Richard Marggraf Turley, Keats's Boyish Imagination

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Richard Marggraf Turley, Keats’s Boyish Imagination. Routledge, 2004. Xiv + 158pp. $145.00 (Hdbk; 0-415-28882-7)

Reviewed by
Jonathan Mulrooney
College of the Holy Cross

A concern with “maturity”—psychological, social, poetic—has informed critical discussions of Keats more than those of any other English poet. For much of the twentieth century, the concern was framed biographically: how is it that one so young could have developed so quickly? In 1988, Marjorie Levinson’s shattering Keats’s Life of Allegory: The Origins of a Style turned that question upon itself, claiming that profound cultural dispossession rather than transcendent formal mastery constituted the most radical element of Keats’s poetry. Measuring as it does the psychological (if not the psychoanalytic) valences of the poet’s verses, Levinson’s study continues to serve as a salutary counter to the historicisms that have illuminated Keats studies over the last three decades. As the social and material conditions within which the poems were produced and circulated have been recovered, we have recognized a serious political dimension to Keats’s aesthetic project. Yet Keats’s Life of Allegory reminds us that the formal standards by which we came to value Keats’s lyric form—and the lyric persona they enact—have not, even by virtue of Levinson’s inversion of them, been discarded. In short, Keats’s formal achievement endures in a way that historicism cannot entirely explain. We might reframe my opening question: how is it that an historically informed criticism might attend to matters such as stylistic and psychological “development” without embracing once again an exhausted Romantic ideology?

Scholars such as Robert Kauffman and Jacques Khalip have in different ways responded to this dilemma by exploring how Keats’s formal imaginings represent and enact a “negatively capable” poetics. For Khalip especially, Keats eschews the idea of development—subjective or historical—in favor of a lyric persona posited rhetorically around the rejection of self mastery. By contrast, Richard Marggraf Turley’s provocative and engaging study Keats’s Boyish Imagination extends Levinson’s critique in the other direction, taking development as its central interpretive concept. Rather than imagining a lyricism whose experiential engagements resist the concept of the progressive self, allowing no settled identity to cohere, Turley’s Keats performatively disrupts his maturation at particular points of incompletion. In the book’s five thematically focused chapters, Turley gives us a Keats who employs a “deliberate use of immaturity” (2) as a “potent weapon against conservative ideology” (7). Performed immaturity thus becomes the primary political strategy of Keatsian poetics, the constitutive action of what Keats called “the Poetical character.” Providing fresh and imaginative readings of poems ranging from the little considered Calidore to the canonical “To Autumn,” Turley’s meticulous attention to the poems’ language yields remarkable insight into how the Keatsian lyric responded to the vicissitudes of its historical moment.

At its best, the book argues convincingly for the indispensability of “boyishness” to understanding Keats’s representations of poetic authority. Turley’s cogent introduction makes the case concisely, taking the late Cap and Bells not as a descent from Keats’s mature greatness but rather as the culmination of an “unapologetic involvement in the forms and language of childhood” (7). That involvement registers throughout Keats’s career, as the poet’s anxiety about reception manifests itself through a procession of “unstable signs” which threaten normative representations of physical and social maturity (37). Often these signs are fetishized body parts denoting the qualities Keats most lacks: in Chapter One feet substitute for the absent phallus of manly authority, in Chapter Three the larynx produces the broken voice of adolescent boyhood, in Chapter Five clinically describable but socially unimaginable “c—nts” haunt the poet’s every mention of women. The book’s first chapter, “‘Strange longings’: Keats and feet” illustrates both the strength (suggestive interpretations based on keen close reading) and weakness (a narrowing of critical vision) of this thematic approach. As Turley states explicitly to open the chapter, he is primarily interested in feet “found on the end of legs, not the metrical variety” (11). The argument then develops along conventional Freudian lines: the “phallic anxiety and genital aversion” (20) marked by the poems’ “foot episodes” destabilizes conventional early nineteenth-century notions of sexuality, manliness, and authority—offering instead “a ‘boyish’ erotics that is voyeuristic, fetishistic, and deferred” (13). In Endymion and The Fall of Hyperion, a fascination with feminine feet—Diana’s and Moneta’s, respectively—sublimates the poet’s castration anxieties. Turley’s treatment of Diana’s first descent is exemplary: Keats offers us “her hovering feet, / More bluely vein’d, more soft, more whitely sweet / Than those of sea-born Venus” (Endymion 1.624-6), even as (in Turley’s words) “the Latmian shepherd boy quite literally looks up the skirt of a goddess” (15). Feet, then, stand in for that which Keats most desires and that which he cannot name or possess. In the later epic, Moneta’s status as a “phallic mother” (Turley 24) occasions a similar podiatric veneration: “‘Shade of Memory!’/ Cried I, with an act adorant at her feet” (The Fall of Hyperion 1.282-3). Revealing all too much of herself to the poet as she “casts aside her maternal veils” (Turley 24), Moneta forces the boyish poet to again “retreat into the fetish” (24). For Turley, though, this retreat is not simply a childish flight, but the representation of a “libidinal economy” in which boyishness takes on real poetic currency (20).

As throughout the book, Turley supports his claims about these scenes with detailed attention to the poems’ language. He seizes cannily, for example, on Keats’s use of the word “sweet” to describe Diana’s feet—vis-à-vis the invocation of Venus’s salty limbs (she having just emerged from the sea)—as an instance of the “preoccupation with orality” accompanying Keats’s sensuality (17). Here we see bodiliness, speech, and poetic craft come together in a vividly Keatsian way. Yet the relentless focus that energizes this kind of reading at times obscures evidence that might complicate the book’s exacting psychoanalytic agenda. Feminine feet and their association with the absent phallus invoke Keats’s authorial anxieties: fair enough. But how, then, can the chapter entirely overlook the poet’s own explicit connection of the metrical with the bodily foot:

Let us find out, if we must be constrain'd,
Sandals more interwoven and complete
To fit the naked foot of Poesy -
Let us inspect the Lyre, and weigh the stress
Of every chord, and see what may be gain'd
By ear industrious, and attention meet. (4-9)

There are other omissions, but this is the most glaring: in “If by dull rhymes our english must be chain’d,” Keats not only genders the “Muse” feminine, he represents his crafting of new poetic forms as sandals that will at once bind and free her feet. Surely this association, and the explicit call for aesthetic maturity it suggests, warrants at least a mention in Turley’s discussion?

Subsequent chapters bear similar insights and oversights. Chapter Two, “‘Full-grown lambs’: immaturity and ‘To Autumn,’” argues that a rhetorical commitment to maturity masks the poem’s real aim: to “derail autumn’s progress” (36). Building on a cogent analysis of “the co-existence of age and experience with youth and innocence” in both The Eve of St. Agnes and “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” (32), Turley seizes on Keats’s compulsively qualifying language as evidence of an attempt, “systematically and purposefully, to smuggle a subversive and defiant counter-discourse of immaturity” into his ode (28). In this reading, the “tautological” (34) phrasing of “close bosom-friend” (l. 2) initiates a pattern of symbolic overdetermination that defines the poem, reaching anxiously through the image of friendship for the lost intimacy shared by infants and nursing mothers. Other examples follow: the bees “o’er-brimm’d … clammy cells” (l. 11) and the “last oozings” (l. 22) that conclude stanzas one and two celebrate an “adolescent effusiveness” linked to the “youthful secretion” of Porphyro into Madeline’s chamber in The Eve of St. Agnes (36); the phrase “small gnats” in stanza three offers a “troublesomely superfluous” modifier revealing the poet’s anxious resistance to Autumn’s seeming fullness (37); and most tellingly, the final stanza’s drive toward seasonal maturity is “sabotaged” (37) by the contradictory phrasing of “full-grown lambs” (l. 30). For Turley, these compulsive qualifications reveal a political stance on Keats’s part that, post-Peterloo, refuses the more obvious “‘grown-up’ action” urged by other poets, notably Barry Cornwall in his 1819 poem “Spring” (43). If these phrasings suggest that “To Autumn” asks to be read as governed by incompleteness, I am however not sure they show collectively that “Keats himself … aspires to be a ‘full-grown lamb’” (37), that Keats’s season is “truly a Schein or ‘apparent’ autumn” which “emerges as an ironic and subversive antitype of the conventionally ‘mature’ season” (33), or that it is most authentically “the ‘songs of spring’ we should be listening to in the poem” (40) .

Chapter Three, “‘Give me that voice again’: Keats and puberphonia,” focuses on how Keats’s “maturational crisis is troped through images of laryngeal development” (65). Again, we are initiated into the discussion by a highly suggestive claim: for Keats, “the whine of boyish phonation and political autonomy are closely imbricated” (59). In both letters and poems Turley finds the poet favoring “youthful largesse” over “the self-interested logic of maturity” (64). Turley’s exploration of how Keats found a model in Chatterton’s boyishness anchors thoughtful readings of Calidore, Sleep and Poetry, and Lamia. Most notably, an astute consideration of Calidore’s “specific concern with voice” explores a key moment in Keats’s ambivalence about poetic authority (50), and the reading of Lamia that closes the chapter describes an even subtler resistance to “a normative mode of aggressive masculine desire” (70). But we are also faced in the chapter with an assessment of lines 7-10 in “Chapman’s Homer” as “excitable bleatings” (47), an assertion that the “threat’ning portcullis” (2.79) in Calidore is a giant larynx, and a claim that in that same poem horses’ “elongated necks are eye-catching within the context of ripening phonation” because they correlate to Keats’s own vocal longings (53). These are stretches, to be sure.

Chapter Four, “Japing the sublime: naughty boys and immature aesthetics,” eschews a fascination with particular body parts to argue for a political dimension to Keats’s 1818 journal-letters from the Northern walking tour. It is a thoroughgoing and well-argued essay, in which Turley’s readings are at their most nuanced and wide ranging. With detailed attention to the letters’ loco-descriptive commentary, Turley illustrates how Keats recorded “inappropriately juvenile japes in one splendid location after another,” flouting conventional approaches to landscape writing (74). Amidst the potential for grandeur and awe, properly seen by a particular kind of masculine eye, Keats enamors himself instead with the humble and trivial—mosses, rockweed, even “squashy holes” (Letters 1.306). Aligning Keats’s description of the Ambleside waterfall with Mary Wollstonecraft’s similarly detailed (and similarly politically radical) renderings of the Trolhättan cataracts, the chapter finds a boyishly “naughty” refusal to engage in the vocabulary of Burkean or Wordsworthian sublimity. Though Turley does discuss Keats’s famous “Chamber of Maiden-Thought” letter, more might be said here about the relation between boyishness, femininity, and Burke’s notion of the “beautiful.” Still, what follows from this discussion may be the strongest expression of the book’s central claim: poems like the Northern lyrics should not be seen simply as waystations on the path to poetic greatness, nor mined for redeeming moments of high seriousness. Instead, they must be recognized as conscious Keatsian departures from mature modes of speech, so that “their political capacity to disrupt lies precisely in their boyishness, rather than in signs of incipient maturity” (78).

With Chapter Five, “‘Stifling up the vale’: Keats and c—ts,” we return to boyish fetishizing, focusing this time on the ways in which Keats’s “obstetric” knowledge of female anatomy collides with his squeamish “social” anxiety about “c—ts,” the “monosyllable which Keats never utters directly” (104). These “ostensibly discrete, but in fact mutually complicating, epistemologies” manifest themselves throughout Keats’s writing “in gauche allegories of amorous encounter, in anxious use of medical imagery, in would-be bawdy letters, and in wide-eyed reports of ‘after-dinner’ banter” (104). Measured against the “instinctive assurance” of Robert Burns’s manly bawdiness, Keats’s attempts at casual sensuality never “escape the callow self-consciousness of the sniggering schoolboy” (108). In letters to Reynolds and Keats’s brother Tom, in romance, in lyric, in epic—in Keats’s every representation of the female body—the specter of his medical training rises as a diverting tactic. Thus in The Fall’s moment of Moneta’s revealing, previously explored in Chapter One, we find “a discourse of surgical probing” that manifests Keats’s psychologically prophylactic “fantasies of dissection” (120). Whether one agrees with Turley’s conclusion about the relationship between these discourses—the obstetric always compensating for the deprivations of the social—his insight that Keats has them both in play in his ambivalent writings about women is illuminating.

In each of the five chapters, then, Turley’s provocative approach to the poetry yields new ways of looking at familiar texts. Still, at times the book’s methodology demands a kind of willing suspension of critical disbelief, asking readers to accept that virtuoso close reading will uncover “a kind of sub- (or parallel) text, a shadowy linguistic correlative of the author’s unconscious” (105). As Turley’s own language throughout the book indicates, that shadowy correlative is ever beyond the critic’s grasp. Like the Keats he envisions, Turley shies away time and again from his own authoritative readings. Repeatedly we encounter phrasings that qualify both general claims and specific readings of words and phrases: “If this sounds frivolous, preposterous, even (and I am prepared to concede that at this stage it does)…” (12); “At the risk of going too far myself…” (69); “All this may be going too far, of course…” (111). In short, the book is something of an instantiation of the very complexities it perceives in Keats: at once bravely speculative and tendentiously authoritative. Yet if the argument of Keats’s Boyish Imagination does not always convince, the book as a whole vividly shows how criticism that attends to such questions can continue to challenge our scholarly commonplaces, enriching our understanding of the poetry.

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