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Dream Lovers and Tragic Romance: Negative Fictions in Keats's Lamia, The Eve of St. Agnes, and Isabella[Record]

  • Mark Sandy

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  • Mark Sandy
    Durham University

Romantic revisionist practices testified to the movement's revival of the romance world, populated with brave chivalric heroes, youthful paramours, cruel tyrants, wizards and fairies, living out their existences amongst elfin grottoes, the leafy vales of Arcady, and blissful Spenserian bowers. Romanticism's return to the romance genre recognised it as a literary mode already accustomed to political, social and aesthetic controversy since its adoption by John Bunyan, John Milton and Edward Spenser. Although the Romantic movement reworked the aesthetic, social, and political allegories of romance, in response to both the outcome of the French Revolution and domestic political affairs, the essential quest motif and the dual conception of reality were retained by Romanticism. Romantic poets unearthed in, and affirmed through the romance mode, their own belief in the pivotal dualities of innocence and experience, life and death, surface and depth, and the ideal and the real. Keats's romances often portray these complex relations as an auto-erotic journey that points towards the inherent dangers of confusing fiction and fact. Keats translates the absence at the heart of these visionary quests into a negative poetic fiction in which nature is no longer construed as a mediator of the transcendental and eternal, but as a constant reminder of human mutability and the inevitability of death; what Coleridge's 'Dejection: An Ode' terms '[r]eality's dark dream'. After his rejection of Wordsworthian consolation, Keats discovers in romance a literary terrain rich with potential that permits a reorientation to an aesthetic which embraces tragedy through a series of negating images. From the outset of Endymion, Keats is alert to the possibility that the 'bower' of romance can all too readily surrender its idyll back to the 'o'er-darkened ways' (I, 4; 10-11) of the world of human existence. His early romance depicts a conflict between fictions of the ideal and the harsh circumstances of the ordinary and real, between the heightened sense of self-knowledge attained through visionary modes of consciousness and the self-deception of the illusory. Keats ensures his narrative's close witnesses the revealed Cynthia united with Endymion, her lover, and his sister, Peona. Having achieved communion with the transcendental, Endymion abandons the web of human relations and the 'gloomy wood' to which Peona returns (IV, 1003). Though Keats's poetic sleight of hand asserts a metaphysical fiction, his poetry points to Peona's very real desertion. The youthful Endymion's 'spiritualiz'd' apotheosis is not a transcendental escape from the mutability of his 'mortal state' (IV, 991-3), as the world he abandons is left much darker for his absence. Ultimately, Endymion's encounter with Cynthia discloses her fictive nature as an idealised woman and is a reminder that even idealising fictions conceal as much as they reveal. The reader, like Peona is torn between a fiction of transcendence and a negative awareness of reality's darkness. More fully implicated in the imaginative workings of his later romances, Endymion's uncertain ending anticipates Keats's mature poetic preoccupation with a process of disclosure and deceit. Keats's negative poetic fictions question the consolatory aspect of Wordsworthian poetics through their sensitivity to interplay between the idealised dream mode and the tragedy of waking reality. Keats's 'La Belle Dame Sans Merci' adopts this technique of negative fiction to present the complex relation between dreaming and waking, transcendental sublimity and the transient world of ordinary experience. Enchanted by a 'fairy's child' whose 'eyes were wild', Keats's 'knight at arms' (14; 16; 1) is apparently united with the otherworldly and yet his union is not the joyous one claimed for Endymion. Once enthralled by the wiles of a 'fairy's child', Keats's knight hovers between an indistinct mode of existence - …