Keats's Mask

Biographical fascination perversely clings to Keats—the poet of “no self,” of “no identity”—in a manner that can feel exasperating to Keats critics. The spell cast by the materials of Keats’s brief life is, however, deeply bound up with the impersonal, allegorical style that his most influential readers see as central to the poetry’s radical modernity. Keats’s life and death masks bring this truth into focus. The mask, like the image of the Poet as it emerges in Romanticism, bears the trace of the singular lost person. Suggesting the capacity of the withdrawn, formal image of the biographical subject to mobilize affects of pathos and loss, the mask suggestively binds the “sentimental” treatment of Keats’s death to current accounts of his work that locate its distinctiveness in its refusals and critiques of the gestures of lyric subjectivity.

Keats’s Mask

Karen Swann
Williams College

1.        Two books on Keats published in the past twenty years—Andrew Bennett’s Keats, Narrative and Audience and Stanley Plumly’s Posthumous Keats—reproduce on their covers images of the life mask of the poet taken by Benjamin Haydon in 1816. The images fascinate in part for their promise, before the advent of photography, to capture Keats as he was: the distinctive countenance, and, perhaps, even, the look of being lost to some other scene—a look that charges even the life mask with the pathos of a death to come, an effect enhanced in the Bennett cover reproduction by the strong light source that picks out the abstractedness of the form. Reflecting on nineteenth-century likenesses of Keats, Plumly prefers the masks and a small handful of contemporary sketches of the poet to any of the myriad oil portraits, modeled on these earlier images, executed posthumously: for Plumly, the more formal portraits, which often show Keats in the posture of the thinker, chin in hand, or amidst his books, are guilty of generalizing the singular person into the type of the Poet (23-55). But the mask of course affects a similar conversion. The portraits awkwardly perform their taxidermical commemorative work—restoring the poet to his social character and to his place in the National Gallery’s full set of British poets. The mask, in contrast—the withdrawn, abstracted image, tenuously descended from the singular body whose imprint it bears—presents the Poet as allegorical figure, a relic of a prematurely abbreviated life that survives into the present in denatured form, evoking a loss that can feel constitutive to Romanticism itself, but can also feel like our loss.

2.        The way biographical fascination perversely clings to the poet of “no self,” of “no identity” (KL I, 387)—the poet whose force, at least since modernism, has been seen to derive from his resistance to and critique of lyric modes of self-investigation and disclosure can feel exasperating to Keats critics. Thomas Pfau, for instance, charges Keats’s readers, including professional Romanticists, of being “forever enthralled by Keats’s death at age twenty-six in Rome” (336). I want to propose, though, that the spell cast by the idea of Keats’s brevity is not easily broken because, more than taxidermical efforts to revive a lively, sociable, virile, political, or otherwise historically contextualized Keats, it is deeply responsive to the impersonal, allegorical style that his most exciting contemporary readers, from Marjorie Levinson to Jacques Khalip and Pfau himself, see as central to the poetry’s radical modernity.

3.        Keats’s mask brings this truth into focus, even and especially in its aspect as a technologically reproducible cultural form that circulates, exists as museum display, participates in projects of nation-building, and shores up cultural institutions, but that works by soliciting affective responses that can feel private, individual, ungeneralizable. The mask, like the abstracted image of the Poet as it emerges in Romanticism, bears the trace of the singular lost person. Suggesting the capacity of the withdrawn, formal image of the biographical subject to mobilize affects of pathos and loss, the mask suggestively binds the “sentimental” treatment of Keats’s death to contemporary accounts of his work that locate its distinctiveness in its refusals and critiques of the gestures of lyric subjectivity. In the remainder of this essay, I would like to turn to the materials of what Keats famously and evocatively called his “posthumous life”—that interval between a death sentence and death—to explore the ways in which they open us to modes of memory that belong neither to subjective experience nor to constructive projects of historiography or commemoration. Ultimately I want to suggest that these modes of memory bear the as-yet-undetonated possibilities of Romanticism into its future.

4.        In the letters Joseph Severn wrote from Rome to Keats’s friends, he frequently remarks on the avidity of Keats’s embrace of his posthumous existence, seeing this as symptomatic of a singular and poetic cast of mind: “Keats is desiring his death with dreadfull earnestness . . . The strangeness of his mind every day surprisses us—no one feeling or one notion like any other being” (KL II, 373). Especially striking and frustrating to Severn is his friend’s refusal to invest in possibility: rather, as a space of withdrawal, the posthumous life promises to relieve the poet from the obligation to show promise, to care about answering to the hopes of others, to perform the strenuous work of the imagination. This is Severn again:

he will not bear the idea of living much less strive to live . . . he will not hear that his prospects are favorable—he will not hear that his future prospects are favorable—he says that the continued stretch of his imagination has killed him—and were he to recover he could not write another line—then his good friends in England—he only cherishes the idea of what they have done and this he turns to a load of care for the future—the high hopes of him—his certain success—his experience he shakes his head at it all and bids it farewell— (JS 116])
Instead, Keats flies ahead to another shore, and from there lays claim to an insulated, virtual existence, a life of mere duration: in his own words, “I have an habitual feeling of my real life having passed, and that I am leading a posthumous existence” (KL II, 359); “every man who can row his boat and walk and talk seems a different being from myself—I do not feel in the world” (II, 349).

5.        Severn’s reports and Keats’s own accounts suggest that for Keats, posthumous life promises a respite from the shocks that inevitably befall the one who possesses the negative capability to be in “uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts” (KL I, 193), especially as these pertain to the vagaries that shape the hopeful narratives of love, poetic composition, and career: to seize on one’s death sentence is to opt out of indeterminacy. Poetry, Keats seems to think, has been lethal to him; posthumous life promises to afford relief from the burden of promiscuous responsivity and the uncertainties of the paths it opens. Yet, paradoxically, in his posthumous life he suffers from an intensified version of the plight of the poetical character, whose lack of proper identity, he claims in his famous letter, makes him always vulnerable to annihilation. In that letter, Keats describes poetical speculation as a defense against the pressures of sociality, for when he is not filling and informing the bodies of “characters,” in a strange but characteristic hydraulic calculus, the identities of those around him flood him: “When I am in a room with People if I ever am free from speculating on creations of my own brain, then not myself goes home to myself: but the identity of every one in the room begins to press upon me that, I am in a very little time annihilated” (I, 387). In his posthumous life, a withdrawn Keats is morbidly and viscerally susceptible to the suffocating existences of others: “a person I am not quite used to entering the rooms half choaks me” (II, 314); “a person I am not quite used to causes an oppression in my chest” (II, 321); “Don’t breathe on me—it comes like Ice” (II, 378). The references suggest a hypersensitivity to the surprise advent of anything that threatens an embraced insularity, figured at first as the chance appearances of strangers, but as he becomes more ill, of all phenomenal traces of abjured social attachments. Thus he becomes preoccupied with controlling incursions into his world: he instructs people to limit their visits, and then, when visiting ceases, to limit their notes to bearable brevity, and finally, to the most minimal of indicators (“+” or “-” )(II, 352). Eventually all communication ceases except what is “framed” to Keats’s ear through Severn’s mediation, for Keats, all attest, cannot bear the “hand” or any material reminders of persons (“to see her handwriting would break my heart” [II, 351-2];“I cannot bear the sight of any hand writing of a friend I love as much as I do you” [II, 360]; “a letter to Keats now would almost kill him” [II, 363]).

6.        If the posthumous life promises an escape from poetry, it ultimately delimits a terrain that is allegorical and melancholic, “poetical” in some of the ways we have come to associate with Keats’s work since Levinson and Pfau. Walter Benjamin’s description in “Central Park” of the way allegorical intention works—“that which the allegorical intention has fixed upon is sundered from the customary contexts of life: it is at once shattered and preserved” (143)—at once evokes a distinctive Keatsian style that works by plundering from and restaging the preserved materials of antique worlds, and the landscape of Keats’s prematurely posthumous existence. Keats’s litany of protests suggests a keen sense, not of his coming death, but that he himself is a relic of a lost context, improbably lasting into this brief afterlife—the lone survivor of a vanished and mourned world, the traces of which, obtruding by chance into his world, activate scenes and sense information lodged in memory, ruptured from any trajectory of hope or desire. The world, in turn, possesses its own emptied, virtual existence as it withdraws: “I eternally see her figure eternally vanishing” (II, 345). Refusing the work of remembrance, he is attacked by figures of illimitable loss; aggressively withholding from others the chance of a gradual and negotiated letting go, he ensures his survival in the form of image and phrases that erupt into and shatter consciousness; giving up poetry, he sustains around him a charged poetic world. [1] 

7.        The experiences described in these materials suggestively follow the paths Benjamin, in the later “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire,” adumbrates for impressions that manage to get around what he calls the “shock defense,” the defensive work of consciousness to ward off potentially traumatic incursions of information about the world. On the one hand, Benjamin suggests, there is the “shock,” the force of stimuli that manage to slip through this guard; on the other, the psychically disruptive memoire involontaire, the reactivation of the trace left by the rogue stimulus, triggered, perhaps, by accident—the eating, say, of a particular kind of cake dunked in the tea your grandmother used to serve (172-6). In “On Some Motifs,” Benjamin characterizes modern subjectivity as perpetually armed and vigilant against the shocks of life under capital, shocks that like Wordsworth before him he connects in part to the density of modern social life, with its multiplied possibilities of chance encounters (181-92), and in part to the ascendency of communication technologies that work to alienate subjects from authentic personal or collective experience. In Benjamin’s account, mass-mediated communication functions to bifurcate the way information comes to us and is registered: on the one hand, there is the “information” circulated, say, by way of the news—information that enters public consciousness, and that aims less to be assimilated into private and collective life than to be noted and forgotten, as news item follows news item; on the other hand, there is experience that slips by consciousness to become lodged in dwindling reservoirs of private and collective memory that are increasingly cut off from public life (172-4).

8.        If Wordsworth sees the introspective lyric as having salutary power vis-à-vis the shocks of modernity by virtue of the way it draws private, unconscious experience into collective life, for Benjamin, the waning of the lyric during the nineteenth century suggests that, in its traditional Romantic (that is, “introspective”) form, it no longer speaks to modern experience. Baudelaire, whose work has steadily gained readership during this period, would seem to be an exception (170-2). This, Benjamin suggests, has to do with the paradoxical way Baudelaire meets the “shocks” of modernity: he is at once theatrically and constantly en garde against them, and persistently failing to intercept them. The essay suggests that Baudelaire’s hyper-vigilance is that of a collector and connoisseur of shock, and indeed, comes out of a poet’s feeling for the special predicament of his times: Baudelaire parries so vigorously because only impressions that are not absorbed by consciousness, and thus not accessible to a poetic project of recovery, can become the materials of true experience and of true poetry (170-81).

9.        Benjamin is specifically concerned here with the work of memory, citing Theodor Reik in this context: “The function of memory (Gedächtnis) . . . is to protect our impressions; reminiscence (Erinnerung) aims at their dissolution. Memory is essentially conservative: reminiscence, destructive” (175). In an age of information, Reik’s “reminiscence,” the conscious and thus potentially public act of remembrance, is of a piece with forgetting, the necessary, constant shedding of information as the next thing comes along. Given the divide between “consciousness” and “experience” for Benjamin, for an event to become present to consciousness is “to isolate events from the realm in which they could affect the experience of the reader” (173). What can affect the reader—affect the reader in the form of memory unregistered by consciousness—can only come in the form of a shock that slips through a guard, and the subsequent, accidental detonation of its trace in a way that ruptures the conscious, public narratives and contexts into which “information” becomes installed. The achievement of Baudelaire’s poetry it that it at once blocks access to experience (that is, prevents experience from becoming registered as “information”) and effects the detonation and transmission of experience beyond its encryption in a singular psyche. That is, as Jennifer Bajorek argues in a fine account of the shock effect, it works in the manner of Proust’s madeleine (114).

10.        Benjamin’s essay on Baudelaire, in which Baudelaire’s poetry becomes the way that true experience, that is, experience blocked from consciousness, can move into collective memory, helps us think about both the dynamics of Keats’s posthumous life and the “sentimental” effects that dog his reception. For we could argue that the materials of Keats’s posthumous life, if they lay the ground for his posthumous fame, do so by modeling and creating the conditions for belatedly detonating memory: the “strangeness of Keats’s mind,” legible in the protests of what he cannot “bear” to think of—the letters that must remain closed and out of view; the “hands,” the material traces of singular persons, that accidently slip past the guard; the detonating phrases and images from the past; and the avidly refused telos of hope realized, promise fulfilled—all suggest a mode of experience that is private and singular but not “subjective,” and that can be transmitted—through these nuggets of speech, often embedded in Severn’s letters, which are then circulated among the friends whose letters won’t be opened and whose “hands” won’t be born—as an unassimilable burden of sociality. And we could extend our account of the movement of these materials into collective memory when we consider the sharp and unpredictable effects of pathos and loss that Keats’s poetry has historically prompted in its readers—effects generated by shards of verse that can randomly and unpredictably revive the memoire involontaire of the materials of the posthumous life.

11.        Reading Keats is always reading between the biographical and literary remains, which came before the public simultaneously, first in the pirated Galignani edition of 1829 and then in the editions of Richard Monckton Milnes of 1848. When reading Keats, the allegorical style concatenates with the relics of the singular biographical subject. This concatenation produces figures laden with more affective weight than they can perhaps sustain: on the one hand, a poetic corpus open to unpredictable affections and attachments; on the other, an allegorical image of the Poet—remote, abstracted, prematurely arrested, not of the order of ordinary consciousness and quotidian life, singled out to bear and fail to bear the shocks of a market-driven print culture and modern social arrangements. This is “the Poet” as represented by Keats’s mask: an abstracted, denatured appearance that yet carries the imprint of a unique and ungraspable loss, in a form that can be reproduced and circulated. If ultimately and historically this figure has functioned to shore up Keats’s and Romanticism’s capital, it simultaneously transmits the shocks of what cannot be assimilated into that project—the arrested experience and its detonating posthumous life.

Works Cited

Bajorek, Jennifer. Counterfeit Capital: Poetic Labor and Revolutionary Irony. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2009. Print.

Benjamin, Walter. The Writer of Modern Life: Essays on Charles Baudelaire. Ed. Michael W. Jennings. Cambridge, MA and London: Belknap Press, 2006. Print.

Bennett, Andrew. Keats, Narrative and Audience: The Posthumous Life of Writing. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge UP, 1994. Print.

Keats, John. The Letters of John Keats. Ed. Hyder Edward Rollins. 2 vols. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1972. Print.

Khalip, Jacques. Anonymous Life: Romanticism and Dispossession. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2009. Print.

Levinson, Marjorie. Keats’s Life of Allegory: The Origins of a Style.Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1988. Print.

Pfau, Thomas. Romantic Moods: Paranoia, Trauma, and Melancholy, 1790-1840. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins UP, 2005. Print.

Plumly, Stanley. Posthumous Keats. New York and London: Norton, 2008. Print.

Severn, Joseph. Joseph Severn: Letters and Memoirs. Ed. Grant Scott. Aldershot, England: Ashgate, 2005. Print.

Swann, Karen. “The Strange Time of Reading.” European Romantic Review 9:2 (1998). Print.


[1] For an earlier reflection on these materials from which this draws, see Swann 1998. BACK


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