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Wherewith They Weave a Paradise: Keats and the Luscious Poem

  • Betsy Winakur Tontiplaphol

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  • Betsy Winakur Tontiplaphol
    Trinity University

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Since Keats composed his first poem – “An Imitation of Spenser” – in 1814, his brief career corresponds nicely with the onset of the English Biedermeier years, the period between 1815 and 1848 that Virgil Nemoianu associates with “peaceful domestic values, idyllic intimacy . . . coziness, contentedness . . . [and] conservatism” (4). Collective anxiety, Nemoianu argues, underlay the Biedermeier impulse, for despite the fact that those late Romantic years were without “major wars,” Europe was “riddled with outbursts of agitation and rebellion” (6). Nemoianu understands Keats’s classicism as a “[reaching] back for eighteenth-century reassurance,” and he goes so far as to contend that Keats was quintessentially Biedermeier, “perhaps the perfect case of a ‘transitional’ poet within romanticism, whose discourse encompassed the truths of both” the waning eighteenth and budding nineteenth centuries (48).

And “An Imitation of Spenser,” though a nineteenth-century poem, is indeed eighteenth-century in flavor. As W. Jackson Bate points out, the extremely labored poem, “inlaid” with fragments of Milton and bits of highly conventional lyric description, actually more closely resembles eighteenth-century imitations of Spenser than the work of Spenser himself (36). However, perhaps even more significantly Biedermeier than the poem’s reactionary style is its sentiment. Keats’s “Imitation” describes a place not only idyllic but carefully bounded, thereby suggestive of the Biedermeier taste for pleasantly intimate spaces. The poem describes an island, which Andrew Motion glosses as “a miniature England”: “Its seclusion is an emblem of peacefulness in general, and the result of a particular Peace – the Peace between England and France, which was signed in Paris at the time it was written” (63). Despite its apparently simple allegorical status, the isle, as well as the limited action that occurs within its space, merits further consideration. Since the isle “in that fairest lake had placèd been” (Keats, Poems line 20), Keats’s island is actually doubly bounded, located inside an unambiguously circumscribed body of water. Perhaps Bate’s description of the poem as “inlaid” can take on new meaning, for Keats is extraordinarily specific; although the lake is fed by smaller streams, it exists as a “middle space” ringed by “woven bowers” (Poems lines 9, 8). Even divorced from the enclosing function that they serve here, bowers signify physical and emotional intimacy throughout Keats’s oeuvre, and since the “Imitation” opens with descriptions of Morning’s “orient chamber” (Poems line 1) and the woodland’s “mossy beds” (Poems line 5), it seems safe to say that Keats’s career-opening stanza – a word, significantly, that originates from the Italian for room – portrays a semi-concentric series of cozily intimate spaces.

But what of the furnishings in those rooms? Biedermeier literature portrayed comfortable middle-class domesticity; Nemoianu describes the Biedermeier culture as one in which “time seemed to be replaced by space as a dominant category: local landscapes, familiar objects, home and hearth, animals and plants, woods and gardens were fervently sought” (14). The “Imitation” isle seems preternaturally fertile, but even though its fecund spaces are closed and spatially intimate, it would be patently incorrect to call them familiar or homey. Keats not only populates the isle with swans and fays but also furnishes it with materials that suggest the sensual luxury of gems, precious metals, exotic woods, and expensive textiles. The isle, home to “jetty”-eyed, ebony-footed swans, is itself “an emerald in the silver sheen / Of the bright waters” (Poems lines 16-17, 25-26). Keats’s description, however, is not simply sensual, and it seems important to note its often deliriously inconsistent character. The sun’s “amber” rays produce an incongruous “[s]ilv’ring” effect upon the rills (Poems lines 3-4); meanwhile, although the fish appear to have “silken” fins of “brilliant dye,” their “golden” scales cast a surprising “ruby glow” (Poems lines 11-13). These mismatched combinations of conventional lyric descriptions seem calculated to cultivate an environment rich but strangely alternative instead of a proper domestic haven. In sum, the “Imitation of Spenser” is sensory with a vengeance, and to gloss the poem as merely an early example of Keatsian escapism is to overlook key features of its construction.

It is not that the poem does not glorify escape. After all, the point of the isle – or, at least, the point behind the poetic telling of its “wonders” – is to “beguile” Dido of her grief, “[o]r rob from aged Lear his bitter teen” (Poems lines 19, 21-22). The “Imitation” pits a world of pain against one of beauty, a move not only characteristic of Keats but consistent with the Biedermeier impulse toward the soothing and nostalgic. The problem, though, is that the escape offered within the poem is not wholly soothing, at least in the traditional sense. As a result of the Biedermeier-esque spatial constraints in the “Imitation,” Keats’s luxuries seem unnaturally and almost uncomfortably condensed, thus generating the queerly conglomerate descriptions noted above. Lines that read, “on his back a fay reclined voluptuously” (Poems line 18, emphasis added) and “all around it dipped luxuriously / Slopings of verdure” (Poems line 28, emphasis added) seem to suggest that luxury requires ample space, but the poem’s carefully bounded setting – not to mention its tight stanzaic construction – thwarts such traditional wisdom. The result is packed luxury, an internally inconsistent experience that confuses and exhilarates speaker’s and reader’s senses alike. Here, amber is silver, gold is red, and swans reflect snow-white in ruby-tinted waters: “ . . . golden scalès light / Cast upward, through the waves, a ruby glow: / There saw the swan his neck of archèd snow” (Poems lines 12-14).

If the world portrayed in “Imitation of Spenser” is indeed tight but rich, bewildering but beautiful, neither Biedermeier nor luxurious adequately describes it. A new critical designation is in order, and I propose luscious. With respect to both etymology and connotation, “luscious” is a word fraught with contradiction; its modern and archaic synonyms – “delicious,” “lush,” “plush,” “lascivious,” and, of course, “luxurious” – carry implications that range from the innocently healthful to the perversely indulgent. Perhaps even more important, however, luscious implies a richly pleasurable experience that occurs in intimate spaces. Since the word typically describes oral experience, tactile experience, or (less frequently) sexual experience, the luscious stimulus demands close inspection and/or cozy quarters. The Oxford English Dictionary illustrates its initial definition – “Of food, perfumes, etc.: Sweet and highly pleasant to the taste or smell” – with a passage from Shakespeare that highlights the adjective’s association with enclosure: “I know a banke . . . Quite over-cannopied [sic] with luscious woodbine.” As Gail Finney explains in The Counterfeit Idyll, the very word paradise (what we colloquially think of as a luscious haven) has etymological roots in the notion of closedness; derived from the Persian words “around” and “to form,” the term initially described a kind of walled oasis that stood surrounded by a distinctly un-luscious landscape (7). Despite his debt to Wordsworthian notions of natural beauty, Keats, I argue, turned for comfort and inspiration not to sublime landscapes but to circumscribed interiors crowded with sensory stimuli.

To say as much is to challenge a late twentieth-century critical tradition that posits a Romanticism founded upon, if nothing else, the primacy of intellectual experience. To be sure, as Jerome McGann points out in The Romantic Ideology, the credibility of certain philosophical projects was called into question during the age we call Romantic. “In the Romantic Period,” McGann writes, “the ground universals of a Natural Law philosophy had been undermined, largely through the development of historical studies and the emergence of a modern historical sense. No longer did human nature seem always and everywhere the same, and the celebrated ‘epistemological crisis’ was the chief register of this new ideological fact” (67). In search of “stability and order,” he continues, “writers like Blake, Wordsworth, and Coleridge” looked to “Nature or the creative Imagination as . . . places of last resort”: “Amidst the tottering structures of early nineteenth-century Europe, poetry asserted the integrity of the biosphere and the inner, spiritual self, both of which were believed to transcend the age’s troubling doctrinal and ideological shifts” (67-68). As McGann’s abstract diction suggests, however, the Romantic turn to natural sublimity was simply a turn to a new philosophy, and he concludes that “Romantic works engage with the world, seek to engage with the world, at the level of ideology”: “The poetic response to the age’s severe political and social dislocations was to reach for solutions in the realm of ideas. The maneuver follows upon a congruent Romantic procedure, which is to define human problems in ideal and spiritual terms” (71).

Keats, however, represents a problematic test case for McGann’s compelling and profoundly influential hypothesis. Although the youngest of the major British Romantics was no intellectual lightweight, his “human problems” proved uniquely difficult to idealize and/or spiritualize; in addition to describing their author’s atheistic tendencies and articulating his general disregard for philosophic absolutes, Keats’s letters evoke a life rife with agonies arguably more painful (if more quotidian) than the dull, distant ache of epistemological crisis: financial insolvency, the absence of loved ones, a sense of professional failure, and, of course, illness. Keats’s anxieties, in other words, hit closer to home; despite his abiding interest in contemporary poetics (and, to some degree, contemporary politics), the crises he faced during his most productive years were personal and often visceral. Rather than abstract these real-world problems by reaching for philosophical solutions, Keats redefined language as something material and used it to forge an alternative reality, a new place to live. The luscious poem, then, not only describes lusciousness – material profusion contained in a space of picturesque proportions – but represents it mimetically as well, its syntactic and prosodic structures generating a textual enclosure that denies the reader easy exit from the consuming sensuous experience portrayed therein. By surveying Keats’s early work and more closely examining The Eve of St. Agnes, I hope to demonstrate here that that the experience of the luscious – the rich, dense, and closed – informs Keats’s project from its earliest moments, not only at the level of theme but also at the level of form.


The luxury good – the real-world, marketplace embodiment of conceptual wealth – was an increasingly visible commodity in the early years of the nineteenth century. Although the post-war years presented an economic downturn, the England of the mid-teens was, financially speaking, generally in good shape. Stuart Curran points out that despite “factory riots, a periodic threat of famine, the dislocation into the army and navy of an enormous number of young males, and widespread political agitation posing increasing challenges to an outdated, inept political establishment, England emerged from the Napoleonic Wars paradoxically the richest nation on earth” (217). However, long before 1815, all levels of British society had already become deeply entrenched within a culture of material luxury. As Britain’s imperialist reach grew farther and stronger in the mid- to late-eighteenth century, the domestic market was inundated with exotic goods, and domestic consumers accordingly adapted their attitudes toward consumption. Citing Elizabeth Gilboy’s “Demand as a Factor in the Industrial Revolution,” Maxine Berg explains that exotic commodities such as tea, chocolate, coffee, calico fabric, ceramics, glass, and metalware were “new wants” that “led those with a surplus ‘to try this and that, and finally to include many new articles in their customary standard of life.’” Surprisingly, perhaps, the poorer classes were similarly affected. “The new commodities,” Berg writes, “also attracted those without the requisite surplus; they worked harder to get the surplus or skimped on necessities” (65).

As this narrative suggests, no discussion of nineteenth-century British consumerism is complete without some attention to issues of empire. However, although many scholars have interrogated the nature and extent of cultural and material importation in Romantic-era England, few have considered the relationship between luxury consumption and physical space. The empire was a grand space indeed, but the actual luxury drama – the spending, the display, and the rapid escalation of both – was played out in much tighter arenas. The first of these was the shop. As James Walvin explains in Fruits of Empire, by the middle of the eighteenth century, “the emphasis on fashion and style [in London] had reached new, often absurd, levels of extravagance. . . . The capital’s shops were quite spectacular, more lavish and eye-catching than anything to be found elsewhere in Europe” (155). As a result of the steadily increasing population that crowded London’s streets, those shops were small, their lavish stock piled high, and since it was not uncommon for a single store to carry a wide variety of luxury goods, the shopping experience, no matter the size of the shop, was the experience of a world condensed. In tight retail spaces, storekeepers cultivated the same atmosphere of exhilarating, delirious excess suggested by the silky-metallic fish and red-white swans in Keats’s “Imitation of Spenser.” Berg’s description of typical late-eighteenth century shop advertisements is telling:

The trade cards and newspaper advertisements of toy-makers, jewelers, silversmiths, and china sellers indicated that many of these goods were sold together. . . . Joseph Farror’s cheap warehouse, advertised in 1796, offered tea, coffee, chocolate and cocoa, useful and ornamental chinaware . . . and Stourbridge glassware. William Goods advertised his toy warehouse in 1798 as selling foreign and English toys, cutlery, hardware, perfumery, etc. John Clarke called himself ‘Perfumer, Cutler, and Toyman . . . ’


The packed-luxury experience continued within the confines of consumers’ homes. Certain commodities signaled “a new appreciation of ‘decency’ and ‘utility’ in middle-class domestic environments” (Berg 66), and, in the name of bourgeois respectability, middle-class consumers adorned their modest homes with exotic goods and Britain-made “semi-luxuries,” including “flint and cut glass, metal alloys and finishes such as gilt and silver plate, stamped brassware, japanned tinware and papier maché, ormolu and cut steel instead of gold and silver” (Berg 67). Contemporary accounts of bankruptcies and repossessions provide a sense of how many expensive goods could be packed into a smallish middle-class interior. Nenadic points to David Wilkie’s painting Distraining for the Rent.

A classic romantic genre scene, it shows a Scottish rural family in a state of great distress, in the main room of their farmhouse and having their domestic property inventoried by court officials prior to sale for non-payment of rent. . . . Though a modest interior, there are numerous objects that are up-to-date and fashionable, such as chairs, the bed and washstand with china basin and jug.

Nenadic 221

The painting, Nenadic notes, implies no criticism of the family’s ill-fated consumption, and its bourgeois viewers were understanding, not censorious. “The objects that are about to be lost are the cement of family life and emotional attachments” (Nenadic 221), and Distraining for the Rent amply illustrates the centrality of luxury consumption and its display to dreams of ideal domesticity.

Moreover, since certain types of consumerism signaled Romantic sensibility, the elite classes were as guilty as their middle-class counterparts of stuffing their (significantly larger) homes with material luxuries. Nenadic notes that as a movement rooted in philosophical and psychological ideals, Romanticism, in order to be “experienced and expressed,” had to be “reified in the world of goods, and objects . . . became visible signs of an essentially amorphous state of mind.” Wealthy consumers converted the requisite Romantic longing for “emotional fulfilment” to a longing for materials, and Romantic houses, Nenadic says, “became sites in which goods that were laden with emotional associations were located” (210, sic). Anxious to flaunt their wealth and modern sensibilities, the owners of well appointed country homes – the sort featured in contemporary “silver fork” novels – opened their estates to middle-class tourists, who “flocked to observe first-hand how the vastly wealthy furnished their houses and conducted their lives” (Nenadic 216). And lest we envision those country homes as similar in appearance to the ever-graceful settings of today’s period films, we must recognize the extraordinary magnitude of elite consumerism in the early decades of the nineteenth century. The homes of the wealthy, like the stores in which they shopped, were frequently rather ungracefully stuffed with luxury. Nenadic points to Abbotsford, Sir Walter Scott’s gothic estate, as a prime example of elite Romantic consumption, and her description is notable for its emphasis on packed ornamentation: “Scott’s great financial folly was Abbotsford [which] he filled with artifacts in great profusion to lend material substance to his ideas about the past. . . . His income was vast and entirely absorbed by his conspicuous, almost manic consumption of objects to embellish Abbotsford” (223-24). As Scott frantically wrote novels to pay his off debts, he “continued to consume and to add to the fabulous and fabulised contents of” his home (Nenadic 225).

If the commercial and domestic status quo was indeed packed luxury, where and how does Keatsian lusciousness fit in? Keats’s own letters attest to his ever-present financial woes, but as Leigh Hunt’s protégé, Keats was fully immersed in the culture of bourgeois consumerism. Hunt’s “A Now, Descriptive of Hot Day” – a sort of prose poem to which Keats, in Hunt’s words, “contributed one or two of the passages” (qtd. in Wu 620) – offers an insider’s glimpse into the luxurious world of the wealthy and leisured:

Now blinds are let down and doors thrown open and flannel waistcoats left off, and cold meat preferred to hot, and wonder expressed why tea continues so refreshing, and people delight to sliver lettuces into bowls. . . . Now fruiterers’ shops and dairies look pleasant, and ices are the only things to those who can get them. Now ladies loiter in baths; and people make presents of flowers; and wine is put into ice; and the after-dinner lounger recreates his head with applications of perfumed water out of long-necked bottles.

Hunt 309

In Keats, Hunt and the Aesthetics of Pleasure, Ayumi Mizukoshi notes that Hunt, born in 1784 to upper-middle-class parents, was a product of the luxury-loving “culture of affluence” that had been growing steadily since the middle of the eighteenth century. Keats, born in 1795 to a London stable manager, was “eager to join the leisured and ‘cultured’ middle class.” Through Hunt, he did just that, and since, as Mizukoshi observes, “[b]ecoming a member of a circle like Hunt’s was for Keats synonymous with social advancement,” it is no surprise to find how central Hunt’s ideas really were to Keats’s developing aesthetic (13-14). And Hunt did have ideas, particularly about the nature of luxury. For Hunt, pleasure – particularly sensual pleasure – was the single most important element in luxurious experience, and Mizukoshi rightly emphasizes this key difference between Hunt and the Romantic collectors described by Nenadic. She writes,

The hallmark of Hunt’s aesthetic project was its total affirmation of pleasure, without any moral or religious justification. Hunt seemed to be the first middle-class writer to advocate pleasure for its own sake, and to regard the enjoyment of life as ‘the earthly possibility of the only end of virtue itself.’ . . . Through his aesthetic project, he came to terms with – or rather, thoroughly approved of – the culture of affluence in which luxury had become ‘essential’ to a bourgeois life.


Hunt’s emphasis on pleasure brings us closer to the luscious aesthetic of Keats’s “Imitation of Spenser,” in which descriptions of rich material play to our senses – “so fair a place was never seen, / Of all that charmed romantic eye” (Poems 23-24) – rather than our conscience or intellect. However, since spatial intimacy and packed-ness are also key to the definition of luscious experience, it is important to recognize how attuned Hunt was to the predicament of bourgeois urbanites and suburbanites, many of whom made their homes in tight quarters. Hunt, Mizukoshi points out, was a strong proponent of the “gardenesque aesthetic,” and his popular manuals on the subject urged readers to appreciate natural luxury – lush vegetation condensed in small urban and suburban gardens – as the sensory indulgence best suited, ironically, to the lifestyle of a city-dweller. Mizukoshi contends that “what distinguished Hunt’s gardening book [The Months: Descriptive of the Successive Beauties of the Year] was that it offered useful tips for how to be ‘a lover of nature’ with little money. He advised that ‘if ever money is well spent upon luxury, it is upon such as draws one to love the cheap kindness of nature.’” “[H]owever small a portion,” Mizukoshi writes, a suburban garden “could give ‘a retired and verdant feeling’ and ‘something of the whispering and quiet amplitude of nature’” (44-45). Hunt encouraged readers to fill their villa gardens with flowering shrubs and trees or, in the absence of even the smallest plot, to surround themselves with potted plants. Although in later years Keats (and the scholars who admired him) strove to sever his reputation from Hunt’s low-art taint, it seems safe to say that Hunt’s preference for “leafy luxury,” which powerfully influenced Hunt’s own work, is at the heart of his protégé’s preoccupation with the luscious.

Keats, like Hunt, was a fan of container gardening; in an 1819 letter to Fanny Keats, he writes, “I ordered some bulbous roots for you at the Gardeners, and they sent me some, but they were all in bud – and could not be sent, so I put them in our Garden. There are some beautiful heaths now in bloom in Pots” (LJK II: 51). I want to argue, however, that unlike the London shopkeepers and Hunt-inspired suburban gardeners who tended small spaces out of necessity, Keats intentionally privileged tight quarters. In fact, more than a few of the early poems read like the meditations of a mild agoraphobic. When confronted with the openness of “the dell, / Its flowery slopes, [and] its river’s crystal swell” (Poems lines 4-5), the speaker of “O Solitude!” takes refuge “’[m]ongst boughs pavilioned” (Poems line 7). Although Calidore initially “smiles at the far clearness all around,” he quickly finds his heart “well nigh over-wound,” and he “turns for calmness” to a more closed, intimate space: “the pleasant green / Of easy slopes, and shadowy trees that lean / So elegantly o’er the waters’ brim” (Poems, “Calidore. A Fragment” lines 7-11). The “sequestered leafy glades,” in which Calidore sees

[l]arge dock leaves, spiral foxgloves, or the glow

Of the wild cat’s-eyes, or the silvery stems

Of delicate birch trees, or long grass which hems

A little brook

Poems lines 48-52

evoke a suburban garden possessed, but Keats’s knight – and Keats, it seems – takes great pleasure in the image of awkwardly tangled growth. And lest we associate moments like these with a merely Romantic appreciation of nature, it seems important to note the passage’s un-Wordsworthian, un-Shelleyan rejection of the sublime. No single spectacular presence (a mountain or lake, perhaps) dominates the scene, nor is the plein air experience central. As Keats suggests in “To Hope,” “[t]he bare heath of life” presents – both literally and metaphorically – “no bloom” (Poems lines 4); hope dwells not in the open air, but hides beneath “woven boughs” (Poems line 8) and canopies of “silver pinions” (Poems line 6).

What exactly about rich enclosures appealed to Keats is a more difficult question to answer, but it seems most important to recognize that he consistently associates luscious spaces with literary productivity. Keats’s own rooms were always tight, and although they could not properly be described as rich, he reveled in their crowded coziness. “I have unpacked my books,” he writes to Reynolds in 1817, “put them into a snug corner – pinned up Haydon – Mary Queen of Scotts, and Milton with his daughters in a row. In the passage I found a head of Shakespeare . . . I like it extremely – This head I have hung over my books, just above the three in a row . . . Now this alone is a good morning’s work” (LJK I: 130). In spaces like these he penned his verse, verse that consistently shelters the creative act in packed interiors and overgrown bowers. An early verse epistle to George Keats defines poetic vision as a view of “golden halls” crowded with “ladies fair” and amply supplied with “rich brimmed goblets, that incessant run / Like the bright spots that move about the sun; And when upheld, the wine from each bright jar / Pours with the lustre of a falling star” (Poems, “To my Brother George” lines 35, 37, 39-42). Keats’s verse epistle to George Felton Mathew, in contrast, supplies a particularly lucid example of a naturally – leafily – luscious creative space. If the poetic muse, that “fine-eyed maid,” will come to Keats, “surely it must be whene’er I find / Some flowery spot, sequestered, wild, romantic, / That often must have seen a poet frantic” (Poems, “To George Felton Matthew” lines 35, 36-38). As in “Calidore,” the secluded place in question offers a tangle of luscious vegetation, an exhilarating but confusing mishmash of visual, tactile, and olfactory stimuli:

Where oaks, that erst the Druid knew, are growing,

And flowers, the glory of one day, are blowing;

Where the dark-leaved laburnum’s drooping clusters

Reflect athwart the stream their yellow lustres,

And intertwined the cassia’s arms unite,

With its own drooping buds, but very white.

Where on one side are covert branches hung,

’Mong which the nightingales have always sung

In leafy quiet: where to pry, aloof,

Atween the pillars of the sylvan roof,

Would be to find where violet beds were nestling,

And where the bee with cowslip bells was wrestling.

Poems, “To George Felton Matthew” lines 39-49

The aesthetic of “Sleep and Poetry” is strikingly similar. The speaker begs of Poesy to “[y]ield from thy sanctuary some clear air,” but he immediately qualifies his desire for openness. The “clear air” must be “[s]moothed for intoxication by the breath / Of flowering bays, that I may die a death / Of luxury” (Poems lines 56-59). “[A] bowery nook,” Keats writes, “[w]ill be elysium – an eternal book / Whence I may copy many a lovely saying / About the leaves, and flowers . . . ” (Poems lines 63-66).

The nook-as-book equivalence set forth so clearly in “Sleep and Poetry” recurs frequently throughout the early work, but most often in reverse: Keats portrays text as luscious space. Poetry is not only born of richly adorned palaces and choked gardens; it resembles those spaces as well. Because Hunt read during his time in prison, “[i]n Spenser’s halls he strayed, and bowers fair, / Culling enchanted flowers” (Poems, “Written on the Day that Mr. Leigh Hunt Left Prison” lines 8-9). Chaucer, too, Keats observes, constructed verse spaces; The Floure and the Leafe, he writes, “is like a little copse: / The honeyed lines do freshly interlace / To keep the reader in so sweet a place, / So that he here and there full-hearted stops” (Poems, “Written on a Blank Space at the End of Chaucer’s Tale of The Floure and the Leafe” lines 1-4). At its best, Keats suggests, verse space is inescapable and strange, and “I stood tiptoe” argues for texts that grip:

And when a tale is beautifully staid,

We feel the safety of a hawthorn glade:

When it is moving on luxurious wings,

The soul is lost in dewy smotherings:

Fair dewy roses brush against our faces,

And flowering laurels spring from diamond vases;

O’er head we see the jasmine and sweet briar,

And bloomy grapes laughing from green attire;

While at our feet, the voice of crystal bubbles

Charms us at once away from all our troubles:

So that we feel uplifted from the world,

Walking upon the white clouds wreathed and curled.

Poems lines 129-140

The vase-bound laurels alone supply an image that suggests verse in/as enclosure, and the “staid,” as opposed to a simple “said,” delicately implies the relative permanence of text as compared to spoken ephemera. Meanwhile, Keats’s careful articulation of the glade’s tendency to cling to the body’s extremities suggests enclosure in a sort of womb-like garden, while references to diamond, crystal, and fruit lend a sense of affluence to the scene.

But here surfaces another significant point. Keats consistently associates verse with space, but with equal frequency he describes texts as palliatives, actual medicinal materials that heal the wounds inflicted by life’s slings and arrows. Just as Keats’s “telling” in the “Imitation of Spenser” can alleviate the suffering of Dido and Lear, his textual glade is a place of “safety” that “[c]harms us . . . away from all our troubles.” Though frequently mediated by memory, the palliative of choice in Lyrical Ballads is space (wide open nature) itself, but in an interesting twist on the Wordsworthian space-as-healer philosophy, Keats finds medication in poetic spaces that heal. “I felt rather lonely this Morning at breakfast,” Keats wrote to his brothers in 1817, “so I went and unbox’d a Shakespeare – ‘There’s my Comfort’” (LJK I: 128). It becomes important, then, to recognize the etymological and material links between lusciousness and self-medication. The nineteenth century introduced the term “lush” to describe both the drunkard – the quintessential self-medicator – and his drink, and although Keats’s fondness for claret was, by all accounts, well regulated, we can consider him a lush-ious personality in other respects. Poetry was indeed soothing stuff for him, but even in the earliest letters and poems, Keats proclaims himself a poetry addict, susceptible even to the symptoms of withdrawal. “I find that I cannot exist without poetry,” he writes to Reynolds, “—without eternal poetry – half the day will not do – the whole of it – I began with a little, but habit has made me a Leviathan – I had become all a Tremble from not having written any thing of late – the Sonnet over leaf did me good. I slept the better last night for it – this Morning, however, I am nearly as bad again” (LJK I: 133). After an Endymion-writing binge, he describes similar sensations: “[T]he other day I found my Brain so overwrought that I . . . was obliged to give up work for a few days – I hope soon to be able to resume my Work – . . . instead of Poetry I have a mental swimming in my head – And feel all the effects of a Mental Debauch – lowness of spirits –” (LJK I: 146-147). With respect to Keats, then, the luscious poem is so described not only for its closed richness but also for the unparalleled mental state that its closed richness affords. Under the influence of verse, Keats is satiated and high – unhampered by “lowness of spirits.” Conversely, life without verse leaves him beastly hungry and physically ill. In the intellectually-conceived luscious poem, Keats found an appropriately visceral response to gut-wrenching experience: a carefully circumscribed alternative space (always carefully marked as such in its strange extremity) of abundant sensual pleasure.

Susan Wolfson agrees that Keats’s take on text was influential. In The Questioning Presence, she argues that the Romantics (Wordsworth and Keats, in particular) realized that language, in addition to representing reality, has the capacity generate new truths and an alternative perspective on the real. “Questioning,” she writes, “is an active power of dislocation” (19), and her adoption of a spatial lexicon – dislocation, after all, denotes movement in space – suggests an alignment between her argument and the one I am making here. A poem that questions, Wolfson suggests, becomes an alternative reality, a place of unusual or even uncertain intellectual landscape. She quotes Coleridge, who praises Spenser’s Faery Queene for its evocation of “mental space”: “The poet has placed you in a dream, a charmed sleep, and you neither wish, nor have the power, to inquire where you are, or how you got there” (qtd in Wolfson 36). For Keats, as we have seen, that mental space materializes as text, and while the device central to Wolfson’s position is the question, our rhetorical focus must somehow evoke a more physical experience. If the interrogative poem derives from the question, the luscious poem derives from the list.

The catalogue is an ancient literary device, and although Keats’s use of the trope speaks, perhaps, to his typically Romantic preoccupation with the epic, I am less interested in the list’s heritage than its affective potential and unique form. Although I use the words catalogue and list interchangeably (as speakers frequently do today), it is worth noting that the term catalogue initially denoted an oral event – a mnemonic and narrative device born of the constraints inherent to the dissemination of oral culture – while the list, as Walter Ong points out in his seminal evaluation of orality and literacy, is a distinctly textual phenomenon, a device that locates words in a clearly defined space, usually a visual one (123-4). When the catalogue maintained a presence in the epics of post-classical, literate Western cultures, it effectively became a kind of poetic list and as such, literature’s most efficient way to convey the experience of stuff. Given the luscious poem’s debt to nineteenth-century consumer culture, it should be no surprise that outside the worlds of literature and taxonomy, the word catalogue is most often associated with shopping. A catalogue can introduce distance consumers to the material dimension of a shop if not the actual shop space; Berg’s descriptions of late-eighteenth-century trade catalogues suggest that those documents were designed to highlight the kind of detail (complementary silver and glassware patterns, for example) that a real-life consumer would have to be in close proximity to observe. In addition to text, catalogues provided illustrations, and these visual lists allowed consumers to choose from a wide array of, say, ornate brass furniture handles (Berg 70-72). In poetry, a list affords the same in-the-midst aesthetic, the same combination of generalized atmosphere and particularized experience. Calidore, for example, sees in lists; considering the fragment’s “twilight” setting, the knight’s ability to distinguish – and catalogue – dock leaves, foxgloves, cat’s-eyes, birch trees, and “long grass” is that much more impressive (Poems, “Calidore. A Fragment” lines 48-51). The density and specificity of Keats’s description animate the vague “sequestered leafy glades” of line forty-seven, and the result is an experience at once variegated and consistent, since the diverse plant life is homogenized by Calidore’s “glad senses” into a backdrop of “pleasant things” (Poems lines 54, 53).

But as I have defined it, spatial tightness is a defining feature of the luscious aesthetic, and despite the fact that a list, its elements organized in lines or chained together with commas, occupies a distinct textual space, paratactic structures are difficult to close. Parataxis (the rhetorical term for listing, from the Greek “beside arrangement” [Cuddon 638]) suggests condensation – the sort of in-the-midst-of-the-merchandise experience afforded by a catalogue – but as Barbara Herrnstein Smith points out in Poetic Closure, a paratactic structure, due its associative nature, “does not wind itself up” (108). A list has no natural stopping point and, as a result, no formal closure. If, as I have argued, text provided Keats with a carefully circumscribed, pleasure-rich alternative to real space, the inherently open-ended list, despite its affinities with luscious experience, ultimately seems a flawed foundation for the luscious poem. Is it possible for a catalogue-based text to provide Keats himself with the kind of safe, enclosed space that Keats the artist grants his poetic personae? Is it possible to evoke the luscious without a list – or is it possible to close a paratactic structure after all? The trick to enclosing paratactic forms, Keats learns, is the same trick that turns literal strings – thread, yarn, and reeds, for example – into textiles, scarves, and baskets: weaving.

The famous “airy Citadel” letter, I contend, articulates a key moment in Keats’s formal development. On February 19, 1818, Keats described to Reynolds his new understanding of creativity:

Now it appears to me that almost any Man may like the Spider spin from his own inwards his own airy Citadel – the points of leaves and twigs on which the Spider begins her work are few and she fills the Air with a beautiful circuiting: man should be content with as few points to tip with the fine Webb of his Soul and weave a tapestry empyrean – full of Symbols for his spiritual eye, of softness for his spiritual touch, of space for his wandering of distinctness for his Luxury.

LJK I 231-232

Much of this metaphor is familiar, since Keats describes sensual riches packed into a distinct physical space. At first glance, that space seems to be the airy Citadel, the fortress defended by the spider’s “beautiful circuiting.” However, closer reading suggests that in Keats’s conception, the circuiting itself actually constitutes an enterable, occupyable location in addition to delineating one. When Keats moves from spider to man, he offers another image in the same paradoxical vein as “airy Citadel” – “tapestry empyrean” – but this time his material anchor is not edifice but weave. Like a citadel, Keats’s metaphorical tapestry can hold, can be “full”; inside, one can give free rein to his senses and move through an atmosphere of dense, if contradictory (“spiritual touch”), luxury. If this space strikes us as similar to the palaces and bowers of Keats’s earlier work, we must be wary of hasty comparison. Woven spaces – and woven texts – are quite different from their walled-in counterparts.

In Weaving the Word, Kathryn Kruger identifies the etymological connection between text and weaving. “In many languages,” she writes, “including English, the verb to weave defines not just the making of textiles, but any creative act. Likewise, the noun text comes from the Latin verb texere, also meaning ‘to construct or to weave.’ . . . Therefore, a weaver not only fashions textiles but can, with the same verb, contrive texts” (29). The text-textile connection holds up both colloquially and critically. Kruger points out that many of our idiomatic descriptions of storytelling and word play – to “spin a yarn,” for instance (30) – have their literal origins in textile production, but for her, weaving is a metaphor for literary production, not a description of the literary product’s final form. Kruger reads Keats’s letter as descriptive of “the creator’s self-sustaining power of imagination” (32), and her interest in weaving is, in the final analysis, more intellectual than material. In fact, the February 1818 letter can sustain a less figurative interpretation, if not a completely literal one. As previously established, Keats understood texts as spaces, not metaphors for spaces. Even in his earliest verse, Keats posits texts as sites that enclose their readers in a rich alternative reality, and since the linguistic and cultural connections between text and textile are so strong, it seems possible to identify in Keats’s inhabitable textile – the “tapestry empyrean” – the elements of a new type of inhabitable text. In other words, weaving represents for Keats not only a metaphor for the creative imagination but also a formal description of the poetry that results from his creative labors. While verse based on catalogue alone results in rich but strung-out and unbounded textual experience, verse that weaves paratactic strings through one another becomes a verbal fabric, integral and complete in itself. As in the case of a woven textile, the strings are still present, ready, if necessary, to be teased out of the larger structure. When in place, however, the threads of a weave – textual or material – are strong enough to effect closure.

Poetically speaking, Keats came of age at time when textile-production methods were rapidly improving, and the strength of the industrial weave – its serviceability as cloth as well as its capacity to boost the economy – was very much at issue. As Alison Adburgham explains, the English textile industry boomed in the age we associate with Victoria, but the technology that underlay its success was born much earlier (11). Like his innovative industrialist contemporaries, Keats was preoccupied with the unique formal features of a weave; in a verse epistle written to Reynolds in March of 1818, he meditates on the distasteful unwovenness of his recent dreams. “[A]s last night I lay in bed,” he writes, “There came before my eyes that wonted thread / Of shapes, and shadows, and remembrances, / That every other minute vex and please” (Poems, “To J.H. Reynolds, Esq.” lines 1-4). The speaking Keats is disturbed, it seems, as much by the string-like, stream-of-consciousness form of his waking dreams as by their content, which he presents in an unsettling parataxis:

Two witch’s eyes above a cherub’s mouth,

Voltaire with casque and shield and habergeon,

And Alexander with his nightcap on,

Old Socrates a-tying his cravat,

And Hazlitt playing with Miss Edgeworth’s cat…

Poems, “To J.H. Reynolds, Esq.” lines 6-10

The odd catalogue of associations is disconcerting indeed, and the epistle explicitly condemns a stretched-string world view, one in which the “imagination [is] brought / Beyond its proper bound” (Poems, “To J.H. Reynolds, Esq.” lines 78-79). To extend the thread too far is, ultimately, to self-destruct; “I was at home / And should have been most happy,” Keats writes, “ – but I saw / Too far into the sea, where every maw / The greater on the less feeds evermore. –” (Poems, “To J.H. Reynolds, Esq.” lines 92-95). As Keats suggests in his sonnet “To J[ames] R[ice],” written less than a month later, a condensed visionary experience – to “live long life in little space” (Poems line 5) – is far superior to the strung-out sort.

Of Keats’s mature works, The Eve of St. Agnes perhaps best illustrates the woven text’s power to generate such intensity. Just as the closing couplet of each Spenserian stanza pulls the reading consciousness back to the pivotal rhyming line in the middle of the verse (immediately following the dead-center couplet), so Keats’s romance struggles toward – and ultimately leaves – a sensuous and securely bounded central space. That space, of course, is Madeline’s bedroom, a sensory paradise located at the core of the estate’s mazelike interior. Porphyro and Angela travel “[t]hrough many a dusky gallery” (Poems line 186) before reaching the chamber, and when they arrive, Keats introduces a draped bed whose curtains offer further enclosure. But curtains aside, the room is early identified with tapestry when, in his initial request for Madeline’s whereabouts, Porphyro acknowledges the lamb sacrifice associated with St. Agnes lore:

‘Now tell me where is Madeline,’ said he,

‘O tell me, Angela, by the holy loom

Which none but secret sisterhood may see,

When they St. Agnes’ wool are weaving piously.’

Poems lines 114-117

The implication seems clear; in conjunction with his summary of the legend, the “where” in Porphyro’s demand suggests that Madeline is cloistered within a story as well as a room. Madeline is “asleep in lap of legends old” (Poems line 135), and to reach her, Porphyro must penetrate the narrative as well as the nest. The “stratagem” (Poems line 139) he devises – and later, “entoiled in woofèd fantasies” (Poems line 288), revises – eventually takes him to the center of both.

At the level of signification, then, the poem’s luscious center is woven of both literal yarns (curtains and bedding) and figurative yarns (tales), and Keats’s decisions with regard to versification reinforce that tapestry aesthetic. Speaking metaphorically, Stuart Sperry notes that for the Victorians, The Eve of St. Agnes was “a gorgeous bit of tapestry, full of color, tenderness, romance, and high feeling” (199), but we can once again observe that Keats’s writing is, in key moments, woven less figuratively than literally. Keats himself described the poem as a “drapery” (LJK II: 234); calculated consonance, line-broken series, and back-stepping, repetitive series allow him to avoid the unrelenting and ultimately uncomfortable forward momentum of traditional parataxis by encouraging a more crosswise – or woven – reading of his material catalogues. The perils of the open-ended linear catalogue are best articulated, perhaps, in the narrative commentary that Keats provides just before Porphyro steps inside the castle’s “portal doors” (Poems line 76). At that moment, our hero’s stated goal “to gaze and worship all unseen” becomes one with a list of unstated desires: “[p]erchance speak, kneel, touch, kiss – in sooth such things have been” (Poems lines 80-81). With each new element, the list of sensual liberties increases in intimacy, and Keats ends it abruptly with a dash (no internal structuring, after all, will halt its forward movement) before it reaches a condemnable level of indecency. The linear catalogue is a dangerous catalogue, and it comes as no surprise that the narrative moments both before and after the security of Madeline’s chamber are punctuated by brief but potent linear lists. We are told, for example, that the distracted Madeline dances “’[m]id looks of love, defiance, hate, and scorn” (Poems line 72), while Porphyro, once inside the castle, must avoid “barbarian hordes, / Hyena foemen, and hot-blooded lords” (Poems lines 85-86). The doomed Angela describes herself as “[a] poor, weak, palsy-stricken, churchyard thing” (Poems line 155), and later, during the lovers’ escape, we learn that the Baron and his guests were plagued that night by dreams “[o]f witch, and demon, and large coffin-worm” (Poems line 374).

Inside Madeline’s bedchamber, however, Keats constructs his images differently. When his heroine enters her room, Keats invokes the story of Philomel – the “tongueless nightingale” of line 206 – and thereby assumes a new attitude toward textual experience. For Stillinger, this “image embraces the entire story of the rape of Philomel, and with it [Keats] introduces a further note of evil that prevents us from losing ourselves in the special morality of fairy romance” (76-77). We cannot forget, however, that in addition to her status as victim, Philomel maintains a key position in the small but significant canon of literary weavers. Raped and robbed of her tongue by Tereus, Philomel, unable to speak, weaves her story into a tapestry, a textile-text that narrates her trauma. Madeline, too, inhabits a world in which text is woven; at the luscious center of St. Agnes, Keats replaces traditional catalogues with woven ones. The large stained-glass window in the bedchamber is presented in the first of such woven passages. In short, the casement window is “garlanded” with decorative carvings (Poems line 209), “diamonded” with panes of colored glass (Poems line 211), and adorned with a “shielded scutcheon” (Poems line 216), but the palpable beauty of the passage derives from the layered effect achieved when Keats intertwines this brief line-broken list of features with other richly material catalogues. The garlands in question are “carven imag’ries / Of fruits, and flowers, and bunches of knot-grass” (Poems lines 209-210), while the central shield image sits “’mong thousand heraldries, / And twilight saints, and dim emblazonings” (Poems lines 214-215). Meanwhile, the diamond-shaped panes – the central image in the passage and one that conjures a picture of crisscrossing solder lines – are so “[i]nnumerable of stains and splendid dyes” (Poems line 212) that the texture of the glass actually resembles that of fabric or, at least, the textile-like appearance of “the tiger-moth’s deep-damasked wings” (Poems line 213, emphasis added). At the same time, Keats knits a complex sonority by way of a d sound that repeats across the lines and lends special impact to the words central to the textile motif: diamonded, device, splendid dyes, deep-damasked. Bate notes that stanza xxiv is among the most heavily revised portions of the poem, and he observes that in its earlier incarnations, stanza xxiv included the image of the red-lit Madeline that finally came to dominate stanza xxv. Ultimately, though, Keats “[postponed] Madeline . . . and [focused] more on the casement itself” (Bate 450), a decision that, in conjunction with his deft textual weaving, successfully highlights the materiality of the moment. The result is packed poetry, verse that counters the forward thrust of the reading mind and ultimately surrounds it in a close environment of verbal luxury.

A carefully cultivated environment of literal luxury is also at the heart of Porphyro’s “stratagem,” and the stanzas in which Keats lays out Porphyro’s feast together comprise the luscious centerpiece of the poem’s luscious center. Porphyro begins, significantly, by spreading a tablecloth “of woven crimson, gold, and jet” (Poems line 256), but a dash and a curse – “O for some drowsy Morphean amulet!” (Poems line 257) – follow “jet,” suggesting the abrupt and nervous halt in Porphyro’s work when the “festive clarion / The kettle-drum, and far-heard clarinet” of the baron’s raucous party “[a]ffray his ears” (Poems lines 258-260). Soon enough, however, “[t]he hall door shuts again” (Poems line 261), and when Porphyro resumes his luscious project in silence, Keats abandons the kind of linear list that introduced the outside noisemakers in favor of richly woven verbal tapestries more appropriate to the close luxury of Madeline’s bedroom. The “heap” (Poems line 264) of truly unbelievable edibles that Porphyro piles atop the table’s luxurious tapestry foundation has captivated the hungry imaginations of critics Spartan and Bacchanalian alike, but Keats’s woven structuring is arguably what underlies the stanza’s impressive dynamism.

Like the casement window passage, stanza xxx is easily summarized. While Madeline sleeps, Porphyro arranges the food, which includes “candied apple, quince, and plum, and gourd” (Poems line 265), as well as jellies, syrups, “[m]anna,” dates, and other “spicèd dainties” (Poems lines 266-269). What this summary fails to convey is the luscious enclosure of the passage itself, in which a catalogue, fractured across six lines, not only plays weft to the stanza’s linear warp but also seems consciously to slow the mouth-watering movement of his description with other carefully calculated weaving techniques. The result is an integrated luscious experience rather than a meandering list of exotic groceries, and we see in stanza xxx a sort of condensed, microcosmic version of the poem as a whole – a poem that, in Keats’s words, “diffuse[s] the colouring of St. Agnes’s eve throughout” (LJK II: 234). Although the inventory commences like a simple list – “candied apple, quince” – Keats almost immediately begins to slow his pace by inserting unaccented buffers between the elements of his catalogue: “ . . . and plum, and gourd.” “[J]ellies” alone dominate the next line, and when Keats introduces the syrups, we read at the rate of a crawl, mired in the thick, syrup-mimicking texture of the words themselves: “[a]nd lucent syrups, tinct with cinnamon” (Poems line 267). In conjunction with the molasses-like sonority of the syrups line, the semicolon following “cinnamon” effectively cancels the list’s momentum; Keats, however, picks up with “[m]anna and dates” at the beginning of the following line, and by the time the edibles catalogue closes with “spicèd dainties” in the stanza’s penultimate line, we have been launched into a new inventory of exotic locales, the places from which Porphyro’s delicacies originated: Fez, Samarkand, and Lebanon. And yet, the short list of oriental markets is not the only additional series woven into the line-broken catalogue of rich food. Samarkand and Lebanon are, respectively, “silken” and “cedared” (Poems line 270), and those descriptors, in addition to forging a connection with Madeline’s similarly sensory linens (described by Keats in the stanza’s second line as “smooth” and “lavendered”), inaugurate a backwards-moving catalogue of the senses. With the exception of hearing (which dominates the previous stanza), Keats touches on them all: smell in “cedared,” touch in “silken,” taste in “spicèd,” and sight in “lucent.” The verbal reality is as difficult to exit as Porphyro’s well-crafted dream reality, and like Madeline, we succumb, pulled centerward, into the luscious moment.

In sum, Keats’s luscious poem affords unparalleled sanctuary, suspending poet and reader alike in a safe, pleasurable space even as it hints at a more conventional reality, a world defined by loss. As the century progresses, the textual weaving that underwrites the security in poems like The Eve of St. Agnes becomes, I would argue, Keats’s greatest formal legacy. To imagine sensory asylum is to conjure only fleeting succor; “[f]anatics have their dreams, wherewith they weave / A paradise for a sect,” Keats writes in The Fall of Hyperion (Poems lines 1-2), but those tangled visions, however lovely, simply dissolve – or, perhaps, unravel – if they are not properly committed to verse:

 [P]ity these have not

Traced upon vellum or wild Indian leaf

The shadows of melodious utterance.

But bare of laurel they live, dream, and die;

For Poesy alone can tell her dreams,

With the fine spell of words alone can save

Imagination from the sable charm

And dumb enchantment.

Poems, “The Fall of Hyperion: A Dream” lines 4-11

Mere ideas, in other words, prove insufficiently soothing not only because they lack staying power but because their inevitable evaporation engenders further pain. “The poet and the dreamer,” Keats’s Moneta argues,

 are distinct,

Diverse, sheer opposite, antipodes.

The one pours out a balm upon the world,

The other vexes it.

Poems, “The Fall of Hyperion: A Dream” lines 199-202

As the verse epistle to Reynolds suggests, a dream’s “vex[ing]” “thread”-like form neither concludes nor encloses, but a woven poem can conjure paradise, a circumscribed textual plot that, like the shops and homes in which the Biedermeier bourgeoisie took shelter, consumes in its material profusion, soothes in its luscious spatiality.