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Andrew Bennett, Keats, Narrative and Audience: The Posthumous Life of Writing. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994. ISBN: 0 521 44565 5 (hardback) Price: £30 ($49.95)

  • Kris Steyaert

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  • Kris Steyaert
    University College London

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'Disturbing', 'uncertain', 'scandalous', 'suffocating', 'conflicting', 'unsettling', these are just a few phrases by which Bennett, in the opening paragraph of his book Keats, Narrative and Audience, characterises Keats's poetry. Firmly grounded in the writings of John Bayley, Christopher Ricks and Marjorie Levinson, which, in recent years, have all concentrated on the 'disruptive forces' of Keats's work, Bennett argues that 'Keats's poetry engages, above all, with the figure of solecism' (p. 2). If early scholars expressed their annoyance and embarrassment with the 'smokeable', 'overlanguaged' Keats by a telltale silence, the last two decades have witnessed a quantitatively important increase of critics revelling in exactly this aspect of Keatsian phraseology. The reductionist question which often underlies these studies is: what is it that makes great poetry? To put it simply: Is poetry writing the perfect words in the perfect place; or is it exploiting language in a more subversive way by means of a highly personal, unpredictable diction? The latter notion, of course, is more 'Romantic' and seems particularly applicable to Keats. Commenting on the 'Hyperion poems', Bennett can be caught sympathising with the poet's 'Cockney' idiosyncrasies: 'the "faultures" [a Keatsian solecism] by which the narrative is organized, the liminal stratifications of narrative embedding, provide rich picking for the eyes of avaricious readers' (p. 156). As can be inferred from the above quotation, Keats's solecisms, according to Bennett, go beyond the lexical level and clearly manifest themselves within the structural organisation of his poems.

The aim of Bennett's book, then, is not so much to record the factual reaction of Keats's reading public towards these distortions (i.e. expressions of his unique, individual voice?), as to find out what kind of reception he anticipated himself—maybe unconsciously so—by inscribing certain narratorial strategies in his poetry. As a matter of fact, early frustrations and disappointments led Keats to believe that he was only writing for a posthumous audience; again, Bennett claims, a fundamentally Romantic conception. It has been argued before that the Romantics showed considerable anxieties about their audience because its growing opacity, the result of socio-economic and technological developments, was causing a rift between the writer and the reader. The very instability of the audience generated a similar instability in poetic discourse, with poets desperately seeking 'redemption in an ideological defence of solipsism, private vocabularies and mythologies' on the one hand, and expressing 'an intense desire to be read and to be understood, a belief in the revolutionary redemptive powers of literature itself' on the other (p. 30). Since the presence of an audience is a prerequisite for the existence of narrative, the Romantics, bewildered by the daunting indistinctness of their contemporary reading public, deferred their productions towards future generations of readers. A statement in one of Keats's letters, that 'one of the great reasons the english have produced the finest writers in the world; is, that the English world has ill-treated them during their lives and foster'd them after their deaths' seems to corroborate Bennett's belief that Keats envisaged posterity as the real addressee of his poetry. Appreciating that the topic of Romantic posterity certainly begs for a more elaborate treatment than is provided in the present book, Bennett intends to publish a study entirely devoted to the subject within the near future. Possible questions to which I would like to find a more conclusive answer are: what warrants the claim that it is exactly during the Romantic period that 'posterity [becomes] the necessary ground of artistic production' (p. 9) (is not this the trope of (Western) Art itself, independent of any literary movement?); and how did the Romantics come to prefer the gnawing insecurity of a future reception to the equally distressing intangibility of their contemporary public?

After a discussion of Keats's letters, each chapter in Keats, Narrative and Audience is devoted to an analysis of (a) work(s) linked to a specific development in Keats's writing career, and coinciding with the use of a particular narrative technique. The least successful chapter, perhaps, is the one on the Spring odes, if only because it is too short. There is certainly much more to say about the 'Ode on Melancholy', for instance, given the potentialities of Bennett's thesis, than that it 'addresses its reader', 'rather than addressing a mythological or aesthetic object' (p. 133). Yet, this rather perfunctory chapter is more than sufficiently counterbalanced by the lucid analysis of the Hyperion poems and their complex, interdependent relationship. Especially the various references to the 'dilated surrogate narration of Endymion' (p. 147) as opposed to, what Gerald Prince has dubbed, the 'disnarration' of Hyperion, prove very fruitful in understanding Keats's poetic strategies which, paradoxically, stunted the ultimate abandonment of the epic. Bennett interprets the abundant references to stasis and silence, to sheer inability and paralysis as an acknowledgement on Keats's part of the harsh, but not entirely unfounded criticism with regard to Endymion. Yet, the sustained negation in Hyperion of the verbosity and structural perambulations of that earlier work predicated an irredeemably constrained and halted narrative. By introducing a narrator in The Fall of Hyperion, the story eventually gets lost in the complex, embedded layerings within the framing structure ('Induction > garden > dream > vision > "Hyperion"' (p. 155)). Thus, the move from Hyperion to The Fall, essentially, is one from monolithic immobility to the quicksands of narratorial disjunction.

Another highlight in the book, is the ingenuity with which Bennett succeeds in disentangling the different narrational strands in the Eve of St Agnes. Laying bare the chiasmal structure of the narrative, and thus revealing the subsequent creative frictions, Bennett shows himself a skilful and attentive close reader. The true significance of the much-quoted stanzas comprising the description of the casement in Madeline's bedroom is argued with virtuosity, and leads to the conclusion that one 'effect of the gorgeous descriptivity of the poem is the tainting of Madeline's purity, the successful consummation of Porphyro's purple plan to emblazon himself on Madeline' (p. 110). Superb.

The chapter on 'La Belle Dame sans Merci' greatly benefits from Bennett's focus on narration, or rather, the undecidability of narration which results from an excess of lexical connotation. The 'high degree of ellipsis which inhabits the narrative of this poem' (p. 125) enables him to look at each stanza as a self-contained unit, thus avoiding the danger of explaining the poem to pieces. After all, since the reader finds himself inscribed in the ballad as enthralled, it is pointless to look for a liberatingly straightforward 'story'. The narrative cannot be told, in the same way that the secrets in Isabella must remain unspoken. Secrecy and inwardness are very much the two pervading themes in Keats's version of Boccaccio's tale. The 'impossibility of speaking, the interruption of communication and the difficulties of ex-pression' (p. 86) are figured in a highly encrypted narrative where exposure means scandal, or, indeed, solecism.

The final chapter (Lamia being dealt with in an epilogue) is devoted to the 'perfection of language' in 'To Autumn' as 'fractured by the economics of writing' (p. 161). It is here that I find Bennett's argument most problematic. Heavily inspired by J. McGann's earlier treatment of the poem, Bennett almost exclusively focuses his interpretation on non-presence, on what is blatantly absent in the ode; so much so that he is on the verge of losing sight of the original text itself. By knocking down all textual demarcations, Bennett's claim that 'in order to read the politics of 'To Autumn' we must transgress the boundaries of authorial property, we must refuse to be figured within, or by, the bounds of the text' (p. 171) comes dangerously close to this kind of solecistic reading. Keats's final ode has more than once seduced critics into the pitfall of, literally, hineininterpretieren by bringing extraneous elements within (hinein) the text. It is all the more puzzling that Bennett, who is strongly aware of the fact that 'the boundaries of the literary exclude the illicit incursions of transgressive (non-literary) language into the space of poetry' (p. 162), should nonetheless invade that space with force to impose his foreign laws of interpretation. The displacement of the goddess Ceres from the original context of Lamia, with all the possible socio-economic implications which she personifies, to the context of the ode is awkward and, in my opinion, rather unnecessary. Even so, when his sudden New Historicist burst has abated somewhat, Bennett has sensible things to say, and he can at least be credited for having identified a surprisingly new, unexpected literary echo in the second stanza of the ode.

Many chapters of Keats, Narrative and Audience were published earlier as separate articles in various journals and this has its consequences for the overall coherence of the book. The impression of reading a collection of essays, rather than a streamlined monograph was one I experienced quite often. Bennett's expose then, is arguably as fractured and disjointed as Keats's narratives. Yet, I believe, as is the case with Keats's poems, that it reads the richer for it.