By Allen Michie
Anahid Nersessian claims that her book is a kind of love story between her and Keats’s odes. But it turns out we have to take her word for that. Too often this study comes off like an acrimonious couple’s counseling session.
Keats’s Odes: A Lover’s Discourse by Anahid Nersessian. University of Chicago, 160 pages, $20.
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If you’ve never read anything on Keats’s six classic odes before, Anahid Nersessian’s Keats’s Odes: A Lover’s Discourse may not be the best place to start. The book is ostensibly aimed at general readers, but it has trouble deciding the exact makeup of that audience. This may be a slim volume at 133 pages, but it interweaves three different projects: a ham-fisted application of literary theory, a traditional work of literary exegesis on six sophisticated odes, and a personal narrative that alternately does and doesn’t directly relate to the poems.
Keats’s Odes: A Lover’s Discourse owes something to Roland Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments (1977), from which Nersessian borrows her title and aspects of her critical method. Barthes’s book maps the multifaceted and brilliant mind of an author in love: it is an uncategorizable combination of philosophy, structural linguistics, literary criticism, and personal experiences. Nersessian claims that her book is a kind of love story between her and Keats’s odes. But it turns out we have to take her word for that. Too often this study comes off like an acrimonious couple’s counseling session. The problem is that her book is really about the things that Nersessian finds more urgently engrossing than Keats’s odes.
My alarm bells went off during the preface. After a tasteful and diverse rundown of standard critical and biographical works on Keats, the critic adds this startling sentence: “As the book makes clear, I think any serious appreciation of Keats’s poetry begins with the section on ‘Private Property and Communism’ from Karl Marx’s Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 and the first volume of Capital, too.” Marx does not mention Keats in those works or anywhere else.
I truly wanted to like this book better than I did. I love the idea of reviving the belles-lettres mode of literary criticism, merging the personal with the professional, redeeming the promise of phenomenological or reader-response theory by demonstrating how who we are shapes how we dance (and think) with what we read. I also love the idea of literary criticism that reaches outside of the academy and speaks to undergraduates, K-12 teachers, and general readers. But I didn’t love this book for several reasons, the biggest of which is that Nersessian weaponizes Keats’s delicate odes and turns them into blunt instruments to smash the bourgeoisie and bring about the utopia of no private property and universal selfless goodwill. Nersessian writes that she teaches poetry to her students as examples of proto-Marxism because poets aren’t selfish: “I explain how close they came to imagining communism, mostly as an excuse to drill into my students what communism is.” Note the word “drill.”
To oversimplify Nersessian’s often elegantly phrased argument, a theme in Keats’s odes is getting outside of oneself and uniting in spirit with art, nature, or the longing for an absent lover. It’s a poetic trope common to Romanticism. Because Keats searches for the sources of genuine human nature in urns or nightingales or autumn, argues the critic, that makes him a proto-Marxist. Why? Because Marx says human nature is fulfilled only when Communism frees us from the materialist concerns of private property. Marx believed that sensual perceptions are a struggle and Keats says that sensations are sometimes extremely painful. Therefore, for Nersessian, Keats is a Marxist:
Early on Marx decided that “the forming of the five senses is a labour of the entire history of the world down to the present”…. Keats had the same idea. His poetry concentrates on the effortful, even agonizing work of shaping the body’s response to the world…. To perceive is to hurt—sometimes a little, sometimes a lot. 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.
Leaving aside whether, or how, the entire history of the world is about forming the five senses, is every poet that writes about sensation or pain — or even perception — now in sync with (and in service to) Marx’s critique of political economy? Which poets would that leave out?
There’s no question that Nersessian has some ingenious, and often apt, applications of Marxist theory. Other times, however, the heavy-handed ideology drags down her prose. Perhaps it’s an expression of the guilt felt by a tenured radical uneasily writing formalist appreciations of Dead White Male poetry. But it’s tempting to read the book as a kind of parlor game to see how long the author can stay in the world created by Keats’s poetry before pulling out her True Believer street credentials:
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.”
After printing Keats’s lovely and wistful “Ode to Autumn,” a poem appreciating the unique fullness and bounty of the season (as always, Keats was aware of his own approaching early death — he died at the height of his powers at age 25), Nersessian opens with a quote from Diane di Prima’s “Revolutionary Letter #7”:
with that in mind
Nersessian’s next sentence tells us that Keats’s “Ode to Autumn” is “unforgiveable.” Why? Four weeks before Keats wrote the poem, he read a newspaper account of a violent encounter between workers and a volunteer regiment of landowners and merchants. Percy Shelley, by contrast, responded with his politic lyric “The Mask of Anarchy,” which is “often invoked as the anti-‘To Autumn’ and used to put it to shame.” Shelley’s poem announces “with total conviction the necessity of subordinating conventional ideas of poetic beauty to something even more beautiful and even more necessary: in a word, revolution.” In other words, if the Marxist doctrine does not fit the poem, then the poet wrote the wrong poem.
Keats’s “Ode to Indolence,” published in 1849 (which Nersessian notes, for no reason, was the year The Communist Manifesto was published), was also the wrong poem for the time. It would have been a better piece “if Keats had been able to contemplate indolence as a critical stance or, more radically, a utopian ideal. This might have been a poem about the abolition of work. Remember that Keats was alive during the first phase of the Industrial Revolution and saw the historical emergence of wage labor.” Keats’s “Ode to Psyche,” a love story of two mythological figures, is about the abolition of private property because the lovers lie down together: “In this poem, he roots loudly for the obsolescence of hierarchies of all kinds, implicitly countering their top-down format with the equitable side-by-sideness of Cupid and Psyche’s embrace. A couple is not a revolutionary society, to be sure. It is, nonetheless, the model Keats gives of a communal existence.”
Sometimes the distortions verge on the desperate. For example, here’s how Keats uses the word “conspire” in “Ode to Autumn”
From this, leaving aside all the other imagery, Nersessian seizes upon the word “conspiracy” because it’s the same word used by the newspapers (a year after the poem was written) for the “Cato Street Conspiracy,” a plan hatched in February 1820 to kill the prime minister and all the members of his cabinet. She then turns her attention to the Cato Street Conspiracy, not the poem. Ready to hit the barricades, Nersessian quotes a source at length about “the bodies being placed in a sitting attitude in their coffins, the blood could not flow copiously from them at the moment their heads were taken off. It was not till they were laid in an horizontal position, that the vital stream could escape freely from the heart.”
You get the idea. But as I said at the top, this is really three different books, and the one-size-fits-all Marxist application is only one of them. Another type is more traditional literary exegesis. Ironically, Nersessian is gifted at exactly the kind of formalist literary criticism Marxist critics of the ’70s and ’80s fought so hard to discredit. This analysis is seldom central to her argument, but she makes a great many perceptive observations, particularly how Keats subtly uses a dialectic approach to generate drama: he asserts and undercuts the ideas in his poems. She has an excellent eye for how opposites attract and pull apart from one another. These moments inspire her best writing:
The Great Odes record love’s complementary processes of absorption and dissolution. They are, in Keats’s phrase, “havens of intenseness” where the most unsparing expressions of desire can be at once sheltered and laid bare. Sexually engrossed though never explicit, they make intimacy into a form of endurance, difficult but necessary…. Again and again, trials of longing, needing, having, caring, giving in, breaking down, leaving and failing to leave behind are met with candor and a fearless enthusiasm, for this poetry is honest—not in any limited moral sense, but because it is obstinate in its commitment to loving without shame or reservation. An ode by Keats is just that: an anchorage for big feelings that, in their sheer ungovernability, test what it might be like to be really free.
While I am not convinced the book is a “love story” of the author’s relationship with Keats, she does write with the intimate expertise of someone who has spent many years in the Great Odes’ company.
Bow too low to the generic pressures of the ode and you lose the necessary friction between form and voice (personality, circumstance) that makes the poem distinct, this poem and no other; get too wrapped up in the thrill of precisifying your feelings and you have a poem that is at once over-composed and off-balance, a baked Alaska of mood.
With an observation like that, we should forgive her the word “precisifying.”
Nersessian has a fine ear as well, and she often finds meaningful rhetorical justifications for Keats’s sibilants, open vowel sounds, and alliterations. But she isn’t hypnotized by Keats’s technique, either. She will call it out when it is overcooked or strained. At times the critic wants the poems to be something other than they are, but that doesn’t always mean she’s wrong, especially when she hones in on the emotional core of the poem. The “Ode on Melancholy,” for example, “shouldn’t pair dark moods with dark things—a ‘death-moth’ or ‘downy owl’—because that will only take the edge off. The trick is to lay hold of the wakeful anguish of the soul and crack it even wider, crank it up, and this can only happen when melancholy rejects flimsy symbolism and roots itself in the real world.”
Nersessian’s knack for tapping into the emotional center of the odes comes from the third part of her book’s approach: including a personal narrative. She isn’t afraid of bringing her educated, loving, and damaged self (or at least the persona of one) into the discussion. When she is not writing about workers’ rebellions or how long “o” sounds echo through a stanza, she tells us about the time she got a thorn in her finger or about her family history or her troubled dreams of a lover. At times, these moments are powerful and revealing. But I must confess I sometimes struggled to see (or was reluctant to participate in) how these confessions were supposed to help me understand Keats’s odes:
Somewhere Keats calls poetry a higher form of sleep—a dream that interrupts the world. In my own higher sleep I dreamt that I draped myself across your back, but you stood up suddenly and I was knocked to the ground. I dreamt I was trapped on a bus with you while it was snowing and you seemed unbelievably young. I dreamt of a room filled with lamps. I dreamt you kept taking my hand even though I didn’t want us to be seen together, and later you laid your head down on my knee. I dreamt I got stuck in a yellow locker but it occurred to me I could use my weight to tip it over and kick free so I did.
But when it works, it works well. There are times — too few of them, but they are there — when all three modes come together. The chapter on “Ode a Grecian Urn” is the best and most convincing in the book. Nersessian draws upon her progressive politics, her laser-focused attention to the language and images of the poem, and her own experience of sexual harassment in school. She tops it off with a scholar’s knowledge of mythology to make a distinctive and convincing argument that the ode is not about how “Beauty is truth, truth beauty”— it is about rape. Nersessian’s eye for dialectic sees that the poem is a dialogue between Keats, who is not a rapist, and the speaker of the poem, who is. She arrives at this conclusion because she believes that world history is moving in a particular direction, she has read the words often and carefully, and she has lived the particular life she has:
The speaker’s language has gotten ahead of him, saying much more than he means to say and knowing much more than he knows. This is the case with “unravished” and it is also true of “grieve” and “desolate,” decidedly unhappy words that point to the flipside of that Ovidian chase. The tragedy here is not that the girl never gets caught. It is the impossibly large tragedy of civilization itself, the long implacable history the speaker does not know he ought to lament…. [The poem] lives in unheard melodies—in the true and unconscionable meaning of loth and struggle and grieve and desolate, subtly weakening the speaker’s pretense that art means nothing but its own artistry, is utterly detached from the world whence its dark materials are drawn.
Keats was a political radical. He supported the revolutionaries in France and liberal workers’ causes at home in his own time. He spent his short poetic life struggling against bullying snobs who dismissed him as a “cockney poet.” But the best critics may be those who can separate Keats’s politics, poetry, and his personal life — and then appreciate how they interpenetrate each other. It remains to be seen if literary critics can do this while simultaneously bringing in their own politics, appreciation of poetic technique, and personal life. Keats’s Odes: A Lover’s Discourse doesn’t consistently rise to the challenge — but it’s a start on an exciting new approach to criticism.
Correction: The review, when first posted, inaccurately stated that this book was part of the Thinking Literature series of the University of Chicago Press, co-edited by Nersessian.
Allen Michie works in higher education administration in Austin, Texas. He has graduate degrees in English Literature from Oxford University and Emory University.