As/Is







6.11.2015


Are Keats' Minor Sonnets Send-Ups?


Twentieth century master narratives around British Romanticism, I predict, may come to look stifled and jejune in the twenty-first century. One of the (if less cherished) myths around this body of work is that Keats' minor sonnets, all written in the nineteenth century Teens, express sentiments without undue irony, and with an inhering spirit of earnestness and naive appreciation of Keats' young life, of literature, and of the social circle around the three Keats brothers. Keats, we were told in century XX, was not being coy when he wrote this (for instance) about painter Benjamin Robert Haydon:

Highmindedness, a jealousy for good,
A loving-kindness for the great man's fame,
Dwells here and there with people of no name,
In noisome alley, and in pathless wood:
And where we think the truth least understood,
Oft may be found a "singleness of aim,"
That ought to frighten into hooded shame
A money-mong'ring, pitiable brood.
How glorious this affection for the cause
Of steadfast genius, toiling gallantly!
What when a stout unbending champion awes
Envy, and Malice to their native sty?
Unnumbered souls breathe out a still applause,
Proud to behold him in his country's eye.

That Benjamin Robert Haydon was by no means a Byron-level celebrity, in collusion with the fact that Haydon's paintings are seen as reasonable if not spectacular successes, leads me to an inescapable conclusion: Keats is "taking the piss" here, deflating both Haydon's ego and the idea that Haydon imagines himself to have a rabid following among the general public. He most assuredly did not, and Keats, being no naif and demonstrating the arch streak which often shows up in his minor (and major, as in Melancholy) writing, enjoys the game of showing us this facet of who Haydon is. Since motifs and games like this recur endlessly in the early sonnets, it is easy for me to imagine that they are dotted with ironic subtexts, and that twentieth century Romantic criticism was abased, as was most twentieth century literary criticism, by a willingness to stay on the surface, and read the surface as adequate in/of itself.