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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. [1] 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. [2] 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'. [3] 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. [4]

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' [5] 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. [6] 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 - caught between dreaming and waking - as a 'woe-begone' figure (2; 6) in a landscape characterised by negativity and absence. He can never be reunited with the fairy creature and nature cannot provide him with a reassuring myth of consolation. Nature withdraws from the scene abandoning the knight to his plight, unable to comfort him, it reflects only his desolation as 'the sedge is wither'd from the lake, / And no birds sing' (47-8). Negation and absence pervade even the knight's description of the 'fairy's child' as her magical, fleeting, beauty is only glimpsed through a retrospective account of her fading memory (13-16). The knight recounts how, enticed by her gentle 'fairy's song' and 'language strange' (24; 27), he was led to the familiar romance motif of the visionary bower; in this case, an enchanted creature's 'elfin grot' (29). Like the many bowers encountered in Endymion this 'elfin grot' is where the protagonist experiences a dream-vision, although the knight's vision is strikingly different from those in Keats's earlier romance: 'And there she lulled me asleep, / And there I dream'd - Ah! woe betide! / The latest dream I ever dream'd / On the cold hill's side' (33-6).

No solace is derived from this dream-visionary experience. Rather than encouraging belief in an otherworldly sphere, the dream marks a transition from an enchanted 'elfin grot' to the reality of a 'cold hill's side' (36). This dream-vision reinforces the horror of mundane reality, stressing its absences and shortcomings, instead of elevating the dreamer to a higher plane, or mode of consciousness. No consolation is discovered by the dreaming knight for the irrecoverable loss of the beautiful lady, because the emptiness of his story's climactic dream episode underlines the vacancy at the heart of his retrospective narration which in turn is indicative of his own vacant and abandoned existence. Death and absence characterise all the other noble men who have fallen under the sway of this fairy creature. Deceived by what they, too, thought would lead to fulfilment and union with a higher reality, they become a synecdoche of impoverished 'starv'd lips in the gloam' (41). Despite the knight's claim that 'I awoke and found me here' (43), Keats's ballad never distinguishes clearly between waking and dreaming, recollection and invention, or even in the knight's case, life and death. The anguish of Keats's knight leaves him '[a]lone and palely loitering' in an apparently wakeful state, similar to the condition of the 'death pale' noble men who inhabit his dream. Even the fairy creature herself exists only as a product of mental recollection.

The blurring of these distinct modes of consciousness and existence rehearses a problem to which Keats persistently returns in his poetic career, centred on the question of 'was it a vision, or a waking dream? Do I wake or sleep?' ('Ode to a Nightingale', 79-80). In trying to formulate an adequate response, 'La Belle Dame Sans Merci' queries the nature of its own modes of consciousness and the fictive framework it employs to interpret the phenomenal universe. Keats's knight, like Peona, is unable to create a Wordsworthian fiction of consolation to soothe his abandonment. Instead he produces a negative fiction that can only disclose the ambiguous nature of his tragic predicament, but never transform his existing state. Keats's fascination with an alluring fairy creature reveals that his aspiration toward these imaginatively created symbols of the otherworldly were more often than not inter-woven with an awareness of reality's darkness; in Endymion's terms these imaginative encounters trigger a bewildering 'journey homeward to habitual self' (II, 276), troubled that the wondrous fairy creature of imagination may conceal the mischievous nature of the 'fog-born' elf (II, 277). Keats's romances create this ontological confusion by diagnosing the fictional status of both idealised and tragic interpretations of reality. [7]

Lamia's narrative questions how difficult it is to interpret the experiential world and discloses the fictional status of two apparently distinct interpretative modes. Lycius's encounter with the elfin Lamia exposes a much harsher reality concealed by, on one hand, a mask of sensual illusion and, on the other, an illusory sense of order in the form of a philosophical system. [8] What endangers Lamia's enchanted existence is Apollonius's desire to contain and define her nature within his philosophical 'catalogue of common things' (II, 233). In spite of Lycius's love for the fairy creature he cannot entirely shed his mentor's 'philosophic gown' (I, 364) and persists in trying to restrict Lamia's identity to a single name: ''Hast any mortal name, / Fit appellation to this dazzling frame?'' (II, 88-9). [9] Such an impulse to 'catalogue' existence will inevitably fail to categorise Lamia's elfin nature (a colourful blend of human and animal, lover and demon, mortal and immortal), which outwardly appears as a series of dissolving 'silver moons', eclipsed by shades of 'vermilion-spotted, golden, green and blue' (I, 48; 50; 52-65). Both Apollonius's and Lycius's final naming of Lamia as ''[a] serpent!'' reduces her to an inhuman 'frightful scream' (II, 305-6). The fairy creature's carefully woven illusion is undone by the 'cold philosophy' (II, 230) of mentor and student alike.

Naming Lamia, ironically, exposes Apollonius's false claim that language truly represents the world, because Lamia's loss of illusion produces a 'gordian shape' (I, 47) not of her former majesty, but a reptilian creature with impassive 'orbs' for eyes and a 'horrid presence' (II, 267). Apollonius's 'cold philosophy' does not give Lamia back her fairy form, but instead constructs his own empirically based vision of her as a serpent. Apollonius and Lamia are not diametrically opposed; rather they are two distinct aspects of the same illusory mode. Apollonius represents an impulse towards self-knowledge and Lamia is aligned with the illusory dream of an idealised mode of being. Neither Apollonius nor Lamia are willing to confront the fictional status of the order they impose upon the world.

Apollonius becomes a treacherous weaver of wizardry, entangling Lamia in his own illusory spell of philosophy, to conjure her up as a hideous parody of her former self and denounce her as a ''foul dream'' (II, 271). Lycius's initial response recreates Apollonius as a demonic trickster: ''[L]ook upon that gray-beard wretch! / Mark how, possess'd his lashless eyelids stretch / Around his demon eyes!'' (II, 287-9). Lamia's 'purple-lined palace of sweet sin' (II, 31) is another illusory retreat from reality. An elaborate product of an idealised fiction of order and being, it is as suffocating as Apollonius's restrictive philosophical education of Lycius:'[F]rom every ill / Of life I have preserv'd thee to this day!' (II, 297-8). Lamia's palace, for all its apparent abundance, is ultimately sterile and imitative, characterised by an artificial 'pervading brilliance and perfume' (II, 174) and its 'mimicking...[of]...a glade / Of palm' (II, 125-6). Even Lycius's journey - or rather magicking away 'by a spell' (I, 345) - to Lamia's haunt suggests a state of sleep-walking which blurs distinctions between waking and dreaming, knowing and doing: 'They pass'd the city gates, he knew not how, / So noiseless, and he never thought to know' (I, 348-9).

At first glance, Corinth appearing to Lycius '[a]s men talk in a dream' (I, 350) might suggest he is embarking upon a transcendental voyage, when actually, he is receding from reality into a superficial bower of sensual bliss. Lamia does not escape her 'wreathed tomb' (I, 38), exchanging incarceration within a serpentine body for imprisonment within her self-constructed palace, held hostage by Corinthian society. Lamia's blessing and curse is to live out her existence within her illusory private realm. To recognise Lamia's fictional status is to unravel her own mode of existence, disclosing a very real awareness of individual terror and tragedy hidden previously by her enchanting illusions.

Lycius links these two kinds of illusory modes in Lamia, fulfilling both the role of philosophic apprentice to the cerebral Apollonius and passionate lover to the sensual Lamia. The youth dies disillusioned, forced to acknowledge that Lamia and Apollonius are two different kinds of 'deceiving elf' ('Ode to a Nightingale', 74). His death at the close of the poem is a macabre representation of the illusory dream mode disclosing its realistic counterpart. A public ceremony of marriage should have united the lovers, but instead it separates them forever, as the act of matrimony leads only to the preparation of Lycius's funeral, symbolised by his 'marriage robe' becoming his death shroud (II, 311).

The stifling and exclusive fictions of Apollonius and Lamia are translated into actual tragedy. Not even Lamia's exquisite illusory dream mode can elide the reality of death, which bursts in upon her secluded palace when the Corinthian wedding guests arrive (a reminder of human reality beyond Lamia's enchanted circle). Lamia cannot exist isolated forever from Corinth in an illusory dream, because to possess a 'body fit for life' (I, 39) demands an acceptance of human tragedy and death. The lovers' retreat into an artificial romance bower is violated by external social pressures, symbolic of darker forces repressed by Lamia's magical existence.

Unlike Porphyro and Madeline, in The Eve of St. Agnes, who apparently elude a tragic encounter with social pressures by eloping (not undertaking a public ceremony of marriage) [10] and escaping undetected from a castle's hostile society. Such a positive reading of the lovers' elopement suggests that their escape be from the dark reality of the castle's interior to an ideal existence beyond the confinement of its walls. [11] But the castle is only a set for the narrative's dramatic action, intended to enhance The Eve of St. Agnes's fairy-tale atmosphere. The interior of the castle is not entirely dark, because its inhabitants and structure conspire with Madeline and Porphyro. Their escape is aided by a benign beldame, a drunken Porter, an ineffectual 'bloodhound', 'bolts [which] full easy slide' and 'chains that lie silent on the footworn stone' (363-9).

Keats's lovers do not retreat from dark reality into an illusory dream mode, even if their story is absorbed into legend's ideal and immutable realm. Instead Porphyro and Madeline flee from a magical castle - itself a product of ideal illusion - into a troubled 'storm' of tragic reality (371). [12] The treachery of their flight into a dawn storm can be gauged from Porphyro's optimistic description of it as an ''elfin-storm from faery land'' (343) which, recalling Endymion's perilous 'fog-born elf' (II, 276), anticipates a return to a 'habitual self' (II, 277) and reality's darkness. The youthful lovers fail to transcend the perils of human existence, because whether they remain within or without the castle their fate is predicted by the beldame and Beadsman; the first '[d]ied palsy-twitch'd' and the other 'unsought for slept among his ashes cold' (377-9). In spite of the lovers' vibrance their untold future is blighted by the prospect of death, as the passage of time will inevitably consign them to a similar deathly state.

Narrative emphasis is placed on loss and unfulfilment, as central to The Eve of St. Agnes is Madeline's unrealised dream and sexual encounter with Porphyro. Even the castle's austerely gothic interior does not predict a hoped for regeneration, instead it depicts a series of fixed inarticulate 'carven imag'ries' (209) of the 'sculptur'd dead' . This interior marks out Keats's fairy-tale castle as 'old romance['s]' (41) last bastion and final tomb, existing without a regenerative voice to ensure either a rejuvenation of the lovers or the world of romance. Porphyro's expression of love for Madeline verbally re-enacts a courtly legend captured in 'an ancient ditty, long since mute' (291). Equally, Madeline performing her rite of 'St. Agnes' Eve' (46) seeks to voice the romance of what 'she had heard old dames full many times declare' (45) meaningfully into the present. These efforts to translate the 'dumb oratories' (16) of 'old romance' (41) into articulate active love are surrounded by the castle's suppression of sound: 'The kettle-drum, and far-heard clarinet, / Affray his ears, though but in dying tone: - / The hall door shuts again, and all the noise is gone' (259-61). Madeline also lapses into silence, as her attempt to re-enact courtly tradition leads to her being 'hoodwink'd with faery fancy' (70) and incapable of one 'uttered syllable' (203). [13] Even after she awakes from her enchanted sleep she is only able 'to moan forth witless words with many a sigh' (303).

Despite being within the castle's safe haven, Madeline's dream is not a consolatory ideal illusion, rather a disclosure of 'old romance['s]' fictional status. This dream experience discloses an awareness of absence, desertion and unfulfilment, reflecting the illusory mode's adoption of a tragic language of negative fiction. Madeline's new found speech - echoing Keats's abandoned knight - desires an idealised 'old romance' (41), preferring her own imaginatively created Porphyro over his actual presence: ''how chang'd thou art! how pallid, chill, and drear! / 'Give me that voice again, my Porphyro, / 'Those looks immortal, those complainings dear!'' (311-13). When Madeline does speak her desire is not the present voice of Porphyro, instead she longs after her own forever absent dream-representation of his voice and identity. [14]

Just as Porphyro's recitation of ''La Belle Dame Sans Merci'' reduces him to a silent form, who fears 'to move or speak' (306) and resembles the stonework figures decoratively carved on the castle's walls: 'Upon his knees he sank, pale as smooth-sculptured stone' (297). [15] Such a resemblance intimates that Porphyro and Madeline will be absorbed into a tradition of courtly legend. Porphyro will be absorbed into a tradition of heroic lovers when his actions are consistent with being a voyeur, skulking in a 'closet' (164-7), and appearing to Madeline's eyes as ''pallid, chill and drear'' (311). Not even in this fairy-tale world is Porphyro ascribed a role of handsome prince and legitimate suitor. Instead, he is an inexperienced paramour who makes 'jellies soother than the creamy curd' (266) rather than love. Porphyro only serves Madeline with luxuriant and exotic dishes in an attempt to overwhelm her pervading sense of absence with sheer abundance. Yet Madeline's realisation that life is ''eternal woe'' (314) cannot be avoided. The lovers' sexual encounter is framed between Madeline fearing for Porphyro's death and Porphyro hearing the ''iced gusts'' of an ''elfin-storm'' (327; 343): 'At these voluptuous accents, he arose, / Ethereal, flush'd, and like a throbbing star / Seen mid the sapphire heaven's deep repose; / Into her dream he melted...' (317-20). Keats's portrayal of their love-making, as an idealistic union between Madeline's dream of Porphyro and his actual presence is an act of supplementation, [16] which points towards a deathly absence, represented by those darker forces lurking beyond the walls of Keats's fairy-tale castle.

The Eve of St. Agnes's portrayal of an idealised romance and dream threatens at every narrative instance to unravel itself, laying bare those elements of reality banished from Keats's enchanted castle. Silence and death remain a constantly deferred threat to the lovers, even after they have 'fled away into the storm' (371). The narrative projects their escape into the past of immortal legend to preserve them against the ravages of time, represented by the beldame and Beadsman. The Eve of St. Agnes moves full circle from the lifeless existence of a beldame and Beadsman to the hopeful fulfilment of youthful love - or the recovery of idealised 'old romance' (41) - to return only to the inevitable social reality of death. A retelling of Porphyro's and Madeline's legend will once again conjure up and break the castle's charmed circle, exposing its own tentative existence - undoing the spell of its enchanted spot - to disclose what tragedy its illusory mode struggles to conceal.

In retelling Boccaccio's medieval romance, Keats ironically discloses this precarious existence of the idealising visionary mode, as Isabella's modern narrator establishes a direct relation between the tragic love affair of the poem's two lovers and the active retelling of their story. [17] Readers are forced to share not simply in the initial delight of the lovers, but in the responsibility of the discovery of their secret by Isabella's brothers, because the narrator reveals their secret meeting place to them. Lorenzo's demise emanates from his social illegitimacy, as in the eyes of Isabella's brothers; he is a lowly and unsuitable suitor. The romantic 'bower of hyacinth and musk' (85), for all its atmosphere of closed secrecy and concealment in the half-light 'before the dusk' (83), is to be engulfed in the darkness of a tragic 'woe' (88). The reader is implicated in this 'woe' through those 'idle ears' (88) that will share and have shared in the 'many doleful stories' (93). Keats's narrator ensures this bower of illusion is explicitly aware of its own fictional attempt to conceal the tragic mode, so the modern and gothic nature of Isabella's narrative is forced to disclose itself. Similarly, the lovers' secrecy, or the secrecy of the brothers' 'jealous conference' (169) to murder Lorenzo, or Isabella's secret re-planting of her lover's head in the basil-pot (stanza 52), are also disclosed through a retelling of Boccaccio's tale. Boccaccio's original story becomes, for Keats, a symbol of fast-fading traditional romance (145-7; 149-52), which is about to be displaced by his own darker, ironical and often, black-humoured account of the ill-fated love affair of Isabella and Lorenzo.

Lorenzo returns (from beyond the grave) to pay a midnightly visitation to Isabella, appearing as a spectre to divulge the secret of his murder. The ghostly Lorenzo hovers on the edge of human existence as a 'pale shadow' (281), who enacts a gothic death-in-life state, with 'cold doom / Upon his lips', a 'lorn voice' and a 'miry channel for his tears' (277-8; 279; 280). Keats's description of Lorenzo's words as a 'strange sound' accompanied by a 'ghostly under-song', ensures the voice synecdoche displaces the description of his physical state (287), so that the his of Lorenzo's earthly semblance can be substituted for the supernatural and neuter form of '[i]ts eyes, though wild, were still all dewy bright' (my italic, 289).

Enthralled by a pair of eyes, rather like Keats's knight, Isabella does not produce a consoling fiction of the illusory dream mode. Lorenzo's visitation reveals her brothers' dark deeds, his own dishevelled appearance, and withdraws to leave 'atom darkness in a slow turmoil' (322). Despite the tragedy and horror of the situation, conscious bathos pervades Isabella's narrative tone, so that Lorenzo's account of his own under-handed death appears as, on 'the sodden turfed dell / Where, without any word, from stabs he fell' (296), or his love's grief and exhaustion amounts to, '[i]t made sad Isabella's eyelids ache' (my italics, 327). Such bathetic comments prepare the way for Isabella's transfixed gaze into Lorenzo's eyes to pass into her later fixation with a basil-pot, containing her lover's recovered head and the plant weaned on tears (425-8). Isabella's dotage on the 'fast mouldering head' dramatises the predicament of the illusory visionary mode, persistently blighted by an awareness of the pain and mutability of human existence, which it claims to elide. Lorenzo's decaying head and the growing basil plant become Isabella's only source of focus and consolation, acting as a grotesque parody of the life-sustaining and life-perfecting ideal sought out by the questor of romance. Nurturing the basil plant with 'the continual shower / From her dead eyes' may drain Isabella's 'drooping' body (452-3; 458), but there is little doubt that, without the preserving solace she derives from its 'magic touch' (459), 'sweet Isabel...will die' (486).

For Isabella the secret of Lorenzo's concealed head is important, because it substitutes, rather perversely, the secret love she once shared with him. Naturally, when this secret - like that of their love - is discovered and taken by her brothers to a 'secret place' (474) Isabella is beside herself with grief. The brothers' appropriation of Isabella's final secret condemns their sister to misery, because she has lost even the decayed and tattered remnant of her secret and private exchanges with Lorenzo, whether earthly or supernatural. Worse still, Isabella's 'lone and incomplete' (487) state is a product of what she cherishes most, an intimate secret, although one known only to her brothers, who have fled Florence (478-80). Isabella is destined to spend the rest of her days in search of the 'secret place'. She never resorts to transcendental fictions of consolation, instead deriving comfort from what can be salvaged of Lorenzo's physical body, in this instance the re-discovery of the hidden basil-pot along with Lorenzo's decomposing head. Even as Isabella descends into insane obsession, black humour is still present in her 'lorn voice', characterised by a 'melodious chuckle in the strings' (492; 491). The enchanting and ideal world of romance is forced by Keats's narrator to unpick the fabric of its own illusory fictions, reducing itself to the chant, heard by 'idle ears' and passed onto others, ''O cruelty, / To steal my basil-pot away from me!'' (503-4).

The lovers in Keats's narrative poems cannot remain within the interior safety of their own illusory and private fictions, as they must legitimise their identities and existence in the exterior public sphere, if their love is not to become sterile and suffocating. Such lovers' illusory strongholds against mutability are constantly tested by tragic realisations and the, often, suffocating infertility that their self-imposed isolation produces. Retelling their love affairs involves a suspension of the lovers between the illusory and tragic modes, enabling a re-enactment of their youthful amorous encounters and ensuring their place amongst the established canon of romance. Consequently, Keats's lovers remain forever on the verge of regeneration and unregenerated, eternally suspended like the unconsummated couple portrayed on the Grecian Urn or the 'sculptur'd dead' (The Eve of St. Agnes, 14) fashioned on the castle's walls.

Explorations of the alluring literary terrain of romance provided the younger Keats with a greater scope for his unpractised creative powers but the genre was never, for him, a straightforward retreat from the tensions and pressures of reality. Keats's poetry depicts visionary states that point towards a haunting of idealised fictions by the reality they feign to elude. This poetic anxiety emerges in Keats's world of romance as a succession of hauntings. Isabella is haunted by the loss of her murdered lover, the knight-at-arms is forever tormented by an encounter with a fairy creature, Endymion is troubled by the absence of Cynthia, Lycius's philosophic enquiry disrupted by Lamia's presence, and Madeline's waking hours unsettled by her dream. Self-consciously modern, Keats's romances play out and critique existing anxieties and tensions integral to this literary genre. Keats understood that fictions of idealised dreams have the potential to disclose waking nightmares of reality. Out of the once safe haven of romance's brilliant illusory bowers, Keats successfully induces a birth of tragedy.