To be sure, the pugnacious poet had his moments of assurance. In an 1818 letter to his brother, he wrote, “I think I shall be among the English poets after my death.” At least as frequent, though, was the mood expressed in the sonnet from the same year that begins, “When I have fears that I may cease to be / Before my pen has gleaned my teeming brain,” or in the words he chose for his gravestone: “Here lies one whose name was writ in water.”
One suspects that the confidence of that 1818 letter was based on the expectation of future work, not what the poet had already accomplished. After all, that letter came not long after the publication of “Endymion,” an epic poem that was trounced by critics. Though the reviews were unfair and unkind, “Endymion” is far from Keats’s best work, and the poems that would establish him as an enduring poet — in particular, the “great odes” of 1819 — were yet to come. Those six odes — “Ode to a Nightingale,” “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” “Ode on Indolence,” “Ode on Melancholy,” “Ode to Psyche” and “To Autumn” — rise to heights unscaled by most poets and, indeed, unsuspected by many.
The odes are so beautiful — and Keats’s image as a sensualist, an effete Romantic aesthete, so firmly established — that it is easy to overlook how philosophically accomplished and profound they are. They constitute, to my mind, some of the richest and deepest meditations on art, beauty, mortality and subjectivity in Western literature. Sadly, it is such a deep part of our culture to think of feeling and reason as profoundly opposed — and of beauty as falling firmly on the side of feeling — that we are programmed to misunderstand any work in which reason, feeling and beauty work in tandem to raise aesthetic experience to a supreme level of insight.
Perhaps the odes require a different form of criticism, one in which feeling is mixed with thinking, passion with reason, the subjective with the objective. Something like this impulse seems to lie behind Anahid Nersessian’s “Keats’s Odes: A Lover’s Discourse.” As the Roland Barthesque title indicates, “Keats’s Odes” is no staid, traditional work of literary commentary. Its six essays, one for each ode, move in unexpected, often highly personal directions, expanding the universe of discussion surrounding Keats’s work and attempting to reinvigorate our engagement with a set of poems that has now endured for over 200 years.
Nersessian, a professor of English at UCLA, warns her readers that this is not the first book anyone ought to read about Keats. It is, she writes, “based on intimate, often idiosyncratic responses to the poems” and mixes heavy doses of personal reflections, autobiographical fragments, quotations from the work of more-recent poets, and other such assorted material, with more-straightforward interpretation and commentary.
Different readers’ enthusiasm for such minglings and interweavings will doubtlessly vary. Indeed, a single reader’s reactions may vary considerably from essay to essay, page to page or even sentence to sentence. Fortunately, Nersessian is a sufficiently gifted writer that even where her interpretations struck me as unconvincing or stilted, the strength of her sentences, in combination with her obvious passion for the poetry, carried me through. Any book that tries to do justice to Keats must be beautiful at least a fair bit of the time, and “Keats’s Odes,” particularly when its author allows herself to be carried by the force of her enchantment with the poems, satisfies that requirement.
This is not to say that there are no false notes. Biographers, as Nersessian notes, have demonstrated that Keats entertained radical political ideas, but the radicalism did not make it into many of the poems, and certainly not into these poems. Nersessian is determined to find it there anyway, as a matter of style if not of content. But the strenuousness of the effort shows, and the results, it seems to me, are unconvincing and at times dismayingly reductive. “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” for instance — a poem with a great deal to say about art and the human experience of time — becomes a piece largely focused on sexual assault, while the beautiful and manifestly apolitical “To Autumn” is spun as a kind of meta-political statement in which Keats comments on our woeful human inability to stop caring about things, like beauty, that have no political dimension. It’s a creative interpretation, to be sure, but while I enjoyed the chapter (mostly), I did not buy it.
The book’s intimacy, vulnerability and determination to provoke is true to Keats, and Nersessian’s genuine feeling for his work is never in doubt. One can’t help but be pleased that two centuries on, Keats’s odes still inspire engagement and love.
In a letter to Fanny Brawne from 1820 — that is, after the odes — he wrote: “‘If I should die,’ said I to myself, ‘I have left no immortal work behind me . . . but I have loved the principle of beauty in all things, and if I had had time I would have made myself remembered.’ ”
He was half right.
Troy Jollimore’s new book of poems, “Earthly Delights,” will be published later this year.
A Lover’s Discourse
By Anahid Nersessian
University of Chicago Press. 160 pp. $20