The Hopeful Romanticism of John Keats

John Keats’s verse — described by his contemporaries as “mental masturbation” and poetry for bed-wetters — is often dismissed as embarrassingly sentimental. A new book by literary critic Anahid Nersessian finds subversive irony in the English Romantic's poems.

A portrait of John Keats after a painting by John W. Hilton. (National Portrait Gallery London via Getty Images)

I have had what I have been privately referring to as a poetry block for several years: I can barely read it, I certainly can’t write it, and it’s difficult to properly read anything about it. I used to live for poetry, and I still make a living by, occasionally, teaching it. It’s a strange feeling, not necessarily unfamiliar to me, but unusually located: to feel about an entire form the way I have felt so often in the past about crushes, romantic or sexual entanglements, and even relationships. I was too close to it, and then I couldn’t stand it; it reminded me of a strength of feeling I could no longer access, and so I wanted it out of my sight. Reading Anahid Nersessian’s Keats’s Odes: A Lover’s Discourse, in this context, was like meeting someone new after a long period of dormancy: a giddy feeling of connection, a reawakening of certain possibilities.

Admittedly, my own relationship to poetry is atypical: for many, the genre is a source of indifference or embarrassment. Those who write it often feel compelled to adopt a defensive tone to counter the assumption that it is both excessive and embarrassing. Poetry is associated with the teenager: Ben Lerner, writing in The Hatred of Poetry in 2016: “If you are an adult foolish enough to tell another adult that you are (still!) a poet, they will often describe for you their falling away from poetry: I wrote it in high school; I dabbled in college. Almost never do they write it now.”

One of the most enduring icons of this teenage refusal to be numbed to the world is surely John Keats, the Romantic poet born in London in 1795 and dead of tuberculosis by the age of twenty-five. He is immortalized, in popular memory at least, as a delicate, sensitive character who never quite grew up: his contemporaries like William Wordsworth declared his work to be “unhealthy,” or, like Lord Byron, made fun of his verse as “mental masturbation” (“John’s piss-a-bed poetry” was another of Byron’s monikers).

Piss-a-Bed Keats

Nersessian approaches this reputation head-on, noting that it stemmed in part from his class position — W. B. Yeats described him as “the coarse-bred son of a livery stable-keeper” — and from his association with “well-known radicals.” Indeed, there is nothing apologetic whatsoever about Nersessian’s account of Keats, and she makes it clear in the introduction that this is not a book for those who still need to be persuaded of the value of the poems it centers: “If you’ve never read anything on Keats’s odes before, this book should not be your first stop.” Rejecting the demand that poetry requires excuses made for it, Nersessian embarks on a project of close reading that insists her subject is not some cliché of Romantic escapism, but rather an intensely political mode of engaging with and describing the world.

The Keats in this book is “famously lovable,” not because of his genius but because of his “damage”: anecdotes draw a picture of a troubled boy “always in extremes,” a teenager who nursed his mother on her deathbed and who — despite standing under five feet tall — was remembered by his childhood friends as someone whose “penchant” was not for poetry but “for fighting.” Although he grew out of the fighting eventually, Nersessian suggests that his poems, in all their emotional extremity, are a continuation of a preexisting “hunt for nooks where impassioned and prolonged feelings of all kinds could linger and intensify, private worlds that are not really private.”

This is a sentiment shared by many who read and write about Keats, but where this reading differs is the assertion that within such “ungovernable” feelings is something inherently political: a test of what it might mean to be “truly free.” In this way, Keats’s Odes continues the project of Nersessian’s previous book, The Calamity Form, by reading the poems as texts in fellowship with Karl Marx. To do this, she follows George Bernard Shaw’s suggestion that within the poetry of Keats we can find a “full-blooded modern revolutionist” (indeed, in his letters, Keats both defended the French Revolution and insisted that England was long overdue its own).

“If Karl Marx can be imagined writing a poem instead of a treatise on Capital,” Shaw wrote in 1921, “he would have written Isabella.” “Isabella; or the Pot of Basil” (1818) is a long narrative poem which adapts a fourteenth-century Italian story from Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron. In it, Isabella, “enriched from ancestral merchandize,” falls in love with Lorenzo, one of her brother’s employees, instead of the nobleman her family wishes her to marry: when her secret is discovered, the interlocking machinery of family and property come together to ensure that Lorenzo is murdered. Informed of this by his ghost in a dream, Isabella exhumes her lover’s body and buries his head in a pot of basil, which she tends, weeping and pining, until she “dies forlorn.”

It’s easy to read “Isabella” as a Marxist poem: it devotes multiple stanzas to the exploitation upon which Isabella’s ancestral wealth is founded, how “for them many a weary hand did swelt / In torched mines and noisy factories”; how “For them the Ceylon diver held his breath, / And went all naked to the hungry shark.” It is harder to do what Nersessian does: take Shaw’s declaration and extend it to the odes. To do so, she quotes from 1844’s “Private Property and Communism”: “The forming of the five senses is a labour of the entire history of the world down to the present.” The abolition of private property, Marx continues, leads to the “complete emancipation of all human senses” because it is only through this abolition that “these senses and attributes have become, subjectively and objectively, human.” This is the only way that “the eye” can become “a human eye.”

Read like this, Keats becomes a similar thinker to Marx, albeit in an admittedly radically different mode: a writer “likewise preoccupied with the deformation of all aspects of human life under capital.” Keats’s commitment to Negative Capability, a term coined by the poet, which Nersessian defines as the artist’s chameleon-like ability to enter ‘”fully into the psychic and sensational orbit of other beings,” can be read as an activation of a Marxist principle: human nature is communal nature, and we are all harmed by systems of exploitation and misuse.

Among the many gifts of Nersessian’s interpretation of Keats is the insight that to truly love is to be open to the world, both despite and because of its great pain. If reading this book was, for me, akin to experiencing romantic connection after a period defined by its absence, it’s worth interrogating that feeling further. Keats, after all, is both a capital-R Romantic poet and a writer deeply associated with the idea of “love poetry” itself, both for his poems and for his letters to his fiancée, Fanny Brawne.

Bad Romance

In her reading of the “Ode to Psyche,” a love poem set in the aftermath of consummation, in which Keats’s speaker happens upon Cupid and Psyche “calm-breathing, on the bedded grass / Their arms embraced, and their pinions too,” Nersessian makes the case that the ode functions as both a love poem and as social critique. The side-by-side embrace of Cupid and Psyche — the god of love and a mortal woman who became the goddess of the soul — is a retort to “Olympus’ faded hierarchy,” which sought to keep them apart. It is also a vision of a “perfect love” that evades the constraints of gender: Keats’s lovers are “afloat in a euphoria of third-person plurals.” This perfect love does not erase suffering — Psyche in particular suffers greatly, undergoing in the original Ovidian story a series of trials set by the jealous Venus — but rather demonstrates its value: it “makes us worthy of love,” Nersessian writes, “not in some narrow masochistic sense, but because suffering gives us access to communal existence, the life we share with others by virtue of being alive at all.”

Keats’s Odes, then, is a project of reading very, very famous poems against the grain: of returning, in some sense, urgency to the text. In her essay about “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” Nersessian breaks fairly comprehensively with the critical consensus. The poem, which begins “Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness, / Thou foster-child of silence and slow time,” is a mainstay of secondary and tertiary curriculums, an ekphrastic text which describes what is commonly held to be a composite of the Elgin Marbles, the Townley Vase, Claude Lorrain’s paintings, and the Neo-Attic Sosibios vase that Keats viewed at the British Museum. Across the urn, a “sylvan historian” depicts a “leaf-fring’d legend,” exciting enough to inspire a series of rhetorical questions:

What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?

What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?

What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?

Nersessian’s reading of the poem, however, destroys the complacency of distance by making these “maidens loth” and their “struggle to escape” the central focus. “Grecian Urn,” she argues, is about sexual violence: its opening address, replacing the traditional “O” with a “Thou,” is a “catcall,” and its action revolves around a depiction of “a rape about to take place.” This speaker, Nersessian argues, in their giddy, voyeuristic excitement, “reads like a rapist.”

Close reading of the poem, lucid and moving, is interwoven with a broader consideration of intertwinement of literary history and intimate violence and a story from Nersessian’s own life: sexual harassment by a Latin teacher so persistent and so badly handled by the school itself that she gave up the study of the language altogether, a “great loss.” This is an astonishing reading of the poem, deftly handled and alive to its complexities: Keats, here, is understood as performing a kind of grotesque skit, exemplary of the ways in which naïve romantic ideals can provide cover for cruelty and violence. In paying attention to the poem — reading beyond its reputation — Nersessian shows us how to read Keats politically, working with what’s there rather than trying to twist his text into a proof of opinion: this is a poem about power, about who gets to spectate, and who gets to pursue. “Who are these coming to the sacrifice?”

Still, Nersessian’s Marxist reading of Keats comes up against its necessary difficulties. The final chapter in the book is both the most convincing and the most frustrating, reading as it does the “perfect and unforgivable” ode “To Autumn” alongside the feminist beat poet Diane di Prima’s “Revolutionary Letter #7.” The latter begins “there are those who can tell you / how to make molotov cocktails, flamethrowers, bombs whatever / you might be needing.” “To Autumn,” in contrast, is not a poem that advocates for the construction of makeshift weapons: it’s a poem about “seasons of mists and mellow fruitfulness.” In positioning such a text alongside di Prima’s explicit poetic endorsement of revolutionary violence, Nersessian is confronting head-on a sore point amongst those who try to draw out concrete political meaning from Keats’s writing.

“To Autumn” is the most precisely dated of the odes, which means we know Keats wrote it on September 19, 1819, shortly after reading newspaper reports of the Peterloo Massacre. A month earlier, soldiers on horseback had charged into a crowd assembled on St Peter’s Fields in Manchester to demand parliamentary reform, killing eighteen people and injuring many more. Unlike his contemporary Percy Bysshe Shelley, who composed “The Mask of Anarchy” in response to the events at Peterloo and the general sense of uproar at the slaughter that was shared across political divides, “Peterloo did not appear to stop Keats’s world on its axis.” How, then, can we square the revolutionary, proto-Marxist Keats with this poet who wrote such a profoundly unrevolutionary poem so soon after learning about such horrors?

Rather than disfiguring Keats’s poem in search of ideological clarity, Nersessian focusses on the perfection of the text itself. The completeness of the poem shows us that “the problem with beauty is not that it is so fragile but that it is so durable.” This is, for her, where the value of Keats’s poetry lies: it shows us that we are “attached, despite everything, to this place that has been weaponized against us.” In these moments, Keats’s seeming indifference to hardship comes concerningly close to a conservative abandonment of politics, justified on aesthetic grounds as a turn away from ugly earthly matters and toward profound feelings. Nersessian herself is unwilling to bridge this gap, or give any easy answers. Returning to di Prima, she reminds us instead that poems, too, are structures that will not persist unchanged after revolution.

When this final chapter ended, I felt bereft, abandoned: I wanted to ask Nersessian — undignified, almost begging — not to leave so soon. But I think perhaps the point is that Keats himself gives us nothing else in “To Autumn”: try as we might to read it for what we want to be there, it won’t bend to reveal a text more like di Prima’s. And that, maybe, is Nersessian’s larger point about poetry itself: we can’t help but love it, despite itself.