- Keats's Chameleon Poetics, Or, the Natural History of "Ode to a Nightingale"
John Keats's "camelion Poet" has long hidden in plain sight. Since the letter's composition on October 27, 1818,1 the chameleon has lived in the shadow of other thinkers (primarily William Hazlitt), poets (Shakespeare), and Keats's own axioms.2 In the last case, readers ranging from the letter's recipient, Richard Woodhouse, to Walter Jackson Bate, to Emily Rohrbach in the present day have exhibited a common tendency to conflate "negative capability" with the poetical character.3 This vein of interpretation has understood Keats's references to indeterminacy and refusal of "irritable reaching after fact & reason" (LJK, I, 193) as nearly interchangeable with the "negative" grammatical constructs that depict the chameleon poet as an amoral, disinterested, and yet exceptionally sympathetic figure in constant danger of "annihila[tion]" (LJK, I, 387).4 While these approaches have [End Page 40] offered us a clear account of Keats's development of a poetics that resists the "wordsworthian or egotistical sublime," they have also limited inquiry into why he would have chosen the chameleon to model poetic subjectivity in the first place (LJK, I, 386).
One reason why critics have overlooked the chameleon's figurative importance to Keats is its seemingly obvious metaphorical tenor: the animal's physiological capacities to inflate itself and to change color in response to its surroundings are easily comparable to imitative behavior, ephemerality, and social duplicity. As I intend to show, though, the chameleon figure does have a rich and variegated history that can complicate and elude such alignments. In the Romantic era, natural historians and poets alike challenged and extended the chameleon's previous—and often disparaging—associations with environmental and social assimilation, imagining instead a chameleon that was partly autonomous and often responsive to, if not communicative with, its material surroundings. Nevertheless, the association of the chameleon with assimilation has endured. In one of the few studies of British Romantic chameleonism, William D. Brewer surveys how it "was a slippery and versatile metaphor" adaptable to any number of opposing principles, whether "free or shackled, histrionic or passively impressionable, creative or derivative."5 Brewer productively attributes this fixation on the chameleon to the various political changes represented in the "transgressive" theatricality of the period.6 When it comes to poets, however, Brewer sequesters the chameleonic imagination from its materialist and social implications that for Keats and other writers are not diametrically opposed so much as contiguous. In canto two of Don Juan (1819), for example, Lord Byron toggles between the chameleon's fanciful, early-modern association with consuming "air" and [End Page 41] contemporary physics.7 He calls a rainbow "a heavenly cameleon," but it is also a prism—the "airy child of vapour and the sun."8 And Byron does not stop there, for the chameleon-rainbow simile articulates how temporary changes in humans' discrete "colorations" can coexist with the common materialist substrate of light, water, and air. The chameleon rainbow is "blending every colour into one, / Just like a black eye in a recent scuffle / (For sometimes we must box without the muffle)."9 This movement from the beautiful realities of a "heavenly" phenomenon to distinctively physical and social encounters hinges on the chameleon's ability to exist both as a metaphor and as an embodied animal. More important, its ever-present sensitivity to social and material circumstances leads Byron to close the stanza with a comment on how contingent experiences and necessity are interdependent. The human body, like that of the chameleon, becomes an index of passing experiences: a particular and "recent scuffle" yields a particular black eye. The violence Byron associates with these events signals how social mores cannot contain such eventualities: these acts are bound to human nature, and "sometimes we must box without the muffle." Romantic-era scientific developments, both physical and biological, make Byron's extended simile possible; localized in the chameleon, they epitomize Alan Bewell's recent contention that Romantic concepts of "nature" as the natural world need not be associated with nostalgia and tradition. Instead, writes Bewell, "modernity" was "one of its primary expressions."10
This essay argues...