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Nicholas Roe, ed., Keats and History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995. ISBN: 0 521 44245 1 (hardback) Price: 37.50 (US$59.95)

  • Matthew Scott

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  • Matthew Scott
    Magdalen College, Oxford

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Keats and History looks certain to take up an important critical place among the mass of work produced during the Keats publishing-Fest of the last twelve months. These essays are critically exciting, and demonstrate a variety of approaches to the poet which serve to guide the reader quickly into some of the most interesting aspects of Keats scholarship. Needless to say, the focus of the collection is on history, though it is not exclusively 'new historicist', and as such will prove of interest to a wider audience concerned with Romantic criticism in general.

The cyclical history of modern criticism meant that sooner or later we had to get round to historicising Keats. Nevertheless, we ought not to pretend that this is anything too new and innovative. Drawing attention to the terms of the equation of Keats with 'History' is, critically, to cast a wry glimpse over one's shoulder to a host of transatlantic colleagues who have gone bigger and bolder before. Several important works, most significantly Jerome McGann's 1979 essay "Keats and the Historical Method in Literary Criticism" and Marjorie Levinson's now classic 1988 study Keats's Life of Allegory, loom large behind the essays here. In his work, McGann has brought up latent possibilities for historicist readings of Keats, famously, for example, his reading of To Autumn which points to silent historical motives behind the work's composition. This reading remains a focus for some of the more sceptical attacks on McGann. Meanwhile, in 1986, Susan Wolfson edited a collection for Studies in Romanticism which investigated the connection of the terms with little consensus, and was followed up by the work of Levinson and Daniel Watkins (Keats's Poetry and the Politics of the Imagination , 1989) which might claim to have solidified the practice of materialist reading in Keats, by examining the poet's perverted class-consciousness within a Marxist framework.

Nicholas Roe points to the rewarding use that Keats scholarship has made of historical readings of the poetry. In the preface, he tells us that the object of the present collection is to follow a passage from Woodhouse's scrapbook which serves as his epigraph: "There is a great degree of reality about all that Keats writes: and there must be many allusions to particular Circumstances, in his poems: which would greatly add to their beauty & Interest, if properly understood." If this sounds like an older form of historicism than we are now used to, then I think that it is meant. There is no 'new historicist' party line here, although, as we may expect, the relationship between the two which emerges is anything if not unproblematic. The use of the term 'history' undergoes considerable transformation over the course of the fourteen essays collected, and it is this transcendent quality of the term which makes for interest. One can imagine the pain involved in ploughing through a series of readings all employing the same formulaic presentation of history, replete with all manner of crossings-out and so forth. Here 'history' means 'myth', and 'poetic imagination' as often as it refers to the presentation of a string of events, or 'commonplace book'. A rather dry meta-critical account of the collection would no doubt run through the essays pigeon-holing each into a dubious camp, ('contextualist', 'new Marxist', 'Historico-Structuralist' and so on), but such readings are frankly unflattering. This after all aims to be literary criticism.

In his own contribution to the collection, "Keats' s commonwealth", Roe cites De Quincey who offers a very different type of Keats from that presented by Woodhouse: "It was as mere an affectation when he talked with apparent zeal of liberty, or human rights, or human prospects, as is the hollow enthusiasm which many people profess for music, or most poets for external nature. For these things Keats fancied that he cared; but in reality he cared not at all." We might cheat with that final phrase a little, "But in reality he cared not at all": this, after all, is the stuff of which the Keats legend was made, and the critical emphasis on the escapist tendency behind the Romantic 'ideology' is to some extent the point that McGann has sought to redress. Somewhere between these opposing camps, the poet of reality and unreality, we can situate most criticism of Keats, and many of the essays collected here. One has the sense, at times, that although a contextualised poetry has its place, certain critics would be happiest returning the poems to a critical world in which the currency were still a compound epithet: the de-ideologised-imagination, perhaps? For the sake of the poetry, it is fortunate, that old habits die hard, and that no particular the party line holds the sway here. In fact, many of the essays are pleasantly self-reflexive about the idea of writing critical history. Greg Kucich and Nicola Trott both address the problem of history in terms which bear historicism in mind while thinking specifically about a 'literary history'. Any criticism of Romantic poetry on this basis must take some account of the imaginative importance of cultural inheritance, even though it may seem a little strong at times to follow Bloom and see Keats's anxiety over Milton as the key to all poetic history.

The traditional view of Keats was of an ahistorical, apolitical poet, one for whom the life of literature was lived with a curious intensity not found in the physical. Much has been done to dispel the myth, created in part at least by the Victorians, of the weak and vulnerable poet who hankered after a life of sensation. This collection begins with a wonderfully suggestive essay by Susan Wolfson, "Keats enters history: autopsy, Adonais , and the fame of Keats", which eases the reader into some of the terms to be taken up later. Her concern is with the Shelleyan myth of Keats presented in Adonais , a poem whose influence was so pervasive as to quite overcome the reality of the poet in the years after his death. Although she shows some concern with the problems of gender and the politics of poetry, 'history' here is a question of posthumous fame. This is a presentation which sees 'history' as the misreading, over generations, of a 'poetic soul'. In 'Writing Numbers: Keats, Hopkins, and the history of chance', on the other hand, John Kerrigan points out a marked difference between Keats and Hopkins in their mutual interest in numbers. His emphasis lies predominantly with Hopkins, for while Keats was intrigued by the chance arbitrary nature of life and rhyme, Hopkins's attraction to mathematics as scientific evidence of divine providence shows up as an antidote to later nineteenth-century theories of atomic chance and fateful statistics. For him, 'history' is not the contemporary age hidden behind Keats's blushing imaginary world, but cultural change in both theological and mental principles which characterises the nineteenth century. What one finds attractive about this essay is both a sense of unencumbered movement through a well-researched field, and a compassion or readerly empathy for the poet and the man under investigation. The essay moves effortlessly from biographical information to theory; from liberal use of secondary material back and forth to the poetry. The effect is wholly positive, and too sensible to suppose that there is territory one should be sceptical about entering.

The quality of Kerrigan's essay that we might come to admire seems to me to be the ability to make an informed cultural contribution to a wider literary field than is allowed by merely contextual criticism. McGann's call to arms is one which asks us to recreate the basis of 'history' so as to undercut the poet's intention: "Keats's poem is an attempt to 'escape' the period which provides the poem with its context'' (McGann 1979, p. 1023). The question of intentionality must come up again and again in the 'new historicist' context. Daniel Watkins, in his "History, self, and gender in Ode to Psyche ", aims to present Keats poem not as a prospectus to the final period of great creativity, but as further evidence (as if it were needed) of the social agenda hidden in the work. He picks up on Keats's use of "Faded hierarchy" in his description of Psyche as evidence of Keats's covert determination to present a state of fallen imagination, and a contrast between the excessive power of classical mythology and modern fallen consciousness. His point is essentially that a class-conscious and embarrassed Keats must imbue his writing with authority by borrowing from the classics, because of an anxious nostalgia for the past. His argument is slick and begs certain questions perhaps self-consciously: "Authorial intention is ultimately, however, contingent rather than constitutive, though this fact does not make it any less important or illuminating in historical terms. It is one condition of meaning within a larger set of historical conditions, and its precise significance for literary study is that it focuses and enlivens - even as it may threaten to mystify- the historical situation of poet and poetic text." Is this not rather similar to what New Criticism was arguing anyway? Watkins's essay is actually very well put together, but he seems to come to the problem with such a set of givens before even examining the poetry that one must wonder why he even bothers with such a hedge. Finally, the essay argues for a poetic identity that is rather inevitable, and suggests that this identity exists covertly within the very means employed to present it. An obsession with identity apparent to anyone from the poem is reflected for Watkins through the pattern of gender relations and the anxious classical reference set up by the poem's content. From here the next step is to the rather easy conclusion that these means contain infinite possibilities for identity-creation, and that these are replete with the anxious sense of bourgeois alienation which the poet feels in the first place. I am not wholly convinced, unfortunately. Furthermore, I am at a loss to explain the end of the essay, which sounds as anxious as the Keats that Watkins is so busy being rude about: "To insist, moreover, on moving Keats's poetry away from more traditional liberal humanist approaches is not to deny the beauty of the poetry, or to deny the grand contributions of liberal humanism. It is, rather, to reinvigorate the poetry, not as nostalgia, but as history - as a beautiful idealism capable of teaching valuable lessons about the past and, thereby, helping to inspire hope in the present for a transformed world, where beauty, compassion and love are at last realised." Even without such melodrama, I am reminded of the subtitle to Keats's sonnet On Fame , "You cannot eat your cake and have it too". How true.

The collection is structured so that we can often read the essays in pairs or as opposites, and Daniel Watkins essay is followed immediately by Kelvin Everest's "Isabella in the market-place: Keats and feminism" which aims to read a covert feminism in this much maligned narrative poem. It is, I think, doing Everest an injustice to place him fully alongside McGann, although his aim, like that of Terence Hoagwood, is to present a historical context for the poem which opens up a discussion of the context in which the financial world of the brothers which is a "cold, hard-headed pragmatic realism", contrasts with the idealism of the lovers. Hoagwood's "Keats, fictionality and finance: The Fall of Hyperion " also finds a 'figural substitution' in Keats' s poems for the historical replacement of a hierarchy of the inherited class system by a new capitalist system of acquired wealth, showing that they are 'poems situated in a symbolic economy' in which cash is symbolically taken as a token whose value is substantially absent.

While these essays follow 'new historicist' principles to some degree by pursuing a construction of self in neatly historical terms, some of the contributors, Michael O'Neill and Vincent Newey in particular, seem keen to dispel any sense of allegiance to the kind of historicism practised by Levinson and McGann. Michael O'Neill's "'When this warm scribe my hand': writing and history in Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion " begins with wonderful indignation: "Pity Keats, pilloried by snobbish reviewers in his own life, now patronised by politically correct critics who think that systems of social relations hold a poet's pen, inscribing sombre predictable secrets into texts". I was reminded on reading this of the start of Hazlitt's Letter to Gifford which Keats cites with such appreciation in his journal letter of 1819 to the George Keatses: "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." There are critical truths that any self-respecting literary critic should stand by. Perhaps foremost among these is that one should actually enjoy reading the work, and at best, perhaps like the poet. To read poetry only to show, as I felt Daniel Watkins to be doing at times in his essay on Ode to Psyche , that the poet has got it wrong imaginatively and politically, seems to be a profligate use of time. It is this sort of criticism that O'Neill is against. The aim of O'Neill's essay presents itself by attacking two theses of history: first that 'history' writes 'the poem', and second that we can construct a critical context for the poem out of several pseudo-Marxist interpretations of the most obvious events of the period ("Peterloo, Pentridge, the Holy Alliance, and the arrest of Major Cartwright"). A criticism of this approach may in turn attack an over simplification of new historicism. Nevertheless, it seems a more generous reading of the poetry to keep it always to the fore. We do not go to Keats to uncover 'history', but we may in order to uncover the difficulties of thinking about history in general. Criticism as criticism needs to forget its own meta-critique, or it can become simply repetitive. Michael O'Neill's essay, in a very different way to John Kerrigan's, seems to me to get the emphasis in the right place. There is not much theory here, but then who turns to Keats for theory. So often in reading the poetry one feels like saying to oneself that the poems stand or fall on the basis of our ability to have leaps of faith. If we really cannot believe that the poet senses an enlivened imagination in Ode to Psyche then there is little point reading the poem. But we all have this sense at times, and it is courtesy to allow Keats his. To argue the humanism out of Keats's poetry really is to leave it bare, and we need not follow Watkins to make that claim. I believe great poetry may still be written, just as I accept that great Romantic poetry was written, by Stevens for example, after 1830. To say that Keats's poetry is about itself most importantly is no capitalist indulgence, it is merely a given if we are to continue to think about it seriously. One line of O'Neill's thinking states that it is wrong to think about what constitutes the process of moving beyond the self, instead we should think about what that state of thought or imagination actually consists in. The two are not the same; the problem with Watkins's essay is that it moves away at the point of interest. The basis of O'Neill's success, and a measure of his irritation, lies in this; he writes: "The Fall of Hyperion is worried by the role of poetry in the modern world, but it does not subscribe to a Marxist view of the relations between modes of production and cultural activity."

Both Vincent Newey and Michael O'Neill opt for a return of Keats to a traditional position as poet first and man second. In both, and rather overtly in Newey's essay, Levinson, McGann and Watkins emerge as the kind of critics who say what is not true of someone they seem not to like too much. He writes: "Keats's relation to 'the poets' is as much a factor in his thought and writing as are the fall of Napoleon or civil unrest in England, Waterloo or Peterloo, the public events which recent scholarship has rediscovered as not only the backdrop to his work but vital constituents of its meaning." Newey is extremely short with 'new historicism' in his attempt to rewrite a poetical or biographical history of the poet based on the premises of traditional historical scholarship. His point, ultimately is a liberal one - that there is never one way of reading a text. This is, I think what most of us believe, and is what comes out of the best criticism. On the way he is prepared to rubbish McGann but not without a telling glance over his shoulder at times.

As a whole this collection stands or falls not as an investigation of critical principles but as a set of readings of Keats. I have emphasised some of the more antithetical readings: those that hold to, or stand against the most significant moments in recent criticism. Perhaps the most telling fact about the whole is that those essays I have not mentioned were in fact the ones I enjoyed most. Theresa Kelly's essay on Keats and ekphrasis is a delightful piece which looks at one of the most exciting areas of Keats scholarship. Meanwhile, there is real diversity here: John Barnard's piece on the Cowden Clarke's common place book defies comment, while Martin Aske's essay on critical jealousy provides a welcome rejoinder to any reviewer. There are always problems of self-consciousness in any criticism which becomes too confident of itself; it is pleasant to be reminded of our failings as critics whenever we encounter that which is great. And criticism must be a series consummate attempts to reckon with this.