Reading Keats, Thinking Politics: An Introduction

By Rohrbach, Emily; Sun, Emily | Studies in Romanticism, Summer 2011 | Go to article overview

Reading Keats, Thinking Politics: An Introduction

Rohrbach, Emily, Sun, Emily, Studies in Romanticism

MARKING THE FIFTIETH ANNIVERSARY OF STUDIES IN ROMANTICISM, THIS special issue, "Reading Keats, Thinking Politics," revisits the topic of a collection that appeared midway into the journal's history. Published in Summer 1986 under the guest-editorship of Susan Wolfson, "Keats and Politics" brought together two terms that seemed to present an improbable conjunction. Wolfson cannily observed in the introduction "the general critical tendency" at that time "to regard the very conjunction of 'Keats' and 'politics' as something of a metaphysical conceit." (1) According to long-held assumptions about the relationship between literature and politics, Keats appeared to be the pre-eminently apolitical or even anti-political Romantic poet, the dreamer who evaded topical issues and whose well-wrought productions aspired to a realm of timeless beauty. Since the 1980s, the conjunction of "Keats" and "politics" has served effectively to catalyze a number of diverse critical approaches. Presenting a collection of exciting new work, this issue invites scholars and critics to re-engage with how Keats's poetry is related to questions of politics.

The 1986 issue was responding most immediately to the new historicist reading of Keats's poetry as escaping or suppressing its political context. This perspective had been most visibly and powerfully spelled out in Jerome McGann's 1979 essay, "Keats and the Historical Method in Literary Criticism." McGann's most stringent critique focused on "To Autumn," which he argued "is an attempt to 'escape' the period which provides the poem with its context, and to offer its readers the same opportunity for refreshment." (2) The politics that the new historicism found in Keats's poetry was its "(politically) reactionary" denial of "context," which McGann defined as "the Terror, King Ludd, Peterloo, the Six Acts, and the recurrent financial crises of the Regency" (53, 61). From this perspective, the categories of text and context, literature and politics, and poetry and history presented an intractable and ideologically suspect divide.

Complicating that divide, the 1986 SiR issue began to indicate in diverse ways an engaged "political dimension" to Keats's poetry of which we had not been taking account (KP, 196). Morris Dickstein found in Hyperion a vital political subtext in its "goal of ultimate social renovation by way of the disinterested exertions of art" (KP, 181); William Keach established the radical political implications of Keats's cockney couplets; David Bromwich reminded us that Keats's reviewers found his early poetry "at once enervatingly luxurious and transparently political" and that Keats's letters reveal an abiding concern with political issues (KP, 199); Paul Fry showed us in "To Autumn" not an escape from political conflict, but a timely "refusal to sublimate mortality as a social conspiracy" (KP, 219); and Alan Bewell argued that the poetry embodied a political identification with "the suffering and silence of political outsiders" (KP, 229). With these essays, the question about "Keats and Politics" changed to a question of Keats's politics.

What followed were a number of books that illuminated ways of reading Keats's politics through historical "contexts" that these studies worked to restore to our critical imagination. Marjorie Levinson's extraordinary Keats's Life of Allegory: The Origins of a Style (1988) foregrounded the class politics of the vituperative socio-sexual attacks on Keats from the conservative press as well as from Lord Byron. Levinson argued in sustained readings of the romances that Keats's poetry achieved its greatness when he signified his overdetermined class alienation from his materia poetica. Building on Levinson's cultural materialism, studies such as Daniel Watkins's Keats's Poetry and the Politics of the Imagination (1989) and Nicholas Roe's John Keats and the Culture of Dissent (1997) illuminated the politics of Keats's reading and how it might have formed his thinking. …

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