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Shorter Reviews Keats, Skepticism, and the Religion of Beauty, by Ronald Sharp; ? & 198 pp. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1979, $14.00. This is a straightforward, clearly articulated book on the early Keats. The author has the advantage of a significant argument that can enrich our readings of poems he feels have been treated with "condescension" by esteemed critics. Such qualifications recommend the book, although the author's lack of graciousness toward his predecessors is off-putting. He claims that they have been too quick to dismiss the early poems—"Sleep and Poetry," "Endymion," and "Hyperion" particularly—as the indulgent effusions of a youthful mind yearning for the "ideal . . . the immortal . . . the transcendent." Sharp argues that although Keats does have these yearnings, he also has leanings of a more robust, earthly sort. Keats once referred to himself at this period as "a versifying Pet Lamb," Sharp acknowledges, but he wants to prove that Matthew Arnold's description of the mature Keats—a poet of "flint and iron"—is applicable to the younger as well and that both strains co-exist. Rather than a plump lamb (or "sick eagle") we are to see the youthful Keats as a young lion. Such a revision would increase the stature of the early poems, would make Keats's development more of a piece, and would lend support to the picture of Keats as a thoroughly modern poet (that is, a "radical skeptic"). Sharp wants to enforce the separation between Keats and the first-generation Romantics—the ones, supposedly, who have taken refuge in the formulae of religion. Keats then would be seen more as a father to Wallace Stevens than a son to Wordsworth. Why have so many illustrious critics misread the early Keats for so long? Because the poems and letters, particularly of this period, abound in religious language and imagery, indicating Keats found religion to be something other than ornament. Sharp contends that Keats's preoccupation with religious imagery is instead ironic: Keats wants "to establish a traditionally religious context against which [he] can contrast his new religion of beauty" (p. 39). Keats's skepticism— the result of intense personal suffering fortified by the spirit of the age—leads him to employ the sensibility of religion but turn it inside out by humanizing the divine and spiritualizing the human. He extracts beauty from suffering and the very limitations of the human condition, and he locates in Art the consolations religion no longer provides. The issue is not "if" but simply when Keats does all this, Sharp claiming that the lamb-lion tension exists from the beginning. Sharp's readings of the poems, though sometimes forced and too 274 Shorter Reviews275 programmatic, support his position well, and his excellent command of the letters lends further weight (although his use of late letters to prove an early condition does not). Having read the book, one feels obliged to reread the early Keats, more alert to stresses and shadows in the poems. But when Sharp leaves the poems and letters to discuss philosophic and theological ideas that determine the growth of Keats's mind, the argument deteriorates. For instance, in trying to show that Keats's skepticism was not merely a result of a lifelong contact with suffering and death, Sharp appeals to "the spirit of the age." He quotes M. H. Abrams, who has described romanticism as "an involvement in a religious and epistemological crisis," itself a response to the "increasing secularization of religion." And he quotes C. E. Pulos who, writing on Shelley's profound skepticism, argues that skepticism constitutes "the most important intellectual problem of the age." Sharp relies almost entirely on these two glosses, but never gets closer to the shape of that intellectual problem or the lineaments of the epistemological crisis, and he never goes beyond the generalization to explain the intellectual forces to which Keats—even unconsciously—is presumably responding. Of religion we are told, "the tradition of religious belief was still strong in the early nineteenth century, even though it had been coming under increasing attack" (p. 39). It is as if Keats's own adamant dislike of dogma and metaphysics has exonerated the author from any significant inquiry...


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pp. 274-275
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