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

  • Matthew Scott

…more information

  • Matthew Scott
    Magdalen College, Oxford

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 ...