The artist Benjamin Haydon said of Keats, probably with affectionate disapproval, that ‘one day he was full of an epic poem! – another, epic poems were splendid impositions on the world, – never for two days did he know his own intentions.’ Haydon’s canvases have something in common with Keats’s more ambitious poems in that they lack the basic confidence of genre; they are trying to do something new according to an old recipe. It was a Romantic dilemma, and the fact that anything could be tried out made what might be termed a natural originality difficult to obtain. The many ‘modernisms’ of the 20th century found it much easier. In terms of style and genre, Wordsworth and Coleridge continued to rely on the 18th-century tradition of ballad and didactic poem, while Byron had successfully romanticised the more robust traditions of Dryden and Pope. Keats would read himself into style through a much more unstable and challenging model – Shakespeare.
The process is fairly familiar, but R.S. White, the author of two excellent books on Shakespearean romance and tragedy, has examined it in detail and come up with a host of fresh examples and insights. His book makes a good complement to John Barnard’s more general but also innovative study in the new Cambridge introductions to ‘British and Irish Authors’, a high-quality series which includes Patrick Parrinder on James Joyce and John Batchelor on H.G. Wells. Barnard gets a great deal into his short book, presenting a rather different Keats from that of the many other Keats scholars and biographers. Keats’s vividness has been present to his admirers in many forms. In Abinger Harvest E.M. Forster had the idea of doing a kind of anonymous life of a young man in Regency London, quoting Keats’s letters and describing his hopes and fears and his family and financial troubles, but not mentioning him by name. It brought the actual Keats, before the legend began, very close. Barnard’s treatment has something of the same literalising effect.
Indeed, he sees the word ‘literal’ as having a quite special importance in relation to Keats.
The ultimate literalness of Keats’s mind is that of the common reader. The directness and uncomforting honesty of the questions he proposes allow neither the poet nor his reader to slip past them. As a post-Romantic the modern reader inhabits the situation defined by the claims and disclaimers of Keats’s poetry.
This is true. Keats’s existence, and his sense of it, is a very contemporary one: it is post-Romantic and post-Nietzschean. Shelley seems old-fashioned beside him, a man still living in a settled world of religion and ideology. Yet at the same time Keats’s art, and his true sense of it, is extraordinarily ‘conservative’, as that of the common reader usually is. His most natural feeling for art is as an escape route from human ills, an escape into romance, into women’s magazines, into poetry, where all disagreeables evaporate. In the ferment of creation they are all muddled together. Hence Keats’s strenuous and touchingly impressive attempts to distinguish chambers of maiden thought in vales of soul-making, to write grave allegories about art and the human condition, to write finally and bitterly that he had no faith whatever in poetry – ‘I only wonder that people read so much of it.’ The reference must be to the fact that there was money in poetry if you wrote the right sort – like Scott’s – because people, chiefly women, did indeed read so much of it. The young Keats read Mary Tighe’s verses with pleasure, and the Misses Porter, of Romance fame, admired his ‘Endymion’. Barnard is right to emphasise just how important the market for poetry was, which was why Taylor and Hessey, the young firm which took over Keats’s Poems of 1817 from Charles Ollier, were prepared to treat him so generously. They did the same for Clare. In the event, neither poet made it commercially: in Keats’s case, because success had to be on his own terms, and these went against the grain of his natural genius.
He did not want to write the sort of ‘unmisgiving’ poetry (Leigh Hunt’s remarkable adjective) which came, with help from Shakespeare, like the leaves to the tree. If Keats had possessed the native cynicism of Leigh Hunt himself, or – a rather different kind – of Robert Bloomfield, the rustic poet who in 1804 had been paid nearly £4000 for his two little volumes, he would have ruined his gift but he might have made big money. As it was, his best things are so good because they were not the things he wanted to do. The leaves the tree put out neither satisfied his ambition nor made for commercial success. But Leigh Hunt shrewdly opined that ‘The Eve of St Agnes’ was the best poem he wrote, and modern criticism is just beginning uneasily to wonder if he may not have been right. Scott had made his fortune out of poetry even before he began writing novels, and a Keats cast in Leigh Hunt’s mould might eventually have followed him, making a trinity with Mrs Radcliffe.
For it was ‘Mother Radcliffe’ whom Keats had in mind when he borrowed the Romeo and Juliet motif and turned it into Gothic romance for the poem he always referred to as ‘St Agnes Eve’. The formula worked beautifully, and goodness knows how many Victorian young ladies identified with Madeline, even though Mrs Carlyle was sourly to remark that the poem read as if a seamstress had eaten something too rich for supper and then gone to sleep on her back. And of course Keats turned against the poem, as he habitually did when he had done something marvellous: either that or ignored it, as he did with the ‘Ode to Autumn’. As Barnard points out, he detested the thought of writing for a female public, and in two successive prefaces he had done his utmost to put both public and reviewers against him by proclaiming that this was youthful, rubbishy stuff which he hoped to get over soon.
Keats turned against the poem because it was mawkish and might seem to appeal to women. Oddly enough, some rather similar ideas were going through Byron’s head when he gave up writing romances and turned to Don Juan, that – in intention – derisively masculine poem. But the change that Keats wished on ‘St Agnes Eve’ spoilt its old effect without producing a convincing new one, as his friends and publisher pointed out. He wanted the seduction to be no romance, but explicit and cynical, and went on about how he would have been ashamed to leave a young lady in the virgin state he found her; and instead of the magic of those ages long ago in which his lovers fled away into the storm, he announced that in the concluding lines of the poem he wished to ‘leave on the reader a sense of pettish disgust’.
Angela went off
Twitch’d by the palsy: and with face deform
The Beadsman stiffen’d – ‘twixt a sigh and laugh
Ta’en sudden from his beads by one weak little cough.
That is bad in every way, but chiefly in its pretension to be tough, realistic and lifelike. It misses out on everything, yet it is full of Keats’s touchingly expressed wish to write poetry that ‘cannot be laughed at in any way’.
He was in an impossible position, which might well have led him, had he kept his health, to have given up writing poetry altogether. Self-criticism never really helped him, and he could not see how the incongruous factors in ‘St Agnes Eve’ nonetheless worked together to make it the kind of masterpiece adored by the Victorians. Porphyro, ‘brushing the cobwebs with his lofty plume’ in true ‘Mother Radcliffe’ style (yet who but Keats would have seen a helmet plume as brushing the cobwebs?), is a figure of complex human and poetic origins, a voyeur and would-be seducer who is also a rapt adoring lover longing to make Madeline his bride. Troilus, Iachimo and Romeo are present in him, but he is also very much his Keatsian self, like one of the ‘carvèd angels, ever eager-eyed’. There is a strong contrast, very typical of Keats’s poetry, between the raptness of this ‘unmisgiving’ mixture and Keats’s own touchy self-consciousness about how he wanted a public – and a masculine public – to respond to it, the men who, represented by Byron, were prepared to think ‘Hyperion’ very fine. R.S. White points out that Keats paid very special attention to Touchstone’s words in As You Like It about an audience’s failure to understand what a poet would be at. ‘When a man’s verses cannot be understood, nor a man’s good wit seconded with the forward child Understanding, it strikes a man more dead than a great reckoning in a little room.’ Keats was less interested in Shakespeare’s reference to Marlowe’s sudden slaying in the Deptford tavern than in Touchstone’s plea for understanding, a ‘greeting of the spirit’, in which the poet’s audience engages in a collaborative reading of his meanings. And he went so far as to quote the whole passage in an attack on Dr Johnson’s notes at the end of the play.
The whole dilemma is more significant than perhaps even Keats realised. He hated the idea of an audience, mostly of ladies, who would swoon at the romantic beauties in his story, as they had done over the ‘Last Minstrel’, and Parisina, and the Giaour, and so he tried hard to appeal to manly sophistication and knowingness. His friend Woodhouse saw the point, but took a defeatist line in Keats’s eyes: ‘As the poem was orig. written, we innocent ones (ladies – myself) might very well have supposed that Porphyro, when acquainted with Madeline’s love for him ... set himself at once to persuade her to go off with him ... to be married. But, as it is now altered, as soon as M has confessed her love, P instead winds by degrees his arms round her, presses breast to breast, and acts all the part of a bona fide husband, while she fancies she is only playing the part of a Wife in a dream ... and tho’ all is left to inference, and tho’ profanely speaking, the interest on the reader’s imagination is greatly heightened, yet I do apprehend it will render the poem unfit for laides, – indeed scarcely to be mentioned to them among the “things that are”.’ The real point, perhaps, is that both Keats and Woodhouse are underestimating the taste, sense and understanding of the ‘ladies’. Jane Austen and her readers would have seen what the poem would be at, in either version; and would realise how much it was dealing with ‘things that are’, as Shakespeare dealt with them, just because of ‘the interest on the reader’s imagination’. Keats is as usual his own worst enemy, his genius profoundly at odds with his intentions. When those intentions are really in control, as in the two ‘Hyperion’ poems, and he is producing something gravely and nobly masculine, the poetry, in spite of superb lines and phrases, goes two-dimensional and dead. But it would tax a Roland Barthes to do justice to the inner life of ‘St Agnes Eve’, as of the Odes, and all their supremely felicitous incongruity. And it is essentially Shakespearean. Here again Keats misunderstood himself. He imagined he could only be Shakespearean by ‘writing a few fine plays’. But into the verbal texture of ‘St Agnes Eve’ and the Odes he got more of the Shakespearean spirit than any other poet had done then, or has done since. This is not to say that the poems are not things of their own kind, highly romantic poems, which in the case of ‘St Agnes Eve’ make an important contribution to Victorian romanticism. That romanticism could be defined as a genre which, knowingly or unknowingly, exploited with great elaboration the rich difference between ‘things that are’ and things that the day-dreaming and self-sustaining imagination created and cherished. In the ‘Morte D’Arthur’, ‘The Lady of Shalott’ and other such poems, Tennyson was to show that he well understood where the distinction lay. He and other Victorians worked with feeling, and finally with complacency, the poetic ore that Keats had both unmisgivingly and unintentionally turned up. And the human and artistic problems involved, the literal questions that absorbed and distracted Keats, they took for granted with the kind of graceful obeisance to suffering humanity that Tennyson makes in ‘The Palace of Art.’
Keats could not understand how much ‘things that are’ had got into ‘St Agnes Eve’, into its vision and feel for life. He was bogged down among the unmentionables, details and queries which are certainly absurd, but whose very absurdity is part of the livingness of a poem. Jack Stillinger, who in spite of his scrupulous editing takes the rather insensitive view that the poem is showing Madeline up as a silly girl whose seduction is her own fault, concludes that whether it ‘is a good poem depends in large part on the reader’s willingness to find in it a consistency and unity that may not in fact be there’. Of course the critic can always find them, but in the sense in which he uses the terms in relation to Keats they are not worth having. The poem sustains its own incongruities, artistic and psychological. Of course, Madeline is a silly girl, but she is also good, loving, warm-hearted. Porphyro, the voyeur who takes advantage of her, is also a good and honourable young man. Keats has boxed himself comically in, where the emphasis of his own alteration is concerned, by insisting that his hero make love, like an incubus, to a sleeping girl, and without waking her up: an undeniably difficult feat, even if the girl were not, as Madeline is, a virgin. A nice point, as Punch’s Handelsmann might say, but one that any Victorian poem based on the kind of distinction and incongruity I have indicated would invisibly accommodate. The Victorian public accepted without question the sex in Christina Rossetti’s ‘Goblin Market’ and her brother William Michael was one of Keats’s most enthusiastic critics. Did not Tennyson return a robust reply when FitzGerald objected that his Lady of the Lake could hardly have forged Excalibur (‘Nine years she wrought it, sitting in the deeps/Upon the hidden bases of the hills’) sitting down?
Barnard has a sensible grasp of the complex issues which contribute to the rich success of ‘St Agnes Eve’ – Keats’s own turbulent and dissatisfied attitude being one of them. Clearly he wrote much of the poem – much of all his poetry – in the mood of Porphyro himself, gazing with entranced devotion on Madeline’s ‘empty dress’. But the poem itself also contains his disillusion with that mood, quite apart from his wilful insistence on changing the poem’s end. All his greatest poetic effects are founded on this kind of instability, deep inside their verbal texture. The word ‘rich’, naturally a favourite with Keats, is itself both casual and devout. The line in the Nightingale Ode – ‘Now more than ever seems it rich to die’ – sounds the tone both of the romantic, sorrowful daydreamer and of a negligently vulgar young man laughing with his friends about how it would be rich to run down to Putney with their girlfriends and a dozen of claret. Keats does not aim for such an effect, but it is present nonetheless in all its verbal immediacy, as it is in the second stanza of the ‘Ode to Melancholy’.
Or if thy mistress some rich anger shows,
Emprison her soft hand, and let her rave,
And feed deep, deep upon her peerless eyes.
As Barnard points out, the mistress is both girlfriend and goddess, the personified being of the next stanza who
dwells with Beauty, beauty that must die
And Joy whose hand is ever at his lips
‘The lines invite the charge of callous, even sadistic, indifference to the mistress’s feelings,’ says Barnard. ‘In defence it has been argued that this is an example of Keatsian intensity.’
The girl is both mistress and goddess, but while
this ambiguity helps some of the way, it does not altogether answer the objection and raises another. Ought a lover to allow his mistress to rave while he feeds on her eyes? Is it in character for the goddess Melancholy to ‘rave’ at her devotee? The human and fictive levels do not satisfactorily support one another.
Here we are back at the Keatsian ‘literals’, and the trouble they cause, even though that trouble is very much a part of the experience of real concentration on the poetry. Barnard’s close criticism of the Odes is as revealing as R.S. White’s detailed exposition of Shakespeare parallels. Yet Barnard cannot resist adding a note of moral and aesthetic disapprobation, as so many Keatsian scholars – notably Garrod – have done. Should a lover seduce a sleeping girl, or encourage his mistress to rave by imprisoning her hand? In the ‘Ode to Melancholy’ Keats did his best to strike a worldly note, and a suitably masculine world-weary attitude, with which ‘to upset the drawling of the bluestocking literary world’. He even wrote, and cancelled, a knowingly grotesque first stanza, which Harold Bloom maintained gave the Ode its proper tone. But there is no proper tone here, any more than there is in the other Odes – only the ‘human and fictive’, interchanging in their typically and unmisgivingly Keatsian manner: real girls and marble girls, goddesses and mistresses, nightingales actual and mythological, always and naturally mixed up. The ladies wouldn’t have minded. The last irony for poor Keats is that it is the gentlemen whom he was trying to impress, and to get on his side, who have been most apt to do so.