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Michael O'Neill, ed. Keats: Bicentenary Readings. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1997. ISBN: 0-748-608990. Price: £38.

  • Mark Leden

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  • Mark Leden
    Emory University

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Editor Michael O'Neill suggests at least three rationales for his collection Keats: Bicentenary Readings. First, the eight essays that accompany O'Neill's introduction are offered as a representative sample of the vigorous, wide-ranging critical debates generated during Keats's bicentenary in 1995. Second, the retrospective collection hopes to enable a qualified answer to the difficult question "in what direction is criticism of Keats going?" (2). Third, the essays belong together, O'Neill writes, because despite their heterogeneous approaches and concerns, "the desire to look at, investigate and analyze the different things which Keats's poetry can do and make his readers feel is at the heart" of each (8).

As a record of the bicentenary, the collection is a qualified success. All of the essays were originally presented live, six as part of the University of Durham's "Keats Bicentenary Lectures" series. Most retain an engaging immediacy of voice that can be attributed to their original format. Regrettably, none of the essays take a gender-oriented approach, and that omission does a disservice to much fine work. The book does, however, admirably re-enact the debate surrounding one of the most contentious questions to be asked during the bicentenary and since: what had Johnny Keats to do with politics?

The question itself has deep roots, stretching back not just to Jerome McGann's important essay "Keats and the Historical Method in Literary Criticism" (Modern Language Notes, 1979) or even to Stopford Brooke's turn of the century declaration that Keats has "no interest in anything but beauty" (Studies in Poetry, 1907, 204). As Susan Wolfson has shown, speculation about Keats's engagement with politics and the other historical particulars of his day runs to the heart of his literary identity as formed by the vitriolic "Cockney School" essays of 1817 and by the aestheticising defensive maneuvers carried out on Keats's behalf by Shelley, Byron, and others sympathetic to the deceased poet. Wherever Keats criticism is going, politics, or, as some would have it, the marked absence of politics, is central to where it has been. Appropriately, these essays split between aesthetic treatments that find politics and history largely intrusive or irrelevant to Keats's art and historicizing readings that attempt to retrieve the material and ideological contexts within and against which the artist worked. O'Neill's desire to stabilize the book by gathering its parts under some overarching umbrella is understandable, but his humanist and formalist commitment to explicating what the poetry can do and how it affects its readers is only central to most, not all, of the essays. If a unifying theme is required, a more accurate one might be this: each of these essays challenges either Jerome McGann's contention that Keats's poetry serves as a form of escape or Marjorie Levinson's contention that Keats's inferior education engendered masturbatory stylistic badness that marks his bourgeois desire for cultural inclusion.

J.R. Watson, Gareth Reeves, and O'Neill offer essays that are indeed readings of Keats himself. Building on seminal books by Walter Jackson Bate (1963), Christopher Ricks (1974), Helen Vendler (1983) and John Barnard (1987) among others, these contributors figure Keats as an acutely sensitive hero whose life and work exemplify humanist ideals. Watson uses Nina Coltart's psychoanalytic engagements with "silent patients" to frame Keats's personal and poetic exploration of linguistic thresholds.

Reeves eschews "the essentially English debate about [Keats's] social standing," preferring instead to train his attention on the "inward Keats" whose poetic self-consciousness becomes an important model for the habitually self-reflexive American poet Wallace Stevens. O'Neill finds in Keats's nagging ambivalence toward art, an ambivalence haunted by the prospect that poetry itself might prove empty and delusional, the fountainhead of his remarkable and remarkably self-conscious poetic voice. All three of these essays explicate the poetry with enough sensitivity and precision to keep even the more familiar passages fresh. They are not, however, equally successful as responses to the historicizing and political readings against which they are reacting.

Only Watson fails to acknowledge directly the specter of historicizing criticism that haunts these three essays. His Keats is a poet-hero whose descent from youthful effusiveness into and through meditative silence constitutes a romance of human self-consciousness. Remarkably, Watson manages to reprise this familiar developmental narrative without so much as a sidelong glance at McGann. Nowhere is the depth of Watson's commitment to a stalwartly apolitical Keats more obvious than in his gloss on the famous conclusion to "On First Looking into Chapman's Homer." "The only response of Cortés and his soldiers that is in any way adequate is to remain silent in amazement. The sight of the new ocean is the reward for their bravery… it is a reward of delight and amazement, best expressed in the recognition that words are inadequate" (78). Watson's enthusiasm for the "brave" conquistador (his word, not Keats's) who seeks and is rewarded by "delight and amazement" roundly ignores what contributor David Pirie has elsewhere described as the "complex political ambiguities" many readers find implicit in the trope. In the end, Watson's celebration of the poet-hero, a celebration that conflates the author with a sympathetically Promethean Cortés, fails to satisfy. By evading the possibility of politics in the poem, Watson appears to have repeated rather than refuted the ideological complicity to which McGann accused earlier critics of submitting.

In "The Inward Keats: Bloom, Vendler, Stevens," Reeves is less coy about his desire to relieve some of the "pressure" New Historicist readings have placed on critical approaches that focus on consciousness and self-consciousness rather than historical context and circumstance (98). Appropriating Bloom's unabashed pleasure in language, Reeves is at his best explicating the poetry with passion and precision. "The poetry takes its chances," Reeves writes, "alters course; it is true to its own emotional curve, its fluctuating moods" (93). The same might be said of Reeve's own essay. It takes it chances, always remaining true to its own emotional curve. The result is a compelling vindication not so much of the critical posture Reeves identifies as the American interest in an inward looking Keats, but rather of the practice of rigorous close reading. The inward Keats, Reeves concludes, does not evade reality. Rather he uses his imagination to press back on it, to strike a "mental equilibrium" that is no way escapism (99). Reeves himself successfully presses back on New Historicism and strikes a clear-headed balance between the inward and outward Keats and between critique and admiration.

O'Neill, like Watson and Reeves, figures Keats's life as a romance, writing that Keats offers "an object lesson in poetic development" visible in "heroic improvement over the course of Keats's truncated career" (103). O'Neill's title, "Keats's Poetry:'The Reading of an Ever-Changing Tale'" demonstrates the extent to which he is willing to accept without challenge Keats's assertion that any life, including his own, is essentially an artistic text. That said, O'Neill's task is not to avoid or minimize discomforting complexity. He seeks instead to show that complexity itself is the necessary condition that can validate Keats's inclusion of "poetic achievement" among "things real" (105). O'Neill moves adroitly from the letters through the poetry to show how Keats's willingness to explore and give voice to his anxiety about the value of poetry and indeed of self-consciousness itself enlivens and upholds his poetry. What becomes clear is that, like Watson and Reeves, O'Neill is less interested in critical posturing than in the poetry itself. His strong readings attend closely to the linguistic and metrical tactics of familiar and less well-known poems alike, as when he makes explicit the impact of lumbering alexandrines in Keats's meditation on Burns, "Lines Written in the Highlands." His readings of "Ode on a Grecian Urn" and "Lamia" do a particularly good job of delineating a paradox central to Keats's artistic achievement and enduring appeal. Both poems exemplify Keats's willingness to "drive a sword through the heart" of his cherished conviction that "what the imagination seizes as beauty must be truth" (111). But it is precisely the willingness of the poet to look "too deeply" (103) into his own hopes and convictions, to annihilate them with a gaze as merciless as that of the demonic philosopher Appolonius, that facilitates his undeniable achievement in these poems.

Timothy Webb and Martin Aske strive to broaden our understanding of Keats's aesthetic achievement by refusing to make the poetry their primary focus. Webb opens his essay "'Cutting Figures': Rhetorical Strategies in Keats's Letters" by asking if we know them so well we have forgotten how to read them. His answer is that our interest in using the letters as keys to Keats's biography or poems has hindered our ability to read them as important texts in their own right. Webb advocates a radical reassessment. His reading of Keats is part of a larger project, that of establishing "a poetics of the letter" (146). Webb offers Keats's epistolary self-consciousness as proof that the letters are literary texts in their own right. To be sure, verbal cameos like the miniature self portrait Keats offers George and Georgiana in a serial letter strongly suggest an artistic intelligence at work. As in his poems, Keats is playfully drawing pictures of himself, reflectively performing the life of the artist Webb's eagerness to find dramatic, comic, and imaginative play in the letters does, however, occasionally lead him to dubious conclusions. When, for instance, he makes much of the verbal inventiveness made possible by the "creative possibilities of misspelling," one wonders how much the self-consciousness Webb astutely observes elsewhere is still operating as a controlling literary intelligence. Nevertheless, Webb's contention that the letters offer a pleasure akin to the pleasure that accompanies reading narrative fiction persuades.

In "Still Life With Keats," Martin Aske scrutinizes the poet's comments on the visual arts to glean instruction on reading his poetry. Where Levinson finds Keats's dependence on prints and engravings proof of an embarrassingly inadequate art education, Aske counters that "in more ways than one is there 'room for Imagination' in these less than perfectly accomplished works" (130). Imperfection, Aske shows us, leaves room for the beholder, who is required to fill in the gaps. Aske is not, however, merely trying to make the case that Keats was a more sophisticated art critic than Levinson would have us believe. Aske's real business is validating imaginative transcendence by figuring it as artistic generosity rather than as escapism. He shows convincingly that Keats preferred Carlo Lasinio's engravings of the Campo Santo frescoes in Pisa to Benjamin West's much-hyped Death on a Pale Horse (which he saw in the original) because the less perfectly rendered engravings "open up a fine hole, a window through which the poet can glimpse a new and strange world… particularly hospitable to the poet's imagination, giving it 'room' to roam" (131). The great strength of Keats's poetry, according to Aske, is precisely its ability to create an imaginative world that can be entered by the reader in the way Keats tells us the engravings can be entered by the viewer. Aske concludes by suggesting that Severn's well-known portrait of Keats reading perfectly captures not Keatsian detachment but rather Keatsian generosity. "It is not a picture of a poet who has cut himself off, "he writes, "it is a picture of somebody reading who, for all his apparent self-absorption, wants to take us with him" (142).

Contributors Fiona Robertson, David Pirie, and Nicholas Roe all take up contextualizing and, to a greater or lesser extent, historicising readings of Keats. In "Keats's New World: An Emigrant Poetry" Robertson examines the poet's writings about America and concludes that "the Keats who describes a disagreeably down-market United States is not immediately recognizable as the radical of recent critical invention (27). Pirie revisits John Brand's Popular Antiquities to suggest that Bertha, the somber heroine of The Eve of St Mark, may have cheated herself by focusing only on those superstitions that identify the holy day as a time to see the ghost of those destined to die and ignoring far jollier traditions related to St Mark's Eve that "celebrate youth as the time to find and enjoy a lover" (60). Pirie contends that an awareness for these buried traditions allows a reading of the poem that links it to Keats's better known Odes by making it a perplexing of celebration and mourning. Roe's essay, which contrasts most strikingly with the collection's aesthetic and formalist readings, demands special attention.

Like the other authors, Roe is an able praticioner of close reading and his critical purpose is generally to affirm rather then debunk the complexity and depth of Keats's artistic achievement. Roe, however, is also firmly committed to exploring the historicity of the poems. His Keats is no political bantling. Here, as in his earlier essay "Keats's Commonwealth" (Keats & History) and his recent book John Keats and the Culture of Dissent, Roe makes the case that Keats was a canny, intensely self-conscious political thinker whose radical sympathies complicate his best poetry. Roe revisits Charles Cowden Clarke's Enfield School to challenge the notion that Keats was poorly educated and to argue that the poet's exposure to religious and political dissent preceded his famous involvement with the Hunts and their radical circle. But only the last half of his essay is devoted to "the political culture of the school; the teaching the school offered; and the formative influence of those experiences on Keats's imaginative life as this was revealed in some of his poems" (18). The first eight pages retrace the now familiar trajectory of Keats's literary identity as first mapped out by Susan Wolfson. No argument in Roe's essay is more important than his assertion that Stopford Brooke and Marjorie Levinson are both heirs to the attacks on Keats famously published in Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine over the initial Z. Not for the first time, Roe recounts Brooke's remarkably categorical assertion that Keats had "no interest in anything but beauty" (13). Brooke gives us Keats the fragile aesthete, reproducing a literary identity Susan Wolfson has traced to skeptics like Lockhart, who degraded Keats as ignorant, and defenders like Shelley and Byron who defended Keats's reputation with a narrative of aesthetic absorption. Levinson, according to Roe, reproduces a variation of this same stereotyping narrative by figuring Keats as marginal, poorly educated, and keenly aware of deprivation. If there is a weakness in Roe's essay, it is that his rehearsal of the theoretical legacy he is working against leaves him little opportunity to flesh out the intriguing connections he suggests between Clarke's Enfield and Keats's mature work. Clearly, more work in this promising line is required, and, one can hope, will be forthcoming.

In the end, these essays tell us that two centuries after his birth we can still expect the pleasure of a new Keats swimming into our ken. On the one hand, historicist readings give us more reason than ever to believe that we can recover a worldly Keats whose real involvements in his time find voice in his work and give them depths of significance we have not fully realized. On the other hand, strong aesthetic readings made timely by New Historicist revisions prove that the poems and letters still afford more "room for Imagination."