Looking back to September 1820, when things had gone badly wrong but not yet so grotesquely as to be visibly beyond repair, we can see how few and how poor Keats’s options were. Surely it was better that (in the absence of other volunteers) the young artist Joseph Severn agreed to travel with the dying poet to Rome that autumn than that he had refused. When we rerun the history in our minds, wishing to find a way to make it all happen differently, it is hard to know whether, for the sake of Keats and his literary afterlife, to keep Severn at his side during these last months or magically to erase him. Severn was affectionate; he was foolish; and the foolishness made the affection a little embarrassing and eventually damaging to them both. But to have someone familiar there to hold you up and soothe you as you drowned in your own dark blood, choking on the ‘clay-like expectoration’ from your dissolving lungs – this must be preferable to drowning and choking alone. The reader’s urge to rerun the story in order to repair the intolerable injustice may be embarrassing and damaging too.
Racing ahead of other threats – including syphilis, the mercury that Keats had prescribed himself to treat the syphilis, and the extreme anxiety caused by the mercury – tuberculosis was destroying Keats. His doctors (some of them eminent, some benevolent, none of them helpful) knew something was wrong (the violent haemorrhages were a clue) but disagreed about what precisely it was. They warned him he would not survive unless he took himself to a milder climate, avoided all sources of excitement, including writing, had himself rigorously and regularly and most redundantly bled, and refrained from eating more than would keep a starving man alive. Keats had trained in surgery, treated consumptive patients and nursed first his mother during the consumption that killed her and then his brother Tom. Though not well understood or treatable, the symptoms of what we know as tuberculosis were familiar enough. Keats recognised at once the colour and meaning of the arterial blood he vomited up and knew he would not survive.
When he left England with Severn he was for complicated reasons penniless and in practical terms homeless. His surviving brother, George, who would die of intestinal tuberculosis two decades later, was in America with his wife, Georgiana, trying to make his fortune; his dearest friend, Charles Armitage Brown, was on a summer walking tour, having frugally rented out the house he had been sharing with Keats since Tom’s death nearly two years before. No one would come with Keats to the warm climate his doctors prescribed. Keats’s friends had urgent responsibilities to their own families, their own expectations, their own ambitions, opportunities, anxieties. Perhaps, like George, they were sure that his situation could not be as desperate as he affected to think; or, like Brown, they had begun to regard him as someone of such irremediable need that it was easier to pretend his messages had failed to arrive. It was not a new pattern in Keats’s life, and it continued beyond his death: those he most trusted most distressingly failed him.
Keats spent his last weeks in England in the care of Mrs Brawne, after fleeing Leigh Hunt’s chaotic hospitality in a rage over the household’s careless treatment of a letter from his painfully beloved Fanny Brawne. But he needed to leave in order to spare her the sight of the horrors he knew were coming for him. Severn’s companionship, solicited (though with many reservations about its fitness) and funded by some of the more generous of Keats’s worried but immobile friends, was necessary to keep him alive long enough to reach Rome.
Severn was unserious but well-meaning, especially when meaning well brought such golden rewards as entrance to Rome in the role of a trusted protector, the proximity of patrons for his art, an excuse to run away from an illegitimate child he preferred not to acknowledge, and sentimental stories to tell about Keats, whose poetry was just beginning to attract critical admiration from readers beyond his social circle. There would be souvenirs, too, to attest to the stories’ sometimes dubious truth. Severn would dine out on tender recollections of Keats’s gestures of appreciation and gratitude for the rest of his life; a professional celebrity widow, he would stand in his rooms in Rome, furnished with what Sue Brown, in her judicious 2009 biography of Severn, describes as ‘props’ carefully and as if casually displayed to elicit from admiring visitors questions about his art and his relationship to Keats; he would recall what it had been like to be in the presence of the poet when he was inspired to compose, say, ‘Bright Star’ – not that he would know, because he hadn’t in fact been there. When late in life Severn fell into financial distress, he hocked Keats’s pocket watch; when he died, his tombstone in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome (erected next to Keats’s own, and designed to match it) declared yet once more to passers-by that he had been Keats’s ‘devoted friend and death-bed companion’. Not even death could put a stop to his photobombing of Keats’s life.
Before the journey to Rome, Severn was not precisely Keats’s friend and certainly not a chosen intimate. Aesthetic imagination was not a bond between them. Severn had what Andrew Motion has described as ‘a horrible tendency to sound both snobbish and fawning when talking about his posh connections’. For him, art was a means of social advancement and truth a thing to improve on. His artistic distinction was bogus. The merit of his art didn’t win him a travelling fellowship from the Royal Academy of Art, merely the fact that no one else put in for it; even so, the judges had been reluctant to give him an award. Still Severn boasted of it (according to Brown, who, together with Grant Scott in his fine 2005 edition of Severn’s letters and memoirs, gives a good sense of the tone of the man), lying to his friends about the money it brought him. Worse, he had been peripherally involved in the catfishing of Tom Keats as he lay dying, a prank that broke Tom’s heart and enraged Keats. In Rome, with little choice of acquaintance, Keats still (except in hours of febrile delirium) kept the things that most pained him to himself. Half a century later, when Keats’s letters to Fanny Brawne surfaced, Severn was vexed by this evidence that Keats had not been open with him about how overwhelmingly she mattered to him. But what would have been the point of such a confidence? Severn would not have understood.
His grief for Keats’s suffering was as genuine as any of his other emotions, and in Rome he was an attentive, patient and kind nurse. Appalled by Keats’s physical wretchedness and psychic disintegration, he did his best, wearing himself out to keep Keats alive, even against Keats’s will, even against the pressure of his own exhaustion. ‘I have these three nights sat up with him from the apprehension of his dying,’ he wrote to William Haslam two days before the end. ‘Dr Clark has prepared me for it – but I shall be but little able to bear it – even this my horrible situation I cannot bear to cease by the loss of him.’
Severn meant no harm in packaging those five months with Keats in 1820 and 1821 into affecting memories. He was too naive to have misgivings about using Keats for anecdotes in which he himself figured as the nobly self-sacrificing friend and witness. These sentimentalities he communicated to Shelley, who, less naive, used them to concoct in the elegy ‘Adonais’ a version of Keats as a ‘young flower … blighted in the bud’, a hapless youth attended in his need by ‘a young artist of the highest promise’ before being ‘hooted from the stage of life’. In another’s fate the critic-stung Shelley now wept his own. For Shelley’s friend Byron, already prepared to feel contempt, it was irresistibly amusing to think that the little Cockney ‘mankin’ who had once idolised him ‘should let itself be snuffed out by an Article’ from a hostile critic.
Keats seems to have been unusually vulnerable to misappropriation and misrepresentation, sometimes malicious, sometimes oblivious. It is tempting to lay the responsibility for this on what he called the poetical character and its lack of identity, an ideal egolessness he attributed to Shakespeare (who had been capable of entirely subordinating himself to the characters he wrote) and sometimes called ‘negative capability’: ‘that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason’. In a letter of 1818 to his friend Richard Woodhouse, Keats describes it like this:
When I am in a room with People if I ever am free from speculating on creations of my own brain, then not myself goes home to myself: but the identity of every one in the room begins to press upon me that, I am in a very little time an[ni]hilated – not only among Men; it would be the same in a Nursery of children.
It did not usually distress him; it did not normally feel to him as if he were being exploited to any unusual degree. What is unusual about him is the extent to which his exploitation seemed to mistake its own nature and take novel shapes, sometimes even presenting itself (in Severn’s case, and others) as love.
It has always been difficult to consider Keats fairly. Those who hold him in high regard do so for his later poetry and – unusually for a writer – for his character. His extraordinary letters so overflow with sociable intelligence and playfulness that reading him feels like receiving delight after brilliant, joyous, self-mocking delight, the best delight of all being the invitation to respond. He has a clear need for response – clear because so vividly imagined that it can feel like a presence. But the responses – mine among them – sometimes have been and sometimes still are problematic.
Keats’s background – his education, his precocity, his cultural style, and his friends and especially their representations of him – made him hard to place, and his social ambiguity became for his critics (some themselves what Gregory Dart in Metropolitan Art and Literature 1810-40: Cockney Adventures called ‘social amphibians’) a matter of derision. His parents managed a thriving London hostelry and inn, the Swan and Hoop, near Bedlam Hospital in Moorfields. In his 1963 biography Walter Jackson Bate represents the household as affectionate, and Keats in particular as brave, just and kind. In his 2012 biography, Nicholas Roe represents the young Keats as emotionally disturbed, prone to frighteningly violent outbursts (as when, at five years of age, he stood outside his mother’s bedroom with a toy sword, whether to prevent her from leaving or to prevent anyone from disturbing her is not clear); when he was old enough to go to school he was, Roe writes, ‘the school bully’. He represents the entire household as made toxic by Frances Keats’s alcoholism and troublesome sexual appetites. (The toxicity, in Roe’s view, was literal: Keats had a small head, seems to have had a slightly protruding upper lip and never grew past five feet, and Roe suggests he was a victim of foetal alcohol syndrome. If so, his extraordinary gifts would be particularly surprising, as would be his siblings’ escape from the syndrome.) We do know that Richard Abbey, the hostile, semi-incompetent, not quite honest tea merchant whom Keats’s grandmother Alice Jennings made trustee for the children’s inheritance (chosen because she admired his decision to adopt a two-year-old girl whose father had killed her mother), later told tales about Thomas Keats lavishing money on food and drink and Frances Keats lifting her skirts indecently high when she crossed mucky streets. To George, the only one of the children Abbey liked, he later said that Frances had been, like her own mother, a woman of extraordinary ‘talents and sense’.
When Keats was eight, Thomas Keats died falling from his horse while riding home one night after visiting his sons at school; Abbey (of course) supposed that he had been drunk. With Thomas’s death the family fractured. Frances ran away, abandoning the children to her parents, John and Alice Jennings. When she reappeared two months later it was to take over the lease on the Moorfields stables and transfer it to her new young husband, William Rawlings. Her parents watched as she drove their once prosperous business into the ground. Thinking to protect the children from the consequences of her recklessness, Frances’s father made a will that made plain his intention to provide for his wife, their son, Midgley John Jennings, and the Keats children. But John Jennings had no idea how to write a will that would survive the trouble and confusion it would provoke. His bad will made, the moiety of the estate awarded to his wife and his son (who was named executor), he died.
Frances learned from Midgley John that she would be receiving a pittance (a £50 annuity) and that any children she might yet have would receive nothing at all. She responded with rage, filing a Bill of Complaint in Chancery against her brother and her mother. Chancery decided against her. She bolted again. In the chaos the stables were lost and Rawlings dropped or was dropped out of Frances’s life; she took up with another man and did not return for four years. Had circumstances been different, the Keats children would have been able to call on Midgley John’s family for advice and support, but Frances’s behaviour had permanently alienated them. A part of the inheritance that should have become available to Frances’s children after Midgley John’s death was forgotten and, with it, the capital that would have funded her annuity had she survived. Abbey would later use the threat that Midgley John’s widow might take legal action against them as an excuse for withholding from the Keats children money due to them.
The damage cascaded through the rest of Keats’s life and the lives of his siblings. Had Thomas Keats not fallen from his horse, had Frances not spun out of control, Keats would still have puzzled his critics, but he might have been better defended against them. He would have been able, as a child, to learn things the way a child learns them, by trying them out and surviving the discovery of the occasional error. There would have been money, removing at least some obstacles and deterring some culturally motivated attacks. He would still have gone to John Clarke’s humane and intellectually progressive Enfield academy, where Leigh Hunt, the radical journalist, poet, critic and editor of the Examiner, was excitedly read, rather than Harrow, where his mother had once meant to send him; but he would have continued to university. His Latin was good (during his surgical apprenticeship he finished the prose translation of the Aeneid he had begun at Enfield); he would have added Greek. When he wrote of the flowers that he knew so well from the botanical delights of Enfield, the pleasures of his grandparents’ grounds at Edmonton and his later botany-heavy lectures in pharmacology, his verse would not have been taken for that of someone who had encountered such things only in riotous pleasure gardens and thus had no real right to speak of them. Time would not have pressed on him so urgently. He would not have felt he must hurtle from imitations, casual verse epistles and sonnets to his premature epic Endymion, shooting everything into print, where the poor impression they made very nearly outlived him. Had there been money, he might have been able to keep his brother George from going to America. He might even have been less frantically clutching in his relationship with Fanny Brawne. With money or without, tuberculosis would probably still have caught him, but he would have escaped the violent shear between his craving for poetry and his dread that, if he was to survive, it must be as a ship’s surgeon or a journalist or (Abbey’s suggestion, possibly not intended to insult him) a hatter.
But there was not enough money available to keep Keats in school, and there was no one to help. Instead of a benevolent counsellor there was Abbey, who mocked and despised him (‘Well John I have read your Book, & it reminds me of the Quaker’s Horse which was hard to catch, & good for nothing when he was caught – So your Book is hard to understand & good for nothing when it is understood’). Worse, Abbey tried to keep him from seeing or even writing to his little sister, Fanny, whose dog Abbey and his wife had got rid of when they made her their miserably unhappy ward. With Alice Jennings’s consent, Abbey removed the Keats boys from Enfield, making George a clerk in his business and sending John to be apprenticed to Thomas Hammond, the surgeon-apothecary who had failed to save their mother. (Tom, the youngest of the boys, was too delicate and soon too ill to work but lived with one or both of his brothers, reading poetry and making puns, for the short rest of his life.)
The surgical apprenticeship was probably Abbey’s idea. It was a fairly cheap way to begin a career, requiring no university education and (unlike a physician’s training) leading to no social distinction. Keats would be qualified to pull teeth, set bones, bleed the sick, dispense mostly useless or dangerous medicine and, with ether still decades away, cut into living bodies. Keats and Hammond soon quarrelled, and Keats moved out, quitting the apprenticeship. But Hammond’s insistence on extracting from Keats the full price expected for his room and board cost him nearly £1000. Finished with Hammond but not yet with medicine, he moved his studies to Guy’s Hospital. There he studied under Astley Cooper, a student of John Hunter and like his mentor an insatiable vivisectionist, and served as senior dresser to the ‘cack-handed surgeon’ William Lucas.
Keats was recognised as an excellent student and practitioner. But by the time he had earned his apothecary’s licence – at his first try, an unusual feat – he had had enough. According to Charles Brown, his decision to abandon surgery was motivated by the dread of inflicting harm on his patients. He hoped poetry might achieve what surgery could not and assumed that, even after all the money spent on his medical-surgical-pharmacological studies (including what had been wasted on Hammond), there would be enough to enable him to give up a medical career for a poetic one. He wished from the outset – so he wrote in ‘Sleep and Poetry’ – that poetry might be a restorative, a therapeutic ‘friend/To sooth the cares, and lift the thoughts of man’.
Whether he had agreed to his surgical training or (as some of his friends later said) was pushed into it by Abbey made no difference to his eager critics. The connection tainted him. Who was he, this jumped-up dispenser of powders, to proclaim his astonished delight at Homer, read not even in the original, but in Elizabethan (George Chapman’s) translation? Who was he to write so very often, and as if he had a natural right to do so, of mythological figures he had read about in books intended for schoolboys, Tooke’s Pantheon and Lemprière’s Classical Dictionary? The sneers began early and followed him.
‘It is a better and a wiser thing to be a starved apothecary than a starved poet; so back to the shop, Mr John, back to the “plasters, pills and ointment boxes”.’ Thus ‘Z’, or John Gibson Lockhart, writing for the new, socially aspirant, notoriety-seeking Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine in 1818, leading a series of attacks, by no means all of them from Blackwood’s, on the circle that welcomed Keats after he turned from surgery (the Blackwood’s series was entitled ‘On the Cockney School of Poetry’). Leigh Hunt, newly released from two years’ imprisonment for mocking the Prince Regent as a fat libertine, was the circle’s centre. Through Hunt, Keats met Shelley, Godwin, Wordsworth, Hazlitt, Lamb, the painter Benjamin Robert Haydon, and many others who would challenge and comfort him, patronise and defend him, feud over and around him, get drunk and silly with him, delight and disgust him, and otherwise matter to him during this period of explosive poetic growth in what were already the last years of his life.
Early on, Keats had the affectionate support of his brothers. After leaving medicine he alternated between writing poetry and looking after Tom, taking turns with George at nursing him. Though he loved being among his friends in London and could write quick poems in company, for more demanding work he isolated himself at the seaside, in little towns, or in the countryside, leaving Tom in the care of George. Probably George spent more time with Tom during these years, not all of it with entirely therapeutic motives – he once took him, on Keats’s dime, to gamble and visit brothels in the South of France. But George was younger, less responsible and impatient to start his own life. He had been waiting only to turn 21 and claim his inheritance before he married Georgiana Wylie and took off for America.
His abrupt decision to emigrate was a bad blow, but for some weeks more Keats lived an almost normal life. He left Tom in the care of neighbours he trusted and, having seen George and Georgiana safely to Liverpool to wait for a ship, left with Brown on a six-week walking tour of northern England, Scotland and Ireland. They had walked more than six hundred miles when a letter arrived reporting that Tom’s illness had worsened. Sick now himself with a sore throat that would not resolve, Keats took a packet boat home from Inverness. All that autumn he watched his brother shiver as if in a palsy, spectre-thin and suffering from extreme anxiety, and worked on his Miltonic epic ‘Hyperion’. Poor cold Tom died at the end of November 1818. Keats took refuge from his loneliness and leaden-eyed despairs at Wentworth Place (now Keats House), Brown’s house beside Hampstead Heath (it’s really two houses behind a single façade – ‘architecturally a bit of a cheat’, the effect of its façade ‘aspirational’, as Lucasta Miller observes), and after a brief period of what he called idleness, wrote harder.
Between George’s first departure from England and his second, Keats wrote most of the poetry for which we remember him. There was a little more of ‘Hyperion’ after Tom’s death, until Keats gave up on it, unable to care about the apotheosis of Apollo while the grief and unbearably weighty dread of the fallen and falling Titans held him fast. He wrote ‘The Eve of St Agnes’ and ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci’; he wrote ‘Ode to Psyche’, ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’, ‘Ode to a Nightingale’, ‘Ode on Melancholy’ and ‘To Autumn’; he wrote ‘Lamia’; he began and then abandoned ‘The Fall of Hyperion’, which, like an inverted Titan, had swallowed its predecessor whole.
From the beginning Keats had written for George, Tom and his friends, who, together with his fantasy of a poetic tradition in which he hoped to take his place, constituted his ideal community of readers. He wrote for immortality but not for the reading public, which, in part because of the hostility of his early reviewers, in part because he resisted the unreliability of literary fashions and popularity, he tended to despise: ‘I wish to avoid publishing – I admire Human Nature but I do not like Men – I should like to compose things honourable to Man – but not fingerable over by Men.’ So his wish to be an immortal poet, to be remembered and not forgotten, his wish (like Milton’s) to leave what aftertimes should not willingly let die, skirted the difficult intermediate consideration of how to survive as a poet.
Keats had no particular regard for consistency, and what he says in his letters about poetry and the imagination constitutes no systematic defence. Poetry was essential to his existence; for others, he knew, its value might be less. Nevertheless, even in playful musings on the unreal and the unvalued he is thinking about the power of address, of recognition, to bring into being what might not otherwise exist:
I am sometimes so very sceptical as to think Poetry itself a mere Jack a lanthern to amuse whoever may chance to be struck with its brilliance – As Tradesmen say every thing is worth what it will fetch, so probably every mental pursuit takes its reality and worth from the ardour of the pursuer – being in itself a nothing – Ethereal thing[s] may at least be thus real, divided under three heads – Things real – things semireal – and no things – Things real – such as existences of Sun Moon & Stars and the passages of Shakspeare – Things semireal such as Love, the Clouds &c which require a greeting of the Spirit to make them wholly exist – and Nothings which are made Great and dignified by an ardent pursuit.
He could easily have slid into a declaration of the power of the poet’s word to make the world, but, characteristically, he demurs: he is all too aware of the world’s resistance. In the midst of his most enthusiastically escapist declaration (‘I am certain of nothing but the holiness of the Heart’s affections and the truth of Imagination – What the imagination seizes as Beauty must be truth’) he recognises only a single example of the imagination’s power of happy realisation: ‘The Imagination may be compared to Adam’s dream – he awoke and found it truth.’ The vision of Eve that Adam undergoes in the Garden of Eden as God extracts a rib is the type of the dream come true.
For Keats, this is what medicine ought to have been able to do but now is a task for poetry: the transformation of desire into embodiment, the animation of the inanimate, the restoration of the deathly to health, the bringing of stone or bone or art to warm life. We see an early, bewildered version of it as far back as Endymion, where a mortal in love with the immortal moon encounters a cavern full of long-frozen lovers and, by his mere arrival, restores them to life, an essentially Keatsian ekphrasis. We see it in ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’, in which the still figures of men or gods and the maidens loth whom they pursue, carved into a marble surface, seem, on the poet’s hailing of the urn, to breathe, to move, ‘For ever panting and for ever young’, until the cold pastoral stills again. It is there on a grander scale in the huge and apparently petrified forms of the fallen Titans in ‘Hyperion’ and again in ‘The Fall of Hyperion’, ‘Like natural sculpture in cathedral cavern’, who, after ‘One moon, with alteration slow, had shed her silver seasons four upon the night,’ lift their eyes and see their kingdom gone. It is everywhere in the poetry, even in the basil growing from the potted brains of Isabella’s murdered lover, even in the overflowing of the honeycomb in ‘To Autumn’.
Keats continually passes and repasses the border between the living and the dead, interested in what it would be like to be a statue or an urn, knowing that no crossing is free of ambiguity:
This living hand, now warm and capable
Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold
And in the icy silence of the tomb,
So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights
That thou would wish thine own heart dry of blood
So in my veins red life might stream again,
And thou be conscience-calm’d – see here it is –
I hold it towards you.
Except for the as yet unfallen Adam’s, no dream is safe. Dreams are to be woken from, and dreamers wake to sorrow. This too is everywhere in Keats. Madeline prepares for the ritual vision of her destined husband in ‘Eve of St Agnes’ but falls unritualistically asleep dreaming of Porphyro; Porphyro, watching secretly from her closet as she undresses and goes to bed, takes her lute and plays ‘La belle dame sans mercy’ until she begins to rouse from slumber. Weeping and confused at the sight of him, so unlike the ideal figure of her dream, she moans: ‘How chang’d thou art! how pallid, chill, and drear!’ ‘Into her dream he melted’ before they wake again to the storm into which they flee, like phantoms, ‘ay, ages long ago’, beyond memory or imagination, leaving the reader stranded in a realm of death. The dream of the ‘pale kings, and princes too’ into which the knight of ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci’ falls in the elfin grot of the fairy and from which he wakes on the cold hillside is still more disturbing, and its uncanny dreaming, too, has made it come true.
Keats is the master of these awakenings, fallings out of and nightmare realisations of fantasy, the decay of the mere wishfulness of wish. Strenuously triumphant ecstasy (‘Already with thee! tender is the night,/And haply the Queen-Moon is on her throne,/Cluster’d around by all her starry Fays,’ in ‘Ode to a Nightingale’) is in his work incipient poetic failure; within that failure he finds his true voice and his desire.
But here there is no light,
Save what from heaven is with the breezes blown
Through verdurous glooms and winding mossy ways.
I cannot see what flowers are at my feet,
Nor what soft incense hangs upon the boughs,
But, in embalmed darkness, guess each sweet
Wherewith the seasonable month endows
the living, blossoming, fading, decaying plants of the advancing season, unseen flowerings all of the rich nothingness he yearns for,
full of dewy wine,
The murmurous haunt of flies on summer eves.
Time was up. Only devastations – three of them – lay ahead. The first came when George, in Louisville, decided he needed more money for his projects in America than Abbey had given him. Tom had been dead for a year, and George wanted his share of his brother’s estate. He knew Keats would have no influence with Abbey, so he returned to London (at significant expense) to confront Abbey himself and extract what he needed. It was a very rapid trip; Georgiana and their young daughter, back in Louisville, were ill, and he needed to return quickly. While he was in London he spent little time with his brother, preferring gayer amusements. He brushed off Keats’s anxieties: ‘You, John, have so many friends, they will be sure to take care of you.’ But he knew that Keats needed help even more than he did; in response to his request for money two months before, Keats had written: ‘I am in such a situation that were it not for the assistance of Brown & Taylor [his publisher], I must be as badly off as a man can be.’ George would not take the hint. When he left again for America he did so with far more money than Keats believed he had a right to. Keats may have been wrong in his accounting; the situation was extremely complicated and not at all well documented. Those able to follow the maddening intricacies of the family’s finances now believe that George did Keats no financial injury. Keats was injured nonetheless. By the time George left – six days before Keats suffered the overwhelming haemorrhage that made it clear to him that he was doomed – he was unable to pay even what he owed Brown. He and Brown had hoped they might make money from a play they had cobbled together, but Edmund Kean, who Keats had imagined might act in it, was on his way to America. Keats also hoped that some of the money he had been induced to lend to unceasingly importunate friends, Haydon especially, might be repaid; that hope too was disappointed.
The second devastation involved Brown. He had always believed in Keats’s genius and had been willing to loan him funds, even borrowing from others in order to do so, though it was becoming increasingly clear that, financially speaking, Keats was not a good investment. Brown had been furious with George for what he understood to be his betrayal of his brother and never forgave him: Keats’s friends would split into factions on the question of George’s blame and his right to what Keats left behind. That blame, combined with unspoken and unspeakable feelings of guilt, would come to shape in complex ways the presentation of Keats’s life and works after his death. Brown would be at the centre of both the blaming and the guilt.
But now Brown was about to betray Keats himself. As Keats grew sicker, Brown prepared for another summer walking tour. These tours, done on the cheap, enabled him to rent out Wentworth Place. Keats was not well enough for hiking, and since Brown would not give up the possibility of a summer’s rent, he had to live somewhere else until Brown returned. He shifted from place to place during that final summer, as friends made hasty room for him and his doctors warned that he must get himself to a warmer climate or die, as Keats put it, ‘like a frog in a frost’. Brown wrote to George on Keats’s behalf asking for help to buy his passage to Italy, but George was busy trying to sell a steamboat and could not free up money without losses he was unwilling to incur. It was the contributions of some of Keats’s friends, including his publishers and their legal and literary adviser Richard Woodhouse, that funded his trip to Rome; it was their efforts that induced Severn to go with him. Keats wrote to Brown, still hiking in Scotland, asking him to come, but Brown dragged his feet, did not respond, and missed or pretended to miss Keats’s departure with Severn from Gravesend. When at last he did reply, he wrote:
I truly wish to go, – nothing detains me but prudence. Little could be gained, if any thing, by letting my house at this time of year, and the consequence would be a heavy additional expense which I cannot possibly afford, – unless it were a matter of necessity, and I see none while you are in such good hands as Severn’s.
He promised to come to Rome the next spring, but by then Keats was dead. Brown, too late his friend’s champion, would compel George to pay Keats’s debts.
The third devastation had to do with Fanny Brawne, the 18-year-old girl next door whom (with her mother and younger siblings) Keats had found living in the other half of Wentworth Place when he returned from Scotland. She was bright and feisty, and though she did not seem to see herself as part of the literary world, when she grew up she would publish German translations. Keats did not know what to make of her. Apart from the warm friendship he maintained with George’s wife, Georgiana, his very few, very brief relationships with women had quickly subsided. His relationship with Fanny Brawne was different. Except early on, before his character darkened, he did not treat her as a friend.
None of Brawne’s letters to Keats survives; those she sent to him in Rome he could not bear to read lest they break his heart; he had one buried with him. The rest either he or Severn (under his direction) seems to have destroyed in order to protect her. We cannot know what she wrote to him, but we do have the letters she wrote to Keats’s little sister to cheer and comfort her after the loss of her brother, and we can see from them how generous and intelligent she was, articulate and lively and humane.
As Keats’s health began to fail, his doctors warned him against the least exertion or excitement: he was neither to write poetry nor to read it. Certainly he was not to subject himself to the agitations of love. It is not clear that he could distinguish between emotional and physical anguish. ‘I cannot breathe without you,’ he writes, yet Fanny must stay away from him, sometimes because ‘it would be so much pain to part with you again’ and sometimes because he preferred to work. He was obsessed with her and resentful about it. He once told her he was ‘selfish enough to feel a little glad’ at her feeling ill, coy enough to ask her to pardon him for his gladness. He was intent on her body, and when she told him she disliked his emphasis he doubled down: ‘Why may I not speak of your Beauty, since without that I could never have lov’d you – I cannot conceive any beginning of such love as I have for you but Beauty.’ He was possessive, adoring, controlling, jealous, sadistic.
This kind of thing cannot have been good for either of them:
I wish you to see how unhappy I am for love of you, and endeavour as much as I can to entice you to give up your whole heart to me whose whole existence hangs upon you … I am greedy of you – Do not think of any thing but me … You must be mine to die upon the rack if I want you.
He began to treat Fanny as if, uncontrolled and unpossessed, she were a threat to his life. He wanted to have her; he thought it might kill him if he did. She was loyal to him despite it all. Leaving her nearly destroyed him: ‘The thought of leaving Miss Brawne is beyond everything horrible – the sense of darkness coming over me – I eternally see her figure eternally vanishing … – Is there another Life? Shall I awake and find all this a dream? There must be; we cannot be created for this sort of suffering.’ Yet the violence of his obsession was too great to be contained. By the end of his life, in an apparent delirium, he declared he should have slept with her when the physical opportunity was there and blamed his dying, Severn reported, on her ‘thwarting of his passions’.
Nearly as disturbing as the letters is the fact that once they appeared in print, more than half a century after Keats’s death, readers took them as evidence that Brawne had been a bad, cold woman, a vicious tease. She must have been asking for it. Why else would Keats have written to her so abusively?
No other major English poet developed so early and so fast. The extreme compression of Keats’s career – accelerated by genius, halted by severe illness a year before his death – meant that at almost no moment during his lifetime did his contemporary reputation reflect the merit of his current work. Before his first critics could publish their condemnations he had left behind what they condemned. The foundation of his reputation was out of true from the beginning, and attempts to balance it have frequently gone poorly.
Reputations do rise and fall, as H.J. Jackson reminds us in Those Who Write for Immortality: Romantic Reputations and the Dream of Lasting Fame (2015), and even the glossiest may be the product of connections and timing. In Jackson’s view it was not Keats’s poetry (unexceptional, in her judgment) that eventually elevated him in the literary canon, but the accumulated efforts of those who knew him (or knew those who did). On behalf of those deserving of but neglected by fame Jackson seems to resent Keats’s posthumous luck. Even those of us who have no intention of following her recommendation that for Keats we substitute Barry Cornwall may wonder whether the pathos of Keats’s life gave him an unfair advantage. It is necessary to recognise how powerful the effects of grief, shame, indignation, opportunism, fad, faction and accident were on the resuscitation of his name, whose unsteady fortunes have moved by almost chaotic reaction through defence, accusation, overcorrection, appropriation and recoil.
Severn and Shelley had their own reasons for wanting to keep Keats’s name alive. Their representations of him, sentimental and hysterical, still embarrass attempts to read his work and his life, compounding and confusing the almost overwhelming appeal of the man himself and his writing. During her long, nearly silent grief, Brawne wrote to Brown, who had asked her for help in writing the biography of Keats he would never quite accomplish: ‘I fear the kindest act would be to let him rest for ever in the obscurity to which unhappy circumstances have condemned him … my wish has long been that his name, his very name, could be forgotten by everyone but myself.’ Indeed, ‘I could wish no one by [sic] myself knew he had ever existed.’
Brawne had as little as possible to do with Severn. But for us there is no avoiding the tiresome muddle Keats’s contemporaries started, critics and friends both. Byron’s sneers were the reflex of Shelley’s narcissistic laments, Swinburne’s and Arnold’s disapproval a reverberation of Blackwood’s. The bullies’ old mockeries of the dim, sticky-mouthed upstart and poseur that Bate’s humane portrait of a plucky young lad of genius intended to cast out returned, marshalled with sterner insistence in Marjorie Levinson’s reading of the masturbatory poet in Keats’s Life of Allegory: The Origins of a Style (1988). When Stanley Plumly retrieved Bate’s desperately sympathetic creature of high poetic imagination in Posthumous Keats: A Personal Biography (2008), a knot of critics disparaged the book and its admirers. They seem to have had enough of the emotional coercion represented by yet another eloquent tribute to Keats’s selflessness, his deep instinct for poetry, his last anguished months, his final letters (‘I can scarcely bid you good bye even in a letter. I always made an awkward bow’). It is hard to say they are off the mark, for the long Severnising of Keats (which now includes his friends’ retroactive attempts at rescue) has made it extremely difficult to read the poetry and the life as he wrote and lived them and to understand how they mattered.
Denise Gigante’s The Keats Brothers: The Life of John and George (2011) and Nicholas Roe’s 2012 biography attempted, though in different ways, to de-Severnise Keats’s life, to lower the stakes in this long, sometimes ugly dispute. Neither of them sees Keats’s character or merit or pathos as their central concern; what mattered more are the contexts in which he is embedded. These two biographies together bind the poet with a formidable scholarly cabling to his material and familial worlds.
Roe presents an abundance of carefully sought and vivid detail about what must be every aspect of Keats’s life: where he lived, what he saw when he looked out of a particular window or down a particular street or into a museum and what that would have reminded him of or be remembered as during the writing of a poem; whether a stairway would have been sufficiently wide to allow the passage of a coffin; the way a brick wall glowed in the sunlight; whose copy of a tale that left an impression on him Keats read, and in what circumstances. Roe works from the assumption that much of Keats’s poetry ‘comes from real life, and even the most trivial sights, incidents and encounters provided material for his imagination’. From the richness, ingenuity and precision of what Roe supplies it would be possible to recreate a living, moving world.
Roe pushes his facts hard, very hard, which is probably necessary when one has so extraordinarily many of them; and this pressure allows him to make out patterns that would otherwise have remained invisible. Many of them have to do with the damage Keats suffered in his early years. It is intriguing to read that he wrote and published with an eye to the phases of the moon (he may have been born during a full moon; he may have thought the moon corresponded to ‘the female [aspect] of his own nature’). It is – at first – surprising too to read that everything that occurs or fails to occur or is abandoned on 14 April or 15 April or 24 April is a traumatic response to his father’s death. It is disturbing to read that when Keats writes, ‘We read fine things but never feel them to thee [sic] full until we have gone the same steps with the Author … you will know exactly my meaning when I say, that now I shall relish Hamlet more than I ever have done,’ he is suggesting that his own mother, like Gertrude, might have been having an adulterous affair and could have been complicit in her husband’s death. It is exasperating to be told that in ‘The Eve of St Agnes’ Keats modelled the virginal Madeline, raped in her sleep by the man she was dreaming of, on a whore in a comic Spanish fiction who reminded him of his whorish mother. And it is impossible to take at all seriously Roe’s suggestion (though he shares the belief with other scholars) that Keats became a great poet (a challenge for anyone, regardless of early injuries) to compensate for his shortness, a hypothesised effect of hypothesised foetal alcohol syndrome. As more and more of Keats’s life and work is connected more and more relentlessly to moons and to Aprils and to dead fathers and adulterous, murderous mothers, the connections begin to lose their plausibility. Too many things are being mapped onto too few.
At the centre of Gigante’s biography is George, plus George’s friends and acquaintances and their cousins and their cousins’ in-laws and those in-laws’ nephews and their boats and boatmen and the lyrics to the songs the boatmen sang. Here Keats matters less than George and his writing matters less than George’s business career. Gigante is attempting to address what she sees as a longstanding biographical slight to the merits of the younger brother; whether he deserves it I am not sure.
George had recognised that if he remained in England he was unlikely ever to be more than a clerk. When he left Abbey’s employ following a quarrel with the head clerk he didn’t look for another job but determined to get out of England altogether. Even after a year of unemployment, his financial situation was considerably better than Keats’s: his funds had not been wasted on medical training, and when he took his inheritance the market happened to be at a peak. He had enough to move to the excitedly advertised English Prairie in Illinois, a free state (that status was initially an attraction for George), where he could acquire 1400 acres of what was supposed to be good farmland of his own choosing. He married Georgiana, left Keats to make excuses to his other girlfriends, and sailed off. He told Keats that he hoped he would come to visit soon, and even make a home there himself.
Keats had acknowledged the reasonableness of George’s decision to emigrate but had no interest in living in America. He didn’t much like the idea of the place. He may have worried about the effect it would have on his brother.
A country like the United States whose greatest men are Franklins and Washingtons will never [take up the human intellect where England leaves off] – They are great Men doubtless but how are they to be compared to those our countrey men Milton and the two Sidneys – The one is a philosophical Quaker full of mean and thrifty maxims the other sold the very Charger who had taken him through all his Battles – Those Americans are great but they are not sublime Man.
George was no sublime Man. After making their way west from Philadelphia, he and Georgiana decided against settling in the English Prairie, which they found grim; dressed and comporting themselves as the well-to-do people they meant soon to become, they turned south towards Louisville in the slave state of Kentucky. Gigante describes a difficult passage through sometimes paradisal landscapes, dense with forests and blooms to the point nearly of impassability and thronged with birds and beasts. Pioneers destroyed as much as they could, slaughtering animals by the hundreds and thousands on ‘frolics’ for the grotesque fun of it. These landscapes no longer exist, and many of the hunted populations are now gone or nearly so. John James Audubon, not yet a portraitist of dead birds but a thriving con artist, had hoped to ‘see the surplus population of Europe coming to assist in the destruction of the forest’. It was beginning to happen. In Louisville, where they would settle and where George would establish his sawmill (and later build a flour mill and then begin acquiring real estate), the devastation was visible, the town all mud and ugliness, its trees all having been cut down and the sawdust burned in the streets.
Perhaps it would have been impossible to remain innocent in such a situation. The ugliness was deep and contaminating. A popular Louisville pastime, Gigante tells us, was ‘gander-pulling: a sport that involved tying a goose to a tree, greasing its neck, riding past it on horseback, and trying to pull off its head’. And then there was the treatment of Black people. White labour was scarce and expensive, so George rented enslaved people (‘usually treated moderately well and accorded surprising levels of freedom and independence’, according to Lawrence Crutcher in his 2012 Life of his great-great-great-grandfather). Then, because houses need to be maintained and guests need to be waited on and impressed, the Keatses bought enslaved people for their house, the so-called Englishman’s Palace, built during one of their periods of prosperity and in successful aid of social prominence. George and his wife never loved the people or the place, but they loved the money they made there and the prestige that came with it. The children grew up as one might expect. Gigante reports the first words of ‘Little Rose’: ‘“Hoad yo’ yaw!” she reputedly snapped at the child of the cook. “You’re only a knobby-headed niggah anyway.”’
George had told Keats and Tom when he left (and perhaps believed it) that he was seeking a fortune in America for their sakes. He never saw Tom again; he saw Keats only once more, very briefly, on that expensive flying visit to extract Tom’s inheritance from Abbey, an achievement that left his brother with nothing but debts. He never returned to England. Both Keats and Tom were dead before he achieved (briefly) the wealth he craved. Thinking of his assumption that owning enslaved people was something forced on him by circumstance, reading the querulous, controlling, self-pitying letters he wrote to his sister, Fanny, in later years, I found it hard to be convinced that he would have been generous or just to any of them. It is similarly hard to believe that his emigration had anything particularly remarkable about it. The descriptions of the landscapes through which George and his wife passed on their way to Louisville are marvellous; they seem to invite us to credit George with an unusually fine eye and an extraordinary capacity for appreciation. But they are made by others (Frances Trollope, Dickens, Audubon), not George.
So it is surprising to find that Gigante would have us believe that Keats and George were comparable figures, both dreamers, both poets, and Keats no better or more imaginative a man than his brother. If making money and sitting on committees with other wealthy men is creative, then, in Gigante’s view, George was a poet. The false advertisers of the English Prairie where George originally intended to settle were poets too, their misrepresentations a ‘poetical romance’ comparable to Endymion or, in their sublimity, ‘The Fall of Hyperion’. Similarly, when Audubon conned George into investing in a steamboat that had already sunk he wasn’t lying, Gigante says, but ‘half-perceiving and half-creating the world, which a Romantic poet like Wordsworth would have approved’ – a surprising judgment from someone who might have been expected to regard literature as different from fraud. George lost his fortune as fast as he made it; it rose and fell together with the nation’s economy. ‘The truth is that George was never as good a businessman as his brother was a poet,’ his otherwise admiring descendant Crutcher admits.
Keats’s antagonists and rivals were often people he loved; and the role of the retroactive champion invites bad faith. How to protect someone who is beyond help without becoming a Severn, a George, a Brown? How to avoid becoming what Keats in his late paranoia believed Brawne to be? Those who failed him could not have saved him. Even if George had sent money, even if he had returned a second time, it would have been at the expense of his wife and children, and he would have been unable to cure his brother. What is someone like Keats owed?
Lucasta Miller’s answer in Keats: A Brief Life in Nine Poems and One Epitaph is that we owe him the friendly greeting and the interest any inhabitant of our human world owes another. We owe him too – this is part of her generosity – a way to enable new readers to find and enjoy him, including those who might find his writing intimidating. He was part of her life from childhood, in a very immediate way. She grew up near Keats House, borrowed books from the Keats Community Library and learned his name before that of any other poet. She is a thoughtful, often subtle and often subtly witty critic, but she assumes only the quiet authority of someone who, having long loved the poetry and been curious about it, assumes others have been curious too. So she explains the way words like ‘thou’ were once used, tells us what it feels like to have a life mask made (‘a bit tickly and, as you can neither scratch your face nor move a muscle, it seems to go on for aeons’) and, with ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ in mind, remembers the time her young daughter once stained her mouth purple with something Miller feared might be toxic but was probably just mulberries. She reminds us that Keats lived in a familiar world.
Although Miller wants to be sure readers find Keats’s work accessible, she also wants them to appreciate its complexities and be aware of its occasional failures: like Keats, also flawed, it has a place and a meaning in a larger context of ugliness and beauty. The shocks she introduces – as when she compares the rotting head nourishing the basil plant in ‘Isabella’ to the eternally joy-giving ‘thing of beauty’ that opens Endymion – are in the service of critical insight. The distinctions she develops – as between the innocent associations of the ‘ring-dove frayed and fled’ to which Madeline is compared in ‘The Eve of St Agnes’ and the image of her ‘hoodwinked’ (as predatory falcons were) ‘with faery fancy’ – are thought-provoking. For nearly everything she touches on she can provide what she calls excavated ‘backstories’. No single reading or assertion dominates the book, but everything is treated with deep care and admirably intelligent judgment.
Anahid Nersessian’s Keats’s Odes: A Lover’s Discourse presents itself as not for specialists and not for beginners. She describes it as a Barthesian love story, a set of ‘intimate, often idiosyncratic responses’ to the odes, which she says her essays resemble in their autobiographical unobviousness. She takes them as pretexts for meditations on ‘things that cannot be gotten over – like this world, and some of the people in it’. Of her book she says ‘the whole of a particular love is folded inside,’ for Keats and for someone else, unnamed but powerfully evoked. She is not the only critic to have written what Plumly called ‘a personal biography’ of the poet, but she may be alone in putting her erotic imagination and experience at the centre.
From her perspective Keats started it: ‘I love Keats not because I belong in his poetry, but because his poetry wants so much to belong to us – to those who know intimately why a relentless self-exposure to the world has to be made, somehow, into a virtue because otherwise it is just abuse.’ Nersessian especially admires his letters to Brawne. Their passion invites her own; their supremely romantic pain proves their emotional truth and purity. The sadistic core of Keats’s relationship with Brawne registers with her as full erotic engagement, an enactment of freedom in defiance of fear. Beauty, she writes, lies about the fragility of the world; perfection is an offence because ‘it needs nothing,’ because it is invulnerable. Vulnerability alone, she writes, the painful and ambivalent engagement with ‘the push-pull pathology of dread and longing, intimidation and tenderness’, makes us worthy of love. Her history of pain, exclusion and abuse makes her an especially appropriate interpreter of and respondent to what she believes Keats was offering and seeking, for in writing to Brawne, Keats was writing – if only he had known it – to her. She is the Fanny Brawne whom Keats truly loved. Or perhaps she is Keats, or one of the virginal objects in his odes.
Nersessian is right to point out that Keats was deeply interested in suffering. He came by it naturally and also medically; sometimes it appeared as an impulse towards poetic tragedy. It is the foundation of the two ‘Hyperion’ poems and a reason he could not finish them. He wants what he has always wanted, to soothe pain. If he cannot soothe it, he wants to redeem it as creative power. In ‘Hyperion’, the record of his first major attempt to derive art from witnessed suffering, ‘Names, deeds, gray legends, dire events, rebellions,/Majesties, sovran voices, agonies,/Creations and destroyings’ stream from Mnemosyne’s brain into Apollo’s, but the poem halts at the paroxysm that marks the spot for the apotheosis that never quite happens. If he cannot transmute disaster into creative power, he wants to take through sympathetic witness its stunning, time-destroying pressure on himself; but to share another’s pain is not necessarily to relieve the sufferer. In ‘The Fall of Hyperion’, Moneta accedes to the poet’s wish to ‘behold … What in [her] brain so ferments to and fro’. He watches ‘Without stay or prop/But [his] own weak mortality’; frozen, his brain burning, he bears ‘The load of [the] eternal quietude’ in which Saturn and Thea, ‘Like sculpture builded up upon the grave/Of their own power’, bow towards the earth. There is no comfort for them. Their fall from power has reduced them to art. The moon waxes and wanes and waxes and wanes and pain does not end:
every day by day methought I grew
More gaunt and ghostly. Oftentimes I pray’d
Intense, that death would take me from the vale
And all its burthens. Gasping with despair
Of change, hour after hour I curs’d myself:
Until old Saturn raised his faded eyes,
And look’d around and saw his kingdom gone
The poet must face the possibility that nothing he can do or suffer – not bearing witness, not sympathy, not poetry – will comfort those in pain. His own suffering is beside the point.
Nersessian’s Keats is interested in pain not as a problem he must solve (even though he cannot) but as a responsibility and a temptation he morally and politically fails. The ‘perfect and unforgiveable’ ode ‘To Autumn’ offends her (and not her alone) by having been written not about those who had died a month before in the Peterloo Massacre but about or out of a cessation of resistance to the death none of us escapes. Her Keats is not a healer, not even a failed one; he is a thug. Ignoring not just the ‘Hyperion’ poems but the masochistic and sadomasochistic ‘Lamia’ (‘She burnt, she lov’d the tyranny’), she reads the odes as scenes of suffering and as provocations to violence, which is to be welcomed as inviting retaliation.
It requires a good deal of twisting to bring out the odes’ hostility. In ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ she hears ‘less of a confession than a dare, not far off from a fuck you’. To her the greeting of the spirit that opens ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ (‘Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness,/Thou foster-child of silence and slow time’) ‘sounds like an assault’ because it is not preceded by an ‘O’ and therefore shows a lack of respect. Indeed, by calling the urn ‘still unravish’d’, the speaker gives away his intent: to force himself on it, overcoming its cool virginal resistance to his penetration. What others hear as a ceremonial naming of genealogical virtues she hears as a threat and a rehearsal of brutality: ‘This is more of a hey-you or a catcall and, like a catcall, it has an air of substantial menace. It also carries a cry of pain, the ow in Thou, a name spun around a moan.’ That the opening lines are in the second person and not in the first means, she says, that the speaker recognises the urn as ‘an other’, which means he is hostile, means his address is ‘an act of aggression. If this poem were a street,’ she continues, ‘you would hope to avoid walking down it.’
To this I say, wishing I were anywhere but on the street that is this argument, that if you had to address everyone you met as ‘I’ rather than ‘you’ in order to avoid antagonising them, your conversation would quickly become unmanageable. I wasn’t aware that an ode that begins with a ‘Thou’ and not an ‘O’ was an insult. Nothing requires an ode to open with ‘O’: Ben Jonson didn’t recognise any such rule; neither did Thomas Gray, or Spenser, or Dryden, or Marvell, or Coleridge, or Pindar. The vocative doesn’t require an ‘O’. If there is a catcall or a ‘fuck you’ here, it isn’t coming from the odes.
This is not reading but teasing. It shocks us and withdraws. In the rest of the book Nersessian tells disconnected fragments of stories about lovers and hurt and fragments of conversations, about dreams in which protection is indistinguishable from attack, about dick pics sent by an old lover who ‘vows to slap me and stuff my shirt into my mouth’, a threat that ‘loosens the secret of that relationship, at whose heart lies the radiant wish of two people to bear everything for each other but which has lately sagged into an actually degrading ritual of provocation and rebuke’. There is a fragment about walking through the woods on an island with a thorn under her fingernail:
All of this, by the way, is true. The island is a real place, the woods there are real, and I really did get a thorn stuck in my finger. None of this is written in code. I’m sorry I can’t be more specific, won’t use names or say the year, who was president, or how old I was. Honestly I’m not trying to be coy, just decent, since this is not only my story to tell.
How to address such a claim in public? Nersessian does not have to tell us anything about herself, but she does, enough to raise the questions she then refuses to address. She speaks of herself as private, but it is not privacy that she uses, it is power – the power to display and to withhold. It is clear only that she is daring her readers to call her out on what she is doing. We cannot, though, because though her subject is ostensibly in the realm of public discourse, it is mined with private, secret things, some of them (like the passage above) clearly marked as such. It would be a violation of her and others’ privacy to ask what any of this means. Why then does she set this before the public eye?
Although Nersessian writes with indignation about the abuse she imagines the speaker of the ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ inflicts on the urn, pointing out with horror the implications of its invocation of the ‘unravish’d bride’ and noting that the ode ‘is a poem about poetry’s long involvement in a cultural tradition that takes sexual violence to be an especially rich source of inspiration for art’, she herself behaves before the reader like a maiden loth fleeing her readerly pursuer. But is she fleeing or is she, wilfully provocative, inviting pursuit? Having gone out of her way to invite curiosity about her enigmas, that is, will she judge that curiosity as inappropriate, as a violation akin to rape?
Perhaps there is something essential about that thorn in her finger or the circumstances around that day in the woods that her refusal to explain prevents us from understanding, or, since not everything in this volume behaves quite this perversely, perhaps not. It is impossible to guess. We don’t know the stakes. But she also tells us a story we know matters quite a lot. She tells it almost sufficiently, tacitly inviting the reader to fill in the gaps. Once, in high school, she had been a precocious student of Latin literature, which she loved. Then her Latin teacher, ‘a self-satisfied bozo with thick fingers and a comically deep voice’, began paying her sexual attention. When she refused him, he turned vengeful. She went to the headmistress to complain about his lascivious demands, unwarranted low marks and screaming. The headmistress threatened her. She was expelled from Latin class. The Philomelan victim of a modern Tereus, she lost her Ovidian tongue and, silenced, now makes her accusation in another mode.
Perhaps to assume that Keats’s odes are the real subject of all this is an error. Perhaps to assume they never were is a worse error. Perhaps it is the not-telling that is the point: she remains in complete control of her meaning. Little of this is clear, and anything that seems clear, that seems at least to be important, soon shows itself to be unreliable. (I am thinking of the objectionable absence of the ‘O’ and so on; I do not doubt the reality of her high school harassment.) What shocks me in all this, however, is the teasing of the reader, which doubles the hyperbolic provocation she has both discussed and, if we are to believe her, enacted in her relationships. Her daring the reader to notice feels like one of the catcalls or ‘fuck you’s she says she hears in the odes: it feels like a provocation designed to draw an assault that is meant to justify a striking back. She seems, as the phrase goes, to be asking for it. But how appalling to suggest such a thing. (Look what you made me do.) It is rude to comment on it, because it is private; it is repellent to comment on it because it uses the abuser’s logic; and it is dangerous to comment on it, because, as teasing, it has the structure of a trap. (Look what you made me do.) To point out the trap is to fall into it. Look what you made me do.
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