In The Fall of Hyperion (1818–19), John Keats’s fragmentary epic, a narrator discovers an altar honoring poetic immortality and chooses, in his ambition for literary renown, to ascend the steps leading to his goal. The ascent proves difficult, and the effort required to achieve just one platform of elevation comes hazardously close to draining the narrator’s life completely away. When he finally manages to gain the first step, the narrator feels his limbs revive, emboldening him with ideas of further ascent. Keats’s opening episode from The Fall of Hyperion is a peculiar introduction to an epic narrative, and it has received significant attention from critics interested in this moment as an allegory about poets and poetry, as a stylistic shift in Keats’s development, and as the working out of an aesthetic philosophy provisionally ventured in the poet’s letters. There is a lot to consider here. But for all these marks of intrinsic literary merit, it is hard to deny the possibility that The Fall of Hyperion gains some of its poignancy from having a plot that bears resemblance to a widely shared narrative of Keats’s own life: the ambitious poet whose ascent to poetic distinction is inextricably linked to a battle with mortality.
If it is true that at least some of the interest that The Fall of Hyperion has enjoyed derives from its ability to conjure an overlay of poignant autobiography, then we might pose some questions about the nature of literary legacy. To what extent does Keats owe his canonical status to his own well-documented ambitions, to his devotion to the best models of John Milton and William Shakespeare, to his contempt for popular approval, and to his preoccupation with posterity? And to what extent is Keats’s status in present-day literary anthologies the result of a compelling biography or a host of other variables outside of his control? Is Keats’s prominence over other writers primarily a result of his poetic skill, or does it owe its largest debt to the literary executors who managed posthumous publications and popularized Keats’s story? Perhaps even the readiness of Hampstead Heath to embrace Keats as a favorite son plays some role in keeping the Keats story prominent in readers’ minds while other less-fortunate poets slip into obscurity.
Such questions of literary legacy feed into important lines of inquiry for literary criticism more broadly. Why do we read the texts that we read? And how might an awareness of the factors contributing to that selection shape the way we teach and write about texts? Those questions are posed by H. J. Jackson in Those Who Write for Immorality: Romantic Reputations and the Dream of Lasting Fame, a book that investigates theories of literary renown by assessing their explanatory power in a series of case studies. Among the theories under consideration in Jackson’s study are the notions of immortality embraced by authors of the Romantic era, notions that to varying degrees exercised a shaping influence on the texts that these writers sent to their publishers. Jackson handles these theories of what lasts and what does not by providing a condensed history of ideas that range from the Horatian prescription of skill and originality to Samuel Johnson’s gesturing to the enduring features of human nature to Cicero’s skepticism of finding any value whatsoever in posterity’s approval. Much of Jackson’s book, however, serves to complicate these explanations by bringing into view the larger machinery of literary fame: enter the collected editions, the anthologies, the school textbooks, the [End Page 512] biographies, the critical controversies, the literary societies, the movie and television adaptations—the list goes on.
Jackson’s case studies consider authors who represent varying fortunes over two centuries of reading audiences. Some, like Keats and William Wordsworth, achieved the literary immorality to which they aspired. Some, like Jane Austen, gained a remarkable legacy without showing signs of ever reaching for one. Others, like Robert...