Response: Keats Out of Bounds

Noah Comet (United States Naval Academy)

Midway through Bridget Jones’s Diary (Sharon Maguire’s 2001 film based on Helen Fielding’s 1996 novel of the same name), the eponymous character, played by Renée Zellweger, finds herself enjoying a gorgeous day on the water near a country hotel. Rowing a small boat, she is flanked in another by Daniel Cleaver (Hugh Grant), her caddish boss with whom she is having a fling. The two urbanites look out of place in such a rustic setting, but their tacky and obviously drunken behavior has its charm. Indeed, a short distance away, even the restrained Mark Darcy (Colin Firth) who sullenly pilots a third boat, envies the fun the other two are having; he is stuck with his with his icy girlfriend Natasha (Embeth Davidtz), who ignores the natural beauty around her and focuses on work papers—that is, until Bridget and Daniel’s rowdiness elicits a sneer from her. Mark, like his Austenian namesake (and Firthian specialty), is destined to be Mr. Wrong until he’s Mr. Right, so, for the moment, he insincerely echoes Natasha’s disapproval. Still, his face betrays a muted longing for the frolicsome Bridget.

Bridget and Daniel’s antics are full of laughs and splashes and a reference to 1997’s Titanic. All of that feels quite expected. Less so is Bridget’s botched but emphatically-delivered non-sequitur from Keats’s “To Autumn” : “Season of mists and… mellow fruitlessness!!!”

For this and subsequent references to the finished film—not the screenplay—see the works cited entry for Maguire’s Bridget Jones's Diary; no page references available.

Daniel, chomping on a cigarette, shares her exuberance: “Ah, f— me, I love Keats!” Then he launches into a bawdy limerick (“There was a young woman from Ealing!”).

This Keatsian moment is brief, but it bears comment, especially in the context of the present essay collection on Keats and popular culture. What is “To Autumn” doing here—in the summer, in a boat, with a couple of sozzled yuppies?

For one thing, there’s the cachet of knowing Keats. Bridget and Daniel work in publishing, and such a display—even in mockery, as here—suggests their status and erudition. For another, it is a proclamation of belonging: Bridget may be a Londoner, but if she can wield her university education in a way that makes nature legible, then she needn’t feel lost in the rustic realm. Never mind that Keats is arguably the wrong poet for such a green-Romantic purpose and that the season and locale ill suit the poem.

Add to that the Keatsiness of Bridget, the smart but hapless chronicler of personal experience who fairly fumbles her way to success—the cash-strapped resident of London who struggles with insecurity, self-knowledge, family, love, and professional direction. In this way, even if “To Autumn” is the wrong poem, Bridget’s affinity for Keats makes good sense.

And, of course it also matters that she misquotes the poem, substituting “fruitlessness” for Keats’s “fruitfulness.” Whereas Keats’s autumn is a time of bounty (and for the sake of brevity I am deliberately ignoring the poem’s well-noted ambivalences and political contingencies here), Bridget’s harvest is empty-handed. It is in this context that the quote works best. Bridget’s season with Daniel, soon to end when she finds him with another woman, is indeed “mellow fruitlessness”—that is, quite easy but ultimately pointless. Daniel does little to combat this idea in the moment, effectively measuring his lack of worth by discarding Keats for substance-less vulgarity, but Bridget is too misty and besotted to see it. (Similarly, while the film’s original script does not include the “To Autumn” quotation, it does have Bridget proposing a visit to the house that allegedly inspired The Eve of St Agnes, to which Daniel responds by dissing Keats, homophobically, as a “frightful nancy-boy” (Fielding 79). Bridget’s more fruitful harvest remains to be sought abroad, and her misquotation means more than she means it to.

I begin my response with this example from Bridget Jones’s Diary not because this collection of essays needs yet another data-point for Keats’s relevance to popular culture, but because it’s an uncharacteristically diegetic and canny instance of popular culture winkingly weighing itself against Keats and literary culture more broadly. Positionally, Keats works here in much the same way that Austen’s Darcy does vis-à-vis Mark: an allusive presence that establishes generic expectations and rewards the knowingness of a certain portion of the film’s audience. The film is hardly high-brow, but such moves are nevertheless elevating and distinguishing—as for Bridget within the film, so too for Bridget Jones’s Diary itself. Audiences do indeed fall for such things—thus Stephen Holden’s New York Times review of the film, which characterized it both as “a delicious piece of candy whose amusing package is scrawled with bons mots distantly inspired by Jane Austen” and “the best and smartest film of its kind” since 1995’s Emma-inspired Clueless (E14). Cobble together BBC-style casting, an awkward cameo by Salman Rushdie, and a quote from “To Autumn,” and this (very funny) film—which is mainly an expletive-laden romantic comedy of errors—gets away with ‘intellectual,’ an attribution I find less convincing than Zellweger’s English accent. To my mind, the movie’s “best and smartest” reputation says less about its plot and performances than it does about its carefully-postured, tongue-in-cheek literariness, which is Austenian, yes, but also a testament to the presence of Keats.

To the matter at hand. While it can hardly take the full measure of Keats’s reception in four essays, this remarkable collection finds the aforementioned Keats elevation and distinction in academia, cyberspace and beyond. Betsy Winakur Tontiplaphol makes a powerful case for Keats as type-specimen of Etsy’s culture of artisanal craft; her argument, which sifts through some of the many Keatses to be found among the handiworks on that site, has interesting resonances with Brian Rejack’s multiply-mediated Keats in quotation: in both of these insightful essays we see the emergence of a hall-of-mirrors Keats—a hybrid of his self-making and the uncontrollable whims and reduplications of the digital era. Likewise, in Christopher Rovee’s and Forest Pyle’s essays, we find a Keats in contention, both within the ethereal academic context of competing literary methodologies and in the biographical and creative contexts of what Pyle calls the “Keats effects.” In all, we appreciate what Brian Bates, in his introduction, refers to as the in-betweenness of Keats.

To that point, it strikes me that this collection, altogether, apprehends a particularly new and broad definition of popular culture. If popular sits across the line from academic, then we have a collection of essays that flirts with the border (Cleanth Brooks staring down Jane Campion across the divide, both popularizing agents)—like Keats himself reading Chapman’s Homer—interrogating that line from both sides. And this is very apt, for who is more emblematic than Keats of the permeable boundaries between low and high culture (per Brian Bates’s introduction, a creature of the “middlebrow”), and between what is outside and inside the halls of academe? One could also contend that there is—beyond the academic/non-academic divide—an inherently popular/populist style, one that specifically aims to cultivate the widest possible audience with the broadest possible appeal (an ideal of the popular instantiated in the works of Raymond Williams, Richard Hoggart, and others), and I wonder how Keats, especially in his early poetry with its Huntian, esoteric classical references, sorts with this.

For example, see Williams’s “On High and Popular Culture” and Hoggart’s The Uses of Literacy.

This is all to hedge on issues of class, never far from the mind of anyone studying Keats; neither far, I should think, from any study of popular culture.

Holt N. Parker’s “Toward a Definition of Popular Culture” updates the discussion usefully.

Of course we can’t do everything at once, and as such we’ve not done much with gender. Keats and gender is always a fascinating topic, and it’s one that has amassed a sizable bibliography already, but it would be interesting to think about it in the specific context of popular culture. Twenty-first century conceptualizations and representations of gender-fluidity might owe more than we’ve appreciated to Keats’s camelionics. More superficially and intertextually, my own half-baked ideas draw me to HBO’s Game of Thrones (with the admission that I haven’t read George R. R. Martin’s novels and don’t plan to). For instance, there are echoes of Keats in the characterization of Melisandre (the so-called “Red Woman” ). Like Keats’s femmes fatales—the belle dame and especially Lamia—she is an expression of a paranoid sexism and a (problematic) gendered metaphorical register. In reductively analogical terms, we can draw up a basic scheme: the mysterious/seductive/dangerous woman takes advantage of the credulous male victim (or several victims); ultimately a keen-eyed seer/sage/elder/narrative voice recognizes the femme fatale for what she is, and some kind of skepticism, diminishment or disabuse occurs—all of this depicted in an antiquarian setting. (I am not suggesting that GoT is consciously cribbing Keats, but there are surely common source-texts: not only classical sources, but also Medieval tales of fatal women such as those by Chaucer, Malory, Mandeville and the authors of Sir Florent and Dame Ragnelle; also Maeterlinck’s and Debussey’s Pelleas et Melisande.) A consideration of Keats might enrich or further disturb our understanding of GoT’s notoriously troubling portrayals of women characters. The show’s abjection of masculine authority (or emasculation) that in turn marks feminine authority as conniving and abusive entails a fantasy/mystery feminine logic that is morally obscurative and that is typically exploded (yet again) by the moral, restorative light of masculine logic.

Suffice it to say, what we have done here is to begin what I think is an important discussion, not only about Keats’s influence on popular culture, but also about popular culture’s impact on Keats. The poet of the classroom persists in his popularity both as poetic superstar and as a feature of critical debate, adaptation, quotation, and craft. Keats’s un-living hand has grasped more than it reached for—still capable indeed.

Works Cited

Bridget Jones’s Diary. Directed by Sharon Maguire. Miramax Pictures, 13 Apr. 2001.
Fielding, Helen, et al. Bridget Jones’s Diary. Unpublished Screenplay, c.2000. Accessed 6 Jan. 2020.
Hoggart, Richard. The Uses of Literacy, Beacon, 1957.
Holden, Stephen. “120 Pounds and 1,000,000 Cigarettes Later.” The New York Times, 13 Apr. 2001, p. E14.
Parker, Holt N. “Toward a Definition of Popular Culture,” History and Theory, vol. 50, no. 2, 2011, pp. 147–70.
Williams, Raymond. “On High and Popular Culture,” New Republic, November 1974. Accessed 6 July 2020.


1. For this and subsequent references to the finished film—not the screenplay—see the works cited entry for Maguire’s Bridget Jones's Diary; no page references available. [back]
2. For example, see Williams’s “On High and Popular Culture” and Hoggart’s The Uses of Literacy. [back]
3. Holt N. Parker’s “Toward a Definition of Popular Culture” updates the discussion usefully. [back]