Keats: Bicentenary Readings

By Michael Oweill | Go to book overview

CHAPTER NINE
'Cutting Figures': Rhetorical Strategies
in Keats's Letters

TIMOTHY WEBB

Perhaps we know Keats's letters so well that we have forgotten how to read them. Their status is so readily acknowledged and their virtues so indisputable that critical engagement might seem almost unnecessary or inappropriate. In some ways, this critical impasse is related to that sense of completion and of achieved intimacy that caused F. R. Leavis to claim many years ago that there was nothing new to be said about Keats's poetry. Keats may represent a particular or unusual challenge but so firm a pronouncement could only have been produced by a view of interpretative possibilities and of literary texts which was too easily satisfied, or even self-satisfied, or which was unduly influenced by the relative brevity of the Keatsian canon. Yet, although the poetry continues to be reinterpreted, the letters have proved an even greater challenge. Although they are generously quoted in most books on Keats, they rarely receive special treatment. As long ago as 1951, Lionel Trilling accorded them a sensitive essay entitled "The Poet as Hero: Keats in his Letters" in which he presented a fine liberal humanist reading which took account of the literary identity of the letters but which, as the title indicates, centred its interest in a sustained process of ethical selfconstruction and self-revelation. 1 In Keats and Embarrassment Christopher Ricks offered an original perspective which treated the letters as literary texts deserving the same kind of attention as the poetry: with characteristic attentiveness to local verbal textures, he noticed the diversity of voices, the wordplay, the dramatic shaping and the energetic variety which had been ignored or minimised by most of Keats's critics. 2 The possibilities so richly opened up by Ricks have not yet been fully explored. More recently, John Barnard and Andrew Bennett have written very suggestively on various aspects of the subject 3 but it is increasingly clear that there is a great deal which may yet be said about the letters. Before that is achieved, it will be necessary to deliver them from the focus of the biographer and the

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Keats: Bicentenary Readings
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents v
  • Acknowledgernents vi
  • Note on Texts vii
  • Chapter One - Introduction 1
  • Notes 10
  • Chapter Two - A Cockney Schoolroom: John Keats at Enfield 11
  • Notes 25
  • Chapter Three - Keats's New World: an Emigrant Poetry 27
  • Notes 44
  • Chapter Four - Old Saints and Young Lovers: Keats's Eve of St Mark and Popular Culture 48
  • Notes 68
  • Chapter Five - Keats and Silence 71
  • Notes 86
  • Chapter Six - The Inward Keats: Bloom, Vendler, Stevens 88
  • Notes 100
  • Chapter Seven - Keats's Poetry: "The Reading of an Ever-Changing Tale' 102
  • Notes 126
  • Chapter Eight - Still Life with Keats 129
  • Notes 142
  • Chapter Nine - 'Cutting Figures': Rhetorical Strategies in Keats's Letters 144
  • Notes 169
  • Notes on Contributors 170
  • Index 172
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