John Keats’s Politics of Pain and Renewal

John Keats’s Politics of Pain and Renewal

John Keats’s Politics of Pain and Renewal

Anahid Nersessian offers a radical and unforgettable reading of the British writer’s odes—one that upends our sense of his poetic project.


Like a lot of people who get their understanding of the world from books, I fell in love twice when I was 20. I was introduced to Hart Crane’s poetry a few weeks after I met my wife, and I connected immediately with Crane’s depressive excess and with his precociousness—both tragic and goofy. He could be cruel, especially about those whose approval he craved, and he would inflate brief encounters into life-changing entanglements just to feel interesting. When an acquaintance was hit by a car, Crane turned to “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” John Keats’s meditation on beauty and mortality. But you can’t call Crane’s “Praise for an Urn” an ode—a commemoration in heightened diction, addressing an absent or even abstract figure—because it is, like most of Crane’s poems, really just about himself:

His thoughts, delivered to me
From the white coverlet and pillow,
I see now, were inheritances—
Delicate riders of the storm.

Unless you’re a Doors fan, the thing that Crane does well happens in the second line, where the site of transmission—“the white coverlet and pillow”—is the upholstery inside a coffin, and also a bed where you’ve just fucked, and also a tortured reference to the clown Pierrot’s costume. This is oracular vision compressed into silliness, and Crane was quick to blame having to work a day job for this compression. Just days after he’d written it, he referred to the poem as “a hopeless failure, disjointed and ugly and vain. I am only momentarily depressed by these facts, however, as I am kept so busy with my ad writing that I haven’t time to think much about it.” The only thing standing between Crane and genius was waged labor, at least, as far as he was concerned.

Anahid Nersessian’s Crane is Keats himself, and she’s given us powerful and perceptive readings of his six major odes, in which she locates a vision of the modern world’s painful impact on human bodies that is not just reflective of Karl Marx’s theories, but necessary to a fuller understanding of his thought. “If the task of Marx’s critique of political economy,” she writes in the introduction, “is to locate the cause of that pain, the task of Keats’s poetry is to make it unforgettable.”

None is more persuasive than her treatment of “Ode on a Grecian Urn” and its nefariously quotable ending, “‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’” Whereas we are used to thinking that this poem is a mournful consideration of artistic devotion and human frailty inspired by Keats’s own looming death from tuberculosis, Nersessian describes it as “a catcall and, like a catcall, it has an air of substantial menace.” Unlike in the other odes, she claims, “Grecian Urn” is “spoken” by a persona, not Keats himself.

This is a flagrant break from critical consensus, and Nersessian marks it as such. “This is a controversial position but I’m taking it anyway,” she writes, leading us through a propulsive argument that begins with Ovid’s Metamorphosis but also Amiri Baraka’s “The politics of rich painters” and her own experience with a predatory Latin teacher, and into a consideration of trigger warnings and what they say, not about students but about universities. These are institutions, she argues, dedicated to maintaining a Western canon stitched together by accounts of actual and metaphorical sexual violence, and yet deeply in denial that “students have bodies as well as brains, that they can want sex and also be harmed by it or, most alarmingly, that they can perpetrate sexual harm.”

Institutional critique is becoming more common and less anchored to a particular political vision, but Nersessian insists on its inheritances from Marxist thought, crediting Fredric Jameson’s Postmodernism (1991) with the insight that “the underside of culture is blood, torture, death and terror.” In general, Nersessian’s version of Marx is more phenomenological than schematic, centering the portion of the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 that addresses the sensory damage created by private property instead of the systems theory of Capital, and she uses Keats’s Odes to solidify a connection made in her previous academic work. In The Calamity Form (2016), her study of formalist rhetoric and the poetry of the Industrial Revolution, Nersessian argued that “Marx’s ambition is the same as Keats’s: to confirm and realize ‘human nature’ as ‘communal nature,’” while her chapter on “Grecian Urn” in her new book undertakes a far-reaching and deeply felt analysis of the university itself as one of the would-be communes that we offer to vulnerable young people.

As the chapter develops, Nersessian draws on studies by Jennifer Doyle and Allen Grossman (two theorists who extended Marx in very different directions) to argue that Keats was highly aware of literary history’s persistent violence—that the poem’s creepy persona delights in this aspect and is highlighting it to the addressee. Hence the ominous opening: “Thou still unravish’d bride.” Keats himself is not trying to convince us that “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” but to ask us to consider the kinds of people who might say so, and what their motivations might be.

The “Grecian Urn” chapter is exemplary—I suspect this will become the reading most undergrads are taught in the coming years—and representative, with each of the other chapters using a similarly scrupulous reading of a single “Ode” as a method of exploring ideas from more recent poets (Sean Bonney, Alice Notley, Juliana Spahr) and poet-memoirists (Anne Boyer, Renee Gladman), critical theory (Eve Sedgwick, Édouard Glissant, Mariarosa Dalla Costa), and Nersessian’s own reflections from a lifetime of reading Keats and pursuing scholarship. Her final chapter is sadly the most timely, reading Keats’s strangely upbeat “To Autumn” alongside “Revolutionary Letter #7” by the recently deceased Diane Di Prima. At its outset, the final lines of the ode are followed by the first lines of the letter:

…Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The red-breasted whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

there are those who can tell you
how to make Molotov cocktails, flamethrowers,
bombs whatever…

The poem is strangely upbeat because Keats wrote the poem just a month after the Peterloo Massacre, in which armed yeomen attacked a crowd that had assembled to hear activist Henry Hunt speak—here, too, Nersessian resists the Keats consensus, who would have you believe that the insects and animals in the poem are coded references to the combatants: “When Keats wanted to write in a way that was obviously political, he did”—but also because we wouldn’t normally expect the diction of a poem about the end of the growing season to be so “intrusively loud. It fills our ears and hijacks our awareness so that we too are over-brimmed, knowing, for a few moments, nothing but this language and its great impenitent grace.”

Nersessian uses this cacophony, and the righteous violence of Di Prima’s poem—which would have us gather “everyone, friend and foe, like a million earthworms / tunnelling under this structure / till it falls”—to discuss the fact that some of the members of the Peterloo crowd had attacked the yeomen too. This reality was inconvenient to a press that wanted patient martyrs and to the liberal worldview that (still) sees nonviolent resistance as the only ethical response to violent power. “If we pretend that it is, then those who choose to resist differently…appear disposable, the harm that comes to them justified.” But the truth, to Nersessian, Keats, and Di Prima, is that we fall in love with the world despite its hostility, and the quality and purity of our love should not be determined by our ability to withstand that hostility. “[H]e forces us to inhabit an excruciating contradiction,” Nersessian writes. “[W]e are attached, despite everything, to this place that has been weaponized against us.” In moments like these, where Nersessian offers a no-nonsense analysis of poetic sensation and then contextualizes it, she is in a class of literary scholars that is entirely her own.

Characterizing Keats as Marx’s kindred might be the occasion for the book, but Nersessian’s love for the poet began well before graduate school. In her introduction, Nersessian recalls finding Keats’s letters to his fiancée, Fanny Brawne, when she was just 11. Their tragic love story became a “lifeline” to an Iranian-Welsh girl growing up in a racist nation: “I aligned myself with the literary past not to be like them but as a higher order of civilization, a bulwark against the barbarian hordes of saddle-shoe blondes who didn’t know the difference between Iran and Iraq but took the Gulf War as their latest provocation to kick me literally in the teeth.” She remains under no illusions about Keats’s ability to empathize with her particular lived experience, but she came to love his work “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.”

In this moment, in which Nersessian is privileging shared structures of feeling instead of identification, she sounds like a fellow traveler of James Baldwin, who understood his self-imposed exile through the work of another prior luminary: “I lived in Paris for a long time without making a single French friend, and even longer before I saw the inside of a French home. This did not really upset me, either, for Henry James had been here before me and had had the generosity to clue me in.” Both Nersessian and Baldwin make a case for great literature’s ability to foster conversations and understanding across difference, a case that seems too frequently absent from our current discussions about the canon and its use.

Keats, in fact, may be particularly amenable to these discussions. In the early 1950s, the great Argentine fabulist Julio Cortázar completed a five-hundred page biography/memoir/posthumous dialogue, Imagen de John Keats, which has begun to appear in English thanks to Olivia Loksing Moy and Marco Ramírez Rojas. Their recent Selection (CUNY Lost & Found, 2019) emphasizes a kind of fraternal love that is not conspiratorial or exclusive but exuberant and transcendental—wherever he is and whomever he’s with, Cortázar is “thinking of others who have felt Keats among us.”

Nersessian’s subtitle comes from Richard Howard’s translation of Roland Barthes and flags another kind of canonical lineage. Barthes, too, was “[b]orn of literature, able to speak only with the help of its worn codes,” and his A Lover’s Discourse is a kind of fugitive lexicon, organized alphabetically by the individual words and phrases he associates with his love and built around references to Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther and other “scattered echoes.”

In Barthes’s first entry—s’abîmer/to be engulfed—he quotes from Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale”: “half in love with easeful death.” But in the entry in which Barthes discusses adoration, he reminds us of how different it is to love a person than a piece of writing: “I encounter millions of bodies in my life; of these millions, I may desire some hundreds; but of these hundreds, I love only one. The other with whom I am in love designates for me the specialty of my desire.” We can love writing an awful lot more freely than this, and that is one of the best reasons to read widely. But when we teach poetry, we tend to do so with the tacit assumption that any poem worthy of being taught must be loved, and without imparting a clear sense of where that love might lead.

Here, too, Keats can be a model. Writing to his friend Charles Wentworth Dilke in September 1818, Keats concluded a gossipy roundup with his translation of a line from 16th century French poet Pierre de Ronsard—“Love poured her Beauty into my warm veins”—advising Dilke, “I think this line a feast for one of your Lovers.”

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Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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