Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

"Strange Longings": Keats and Feet

Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

"Strange Longings": Keats and Feet

Article excerpt

THERE ARE MORE FEET IN KEATS'S POETRY THAN MIGHT BE SUPPOSED--and by feet, I am referring to those found on the end of legs, not the metrical variety. Feet figure in various ways: for example, Keats visualized his poetic career in terms of "daring steps" he hoped to tread along the "bright path[s] of light" left by Britain's great poets ("Specimen of an Induction to a Poem" 57, 60). (1) Many other references, on first sight at least, are formulaic. A lady's feet are always "white" (Endymion 2.325), (2) "light" ("La Belle Dame sans Merci" 15), (3) or "nimble" (Lamia 1.96). However, from a psychoanalytic perspective, and drawing specifically on Freud's 1927 paper "On Fetishism," I suggest that Keats's attention to feet--"things on which the dazzled senses rest / Till the fond, fixed eyes, forget they stare" (4)--cannot simply be explained, or contained, within the terms of conventional imagery. Closer examination opens a narrative into an intriguing libidinal economy, founded on what Keats himself called his "Boyish imagination." Within this exchange "normative" early nineteenth-century notions of manliness, female sexuality, and desire itself are radically unfixed by physiological apprehension.


Keats's ambivalent relationship to "manliness" has often been remarked on. As Anne K. Mellor reminds us, Keats believed his appearance was girlish. (5) Reviewers confirmed this image by portraying him as a "Cockney" poet, a label that readers would have recognized as containing a sense of effeminacy. (6) Or else, employing what Susan Wolfson calls "a puerilising rhetoric," Keats was presented to the reading public as an immature boy. (7) In both cases, detractors aimed to discredit Keats's literary productions by questioning his manliness, and thus his right to be taken seriously by a "grown-up" audience. Blackwood's "Z" (John Gibson Lockhart) called Keats "a boy of pretty abilities"; (8) in 1826 the journal referred to his "emasculated pruriency." (9) In private Byron showed less restraint, vehemently dismissing "Johnny Keats's piss-a-bed poetry" (Wolfson 95).

Keats was conscious that he harbored a vulnerability to attacks of this kind. In 1819 he complained to his brother and sister-in-law: "My name with the literary fashionables is vulgar--I am a weaver boy to them." (10) Nevertheless, he did not deny the centrality of immaturity to his life and art. On the contrary, in a letter to his friend Benjamin Bailey in July 1818, he refers uneasily to his "Boyish imagination," which he supposes has prevented him from developing a "right feeling towards women":

   I am certain I have not a right feeling towards Women--Is it because they 
   fall so far beneath my Boyish imagination? When I was a Schoolboy I 
   though[t] a fair Woman a pure Goddess, my mind was a soft nest in which 
   some one of them slept though she knew it not--I have no right to expect 
   more than their reality. [...] When I am among Women I have evil thoughts, 
   malice spleen--I cannot speak or be silent--I am full of Suspicions [...] I 
   am in a hurry to be gone--You must be charitable and put all this 
   perversity to my being disappointed since Boyhood. (LJK 1.341) 

He adds despairingly: "I must absolutely get over this--but how?" (LJK 1.342). Later I will suggest ways in which Keats attempted to overcome his wrong feelings. Displaying a precocious talent for self-analysis here, Keats identifies a conflict between his boyish conception of women as "pure goddesses" and his more mature, if troubled, notion of what he calls "their reality." I am not merely suggesting that these rival concepts help generate such dualistic figures as La Belle Dame, Moneta, or Lamia, whose head, as every student knows, "was serpent, but ah, bitter-sweet! / She had a woman's mouth with all its pearls complete" (1.59-60). Rather, my discussion discloses a compelling psychological drama in Keats's letters and poetry, in which a reluctance to respond to or represent women in any way other than "boyishly" is repeatedly demonstrated. …

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