As/Is







6.30.2015


Keats' Visions/Visions of Keats



Keats' odal celebration of Psyche, deified as a goddess rather than merely a figure of myth, initiates a dynamic whereby we understand Keats' conception of the feminine, and of women. Psyche, importantly, is virginal but not a virgin; if she has retained her original innocence, it is also tempered by the vagaries of an active amatory life. Keats' also initiates, from the second generation of Romanticism, a strain of androgyny in his writing, whereby he can appear wisely passive and receptive or active and imposing. These two complexes together can equal, on one level, a simple whole: Keats likes women. He likes feminine energy, feminine innocence, and the seductive power (power to charm) which emanates from this energy and innocence put into dramatic, dynamic motion in art and myth. There is, in his appreciation of the feminine, nothing particularly perverse or lateral; he represents his tastes in such a way that the wholesome (or natural or organic) is emphasized. Even what is Pagan in Keats is nature-worshipping, and wholesome. The imaginative vistas spun out of this ethos are also nature-worshipping, and wholesome, as befits a cognitive attachment to a classical reality deemed "happily pious" in relation to the England Keats was raised in. Psyche stands in the center of the odal cycle as the charming, seductive synecdoche of this facet of Keats' sensibility.

Yet, however John Keats chose to live his life among the female of the species, clearly Percy Bysshe Shelley found Keats disingenuous or deluded. Adonais takes all this healthy, organic, wholesome energy and inverts it. As female splendor after splendor (what a splendor is for Shelley is a kind of earth-spirit or half-ghost) jumps on and molests Keats' corpse, we also see a kind of reversal in sensibility suggesting another inversion: Shelley does not like women, and feminine energy, as much as Keats does. This may be refuted by other sectors of Shelley's oeuvre, but Shelley was a poet of many moods, and a misogynistic mood may be one of them. By showing us these "damp deaths," Shelley adds an implicit critique of Keats' treatment of the Psyche myth in his odal cycle, and also (maybe, and daringly) opens a window not only on Fanny Brawne, but on what other kind of women were attracted by Keats during his lifetime. This is not just a question of the class differential between Shelley and Keats, which is (admittedly) huge in and of itself- it is a question of writing a palimpsest over a whole vision of human reality, an idealistic one, and replacing it with a perverse, materialistic, yet (also) more painstakingly honest one. If, traditionally, Keats is seen to be the materialist and Shelley the idealist, it is only because twentieth century literary criticism evinced its own perversity in molesting corpses with its splendors, and taking the easy way out, back to an inverted paradise.