Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

The Time of Beauty

Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

The Time of Beauty

Article excerpt

POLITICS IS AMONG OTHER THINGS THE WORK OF TIME--PUNCTUAL OR durational, falling with a fine (or terrifying) suddenness or nurtured in silence and slow time. Perhaps only the most utopian or messianic forms of political thought have sought to unmoor themselves from temporality; their credibility as political models has been brought into question to the extent that this is the case. But Keats's orientation in time from the beginning of his writing career was vexed. I refer not only to the legendary briefness of the poet's life, his emulation of distant literary precursors, or even his remark (both admission and boast) that "I never know the day of the Month." (1) To these temporal complications one must add Keats's intense fixation on the posthumous life of writing--a condition well analyzed in Andrew Bennett's work, and more recently evoked in Stanley Plumly's experiment in biography. (2) Keats records in his writing life the conditions of being both "too late" (too, too late for the fond believing lyre) and "too soon" (to cease upon the midnight with no pain). As in many of the Odes, Keats in Hyperion makes this condition of uneasy suspension, between the too-late Titans and the Olympians to come, his first and--until rewriting the poem as The Fall--encompassing subject. The poet is at once "'belated," in both Bloomian and broader historico-political terms, and makes his home in Derrida's l'a-venir, the future-to-come. Oriented toward the inaccessible past, ever watchful of the shadows that futurity casts upon the present, Keats is fundamentally an untimely poet. In what sense-or tense--is he then a political one?

One early, influential attempt to answer this question came from the poet's close friend, mentor, and (later) memoirist, Charles Cowden Clarke. In the 186I "Recollections of Keats," first published in the Atlantic Monthly, Clarke affirmed Keats's moral and political commitments with reference to the statement which, at least since it adorned the Art Treasures Palace of the 1857 Great Exhibition in Manchester, had become the slogan of the poet's work. Clarke writes: "His own line was the axiom of his moral existence, his political creed:--'A thing of beauty is a joy forever" [sic]. (3) Like the nightingale "not born for death," the beautiful object is oriented toward, if not in itself possessing, eternal life. Beauty persists in defiance of time, bestowing "unto" us, in Keats's insistent preposition from the prologue to Endymion, a shadow of plenitude that our own lives conspicuously lack. (4) The life that "life" does not or cannot afford may yet be available in the luminous forms of art.

For reasons that will appear obvious to readers of this journal, Clarke's pronouncement has not consistently struck scholars as the most promising basis from which to begin to examine Keats's orientation in historical time and politics. In the not too distant past, Clarke's statement could be understood as little more than the rhetorical flourish of one committed to asserting that Keats's "creed" was not properly speaking "political" at all. To Marjorie Levinson, for instance, whose assessment of the poet inaugurated an extraordinarily productive era in Keats scholarship, not Keats's "principle of beauty" but his "suffered objectivity" was the master key to the poet's politics. For Levinson, the Keats who thus suffers is our angel of history as described by Benjamin--face turned to the past, blown irresistibly into the future--and, in the later work especially, he reappears as the avenging angel who turns the instruments of domination against the culture that wields them. (5) A postulate common in the boom years of the new historicism, best captured by Fredric Jameson's famous remark that "History is what hurts," maintained that the force of "history" is chiefly made manifest in forms of affective "hurt," trauma, and so forth. (6) Where this is the case, the beautiful may signify no more than as the possibility of momentary consolation or the utopianism of a perpetually deferred redemption of time. …

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