- Lives of the Dead Poets: Keats, Shelley, Coleridge by Karen Swann
Fordham University Press, 2019, 192 pp. ISBN 9780823284177, $30.00 paperback.
In calling her book Lives of the Dead Poets, Karen Swann is making obvious reference to Samuel Johnson’s Lives of the Poets (1779–81), with which she hopes to evoke a sense of “the hagiographic, cultic” attachment to the figures of the poet (1). The twist she gives to Johnson’s title—together with the cover image chosen for the book—signals an interest in the afterlives of her subjects, and the book opens with the claim that “this book explores the insistence of biography in the reception [End Page 849] histories of Keats, Shelley, and Coleridge” (1). However, the five main chapters of the book do not really explore the roles biography performed in the processes of the poets’ posthumous receptions. Instead, these chapters mainly engage in examining the allegorical “figures” of the enervated, other-worldly poet that are brought into relief by close readings of the selected writings of Keats, Shelley, and Coleridge, and quotations from biographical accounts written by their contemporaries. Certainly, these chapters develop into the book’s introduction, which helps us to think through our fascination with these poets’ prematurely truncated lives in a constructive way, rather than simply condemning it as naïve and sentimental. Yet, as Swann clearly states, her “primary engagements are with contemporaries who work in British (and in some cases European) romantic studies and who remain caught up, however tendentiously, with the legacy of deconstruction, especially the work of Paul de Man” (26). To some readers, especially those outside the circle of “professional romanticists” on whose work Swann builds her arguments, the discussions after the introduction might seem at times arduous (11).
However, Swann’s interesting case studies will be rewarding in their own ways to any reader who perseveres and familiarizes themselves with her prose. The book’s title evokes, for a Keats lover, the state of the “posthumous life”: an untimely suspension of life in an insulated space “that open[s] between the death sentence . . . and the moment of his actual death” (31). The represented “figure,” which is in this equivocal state, functions as a Benjaminian allegory of “the Poet” in the age of commodity capitalism. Swann focuses on this poet-figure, which we encounter as a character in a poem or as an image of a particular poet constructed by themselves and their contemporaries. Chapter 1 explores the accounts of Keats in his “posthumous life” and the figures of arrested, beautiful youths in Endymion and The Fall of Hyperion. Chapter 2 looks at Shelley’s controversial elegy Adonais and finds in it the narrative of melancholic fixation dramatized as Urania’s longing for Adonais whose death she fails to encounter. Chapter 3 takes up what Swann calls the “pod people” in Shelley’s poems—“hermetic figures” appearing in Canto 10 of The Revolt of Islam or the “glamorous Witch” of The Witch of Atlas—that resonate with the image of the elusive and ephemeral Shelley the Poet (76, 83), and speculates on their radical political potential in their disengagement from our social and political concerns. Chapters 4 and 5 deal with late Coleridge who, “after the heady period of the first edition of the Lyrical Ballads, or alternatively, after the crash of 1802 that led to his convalescence trip to Malta in 1803” (99) frittered away his intellect in ways that were “not productive in ordinary terms” (92). Chapter 4 is a kind of performative “abstruse research” that teases out the figure of Coleridge engaging in his research—his “work without hope”—that is “unrenderable into any common language and unsuited to any common use” (95–96). Here, she gives concentrated readings of Coleridge’s two notebook poems and “Constancy to an Ideal Object,” informed by André Green’s psychoanalytical study of “the work of the negative” (100). This “long detour” prepares the reader to encounter “Coleridge the Talker” [End Page 850] in Chapter 5 (114). Making a good use of biographical materials, many of which are taken from...