own poetic ideal against the bullying egotism of "Wordsworth & c," he defines what is not his mode as clearly masculine: "We hate poetry that has a palpable design upon us—and if we do not agree, seems to put its hands in its breeches pocket."6 Yet while this passage suggests that Keats defines his poetry as a woman, he always makes it clear that it is not he himself who is the woman, but rather that he is the male suitor courting poetry personified as a woman, as in his description of himself "adoniz[ing]" (II: 186)—that is, washing and dressing nicely—before sitting down to write, or in his remark, "I know not why Poetry and I have been so distant lately I must make some advances soon or she will cut me entirely" (II: 74).7 From the start, Keats defines his project by attaching it to a preeminently masculine one: he writes, "The Imagination may be compared to Adam's dream—he awoke and found it truth" (I: 185). Adam dreams of Eve while God shapes her out of Adam's rib; as Christine Froula has pointed out, our original myth of creativity amounts to the appropriation of female creation, represented as maternity, by two male figures.8 Keats equates his imaginative project, then, not only with male sexual potency but also with the masculine appropriation of the feminine.

That Keats asserts this equation so often suggests how defensively unconfident he is of its truth in his case. Whenever he does describe himself as a woman, his train of thought always counters the identification by juxtaposing to it an assertion of masculinity. For example, when he describes his mood of what he calls "effeminacy" (II: 78), the mood eventually represented in the "Ode on Indolence," he also mentions that his lassitude is due to a black eye, won, apparently, in a fistfight with a butcher. (In this street-level version of the Bloomian agon between poet and precursor, they were fighting over a kitten instead of the muse.) In an earlier passage about poetic identity, an apparent identification of his project with the woman's position turns out to be an appropriation of it for the masculine:

It has been an old Comparison for our urging on—the Bee hive—however it seems to me that we should rather be the flower than the Bee—for it is a false notion that more is gained by receiving than giving—no the receiver and the giver are equal in their benefits—The flower I doubt not receives a fair guerdon from the Bee—its leaves blush deeper in the next spring—and who shall say between Man and Woman which is the most delighted? Now it is more noble to sit like Jove tha[n] to fly like Mercury—let us not therefore go hurrying about and collecting honey-bee like, buzzing here and there impatiently from a knowledge of what is to be arrived at: but let us open our leaves like a flower and be passive and receptive—(I: 232)

Keats here aligns the passivity of the flower with what he understands to be women's sexual passivity, and if it's better to be like the flower, as he claims, then by the logic of analogy it's better also to be like the woman. This preference accords with Keats's dislike for the "irritable reaching after fact & reason" that he opposes to "Negative Capability" (I: 193), which Rich and Gelpi align with the egoless receptiveness they see as feminine. But the same logic also aligns with flowers and women the figure of Jove, who sits still in contrast to the bee-like, masculine busyness of Mercury. No one could be less passive or flower-like than Jove, but what the figure accomplishes is to define the passive female position as one that's also powerfully masculine and therefore acceptable to a poet who identifies his project with Adam's. By making Jove's pleasure like a woman's, Keats also realigns Tiresias' claim that the woman is more "delighted" than the man. Here, Jove gets to have not only power, but also an extra measure of pleasure, because his pleasure is female; and so does Keats, writing as Jove-as-a-woman (even though, at the end of the letter, modesty requires him to re-position himself as "scullion-Mercury or even a humble Bee").

That Keats habitually makes the apparent femininity of his negative capability enhance masculine power and pleasure, in writing as in love, is confirmed in a letter to his brother and sister-in-law in which Keats opposes his kind of poetry to the lived experience of sympathy with an actual woman.

I hope I shall never marry… . The mighty abstract Idea I have of Beauty in all things stifles the more divided and minute domestic happiness—an amiable wife and sweet Children I contemplate as a part of that Beauty. but I must have a thousand of those beautiful particles to fill up my heart. I feel more and more every day, as my imagination strengthens, that I do not live in this world alone but in a thousand worlds. (I: 403)

(He goes on to say that "the generallity of women … appear to me as children to whom I would rather give a Sugar Plum than my time.") Paradoxically, it is just this ability to live in a thousand worlds, or his negative capability, that feminizes him for and endears him to Adrienne Rich; yet here he defines that capability in opposition to sympathy as a practice, and the example he provides is telling. Though elsewhere negative capability means "tak[ing] part in [the] existence [of a sparrow] and pick[ing] about in the Gravel" (I: 186), or identifying with Imogen as much as Iago (I: 387), here it is illustrated by his merging with exclusively male "shapes of epic greatness": "I am with Achilles shouting in the trenches or with Theocritus in the Vales of Sicily. Or I throw my whole being into Troilus" (I: 404). There is a contradiction here. That living in a thousand worlds, or negative capability, depends upon "the abstract Idea I have of Beauty" suggests that, despite his claim to be continuously "in for—and filling some other Body" (I: 387), there is at least one "body" that his identityless, negatively capable self prefers not to enter into or to be entered by: it prefers to keep women distinct as objects of vision. If his creative project is defined as courtship, the woman must remain resistant to him and intact or "abstract"; her compliance would spoil everything. Although he declares that it is his idea of Beauty that would stifle "domestic happiness," not the other way around, his hyperbole suggests his fear that it is rather the idea of real sympathy in domestic life with a woman that threatens his power as a poet. This implication is made explicit by a "true Story" Keats recounts in a much later letter, in which a woman pregnant with triplets cannibalizes her husband, who kills her in self defense (II: 236). By insisting that women remain what he calls "abstract Beauty," he objectifies women and subordinates them to his own poetic projects.

Keats's reflections on women readers follow a similar pattern. Keats suffered, both emotionally and financially, from the failure of his three books of poetry to attract a wide audience during his lifetime. While he and his friends blamed this situation on the poor or nonexistent reviews of his Poems of 1817 and of Endymion—he speaks of publishing poems as "hanging them up to be flyblown on the Reviewshambles" (II: 70)—his third volume was well reviewed (that is, liked by an elite of educated male readers) but still did not sell. Keats explains the situation in the following way:

One of the causes, I understand from different quarters, of the unpopularity of this new book, and the others also, is the offence the ladies take at me. On thinking that matter over, I am certain that I have said nothing in a spirit to displease any woman I would care to please: but still there is a tendency to class women in my books with roses and sweetmeats,—they never see themselves dominant. (II: 327)

Although he viewed the public in general as an "Enemy" (see I: 266-67 and I: 415), Keats understood a major part of his problem with the public as a failure to attract a female audience.9 He also understands that power can be given and withheld through figuration, and that a woman who has been made a sweetmeat cannot also be dominant. Although in this way he reminds himself of his imaginative authority, implicitly the passage is about his fear of women's real dominance, for he attributes to women readers, rightly or wrongly, the power to make him succeed or fail in the marketplace. Because of changing patterns of work and leisure, women (whose schooling led them to prefer novels or narrative verse) had been replacing the elite group of classically educated men as the chief consumers of literature. Moreover, class difference often magnifies Keats's sense of the power of women readers: it is chiefly (though not always) "ladies," women from the classes above the one into which he was born, to whom a book must appeal in order to succeed. Far from doing anything to attract a female audience, however, Keats reveals an active disdain for women readers and for the steps he views as necessary to attract them. He identifies "wom[e]n I would care to please" as those who do not mind being turned into sweetmeats and do not seek to dominate. By objectifying and subordinating figures of women in his poems, he strikes back at what he perceives to be real women's dominance. Quite possibly, the state of affairs depicted in this passage is not so much an after-the-fact analysis as the result of Keats's intentions. For in a recorded conversation to whose full context we will want to return, "[Keats] said he does not want ladies to read his poetry: that he writes for men" (II: 163). His remarks about literary ladies and women bear out this hostility to the prospect of a female readership. In one letter he half-jokingly remarks that one of his "Ambitions" is to "upset the drawling of the blue stocking literary world" (II: 139). Bluestockings he defines elsewhere as "Devils," as "a set of Women, who having taken a snack or Luncheon of Literary scraps, set themselves up for towers of Babel in Languages Sapphos in Poetry" (I: 163), and again he describes as "sublime Petticoats" two literary ladies who published their correspondence with Rousseau (II: 266). In another letter, discussing the shallowness of the many readers who delight in the popular poets Mary Tighe and James Beattie, he remarks (now condemning equally women of all classes) that "This same inadequacy is discovered… in Women with few exceptions—the Dress Maker, the blue Stocking and the most charming sentimentalist differ but in a Slight degree, and are equally smokeable—" (II: 18-19).

One episode recounted in the same letter suggests particularly well not only how a readership was established in Keats's day, but also Keats's resentment of the power of women readers (especially elite ones) and his tendency to defuse that power with reductive objectifications. Keats recounts the story of the circulation of a copy of Endymion that ended with one of the two Porter sisters, authors of successful historical romances, seeking an introduction to him. His friend and patron Richard Woodhouse had loaned his copy to his cousin Mary Frogley, who loaned it in turn to her friend, Henry Neville, who loaned it to Jane Porter, who shared it with her sister Maria and loaned it to a Miss Fitzgerald. (Note that while the original owner of the book was a man, four of the five people who read it on this particular extended loan are women.) Returning the book to Henry Neville, Jane Porter regrets that he cannot introduce her to the poet, "for," she writes, "I should have been happy to have acknowledged to him… the very rare delight my Sister and myself have enjoyed from this first fruits of Genius" (II: 10). Woodhouse offers to make the introduction himself and urge Keats to take advantage of what he calls this "opening… for an introduction to a class of society, from which you may possibly derive advantage as well as gratification." Keats however feels "more obliged than flattered by this." As figures for the world of popular literature, both as successful producers of it and as readers who could be trendsetters, the Misses Porter appear to Keats as all that he disdains to court. He writes that he would go through with the meeting only "for the pleasure of writing to you about it" (that is, to George and Georgiana), so as to "give you an extravaganza of a Lady Romancer," as he puts it. "I shall certainly see a new race of People," he writes, considering briefly a possible meeting; but, he goes on, "—I shall more certainly have no time for them" (II: 11). If we recall Lockhart's association of Keats with footmen and governesses, surely part of what bothers Keats about the Porter sisters is that they represent what Woodhouse calls a "class of society" above Keats's own. To lift himself out of his own class by writing as he does highbrow poetry—poetry that required a Latin education, poetry in the line of Homer and Milton—is also for Keats to rise above all women considered as a class, and he resents being "obliged" to look up to women who write mere romances, just because they are wealthy and upperclass.

Here and elsewhere, one of Keats's habitual defenses against the power of women readers of whatever class is to transform them from reading subjects into objects of (visual) description. He deflates the considerable literary authority of Jane Porter by writing that he would meet her only so as to write about her. Keats makes a similar gesture following his cross-class indictment of the shallow women readers of Mary Tighe and James Beattie. As that letter continues, he half-apologizes for what he has said but offers the disclaimer that "I have not one opinion upon any thing except in matters of taste—I never can feel certain of any truth but from a clear perception of its Beauty" (II: 19) and goes on to discuss the development of his taste in painting. The next day's entry begins with a dinner party about which he comments, "I never intend here after to spend any time with Ladies unless they are handsome—you lose time to no purpose" (II: 20). Over the course of this letter Keats has neutralized the nagging topic of women as opinionated subjects, by assuring himself that women need only be looked at.

As this sequence suggests, much as he equates poetic ability with sexual potency, Keats equates the need to attract a female readership with the need to attract women sexually, and he scorns that compulsion as much as he disdains to seek women readers. These attitudes appear to be the compensatory, defensive forms taken by Keats's feeling of both literary and sexual inadequacy. After a long meditation on how his early idealization of women gave way to his present perplexing distaste for women's company, he writes, "I do think better of Womankind than to suppose they care whether Mister John Keats five feet hight likes them or not" (I: 342). Shortly before this account of the Jane Porter episode he makes jokes at his own expense about a dance he will attend: "I shall be obliged to shirk a good many there—I shall be the only Dandy there—and indeed I merely comply with the invitation that the party may not be entirely destitute of a specimen of that Race. I shall appear in a complete dress of purple Hat and all—with a list of the beauties I have conquered embroidered round my Calves" (II: 8). This passage concludes a paragraph that begins with his very first description of Fanny Brawne, whom he is already hoping to attract. That his thoughts thereafter flow to the Dandy who "shirks" suggests that being under the obligation to attract makes Keats want to repel. The sequence leading from thinking of Fanny, to being a Dandy, to refusing to seek Jane Porter's favor eroticizes his refusal of an important woman reader as a Dandy's "shirking" and maps his anxiety about women readers onto his anxiety about love. This connection finds compressed form in a later statement about audience: "I feel every confidence that if I choose I may be a popular writer; that I will never be; but for all that I will get a livelihood—I equally dislike the favour of the public with the love of a woman—they are both a cloying treacle to the wings of independence" (II: 144). Whereas Jane Porter's power as a reader comes partly from her class status, the power in Keats's mind of Fanny Brawne, whose class position was not significantly higher than his own, comes chiefly from her personal attractions.

Mingling thoughts of female readers with thoughts of "the love of a woman," Keats makes Fanny Brawne into the prototype of the woman reader, and he acts out in his relation to her much of his anxiety about women readers at large. Keats directed Fanny Brawne's reading: he taught her to dislike Byron, and his letters to her mention the loan of various books including a Spenser with the most beautiful passages marked (II: 302). He also took great pleasure in educating the literary taste of his young sister Fanny. As Fanny Brawne's letters to Fanny Keats after Keats's death make clear, she enjoyed reading and talking about books, "unless it is to such a very great judge that I am affraid they will think all my delightful criticism nonsense."10 Such a judge she almost certainly felt Keats himself was—later, sending the Spenser to Fanny Keats, she refers to him as "one who I have heard called the best judge of poetry living" (Brawne 84)—and he also quite ferociously directs Fanny Brawne as a reader of himself. From the Isle of Wight in the summer of 1819 he writes to her, "Why may I not speak of your Beauty, since without that I could never have lov'd you—I cannot conceive any beginning of such love as I have for you but Beauty…. So let me speak of you [for your] Beauty, though to my own endangering; if you could be so cruel to me as to try elsewhere its Power" (II: 127). Though Keats often omits the final "r" from "your," his slip here reinforces the conflation he makes here and elsewhere between Fanny and Beauty. Earlier in the same letter, in a remark typical of what had provoked Fanny's objection in the first place, he writes: "All my thoughts, my unhappiest days and nights have I find not at all cured me of my love of Beauty, but made it so intense that I am miserable that you are not with me" (II: 126). Keats, by continuing to speak of her Beauty, shows that she is not to prevail as a reader of him, and invoking the chimera of her supposed erotic power justifies his further disempowering her. She has attempted a critique of his writing—indeed of the central tenet of his creed in his worship of Beauty—and he responds by declaring her reading invalid. And then he effaces her critique further by burning it.11

In addition to directing Fanny's reading and her reading of him, he also directs her writing, appropriating her voice in his strongest defense against what he feels is her power over him as object of desire who is also a woman reader. In his first extant letter to her he asks her a question, then denies her freedom as a reader by supplying her answer: "Ask yourself my love whether you are not very cruel to have so entrammelled me, so destroyed my freedom. Will you confess this in the Letter you must write immediately and do all you can to console me in it—make it rich as a draught of poppies to intoxicate me…" (II: 123). While it is easy to imagine Fanny wanting to answer "no," the rhetoricization of his question leaves her no room. Many times in their later correspondence he expresses his love through telling her what to say: "Write me ever so few lines and tell you [for me] you will never for ever be less kind to me than yesterday" (II: 222); "Send me every evening a written Good night" (II: 262), which it appears she did. In a letter in which he reiterates the exclamations about her beauty that she had attempted to critique, he corrects her writing in another way too: "For some reason or other your last night's note was not so treasureable as former ones. I would fain that you call me Love still" (II: 263).

Another time, she has apparently written to him to calm his jealousy; his correction starts with a quotation from her letter, '"you must be satisfied in knowing that I admired you much more than your friend.'" He responds, "I cannot believe there ever was or ever could be any thing to admire in me especially as far as sight goes—I cannot be admired, I am not a thing to be admired. You are, I love you; all I can bring you is a swooning admiration of your Beauty" (II: 133). And at the end of this letter he writes, "I will imagine you Venus tonight and pray, pray, pray to your star like a Hethen. / Your's ever, fair Star…. " Keats cannot bear the thought of her admiring him, because in his view admiration transforms its object into a "thing." But to turn her into an eternally beautiful thing, a star or planet, enhances his sense that he himself could never be reified in this way. Or, to put it the other way around, Keats constitutes himself as a male subject—as the I who admires—by limiting Fanny to being the object of his vision, by appropriating all the speaking parts, even hers, and leaving her nothing to say.

Just as Keats's appropriation of Fanny's voice has its forgivable pathos, he elsewhere makes ventriloquizing a woman reader (Georgiana) appealing by making it funny. Keats writes "to you" (that is, to George) but "at your Wife" (II: 204). By comically preempting her responses, he projects his resistance to her as her resistance to him, picturing her as a bad reader, inattentive because she subordinates reading to other and specifically female activities.

Haydon—yes your wife will say, 'here is a sum total account of Haydon again I wonder your Brother don't put a monthly bulleteen in the Philadelphia Papers about him—I wont hear—no—skip down to the bottom—aye and there are some more of his verses, skip (lullaby-by) them too" "No, lets go regularly through" "I wont hear a word about Haydon—bless the child, how rioty she is!—there go on there" Now pray go on here for I have a few words to say about Haydon…. (II: 205-6)

He defeats her supposed will to intervene by occupying the space she would skip with writing about skipping, and then he picks up where he left off. Though the comic effect depends on Keats's knowledge that she would indeed care to read every word, the passage seems to have been prompted by her having once remarked that there was "nothing but Haydon" (II: 241) in his letters; taking up her voice is his way of insuring against any future independence as a reader.

Keats's assumptions of the voices of Georgiana and Fanny could be described as gestures of empathetic identification with an other of the kind he names negative capability, through which he also identifies with the sparrow and with Achilles. But they could better be described as acts of self-aggrandizing appropriation. Keats opposes living "in a thousand worlds" to life with any particular woman, and although Georgiana does not threaten Keats sexually in the way Fanny does, the picture of her distracted by her "rioty" child echoes and confirms Keats's skeptical view of "the more divided and minute domestic happiness—an amiable wife and sweet Children" that he earlier says is "stifled" by his idea of Beauty and who threaten literally to consume the man in his "true Story." To Fanny, in the same letter in which he silences her as Venus, he also writes "I tremble at domestic cares—yet for you I would meet them, though if it would leave you the happier I would rather die than do so" (II: 133). Despite the fact that, ordinarily, the "domestic care" of children served the interests of fathers at least as much as of mothers, when Keats speaks with a woman's voice, he is defending against any deviation she might make from silence, deferential reading, and the embodiment of his own thoughts (such as his "mighty abstract Idea… of Beauty"). And when he defends against women as independent speakers and readers, he appropriates their power for his own masculinity, as when Jove enjoys at once his own power and women's pleasure.

Keats's letters favoring what is usually summarized as negative capability date before the end of 1818. In November 1817 he writes, "Men of Genius… have not any individuality, any determined Character" (I: 184). The letter defining negative capability is dated December 1817 (I: 193). In February 1818 Keats writes both the letter critiquing poetry written to promulgate "the whims of an Egotist" (I: 223) and the letter in which he honors the ideal passivity of the flower by comparing it to Jove. The well-known passage about the "Mansion of Many Apartments" appears in May 1818, with its "Mist," "Mystery," and "dark Passages" (I: 280-281) reminiscent of the "uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts" that make up negative capability. In October 1818 he describes to George and Georgiana his feeling of living in a thousand worlds, and, writing to Woodhouse, he distinguishes "the Wordsworthian or egotistical sublime" from his own "poetical Character": "it is not itself—it has no self—it is every thing and nothing—It has no character"; and twice he repeats that the poet is "unpoetical" and has "no identity" (I: 386-87). By abrupt contrast, in April 1819 the term "identity" has become a wholly favorable one, in his account of "the world" as "the vale of Soul-making": "There may be intelligences or sparks of the divinity in millions—but they are not Souls till they acquire identities, till each one is personally itself (II: 102); and he details the process by which "the sense of Identity" is formed. As time passes, the letters reveal an increasing tendency to seek solitude in life and selfsufficiency in poetry. Living alone in Winchester in August 1819, Keats writes to Reynolds, "My own being which I know to be becomes of more consequence to me than the crowds of Shadows in the Shape of Man and women that inhabit a kingdom. The Soul is a world of itself and has enough to do in its own home" (II: 146). Or again the next summer he writes to Shelley that an artist "must have 'self-concentration,' selfishness perhaps…. My imagination is a Monastry and I am its Monk" (II: 322-23).

One way to explain this change is to note that all along his language for defining negative capability is predominantly negative, so that celebrating a positive sense of identity may be the logical outcome of the ambivalence these negations have expressed all along.12 Keats's withdrawal into himself has been attributed to depression over his growing illness, although this is not likely the case when he writes the letter about soul-making. In the late fall of 1818, between that letter and the last of the letters celebrating "no identity," Tom died and Keats met and fell in love with Fanny Brawne, and it may be that falling in love—perhaps made possible, for a man who said "the thought of [my Brothers] has always stifled the impression that any woman might otherwise have made upon me" (I: 293), by the death of one brother after the emigration of the other—contributes materially to the radical change in his view of identity and self.13 The letter of October 1818, about love and marriage, is the first to sound openly self-contradictory about the unboundedness of negative capability. If living in a thousand worlds erects a "barrier" between himself and any women he might love, then his devotion to negative capability has undone itself, by requiring a limit to the outgoing of the self. Because he sometimes formulates negative capability as a defense against and appropriation of women and femininity, the turn toward a self-contained identity may extend or fulfill—not diverge from—that ongoing defensiveness, with the difference that, early on, one woman would seem to limit his entering into others, while later, one woman threatens to carry his negative capability too far. For as several critics have pointed out, in Keats's letters to Fanny from the summer of 1819 and later, he writes of feeling that the "thought of you would uncrystallize and dissolve me" (II: 142); "you absorb me in spite of myself (II: 133).14 This sense of dissolution Keats explicitly links to the thought of death: "I have two luxuries to brood over in my walks, your Loveliness and the hour of my death…. would I could take a sweet poison from your lips to send me out of [the world]" (II: 133). It is thus as a defense against Fanny's supposed power of life and death that he appropriates her voice as a reader and turns her into a silent Venus. The constitution of his specifically masculine authority and subjectivity is in his view a necessary (if scarcely adequate) antidote to her threat to his identity—a sense of identity he scarcely thought he wanted, until he felt she would take it from him. His final defense against his thought of her power comes when he has her last letters to him buried with him, unopened and unread.

A female figure promises a dissolution of the poet's identity that is at once pleasurable and profoundly threatening, so that he defends himself by substituting his words for hers and by objectifying her. This summary of what I have said about the letters to Fanny Brawne is also a crude summary of the plot of "Ode to a Nightingale," which is not to say that the Ode is in some determinate way "about" Fanny (it predates the first of those letters by two months), but rather that in those letters Keats employs a strategy already familiar to him. The poem begins with empathy with a female figure (the nightingale is a "dryad" and inevitably embodies an allusion to Philomela) and the pleasurable loss of identity, in a scene of gorgeous darkness that recalls the "dark Passages" of the letters favoring negative capability (and of other poems such as "The Eve of St. Agnes" and Hyperion that are also "explorative of those dark Passages"). Just as Keats claims to lose himself in Fanny's Beauty, the poem loses itself in beautiful natural images. But when the poet becomes aware that his escape from the pain of self-conscious mortality is only another form of death (when the "embalmed darkness" of the forest becomes his own love of easeful death), the poet recovers his sense of identity by projecting meanings on, or reading, the bird's historical and mythical significances. Making her a generic nightingale, as Keats makes Fanny generic "Beauty," and substituting for her present song the historical memory of absent songs, the speaker is returned (if painfully) to his "sole self," while she continues down the dark passages he has resisted. To read the female is to be confined in identity, and yet not to read her is to risk becoming a phantom of dispersed identity.15

The Fall of Hyperion involves a more complex instance of a poet reading a female figure, and this poem Keats explicitly links to his love for Fanny: "Forgive me if I wander a little this evening, for I have been all day employ'd in a very abstract Poem and I am deep in love with you—two things which must excuse me" (II: 132). Compared to the first version of Hyperion (written when "no identity" was a more simply favorable state), The Fall of Hyperion shifts its attention from the events narrated to the poet's identity and experience and especially his confrontation with the muse-like Moneta. As the poet's most severe reader-critic, Moneta is the form Keats gives to his view that Fanny (and perhaps to a lesser degree other women readers) holds over him the power of life and death.16 Just as Fanny has said she "admires" Keats, which he construes as transforming him into a "thing," and has also critiqued his tendency to identify her with his "abstract idea… of Beauty" (for a reason analogous to his own dislike of being made into a "thing"), Moneta critiques the speaker's idealism as a poet, and she threatens him with death by freezing (rendering him a thing). Moreover, Moneta's divinity may link her to the class status of the women readers who, apart from Fanny Brawne, made Keats the most anxious. And yet Keats makes Moneta a victim like the other Titans, and the poet's framing double dream makes it doubly clear that she is the figment of his imagination. As a powerful victim, she embodies not so much sheer female power as equivocality about that power: he "had a terror" of her robes and veils, yet her words "soften" "near… to a mother's" (I: 249-51).17 When she unveils, the terrifying sight of her "bright-blanched" face is mitigated by the "benignant light" of her eyes, which, it turns out, look benign because they are "visionless entire," "But, in blank splendour, beam'd like the mild moon, / Who comforts those she sees not" (I: 257, 265-70). Her blindness may recall the visionary blindness of Milton or Homer, yet simultaneously and as if to cancel those allusions, Moneta as blind moon also recalls Fanny as Venus. The transformation of a powerful woman into a "fair star" helps consolidate the masculine power and identity of the star- (or moon-) gazer.

Unable to see him, transformed instead into an object of the poet's gaze, Moneta is changed from seer to seen and from threatening reader to the read. And better than Fanny (or Jane Porter), Moneta generously authorizes this move. She herself offers him the sight of "the scenes / Still swooning vivid through my globed brain" (I: 244-45), which he paraphrases as "what things the hollow brain / Behind enwombed" (I: 276-77). The male poet penetrating the womb-brain of the seenunseeing woman effectually neutralizes the initial impression of her power and transforms her primarily from reader-critic into a thing to be read and interpreted. To be fair to Keats's careful equivocality, the poet's vision—what he sees inside her brain—includes both her and himself as both subjects and objects of vision. He neither claims for himself the position of unseen seer, nor positions her solely as object of vision. She is present not only as part of the frozen trio of fallen gods who comprise the vision (I: 385) but also as guide and commentator whose "voice / Came brief upon my ear" (I: 300).l8 For himself as a seer, the poet chooses the dispersal of his identity (like negative capability, or like being in love) that comes with sharing the pains and "burthens" of what he sees; the poem's language identifies the poet's experience not only with that of the new poet Apollo in the earlier version ("I shriek'd… life seem'd / To pour in" [I: 126, 133-134; compare Hyperion III: 135 and 117]) but also with that of the characters Saturn and Hyperion ("a palsied chill / Struck from the paved level up my limbs" [I: 122-23; compare Hyperion I: 259-60 and Fall I: 386 and 426]).

At the same time, conversely, his identification with what he sees may show how very inclusive and powerful his identity is, if all these figures emerge from his experience. In the same way, we might ask of his relation to Moneta the question we asked of Keats's speaking for women in his letters. To see into Moneta's brain may be an extreme and literal instance of negative capability (he is almost telepathically "being in for—and filling some other body"), but it may rather be an act of extraordinary egotism, the appropriation of her memory and thoughts, or even a projection onto her, since the vision is so close to what the poet invented for the first Hyperion. The more heavy and immortal the weight his "own weak mortality" bears, the more we admire his heroism as a poet; yet because Moneta is initially a mother-figure, her inclusion in what the poet comes to "bear" ("I bore / The load of this eternal quietude" [I: 389-90]) allows him to appropriate mothers' powers for his own: the poet who eats the remains of Eve's meal at the beginning of the poem comes to mother his own muse by the end.19 Reading into or onto Moneta, the poet grants incomparable dignity and grandeur to the appropriative gestures he makes toward other female figures who threaten to read him.

When Keats appropriates Fanny Brawne's voice so as to affirm his vision of her as "abstract Beauty" and so as in turn to confirm the stability of his masculine identity, he simultaneously seeks her sexual loyalty and her loyalty as a reader, especially as the prototype of a more general female readership. His jealousy of the other men Fanny meets and, he imagines, flirts with parallels his jealousy of her possible literary seduction by other authors, as Walter Jackson Bate suggests when he remarks that in The Cap and Bells Keats mocks "Byron himself, whom Fanny Brawne had admired in the past, and perhaps still did."20 When Keats vies with Byron for Fanny's attention, it is not only for her, but also for the female readers that Fanny represents. Of Keats's comment that the unpopularity of his last book was owing to "the offence the ladies take at me" (II: 327) his friend Charles Brown wrote, "Lord Byron, really popular among women, reduced them, to the offence of some men, to 'roses and sweetmeats'" (II: 328). What Keats is obliged to want—but does not want to have to court—is a share specifically of Byron's female audience, an audience that at least in Keats's view identifies sexual with literary attraction.

A close reading of the first part of a letter to George and Georgiana (the long letter written between February and May 1819) helps reveal the logic of Keats's thoughts connecting Byron's literary and sexual success, female sexuality and power, and his own identity as a poet. He begins with news of writing "The Eve of St. Agnes"—then of women acquaintances, especially one: "Miss Brawne and I have every now and then a chat and a tiff"—then of the literary world: "another satire is expected from Byron call'd Don Giovanni" (II: 59). He continues with social and literary news about London and about their circle of friends, a train of thought that leads to a story touching painfully on his sense of combined sexual and literary inadequacy. Someone referred to him as "quite the little Poet," on which he comments, with an implicit comparison to Lord Byron: "You see what it is to be under six foot and not a lord." This story is followed directly by mention of "a young Man who delighted a young woman with a Valentine" (II: 61), a story that might recall the day when Keats ghost-wrote a valentine for George to give Georgiana. Next, Keats turns to his own writing together with Brown's: "We i e Brown and I sit opposite one another all day authorizing (N.B. an s instead of a z would give a different meaning) He is at present writing a Story of an old Woman…" (II: 61). The play on the spelling of "authorizing" suggests Keats's uneasiness about the authority of his own authorship. In Brown's story, the devil gives an old woman "three pips of eve's apple," which both inspire and grant her wish to be "beautiful enough to make all the world and even the other world fall in love with her." The woman achieves sexual dominance over all men; "all but the blind are smitten." Finally the devil falls in love with her too, and as a consequence she gives birth to John Knox, William Gifford (the hated editor of the Quarterly Review), and others Brown and Keats disliked. Following this story is a brief account of some business failures and of a freethinking publisher imprisoned for his pamphlets, and then, by contrast, a report of financial success: Keats notes that Murray has "sold 4000 coppies of Lord Byron" (II: 62)—apparently of the last canto of Childe Harolde—and mentions the sum of £25,000. The thought of Byron is followed by a return to Keats's own literary projects: "the Pot of Basil, St Agnes Eve, and… the 'eve of St Mark,'" on which he comments, "you see what fine mother Radcliff names I have."

The emotional oscillations of this series of passages appear to me roughly as follows: The thoughts of his own writing ("The Eve of St. Agnes") and of his interest in Fanny Brawne collide with the thought of Byron's success. The sexual as well as class dimension of this contrast he makes explicit when he juxtaposes the remark about "quite the little Poet" with his second allusion to Byron, which calls attention to Byron's sexy class position. These thoughts of his social, sexual, and literary inadequacy compared to Byron lead to the compensatory thought of a successful seduction through poetry (the valentine) that might be his. This tentative optimism, however, leads in turn to its own negation in a story of too-powerful female sexuality. That the old woman's seductiveness is set in motion by the male agency of the devil is a monstrous inversion of the valentine, where sexual arousal is modest and controlled. In context, the story of the woman and the devil suggests Keats's ambivalence about a male poet arousing the interest of a female audience. He needs women to want him and his books, yet he resents women's power in the literary marketplace as much as he resents their sexual power over him. Byron comes back into Keats's thoughts as the author who, like the devil in the story, both with tarnished yet still potent nobility, activates female desire and not only gets away with it but profits by it. The thought of Byron returns him to his own need for an audience, and his efforts to court one appear in his mention of his new poems' popular "mother Radcliff names." These names Keats sounds oddly guilty about: "it is not my fault—I did not search for them," he adds, as if he is embarrassed to be caught imitating so voguish and low-brow an author.

In the letter, Keats transforms sexual and literary inadequacy into potency and imaginatively fulfills his hope of matching the success of Byron, who turns the passion he arouses into profit. Three features of the sequence especially point to strategies for success both with and over women readers, and over Byron. First, the old woman's erotic power and what could be called the elevation of her class position depend entirely on male desire, and thus, like Keats's other objectified women, she is less powerful than she seems. Second, if, like the devil, the poet is the one responsible for releasing women's sexuality and power, then no matter how great those powers, he establishes his potential for controlling them. Third, he will write like a woman: by writing poems with "mother Radcliff names," he revises the aggressive "old Dame" in Brown's story into a voice he can appropriate to further his own interests. In the scene Keats has in mind when he compares imagination to Adam's dream, God and Adam originate a myth of creation as paternity that Keats inherits through, and that endorses, the line of literary fathers reaching from the Bible and Homer to Milton and Wordsworth and to himself. Keats opposes to this favorable picture of literary fathers the line of his literary mothers. The old woman who spawns monsters with the aid of "three pips from eve's apple" becomes "mother Radcliff," a literary progenetrix to whom Keats reluctantly owes an important literary debt. This debt Keats is as eager to devalue and efface, by transforming Radcliffe into a comic monster and an implicitly crone-like "[grand-]mother," as he is eager to claim the line of literary fathers. He at once appropriates the gothic for his own uses and mocks Radcliffe as its source. (He had in another letter also parodied Radcliffe: "I intend to tip you the Damosel Radcliffe—I'll cavern you, and grotto you, and waterfall you, and wood you, and water you, and immense-rock you, and tremendous sound you, and solitude you" [I: 245].) This scenario resonates (though without the comedy) with his later invention of Moneta, whose maternal power he appropriates after first eating Eve's meal. Appropriating a woman's voice while denying its integrity, here with Radcliffe as in relation to Fanny Brawne, is Keats's way of harnessing women's erotic and literary power to serve his own, so that, in his mind, he can outdo Byron's successes.

Keats rehearses in this letter his insistence upon his own masculine authority—authorising with an s, as he puts it—as a lover and as a writer. It is an authority defined through the control of women's sexuality and of their voices, and through the appropriation of these to his interests (figured as the interests of male authority more generally), as we see in his subordination of literary mothers to literary fathers. In "The Eve of St. Agnes," a poem that borrows more of its language from "mother Radcliff" than just its title,21 Porphyro seduces Madeleine with the aid of the "ancient ditty… La belle dame sans mercy." In some further remarks about "The Eve of St. Agnes," recorded in September 1819 by Richard Woodhouse, Keats shows himself to be carrying this insistence on male authority even further than we have so far seen. Just prior to the remark I want to discuss, Keats insists that an alteration he made to the poem was not an imitation of Byron, thus bringing competition with Byron into the subtext of what follows. Next, Keats's desired revision would make the poem more sexually explicit (a revision Keats was ultimately persuaded to discard). Originally, "innocent" readers—"ladies and myself—could have assumed that right after Madeleine confesses her love, the pair go off and, Woodhouse continues:

marr[y], in right honest chaste & sober wise. But, as it is now altered, as soon as M. has confessed her love, P. instead winds by degrees his arm round her, presses breast to breast, and acts all the acts of a bonâ fide husband…. tho' there are no improper expressions but all is left to inference, and tho'… the Interest on the reader's imagination is greatly heightened, yet I do apprehend it will render the poem unfit for ladies, & indeed scarcely to be mentioned to them among the "things that are."—He says he does not want ladies to read his poetry: that he writes for men—& that if in the former poem there was an opening for doubt what took place, it was his fault for not writing clearly & comprehensibly—…. (II: 163)

Although part of Byron's success with readers of both sexes came from the eroticism of his poems, Woodhouse and John Taylor (to whom Woodhouse was writing) assume that the poem, thus revised, goes over the line from the innocent seductiveness of the valentine to the dangerous seductions of Brown's story of the old woman and the devil.22 That the poem is so repellently seductive turns out to be by design: Keats hopes to exclude women readers. But would they necessarily have been repelled by such sexual boldness?

I have been implying here that Keats hopes that women will not be interested in his poem. But far from speculating accurately about what women readers might feel, Keats and Woodhouse fail to speculate on this subject at all. They focus instead on men as readers and as censors of the reading specifically of "ladies." Woodhouse candidly reveals that what would render the poem unfit for ladies makes it more appealing to him, that is, makes it sexually arousing: "the Interest on the reader's imagination is greatly heightened." The poem might give proper ladies a glimpse of sexual possibilities that would threaten male authority over them within marriage. Through his phrasing of the problem ("it will render the poem unfit for ladies, & indeed scarcely to be mentioned to them"), Woodhouse claims for himself—and by extension, for other male readers—the power to control "ladies'" access to literature. Indeed (this seems to be Keats's weird promotional scheme) men will be obliged to read the poem, in order to protect their ladies from it. Keats has not so much made his poem uninteresting to women readers, as made it necessary as well as pleasurable for male readers to control its distribution.

This notion that one might choose to exclude lady readers, and could do so by making a poem sexually explicit (and could in the process enhance one's own masculine authority), is echoed and clarified by a statement made by (the admittedly prudish and unreliable) Brown in 1841 when sending to Richard Monckton Milnes four books of transcripts of Keats's poems: "You will find a poem in each of my books of copies from his originals of an exceptionable kind; they were written and copied for the purpose of preventing the young blue-stocking ladies from asking for the loan of his MS poems, and, through fathers and brothers, they had that effect."23 Even more clearly than Keats's conversation with Woodhouse, this passage reveals a hostility to lady readers that is paired with, and perhaps originates in, the idea of attracting them. The sexual curiosity of daughters and sisters is aroused only so as to provide a reason to invoke male authority (in the form of fathers and brothers) to suppress it. Keats in writing the poems, and Brown in copying them so strategically, enact their hostility to the necessity of seducing the upper-class female reader, and they indirectly assert their own masculine authority, and figuratively inflate their class status, by making arousal lead to its denial at the hands of upper-class men.

The idea of the literary seduction of upper-class women and the view that the aim of seduction is to bring into play an even more elite male authority (that is, to make the writer's masculinity more authoritative by reconstituting it as noble—more like Byron's, perhaps) inform further passages from the letters and emerge as the subtexts of several of Keats's poems. Dante's story of Paolo and Francesca attracts him powerfully, as he tells George and Georgiana later in the same long letter that includes the story of the old woman and the devil. Keats has been giving his pained account of the bogus love letters his brother Tom received from their friend C. J. Wells posing as "Amena Bellefila," and he meditates at length on the punishments he hopes for "the villain." The thought of punishment for a literary seduction leads him to his liking for the fifth Canto of the Inferno and to his dream of entering into it, which he calls "one of the most delightful enjoyments I ever had in my life—I floated about the whirling atmosphere… with a beautiful figure to whose lips mine were joined as it seem'd for an age…" (II: 91). (Is Keats secretly attracted to such a seduction as Wells's?) Next he copies his sonnet on the dream, "As Hermes once took to his feathers light." The sonnet sets up an analogy between Hermes lulling the monster Argus to sleep and the poet's "idle spright" lulling to sleep the "dragon world." Just as Hermes was then able to flee away, so the poet's "spright" flees and goes to the second circle of Hell where, the sonnet concludes, "Pale were the lips I kiss'd and fair the form / I floated with about that melancholy storm—"(II: 91). Why, the poem asks us to ask, does Keats graft the myth of Hermes and Argus onto Dante's story?

Given the context of Well's literary seduction of Tom, the poem might have stressed the literary seduction of Paolo and Francesca. "A Galeotto was that book, and he who wrote it," Dante has her say, but the sonnet, like the dream that inspired it, included only the lip-to-lip whirling in the storm and omits Dante's account of how the lovers got there. However, the story of a textual seduction that is omitted from the latter part of the poem appears, displaced, in the earlier part. Hermes has lulled Argus to sleep with "a delphic reed" (as in Ovid, where Hermes tells him the soporific story of the pipes on which he plays). While the Hermes section of the poem thus includes the verbal seduction that the Paolo and Francesca section omits, Keats omits from the Hermes story something that his telling of the Paolo and Francesca story includes: the sexual relation. In Ovid, but not in Keats, Hermes practices his verbal seductions so as to kill Argus, who guards the nymph Io (in the form of a beautiful heifer) from Jove, who eventually succeeds in seducing or perhaps raping her. Just as reading removes the defenses of Paolo and Francesca, Hermes's "reed" removes Argus as defender of Io. Through the chiasmus, while the verbal seduction left off from the Paolo and Francesca story reappears in the Hermes story, the sexual relation left out of the Hermes story reappears in the Paolo and Francesca story.

But the point of the chiasmus is its asymmetry. While the human lovers are equally and mutually seduced, and while their love challenges the patriarchal ownership of women, the sexual relation between Jove and Io to which that human love is structurally equated confirms patriarchal authority. In the "delightful enjoyment" of Keats's dream, the moral authority and hierarchy of Dante's vision has been removed, yet authority and hierarchy lurk at the poem's edges through the strange engrafting of the Hermes story: the poem brings to mind Jove and Io as the antitypes of the illicit lovers it foregrounds. Once again the textual seduction of a high-born woman brings forth masculine authority, here magnified through Jove's divinity. Like the sudden appearance of Jove in the letter about the bee and the flower (and Keats is all the more ready now to identify the poet with the "masculine" figure of Hermes/Mercury from that letter), Jove's implicit presence on the margin of this poem signals the recuperation of female sexuality for elite masculine authority and authorship. Keats's non-moralizing identification with Paolo is an instance of his negative capability, yet the subtext's opposition to a woman's sexual freedom recalls the way Keats defends his poetic stance against the potentially overpowering idea of intimacy with a woman. Himself seduced—and thus feminized—by Dante's story, his brother likewise seduced, victimized, and feminized by Wells, Keats defensively enhances his masculinity through identification with the authority of divinity and asserts that authority not only against the potential power of women, but also against the lower-class "woman" he fears he himself may be.24 This gesture Keats chillingly repeats when, writing to Fanny Brawne three months later, he recalls Francesca, but to identify himself not with the loving-Paolo but with Francesca's authoritarian husband. Quoting from Massinger's "Duke of Milan," he inserts the name Francesca into the Duke's lines warning his wife Marcelia not to betray him. Addressing this misquotation to Fanny, Keats rewrites Francesca to make Fanny figuratively but doubly the wife of a jealous and powerful husband, a woman of the nobility overpowered by an even more high-born man.

Keats's most striking image of the woman reader occurs in another of the poems with "mother Radcliff" names, "The Eve of St. Mark." A young woman named Bertha, who lives "in the old Minster Square" of a cathedral town and who is, if not high-born, at least as leisured as the "ladies" of Keats's putative readership, reads, presumably on the eve of St. Mark, from

A curious volume, patch'd and torn,
That all day long, from earliest morn,
Had taken captive her two eyes

So intense is her concentration that the fading of the daylight does not break it: she reads "With forehead 'gainst the window pane" (49) and then by the light of the fire, which casts her "giant" shadow on the walls behind her.

her shadow still
Glower'd about as it would fill
The room with wildest forms and shades,
As though some ghostly queens of spades
Had come to mock behind her back,
And dance, and ruffle their garments black.

The poem breaks off with a "quotation" not from the book itself, but from its marginalia of "pious poesies," including a verse to the effect that a mother who "Kepen in solitarinesse / And kissen devoute the holy croce" can make her child "A saint er its nativitie." Bertha, reading about sainthood and female chastity (the description of "her constant eyelids" links her to the pious mother) is among the most chaste of Keats's heroines, and many commentators have noted the poem's restraint and somberness. Yet the giant forms of Bertha's shadows, the ghostly queens of spades who dance and ruffle behind her, belie that restraint. Conflating the deathly ace of spades with the amorous queen of hearts, these images of monstrous, powerful femaleness represent, as the fear of death a terrifying sexuality. And because they result from Bertha's fixed position by the flickering fire, they represent what is released in her by her unnatural, obsessive reading. We noted earlier Keats's hope that, by redescribing women's power over him as having originated in their reading of him, he would be in the position of imaginatively controlling that power. This process is dramatized here. A demonic power is elicited from the otherwise chaste and sober Bertha, but because it is brought out by her reading, she remains under the authority of the text, which can harness this force to its doctrinaire purposes (when her eyes stray to the margin, they stray only into further pieties).

The poem breaks off, but Keats continues it in a grotesquely comic form, his last attempt—an ambivalent one, again—to capture a female audience. As various readers have noted, Bertha, her cathedral town setting, and her book reappear in The Jealousies (Keats's preferred title for the poem better known as The Cap and Bells).25 A commoner, but "solid," Bertha Pearl is illicitly loved by Elfinan, the Emperor of the fairies. Elfinan has been read as a figure for the Prince Regent or for Byron or both, since each was, like Elfinan, royalty or nobility involved in publicly scandalous sexual intrigues. While Elfinan is supposed to be awaiting the arrival of his official fiancee, the fairy Bellanaine, he secretly flies off to visit Bertha Pearl. He carries with him a book, "an old / And legendleaved book, mysterious to behold" (512-13), that is endowed with "the potent charm, / That shall drive Bertha to a fainting fit" (518-19). Elfinan sets out on this mock quest on St. Mark's eve for, the sorcerer Hum tells him, "on that eve alone can you the maid convey" (504).

According to the satirical lens turned on it by The Jealousies, Bertha's reading in "The Eve of St. Mark" is sexual: it seduces her, and it seduces her on behalf of a royal and unearthly suitor. The original Bertha's ancient and holy tome turns out to be a fairy Emperor's aid to seduction. The suggestion of a monstrous female power in those shadowy "queens of spades" that mock the original Bertha is made grotesquely explicit as the sexuality that Hum's book will activate in Bertha Pearl, a sexuality that exists for Elfinan. An amorphous, terrifying power released for no clear purpose in the original becomes a submissive sexuality in the revision. Like the sexual interest daughters and sisters might take in a poem like "The Eve of St. Agnes," female sexuality is released here only to reinforce the authority of the masculine purveyors of books. Bertha Pearl has embroidered on her sampler the words, "Cupid, I / do thee defy!" (455), but that Hum has captured it for Elfinan suggests the inefficacy of her protest. The woman's own words will not outweigh the seductive and controlling power of what a man gives her to read. As in his attempted revisions to "The Eve of St. Agnes," Keats turned his need to cater to female taste aggressively against his idea of the highbrow woman reader. In the letter blaming "the offence the ladies take at me" on his tendency "to class women… with roses and sweetmeats" he continues: "If I ever come to publish [The Jealousies], there will be some delicate picking for squeamish stomachs" (II: 327-28). Keats will avenge his unpopularity on the supposed sources of it: recalcitrant lady readers, women who object to objectification.

We have yet to note one of the most significant features of The Jealousies, which is that it is written by a woman, or rather by Keats writing as a woman: Lucy Vaughan Lloyd, of China Walk, Lambeth, a woman whose dainty name and address identify her as a member of the tribe of "sublime petticoats" who so irritate Keats by their sentimentalism and their failure to buy his poems. That the pseudonym mattered to Keats's conception of the poem is shown by his references to the poem. To Charles Brown he writes, "I shall soon begin upon Lucy Vaughan Lloyd" (II: 299). And in the passage from which I just quoted, Keats actually writes, "If I ever come to publish 'Lucy Vaughan Lloyd,' there will be…. " Having spoken in Fanny's and Georgiana's voices, having written poems with "fine mother Radcliff names," Keats again appropriates a female voice in order to change a woman reader into a sexual object, in order to reassert his own authority as a masculine subject. Purporting to offer a woman's reading of a woman reading, the poem makes a woman complicitous in the subordination of the woman reader to masculine sexual and literary authority. Keats preempts a woman's voice, and shapes a woman reader, to show what he could perhaps never get Fanny herself to say, that women are Beauty and belong, as the objects of men's gaze, under male proprietorship. And that reading the poetry of Keats can bring about this transformation.

If it seems disappointing to end with the suggestion that this little-liked poem somehow culminates any tendency of Keats's, we might return briefly to The Fall of Hyperion, which, as I have suggested, dramatizes the transformation of a fearsome reader-critic into a woman open to being read. Keats may have given up on The Fall in September 1819, shortly after the time of the anguished letters to Fanny Brawne through which we first looked at the poem; but Charles Brown places the poem in the later autumn 1819, when he recalls Keats working pleasurably on The Jealousies in the mornings, then in the evenings "deeply engaged in remodelling his poem of 'Hyperion' into a 'Vision'" (KC II: 71-72).26 If The Jealousies is not only a comic continuation of "The Eve of St. Mark" but also (as Halpern suggests) a daylight alternative to the somber Fall (if The Fall is a somber, evening version of The Jealousies), we might think of the vicissitudes of Moneta's power in the context of Bertha Pearl's failure to resist seduction by the book. Moneta is too grand for seduction, yet she is induced (by the speaker-poet's willingness to suffer) to open her womb-brain to him, and her doing so enhances his authority as a poet (even though that authority is defined through his very mortal weakness). Through the poem's carefully orchestrated and undecidable epistemological reversals, Moneta's initial dominance as a reader is subdued, and the very grandeur of Moneta and of this process dignifies the male authority that neutralizes the woman reader in a way that The Jealousies could not.

As Keats's motive for treating women and especially lady readers as he does, I have stressed his resentment of their real and imagined power over him and his compensatory wish to assert his own masculine authority. But that assertion of masculinity accomplishes a further aim for him. By invoking an exclusively male readership, by writing only for men, he makes of his poetry a masculine preserve, and in so doing he elects himself a member of the male club that poets in the classical tradition, and especially the high romantics, have always claimed literature to be, but which it is not. If we recall Lockhart's insulting review, we can see why this move might have been crucial for Keats. By asserting his membership in highbrow literature as an exclusively male club, Keats would dissociate himself from the category—female, lower class, and desexualized—in which Lockhart places him: "there is scarcely a superannuated governess in the island that does not leave a roll of lyrics behind in her band-box." Twentieth-century male literary critics of high romanticism such as Harold Bloom have succeeded in fulfilling Keats's wish, by stressing his place in the line of Milton and Wordsworth and by effacing his sources in the writings of women such as Mary Tighe and Ann Radcliffe. It is not only his sense of powerlessness with respect to supposedly powerful women that motivates Keats in his quest for a male readership; it is also his fear of sharing in the cultural powerlessness of women themselves.

We have seen how Keats's association with governesses might have become especially galling to him in the light of his susceptibility to other kinds of feminization, as when he finds himself seduced by Dante. But it remains for us to glance at one final context for Keats's feminization and his defenses against it. Fanny Brawne's surviving letters, not to Keats but about him after his departure for Italy, uncannily repeat some of the features of his earlier correspondence with her. Though we infer from his letters to her that hers while he was alive were resolutely anti-romantic, once or twice in these later letters her language about him is as intensely romantic as his own had been about her: "If I am to lose him I lose everything" (Brawne 20). Matching his refusal to read her last letters to him ("he reads no letters for fear of agitating himself," Brawne 21; "to see her hand writing would break my heart," II: 351-52) is her unwillingness—which she mentions several times—to reread his works or anything about him. For Fanny Keats she has copied out Severn's account of Keats's death, but she has "not looked at it since" and suggests "if you would rather not make yourself again unhappy, do not read it" (Brawne 32). Sending to Fanny an issue of The Indicator containing two of his poems she writes, "I never open it for he is connected with every page" (Brawne 55). If Fanny Brawne begins to sound like Keats, Fanny Keats gains a shadow-resemblance to the figure she once made in his letters. Although she cannot bear to read his books, she passes them on to the poet's sister together with his literary opinions (she urges Fanny to read "King Lear" in the original, she explains Keats's views of Byron), taking up his role of literary mentor to them both. Her letters sometimes open or close with "my dearest girl," one of his own ways of addressing her, and at her moment of greatest anxiety about him she writes, "God bless you my dearest girl" (Brawne 23), words common enough yet also echoing Keats's own last words to her.

Most strikingly, the expression of her mourning for him takes the form of modes of privatization that recall his own. She writes of her own reclusiveness following his death and of a secretiveness about Keats that rivals his about her: "To no one but you would I mention him. I will suffer no one but you to speak of him. They are too uninterested in him to have any right to mention what is to you and me, so great a loss" (Brawne 31-32). In a letter written in 1829 reluctantly granting Charles Brown permission to publish Keats's poems about her, she writes, "Without claiming too much constancy for myself I may truly say that he is well-remembered by me and that satisfied with that I could wish no one else but myself knew he had even existed."27 In the context of this Keatsian, possessive privacy another passage from that letter, often quoted out of context to "damage" Fanny Brawne, makes sense: "I fear the kindest act would be to let him rest for ever in the obscurity to which unhappy circumstances have condemned him."28 But she is not all possessiveness: she goes on to defend Keats and to write of "the duty of those who loved and valued him to vindicate him."

Has Fanny Brawne, in an enactment of Keats's most paranoid thoughts, taken textual revenge by stealing his voice and transforming him, as he once transformed her, into the feminine object of a jealous possessiveness, his words appropriated as he once appropriated hers? Or, to the contrary, has he so fully succeeded in appropriating her voice that he now speaks through her, ventriloquizing her as he did during his life, now all the more effectively because sorrow has lowered her resistance? As in our discussion of Moneta's power relative to the poet, it is difficult to say. Yet the publication history of these writings (his letters to her, establishing her unworthiness, and the "damaging" quotation from her letter appeared in the 1870's, while her letters did not come out until 1937, and were discredited when they were first reported on by Amy Lowell in 1925), together with the fact that her existence in posterity is a function of his, serve—like the effect of the framing double dream on Moneta's authority in The Fall of Hyperion—to make Fanny Brawne's voice forever the echo of his own. His fears were finally groundless.


1 See Judith Fetterley, The Resisting Reader: A Feminist Approach to American Fiction (Bloomington and London: Indiana UP, 1978).

2 Virginia Woolf, Three Guineas (New York and London: Harcourt Brace, 1938) 106.

3 Z [John Gibson Lockhart], "The Cockney School of Poetry," Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, vol. III, no. XVII, August 1818: 519-24; reprinted in Judith O'Neill, ed., Critics on Keats: Readings in Literary Criticism (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1967) 9. Similarly, Jane Carlyle compared Keats to a seamstress. For a much fuller account of the way his early critics classed Keats with women, see Susan Wolfson, "Feminizing Keats," manuscript 1987.

4 Sidney Colvin, John Keats: His Life and Poetry, His Friends Critics and After-Faine (London: Macmillan, 1917) 1-2.

5Adrienne Rich's Poetry, eds. Barbara Charlesworth Gelpi and Albert Gelpi (New York: Norton, 1975) 115.

6The Letters of John Keats 1814–1821, ed. Hyder E. Rollins, 2 vols. (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1958) I: 224. Hereafter, citations are given in the text by volume and page number.

7 On poetry as a woman, see Mario L. D'Avanzo, Keats's Metaphors for the Poetic Imagination (Durham, N.C.: Duke UP, 1967) 25-31. See also Wolfson, "Feminizing Keats."

8 See Christine Froula, "When Eve Reads Milton: Undoing the Canonical Economy," Critical Inquiry 10 (1983): 321-47.

9 John Barnard, citing Tim Chilcott (A Publisher and his Circle: The Life and Works of John Taylor, Keats's Publisher [Boston and London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1972]), discusses the documented importance of women readers for "the success of literature" and the risk that Keats was taking in disdaining a female audience; John Keats (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge UP, 1987) 13-14.

10 Fanny Brawne, Letters of Fanny Brawne to Fanny Keats, 1820-1824, ed. Fred Edgcumbe (New York: Oxford UP, 1937) 49; cited hereafter in the text as "Brawne" followed by pages. These letters put it beyond question that she loved and mourned Keats most sincerely, if in a less extravagant and literary way than his own: "I can tell you who next to me (I must say next to me) loved him best, that I have not got over it and never shall" 32).

11 In a dissertation chapter that came to my attention after I read this paper at the English Institute, Sonia Hofkosh makes a point that is quite close to my own, about Keats's attempts to control Fanny's writing and its implications for Keats's sense of women readers. In the context of a discussion of the roles of female figures in the male imagining of authorship, she argues that for Keats (as for Byron) getting an audience is like seduction. She cites the passage I quote above, linking the favor of the public with the love of a woman, and she writes, "'the love of a woman' involves competition over who writes the story of the poet's desire…. As the reader of his love letters and a writer of her own, [Fanny Brawne's] power for and over Keats derives from her capacity to imagine and inscribe the story of passion in other words…. Keats, unable to supervise her creativity, remains in doubt that he can govern his own creative power…. The erotic 'Power' Fanny Brawne wields is also the power of others to declare Keats either a poet or a 'weaver boy.'" She also discusses one of his attempts to edit Fanny's letters (I will discuss others below). This chapter appeared as "The Writer's Ravishment: Women and the Romantic Author—The Example of Byron" in Anne K. Mellor, ed., Romanticism and Feminism (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1988) 93-114, quotations 106-8.

12 I am indebted here to Paul de Man, who argues that "Keats's gift for sympathy has a negative aspect" and discusses the ambiguity of Keats's ostensibly positive use of the nonetheless negatively charged word "selfdestroying." See his "Introduction" to John Keats, Selected Poetry (New York: New American Library, 1966) xxii-xxiii. Aileen Ward reads "the Soul is a world of itself" as synonymous with Keats's wish to live in a thousand worlds, on the grounds that both testify to the strengthening of his imagination in relation to a shrinking audience, not, as I see it, as a contrast to that wish. See "'That Last Infirmity of Noble Mind': Keats and the Idea of Fame," in The Evidence of the Imagination, eds. Donald Reiman, Michael Jaye, and Betty T. Bennett (New York: New York UP, 1978) 323.