- Two Trajectories of Reader Response in Narrative Poetry:Roses and Risings in Keats’s “The Eve of St. Agnes”
In contemporary narrative theory there is no single theory that we label reader response criticism, but some prominent approaches (e.g., rhetorical and cognitive ones) place an emphasis on the response of readers. Theories engaging with reader response, however, have rarely dealt with narratives in verse, and the few exceptions that exist (e.g., James Phelan’s reading of Robert Frost’s “Home Burial,” which focuses on ethical issues in lyrical narratives) do not engage with the poetic features or the poeticity of the narrative and their potential influence on reader response. The existing reader response criticism foregrounds cognitive, affective, or ethical concerns, but poeticity in itself is largely neglected.
Wolfgang Iser’s theory of reader response employs the metaphor of a wandering viewpoint to describe the reader’s processing of the narrative. Because “the whole text can never be perceived at any one time” (Acts 108), the reader’s engagement with the text is “wandering,” that is, her initial assessments of what has happened and her expectations about what will happen are modified by further elaborations as the text is being processed (experienced from the inside as a synthesis of reader and text) from [End Page 203] start to finish. In the introduction to The Act of Reading, Iser says that “The illustrations come almost exclusively from narrative texts” (xii), but to be more precise he ought to have said narrative prose texts.
In this article, I wish to complicate the traditional view of reader response by addressing narrative poetry rather than narrative prose. By reading Keats’s narrative poem “The Eve of St. Agnes,” I will argue that the reader responds to a poetic trajectory in addition to a narrative trajectory. I see readerly dynamics in narrative poetry as a response to or an engagement with the textual dynamics of the two trajectories. The response to the narrative trajectory involves experiencing and interpreting the narrative and its plot. I recognize that narrative is a highly debated term among narratologists, but for my present purposes an ad hoc definition may suggest that a narrative contains a sequence of causally connected events in which an anthropomorphic experience is conveyed through a particular mediation/representation. My theses about the interaction between the two trajectories are not contingent on an agreement about my definition of narrative, i.e., one may disagree with my tentative definition of narrative, while still accepting the larger claims about the two trajectories.
The poetic trajectory designates the reader’s interpretation or processing of the poeticity. By poeticity—no less hotly debated a term than narrativity—I mean two things. On the one hand, as that which is unique to poetry: versification and stanza form (though the latter—with rhyme schemes and/or a regular meter—is widely considered optional; when a poet chooses a particular stanza form, that form is a significant part of the poeticity of the poem). On the other hand, I take it to mean that which is not exclusively found in poetry, but which is often highly foregrounded in poetry: the artificiality of language, accentuated by flaunting the acoustic or visual materiality of language. This includes, for example, puns, alliteration, rhymes, and metaphors. In reading a narrative poem, this poetic trajectory has a significant impact on the readerly dynamics.
This focus on two trajectories leads me to modify Iser’s theory of the wandering viewpoint. The poetic elements of the text interact with elements of the narrative as it unfolds, and in processing the text the reader can respond to the two trajectories both separately and interactively. In my reading of Keats’s “The Eve of St. Agnes,” I show the poetic trajectory to be acting on three levels: (1) at a very local level (e.g., between two verses or with a pun), (2) unfolding within the stanza (e.g., the rhymes of the Spenserian stanza), and (3) stretching beyond stanzas (e.g., the development of symbols throughout the poem). My interpretation of the poem hence moves from smaller to larger units. To address the interaction between the trajectories, I...