Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

Keats and Me

Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

Keats and Me

Article excerpt

In January, 2006, Speed Hill asked if I would take part in a session at the Society for Textual Studies on the special connections that can exist between an editor and the writer being edited--"psychic links," he called them, connections transcending the usual relationship of scholar to his or her material and possibly representing a dangerous subjectivity undermining cool scholarly objectivity. (1)

It is now forty-nine years since I finished my Ph.D. While I have produced scholarly editions of several other writers, and the Romantics section of the last four editions of the Norton Anthology of English Literature, my principal textual and editorial work over the half century has focused on the poems of John Keats. It is the possible psychic links between Keats and me that I shall discuss in this paper. Walter Jackson Bate, in the opening pages of his masterful biography, likens Keats to Abraham Lincoln as a person of great achievement rising out of humble beginnings. Part of the story of my relationship with Keats is, in effect, how we grew up together in Texas.

Keats has several obvious qualities that would make him an attractive writer to connect with. There is the line-by-line richness of his poetry. At the time Keats wrote, no one had created such palpable, finely detailed pictures in poetry since Spenser and Shakespeare, and it can be argued that no one has done it so well again since Keats. There is Keats's clear-headed thinking on some basic problems of human life-his acceptance and even championing of the pleasure-pain complexity of mortal existence; his understanding of death as another stage of life; his skepticism concerning romantic fantasies about the possibility of escaping the consequences of mortality. Add to these Keats's character or personality in his life, letters, and poems. He was one of the least egotistical successful writers in the history of all the literatures of the world, and in a letter to his brothers he coined the term "Negative Capability" to make a theory out of it. And there is Keats's sense of humor. Possibly he does not rate a superlative in this category, and his poetry is usually pretty serious. But in his life and letters he was constantly relishing the humorous content of his and other people's experiences. None of these qualities, however, explains why 1, in particular, connected with Keats--at least not in the beginning.

The real story of how Keats and I got together is a series of circumstances in which I was mainly a lucky participant rather than an active cause of effects. And it has more to do with pieces of paper than with any of Keats's qualities that I just mentioned. I've been increasingly appreciating those qualities over the years, but the earliest stage of our relationship involved manuscripts.

I did grow up in Texas, where my dad was in the chain-link fence business. I worked on and off at the company from about the age of fourteen, and it was always understood that I would follow him in the business. So when I went to the University of Texas I had no obligation to learn a trade, therefore became an English major, and just by chance Keats was practically the first author I studied in my first semester of college literature courses. I read whatever I wanted as an undergraduate and, with the exception of Shakespeare, hardly anything earlier than the Romantics. At the suggestion of one of my professors in my senior year, I applied for a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship to go to graduate school and become a teacher (graduate school--What is that? I wondered), and was selected as one of the year's hundred recipients, two from each state of the Union.

During that senior year, a friend who worked for the University of Texas alumni association gave me a scholarly publication that had been gathering dust in her office, Hyder Rollins' The Keats Circle, a two-volume collection of letters and memoirs by people who had known Keats personally. …

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