LIVES OF THE DEAD POETS: KEATS, SHELLEY, COLERIDGE by Karen Swann, Reviewed by Jonathan Culler

By Karen Swann
(Fordham, 2019) 178 pp.
Reviewed by Jonathan Culler on 2020-07-08.

Click here for a PDF version.

Click here to buy the book on Amazon.

This book, Swann explains, "explores the insistence of biography in the reception histories of Keats, Shelley, and Coleridge, three British romantic poets who could be said to have shared a condition of premature arrest" (1). An elegant account of several dimensions of these histories, Swann's book especially, or most interestingly, concerns the "untoward reading-effects, when a poetic line, phrase, or figure sparks a memory of biographical information" (1), and particularly cases that "at once solicit and rebuff an illusion of reference" (13). Specialists in Romantic poetry tend to deplore responses that invoke biography and often veer into sentimentality -- most ineluctably, perhaps, in the case of Keats, whose best-known poems are hard to separate from readers' knowledge of his illness and untimely death. Writing to Richard Woodhouse on October 27, 1818, Keats declared that a poet "has no identity." Yet as Swann notes, the reception of Keats has come to depend upon elements of the story of the cockney apothecary who dies knowing that he would be among the English poets, and she understands why critics such as Thomas Pfau are dismayed to find "romantic studies . . . 'enthralled' by the death of Keats, at the cost of adequate readings of Keats's work" (4). But such resistance, she suggests, is misguided, for ultimately it is a resistance to central aspects of poetry itself -- or what she calls "poetry's capacity to inspire attachment beyond all reason" which "has sustained its life, from the romantic period to our own" (27).

Because they died prematurely of (respectively) illness and drowning, Keats and Shelley survive as ill-fated poets whose lives and deaths become interwoven with their writing. A perfect example of this interweaving is Adonais, Shelley's elegy on the death of Keats. "[I]n granting cultural prestige to the pathos-laden figure of the artist seen as victim or casualty of a world indifferent to genius," Swann writes, Adonais shaped the reputation and reputations of both Keats and Shelley after their deaths (57). Swann also shows how figures in Shelley's verse informed "the Shelley circle's posthumous constructions of 'the Poet'" (77).

The case of Coleridge seems rather different. Speaking of "promise wasted," Swann devotes two chapters to late Coleridge, whom she presents as a depleted figure aptly described by Hazlitt: "All he has done of moment, he had done twenty years ago; since then he may be said to have lived on the sound of his own voice" (qtd. 92). Renowned as an enthralling talker, Coleridge comes to represent for Swann a certain image of thinking as unproductive, resistant to efficiency, and also, in a memorable phrase of Coleridge's, committed to "Work without Hope" (100). She claims, too, that some of "his rehearsed forms of distress chime with some of the current preoccupations of psychoanalytic theory" (103). But she does not try to show that readers of "Kubla Khan," "Frost at Midnight," or "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" experience the sort of "untoward reading effects" that are produced elsewhere by the interference of biography.

While most readers of Romantic poetry know salient facts about the lives and deaths of Keats and Shelley, they probably know little of Coleridge's life, beyond his walks with Wordsworth and collaboration on Lyrical Ballads. And the difference between Coleridge and Wordsworth here is more striking still: unlike readers of Coleridge, readers of Wordsworth's verse constantly have the experience of poetic lines sparking memories of biographical information -- as well as places or place names evoking lines by Wordsworth: scenes of the Lake District, Dove Cottage, Rydal Mount, and Dorothy Wordsworth and Mary Hutchinson interact with the verse in both predictable and unpredictable ways, which does not happen so readily with Coleridge; but Wordsworth, of course, is not among those prematurely arrested or cut off and so figures only marginally here.

In her masterful Introduction and opening chapter on Keats, Swann examines reading effects involving the interaction of poetic line and biographical information, "when a biographical figure concatenates with a poetic figure in a way that catches us unawares, bringing home to the pulses a sense of the lost and unrecoverable singularity of that which has passed or gone under" (16). She avoids such obviously autobiographical poems as "When I have Fears that I May Cease to Be" and "On First Looking into Chapman's Homer": the effects of evoking Fanny Brawne or the fact that Keats does not know Greek are perhaps not sufficiently uncanny, perhaps all too human. And she mentions only in passing--as "too broadly acknowledged"-- "This Living Hand," the most blatant and yet certainly uncanny example of the concatenation of a poetic and a biographical figure. Instead, Swann probes poems whose biographical links are less certain, whose seeming references to the poet's life may be an illusion. She emphasizes that what is at issue is not a contextualizing or historicizing of the poem but the poem's capacity to provoke attachment to some fragment or remnant of the poet's life, and she accentuates the involuntary aspect of aesthetic experience: "the valence of biographical accident, and, especially, that its effects so tenaciously cling to these particular writers, can be understood as a working of the writing itself," not as something readers choose (11).

The case of Keats is especially apt because as a lover of poetic language ("I look upon fine Phrases like a Lover," he wrote to Benjamin Bailey on 14 August 1819), he treats remnants of prior poems as ritual objects. "At moments," Swann writes, "the poetic line contracts into something obdurate to hermeneutic labor, taking on the character of a relic, a dumb material remainder of that which has passed on" (13). Given this reliquary effect, Swann seeks out "the sharp and unpredictable effects of pathos and of loss that Keats's poetry has historically prompted in its readers, effects generated by shards of verse that can randomly and unpredictably revive the mémoire involontaire of the materials of the posthumous life" (37).

Such "random and idiosyncratic" effects are by definition hard to demonstrate, but she finds them in a passage from Endymion:

But in the self-same fixed trance he kept,

Like one who on the earth had never slept --

Aye, even as dead-still as a marble man

Frozen in that old tale Arabian. (Book 1, lines 403-06)

Such lines, Swann writes, may

coax out of memory the particulars of Keats's posthumous life: the poet who claimed not to "feel in the world," the face become countenance and then mask, the body frozen, finally, under the breath that "comes like Ice," the rapt circle that formed around this withdrawn image. That is, for a lover of Keats the scene might call to mind the passing of this particular and unique biographical subject into the already anachronistic but newly celebrity figure (sic) of the Poet. (38)

Most of Swann's examples, though, seem to illustrate not the random sparking of a memory of biographical information but the explicit thematization of a figure of the poet, as in Adonais or in passages from Endymion and The Fall of Hyperion. This is "poetry," she writes, "that becomes flushed with the biographical situation, producing overwrought effects that are here carefully acknowledged to arise out of the relation between highly wrought poetic materials and the hollow a-pathetic biographical figure" (55). Because the tradition of reception has made these poets into figures of the Poet who cannot subsist in the world, passages about avatars of the poet take on biographical resonance. But such passages involve "remembrance that, once entertained, inevitably risks sentimentality" (73). Thus they exemplify what is perhaps the most stimulating problem addressed by this book.

The charge of sentimentality, leveled at responses that introduce biographical remnants, is said to involve "the possibility of the intrinsic fictiveness and conventionality of feelings" (18). But critics are often prepared to argue -- Swann cites various examples -- that an allegedly sentimental passage allegorically exposes the speciousness of the literary commodity (18-21, 42-44). For instance, Swann asks, "is Isabella a sentimental poem, ... or does it knowingly and wittingly expose to critique the very cultural assumptions and norms that sentimentality is said to enforce?" (19). In this spiral of ideology and critique, she notes, it is difficult to decide "between an embarrassingly sentimental effect and a demystifying allegorical one" (43), but Swann cites a shrewd argument by Anita Sokolsky: the rejection of or resistance to sentimentality is "potentially, resistance to sentimentality's power to unsettle criticism's claims to 'expose entrenched presuppositions'" (20). In other words, though criticism may seek to expose ideological investments and unearned affective responses, its aim is threatened by the fact that sentimentality works. It works, and its "power to unsettle the very activity of exposing entrenched presuppositions" is "a power which critiques of sentimentality may serve only provisionally to ward off" (20).

Such reflections in the introduction, the chapter on Keats, and the chapter on Adonais make this an important book for critics of British Romanticism. Curiously enough, Swann repeatedly cites Walter Benjamin, whom she seems determined to make her theoretical guide. In fact, her strategy works surprisingly well, for when writing on Baudelaire, Benjamin ignores most of Baudelaire's actual interests and reads him simply and tendentiously as a symptom of poetry under capitalism, where "the commodity" becomes the answer to every question. As Swann rightly points out, the situation Benjamin purports to describe already obtains in the earlier moment of British romanticism, wherein Wordsworth registers the shocks of life under commodity capitalism -- shocks that he connects to the density of urban life and the rise of the mass media (35). (Swann also mines Benjamin's account of German baroque drama to illuminate pastoral elegy in her discussion of Adonais [62]).

The jacket copy, though, claims that the book reads "romantic poets together with the modernity of Benjamin and Baudelaire." But Swann quotes nothing of Baudelaire's, and though she mentions what Benjamin has made the most famous of his poems, she calls it "En Passant" (51), eliminating the woman addressed by "A une passante" ["To a Woman Passing By"]. It is a sad commentary on Romantic studies that none of the editorial readers or the many readers thanked in the acknowledgements should have caught this rather striking error.

Otherwise, The Lives of the Dead Poets presents a complex argument, in elegant writing (as my many citations amply show), which is also highly respectful of other critics. Swann quotes them not to disagree but rather to acknowledge their accomplishments. She seeks to account in an original fashion for at least one aspect of "love of literature," which she sees -- paradoxical though it may seem in an argument about the biographical resonances of literature -- as "an attachment to the obdurately non-human thing" (13). Presenting poetry as something precarious, in which mourning leads to melancholia, she highlights its capacity to provoke "the involuntary clinging of attention to its object beyond reason" (1). Swann sees this as a source of hope.

Jonathan Culler is Class of 1916 Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Cornell University.

Leave a comment on Jonathan Culler's review.