KEATS'S ODES: A LOVER'S DISCOURSE by Anahid Nersessian, Reviewed by Brian Rejack
 


KEATS'S ODES: A LOVER'S DISCOURSE
By Anahid Nersessian
(University of Chicago Press, 2021) xii + 136 pp.
Reviewed by Brian Rejack on 2022-10-14.

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"In short I love you," one of the earliest of Keats's many lovelorn fans once wrote him. The correspondent was John Aitken, a banker by day and an ardent reader of Keats's poetry by night (and presumably during any other hours possible). Upon learning of Keats's ill health in the summer of 1820, via Leigh Hunt's comments in his magazine The Indicator, Aitken took the bold step of sending a letter to Keats offering to house the invalid poet at the Aitken home in Dunbar, Scotland for the coming winter. The only connection between Aitken and Keats was that the former had read the latter's poetry and had decided that he could intimately know "the amiable qualities of [Keats's] heart" from reading those texts (Rollins, ed., Keats Circle, [Harvard 1948], I: 60). One suspects there was no reply from Keats, who had other loves on his mind at the time, but Aitken's aching missive remains, a prescient artifact of the dynamics at the pierced heart of Anahid Nersessian's lucent and disarmingly moving work of criticism.

Like anything having to do with love, the title of Nersessian's book signifies multiply: she poses the odes, and Keats's poems more broadly, as expressions of a particular form of love, and the book itself is also "a love story" of Nersessian's love for Keats, among so many other loves variously discussed, obscured, and laid bare (1--2). So what is the "love" of a Keatsian "lover's discourse"? Many things, and always rife with uncertainties, mysteries, and doubts, but this is a book review, and the form demands a proper answer, so here is one: love is "an attempt to see something clearly, to pay the best attention to it [one] can" (131). That is how Nersessian reflects on her book as "a work of criticism that is also a love story" and "[her] kind of love story" at that. Apprehending love in this way, and recalling that love was Keats's religion, it is no surprise that he then so diligently cultivated his "'snail-horn perception of Beauty,'" his ability to see and attend to things as they are and as they might be (7). In other words, if the work of criticism is rooted in love, then so too is the work of poetry. And perhaps that is why so many lovers of Keats--from Aitken to Nersessian and all others in between and beyond--find themselves so enmeshed in study that is also devotion.

The nature of that devotional study, however, is not really about Keats the person, and it certainly does not mean study without critical awareness--quite the opposite, in fact. Nersessian, for instance, reflects on how "[a]s far as the past is concerned, we exceptionally modern people--the immigrant, the feminist, the communist, the differently desiring--will always be unsubstantiated, a possibility no one thought to put a frame around" (15). In other words, Keats's poetry is not loved now because it imagined a space for us, but rather because it so insistently demonstrates its desire to come to us, to have us make a space for it. As Nersessian poses this matter, "I love Keats not because I belong in his poetry, but because his poetry wants so much to belong to us--to those who know intimately why a relentless self-exposure to the world has to be made, somehow, into a virtue because otherwise it is just abuse" (15). As Keats might put it, "spite of despondence, of the inhuman dearth / Of noble natures," we nonetheless continually insist on "wreathing / A flowery band to bind us to the earth" (Endymion I: 8--9, 6--7). That binding occurs through beauty, through love of beauty, and through our inability to give up on both even when we have all the reasons to do so. Nersessian summarizes how she understands these dynamics in Keats's work perfectly here:

He took his own history of not mattering and turned it into a poetry that voids all the lethal systems and prejudices that decide who lives and who dies, and he did it by insisting that what we love is sacred, as is the act of loving it. He may not have been speaking to me but this, in Sean Bonney's ineradicable words, is what I've heard: "for 'love / of beauty' say fuck the police." (16)

How do we get from Keats to "fuck the police"? For Nersessian there lies a clear path from Marx (via George Bernard Shaw) and Roland Barthes, who, through Das Kapital and Fragments d'un Discours Amoureux, function as the two other presiding spirits (in addition to Keats, of course) haunting about Nersessian's study of love. It was Shaw who compellingly suggested that, in Nersessian's paraphrase of the claim, "passages of Keats would not be out of place in Das Kapital and that Karl Marx, had he written poetry, would have written it like Keats" (6). Nersessian then glosses Marx's insight that "any attempt to understand the way things are had to be rigorously carnal" (6), and from there links to how Keats's poetry "concentrates on the effortful, even agonizing work of shaping the body's response to the world" (7). Marxian and Keatsian methods are thus intimately entangled: "If the task of Marx's critique of political economy is to locate the cause of that pain, the task of Keats's poetry is to make it unforgettable" (7). Barthes' notion of love as "'a kind of festival not of the senses but of meaning'" (qtd. 18) helps complete the linkage of beauty, the world, and love, such that Nersessian describes the autobiographical thread pursued in her three middle chapters as "a love story, but like everything else in this book it is also about the forming of the five senses in this place, at this time, about what is happening to us now that we have collectively reached yet another set of prospects to call unendurable" (19). Keats grasped the unforgivable brutality of "capital's cannibal logic" and rendered it visible in Isabella (6); it's only logical that a lover's discourse today written in the same key would arrive at this world's brokenness in something like the carceral state and its horrors.

Surprisingly enough, Nersessian most illuminatingly demonstrates her reading of Keats's radicalism through the last of his odes, "To Autumn," usually the one of the six most associated with a pure beauty removed human social structures and other ills. As Nersessian notes, plenty of critics have attempted to read in the ode some sort of coded political message, especially alluding to the Peterloo Massacre, which occurred just weeks before Keats composed "To Autumn." Her tactic is different, though: instead of code we find negation. The obscene perfection of Keats's poem--asserting such startling beauty in a moment so rife with the aftermath of horrifically violent suffering--thus obliterates any consideration of the carnage of Peterloo, and in so doing expresses this mortifying truth:

the problem with beauty is not that it is so fragile, but that it is so durable. It is there and true even in an avalanche of shit and despair... That we can be here--on this planet, in this time, confined by these exact habits of survival--and still find things to call beautiful and to love or to be unable to stop loving is indefensible. But we are here, and we do. "To Autumn" confesses it for us. (122)

In that poem and across the other odes, according to Nersessian, Keats "shows us that it really is impossible sometimes not to love the world, even when it provides ample evidence that it should not be loved" (127). What else can we do but try, like Keats, to see that world better? Doing so is the work of Nersessian's critical method here, and it is both product and producer of further imperfect, uncertain and utterly essential loves.

As the author herself admits from the start in her preface, this book is not the place to begin one's study of Keats and/or his odes--it is a story of loves already formed, and not likely to produce new ones unless they're already budding. That opening recognition had me wondering, whom is this book then for? It's not a traditional scholarly book, but Nersessian certainly makes astute scholarly arguments about the odes. It's not an introduction to Keats and/or his odes, but it's also not so specialized that only academics deeply engaged in studies of romanticism will find it of interest. Ultimately I came to see the book's audience as two-fold, with significant overlap between the two groups: 1) critics, which is to say, lovers of a certain stamp, and 2) lovers of Keats, both of the casual and the enthusiastic sort. Part of the reason Nersessian's unconventional approach--criticism and autobiography, study and love story, specialized and broadly-engaged--can work is because of who Keats is. He was "famously lovable" (2) to those who knew him personally, and for two hundred years posthumous encounters have led to exclamations of deeply felt connection, ranging from the throwaway silliness of Hugh Grant's character in Bridget Jones' Diary (with cigarette in mouth and both hands on the oars of a rowboat while opining, "oh, fuck me, I love Keats") to the reams of records left behind by the Bostonian Keatsians of the early 20th century (Amy Lowell foremost among them). Even if you were to begin Nersessian's book without much knowledge of Keats, there's a decent chance that you'd arrive there carrying along some trace of affection for him/his work. I suspect it's partly because Keats is so widely loved, and so easy to love through even brief engagement, that this experiment in criticism can so readily invite in new members to the (lover's) discourse community. One finds it hard to imagine a similar approach working quite so well with a figure like, I don't know, let's say Robert Southey (sorry, Southey devotees!).

The question of "why Keats" for this lover's discourse thus needs no asking. But why the odes? Why not "the soupy epic Endymion" (3) (Nersessian's wonderfully fitting epithet for that poem), especially given how pantingly and endlessly its titular figure aches for love of beauty? The simple answer, of course, is that Endymion just doesn't quite work, as Keats himself acknowledged in his embarrassingly frank preface to the poem. It's not that the odes represent something fundamentally different; it's just as true in 1818 as it is in 1820 that Keats "is fascinated by how things feel, and by the capacity of metaphor to register the dizzying strangeness of being a body among others" (2-3). The difference in the odes, as Nersessian poses it, comes from the condensed expression of "desire as duress, embodiment as ordeal" (6), and through that style--call it camelion poetics, negative capability, or "love's complementary processes of absorption and dissolution"--one can apprehend the poems' radicalism, their notion of love as "the wish not to lose what the conditions of our lives demand be lost to us" (8).

In "Ode to a Nightingale" that wish emerges in "how poetic language both makes vivid and distracts us from the commonplace reality of someone suffering, unspectacularly, right before our very eyes (29). In"Ode on a Grecian Urn" we encounter and must choose between "an art that launders pain and calls that an ethics" and "something else, not knowing necessarily what it might be but certain it will involve the loss of something precious" (56). In "Ode on Indolence," widely agreed upon as the least effective of the odes, there is the hint of the poem Keats could have written had he "been able to contemplate indolence as a critical stance or, more radically, a utopian ideal" (71), a poem that might have "celebrate[d] sloth as the birthright of a human vigor emancipated from the requirement to make itself commercial (73). In"Ode on Melancholy" Keats "implicates the ode and alas all poetry in an economics of pain," one that transforms "human beings into tropes, and love into a name for the disintegration of their potential" (85). In "Ode to Psyche" we find Keats's most joyful and affirmative approach to love, where ultimately it represents the "model ... of a communal existence set loose from any imposition except the 'sweet enforcement' of appetite and ardor" (104). And, as already glossed above, "'To Autumn' is perfect and unforgivable" (114). It holds us close precisely for those reasons. Keats "forces us to inhabit an excruciating contradiction: we are attached, despite everything, to this place that has been weaponized against us, where the earth ingests our oozings and its ambient noises muffle our screams" (127).

If a lover's discourse is inherently fragmentary (à la Barthes), perhaps it is fitting that this review suffers the same fate. One cannot truly capture the amatory spirit hovering over Nersessian's pages in shreds and patches like these, and yet this reviewer maintains hope that some traces of the remarkable achievements of this book--in its methods and approach, in its form, in its stunning critical insights and arresting language--nonetheless come through. Lovers of Keats--and of poetry and of criticism more broadly--will discover a wealth of "branched thoughts, new grown with pleasant pain" to pursue with Nersessian as guide in this study.

Brian Rejack is Professor of English at Illinois State University.


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