John Keats in Context ed. by Michael O’Neill
John Keats in Context is the latest in the Literature in Context series from Cambridge University Press, volumes designed to provide comprehensive accounts of the historical, literary, and personal circumstances that inform a writer’s work, as well as evaluations of the lasting effects the work has had. As Michael O’Neill’s concise introduction makes clear, this particular addition to the in Context list takes on the considerable task of reaching both academic and non-academic readers of Keats, even as it recognizes “that he possesses the inexhaustibility of those few writers who are necessary” (2). The volume’s six sections move with readable speed through the poet’s personal history, the development of his intellectual interests and poetic projects, his responses to wider cultural and historical events, his literary [End Page 329] influences, and his critical reception from the beginning through the present day. As a wide-ranging but coherent compendium of ongoing scholarly conversations addressing all of these topics, the book will be indispensable to Keats scholars for years to come.
Part One, “Life, Letters, Texts,” begins with Sarah Wootten’s straightforward account of how biographies and films must face a “Keats of creative contingencies” whose multiplicities “run counter to more traditional forms of life writing” (15). Wootten is on to something with this insight, not just about biographical engagements with Keats but about how the figurations of his poems and letters set in motion uncountable readerly imaginings. The seven chapters that follow in the section contend with that challenge by viewing the poet through different but connected lenses, making a strong case that any division between Keats’s lived experiences and his writings must be viewed as an arbitrary imposition. Thus John Barnard’s thorough recounting of Keats’s publishing history—while Keats was alive and after—dovetails with other historical considerations in the section as well as with more conceptually driven essays such as Shahidha Bari’s thoughtful discussion of Keatsian “Mortality” and Madeleine Callaghan on the letters. Part Two, “Cultural Contexts,” widens the book’s scope to include a revaluation of Keats in the Cockney School, accounts of his life in London’s political and artistic scenes, and, in Anthony John Harding’s final chapter, a consideration of how those experiences shaped Keats’s inheritance of religious and mythological traditions. Parts Three and Four are the lynchpin of the volume, thirteen chapters where personal and poetic contexts (on the one hand) and legacies (on the other) converge. Part Three, “Ideas and Poetics,” brings the history of ideas to bear most squarely on the poems and letters themselves, offering six essays focused on the ways in which Keats’s intellectual dispositions and concepts informed his poetry. Porscha Fermanis’s opening discussion of how Keats imbricated a critique of Enlightenment with an insistence on empirical experience revises our understanding of how the poet engaged various and often competing strains of thought. Fermanis’s essay echoes throughout five following chapters that take on Hazlitt, the poetical character, sense, sensation, imagination, beauty, truth, and, in a concluding chapter that displays Michael O’Neill’s superb close reading skills, Keats’s prosody and versification in the odes. Having given us a primer on the poems themselves, the volume shifts in Part Four, “Poetic Contexts,” to consider how Keats’s engagement with precursors and contemporary influences played out in the multiple genres in which he worked. This section is notable for its distillation—in chapters by Susan Wolfson, Andrew Bennett, and Christopher Miller—of some of the finer recent readings of Keats’s formal innovations. Part Five, “Influence,” extends Keatsian afterlives through the [End Page 330] Victorian age and into the twentieth century with readings of Stevens, Bishop, and Heaney, among others. The volume concludes with Part Six, “Critical Reception,” which follows responses to Keats’s poems from contemporary reviews through the present moment.
O’Neill shows a disciplined editorial hand throughout all these sections, dropping in himself from time to time with chapters on prosody, on Keats’s poetic contemporaries, and on Keats’s twentieth-century poetic progeny. Indeed the volume as a whole displays a remarkable economy: anyone who has undertaken such a project can only marvel at an editor’s ability to have every one of the collection’s thirty-four chapters check in at ten pages, give or take a few paragraphs. This is not just an achievement of scale but of conceptualization: the volume comprises a variety of scholarly perspectives and styles without ever losing sight of its mission to provide an accessible but substantial resource for all kinds of Keatsians. What results is a book that will serve the immediate needs of readers in this moment, but will also, over time, provide a vibrant marker for future scholars about the state of Keats studies in the early 21st century. Many of the essays balance elegantly the dual task of rehearsing existing discussions while contributing new insights. Nicholas Roe’s and Hrileena Ghosh’s scrupulous historical narratives of Keats’s medical training, for example, are enlivened by fresh considerations of how close experience with suffering patients influenced Keats’s vocational choices and his poetic project. Madeleine Callaghan’s “Letters” chapter gives a thorough account of Keats’s epistolary self-fashionings by invoking Lionel Trilling’s foundational reading of “The Poet as Hero,” even as she provides a striking discussion of Keats’s insistence that a correspondent like Benjamin Bailey produce “a response attuned to the poet in the letter-writer, rather than the man” (68). Likewise, Grant Scott offers a walk across the recently well-trodden ground of Keats’s sociability, but strengthens our understanding of how such a principle shaped Keats’s personal conduct even as he lay dying. Other highlights—the chapters are too many to name here—include Stacey McDowell’s incisive but never reductive rendering of Keats’s interest in sense and sensation, Charles Mahoney’s subtle reading of the dark side of Keats’s notion of “imagination,” and Herbert Tucker’s deeply suggestive engagement with “a handful of allusive complexes” in Keats’s Victorian followers that “remain unfinished business for the literary history we have yet to write” (288). As much as John Keats in Context consolidates and names the nature and directions of past Keats scholarship, it also presents clear trajectories and hopes for the work that remains.
A small criticism: the volume’s contributor list skews significantly toward UK scholars and toward those from the boomer generation. In one sense this is entirely understandable, given the editor’s high standing and connections [End Page 331] in that professional milieu. In another sense the volume’s roster has slightly too much of a coterie feel to it. This is not to question the inclusion of any particular entry, for as a rule they are remarkably strong. But such an emphasis does seem to result in the omission of some other scholarly voices that merit inclusion. Emily Rohrbach’s and Emily Sun’s 2011 special Keats issue of Studies in Romanticism, for example, gets zero mentions throughout the book; the North-American-based online Keats Letters Project is overlooked as well; and several excellent recent monographs published by younger scholars don’t make the cut in any of the lists for further reading, which appear at the book’s conclusion and tend to be on the skimpier side. All of these resources could be highly useful to the broad audience the collection seeks to reach. One wonders, too, if widening the scholarly exchange a bit could have helped the volume present some ideas about Keats’s enduring, even growing, influence in places such as South America or China, where strong readers continue to embrace his work.
Such dissatisfactions aside, this group of precise and imaginative essays makes abundantly clear that Keats studies continue to be as vital as ever. With an encompassing historical sweep and keen attention to the details of Keats’s letters and poems, Michael O’Neill and his contributors prove themselves fine stewards of Keats’s immense legacy—what it has been and what it can become—in times when the poet and his expert readers are more desperately needed than ever.
Jonathan Mulrooney is Professor of English at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts. He is the author of Romanticism and Theatrical Experience: Kean, Hazlitt, and Keats in the Age of Theatrical News (Cambridge, 2018).