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Reviews

Nicholas Roe, John Keats and the Culture of Dissent. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997. ISBN: 0-19-818396-8. Price: £40.00.

  • Nicola Trott

…plus d’informations

  • Nicola Trott
    University of Glasgow

Editor's Note

Readers might be interested to know that Nicholas Roe's John Keats and the Culture of Dissent will be forthcoming in Clarendon Paperback next autumn.

Roe's new book is a species of biography. It tells us about Keats's formation, or the growth of the poet's mind; and about his surroundings, especially his mentors and friends - in Keats, the two seem often to go together. In so short a writing life, everything may be said to be early; but, as in The Radical Years, his study of the young Wordsworth and Coleridge, Roe has most to offer on the ultra-youthful poet, and the author of Endymion and the 1817 Poems.

One appreciates the liveliness of the portrait: the opening pages remind us of a 'pugnacious Keats', of his 'terrier courage' and 'ungovernable' temper. This is no snuffable particle or spectre-pale consumptive. The political associations, which at this stage in the book are left to the reader to pick up, lead convincingly to the later commentary of George Felton Mathew, who remembered Keats in 1815 as 'A faultfinder with everything established'. The point newly made here is that this radical identity 'was already fully formed when Keats met Leigh Hunt in October 1816', and had been fashioned in a specific and recoverable context. Roe establishes for the first time the exact place of education in Keats's development, and once again we are in for a surprise. Exit the half-lettered Londoner of Blackwood's myth, and enter the unorthodoxly knowledgeable scion of Dissenting stock. Roe's wonderful chapter on Enfield, the School founded by John Ryland, fiery polymathic Baptist minister, and continued in Keats's time by John Clarke, friend of Priestley and George Dyer, is full of vivid information. The most enduring image has to be the 'living orrery', a school exercise which Ryland devised for fixing in the minds of his pupils the latest astronomical statistics - among them those of Uranus, whose discoverer, Herschel, was a personal acquaintance. Quite apart from the exercise's tangible benefits - in 'Chapman's Homer' and Hyperion especially - this mingling of work and recreation, the physical and conceptual, the cosmic and the playful, has suggestive and pleasurable implications for Keats's poetry as a whole.

If Roe's chief interest lies in the direction of politics, he has very good evidence for narrowing our field of vision: the 'transcendental cosmopolitics' of chapter two - Hunt's unwieldy yet somehow nimble-witted label for Hyperion - looks forward in chapter six to 'the pharmacopolitical poet of Endymion', as christened by William Maginn, Dublin lawyer and satirist. (This description arises out of the second biographical context in which Roe makes important additions to our knowledge: Keats's medical training at Guy's, where the most vivid figure we meet is the flesh-slashing surgeon 'Billy' Lucas.) Significantly enough, these brandnames come from both sides of the Keats divide, the one from his greatest mentor-friend, the other from a satellite of the Blackwood's circle. As Roe amply demonstrates, the poetry-politics analogy is inescapable, whether we are approaching Keats from articles in Hunt's Examiner (fascinatingly represented here) or in Blackwood's Magazine : 'Z', in the latter publication, states the case most clearly, remarking, apropos the contentious and Hunt-inspired opening of Endymion III, that 'Keats belongs to the Cockney School of Politics, as well as the Cockney School of Poetry'. Thanks to those champions of immaturity, Bayley and Ricks, we tend to like Keats for the very things his first readers despised. Thanks to the corrective efforts of more recent historians, not least Roe himself, we know how wrong these ur-critics were. All the same, it is hard not to relish the splendour of insult they produced, even while we are developing the bad taste to admire what they singled out for ridicule: the 'piss-a-bed poetry' (Byron), the 'vague notion that the Greeks were a tasteful sort of people' (Lockhart on Endymion ) - even, in Levinson's retro-critique, the 'masturbatory' arriviste.

Part of Roe's story is about how the landscape of Keats's poetry becomes a political mine - or indeed minefield - for friends and enemies alike. Conversely, and more poignantly, the other part of the story is about how Keats's defenders have conspired to diminish and distort his posthumous representation - and, Roe would claim, reputation - by severing the life-giving links between history and aesthetics. In setting the record straight, the Culture of Dissent has two critical tools to hand: continuity and recovery. Both are used to banish the air of unworldliness which was introduced by Keats's friends and has been perpetuated in modern criticism: Roe has in mind an 'unsettling' Keats, and to that end makes brilliant use of 'twinned' epigraphs, in which poetry and politics jostle up against each other. The task of recovery is the familiar project of new historicism, but is pursued here by methods that are solidly old historical. Roe's nose for research is as sensitive as ever: materials from the Brotherton Collection at Leeds, the Blackwood papers in the National Library of Scotland, the Houghton Library at Harvard, have all been tracked down; but with the tact of the readerly scholar, the laboriousness of the hunt is hidden away in fluent and coherent narrative. Most surprising - though it also returns us to Roe's old stomping ground - is the number of authentic connections that are to be made between Keats's post-Napoleonic Cockney culture and the republican circles of the early 1790s. We hear of Ryland as a 'violent partizan' of the American and French Revolutions, with affiliations to the Constitutional Society; of Charles Cowden Clarke's Commonplace Book, into which Keats's schoolfriend copied a suppressed anti-war poem by William Crowe and a satirical dialogue by Richard Porson, together with political sonnets by Wordsworth (a chapter drawing on the work of John Barnard, who is generously acknowledged); of the distinguished surgeon Astley Cooper, Keats's patron at Guy's, who had a 'democratic' Parisian past; and of the political colouring given to the white and the green (both Keatsian hues), the first being associated with revolutionary iconography, the second with Pan politics and 'liberty of conscience'.

The greening of Keats takes place in two locations, the historical-pastoral Greenwood of the Robin Hood poems of 1817-18 and 1820, and the Hampstead-Heathy 'suburbs' of Reynolds, Hazlitt, and Hunt. The 'culture of dissent' is carried over from Enfield School to the apparently marginal, though politically sympathetic, societies in which Keats's literary identity - and its lampooning in the Tory press - may be said to evolve. This benign continuity - from 'dissenter' to 'outlaw' to 'suburban' - has its malign counterpart in the common cause that has been made between the Blackwood attackers and some recent criticism. It is also Roe's contribution to the by now widely held view that what has for long appeared to be an historical vacuum, empty of extra-aesthetic value, turns out to be full of political valency - on the liberal side of the question, naturally. But here a difficulty arises. Keats is perpetually conceiving havens of loveliness which, he argues, must be left behind, in order to participate in the 'nobler life, / Where I may find the [...] strife / Of human hearts' - if you prefer, in order to lead a life that is morally and socially aware. (This 'strife' includes, but is not synonymous with, harsh realities - pain for pain's sake is not Keats's game.) Now, if the 'bower' is already, as Roe maintains, an 'elysium' of political virtues, including 'sociality', why the need for this sharp exit? What would be the point of the hard distinction Keats apparently feels compelled to make, between the bowery or flowery, and the human or heartfelt?

Curiously enough, 'To Autumn', which is the subject of Roe's lengthy Epilogue, may be the great example of where the new-historicist argument works best, since, unusually for Keats, this Ode does not posit an elsewhere towards which it must progress; its fulfilments are not felt to be 'merely' sensual or aesthetic, and so do not demand a translation to a higher, nobler, or finer tone. Rather, the plenitude of the autumnal is already somehow sufficiently 'real', or unbowery, unescapist. For Roe, Autumn's primary links are with Hunt and the figure of justice (under the sign of Libra, or the balance), and with Clarke and the figure of law (Ovid's Ceres, as mediated by Andrew Tooke's Pantheon, a text that reaches all the way back to the library and garden at Enfield). For Roe, the conspiratorial life of the poem lies in the generosity of its imagining, a sort of commonwealth of plenty.

To corral Keats in an aesthetic boudoir or beauty-parlour certainly does seem a diminishment of the person - and Roe is extremely good at showing why it is belittling, and exactly what is missing as a result. Whether or not the aesthetic point of view is necessarily diminishing of the poetry is another question, and one that is still, I think, open to debate from both sides. But the historicist claim is very sensitively handled here, and, better still, backed up with new and essential materials. There are several references to Keats's memorialists and their methods, and Roe himself would seem to have the makings of a second career as a writer of writers's lives. The helpful subdivisions of the index include a long list of 'contemporaries and historical figures'. As in Radical Years, where Wordsworth and Coleridge were his subject, Roe is at his very best when writing about a milieu, the larger environment of the poet, and its literary and extra-literary interests and activities. We look forward eagerly to his next instalment.

Romantic Circles Review