John Keats was a romantic poet who died at the age of 25, alone, when he was in Rome. He was a remarkable failure in his own time but grew to prominence after his death. As such, he became a sort of prophet and patron saint of later generations of romantics and his poetry entered English canon alongside the likes of Milton, Tennyson, Coleridge, and Arnold.
During his short life, Keats was taken in by the radical thinkers and writers at Leigh Hunt’s Examiner, which espoused radical Whig politics and opposed English Toryism and continental absolutism. While not a friend of Napoleon, they had sympathies with Jacobin politics which earned them the suspicion and scorn of Tory reviewers and the anti-Napoleon and anti-Revolutionary government. Some of Keats’ poetry deals explicitly with politics, like “On Peace” and “Nebuchadnezzar’s Dream” where he dreams that “sceptered tyrants” (OP, 10) will be expelled from their “former state” (Ibid., 11), and that in their expulsion, the “horrid nightmare” (ND, 9) revealing monarchial “scepter[s] worth a straw” (ND, 8) would usher in an age of constitutional liberty. However, the major theme throughout Keats’ poetry, published and unpublished in his life, was sexual love and yearning.
“Give me Women, Wine, and Snuff…My beloved Trinity.” Though unpublished in his life, “Give me Women, Wine, and Snuff,” an early poem from Keats’ late teenage year, is the perfect window in the imagination of John Keats. Some of Keats’ most famous poems, “The Eve of St. Agnes,” “Isabella,” “Ode to Psyche,” and “Endymion,” all deal with women, wine, and snuff; that is, sexual potency and how sexual potency is the wine of life. William Wordsworth, in reviewing the young Keats, wrote aptly that Keats’ poetry was “very pretty paganism.” More than that, Keats’ poetry bordered on blasphemy and Satanic parody, yet there is a certain irony in Keats’ divinization of the erotic while he fled from Jerusalem to the ruins of Sodom, Gomorrah, and Babylon.
Anyone familiar with the classics, especially the classical pagan texts, knows that the idea of Divine Love and its salvific characteristics is not found in them. As Edmund Burke aptly said in his Enquiry into the Sublime and Beautiful, “Before the Christian religion had, as it were, humanized the idea of divinity, and brought it somewhat nearer to us, there was very little said of the love of God. The followers of Plato have something of it, and only something. The other writers of pagan antiquity, whether poets or philosophers, nothing at all.” As I’ve written here, the Greek theodic and theogonic tradition, impressive and sublime as it is, is a celebration of sexual violence and depravity more than it is the pleasantry of erotic divinization that spewed out of the monasteries and theological reflections of Christianity. Thus, it was only in the milieu of Christianity that Keats could have infused a neo-paganism with the underly erotic theology of Christian platonism which should strike the educated reader as, at once, scandalous and remarkable.
“The Eve of St. Agnes” and “Isabella” are, importantly, set in medieval times when Keats’ sexual romanticism was heavily frowned upon. In positioning these two great poems in the structural walls of Christianity and the medieval world, a world of “bitter chill” and “frozen grass” (ESA, 1, 3), in which the halls are moonlit (Ibid., 77), is meant to give the reader the image that the chapel and structural world of our virginal lovers waiting to consummate their love through sexual intercourse is a world of death. Ironically enough, a great Christian poet some 500 years before Keats depicted hell not as flaming hot but a chilly, icy, frozenness because the image and language of coldness entailed lack of the warmth and light of love—two other adjectives that Keats is fond of using in his poetry when discussing the love of lovers is warmth and light especially in the context of resurrected sexuality bringing life into the dark and cold world.
In “The Eve of St. Agnes,” our two lovers are named Porphyro and Madeline. Their names are important. For one, the boy, harkens back to pagan antiquity. The other, the girl, a common contemporary English name who has her sexuality and fertility suppressed by the structures all around her (in the poem she lives in the chapel of the drunken monk and servant woman). For all intents and purposes, Madeline is dead—she is a dead body waiting to resurrected by the sexual potency of the old god, Porphyro, whose “warm” whispering (Ibid., 280) and playing “an ancient ditty, long since mute” (Ibid., 291) resurrects Madeline who “uttered a soft moan” (Ibid., 294) in her awakening.
“Isabella” is a far more tragic poem than “The Eve of St. Agnes.” Keats may have very easily been influenced, or thinking, of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet when he composed the piece due to the similarities of the narrative development, but the man who so longed for moaning and orgasmic love lets us know that love is stronger than the grave, “Love never dies, but lives, [as] immortal Lord” (Is., 397). “If Love impersonate was ever dead,/Pale Isabella kissed it, and low moaned./Twas Love—cold, dead indeed, but not dethroned” (Ibid., 398-400). This should not come as a surprise to the reader who earlier was told, “Love! thou art leading me from wintry cold,/Lady! thou leadest me to summer clime” (Ibid., 65-66).
As mentioned, in Keats’ love poetry—which should be read literally as Jack Stillinger suggested in his The Hoodwinking of Madeline (1971)—he contrasts medieval Christian piety with coldness and “deathbells.” The repressed romantic sexuality of the love interests, which occurs in the midst of nighttime coldness and wintry seasons, bursts forth from the darkness like white sperm and birth-moaning which is the “bright torch, and a casement ope at night,/To let the warm Love in!” (Ode to Psyche, 66-67) or “leadest [us] to summer clime.” Anyone familiar with poetic imagery knows that wintry coldness is the image of death and springtime light and summerly clime is an image of virility and the flourishing of life—and in the context of Keats’ hyper sexualized poetry, it is obvious how life is restored to the dark moonlit place with sleeping bodies needing resuscitation lay.
“Fanatics have their dreams,” (Hyp., 1) and John Keats was undeniably a fanatical and fantastical dreamer. Like his fellow philhellenes in England, including Lord Byron, Keats’ poetry is at once a flight from the heavenly Jerusalem to Babylon as it is the attempt to resurrect Babylon with an unconscious salvific theology of love that came from the same Christianity Keats saw as leading to bodies of “cruel clay” (Is., 173). The Neo-Hellenism of Keats is simultaneously a de-mythologizing of Hesiod, Homer, and Pseudo-Apollodorus, as it is a re-mythologizing of Eros and Psyche through an unconscious theological eroticism inherited from Christianity. “A thing of beauty is joy forever” (End., 1) Keats prophetically proclaims. And in reading Keats, it is clear what that beauty and joy forever is. Students of the classics and Christianity have no other choice than to simultaneously marvel at, and be repulsed by, Keats’ poetic project. And if poetry is the contest between Aristophanes and Glaucon, Keats is clearly on the side of Aristophanes.
“Nebuchadnezzar’s Dream” (ND)
“On Peace” (OP)
“Give Me Women, Wine, and Snuff”
“The Eve of St. Agnes” (ESA)
“Isabella: Or the Pot of Basil” (Is.)
“Ode to Psyche”
“Endymion: A Poetic Romance” (End.)
“The Fall of Hyperion: A Dream” (Hyp.)
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