John Keats and the Ideas of the Enlightenment

John Keats and the Ideas of the Enlightenment

John Keats and the Ideas of the Enlightenment

John Keats and the Ideas of the Enlightenment

Synopsis

John Keats is considered to be the least intellectually sophisticated of all the major Romantic poets, but he was a more serious thinker than either his contemporaries or later scholars have acknowledged. This innovative study provides a major reassessment of Keats's intellectual life by considering his often overlooked engagement with a formidable body of eighteenth-century thought, from the work of such historians as Robertson and Gibbon to philosophers such as Hume, Smith, and Voltaire. The book re-examines some of Keats's most important poems, including "The Eve of St Agnes," "Hyperion," "Ode to Psyche," and "Lamia," in light of a range of eighteenth-century ideas and contexts, from literary history and cultural progress to anthropology, economics, and political theory. By demonstrating that the language and ideas of the Enlightenment played a key role in his poetic agenda, Keats's poetry is shown to be less the expression of an intuitive boy genius and more the product of the cultural and intellectual contexts of his time. The combination of historical context and textual analysis makes this book of interest to students of cultural and intellectual history, as well as to literary scholars.

Excerpt

Reflecting on the virtues of ancient poetry in his Critical Dissertation on the Poems of Ossian (1763), Hugh Blair claims that ‘an extensive search’ would uncover ‘a certain degree of resemblance among all the most ancient poetic productions’ on the basis that ‘in a similar state of manners, similar objects and passions operating upon the imaginations of men, will stamp their productions with the same general character’. It is, of course, to one of the first ‘states’ or ‘stages’ of society that the poems of Ossian ostensibly belong, and although Blair goes on to argue that the ‘resembling features’ apparent in these early stages tend to dissipate in the face of subsequent revolutions and diversions, he nonetheless continues to see the operation of manners and poetry as mutually dependent throughout the various stages of society, even if the principal effect of a greater degree of refinement is to subdue the vigour and sublimity of the imagination as literature, like language, ‘advances from sterility to copiousness, and at the same time, from fervour and enthusiasm, to correctness and precision’.

The idea of evolving states or stages of society was fundamental to eighteenth-century understandings of human progress, and Blair’s Dissertation is suggestive of the ways in which Enlightenment developmental models were transferred from historical and sociological writing to representations of literary history in the period. It also points to the continuities between historical and other types of literary writing. For Blair, as for many other Enlightenment thinkers, literary history was not something inherently different from more general historical studies: the evolution of a society was reflected in the development of its literature, and the history of the imagination was intimately connected to the history of social institutions as well as to theories about the progress of human understanding and moral judgement. David Hume saw the first histories of poetry, religion and society as virtually interchangeable in The Natural History of Religion (1757). Historians and social theorists from Blair to . . .

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