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REVIEWS KEATS & EMBARRASSMENT* Each new generation of literary critics finds in Keats a quintessential and exemplary realization of some contemporary aesthetic or psychological perception. This, of course, is as much a tribute to the ingenuity of critics as it is to the multifarious richness of Keats's reuvre. For the last generation - the generation of (among others) Empson and Brooks and Bate - it was Keats the precocious spiritual philosopher who fascinated, the Keats of the Odes and the second Hyperion especially. The controversy over the ending of 'Ode on a Grecian Urn' was typical of the general critical approach: who actually says 'Beauty is truth, truth beauty'? Is it Keats, or the urn itself that speaks? Is it all we need to know on earth, or isn't it? Somewhere in that concluding couplet there was a profound spiritual and psychological truth - if we could only get at it. And the way to get at it was through a careful analysis of the form and language of the poem, guided always by a judicious application of aperfus found in the letters. By and large it was a fruitful approach-fruitful in the only sense that matters in criticism: it yielded valuable new appreciations of the poetry. The first indication that a new generation of critics, and a new view of Keats, was perhaps emerging came in'1962 with John Bayley'S British Academy lecture on 'Keats and Reality.' It was not Keats the philosopher that MrBayley wished to celebrate, but Keats the vulgar, embarrassing sensualist- the 'unmisgiving' poet of Endymion and the 'Eve of St Agnes.' It was here that the essential, full- blooded genius of Keats was to be found. As he learned (was forced to learn) discipline and restraint, as he attempted to tum 'what might appear mean and embarrassing into what is right and disconcerting,' his poetry became strained and anemic, Now, more than a decade after Bayley's lecture, comes a book that could well prove to be the central document in this new approach to Keats. In Keats & Embarrassment Christopher Ricks acknowledges his debt to John Bayley and agrees with the essential point that 'the central Keats is the rich poet of Endymion and liThe Eve of St Agnes/' rather than the sombre mature poet (strained and against the grain of, say, The Fall of Hyperion).' He wishes, however, to distinguish his own approach to Keats from what he considers Bayley's eagerness 'to see the embarrassing in Keats give way to something nobler.' For Ricks, 'the nobility of Keats (the man and the poet) is very much a matter of his not flinching from embarrassment while at the same time thinking it always inextricably involved in important moral concerns.' Departing from Bayley in this way, Ricks enlists the support of Erving Goff- * Christopher Ricks, Keats & Embarrassment. Oxford: Clarendon Press 1974. Pp 224. $11.00 KEATS AND EMBARRASSMENT 175 man, a social psychologist who has written extensively and influentially on the subject of embarrassment in the context of social life and the 'presentation of self.' Just how necessary GoHman is to the point Ricks is making about the importance of embarrassment to life and art is debatable (I'm inclined to think not veryL but GoHman's presence again points to the 'timeliness' of the book: timely in that it exploits the recent interest - both popular and academic - in the rituals of social intercourse (or 'social interaction,' as the sociologists have renamed it). Ricks begins by setting down three propositions: First, that embarrassment is very important in life. Second, that one of the things for which we value art is that it helps us to deal with embarrassment, not by abolishing or ignoring it, but by recognizing, refining, and putting it to good human purposes; art, in its unique combination of the private and the pUblic, offers us a unique kind of human relationship freed from the possibility, which is incident to other human relationships, of an embarrassment that clogs, paralyses, or coarsens. Third, that Keats as a man and a poet was especially sensitive to, and morally intelligent about, embarrassment; that the particular direction of his insight and human concern here is to insist...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1712-5278
Print ISSN
0042-0247
Pages
pp. 174-176
Launched on MUSE
2015-07-01
Open Access
No
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