- Keats and Skepticism
I am sometimes so very sceptical as to think Poetry itself a mere Jack a lanthern to amuse whoever may chance to be struck with its brilliance—… probably every mental pursuit takes its reality and worth from the ardour of the pursuer––being in itself a nothing—"1 So did John Keats write to Benjamin Bailey on March 13, 1818. This is the only time when the word "sceptical" appears in Keats's letters, and he has never used "sceptical," "scepticism," or "sceptic" elsewhere in his prose or poetry. Nevertheless, the passage reveals a strong tension between one's identity as a poet and one's skeptical contemplation of the worth of poetry, a tension that is in no way a whim for Keats. The self-reflexive skeptical inclination pervades and even characterizes Keats's mature poetry, calling for a careful teasing out of Keats's skeptical ideas as his remarkably receptive and vigorously evolving mind deserves. After setting up striking affinities between Keats and the origin of the skeptical tradition, Pyrrhonism, my current project explores Keats's connections with Montaigne, the most important Renaissance inheritor of Pyrrhonism; Voltaire, with whom Keats was constantly engaged; and Hume, the most thoroughgoing skeptic after Sextus Empiricus. Yet the project is not interested in pinning down the influences of skeptical philosophy on Keats so much as in exploring how, in the light of philosophical skepticism, his skeptical poetics is articulated in the peculiar poetic discourse of ambiguity and indeterminacy, which naturally lends itself to skepticism.
Take Lamia for instance, which Keats composed "more deliberately than [he] yet [has] done" (LJK, II, 128). Keats revises Apollonius, the sage figure in the source tale, into a sterile, relentless dogmatist. The anti-dogmatic skeptical ideas are also conveyed in Keats's rewriting of Lamia and Lycius, which challenges the original one-sided delineation with its conflicting qualities and leaves one in the suspension of judgment. The ambivalent tale is told by a narrator whose consistent intrusion undercuts or complicates the narrated tale with a dissonant, chameleon voice, betraying the modern poet's remoteness and disenchantment [End Page 138] from the world of antiquity. For a poem that evokes the genre of romance, Keats adopts the heroic couplet, the verse form that is inclined towards the mode of satire, charging the poem with a further formal and tonal incongruity. Lamia does not just convey skeptical ideas, but reveals Keats's self-conscious experiment with a skeptical poetics2.
Skepticism, therefore, rather than handicapping Keats by presenting a problem to resolve or a crisis to survive, becomes his "Negative Capability." It empowers him by making him "capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason" and endows him with the rare "quality" that "went to form a Man of Achievement especially in Literature" (LJK, I, 193).
Li Ou is Associate Professor at Department of English, The Chinese University of Hong Kong and the author of Keats and Negative Capability (Continuum, 2009).
1. The Letters of John Keats, ed. Hyder Edward Rollins, 2 vols. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1958). Hereafter, LJK. I, 242.
2. G. F. Parker's 2004 monograph, Skepticism and Literature, for example, argues for the affinity between skeptical thinking and imaginative literature, but its focus is on eighteenth-century literature.