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The Physical Birth and Critical Death of John Keats

By John Knox

On September 23rd I celebrated the 200th anniversary of John Keats’s miracle year with a tribute to his life and work and his “perfect ode,” To Autumn.

Tonight I celebrate the 224th anniversary of his birth, as I do each year. This year I celebrate it somewhat mournfully, by continuing the story of my essay and juxtaposing it with the latest critical analysis from the literary lions of our day. While Byron and Shelley greatly exaggerated about the impact of literary critics on Keats’s life and health, the critics of today seem intent on snuffing out his songs, one article at a time.

The day after writing my essay in September, I sent its link to the Secretary of the Keats-Shelley Association of America. I suggested that she might share the link and essay with members of the Association. She responded positively, and then the Director of Communications replied a few days later, encouraging me to visit their blog with information about the 200th anniversary and To Autumn. My own essay wasn’t posted, but I was asked “Do let us know what you think!” about the blog.

This is what I think:

The Perfectly Political Ode?

I found on the blog one post about To Autumn, entitled “Keats’s Romantic Assassin,” by a British scholar. In this essay, the author relates scholarship connecting the “triumphal entry” of a radical orator to the “political tinge” of To Autumn. Readers are informed that the ode

can now be read as a political allegory about repressive government, enclosure acts, rural labour and surveillance… (h)owever circumstantial or speculative these conclusions may be.

After a long discussion of a photograph of an assassin that Keats saw and recounted briefly right after viewing the crowd with the orator, the essayist asserts that:

If ‘To Autumn’ exudes a ‘suspicion’ of the forthcoming Six Acts, the British government’s response to Peterloo, it also allegorizes the ‘wailful’ consequences of [the assassin’s] Romantic, or Byronic, heroism, the ‘last oozings hours by hours’ of intellectual freedom in Germany.

The essayist concludes in a more sexual vein, interpreting a few phrases of Keats’s regarding the photograph in juxtaposition with To Autumn, written less than a week later:

In Freudian terms, we can certainly detect a ‘joke’ of sentimental affiliation in the portrait, despite Keats’s disavowal. With hindsight, [the assassin’s] ‘plump temples’ are a poignant contrast to Keats’s imminent demise, so it is unsurprising to see a verbal echo in the eroticized, ‘plumped’ hazel shells of ‘To Autumn’, the bearers of the ‘sweet kernel’ of fruition, meaning and hope, but also, perhaps, conspired against by the ‘clammy cells’ of constitutional decomposition.

And that is how the Keats-Shelley Association of America’s blog celebrated the bicentenary of Keats’s “perfect ode” in real time.

The Disavowaling of Keats

The essayist’s interpretation is grounded in the work of Nicholas Roe, a leading Keats scholar of this generation. Roe is a New Historicist, a critical movement whose name takes a stand against the earlier, influential New Criticism of Robert Penn Warren and Cleanth Brooks. Whereas New Criticism endeavored to separate the circumstances from the poetry and focus closely on the poetry itself, New Historicism goes in the opposite direction and digs deeply into the circumstances, especially the “political valency,” of each and every poem.

I met both Red Warren and Cleanth Brooks. As an undergraduate math major I heard Warren read his poetry at a literary festival in Louisiana, and as a graduate student in the atmospheric sciences I listened intently as Brooks explained his approach to literary criticism to students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. So, I admit to some bias here. I’m old (54) and un-hip.

But I’ll be blunt: I can’t find To Autumn, the poem that I love, in the essayist’s irritable reach after fact and reason. And his reach does considerably exceed his grasp. The poem has been “atomized,” as I indicated to the Keats-Shelley staffer, exploded into a few phrases or words whose political meanings are extruded via “spectacular feats of stratospheric skill never before attempted by civilized man.” The logic demonstrated in the essay reminds me of the famous attempt by the Solicitor General of the United States to argue against the First Amendment in the Pentagon Papers case before the Supreme Court in 1971:

Now, Mr. Justice [BLACK], your construction of . . . [the First Amendment] is well known, and I certainly respect it. You say that no law means no law, and that should be obvious. I can only say, Mr. Justice, that to me it is equally obvious that “no law” does not mean “no law,” and I would seek to persuade the Court that that is true…

Is it too outrageous to think that Keats was, in fact, writing about autumn in To Autumn? Is it preposterous that the objective correlative Keats effortlessly masters in the poem regarding death, and his own death, might be more central to the poem’s meaning than the photograph of a German assassin? Does the poem have any meaning at all, other than to serve the literary masters as a vein of ore to be mined for political speculations and published articles?

The Schlock of the New

What’s going on here, of course, is the addiction to novelty and originality in our conception of literary scholarship. The humanities have tagged along behind on the same path trod by the natural sciences, prioritizing new scholarship over timeless — and therefore worthless — insights into what makes us human.

I am well-placed, as a physical scientist with a couple of national research awards under my belt and as a lover of literature and the humanities, to say that taking this path is a huge mistake. Even the “hard” sciences do not necessarily advance bulldozer-like from the new to the newer, as the unnecessarily insecure humanities may assume. Much that is old in my own discipline is reinvented in clever or deceptive ways, again satisfying the academy’s demand for originality rather than advancing the science.

It’s bad enough when the “schlock of the new” dilutes the sciences. It’s a cultural tragedy when it guts the humanities. Devalued in academe as the sciences brought home the pork and assumed primacy, the humanities lost their humanity to the false gods of number, weight, and measure. It is “the right road lost,” as in Pinsky’s translation of the opening of The Inferno. And we as a people lose our moral bearings as a result. I am not alone among liberal-minded commentators in this assessment.


Faced with the challenge of, say, ignoring that To Autumn might actually be about autumn and death because that isn’t new and publishable, the literary critics have gone to extreme lengths to suck seminal insights from the poetry of Keats.

When I was in graduate school at Wisconsin in the 1990s I sat in on the Keats portion of a Ph.D. seminar on Romantic literature. There was little discussion of his poetry, since New Historicism was overtaking other, poetry-based ways of discussing, well, poetry. Instead, the focus was on John Keats and masturbation.

The inspiration for this focus on onanism seems to have been Lord Byron’s quote that is at the top of this essay. Byron didn’t actually say that Keats pleasured himself physically in real life; he just mocked Keats’s poetry as mental masturbation, while throwing in a stray personal insult or two for good measure.

Literary critics are perhaps our civilization’s supreme exponents of mental masturbation and puerile sniggering, bearing no fruit and spoiling others’ while proudly wearing the rictus of sneer. The throbbing stars of Keatsian research, that literary circle of jerks, projected themselves onto Keats — and our seminar had to read all about it, because it was the “latest research.” To their credit, the Wisconsin graduate students couldn’t swallow the critics’ concupiscent claims, and there was much laughter had at the scholars’ expense.

Such rebellion was temporary, however, because to succeed in academia one must assimilate and repeat whatever the discipline’s bosses at the top say, until they are replaced by new bosses — lather, rinse, bend over, repeat.

God Bless You, John Keats

Amid all this novelty, all of this scholarship, all of this academic-industrious complex productivity,

Where are the songs of Keats?

Ay, where are they?

Fled is that music.

John Knox represents District 8 on the Clarke County Board of Education

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