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About this book

This book offers an exciting reassessment of Keats with particular emphasis on gender identity and sexuality. Traditionally, Keats has been more readily associated with the 'feminine' than any other canonical male English poet. This feminization was always likely, given his tragically early death and the mythologizing which took place soon after. In contrast, John Whale explores Keats's writings from the perspective of masculinity and gender by placing them in the context of contemporary friendship groupings and coterie relationships.

Whale addresses all the major poems and gives due prominence to the letters. In so doing, he offers a new understanding of Keats's exploration of poetry, gender and desire, and provides an extended analysis of Keats's quest for poetic fame in the face of the often conflicting forces of love and sexuality.

Clear, concise and insightful, this is an essential guide to one of the best-known Romantic poets.

Table of Contents

1. ‘Modern Love’

Abstract
John Keats has been more readily associated with the ‘feminine’ than any other canonical male English poet.1 Recent critics, Victorian editors and literary historians, as well as his own contemporaries — including his friends and literary opponents — have all shown a readiness to place him within this culturally defined category. Keats’s ‘feminisation’ was always likely, given his tragically early death and the mythologising which took place soon after. The now discredited, but long-standing idea that he had been killed by the reviews, coupled with the effect produced by his acquaintance Percy Shelley’s pastoral elegy ‘Adonais’ dedicated to Keats, conspired to produce, as they would for Shelley himself not long afterwards, a compelling story of poetic martyrdom involving the sacrifice of a sensitive soul somehow unfitted for the world. The cult of biography which attached itself to Keats by the mid-nineteenth century could even use his physical appearance in the form of his death-masks and portraits to construct an image of the sensitive ‘feminine’ poet whose status as a man was marginal by conventional standards. Beyond such biographical mythologising, the category of the ‘feminine’, however, is also one which has frequently and complexly intersected his writings and his reception through different historical audiences.
John Whale

2. Epic Abstraction

Abstract
Keats’s long poems — Endymion, Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion — form a substantial amount of his creative output and serve as a reminder of his considerable ambition as a poet.1 In these extraordinary poems, he tests himself out against the most prestigious of genres, the epic and the romance, and against the daunting precedents set by Homer, Ovid, Spenser and Milton. Within his own development as a poet capable of handling the long poem, he displays a struggle with the problem of style, moving between the influence of Spenser and that of Milton. For the purposes of this study, these poems provide an opportunity to see how Keats explores the subject of love to some degree removed and abstracted from the immediate context of his own society and the pressing concerns of his own social milieu and its contemporary forms of gender identity. Dealing in classical myth enables Keats to come at his contemporary society from a refreshingly new angle and to explore sexuality liberated from the stifling propriety of middle-class mores.
John Whale

3. Narrating Romance: ‘Isabella’, ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci’, ‘The Eve of St Agnes’, and ‘Lamia’

Abstract
‘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.
John Whale

4. Endearing Addresses: the Odes

Abstract
The form of the ode is particularly suited to the exercise of an empathetic and projective imagination, and Keats’s odes have not surprisingly become synonymous with what is taken to be his most characteristic mode of creativity. This irregularly structured lyric, which takes the form of an address, provided Keats with an opportunity to explore the relationship between the self and other. In this respect, the excited fluctuations and identifications between the speaker and addressee in the ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ have been seen as instancing the workings of the Romantic imagination — that creative power which allows the poetic self to transcend its limitations by becoming that which it contemplates. This chapter focuses on the significant, but often underplayed, presence of gendered subjectivity in the odes which forms part of Keats’s continued engagement with the power of love as it manifests itself here in the form of sexual encounters, wild ecstasy, young lovers, happiness and appetitive desire. The chapter will also look at Keats’s self-proclaimed deployment of a feminised fancy rather than on imagination.
John Whale

5. Corresponding Selves: Keats’s Letters

Abstract
As this excerpt illustrates, Keats’s letters are a complex coming together of writer and readers in which the sense of audience is as acute as the self-conscious production of a body of writing. Keats’s keen imagining of the moment of reception is matched by a sense of coherence which is at least psychological, if not literary.1 The above statement itself, of course, has the peculiar status of a meta-commentary on letter-writing, though embedded in a very particular letter. The pull of letters in contrary directions is also clearly evident here: their being things of the moment; their being thought of as a body of work; and their need to match the mood of the participants. Keats captures the strategic nature of these texts: their willingness to suit in order to bond a relationship and the peculiar kind of creativity which is produced out of their very limit and contingency, the way in which they encourage a humour which can ‘turn any thing to Account’. Keats plays with and creatively exploits the physical and temporal contingency of early nineteenth-century letters: their cost and the limits of space; the time they would take to arrive and the moment of delivery.
John Whale

Conclusion

Abstract
The last manifestation of Keats’s creativity in the field of love poetry is to be found in the six poems which have often been associated with Fanny Brawne: the sonnets ‘The day is gone, and all its sweets are gone!’, ‘I cry your mercy, pity, love — ay, love!’, and ‘Bright star! Would I were as steadfast as thou art’; ‘To Fanny’ and the ‘Ode to Fanny’; and the enigmatic fragment ‘This living hand, now warm and capable’.1 It seems appropriate to end this book with a consideration of this cluster of short love poems because, for a variety of reasons, they have provided Keats’s readers with a difficult challenge. In these poems, Keats certainly writes out of a particularly anguished personal situation which has made for painful reading. The distressing circumstances of his illness and the precarious nature of his betrothal to Fanny Brawne can make the poems seem irredeemably attached to the private anguish of this very moving period of his life. The pressure to read biographically is greater than ever. And the fact that the poems articulate the sometimes aggressive and ungenerous frustrations of a young man in tragic circumstances has, understandably, only added to the sense of critical unease.2 Here Keats’s acute sense of bodily presence finds itself combined with physical incapacity and sexual jealousy.
John Whale
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