‘Isabella; or the Pot of Basil’, ‘The Eve of St Agnes’ and ‘Lamia’ represent Keats’s most concerted and, in some ways, most disturbing development of poetic romance.1 In these narratives, it is possible to observe a progressive toughening of his idea of romantic love directed to a male audience. This involves an increasing level of authorial distancing and studied objectivity which often works in tandem with a creative use of historical difference. In all these poems, including the short ballad ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci’, Keats manipulates the historical perspective in order to frame his representation of human passion. In these poems, romantic love is defined by the threat which surrounds it — whether it be the murderous violence of the brothers in ‘Isabella’, the mysterious malaise of the knight and the doubting voices which surround him in ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci’, the violent, animalistic ‘foemen’ of the ‘Eve of St Agnes’, or the destroying knowledge of Apollonius in ‘Lamia’. In all, cruelty plays a key role, not only in this process of differentiation to provide a sense of romance under siege, but as an integral aspect of the erotically charged aesthetic. The idea of romance precariously situated in an uncongenial, threatening society mixes easily with a fantasy of pain.
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