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Intimations and Abstractions: Keats's Reformulations of the Romantic Ego

About the Author: Sofia Crespi de Valldaura

Sofia Crespi de Valldaura is a second-year undergraduate at the University of Oxford, reading English and French at Oriel College. She was born and raised in Spain but completed secondary school here in the Unites States. Her main interest is the poetry and fiction of the period between 1870 and 1930, particularly the works of Stéphane Mallarmé. Marcel Proust, and Virginia Woolf, with a focus on the topic of impersonality. She aspires to become a poet.

By Sofia Crespi de Valldaura | General Essays

What is this soul then? Whence

Came it? It does not seem my own, and I

Have no self-passion or identity

—John Keats, Endymion (IV: 475-477)[1]

Poetry without egotism comparatively uninteresting.

—Coleridge, Notebooks (v. 1: 62)[2]

“one cannot help contrasting Keats with Wordsworth,—the one altogether poet; the other essentially a Wordsworth, with the poetic faculty added—the one shifting from form to form, and from style to style […] the other remaining always the individual”

—James Russell Lowell, Second Series - Essays (“Keats”)[3]

The transition from Augustan-era poetics to Romanticism is generally understood as one in which the poet becomes a self-searching creator rather than an interpreter of general truths: the polished, culturally conscious couplets of Pope are replaced by a kind of poetry that more closely approximates true, lived human experience. Disavowing the emphasis on order and rationalism that was the legacy of the Enlightenment, the Romantic poet takes the individual self—along with nature, the self’s refuge—as starting point and subject matter, enacting a personal exploration of psychic truths. However, John Keats’s poetic ethos takes its sustenance not from the projection of self-discovery but through the displacement of the ego to reach for eternal, sublime truths in faraway epochs, in myth and legend, thereby seeking to avoid the limitations of “…all mock lyrists, large self-worshipers / And careless Hectorers in proud bad verse” (Poetical Works 317). As a second-generation Romantic, the poet was both irritated and inspired by the looming presence of Wordsworth, for in his elder he perceived heights of sublimity mingled with an encumbering egotism. In Keats’s varied works and zealous letters, which illuminate the impulse behind his poetry, the intricate process of extricating the egotistical impulse in art is reflected vividly.

Wordsworth’s reputation as “our first poet of sincerity” (Forbes 25) is often applied to Romanticism at large, and yet the Wordsworthian doctrine of sincerity—of poetry as the stripping of artificial language to reveal the poet’s bare self—does not elucidate the work of the youngest of the six main Romantic poets. Keats at once admired and repudiated Wordsworth, seeing him as both a “Genius” on the scale of Milton (Selected Letters 122[4]) and an “Egotist” (86). Through his correspondence—which, in its searching earnestness, is considerably more revealing of the poet’s life, aims, and preoccupations than his “poetry of ‘no self’” (Wolfson 39)—a persistent reconsideration of the older poet is evinced, often serving to adumbrate Keats’s own ethos. Two letters of 1818 contain starkly differing takes on Wordsworth, despite being dated only two months apart. The first contains Keats’s most comprehensive dissection of what irked him most:

It may be said that we ought to read our Contemporaries, that Wordsworth etc. should have their due from us, but for the sake of a few fine imaginative or domestic passages, are we to be bullied into a certain Philosophy engendered in the whims of an Egotist? […] We hate poetry that has a palpable design upon us [...] Poetry should be great and unobtrusive, a thing which enters into one’s soul and does not startle it or amaze it with itself but with its subject. (SL 86)

Not only is the elder poet arrogant, complacent, and sententious, layering his work with “a certain Philosopy” and “a palpable design” but, in his prolific corpus, he has produced only “a few fine imaginative passages.” These emphatic words, however, cannot be taken at face value because Keats expounds his poetic opinions through casual, private letters, rather than published treatises. Consequently, they are often imbued with the changes of temperament that would be edited out of a finished piece. Given that the letter dates from the period during which he was working on the ambitious Endymion, these trenchant words may have been influenced by Wordsworth’s dismissive and disheartening appraisal of an early section of the poem as “a pretty piece of paganism” (Thorpe 2).

In the second letter, Keats sets out to determine “whether or no [Wordsworth] has an extended vision or a circumscribed grandeur” (SL 124). This endeavor leads him to the intricate metaphor of the “Mansion of Many Apartments,” where the final chamber contains both an ethereal delight and many daunting doors “all leading to dark passages.” Within this privileged space, “We see not the balance of good and evil. We are in a Mist. […] We feel the “burden of the Mystery.” Keats then concludes:

To this point was Wordsworth come […] when he wrote “Tintern Abbey,” and it seems to me that his Genius is explorative of those dark Passages.

 The “Egotist” has now become “a Genius and superior to us” who is able to “make discoveries and shed a light in them”: not self-satisfied but searching, reaching outward to the darkness instead of smugly relating his personal vicissitudes. This second Wordsworth more closely resembles the poet’s own ideal, one “capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason” (60), which he terms “Negative Capability”. Nevertheless, it does not wholly invalidate the first description, for the concept of negative capability arises from frustration at a coterie of staid men of letters with strict preconceptions that closely resemble Wordsworth the Egotist in their wit, mannerisms, and fashionable nature[5]. So Keats is thrown into an impulse towards humility, openness, and disinterestedness, avoiding all that is sententious or stale. The suggestion is that the expansive genius of “Tintern Abbey” might be circumscribed, that Wordsworth might ultimately lack “what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in Literature and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously.” To the poet, “Shakespeare represented the purest case of authorial absence” (Wolfson 199), and so he is the perfect foil for Wordsworth’s self-based didacticism. Negative capability entails a humble, flexible conceptual framework, incompatible with egotism.

Keats’s aversion to Wordsworth’s prioritizing of the self in both his way of life and his poetics is epigrammatically summarized in a letter to his brother: “I am sorry that Wordsworth has left a bad impression wherever he visited in Town— by his egotism, Vanity and bigotry— yet he is a great Poet” (SL 95). The struggle against the towering, dismissive figure of the “great Poet” acts as a catalyst for one of Keats’s most telling expositions of his outlook. In a consideration of “the whole pro and con about genius, and view, and achievements, and ambition”, Keats makes a distinction between “wordsworthian or egotistical sublime, which is a thing per se and stands alone” and “the poetical Character itself” (194), which is “not itself […] it is everything and nothing”, for “it enjoys light and shade; it lives in gusto, be it foul or fair, high or low, rich or poor, mean or elevated” (195). Thus the theory of the chameleon poet is developed: “What shocks the virtuous philosopher, delights the camelion Poet.”. Again, Keats is aligning himself with a Shakespearean conceptual pliability, for the poetical character “has as much delight in conceiving an Iago as an Imogen”.

The choice of the word “gusto” to evoke what Keats otherwise terms “intensity”,—“The excellence of every Art is its intensity, capable of making all disagreeables evaporate from their being in close relationship with Beauty and Truth” (60)—evinces a debt to William Hazlitt’s essay “On Gusto”, which Keats read in The Round Table (1817), and which posits the vital importance of gusto in art as “power or passion defining any object” (Wu 779). Hazlitt frames his point through an overview of canonical painters, detecting in each the degree of gusto, or ability to transpose feeling and artistic impulse, in order to altogether inhabit the subject of their art. The impersonal nature of this approach, which retains all of the emotional vigor of Wordsworthian confessionalism yet displaces it to the external source of inspiration, struck Keats greatly. He soon made use of it in a late 1817 review of a production of Othello.: “There is an indescribable gusto in his voice, by which we feel that the utterer is thinking of the past and future, while speaking of the instant.” (Wells 51). Here, the actor’s temporal awareness, which entails a detachment from his own circumstances to embody those of Othello, strengthens his rendition, in a way that a more personal approach could not. Similarly, Keats seems to allude to Hazlitt when he writes of “Titian colours touch’d into real life” (Complete Poems 20), for Hazlitt sees in this artist “a prodigious gusto” (Wu 780) and uses him as a touchstone throughout this essay. What Titian achieves is a nature-like accuracy where “not only do his heads seem to think, his bodies seem to feel” (779): he infuses his selfhood into the figures he portrays through imaginative excursions, whereby the “perceptive identification with the object is almost complete, and the living character of the object is caught and shared in its full diversity and given vital expression” (Bate 203). Keats follows this vein in the proposition that the true poet “is continually in for and filling some other Body” (SL 195). Yet he goes further than Hazlitt—a firm believer in the supremacy of Wordsworth’s genius or egotistical sublime, equating genius with gusto—and states that the poet has “no Identity” at all, while acknowledging the trouble that an absolute eschewal of the ego entails: “It is a wretched thing to confess but is a very fact that not one word I ever utter can be taken for granted as an opinion growing out of my identical nature”. Muir asserts that “nearly all of Keats’s theories about poetry were developed from remarks of Hazlitt’s” (158), and details the close parallels between the essays in The Round Table and Keats’s correspondence. Crucially, however, his “borrowings were all transformed and individualized, so that they came to express not merely his tastes but his deepest convictions”. It is in the added complexity and nuance to Hazlitt’s notions that the poet’s own mind shines through: that his individualist nature, the same temperament that spurs him to grapple more closely with Wordsworth than Coleridge, Hazlitt, or Lamb, leads him to the idiosyncratic ethos that is patent in his poetry.

In Keats’s early works, his intended Shakespearean displacement of the poetic self is hindered by the influence of Leigh Hunt, his mentor, who riddles his works with what he labeled “luxuries”. Hunt’s artistic ideology seemed to center around a vapid, pleasure-seeking aestheticism, including beliefs like “We should consider ourselves as what we really are: creatures made to enjoy more than to know” (Hunt 16). The rich linguistic extravagance of Endymion (1818) bears comparison to lines such as “Etherial human shapes […] drink heavenly change from nectar-bowls” (Hunt vii), for it is generously lavished with similarly heaven-bound language, making frequent use of words such as “etherial”, “Aeolian”, “aerial”, “empyrean”, and “Elysean”.. Nevertheless, this excess, too, has a place in Keats’s poetic framework. Beyond the merely decorative, as in Hunt’s verse, the diaphanous phrases point to a repudiation of everything contingent and earthbound, and are echoed in his early formulations of an impersonal gusto:

 I am certain of nothing but of the holiness of the Heart’s affections and the truth of Imagination. What the imagination seizes as Beauty must be truth […] for I have the same Idea of all our Passions as of Love; they are all in their sublime, creative of essential Beauty.

(SL 1817)

Keats’s visions of nymphs and chimerical airy bowers with reclining goddesses stem from a belief in the sublimity of the imagination combined with a fervent ambition. Even when superfluous or ornamental, they are always in line with his reach for the absolute:

In Endymion, I leaped headlong into the Sea, and thereby have become better acquainted with the Soundings, the quicksands, and the rocks, than if I had stayed upon the green shore, and piped a silly pipe, and took tea and comfortable advice. I was never afraid of failure; for I would sooner fail than not be among the greatest.

(SL 193)

In truth, Keats rises above the earthly, the immediate, and the mundane in Endymion rather than plunging into the sea, but the analogy is useful insofar as it enables a contrast with the Wordsworthian figure who comfortably expounds on the greenery before him.

In the same letter of 1818, the poet writes: “The Genius of Poetry must work out its own salvation in a man: It cannot be matured by law and precept, but by sensation and watchfulness in itself” (SL 193). It is this probing instinct, this thirst for a greatness in poetry that can be altogether his own—one released from the stultifying influence of “comfortable advice”—that led Keats to fine-tune his style, excising all Huntian luxuries and compressing his dreaming impulse in a cohesive stanzaic form. The result was the annus mirabilis of 1819, during which his six great odes were composed. The first ode, addressed to Psyche, is perhaps the most often overlooked of the six. Yet partly due to its temporal position, partly to its concern with abstracting the mind to subsequently replenish it with the spirit of a forgotten goddess, it can be seen as a preparing ground for the rest. Perceiving that “temple thought hast none […] No voice, no lute, pipe […] Of pale-mouthed prophet dreaming” (Poetical Works 238), the poet decides to devote himself to Psyche: “…let me be thy choir […] Yes, I will be thy priest, and build a fane / In some untrodden region of my mind”. The annihilation of the poet’s ego is enacted in a non-dramatic way, for all of his energy reaches out towards the goddess to transmute himself into a vicarious mouthpiece who will craft a far-removed universe within his own psyche. Keats therefore adopts “a new identity as a working artificer” (Bunn 5), in such a way that “the mind opens up from subjective center to objective landscape without circumference” (11). Describing a space or a landscape to be filled—for “The only means of strengthening one’s intellect is to make up one’s mind about nothing, to let the mind be a thoroughfare for all thoughts” (SL 380)—in order to dissect the poetic process of emptiness and subsequent fulfillment, “Psyche” deals with “the animating power itself” (Bunn 3) in lieu of an external entity to be animated, as in the rest of the odes.

A recurring starting point in the odes is a semi-wakeful state that functions as a mental springboard for forgetting the self and accessing a higher plane of existence, the realm of beauty, truth, and imagination. “Psyche” begins “Surely I dreamt today, or did I see / The winged Psyche with awakened eyes?” (Poetical Works 237), and “Ode to a Nightingale”: “My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains / My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk” (232). Through this device, Keats’s essential dissimilarity to Wordsworth becomes apparent. While “Tintern Abbey” is unequivocally the result of “a unique self speaking of a specific place at a specific time on an occasion of announced personal significance” (Wolfson 33), stressing its empirical placement through its prefatory information (that is, “Written a few miles above Tintern Abbey on revisiting the banks of the Wye during a tour” [Wu 498]), Keats’s gesture is the complete opposite, flying up into the ethers (“Away! Away! for I will fly to three / […] on the viewless wings of Poesy” [Poetical Works 233]). The ‘I’ employed in Keats is, therefore, figurative and not representative of Keats the man, but of an abstracted persona who seeks to “Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget” (232) the vicissitudes of specificity, of the mundanity of socio-historical and geographic placement, and finding solace instead in the endless, eternally beautiful realms of myth and Elysian sublimity.

A “camelion poet”, able and eager to forgo a sense of selfhood in order to inhabit a variety of poetical objects, to revive and appropriate myth, and to be determinedly aware of the perils of complacency, Keats nevertheless inherits a Romantic sincerity, but it is “a sincerity built around absence instead of presence” (Forbes 151). Ball proposes that each Romantic poet is to some extent “at once Miltonic and Shakesperean, capable of egotistical and chameleon creative effort” (2), and so it follows that “Keats is not contented merely to be a chameleon: he is fascinated by the fact of so being […] which is, paradoxically, a strong self-consciousness” (10). Nevertheless, this fascination is expressed through his earnest, fervent correspondence rather than his protean poetry, which altogether differs from the confident, resolute, and meticulously empirical nature of that of the “virtuous philosopher”. The quest for an abnegation of the ego is often problematic, as manifest in the resolution to the spiritual frenzy in “Ode to a Nightingale”, where the poet is sharply brought back to his specificity: “Forlorn! The very word is like a bell / To toll me back from thee to my sole self!” (234). The accomplished displacement of selfhood to fully permeate the essence behind a poetical object may only be momentary, and, in its intensity, can prove confusing (“Fled is that music:—Do I wake or sleep?”), but Keats will forgo no extremes in his individualistic aim to be “among the greatest”.

[1] Keats, John. The Poetical Works of John Keats. Ed. William Thomas Arnold. London: Macmillan, 1907. 165. Print.

[2] Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. The Notebooks of Samuel Taylor Coleridge: Volume 1. Ed. Kathleen Coburn. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1957. Print.

[3] Lowell, James Russell, and Charles Eliot Norton. The Complete Writings of James Russell Lowell. Cambridge: Printed at the Riverside, 1904. 330. Print.

[4] Henceforth abbreviated as SL.

[5] Relating a trip to the Lake District, Keats juxtaposes the astounding views which “can never fade away” (130)—or, in other words, possess the eternal beauty Keats so ardently believed in—with the social “miasma of London[ers]”, which Wordsworth is taken by: “But Lord Wordsworth, instead of being in retirement, has himself and his house full in the thick of fashionable visitors quite convenient to be pointed at all the summer long.” 

Works Cited

Bate, Walter Jackson. The Romantic Imagination: A Selection of Critical Essays. Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1977. Print.

Bunn, James H. "Keats's Ode to Psyche and the Transformation of Mental Landscape." Elh 37.4 (1970): 581. Web.

Forbes, Deborah. Sincerity's Shadow: Self-consciousness in British Romantic and Mid twentieth-century American Poetry. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2004. Print.

Hardy, Barbara. The Romantic Imagination: A Selection of Critical Essays. Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1977. Print.

Hunt, Leigh. Foliage; or Poems Original and Translated. London:: Printed for C. and J. Ollier ..., 1818. Print.

Keats, John. The Poetical Works of John Keats. Ed. William Thomas Arnold. London: Macmillan, 1907. Print.

Keats, John. John Keats, the Complete Poems. Ed. John Barnard. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin, 1988. Print.

Keats, John. Selected Letters of John Keats. Ed. Grant F. Scott. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2002. Print.

Muir, Kenneth. John Keats, a Reassessment. Liverpool: Liverpool UP, 1958. Print.

Wells, Stanley, comp. Shakespeare in the Theatre: An Anthology of Criticism. Oxford: Clarendon, 1997. Print.

Wolfson, Susan J. The Questioning Presence: Wordsworth, Keats, and the Interrogative Mode in Romantic Poetry. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1986. Print.

Wu, Duncan, comp. Romanticism: An Anthology. Malden, MA, U.S.A.: Blackwell Pub., 2006. Print.