POETIC LANGUAGE AND POLITICAL ENGAGEMENT IN THE POETRY OF KEATS by Jack L. Siler, Reviewed by Jeanne Britton
 

POETIC LANGUAGE AND POLITICAL ENGAGEMENT IN THE POETRY OF KEATS
By Jack L. Siler
Studies in Major Literary Authors (Routledge, May 15) 132 pp.
Reviewed by Jeanne Britton on 2013-11-28.

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The nature of John Keats's affiliation with radical politics has been a source of critical contention since his poetry first appeared in print. While its sensuousness has been taken to signify an escapist retreat from social reality, the lowliness of Keats's origins and the haphazardness of his education have been construed as evidence that he was inextricably bound to the lower classes. Joining this conversation, Jack Siler introduces his book by posing significant questions--"What does the poetic language of Keats represent? What is the measure of its political engagement?" (1)--that have already informed a substantial body of critical work. Siler aims to identify the political implications of Keats's verse through Peter Bürger's account of the late-eighteenth-century institutionalization of art in Theory of the Avant-garde (1974) and what Siler considers the "uneasy relationship between aesthetic value and practical purpose" (18) that is characteristic of Romantic poetry. Responding to and extending these introductory questions, Siler argues that "Keats's poetic language shares in, resists, and reflects the tensions inherent in this thematic and formal separation of art from the praxis of life and the accompanying hypostatization of autonomy as the essence of art, and this activity constitutes in large degree the measure of its political engagement" (29).

In spite of its aim, however, this book does not fully examine the critical history of the questions it raises about the extent of political engagement to be found in Keats's poetic language. Nor does Siler adequately consider its formal properties. While he rightly notes that such properties have lately drawn less critical attention than the historical contexts of Keats's poetry, he does less than justice to its formal complexity, and though he aims to focus on the language of Keats's poetry, he tends to slight the intense discussions of its formal attributes by critics such as W. J. Bate, Helen Vendler, and Susan Wolfson.

Siler's book is divided into three chapters plus an introduction and conclusion. Reviewing the history of theorizing about mimesis, the introduction ranges from Plato and Aristotle to Adorno and a condensed account of Bürger's aesthetics. Building on this theoretical groundwork, Chapter One briefly synthesizes some of the more notable readings of Keats and more fully explains Bürger's concept of the institutionalization of art. The book's ensuing chapters address major periods in Keats's poetic development: his early works (Chapter Two), the odes (Chapter Three), and the Hyperion fragments (Conclusion).

In the introduction and first chapter, Siler promises to reinterpret the political implications of Keats's poetry by melding Bürger's aesthetics with central points made by recent critical studies of Keats: Marjorie Levinson's Freudian-new historicist castigation of his "bad" poetry takes as its implicit ideal authenticity and the unmediated experience of canonical art; Nicholas Roe seeks the political backgrounds and implications of Keats's verse; Helen Vendler's virtuoso new critical reading of the odes presupposes the value of syntactic complexity and the lyric registering of aesthetic response. To synthesize the new historical and new formalist strands in Keats criticism, to locate the political within the poetic, Siler aims to show that the social ramifications of Keats's poetry lie within its textual details. But the chapters that follow, which seldom refer to either Bürger's aesthetics or recent criticism of Keats, shed little new light on his poetry.

To assess the social potential of poetry as Keats conceived it, Siler looks to Bürger's theory of the avant-garde. According to Bürger, post-Romantic art cannot challenge institutions because art was institutionalized before and during the Romantic period itself. Art's capacity to exercise political agency, then, is tempered by its status as an institutionalized product. Drawing on Bürger's argument, Siler construes the aestheticism and "elusive political engagement" (7) of Keats's poetry as a response to the historical process Bürger defines: the process by which aesthetic production becomes a social institution.

Siler strains to make Keats's poetry fit this template. Granting that Keats's classicism, aestheticism, and politics have little in common with early-twentieth century art, he makes only scattered use of Bürger's theory to unravel the political import of Keats's verse. While he tries to read the odes in Chapter Three with the aid of buzzwords like "commodity" and "public sphere," he prompts us to wonder if "the paradox of Romantic radicalism" can be truly summed up by the observation that "the adoption of classical themes and forms subdues the political content of [literary] works" (90). Does the act of granting aesthetic value to the song of Keats's nightingale convey a political message? Without sufficient reference to previous discussions of Keats's politics, especially Jeffrey Cox's Poetry and Politics in the Cockney School (2004), Siler's assertion that it does remains unconvincing.

Further questions arise from Siler's way of using his key word "institution." "[A]s a lyric poet," he writes, Keats "can be seen pursuing a possible poetic practice within the evolving relational framework, the institution of art, and since that framework does not exist independent of all those individuals organized by it, Keats, as a practitioner, is also helping to shape and sustain that institution" (6). Furthermore, Siler suggests, in spite of the medical, philosophical, or theoretical elements in Keats's poetry, it "is characteristically set within and responding to the distinctive and relatively independent institution of art" (7). But did Keats think he belonged to such an institution? To answer this question, Siler would need to say more about Annals of the Fine Arts, the quarterly in which "Ode on a Grecian Urn" and "Ode to a Nightingale" originally appeared, beyond simply listing its dedications (32-33). Likewise, Siler might have bridged the gap between the early nineteenth century and the early twentieth century by considering how the Victorian response to Keats helped lead the way to fin-de-siècle aestheticism. Siler could also have explained more fully how the second generation Romantics' "desire to integrate poetry and art into public life" anticipated "the effort of the avant-garde to forge a reentry of art into life praxis" (32). Conspicuous by its absence from Siler's discussion of this point is Jeffrey Robinson's Reception and Poetics in Keats (1998), which reads the poet "through the lens of the more or less avant-garde poetics in modern Europe and America" (Robinson, 16). Finally, a fuller account of Keats's relationship to literary history would have distinguished his place in literary tradition from his role in the institution of art.

Siler also scants what Keats's poetic language owes to that of his sources. Though his introduction nods to the source-investigating work of critics such as Harold Bloom, Marjorie Levinson, and Jerome McGann, he also claims that we need not choose between "literary heritage" and "historical moment" in assessing what influenced Keats "because Keats gathers his sense of poetic excellence from these authors [Dante and Milton], as did all contemporary writers who attempted epic presentation" (105). Yet surely it is through this gathering process, at least in part, that Keats joins the institution of art. In slighting Keats's debts to his poetic forebears, Siler misses an opportunity to strengthen and clarify the claim that Keats wanted his poetry to "count for something more than itself" (13). Whether or not this aim encompasses what is meant by political engagement ultimately remains unclear.

As already indicated, Siler hardly grapples with recent criticism on Keats. The chapter on Keats's odes cites only two critics--W. J. Bate and Ian Jack, whose works appeared in the 1960s. In the concluding chapter, which states that the arresting fragment "This living hand" enacts "the simple logic of holding out his hand to a friend, particularly to those friends who have yet to come along, namely, later readers" (102), Siler wholly ignores the nuanced work of critics such as Paul de Man and Jonathan Culler, who have questioned this simplicity. Nowhere in this chapter, which focuses on the Hyperion poems, does Siler refer to a single work of criticism. Overall he seems more stymied than inspired by the criticism he describes as "formidable," as when he notes that certain scholars have "moved Keats criticism in formidable directions" and that Roe is "a formidable defender of the poet against the charge of social and political escapism" (19).

Besides slighting recent scholarship on Keats, the book frequently makes typographical errors, such as misquoting the negative capability letter (48) and a section of Endymion (72) as well as misspelling proper names like Boccaccio, which comes out "Baccacio" (49). Finally, the book's style is at times almost disarmingly informal: "we think of Keats, the man anyways..." (103); "What clarity! What compression of vision! What song!... But apart from my overzealous appreciation for the poeticism, there are more serious issues at hand" (99). These defects hardly serve a book whose credibility suffers on other grounds.

On the whole, then, this book can be taken to exemplify the problem of politics in the critical study of British Romanticism, and of Keats in particular. Though Keats's poems have long been appreciatively probed by the New Critics and formalists, we now recognize that his works cannot be read as isolated lamps burning with the gem-like flame of Paterian intensity. Though Siler does not adequately answer the question he poses at the outset of his study--how far is Keats's poetry political?--it seems safe to say that questions of this kind will continue to animate critical conversations about Keats's works.

Jeanne Britton will become Curator in the Irvin Department of Rare Books and Special Collections at the University of South Carolina in Spring 2014.


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