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  • On Sitting Down to Read John Keats Once Again
  • Richard Johnston (bio)

Many years ago, while studying Latin in Rome, I made the pilgrimage from the Spanish Steps to the Protestant Cemetery, poured libations onto Keats's grave, and, drinking a little wine myself, reread The Fall of Hyperion: A Dream. Thanks to Keats's poetry and a charismatic professor in my sophomore year, I was a freshly declared English major and an eager student of Romantic literature. The world was all before me.

Keats's poems were the first I learned to love. Lines such as these from Hyperion inspired fulsome marginalia:

            On he flared,From stately nave to nave, from vault to vault,Through bowers of fragrant and enwreathed light,And diamond-paved lustrous long arcades.1

I was therefore chagrined when, as my undergraduate career progressed, teaching assistants began striking from my papers carefully chosen adjectives, adding: "You don't need to convince me that _____ was a 'dazzling' poet." During office hours, they explained that my task as a critic was to analyze a poem, not to praise it.

Twenty years later, a cadet at the US Air Force Academy came to speak with me about a paper she had written on King Lear. At the end of the conversation, she pointed to one of my marginal comments, [End Page 129] apologized for calling an image "brilliant," and said, "The thing is, sir, I really did think what Shakespeare did was brilliant, and I had never felt that way about a text before."

I can't remember how I replied, but later I felt that I had committed a tiny act of violence against my student's experience of the play. What right had I to chasten her? After all, I reflected, Keats had composed one of his best sonnets about recognizing the greatness of King Lear and sitting down to reread it. Susan J. Wolfson has memorably described this poem as a "disciplined detox" after Keats's "long binge on Romance."2 In the winter of 1818, Keats was starting to realize that "the fierce dispute / Betwixt damnation and impassion'd clay" enacted by Shakespeare's tragedy could help him develop into a mature poet.3

John Keats was a poet of rereading. One of his first mature poems dwells on Chapman's power to help him "breathe the pure serene" of Homer and become a co-discoverer of ancient worlds (and new ones).4 His study of Wordsworth's poetry urged him to reassess Milton's, culminating in his famous metaphor of human life as a "Mansion of Many Apartments" full of "dark passages" that Wordsworth, less bound than Milton by religious orthodoxy, was willing to explore.5 Both the "Ode to a Nightingale" and "Ode on a Grecian Urn" enact miniature dramas of rereading. And in The Fall of Hyperion, we see Keats reassessing the fragment of Hyperion and struggling to ascertain whether he is worthy of its epic scope and awful sadness. If The Fall of Hyperion has a climax, it is when the speaker ascends Moneta's steps, skirts death, defends his vocation, and is granted access to the tragic contents of Moneta's memory, at last discovering himself "Deep in the shady sadness of a vale"—the start of Keats's earlier attempt.6 The boldness and humility of this project never cease to astonish me. For a personal equivalent, I would have to compose an epic in which I scrutinize my fitness to become a teacher and nearly perish in my quest to return to my first classroom.

Thinking about Keats helps me articulate questions about our work [End Page 130] as scholars and teachers that I have been grappling with for years. What does it mean to be in my forties and teaching Keats to students who are less than half my age, and who feel, as I once did, the world is all before them? We read, we write, and we teach in time. We all know this, of course—it has been proved upon our pulses—but have we thought hard enough about its critical or pedagogical implications? What does it mean to teach tragedy...


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