Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

"Give Me That Voice Again ... Those Looks Immortal": Gaze and Voice in Keats's the Eve of St. Agnes

Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

"Give Me That Voice Again ... Those Looks Immortal": Gaze and Voice in Keats's the Eve of St. Agnes

Article excerpt

IT HAS, BECOME A COMMONPLACE IN ROMANTIC CRITICISM TO UNDERSTAND Keats s poetry as profoundly shaped by commodity culture. (1) For some critics, Keats is the parvenu, fatally cut off from the cultural and material capital of the gentleman poet. (2) For others, he is a poet who shamelessly revels in consumer culture, a middle class consumer immersed in the sensuousness of the commodity. Ayumi Mizukoshi, for example, argues that Keats is invested in a bourgeois "culture of conspicuous consumption." (3) According to this view, Keats was not primarily a political poet, much less a radical, but instead "remained a poet of sensuous pleasure until the end of his career" (8). Critics such as Nicholas Roe, however, have attempted to show that Keats was more politically radical than many have recognized. (4)

This essay examines Keats in the context of the commercial culture that fascinated him but does not assume, as Mizukoshi does, that this fascination ends with acceptance and full engagement. Rather, I join those critics who see a more critical edge in Keats's work. Keats's immersion in commodity culture leads to an important critique of the type of object relations that turns people into things. Keats's 1820 romance, The Eve of St. Agnes, offers a provocative alternative to how things operate in commodity capitalism. Proposing a romance that breaks out of the courtly love tradition, the poem undermines the kind of enjoyment associated with consumption. (5)

In The Eve of St. Agnes, Keats develops his critique by opposing the promise of fulfillment proffered by luxury objects with a form of romantic love that depends on lack. The poem critiques the power of luxury objects to intimate an enjoyment that promises ultimate plenitude, a fulfillment approached, although never fully achieved, both through the dangers of competition and through ascetic deferral. These two modes of consumption lead to the same nostalgic desire for a full jouissance. The poem, however, offers a different form of enjoyment marked by the awareness of death and lack. The lovers come to recognize the insufficiency of the beloved and the failure of courtly love fantasies. By discovering an erotic love that recognizes lack and mortality, the lovers come to reject their dependence on the promise of plenitude that keeps them in thrall to a system of competition and hierarchy.

"Burst Joy's grape against his palate fine"

Keats's poetry is fascinated with things. Kurt Heinzelman argues that Keats seems to be "totting up a poetic catalogue of cultural artifacts, fetishized as commodities for the use of his own individual imagination." (6) For Carlyle, Keats's tendency to fill everything to the brim speaks of a "miserable creature, hungering after sweets which he can't get" (7) or for Yeats of a "schoolboy with his nose pressed to the sweetshop window" (Heinzelman 159). For Heinzelman, this view "denies him any capacity for self-criticism, denies him worldliness" (159). In fact, Keats's interest in things is far cannier than some of his more condescending critics have recognized.

In The Eve of St. Agnes, objects of luxury create a world in which everything appears to reflect and engage human desire. If humans enjoy in the castle, they are not alone. Every thing accompanies them in their sensations. The music is "yearning like a God in pain" (56) (8) and the "carved angels, ever eager-eyed, / Stared" at the celebration below (34-35). The luxurious "chambers, ready with their pride, / Were glowing to receive a thousand guests" (32-33). Here, things have desiring voices and desiring gazes that reflect the desires of the human inhabitants of the castle while also legitimizing and amplifying these desires. A system in which objects share the sentiments of humans, in which even the rooms feel pride and excitement ("glowing to receive a thousand guests"), creates the imaginary effect of a world in which everything exists to the measure of human desire, in which everything invites one to consume and enjoy. …

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