Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Keats's Way of Salvation

Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Keats's Way of Salvation

Article excerpt

Man has places in his heart which do not yet exist, and into them enters suffering in order that they may have existence.--Leon Bloy (1)

KEATS WAS AN INVETERATE SEARCHER AFTER TRUTH RATHER THAN ONE who ever felt he had a firm grasp of it. As he wrote to Benjamin Bailey, "I have not one Idea of the truth of any of my speculations." (2) He lived, if any poet ever did, in "Negative Capability"--in "uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason" (Letters 1: 193). For all this, though, he never stopped searching; just weeks after his remark to Bailey he wrote to his publisher: "I find I can have no enjoyment in the World but continual drinking of Knowledge" (Letters I: 271). As Dennis Haskell writes, "like all poets he was implicitly concerned with questions of truth. Unlike most poets he was also often explicitly concerned with the question of truth." (3)

It is curious, then, that the critical view of Keats that has reigned virtually unchallenged through much of the twentieth century, at least since the 1940s, sees him as a kind of modern skeptic, fully in tune with the values of a "post-Christian era." The work of Hoxie Neale Fairchild and Edward Bostetter may be cited as symptomatic, and Ronald Sharp's important study, Keats, Skepticism, and the Religion of Beauty, articulates the case fully and impressively. (4) It was not until the publication of Robert Ryan's Keats: The Religious Sense in 1976 that this orthodoxy came to be seriously questioned. (5) Since then, however, there has been relatively little study of religious issues in Keats. As Robert Prescott wrote in a splendidly wide-ranging review of this question, "perhaps because Ryan's work is so thorough, critics have made little more of the religious nature of Keats's more private thought." (6)

When Ryan published Keats: The Religious Sense, over twenty-five years ago, my review in the Keats-Shelley Journal noted that one of the most remarkable things about this book is that it hadn't been written before. And yet it was perhaps only after it was written that one realized how much it had been needed. We do not, after all, commonly think of Keats as a "religious poet." And yet Ryan's book made a convincing case that religion and religious speculation played a far greater role in Keats's life, and in the forming of his imagination, than we had allowed ourselves to believe.

Keats: The Religious Sense is not a study of Keats's poetry. Ryan chose rather to focus on his life--and especially his letters--as a means of determining the shape and evolution of Keats's "personal creed." Because he finds the religious elements of Keats's poetry to be in large measure untraditional, Ryan suggests that it is helpful first to come to some understanding of Keats's basic theological point of view outside the poetry. He offers his study, therefore, as "a sort of prolegomenon or preface to any further examination of the religious aspects of Keats's verse," as well as to the study of his most important pronouncements on the nature of poetry (6). The purpose of this essay is to apply Ryan's reading of Keats's life to the poet's great letter of spring 1819 to George and Georgiana Keats--notably the "vale of soul-making" passage--and to the poems most intimately linked with it: the "Ode to Psyche" and The Fall of Hyperion.

In approaching religious dimensions of Keats's poetry, I suggest that a middle path may be taken between, on the one hand, a thoroughgoing skeptical and secularizing view and, on the other, a view that would baptize Keats into something approaching Christian orthodoxy. As Prescott justly observes, we must pay serious attention to the "deep religious ambivalence evident in Keats's letters" (22), and sedulously avoid the error of militantly secularist critics in "their imposition of a subtle exclusion principle: the idea that since the poems and letters voice in places a skeptical secularism, that the religious content of the same letters should therefore be ignored or devalued" (23). …

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