Poetry as Enforcement: Conquering the Muse in Keats's 'Ode to Psyche'[*][Record]

  • Kris Steyaert

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  • Kris Steyaert
    University College London

Often dismissed as considerably inferior to the subsequent Spring odes of 1819 and 'To Autumn', Keats's 'Ode to Psyche' has not received as much critical attention as it deserves. Yet, in order to gain a fuller insight into the astonishing advancement of Keats's poetic powers at that stage of his writing career, one cannot afford to ignore this remarkably self-revealing composition. I believe that the 'Ode to Psyche' illustrates in a pertinent way how Keats recovered his self-confidence as a poet, literally found his Muse and, what is even more important, managed to secure her constant presence. This appropriation of the Muse, however, presupposes a virility in the poet which is traditionally not associated with Keats. Many critics indeed tend to ascribe an effeminacy of character to the 'latest born' of the Romantic poets, whilst his writings are repeatedly conceived of as abounding in a tasteless kind of affectation. The reference in the Encyclopaedia Britannica of 1857 to his 'style of babyish effeminacy' characterised by a 'nauseous sweetness', still reverberates in a considerable number of modern literary studies. In this respect, Susan Wolfson has rightly pointed out that Keats's works are envisaged as a singularly gratifying study object by recent interpreters who treat the poet 'as an exception to, or anomaly within, a monolithically conceived "masculine" discourse'. What many commentators fail to discern is the 'masculine' undercurrent in Keats's poems. By this I mean the tendencies stereotypically attributed to the male, as those inferred by Anne Mellor when she represents Keats 'in the traditionally feminine pose of passivity, indolence, waiting'. Evidently, Mellor does not regard this quality as carrying any negative imputations. Yet, it seems to me that in her attempts to revalue an aspect of Keats, she adheres to an inadequate but still widely adopted premiss. A careful reading of Keats's oeuvre will reveal the presence of the often covert but nonetheless clearly recognisable urge, not for passivity, but for action and dominion instead, as well as a keen awareness of self-identity. The latter is again at odds with Mellor's conclusion that Keats's empathy, 'lack[ing] a strong sense of its own ego boundaries', can be defined as non-masculine. Lest there should be a misunderstanding of my argument, I hereby emphasise that I do not wish to imply that Keats is a worse or better poet because he is not that effeminate after all. I only want to rectify the still popular misconception of Keats as a pusillanimous poet exemplifying an effeminacy of character. In this article, I will concentrate on the 'Ode to Psyche' as an example of a poem indicative of Keats's often neglected or misinterpreted (male) gender politics. More particularly, it is my intention to demonstrate that if the persona of the poet in Keats's 'Ode to Psyche' should, on the surface, appear to be rather effeminate and unmanly, this may only be a means, a very carefully constructed manoeuvre, to gain full possession of the goddess he desires. The poem shows how the poet, out of what has been called 'narcissistic similitude and involution', comes to annihilate the distinction between himself and the desired object, that is to say Psyche. It is true that Keats attains such a unification with the goddess by feminising himself, but this empathic engagement will turn out to be no more than an intermediate stage in the process of subjecting the 'Bloomiest' (l. 36) of deities. I will argue that the poet only temporarily loses himself in another object so as to realise his masculine desire of self-possession and to reaffirm ...