Reading John Keats
Susan J. Wolfson
Cambridge University Press, 2015
There is a scene in Bright Star, Jane Campion’s 2009 biopic about John Keats, in which Keats discovers that his friend, Charles Brown, has sent a valentine to Keats’s beloved, the young Fanny Brawne. Brown defends his conduct as a jest, spitefully observing, “It is a game. It is a game to her. She collects suitors.” Keats reacts violently, grabbing Brown by the lapels and rebuking him: “There is a holiness to the heart’s affections: know you nothing of that?” Brown, the older man, is a cynic whose scorn betrays small-mindedness and a lack of understanding; Keats is the idealist, who embodies romantic sincerity. Yet the “holiness of the Heart’s affections” is a quotation lifted from one of Keats’s letters, a letter about the “authenticity of Imagination”. It is concerned with aesthetics. He is speaking not with the passion of a lover, but with the rapture of a poet.
Bright Star’s dramatic moment of personal conflict is thus a fiction which distorts the historical personality it purports to portray. In the film, Keats’s letters and poems are made subservient to the plot, to the story of his romance. Yet Keats was not a confessional poet; his verse was not an autobiographical presentation of naked subjectivity. Bright Star, though, perpetuates the myth of Keats, rightly dismissed by Susan J. Wolfson as the “fable of a sensitive boy slain by hostile reviews.” By contrast, Reading John Keats provides a series of close readings of his greatest poems, informed by and condensing half a century of work by scholars of Romanticism, which illuminate Keats’s literary interests. The book serves its purpose well as an introduction to the nuances of Keats’s thought and poetic argument. Wolfson reminds us that the lyric “I” is so often in Keats an allegory, meaning another self. Keats’s ideal of the “chameleon Poet” was epitomised by Shakespeare’s ability to empathise poetically equally well with villains as with virtuous heroines. Wolfson usefully draws on the work of scholars such as Nicholas Roe and Jeffrey Cox to explain Keats’s position as a “cockney poet” (a low-class pretender), whose style challenged the establishment poetically. Politically, too, Keats was unorthodox, associated with the circle of the liberal journalist Leigh Hunt.
Wolfson’s Keats is an obsessive reader, a man who, had he been able to take advantage of a university education, “would have been a star student.” His poetry is the product of intensive study, debate and re-examination, such that “Reading John Keats is always to encounter John Keats reading.” The literary forebears to whom Keats turns form a recognisable pantheon: Edmund Spenser, William Shakespeare, John Milton, and William Wordsworth, but Wolfson’s elucidation of their importance is no less illuminating for its familiarity. Wolfson’s 1986 study The Questioning Presences treated Keats’s relationship with Wordsworth at length, and in Reading John Keats she distils the main discussion. Keats preferred Wordsworth’s explorations of human emotion to Milton’s theology, but, for Keats, Wordsworth’s genius was undercut by his “egotistical sublime”: his tendency to make definitive pronouncements about the significance of experiences and relate the external world to his own personality. From studying these poetics, Keats developed his principle of “negative capability”, the capacity for creating poetry from the uncertainty and doubt provoked by his experience of the world. Wolfson elucidates the process by which Keats formulated and refined this critical theory when writing his poems. She traces an ongoing process by which Keats reinterpreted his influences in order to promote his aesthetic.
Wordsworth’s presence is felt throughout Reading John Keats, but he does not dominate. Keats self-consciously measured himself against Shakespeare and Milton, attempting to match their achievements. However, his attempts at epic and tragedy were either unfinished, or immature. His greatest poetic achievements were realised in sonnets, lyrical odes, and narrative romances. These genres were associated with a female readership, and the snobbery directed against him as a “cockney poet” figured him as effeminate. Keats’s gender and genre anxieties are carefully explored by Wolfson. She provides a compelling reading of Keats’s sonnet ‘On Sitting Down to Read King Lear Once Again’, which demonstrates how the “point by point refusal of Romance for tragedy” advanced is undermined fatally by the last couplet, “But when I am consumed in the fire, / Give me new Phoenix wings to fly at my desire.” Here, there is “the stretched meter of the last line, a hexameter born out of pentameters, analogous to the last line of the Spenserian stanzas that build The Faerie Queene. Keats talks tragedy, but lingers in a form from Romance.” Wolfson adeptly navigates Keats’s generic confusion, a mixed literary inheritance which led to his best work.
The great strength of this study is that Wolfson presents the development of Keats’s narrative poems as a response and challenge to the characterisation of his work by critics and the reading public. Keats’s reading ensured that he wrote romances which refused to conform to traditional ideas of the genre, meaning that “Flirting with and subverting Romance arguably becomes Keats’s modern mode.” ‘Isabella’, the first composed of Keats’s romances, is explained by Wolfson as demonstrating “ungentleness”. The tale itself is one of murder, mutilation, and grief, and hints at incest, removing it far from the indolent escapism previously associated with Keats. ‘Isabella’’s “proto-Marxian” depiction of widespread exploitation of the labouring class directly confronts the material conditions that enable the aristocratic luxury at the centre of romance. Cruelty is not to be forgotten, nor dismissed as an aberration: it is endemic to the class structures idealised by the genre. The violence and greed of ‘Isabella’ was followed by the explicit eroticism of ‘The Eve of St Agnes’, a voyeuristic piece that breached the bounds of propriety in a deliberate attempt to attract a male audience. The poem’s ending, which relates the death of the secondary characters after the protagonists have escaped, concludes by shifting the sentiment from sexual fervour to Byronic mockery. Keats blurs genres, complicates registers and combines influences as he destabilises the certainties of the poetic tradition he read. Wolfson thus provides an holistic view of Keats’s approach to the poetic craft. She combines an explication of his class and gender politics with a continued focus on his use of poetic form and narrative.
Consequently, Wolfson is able to trace the genesis and refinement of Keats’s aesthetic theory through his poems. ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci’ is a significant development, a poem in which sustained doubling produces a “lyricized ballad (its action not just over, but unknowable)”, where “Keats is on the verge of conceiving a deliberate poetry from self-questioning.” Wolfson’s treatment of Keats’s “Odes” demonstrates this tendency by paying close attention to their rhymes, metrical patterns and structures. The ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ is a “self-listening poem” in which phrases and sounds repeat with different meaning, casting their original use in new light and demanding reconsideration. Her reading of the ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ is an extended treatment on Keats’s use of sight rhymes to provide parallel meaning to the auditory, a double structure which enhances the poem’s focus on the balance and competition between knowledge and sensuality, truth and beauty. In ‘Ode on Melancholy’ the doubling is similarly prominent: the ironies of repeated images and echoes of earlier sounds render aesthetic achievement and self-annihilation as one experience in their realisation.
The potential of this approach is best realised in Lamia, the story of a serpentine femme fatale, where the apparently misogynistic metaphor is balanced by the moral defects of its male characters. Wolfson explores the poem as “gordian”: twisted, complicated and unstable. In Milton’s Paradise Lost, the term connotes satanic deception, but applied to Lamia it indicates an ambivalent response to an ambiguous presentation. Lamia, both the character and the poem, are difficult to read: is Lamia, asks Wolfson, “a Satanic artist or an imprisoned lover”? And does the poem pity or ruthlessly expose the delusions of lovers? A debate is enacted in the poem between ‘cold philosophy’ (scientific reasoning) and the charms of beauty. Lamia’s beauty is deceptive, but only because it is exposed to the unrelenting logic of the philosopher. One would expect Keats to side with beauty. However, as Wolfson observes, by representing beauty in the form of a serpentine seductress, Keats treats his own natural tendency to celebrate “beauty” to ironic mockery.
Keats may elevate the poet above the philosopher, but, according to Wolfson, his “thinking is more zig-zag than linear.” His approach is dialectical and it is this clash which drives his poetry. In Reading John Keats, Susan J. Wolfson provides a suitably agile account of his gordian poetics. The condensed style of the book matches her subject, Keats’s astonishingly ore-laden verse. Rereadings of Wolfson’s analysis are necessary and can often prove fruitful, although sometimes her prose remains elliptical. However, her concision is, in general, a virtue, forming suggestive comments that will send her reader scurrying to read John Keats again.
Jacob Lloyd  is studying for a DPhil in English at Balliol College, Oxford. His thesis explores the political poetics of Samuel Taylor Coleridge.