The Material Sublime and Theory of Mind in Coleridge and Keats

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This essay examines the cognitive underpinnings of affect circulation in the poetry of Coleridge and Keats, poets who sought to shape the reading experiences of their contemporary and future audiences. Both poets utilized the automaticity inherent in reading popular genres like the Gothic and Romance, as they immerse their readers in a flood of sensation. Yet, interruptions to the narrative flow complicate moments of composition and reading, ultimately highlighting a complex cognitive and affective work happening through passive reading. While such sensational forms of reading were often disparaged during the Romantic period, modern cognitive psychology shows these “passive” or “immersive” forms are actually complex in their affective work. By structurally regulating the sensory experience, controlling the affective overflow, and calling attention to the cognitive and cultural processes at work underneath the fiction, these authors ensure we will not be caught in a dream world for long without awaking more enlightened.

The Material Sublime and Theory of Mind in Coleridge and Keats

1.        Medical science and literature converged in eighteenth-century and early nineteenth-century debates over embodied reading experiences. For Romantic-era thinkers, reading was not simply an intellectual pursuit but a bodily exercise, and this belief has conflicting implications. The physiological element of reading facilitates an intimate connection between the bodies involved in acts of reading—those of the author, reader, and text. These newly understood levels of intimacy open possibilities for the transformative work of literature; however, the danger of such physiological connection is the ease with which a reader’s body and mind can be influenced. Immersive reading—getting lost in the affective throes of narrative—seems to include a loss of the thinking, reasoning self. Immersive reading perhaps even leaves the reader at the mercy of the text.

2.        In the Romantic era, the mind itself becomes increasingly embodied, located at the site of the brain instead of existing as an immaterial entity. [1]  Alan Richardson traces this line of thinking through theorists and scientists like Edmund Burke and Joseph Priestley to poets like Percy Bysshe Shelley and John Keats, demonstrating their belief that the mind is an organ subject to growth and expansion. In the same way one would build up a muscle through strategic use, the brain can be enlarged through a sort of “mental calisthenics” (Richardson 28). As Priestley explains in his 1777 lecture on the sublime, the mental organ dilates to “conceive a great object” (119). Romantic poets take up the responsibility for the growth of the reader’s mind, debating upon and experimenting with ways to engage their audience in effective mental exercises. Romantic-era poets such as William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge rated the novel as senseless entertainment meant for mindless consumption by a public whose sensibilities were dull and unrefined. In Book II of The Friend (1809), Coleridge writes: “The habit of receiving pleasure without any exertion of thought, by the mere excitement of curiosity and sensibility, may be justly ranked among the worst effects of habitual novel reading” (2:151). Coleridge goes on to say that absorption in the plot and sensory experience of the tale—taking pleasure from “mere excitement of curiosity and sensibility”—“dwarf[s]” cognitive capacity (2:151). According to Coleridge, passive reading (absorption without intellectual and imaginative contribution) inhibits the development of a reader’s brain. Here we see that passive or immersive reading fails to properly engage the brain in exercise. Instead of enlarging the organ, improper reading practices lead to brain atrophy. Wordsworth and Coleridge believed an epidemic of novel readers meant sensational stories sold best because these tales are what can excite the dulled sensibilities of dwarfed brains. How could literature perform transformative work on the psyche of a reader who was unable to sense and feel, to engage the affect of a text?

3.        While such popular genres were often disparaged, recent cognitive psychology shows these forms that encourage passive or immersive reading are actually complex in their affective work. A cognitive mechanism for “reading” social situations enables the passivity that Romantic writers feared. The immersed attitude of a passive reader can be attributed to the cognitive architecture humans evolved to navigate social environments. In Theory of Mind theory (ToM), cognitive psychologists point to ways we read people through their actions and behaviors, attributing emotion, motivation, and beliefs to them automatically. This seems obvious, but, in fact, connecting outward signs to inward states is an evolved skill. In Why We Read Fiction (2006), Lisa Zunshine writes that when we engage fiction using ToM, we do so in the same way we engage and contextualize social situations in the real world. As we read the actions and the dialogue of fictional characters, we ascribe complicated internal systems of memory, emotion, and motivation them. She explains:

[T]he cognitive mechanisms that evolved to process information about thoughts and feelings of human beings are constantly on the alert, checking out their environment for cues that fit their input conditions. On some level, then, works of fiction manage to “cheat” these mechanisms into “believing” that they are in the presence of material that they were “designed” to process, that is, that they are in the presence of agents endowed with a potential for a rich array of intentional stances. (10)
The ToM employed as we read a narrative works because our minds are cheated into the same kind of cognitive processing of fiction as they perform of social reality, a form of “neural recycling” explained by neuroscientist Stanislas Dehaene (7). [2] 

4.        To expand our understanding of the cognitive architecture at work as a reader employs ToM, let us consider recent revelations in cognitive linguistics. Key to the cognitive process of reading is the recruitment of the motor and sensory regions of the brain to make sense of and even replicate the affect in language. Noting recent experiments by Pulvermuller and his colleagues, Dehaene explains:

Some verbs such as “bite” or “kiss” evoked mouth movements, others hand actions (“write,” “throw”), and yet others actions performed by legs and feet (“kick,” “walk”). A remarkable fragmentation of meaning was observed: each of the verb types activated a distinct sector of the premotor cortex, at the location represented in the “motor homunculus,” or map of our body. Thus word meaning seems to be literally embodied in our brain networks. A string of letters only makes sense if it evokes, in a few hundred milliseconds, myriad features dispersed in the sensory, motor, and abstract brain maps for location, number, intention. (113)
The ease with which humans comprehend the written word (comprehension takes only a few hundred milliseconds) and how comprehension relies upon a translation through the body is truly striking, and Dehaene uses the analogy of a tidal bore to describe the rush of processing systems that engage in translating word on the pages into meaning (114).

5.        These findings seem to offer an anatomical basis for the fears held by eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century writers for the passive novel reader’s vulnerability should he be caught up in a dream world. Feeling the text on his body, a passive reader could easily forget the distinctions between fiction and reality. Given the effortlessness in translation of the literary to nonliterary signification, we know the reverse is equally probable: we mentally process actual events as if they were analogous to the virtual comings and goings of imagined characters. Indeed, this possibility inspires the anxiety surrounding literature’s influence on an unthinking readership. Zunshine elaborates this point:

It seems to me that our unease on this occasion stems from our intuitive realization that on some level our evolved cognitive architecture indeed does not fully distinguish between real and fictional people. Faced with Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy, our Theory of Mind jumps at the opportunity (so to speak) to speculate about their past, present, and future states of mind, even as we realize that these “airy forms [and] phantoms of imagination” do not deserve such treatment. (18–19)
If we are passive readers of fiction (especially irresponsibly written novels that present overwrought sentiment or sensational events), we allow the phantoms of imagination to infiltrate our everyday interactions. We see from Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey (1817), as it parodies the genre and its readers, how this is the perceived danger of reading too many Gothic novels.  

6.        Though historically we have ascribed a failure to distinguish between fiction and reality to the lost control over one’s rational mind, the most recent findings of cognitive psychology and cognitive anthropology find that the mind has evolved in ways that make the mental confluence of fiction and reality healthful. Zunshine examines how readers become aware of their cognitive processing in the reading experience. She concludes that the pleasure derived from reading fiction is satisfaction in recognizing our cognitive mastery of the material, our ability to operate ToM. Fiction is a space where we can experience an automatic (though advanced) activity of the mind, but the pleasure derived is from seeing ourselves being immersed, being automatic. [3]  Through narrative, our minds are allowed to both work and see themselves work. In this we are stunned and even made uncomfortable by how much of our cognition is inaccessible. Perhaps the inaccessibility is due to the automaticity with which our brains process information on the page or in our social worlds. As readers we hold two contrasting states of mind: we are performing a cognitive task automatically, and we are aware of that automaticity though we cannot fully untangle the neuronal pathways. We are not, then, entirely passive readers: we are aware of our own “passivity” on some level.

7.        In what follows, I will show how immersive, affective reading experiences of works by Coleridge and Keats facilitate the movement between the imagined and the real. Absorption in the text happens so readily that the cognitive work resembles the ease of social cognition in ToM. Yet, these Romantic writers utilize structural abnormalities to disrupt the immersion and call attention to the embodied cognitive process of immersive reading, thus encouraging the growth of the reader’s mind. By placing themselves at a site of cooperative reading with alongside their audience, Coleridge and Keats reaffirm the intimate connection between the bodies involved in acts of reading.

Immersive Reading and Material Sublimity

8.        Eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century writers saw the slippage between fiction and reality happening as reading habits changed with the proliferation of popular fiction. In response, Wordsworth sought to teach his readers how to maintain distance between the emotional and the rational. If Wordsworth’s mode is, as Keats said, the “egotistical sublime,” a defensive position that distances a reader from immediate sensation in order to maintain the integrity of the thinking self, Keats’s “material sublime” offers a counter-model to the Wordsworthian poet: the material sublime embraces the overflow of powerful emotion in the moments of aesthetic experience. The idea of the material sublime emerges in a poem to John Hamilton Reynolds (“To J.H. Reynolds, Esq.”), written on 25 March 1818 in the midst of Isabella’s composition:

O that our dreamings all, of sleep or wake,
Would all their colours from the sunset take,
From something of material sublime,
Rather than shadow our own soul’s daytime
In the dark void of night. (Keats l. 67–71)
Notably, this exaltation longs to join a passive openness to sensory input with the active play of the mind’s store. While the wish for a dreaming state may appear initially passive, the forceful action “take” stressed at the end of line 68 contrasts with the weaker feminine meter of the opposing verb “shadow.” Dreaming, whether in sleep or in a waking dream, is a joint act of sensual imprint and imaginative projection, while shadowing is a flat, colorless reiteration of the self, the shadow of “our own soul’s daytime.” And while a familiar daytime shadow may provide comfort in “the dark void of night,” Keats’s ideal poet relishes “uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason” (Letters II. 213). For Keats, a poet is capable of existing in negative space, the space of immersion and passivity, and, for him, this space fosters growth.

9.        Coleridge also advocates for sensory immersion, a radical openness to material (and textual) excess. For example, in “Kubla Khan,” (1816) the muse overtakes the poet while in an unconscious dream state. Here, Coleridge imagines himself as the vehicle for a larger message, a truth that differs in effect from Wordsworthian self-reflection in the egotistical sublime. Where the egotistical sublime positions the poet prominently as the interpreter and philosopher, always in control of the emotions and message being transferred, the Coleridgean poet dissolves into an ether of affect and impressions. The feelings and impressions cohere to form ideas. Rather than emerging from a disembodied mind, the body of the poet cannot be disentangled from the mind as together they translate meaning to the audience.

10.        This Coleridgean vision of the poet can be read as a model for Keats’s idea of the material sublime, and I argue that Keats uses this Coleridgean poet in his own Gothic Romance Isabella; or the Pot of Basil (1818). Coleridge establishes a poet figure both in the narrative itself and in the bibliographic material that frames and contextualizes the narrative. The poet of the narrative seems to have been overtaken by the material excess of sensation, but, importantly, Coleridge’s sensual excess in “Kubla Khan” results from the act of reading “Purchas’s Pilgrimage.” Like an immersed reader of narrative, the poet has invited the material and textual into his body and has consequently abdicated control to the text. The literary and the nonliterary become confused for the entranced poet/reader. Nevertheless, a sensually immersive poetic state is fraught with difficulties. The poet is an imperfect medium for the dream vision because of his existence in the modern world. At any moment, he may be woken from his trance state into his conscious reality. With a knock at the door, Coleridge is brought back to a self-consciousness where the cogito resumes control over sensory experience and the boundaries between self and outside, the literary and the nonliterary, are reasserted. Yet, Coleridge’s waking is a narrative structure, designed to both allow and disallow the analogous slippage between fiction and reality. Immersive reading engages the reader in the affective ecology of the text: the reader feels as if she is participating in the narrative, experiencing the movement and the emotion through ToM. By reasserting the authorial voice, in a seeming Wordsworthian move, Coleridge calls attention to the cognitive processes and the narrative devices that have allowed for the immersive experience in the first place.

11.         “Kubla Khan” immerses its reader in a sublimity of movement and sensation, until, like the poet himself, she awakes to remember that this is a constructed experience. “Kubla Khan” seeks a balance between sensation and sensibility by creating a safe space for the free movement of affect within the poem or dream and then calling attention to this designed space of immersive reading. The movement through Coleridge’s poem takes the reader down the river Arve, deeper and deeper into the dream space until we reach a vision of a poet at the center of a chasm—his “flashing eyes” and “floating hair” suggest an otherworldly trance. He is caught up in the sublimity of ice caves, geysers, incense, and ancient forests. The reader and dreamer alike are smothered in sensual imagery, absorbed in the sexual arc of the narrative, until the poem reaches a climactic threat of eruption. Here, the speaker halts the narrative action. Outside of the narrative and its sensual excess, the speaker shifts his focus from the sublime scene he was transcribing to a desire to build his own sunny domes in air. This is canonically read as a desire to compose his own poetry. However, the speaker doesn’t compose his own fantasy tale at this point, but rather speculates on the audience’s reaction to his poetic process: “And all who heard should see them there, /And all should cry, Beware! Beware!” (48–49). The repeated exclamation, “Beware! Beware!” and the repetition of “And all” indicate the poet’s anxiety over how he will be received. He will be misunderstood by all who encounter his poem. The audience will believe he has lost control not only over his poem but also over himself. These repeated phrases, just like the circles to be woven round him, contain the poet like a straight-jacket, wrapping him up for the safety of himself and his readers. This is the danger inherent in being immersed in aesthetic experience: losing control in an automaticity of emotions (flashing eyes) and body (floating hair).

12.        As a way of containing the space for immersive reading, Coleridge imposes multiple circles of context for the poem’s composition. These circles spread outward from the visionary poet of the narrative to form multiple levels of authorship. Closest to the vision, of course, is the speaker of the poem, presumably the sleeping Coleridge, though his identity is only established in the prefatory note. In fact, the speaker is only given a first-person pronoun at the end of the fragment when he steps outside of the narrative motion and action to reflect: “A damsel with a dulcimer / In a vision once I saw” (37–38). The sudden appearance of a first-person speaker calls attention to the poem as a material object, constructed by an author, and the invisible cognitive processes involved in this act of reading are brought to the surface of the text for inspection. The reader is confronted with her own act of reading and the fact of her subconscious immersion in the poem’s atmosphere up to this point. Absorbed in the sensual immediacy and the movement of the poem, the reader does not realize the poem is composed in tranquility, as a recollection. The poem seems to have been composed organically, in real time, as the reader (and speaker of the poem) travels along the Arve. However, outside of the text itself, we see that the woken poet Coleridge writes from a future time of reflection upon his interrupted dream state. He attempts (but fails) to recall the complete poem that was composed in full during his dream. The poem is a constructed space, and its multiple layers of authorship further complicate its history. In a prefatory note titled “Of the Fragment of Kubla Khan,” Coleridge attributes his subject matter to falling asleep while reading about Kubla Khan’s palace and gardens in “Purchas’s Pilgrimage,” thus adding another layer of authorship to this synthetic dream production. Finally, outside of the author and his source tale, we get a second poet called upon to validate the worth of this fragment. Lord Byron, “a poet of great and deserved celebrity,” and his publisher John Murray are named as patrons of “Kubla Khan.” [4] 

13.        Coleridge’s imposition of these multiple layers of authorship attempts to control the reception of his poem, to ensure the narrative gets understood in a particular way that protects the poet and his unconventional model of composition from scrutiny. He showcases a model that counters the imperatives to rationality and composure characteristic of post-Enlightenment culture. The abandon modeled in Coleridge’s dream vision goes against the reigning model of poetry, exemplified by Wordsworth. The levels of authority that encircle the poet figure in “Kubla Khan” depict a poet actively engaging a literary tradition through reading Purchas and associating with Byron. In this way, Coleridge offloads responsibility for the poem to his environment and his friends. However, these protective layers do more than preempt critique. The layers of context impose boundaries for the reading experience: they establish a socially (and professionally) acceptable environment where sensation can enjoy a free play of sorts. The poet is entranced for the composition of the poem, and thus without the direction of his conscious mind. He is a reader, engaging in the same sort of absorption in a text as his own readers do. He, too, finds himself immersed in seductive tales that take him out of reality. Though he criticizes passive reading in The Friend and elsewhere, here Coleridge embraces the affective and cognitive openness that is characteristic of reading a sensual and sensational text. In Coleridge’s model, the poet’s body takes precedence over the mind. However, Coleridge imposes a balance between sensation and sensibility by creating a space for the free movement of affect within the poem or dream and by calling attention to this constructed space of immersive reading. By halting the forward movement of the poem and imposing structures to contextualize the composition of “Kubla Khan” as a history of reading, Coleridge ensures that his audience recognizes the cognitive mechanisms at work. By creating this revelatory moment for his reader, Coleridge anticipates Zunshine’s take on ToM, as the pleasure of mind-reading is being able to see yourself perform the task. Coleridge’s poem facilitates sensual absorption for its readers, rather than disallowing a phenomenological experience of the fiction as Wordsworth’s egotistical sublime does. In fact, the prefatory note to “Kubla Khan” mourns the failure of the poet to transcribe the poem in full. He regrets the interruption of his literary space by a nonliterary reality, but, in replicating this interruption for his readers, Coleridge forces them to evaluate the way their bodies and minds have been at work and learn from it, as he shows he has done himself.

Digressing from Boccaccio

14.        In Isabella; or the Pot of Basil, Keats positions himself as a self-conscious translator of Boccaccio, becoming the vehicle for another’s transformative aesthetic experience. Keats’s careful attention to this task peeks through the text as he digresses from the narrative to offer apologies for the liberties he takes with his source tale. Begging the forgiveness of Boccaccio and lamenting the disappearance of the Old Romance tradition Boccaccio comes to represent, these interruptions of the tale have often been described as evidence of his youth and immaturity as a poet. [5]  Rather, these authorial interludes have a deliberate function, serving to position Keats himself as a reader alongside the readers of genres like Romance and the Gothic, en masse. Keats’s many interruptions call attention to genre conventions of the grotesque and indecorous by stepping outside of the text at the moments where sensation verges on the sensational. Keats transports the reader out of the text when the narrative becomes most gripping and unveils the invisible cognitive mechanisms that allow for absorption in the narrative. Ostensibly censoring the text, Keats adopts a seemingly Wordsworthian mode with his interruptions. He stops the forward movement of the narrative and extricates the reader from their absorption in the text, transporting him or her back to the present moment and encouraging a more reflective reading experience. Arguably, Keats regulates the circulation of affect by reasserting the boundary between the literary and nonliterary. The interruptions ensure the reader acknowledges the text is fictional and confined to the space of the page. Like the frames of “Kubla Khan,” the structural abnormalities of this rendering of Boccaccio’s Decameron (c. 1353) show the poet as a reader himself and give the tale a specific history as a reincarnation. They point to a larger literary tradition of Old Romance that precedes and transcends the historical specificity of Boccaccio. [6]  Moreover, the digressions implicate Keats in the very sentimentalism he calls out in the genres of Romance and the Gothic. However, this self-implication opens channels of sympathy between the author and reader, and, through his digressions, Keats establishes Isabella as a joint act of reading a popular form.

15.         Among Keats’s first interjections is an apologetic interlude to Boccaccio in which the poet reflects upon the contrast of his own Gothic framing of the tale with the tradition of Old Romance. Here, he first calls the reader’s attention to the text as a constructed space with a history preceding its current iteration:

O eloquent and famed Boccaccio!
Of thee we now should ask forgiving boon,
And of thy spicy myrtles as they blow,
And of thy roses amorous of the moon,
And of thy lilies, that do paler grow
Now they can no more hear thy ghittern’s tune,
For venturing syllables that ill beseem
The quiet glooms of such a piteous theme.
Grant thou a pardon here, and then the tale
Shall move on soberly, as it is meet;
There is no other crime, no mad assail
To make old prose in modern rhyme more sweet:
But it is done—succeed the verse or fail—
To honour thee, and thy gone spirit greet;
To stead thee as a verse in English tongue,
An echo of thee in the north-wind sung. (Keats 145–60)
Keats asks forgiveness of Boccaccio and mourns the passing away of Boccaccio’s Italy, the edenic surroundings that first inspired and then listened dutifully to his song. Flattering the author in a move that reads like the epic convention of invoking his muse, Keats declares he is not making the original tale “more sweet,” but rather honoring and preserving the writer and his legacy. Indeed, he wishes to “greet” the “gone spirit” through his own song, thus imagining a social introduction to the author. Yet, he fears he has overstepped the social and literary decorum required of his task. By setting up this pastoral context for the source tale, Keats implies the unnaturalness of his sensational additions to the original. The Gothic “glooms” portrayed in Keats’s version of the tale are far from “quiet,” and being so are seemingly ill-suited for a representation of Boccaccio’s theme.

16.        Despite acknowledging his failed decorum, Keats makes significant changes to the source tale in order to adapt it for his own context. These adaptations, in turn, call attention to the social nature of cognition and the inherent co-creation of the narrative as the reader’s own minds translates the text to create meaning. If we look back to the main clause of the stanza, we see the poet uses the plural pronoun “we” instead of taking sole responsibility for any wrongs committed. Like the first-person “I” used by Coleridge to halt forward movement down the River Arve, Keats’s “we” presents an immediacy that transports the reader outside of the narrative flow and into a reflective position alongside the poet. No longer is the reader feeling the sensual excess of former passages when the lovers pine over each other to the point of physical sickness or when the lovers meet under the perfume and musk of the hyacinth bower. Together, reader and poet are thinking about the poem as a written text with a history of composition. “We” are aware of the sensual excesses already experienced (those for which the text is currently apologizing), and we may even be prepared to spot further co-opting of our senses and bodies in future passages. A sense of shared responsibility is important as we come to understand the power of reading in shaping the intellectual and moral life of a populace. Keats’s revisions introduce some of the most atrocious historical misdeeds that have made Boccaccio’s song, and all it represents of the idyllic in nature and culture, something long forgotten in nineteenth-century England. From the “we,” the reader begins to see their own responsibility alongside that of the author. Indeed, an author’s responsibility to his or her readership extends beyond the development of an individual reader’s sensibilities as the individual reader can now recognize the atrocities of their contemporary moment and act in response.

17.        Keats’s emphasis on institutionalized capitalism is a wholly new addition to the original tale. The brothers’ exploits have long intrigued Romantic scholars: their abrupt entrance into the poem and the consequent tonal shift from sentimental romance to bitter critique draw much attention. [7]  Though mysterious in nature, the brothers’ moneymaking schemes are violent and dehumanizing:

And for them many a weary hand did swelt
In torchèd mines and noisy factories,
And many once proud-quivered loins did melt
In blood from stinging whip—with hollow eyes
Many all day in dazzling river stood,
To take the rich-ored driftings of the flood.
For them the Ceylon diver held his breath,
And went all naked to the hungry shark;
For them his ears gushed blood (Keats 107–15)
Isabella’s brothers fragment their workers into functional parts, and such objectification figures synecdochically in the poem: the employees are represented as little more than hands, ears, eyes, and loins. As their employers perceive them, the workers’ body parts make up the industrial machine. The famous “Why were they proud?” interjection (Stanza XVI) follows this series of modern tortures and introduces a nineteenth-century critique of the socio-economic system these brothers represent. Keats continues his list of the brother’s wrongs, punctuating it with the repeated question, “Why were they proud?” There is no answer from Boccaccio, nor is there any anticipated answer from his modern reader. The atrocities multiply and the momentum builds, but Keats breaks the stanza’s rhythm with another grasp at communal identity. He cries, “and again we ask aloud, / Why in the name of Glory were they proud?” (128, my emphasis). This interjection performs two critical tasks. Like the apologetic digression, this passage, and Keats’s use of the plural pronoun in particular, suggests that the author and reader together object to the liberties taken with the source tale. Traveling the narrative together and then stepping outside of the fiction to examine it at work, the author and reader critique the way emotion has gotten the better of them. Their decorum has devolved into disgust and outrage. The second and more important task this interjection performs is to show that the author and reader alike object to the abuse of a corrupt socio-economic system. Though “we” are responsible for the loss of Boccaccio’s pastoral paradise, “we” are equally able to recognize the horrors of our modern moment.

18.        Keats has inserted a bold critique of the modern setting that informs his own tale, and returning to the apologetic stanzas XIX and XX, we must note the self-consciousness of “succeed the verse or fail,” in light of this audacious revision. Conspicuously set off from the main clause with dashes and located in the middle of Stanza XX, this aside is reminiscent of Coleridge’s self-conscious speaker, who anticipates his own reception at the end of “Kubla Khan.” But Keats’s audience is as multi-faceted as his layers of authorship. The address to Boccaccio contextualizes his anxiety as a fear of failing the master or muse; however, “succeed . . . or fail” implies the pressure of Keats’s contemporary literary market as well. This poem is widely held to be inspired by Hazlitt’s lecture on 3 February 1818, in which he declared that a rewriting of The Decameron “could not fail to succeed in the present day” (Hazlitt qtd. in Heinzelman 168). Moreover, Keats hails this poem as his “new Romance,” following from Endymion 1818), which he hastily shrugs off as a “feverish attempt, rather than a deed accomplished.” Penned the month before he began Isabella, the “Preface” to Endymioncharacterizes the epic as a “failure.” Thus, Keats’s digression here in Isabella registers fear that resurrecting the past for the present literary market will fail as he believes his most recent publication to have done. He fears for its success in the modern market because the grotesque and titillating are what sell. Popular texts sell because of their ability to provide mindless entertainment. As noted above, texts like gothic novels and sensational romances encourage a passive reading posture without interrupting it to improve the condition of the modern mind or the modern society more generally. In navigating the practical need for success in the modern literary market, Keats plays at a balancing act where he must at once titillate and educate. He must weigh the moments where the slippage between fiction and reality is productive, as when it teaches us to recognize corruption and abuse of power, against the moments when the slippage makes the passive reader vulnerable to that corruption and abuse. This seems a crucial threshold to the reading (and writing) experience being created in Isabella.

Sentimentality, Sensationalism, and the Return of Sensibility

19.        Lorenzo’s ghost serves as the most halting interruption of Keats’s poem. Like the poetic digressions themselves, Lorenzo’s ghost disrupts and unweaves the fiction Isabella’s brothers perpetuate, calling attention to the mechanisms underneath their lies. When Lorenzo’s ghost visits Isabella, he is described in terms similar to Coleridge’s Mariner. His bright eyes and strange voice captivate. Like the poet from “Kubla Khan,” Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner is a vehicle for a prophetic message. Doomed to wander the margins of society alone, he is distanced from humanity and forced to propagate his tale. He is entranced and entrancing. The Mariner circulates his narrative by holding his audience with a hypnotic eye, compelling the audience to listen until the tale is complete. [8]  Lorenzo’s eyes, too, are “wild,” and he is “upon the skirts of human-nature dwelling” (Isabella 289, 306). He “chant[s] alone the holy mass,” cut off from community but obeying a higher power’s demands to pay heed to truth. And like the Ancient Mariner, Lorenzo’s act of storytelling leaves his auditor “a sadder and a wiser” person for having heard the tale (Rime 625). Describing the ghost’s strange voice, Keats writes it was like a “palsied Druid’s harp unstrung,” and his tale “did unthread the horrid woof / Of the late darken’d time” (Isabella 286, 292–93). The negating prefix in each of these lines suggests the work Lorenzo’s tale performs: it repeals the magic of Old Romance and uncovers a disturbing reality.

20.        As in Coleridge’s Rime, what is most compelling in the scene with Lorenzo’s ghost is not the message itself, but rather the pattern of transference, how the tale moves between the bodies engaged in its telling and its transformative effect after the moment of its telling. Most interesting is the way both the Mariner and Lorenzo’s ghost interrupt and disrupt. In Isabella and Rime, the integrity of the tale itself doesn’t seem to be fragile; rather, the moment of its transference is endangered. If we look again to Coleridge’s bibliographic layers, he seems almost as anxious as Wordsworth, with his controlling authorial hand in the egotistical sublime, to ensure the tale itself be received in a certain way. Coleridge’s marginal glosses added to the poem in 1817 seek to direct the interpretation of his poem and add a moral and philosophical explanation for the otherworldly, mythological events of the Mariner’s tale. Yet, these marginal glosses occur outside of the act of storytelling within the poem. These glosses are not aides for the wedding guest’s lesson, but rather for a modern audience’s understanding of the tale itself (as it has been translated by the speaker who witnesses its transmission in one particular instance), the moral imperative to circulate the tale, and its circulation within the text. The glosses and the reception anxiety they imply, then, suggest that the tale’s meaning is very much constructed in the moment of transfer from writer to reader. Success and failure are not determined by the soundness of the text itself or even the poet’s maturity and talent. Rather, they are measurements of the co-creation that happens in acts of reading, when the reader’s brain meets the words on the pages and writer and reader work together in the space of the text (and even beyond) to create meaning. Indeed, the anxiety represented in “Kubla Khan” and Rime studied together suggests that the very composition of the poem actually takes place at its moment of translation from the written word through the reader’s neural processing as a cerebral tidal bore (Dehaene 114). When the poet is distracted from the transcription of his vision, the composition fails, and its communication will always be incomplete. If we can say that composition fails here, then for Rime, a poem in which the anxiety is ostensibly located after the point of composition in the moment of the tale’s circulation, we might conclude that the tale is complete from the very beginning, that it comes to the poet and the reader and the text at the same moment—that it pre-exists what would traditionally be called its composition, the moment pen hits the page.

21.        Like the stories circulated by the Ancient Mariner and Lorenzo’s ghost, the act of reading, for Keats, stages an uncanny re-emergence of thoughts repressed, hidden, and seemingly lost. Keats writes in an 1818 letter to his publisher John Taylor, “Poetry should surprise by a fine excess and not by Singularity—it should strike the Reader as a wording of his own highest thoughts, and appear almost a Remembrance” (Letters I. 238). Poetry should seem an extension or an uncovering of the reader’s own thoughts. This formula imagines poetry as a form of simulation rather than an actual transmission of the author’s thoughts in the reader’s own mind. Reading, therefore, acts as an elusive sleight of hand working in such a way that the text seems at once to convey both the writer’s and reader’s thoughts. This letter also positions reading as an experience of recovery of high thoughts forgotten. The thoughts are like the reader’s, though they seem to have been lost in the cobwebbed corners of the mind. With this brief formula in mind, reading for Keats seems necessarily a gothic experience, an uncanny re-emergence of thoughts always already in existence. They are at once of the reader and not of the reader, unfamiliar but coming upon Isabella and the wedding guest in a surprising excess of strange familiarity. These thoughts disrupt both the narrative and the everyday life of the characters. They prevent the wedding guest from attending the ceremony. They teach their readers or listeners a nightmarish truth. They call attention to the cognitive mechanisms under which the reader has been operating, the state of sleepwalking in which the reader has existed and can no longer exist. To see how this plays out in Keats’s Gothic Romance, let us turn to the most sensational moment in the poem.

22.        Laboring for three hours with a nurse by her side, Isabella appears to be a woman giving birth, a point that would not have been lost on Keats, the trained physician. Moreover, Isabella carefully tends the basil plant as though it is her child. Having exhumed his body, she decapitates Lorenzo. She carries his head home, combs its hair, straightens its eyelashes, and wraps it in a perfumed silk scarf, all the while kissing it and crying over it. Finally, Isabella entombs the head in a garden pot and plants basil over top of it. All day and night, she tends the plant with a “continual shower” of tears “from her dead eyes” (452-53). Isabella’s tears fertilize Lorenzo’s head, and, from this, the two lovers (re)produce a lush plant. While understanding this as a symbolic childbirth is compelling and valuable, Isabella’s exhumation of Lorenzo’s body can also be understood as an act of reading and writing. Isabella fills the old skull and dead bones with life to resurrect their old romance. Keats interrupts her labor at the grave with a rhetorical question for all readers of Romance:

Who hath not loiter’d in a green church-yard,
And let his spirit, like a demon-mole,
Work through the clayey soil and gravel hard,
To see scull, coffin’d bones, and funeral stole;
Pitying each form that hungry Death hath marr’d,
And filling it once more with human soul?
Ah! this is holiday to what was felt
When Isabella by Lorenzo knelt. (353–60)
Reading Gothic Romance (or even reading tombstones in an actual churchyard) is here figured as resurrection from the grave. A reader revitalizes the corpse with his imagination. Sending forth his spirit to dig through clayey soil and gravel hard, the reader immerses himself in the material sublime of the grave. He uncovers the emptied body of a text to fill it again with imagined life. He joins the negative with capability, marries sensation and memory.

23.        As she cries over the pot, the basil thrives. Her emotional response to Lorenzo’s murder is all-consuming and self-destructive. Indeed, crying over the relic of her dead lover is the most sentimental and overwrought image in the entire poem. She is so overwhelmed with her sentiment that she becomes insensible to her surroundings. Keats records how Isabella “forgot the stars, the moon, and sun, / And she forgot the dells where waters run, / And she forgot the chilly autumn breeze” (417–19). She has no awareness of life outside of her replacement romance. She is out of sync with nature, having “no knowledge when the day was done,” and not knowing when the new day began (421). Having lost herself in a flood of emotion, Isabella is vulnerable to the outside disruption. But, why does the plant, which represents a co-creation of meaning like poetry itself, flourish in the midst of her excess sentimentality? Can we critique this scene’s mawkishness given that the plant thrives? Or to bring this line of inquiry back to ToM and seeing our cognition laid bare, is absorption in the affective excess actually dangerous if the immersive reading allows for growth?

24.        Perhaps the most famous of Keats’s interjections occurs at Lorenzo’s graveside. Keats halts the narrative during the disentombment to justify his obsessive attention to the grotesque scene. He exclaims, “Ah! wherefore all this wormy circumstance? / Why linger at the yawning tomb so long? / O for the gentleness of old Romance, / The simple plaining of a minstrel’s song!” (385–88). Once again, this digression anticipates his audience’s objection to overt sensationalism. Importantly, the audience he anticipates here must be a literary one, for a reader of modern romance would not likely question these common conventions of popular gothic narratives. Yet this digression serves a dual purpose in calling attention to the sensationalism for the common reader’s benefit and justifying his choices to a skeptical literary peer. With his predictable nostalgia, Keats waxes upon the traditional form of Old Romance that modern society has ravaged. But a closer examination shows that this passage goes beyond mere lament. Old Romance is the simple plaining of a minstrel’s song. The word “simple” here echoes the “simple misery” that was Isabella’s lovesickness before learning of Lorenzo’s murder (Isabella 330). The pleasure of Old Romance is like a passive reading experience in which the reader is absorbed, lost in the automaticity of the affect. Keats criticizes those simple reading experiences that engage sensory immersion without the interruption, without halting the forward movement of narrative to show the mechanisms at work underneath the fiction. If then simple misery is all sensation and sentiment without sensibility, Keats’s digressions offer the necessary space for sensibility to return.

25.        Awaking the morning after her vision, Isabella gives her only speech in the entire poem:  

“Ha! ha!” said she, “I knew not this hard life,
I thought the worst was simple misery;
I thought some Fate with pleasure or with strife
Portioned us—happy days, or else to die;
But there is crime—a brother’s bloody knife!
Sweet Spirit, thou hast schooled my infancy.” (Keats 329–34)
Here, Lorenzo’s ghost has called Isabella out of her absorption in their romance to educate her in the reality of the world’s corruption. Until now, she naively believed “misery”—the term used for their lovesickness earlier in the poem—to be the worst experience in life, but, learning of Lorenzo’s murder, she understands there is crime, betrayal, and, worse yet, having to live on after waking to this knowledge. “New romance,” then, takes on a particular meaning; more than just a fresh start for Keats after Endymion, it is reinventing the way tales are told and read. The richness of new romance, narrative synthesized with reality, engenders a reading experience that moves us beyond the immaturity of Old Romance to arrive at a state of awareness that can inspire action and change (Keats, Isabella 391).


26.        Despite their maligned reputation in the cultural debates of the Romantic era, passive reading postures require complex cognitive and affective work. In a matter of a few hundred milliseconds, the human brain translates the written word into bodily meaning, producing a physiological intimacy between bodies involved in acts reading. Through a material sublime of instantaneous cognitive translation, narrative is brought to affective life and the text is co-created by poet and reader. Both Coleridge and Keats utilized the automaticity inherent in reading popular genres like the Gothic and Romance, as they immerse themselves and their readers in a flood of sensation. And yet, interruptions to the narrative flow complicate moments of composition and reading, ultimately highlighting the complex cognitive and affective work of passive reading. By structurally regulating the sensory experience, controlling the affective overflow, and calling attention to the cognitive and cultural processes at work underneath the fiction, these authors ensure we will not be caught in a dream world for long without awaking more enlightened.

Works Cited

Cox, Jeffrey N. Romanticism in the Shadow of War. Cambridge UP, 2014.

Crisman, William. “Industrialism and the Fate of Personal Distance in Keats’s ‘Isabella’ and ‘Lamia.’” European Romantic Review, vol. 4, no. 2, 1994, pp. 113–32.

Dehaene, Stanislas. Reading in the Brain: The Science and Evolution of a Human Invention. Viking, 2009.

Everest, Kelvin. “Isabella in the Market-place: Keats and Feminism.” Keats and History, edited by Nicholas Roe, Cambridge UP, 1995, pp. 107–26.

Fermanis, Porscha. “Isabella, Lamia, and ‘Merry Old England.’” Essays in Criticism, vol. 56, no. 2, 2006, pp. 139–62.

Heinzelman, Kurt. “Self-Interest and the Politics of Composition in Keats's Isabella.” ELH, vol. 55, no. 1, 1988, pp. 159–93.

Hernadi, Paul. “Literature and Evolution.” SubStance: A Review of Theory and Literary Criticism, vol. 30, no. 1-2, 2001, pp. 55–71. 

Holmes, Richard. Coleridge: Early Visions, 1772–1804. Pantheon, 1989.

Richardson, Alan. The Neural Sublime: Cognitive Theories and Romantic Texts. John Hopkins UP, 2010.

Ridley, Maurice R. Keats’s Craftsmanship: A Study in Poetic Development. U of Nebraska P, 2000.

Stillinger, Jack. “Keats and Romance: The ‘Reality’ of Isabella.” The Hoodwinking of Madeline and Other Essays on Keats Poems, U of Illinois P, 1971, pp. 31–46.

Watkins, Daniel P. “Personal Life and Social Authority in Keats’s Isabella.” Nineteenth-Century Contexts, vol. 11, no.1, 1987, pp. 33–49.

Wolfson, Susan. “Keats’s Isabella and the ‘Digressions’ of ‘Romance.’” Criticism: A Quarterly for Literature and the Arts, vol. 27, no. 3, 1985, pp. 247–61.

Wood, Nigel. “Keats’s ‘Smokeable’ Narratives: Isabella and the Eve of St. Agnes.” Proc.of.Eng. Assn.North, vol. 2, 1986, pp. 90–102.


[1] Many early eighteenth-century medical texts sought to prove the immateriality of the soul. For instance, Thomas Branch’s Thoughts on Dreaming (1738) explores dreaming as proof that the soul exists as a “separate state” from the body (2). Likewise, Walter Charlton’s A Natural History of the Passions (1701) distinguishes between the Rational and the Sensitive souls, both of which can influence the body, though “made of substance purely spiritual” (8). However, Andrew Fyfe writes A System of Anatomy and Physiology in 1795 in which he compiles medical research and claims that the soul must be in the head alone, not descending into the spinal marrow (67-68). BACK

[2] Dehaene explains that the brain has no specific hardware solely evolved to reading, but rather the human brain’s neural architecture recycles existing pathways in order to create the meaning of words on the page (7). BACK

[3] Similarly, Richardson identifies a phenomenon in the Romantic era that he calls the “neural sublime.” In moments of disruption, the subject is “not marveling at the power of Reason [as with the Kantian sublime] but rather stunned by the capacity and complexity of the human brain” (Richardson 29). BACK

[4] Richard Holmes explains that “Kubla Khan,” though written in 1797, was not published until 1816, when it appeared alongside Christabel and The Pains of Sleep, at the behest of Lord Byron. Coleridge had recited the poem one morning while visiting Byron in Piccadilly (426). BACK

[5] Kurt Heinzelman explains Keats’s sustained attempt at translation with Isabella, that the poet deemed his attempt a failure, and how historically critics have agreed with Keats’s own assessment. Along these lines, see also Ridley 56. Nigel Wood (reads Keats as a “most self-conscious narrative poet;” however, he calls Isabella’s romance narrative apparatus “unsavory by design,” ultimately defending the seeming immaturity as a “calculated narrative tactic” (90). Susan Wolfson argues that scholars should consider digressions more seriously, that “these suspensions of story-telling are not displays of humorous narrative incompetence” (249). BACK

[6] In his seminal study of the poem, “Keats and Romance: The ‘Reality’ of Isabella,” Jack Stillinger reads the digressions as Keats’s attempt to modernize the genre of Old Romance with the addition of realism, noting the tension within the poem between Keats’s translation and the original tale. Objecting to the way Stillinger reads the text as “divided against itself,” Susan Wolfson proposes an interpretation that “sees Keats taking advantage of his ambivalence [to the values of ‘old Romance’] to devise a genre of tale-telling whose designs are both narrative and deconstructive” (“Keats’s ‘Isabella’ and the 'Digressions' of 'Romance'"). For Wolfson, creating an immersive reading experience and interrogating the structure of that experience are not necessarily competing objectives within the poem. She writes, “Keats is concerned . . . to reform the way we read romance, even as he entertains us with a romance of sorts” (251). My own interpretation can reconcile Stillinger and Wolfson, as I see the realism in Keats’s revisions working to disrupt the reader’s experience of the sensational narrative. BACK

[7] See Heinzelman; Everest; and Watkins. BACK

[8] Importantly, the Mariner interrupts a love story to convey his truth. His audience is a wedding guest who is wrenched out of his own narrative trajectory, walking to the chapel. BACK