Despite a plethora of critical works published in the past decade that aim to demystify literary production in the Romantic period, it is doubtful whether scholars now have a clearer picture of the way in which disparate cultural forces came together in the creation of particular poems. Asked about the nature of the romantic epic, why the fragment assumed the status of a genre, or what role the periodical press had in establishing an audience for poetry, most romanticists could give a convincing answer; but I am not sure whether we understand much better than scholars of a previous generation just how this bundle of cultural trends fused with the individual agency of a poet like Keats (however this agency might be interpreted) to produce an 'Eve of St. Agnes' or 'Ode to a Nightingale.' One way to trace a poet's self-imaging and sense of poetic craft is by watching that poet respond to another influential poet's work. By publishing a full transcript of Keats's markings and annotations to Paradise Lost, Beth Lau and the University Press of Florida have made a seriously productive contribution to Romantics studies. Lau's book will help scholars analyze at least one aspect of poetic creation, the part that involves the creative reading (or Bloomian misreading) of a titanic predecessor.
In August 1819, Keats wrote to Bailey 'Shakspeare and the paradise Lost every day become greater wonders to me'; and to Reynolds, 'the Paradise Lost becomes a greater wonder' (quoted p. 32). Lau's transcript presents the line-by-line evidence proving that such expressions of admiration were not merely pro forma obeisance from the young poet. In an 'Introduction' and three concise chapters (one surveying marginalia as a practice, one on dating these marginalia, and one on their 'Themes and Patterns'), Lau surveys the opportunities for further study that are opened up by this resource. (The 'Introduction' offers good reasons for preferring a transcript over the other possibilities—photographic reproduction or typefacsimile.)
In one obvious sense, these marginalia may 'reflect the burden of the past' and 'the anxiety of influence' (p. 18); but Lau rightly chooses to emphasize instead how they reveal the enabling and formative effect of Keats's reading of Milton. Studying them, Lau claims, 'can aid our understanding of the process by which Keats absorbed and assimilated the work of other writers for his own artistic purposes—in other words, it can aid our understanding of Keats's poetic process' (p. 4). This astutely recognizes how much Keatsian creativity ('poetic process') there was in the very act of reading—for despite his expressions of homage Keats was no merely passive reader—but it also raises a host of questions about 'assimilation,' and how to distinguish the various things one poet takes from another. Absorption is presumably different from simple borrowing, which in turn differs from both imitation and appropriation; and all of these could be distinguished from the extended learning process indicated by Keats's prolonged 'study' of Milton. Lau stops a long way short of offering a fully-theorized account of what Keats did finally owe to Milton. These chapters offer speculative suggestions for future investigation rather than comprehensive conclusions. This is understandable, however, since formulating a theory of poetic indebtedness, assessing all the relevant evidence (which would include Keats's entire poetic output as well as the letters and other records), and working out a detailed argument, would necessitate a much longer book.
In spite of its open-endedness, the chapter on 'themes and patterns' is a valuable one. Discussing Keats's approval of effects of 'indefiniteness' in Paradise Lost, Lau quotes his observation that 'to let the mind be a thoroughfare for all thoughts' strengthens the intellect, adding that Coleridge also believed such 'mental hovering between positions' could produce sublime effects (p. 53). Lau does quite a lot of 'mental hovering' herself, which to some readers could be a sensible avoidance of premature judgement, to others disappointing or frustrating. There is much use of 'may be said to' and similarly circumspect wording. But it is appropriate to be tentative when no firm conclusion can be drawn from the evidence. For example, Keats underscored many passages that refer to solitary female figures, especially Eve (p. 56). Clearly these images held some sort of interest for him; but was it the appeal of feminine chastity (something that would apply to Eve, but not to the female figure of Sin), sympathy for their loneliness, or possibly a misogynistic fear of the independent, self-sufficient woman?
At other points, however, it seems that Lau has inappropriately foreclosed an issue. One such case occurs just after this quotation from Hazlitt: 'Milton has borrowed more than any other writer; yet he is perfectly distinct from every other writer' (p. 28). Lau observes, 'Keats too comments on Milton's originality' (p. 29, emphasis added); but this surely glosses over the point Hazlitt is making: namely, that a writer can take in a vast amount from others, yet the work still seem 'original,' because the borrowed material has been re-shaped in the service of a distinctive vision. In fact the margin note Lau cites here begins with the reflection that 'One of the most mysterious of semi-speculations is, one would suppose, that of one Mind's imagining into another' (p. 74). If this is a repetition of the idea of Negative Capability, as several scholars have suggested, it is also a remarkable recognition of the apparent merging of minds, or hermeneutic sharing of horizons, that is one of the least understood effects of attentive reading. Another rather questionable claim Lau makes is that Keats's tendency to concentrate on sensory effects and ignore the speeches might explain why many of his own poems are lacking in overall organization, and why his fallen Titans are so lifeless (p. 43). This comes close to saying that Keats's unfortunate distaste for the speeches in Paradise Lost explains the unMiltonic quality of his own narrative poems, while surely there are much broader and more compelling cultural reasons why all narrative poetry in the Romantic period followed very different narrative conventions.
All quibbles aside, this book ought to be on the shelves of everyone wishing to carry out new work on Keats. The temptation of making one's own margin notes on Keats's marginalia is so great that, for once, rather than relying on the library copy, scholars should really buy their own, plus some extras for graduate students. Whether one's concern is with Keats's developing aesthetic, with poetic influence as traditionally understood, or with the cultural matrix of his literary production—a matrix that included the constant and enthusiastic interchange of letters, drafts of poems, and annotated books among members of Keats's circle—this volume will stimulate a provocative reassessment of Keats's work.