“Give me that voice again… Those looks immortal”: Gaze and Voice in Keats’s The Eve of St. Agnes
Daniela Garofalo is Associate Professor at the University of Oklahoma. She is the author of Manly Leaders in Nineteenth-Century British Literature. This article is from her next book tentatively titled The Unfair Sex: Women, Love, and Commodity Culture.
1. See Kelvin Everest, “Isabella in the Market-Place: Keats and Feminism,” in Nicholas Roe, ed., Keats and History (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1995) 107–26; Porscha Fermanis, “Isabella, Lamia, and ‘Merry Old England,’” Essays in Criticism 56.2 (2006): 139–62; Proma Tagore, “Keats in an Age of Consumption: The ‘Ode to a Nightingale,’” Keats-Shelley Journal 49 (2000): 67–84; Terence Hoagwood, “Keats, Fictionality, and Finance: The Fall of Hyperion” in Keats and History 127–42; Karen Swann, “Endymion’s Beautiful Dreamers,” in The Cambridge Companion to Keats, ed. Susan J. Wolfson (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2001) 20–36.
4. In the last couple of decades, critics have responded against Jerome McGann’s claim that the canonical Keats evades politics. See Jerome J. McGann, “Keats the Historical Method in Literary Criticism,” in The Beauty of Inflections: Literary Investigations in Historical Method and Theory (Oxford: Clarendon, 1985) 15–65. They have provided numerous readings that emphasize Keats’s engagement with his radical mileu. Daniel P. Watkins argues that Keats’s poetry “is a representation of human response to the intellectual, political, and military developments of the age. The period from 1815 to roughly 1820, the period of Keats’s maturity, is a critical historical moment, a moment of uncertainty when it looked as though social change, in England and abroad, could break in any one of several different directions” (Keats’s Poetry and the Politics of the Imagination [Cranbury, NJ: Associated UP, 1989] 191). Nicholas Roe differs from Levinson’s emphasis on a Keats who is a “proto-capitalist, a lower-class ‘literary entrepreneur’ who was aggressively–literally–on the make and determined to write himself out of the obscurity to which he had been born” (14). Instead, Roe emphasizes a Keats who is a “representative voice of the most vital sector of contemporary English culture: that is, the culture of dissent in which ideological opposition to and consequent exclusion from the establishment formed the intellectual dynamic of enlightened progress in political, religious, aesthetic, and educational matters” (John Keats and the Culture of Dissent [Oxford: Oxford UP, 1997] 15). See also Jeffrey N. Cox, Poetry and Politics in the Cockney School: Keats, Shelley, Hunt and their Circle (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1997); and Susan Wolfson, “Keats and Politics: A Forum,” SiR 25 (Summer 1986): 171–229.
5. Although the tradition of courtly love pre-dates the kind of commodity culture Keats experienced, courtly love lends itself to commodity logic. The beloved, like the commodity, promises an exquisite enjoyment, which is, however, always deferred.
8. John Keats, The Eve of St. Agnes, Complete Poems and Selected Letters of John Keats (New York: Random House, 2001) 224–35. All subsequent quotations in the text refer to this edition and are cited by lines from the poem.
9. Bill Brown, “The Tyranny of Things (Trivia in Karl Marx and Mark Twain),” Critical Inquiry 28.2 (Winter 2002): 442–69; Things, ed. Bill Brown (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2004); Things that Talk: Object Lessons from Art and Science, ed. Lorraine Daston (New York: Zone Books; MIT P, 2004); Stephen M. Best, The Fugitive’s Properties: Law and the Poetics of Possession (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2004); Patrice Higonnet, Anne Higonnet, Margaret Higonnet, “Facades: Walter Benjamin’s Paris,” Critical Inquiry 10.3 (Mar 1984): 391–419; Helen Groth, “Kaleidoscopic Vision and Literary Invention in an ‘Age of Things’: David Brewster, Don Juan, and ‘A Lady’s Kaleidoscope,’” English Literary History 74.1 (2007): 217–37.
10. Barbara Benedict, “The Spirit of Things,” in The Secret Life of Things: Animals, Objects, and It-Narratives in Eighteenth-Century England, ed. Mark Blackwell (Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell UP, 2007) 30.
12. The description of the feast, of course, also reminds us that we are not actually tasting and enjoying this food, which remains uneaten also in the narrative of the poem. Like the commodity, Porphyro’s feast seems to offer an enjoyment we can almost taste but not quite. I owe this observation to Christopher S. Carter.
15. The poem is set in a Romantic era fantasy of the middle ages, which, as Timothy Morton points out, allows Keats to represent objects that are “‘antiqued’” (see note 16 below), and therefore rare so that they become “the most valuable kind of modern circulating commodity.” The antiqued poem, then, also foregrounds its nature as a commodity.
17. Jack Stillinger famously represented Porphyro as a rapist who preys on the sleeping Madeline. See The Hoodwinking of Madeline, And Other Essays on Keats’s Poems (Urbana, IL: U of Illinois P, 1971) 67–93. Whereas rape does speak to the poem’s logic of competition, it does not explain what happens between the lovers in the end.
24. Robert Samuels, “Art and the Position of the Analyst,” Reading Seminar XI: Lacan’s Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, ed. Richard Feldstein, Bruce Fink, and Marie Jaanus (Albany, NY: SUNY P, 1995) 183.
25. In his seminar on the gaze, Lacan offers his famous story about an encounter with a sardine can. When the young Lacan on a fishing trip with a group of working class fisherman iS told by one of them that the sardine can “‘doesn’t see you!” (95), he finds that he is “not terribly amused” (96). Although the can does not see him, “it was looking at me, all the same. It was looking at me at the level of the point of light” (95). The object which “glittered in the sun” is a “point of light” (95), which is, however, blind. It gazes but it sees nothing; it cannot reflect back a sense of self or place. In this scene the young Lacan is an intellectual misplaced among working class fishermen, and so he becomes “like nothing on earth” (96). He discovers that he is “not in the picture” (96).
26. Orrin C. Wang argues that in Lamia “Lycius and the reader see displayed in Lamia’s gaze something invisible” (“Coming Attractions: Lamia and Cinematic Sensation,” SiR 42 [Winter 2003]: 461–500 ). Not only is the title character’s own desire unfathomable but she also embodies “the innately mysterious desire, the mystifying desirability, of the commodity form” (492). As Wang explains, the gaze in Lacanian psychoanalysis is the point “at which something appears to be missing from representation, some meaning left unrevealed” (490). The gaze “marks the absence of the signified” (490). By encountering the gaze of the beloved in Lamia, Lycius discovers a nothing that destroys him, finding only an image, and not a responsive, desiring subject.
32. When critics read this poem as a critique of Keats’s culture, they tend to see it as “camp,” as offering an excess which undermines the poem’s romance. For Timothy Morton, Keats’s poetry achieves a “brilliant, camp reworking of a language underpinning capitalist ideology” by parodying “the advertising language of luxury culture, blowing it up hyperbolically rather than simply opposing it” (9). Keats’s poem reveals how the luxury commodity turns substance into accident, body into fantasy. His poetry exposes the “Mandevillian inutility at the heart of capitalist consumption, where private vices breed public virtues. The gloriously useless, surplus enjoyment is a structural place reserved in the Romantic period and after for literature, the feminine and the academy” (167). Keats’s “‘antiqued’ consumption of spice evokes a kernel of ‘antiproduction’ at the heart of fantasies about the regime of the commodity” (167). Thomas Pfau has recently offered another reading of Keats’s capacity to undermine Romantic fullness by focusing on Keats’s critique of Wordsworthian sincerity and literary originality. As many commentators have argued, what differentiates Keats’s poems from a straightforward sentimental effort is that Keats’s poetry often reads as inauthentic, contrived and clichéd rather than effectively affective. For some critics this is a sign of immaturity, a failure to control his medium. But Pfau sees Keats as a poet who rejects Wordsworthian sincerity by jettisoning the notions of “authentic, local, and genuinely felt experienee” in order to deconstruct “an authentic subjectivity grounded in and drawing its strength from some putatively unique and unimpeachable affective source” (Romantic Moods: Paranoia, Trauma, and Melancholy, 1790–1840 [Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2005] 322). Pfau argues that the melancholic subject suffers from a loss of the “real.” Melancholic speech, then, “exhibits highly formalized, quasi-ceremonial rhetorical patterns and thus comes across not as charismatic speech or presence but as the simulation of a voice steeped in anterior writing” (322). For both Morton and Pfau, then, Keats offers a parodic performance (undermining commodity fetishism for Morton and more specifically the literary commodity for Pfau) that reveals language’s inability to offer fullness and presence. I would argue, however, that Keats goes beyond parody, beyond “the simulation of a voice steeped in anterior writing” or language that reveals the “gloriously useless” kernel of enjoyment in capitalism. Beyond the parodie voice, Keats offers a voice that is silent and a gaze that is blind.
34. Thus, it is fitting, that Madeline and Porphyro escape leaving behind a castle of immobile beings petrified by death and sleep where “was heard no human sound” (356). They leave behind a Baron who “dreamt of many a woe” (372) and his guests who “Were long be-nightmared” (375) by “witch, demon, and large coffin-worm” (374). Angela dies “palsy- twitch’d” (376) and the Beadsman “after thousand aves told, / For aye unsought-for slept among his ashes cold” (377–78). The lovers leave a castle where humans face mortality only in their nightmares, where the mediation of the argent revelry can no longer hide lack and death.