Quoting Keats

This essay traces aspects of Keats’s legacy across popular culture through instances and mechanisms of quoting (or misquoting) his work. The essay begins in periodical culture soon after Keats’s death (the late 1820s and early 1830s), then moves to the discourse around the Manchester Art Treasures Exhibition in 1857 (which, I suggest somewhat speculatively, intersects with Keats in striking ways around quoting), and concludes with a bigger leap ahead in time, to contemporary practices of quoting Keats through various internet technologies and platforms. In each case the opening line to Endymion (“A thing of beauty is a joy for ever”) serves as the focal point around which the networked connections of quoting practices and Keats’s posthumous life circulate. Ultimately, the essay contends that a history of Keats’s varied emanations across and through popular culture must of necessity be a history of mediation, and the essay models a way of enacting that kind of work.

Quoting Keats

1.        “A thing of beauty is a joy for ever” only by virtue of that thing’s reproducibility (Endymion 1). [1] We see this logic play out already in Endymion’s opening passage as Keats explains his decision to take up this tale of a Cockney/Classical dreamer overwhelming himself with poesy. The examples of things of beauty that “bind us to the earth” and “Haunt us till they become a cheering light / Unto our souls” emphasize processes of repetition (7, 30–1). We have the sun and the moon with their various daily, monthly, and yearly cycles; trees sprouting, clear rills cooling themselves, forest brakes rich with blooming flowers, all in their cyclical manners; and lastly poems, which recur in the form of repeated readings: “All lovely tales that we have heard or read” (22). The things themselves are all variable, repeatable things, but they also replicate insofar as they become “bound to us so fast / That […] / They always must be with us, or we die” (31–3). The joy of beauty both is and is not a part of the thing itself—it inheres in the object and in the relation that forms between the object and the observer of it. This logic continues in the poem’s narrative, as Endymion suffers over his repeated viewings, remembrances, and retellings of his encounters with Cynthia, “that completed form of all completeness” (606). Of course, the “completed form” of Cynthia is apparently incomplete until she returns in a new body (that of the Indian Maid), which turns out to have been a sort of clone of the original all along. Only by such repetition does anything ever happen in the poem. And even then, very little does, as ultimately Endymion ascends with his lover as the poem promptly and without fanfare ends. Yet as Noel Jackson suggests, the poem’s “inconsequential fulfillment, its fulfillment of inconsequence” functions as a “site of contingency, vitality, and (indeed) promise” (329). From one perspective the poem represents stagnation, but from a more properly Keatsian one, that stagnation appears dynamic.

2.        That this opening line from Endymion becomes (arguably) Keats’s most frequently quoted verse is fitting given that quoting operates in a manner similar to Keats’s beauty and joy. Quotation, too, must be reiterated. It also does not need to emerge from a position of authenticity or originality. Particularly in the nineteenth century as his posthumous reputation slowly took shape, Keats was a poet more quoted than read. While it’s certainly true that some instances of quoting Keats resulted from a reader drawing on deep engagement with his work, it’s also true that the prevalence of quoting Keats during his first half-century or so of posthumous existence meant that many could interact with his work primarily through quotation without access to reading the work in other forms. Furthermore, quoting begets more quoting. Precisely because of the iterability of quoting, one could regularly quote Keats without having really ever read Keats. [2] In short, the mechanisms of quotation play a large part in the shaping and spread of Keats’s legacy. This is certainly true today when we can encounter quotations from Keats across a wide range of websites, not to mention the many misquotations and wild misattributions that mingle with the more accurate materials. As ubiquitous as Keats is now, quoting Keats in the nineteenth century was widespread as well. One particularly influential instance occurred at the Manchester Art Treasures Exhibition in 1857, when more than one million visitors over the space of five months contemplated paintings, drawings, photographs, and examples of other arts while the opening line of Endymion was presiding over them, the words emblazoned on the arch above the building’s entrance. Keats’s line was positioned so as to condition exhibition viewers’ responses to a wide variety of media forms, including the nascent form of photography, which raised significant questions about beauty’s thing-ness due to the technology’s relationship to reproducibility.

3.        The logics of cultural and aesthetic reproducibility in the nineteenth century have informed many scholarly treatments of Keats, which view his poetic project as a belated one, but one which nonetheless attempts an intervention, even if it occurs only through secondary, indirect, or remediated forms. [3] That last term, remediated, has become of particular interest to many romanticists currently engaging in what has been dubbed “Romantic Media Studies.” [4] Romantic media studies includes not only the many exciting works devoted to the textuality of the period (book history approaches like William St. Clair’s, media ecological work like Maureen McLane’s, and media-theory-inflected work like Celeste Langan’s and Andrew Burkett’s); it also extends to projects that situate romanticist scholarship within contemporary issues of mediation (digitally-built projects like NINES and the Blake Archive, but also traditional scholarly works that explore the implications of contemporary digital culture, such as Jerome McGann’s A New Republic of Letters). With specific regard to Keats, I share Yohei Igarashi’s contention that “communicative mediation constitutes a significant, although still largely unremarked, concern of Keats’s poetry and letters” (173). By opening with the iterability of beauty in Endymion, then, I suggest that when we speak of aesthetics in Keats, we must also speak of mediation in Keats. If beauty must be reproduced in order to persist as a joy, then it must also be remediated.

4.        This essay approaches Keats’s afterlife in popular culture by examining how he has been, and continues to be, quoted. I argue that quoting ought to be understood as a material and medial practice, not merely a discursive one. In order to grasp the significance of Keats’s place within popular culture, we need to attend to the material mechanisms of quotation—which requires asking questions about access, distribution, remediation, replication, and transformation, among other material processes related to reading—and we need to place those mechanisms in a historical frame which allows for both continuity and tension between materialities past, present, and future. To explore some of these dynamics with respect to quoting Keats, I examine three different broadly construed moments and media technologies: periodical magazines in the decades immediately after Keats’s death, photography in the mid-to-late-nineteenth century, and the internet in our contemporary moment. In each case, as I will show, we cannot treat these moments and technologies in their own vacuums. The practices of quoting Keats, both past and present, always operate within a media ecology that operates through networks of association between various media and through different temporal frames. [5]

5.        As is the case with the other essays assembled in this volume, such work benefits from probing the borders between scholarly and popular discourse. This is particularly true for studying Keats, since he was and is a figure with pop-cultural standing alongside his revered place in literary studies. These borders are porous, and to better conceive of Keats and his work, we need to understand not just popular Keats and scholarly Keats, but also the web of relations linking the two. [6] Particularly for those of us invested in doing public humanities work, knowledge of popular discourse around figures, works, or issues with which we engage in scholarly ways becomes crucial for bridging such divides, crossing such borders, or perhaps shifting the borders themselves. Work on the reception of Keats demonstrates that he has always been taken up in a number of disciplines and cultural contexts, and thus provides a historical frame and model for engagement with literary work that eschews our conventional notions of disciplinary borders. [7] We continue the legacy of Keats and his afterlives by understanding how he continues to be taken up in widely differing contexts, and we participate in extending that legacy particularly when we break boundaries separating domains like the scholarly and the popular.

6.        How exactly, then, might we situate my first example of quoting Keats, from what is essentially a school newspaper in 1828 showing its Keats-fanboy cred? The text in question is The Harrovian, published by students of the famed public school, Harrow. In the closing article ("The Editor Out of Bounds") of the July 1828 issue, we encounter Keats’s opening lines of Endymion used to characterize the joyful way in which the young approach the world (192). [8] The editor, Robert Aris Willmott, gets the second line a bit wrong (“The loveliness increaseth,” instead of “Its loveliness increases”), which is commonplace in an era when one could not simply Google a line to check for accuracy (why such misquotations still occur in an era when one can Google for accuracy is a question I address in this essay’s final section). In 1828 Keats had also yet to be republished, so the Harrow students would have relied on being some of the lucky few who had access to a copy of Endymion (or perhaps only read extracts from the poem printed in reviews from the time of its initial publication ten years before). In the next issue (August 1828) the lines appear again, this time coming as an epigraph to Edward Seymour’s essay on John Moultrie’s poetry, and this time with greater accuracy—“Its,” instead of “the,” but still “increaseth” instead of “increases” (198).

7.        As far as I’ve been able to discover, with the exception of quotations of the poem in reviews from around the time of its publication, these quotations from the Harrovian in summer 1828 are the earliest instances of the line being quoted. [9] Just over twenty years later, in July 1849, the Literary Gazette could refer to the line as “Keats’ often-quoted line” ("To Correspondents"). But how exactly did that come to be the case? Endymion was not exactly a bestseller, and editions of Keats’s poetry were few and far between before the late 1840s. [10] I suspect that schools in the 1820s and 1830s were a vital breeding ground for Keats’s legacy, in part because of the access to books otherwise inaccessible which they may have enabled. Clearly there were some Keats fans at Harrow in 1828, and we know as well that a few years later at Cambridge, Keats was one of the favored poets discussed at the meetings of the Apostles Club, whose members included Alfred Tennyson, Arthur Hallam, and Keats’s eventual biographer, Richard Monckton Milnes. One institutional factor which affects the early history of quoting Keats, then, is the nature of the elite educational system in the decades after Keats’s death.

8.        With the case of Harrow and The Harrovian one must also place quoting Keats within the broader context of periodical writing at the end of the Regency period. Of course, during Keats’s career periodical criticism played a significant part in shaping his contemporary reception as well as setting the stakes for his posthumous life (Adonais begins with a preface blaming Keats’s death on the cruelty and bad taste of reviewers). During Willmott’s precocious entry into the world of periodical magazines in 1828, his quoting of Keats slots into a still ongoing debate about poetry, of which Keats and the Cockney School attacks were just one example of the broader transformations in periodical culture which had been in process since the end of the eighteenth century. [11] Given the increase in number and cultural influence of periodicals during the early-nineteenth century, it’s not surprising that Harrow’s school newspaper would be modelled on popular periodicals of the day, nor is it surprising that after editing the Harrovian Willmott contributed to Fraser’s Magazine and the London Magazine in the years immediately after completing his schooling at Harrow. In June 1830, Willmott publishes his first of many pieces for Fraser’s, and he opens his discussion of “The Minor Greek Poets” by quoting the opening to Endymion yet again. In his praise of Keats in the essay, Willmott buttresses his judgment by quoting the Edinburgh Review ascribing to Keats “‘a pervading tunefulness of nature’” ("Greek Poets" 608). At first glance one might assume that Willmott quotes from Francis Jeffrey’s tentative defense of Keats published in August 1820, but it actually comes from Thomas Carlyle’s review of John Gibson Lockhart’s The Life of Robert Burns in the Edinburgh in December 1828. In context, Carlyle’s comment is more faint praise than Willmott makes it seem: the full quotation is “a certain vague pervading tunefulness of nature” (281). More importantly, the full context also makes the connection to the attacks on Keats clearer: Lockhart was, of course, the writer of the Cockney School essays in Blackwood’s Magazine. All of this is to say, when Willmott quotes Keats in Fraser’s in 1830, and when he and others quote Keats in the Harrovian in 1828, they are continuing the periodical jockeying over Keats’s reputation that began a decade earlier with the famous attacks in Blackwood’s, the Quarterly Review, and elsewhere.

9.        While we may tend to look toward Shelley’s Adonais as the most significant early shaper of Keats’s posthumous reputation, it’s worth recalling that the periodical wars to which Shelley was responding by elegizing Keats continued to be fought long after they first began when Keats was still alive. Willmott’s defense of Keats (and his marshalling of the Edinburgh Review’s opinion as evidence in his favor) no doubt felt necessary when one could encounter fresh attacks on Keats such as John Wilson Croker’s in the Quarterly Review in 1833. Fifteen years after his notoriously caustic review of Endymion, Croker deliberately sets out to do the same to Alfred Tennyson’s 1832 volume. In a letter to Quarterly Review publisher John Murray, Croker promised to “undertake Tennyson and … make another Keats of him” (qtd. in Sherwood 41). It was not only that Croker wanted to create a similar effect on Tennyson. He saw the two poets as committing similar affronts to appropriate poetic taste. Croker opens the review by noting that Tennyson is “another and a brighter star of that galaxy or milky way of poetry of which the lamented Keats was the harbinger” (81). Quickly, though, a surprising turn of humility seems to occur, as Croker claims to “take this occasion to sing our palinode on the subject of ‘Endymion’” (82). He goes on to apologize for his short-sightedness, which prevented him from “foresee[ing] the unbounded popularity which has carried it through we know not how many editions.” Lastly he requests that “the publisher of the new and beautiful edition of Keats’s works now in the press, with graphic illustrations by Calcott and Turner, will do us the favour and the justice to notice our conversion in his prolegomena” (82).

10.        Of course, Endymion had not gone through any editions beyond the first, and no such edition of his collected works existed except as a fiction employed by Croker to mock any who might be trying to rescue Keats from the stigma placed upon him by the Quarterly back in 1818. The fiction demonstrates that Keats’s posthumous reputation was continually affected by actual material bibliographic practices and figural representations of them. And what matters here is that, according to Croker, not only is Keats not being read, he’s not being published, and not being published in particular ways: namely, with the elaborations of visual elements provided by fashionable painters like Callcott and Turner. He was being published, however, in one of the most popular venues for poetry publishing during the late 1820s and 1830s: in the literary annuals and gift books which were adorned with engravings of paintings by figures like Callcott and Turner. Keats’s "On a Picture of Leander" and “In drear nighted December” had appeared in Thomas Hood’s The Gem (in 1829 and 1830, respectively). We might thus read Croker’s crass posthumous mockery as rooted in defensiveness. Seeing that poetry was being published in other forms than expensive illustrated editions, and seeing that the dastardly sapling Keats was taking root in the popular soil of the annuals, Croker feels compelled to lash out not only at the individual poet, but also at the systemic shifts in the publishing of poetry. [12] Just as with the initial attacks on Keats, this later one can be read as a sign of concern about the change Keats represented.

11.        Given that in the 1820s and 30s Keats’s reputation was still being wrestled over in the pages of the same magazines which sought to silence him when he was still breathing, we ought to read Willmott’s instances of quoting Keats in periodicals not simply as neutral expressions of appreciation, but as willful acts of contestation. Willmott and his young peers at the Harrovian were seeking to make names for themselves within the periodical arena, and one strategy for so doing was to renew and extend the cause of defending another youngster who had fought in the same space a decade before. In short, these early instances of quoting Keats’s most famous line play a part in making it the most famous of his lines, and they ought to be understood as responses to the material and medial conditions of late-Regency/early-Victorian periodical writing, through which Keats’s steady spread into popular discourse had to be negotiated and actively pursued.

12.        While the Literary Gazette calls the opening line of Endymion “Keats’ often-quoted line” in 1849, its popularity surely experienced a surge after 1857. The clear reason for the spike is the line’s presence over the archway at the entrance to the Manchester Art Treasures Exhibition, which ran from May to October 1857. Visitors would have seen it there, but it also became a common reference point in writings about the exhibition in newspapers and periodicals during that year. Announcements in April describing the upcoming exhibition often noted the presence of Keats’s verse: on 10 April 1857 both the Globe and Morning Chronicle used the same notice from the Manchester Guardian, which noted, “At the eastern (or entrance) end, we find the well-known and very appropriate line—‘A thing of beauty is a joy for ever!’” Over the next few weeks, leading up to the opening of the exhibition on 5 May, similar notices appeared in newspapers across the country, giving Keats’s line probably its most concentrated period of quotation since the first publication of Endymion nearly four decades prior. One wonders if John Wilson Croker came across any of these newspaper articles, and if he did, was he perhaps still galled that his attempts to relegate Endymion to obscurity in 1818 had failed, thanks in part to the popularity of that one eminently quotable opening line? While I am generally disinclined to dance on anyone’s grave, I also cannot help noting that Croker died just a few months after so many newspapers admiringly quoted Keats in April 1857. Perhaps it was Croker who ultimately found himself snuffed out by an article.

13.        If it’s any consolation to Croker, at least he wasn’t alive in October to witness an even greater concentration of approving quotations of Keats. During the months the exhibition was open, reviews and notices of it frequently mentioned Keats’s line, but it garnered even greater attention at the exhibition’s final day, 17 October 1857. After an orchestra played music to mark the conclusion, Thomas Fairbairn, Chairman of the Executive Committee for the exhibition, offered a brief speech to officially close the exhibition: “… when you have left this building the Exhibition of Art-Treasures is closed. I hope that you will never forget the liberality which has enabled that Exhibition to be formed, and that hereafter all of you will be enabled to realise, the truth of the poet’s line—‘A thing of beauty is a joy for ever’” ("Close"). By all accounts these remarks were met with robust cheers from the nearly twenty-thousand assembled guests. Keats’s words thus announced the exhibition in early advertisements for it, they oversaw visitors over the course of five months as they entered the building, and they echoed throughout that structure amid the applause marking the end of the exhibition.

14.        In this instance we again see the importance of the periodical press, although not with respect to the same culture of literary reviewing as that which animates Wilmott’s quoting of Keats in 1828–30. This case also involves multiple media through which the quoting of Keats occurs (architecture, image, print, voice). To further establish the connection between this example and my final section focused on quoting Keats via image-sharing websites, there is one additional nineteenth-century medium to which I will briefly turn: photography. The connection between Keats and photography is an indirect and subtle one, but the presence of his opening line of Endymion at the Manchester Art Treasures Exhibition suggests potential ways we might illuminate that connection further.

15.        As photographic technologies continued to evolve in the first few decades after Louis Dageurre and Henry Fox Talbot in the 1830s each separately developed and promoted their image-making methods, several common aspects of photography’s cultural significance began to emerge. As Steve Edwards notes in The Making of English Photography, “The most striking feature of nineteenth-century English writing on photography is its overall sense of unease” (15). One primary form of that unease had to do with its uncertain status as art. Even though Talbot referred to his process as “the Art of Photogenic Drawing,” many viewed photography as no more than a purely mechanical process, one which involved little to no intervention of the artistic mind. Photographers and advocates for photography had to work hard to convince people that, as one correspondent in The Photographic Journal put it in May 1859, “photographers can think with their cameras as well as painters can with their brushes, or sculptors with their chisels” ("Photography and Art"). Even as late as 1861, The Royal Commissioners responsible for organizing the International Exhibition of 1862 thought otherwise about the apparatus and products of the camera. In deciding on the taxonomy for that exhibition, they followed the Great Exhibition of 1851 in classing photography among the “Machinery” section instead of among the “Fine Arts,” to the great disappointment and ire of the members of the Photographic Society. A great debate ensued, with the Photographic Society attempting to convince the Commissioners that photography did not belong “among the ploughs, harrows, and watering cans!” as one writer for the Photographic Journal put it (Edwards 165–7). Sadly for the photographers, they did not prevail, and in a rather nasty twist of fate, many of their works of art (or rather, works of manufacture) were damaged, since the pictures were displayed on an upper floor, where intense heat and humidity caused many to start decaying (Edwards 189).

16.         Although Edwards does not discuss it in his book, which treats at length the 1862 International Exhibition controversy, there was an earlier exhibition at which photography was displayed unambiguously as a fine art: the Manchester Art Treasures Exhibition. The executive committee designed the exhibition to demonstrate Britain’s wealth of privately owned art works (on loan from the nation’s nobility), and, in a similarly nationalistic vein, to educate the public about art and cultural history. As Elizabeth Pergam argues in her book-length study of the Exhibition, there was also a clear commercial impulse at work, even though the organizing committee members tried hard to divorce those concerns from the supposedly more lofty cultural and artistic ones. It’s not entirely clear why the committee so readily defined “Art Treasures” as inclusive of “Oil Paintings, Water-colour Drawings, Engravings, and Photographs” along with various kinds of plastic and decorative arts (Pergam 245). But whatever the reasoning (commercial, educational, art historical, or otherwise), the Manchester Exhibition represents one of the first times that mass numbers of people would have experienced photography in the context of an art exhibition. Some 1.3 million people visited it, and when they did, they were encouraged by Keats’s words to think of photographs as things of beauty capable of providing as much joy as any others.

17.         In addition to its uneasy cultural status, one of the key issues for photography in its infancy revolves around the uncertain ontology of the photographic image. In the early decades of photographic images, writers often explored the tension between the material and (seemingly) immaterial properties of those images. That is, in attempting to explain what precisely photographs were, writers frequently took recourse to quasi-magical explanations, as in Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s 1843 letter to Mary Russell Mitford, where she describes her wonder at the daguerreotype: “Think of a man sitting down in the sun and leaving his facsimile in all its full completion of outline and shadow, steadfast on a plate, at the end of a minute and a half! The Mesmeric disembodiment of spirits strikes one as a degree less marvelous” (qtd. in Fraser 138). Barrett Browning recognizes the material processes at work—the interaction of light and shadow with a chemically treated plate—but as did many other writers, she also poses this interaction as a kind of spiritual, immaterial, magical process.

18.         The tenuous materiality of photography, then, made it difficult for writers to articulate what exactly was the thing of beauty that might be a joy for ever. And moreover, that tenuous materiality was even more tenuous over time. As the Edinburgh Review wrote of photographic processes in 1843, they offered the potential of collapsing time into minute durations that seemed capable of preserving those times and places: “The self-delineated landscape is seized at one epoch of time, and is embalmed amid all the co-existing events of the social and physical world […]; and every picture becomes an authentic chapter in the history of the world” ("Photogenic Drawing" 330). A further temporal complication, however, is raised by the increasing prevalence, over the next few decades, of photographic processes which employed multiple stages. Whereas the daguerreotype, as discussed by both Barrett Browning and the Edinburgh Review, involved a single process (light acting upon a plate to produce a positive image thereon), what became the standard later was the dual, negative-positive process. One advantage of this two-part method was that multiple copies could be produced from a single negative. That reproducibility, as in Keats, meant that permanence was more likely, since an object could be made and remade again and again. But that dual process also rendered less clear the ontology of the image. We see this tension on display in one of the reviews of the photographic gallery at the Manchester Art Treasures Exhibition, where a writer for the Liverpool and Manchester Photographic Journal (later the British Journal of Photography) begins by noting the “striking omission” of “direct photography” (such as daguerreotypes, which by 1857 were becoming far less common). He regrets that “all that we see here are the result of a subsequent process […] the original negatives are nowhere visible” ("Exhibition" 126). It might seem odd to us that a visitor to a gallery of photography would complain about not having the negatives on display, but that fact demonstrates the extent to which the photographic object was not yet a culturally fixed one. All of this is to say, early photographic discourse shows how the technology posed challenges for how to locate the materiality of this particular aesthetic object. It offered the sense of an eternally fixed image, “an authentic chapter in the history of the world,” as the Edinburgh Review puts it. But it also seemed multiply-distributed across space and time thanks to its reproducibility, and as would later become clear, due to its liability to change.

19.         We see these dynamics play out in the commercial realm of photography as well, where once again Keats’s words prove rather useful in their elasticity and applicability. There are scores of examples from the late-nineteenth century of Endymion’s opening line being used in advertisements, for everything from clothing to stove polish, and, in a number of examples, for photography. Take the case of John Rowlinson of Bury, who in 1857 owned a “Photographic and Fine Art Gallery.” In the Bury Times in October of 1857, as the Manchester Art Treasures Exhibition was coming to a close, Rowlinson was promoting his services by using the opening line of Endymion as the epigram for his advertisements. The notice refers to the “beautiful Art of Photography,” and encourages patrons to take advantage of the ample natural light which flows into his newly constructed gallery for the purposes of “tak[ing] Correct Likenesses in any kind of weather.” The advertisement concludes with this rather macabre warning: “Call at JOHN ROWLINSON’S Photographic Establishment, 17, PRINCESS-STREET, BURY, and have your shadow taken before the substance fades away.” Besides reminding potential customers of their own mortality, Rowlinson’s advertisement capitalizes on the tensions inherent to the nature of photography which Keats’s line captures as well. Photographs are mere shadows, and yet they persist and endure after the substance fades away; things of beauty have a material basis, and yet the joy which they also are transcends that finitude. Even if this advertisement were not inspired by the presence of Keats’s words at the Manchester Art Treasures Exhibition, the congruence of the three—the line from Endymion, the popularization of photography as art at the exhibition, and Rowlinson’s advertisements in the same month that Keats’s words and the exhibition were being linked in numerous newspapers across the country—nonetheless creates a moment during which the quoting of Keats’s most famous sentiment was closely associated with this new media form and how it was understood in relation to aesthetics.

20.        One way to link my first two stories with my last is with the concept of the middlebrow, which Brian Bates, in the introduction to this collection, offers as a valuable heuristic for making sense of Keats and/in popular culture. Both periodical culture—which during the Romantic period moved more and more towards democratization and away from its roots in gentility—and photography—which began as the product of Talbot’s aristocratic leisure but quickly transformed into a mass, popular technology—fulfill several of Beth Driscoll’s eight family attributes of the middlebrow: “middle class, reverential towards elite culture, entrepreneurial, mediated, feminized, emotional, recreational, and earnest” (6). The story of quoting Keats across the nineteenth century is undoubtedly one told through and enabled by the particular affordances of the media cultures of the time; it is also a story of how those media-ecological entanglements emerge from and help shape ideas about the aesthetic, about class, and about the democratization of culture. Keats becomes, and continues to be, an effective tool for these mechanisms at least in part because of his own work’s status as decidedly middlebrow, whether conceived of through Christopher Ricks’s embarrassed Keats, Marjorie Levinson’s illegitimate Keats, Nicholas Roe’s unapologetically Cockney Keats, or any number of other accounts which position Keats in the liminal spaces between the high and the low, the elite and the popular. The forms of mediation which give us quoted Keats in the nineteenth century are themselves likewise situated in the space of the middlebrow. [13] I turn lastly, then, to that intensely middlebrow contemporary realm of mediation, the internet, and especially that corner of the internet through which individuals self-fashion themselves through acts of quotation.

21.         My significant jump forward in time may seem to place us in a wildly different media environment than that of the nineteenth century. As I’ve shown, however, a focus on quoting Keats in popular culture in the past is one that leads us into a rich, multiply-mediated ecosystem. The mechanisms of contemporary new media are certainly different in kind and degree, but they nonetheless exist in relation to the broader history of media that helps illuminate Keats’s reception beginning two hundred years ago. Just as a focus on quoting Keats in the periodicals of the 1820s and 30s can help reveal the particularities of that media-specific moment; and just as a focus on quoting Keats around the Manchester Art Treasures Exhibition shows a confluence between the democratization of art, the continuing spread of periodical culture, and the emergence of the photographic arts; so too does a focus on quoting Keats on the wilds of the internet demonstrate the way that the middlebrow propagates through non-human media agents as much as through conscious intentional human actors. With respect to Keats’s presence on quotation websites, and particularly on image-sharing sites like Instagram and Pinterest, my primary interests lie with what happens when quoting goes awry. As I suggested with the initial examples of the Harrovian’s slight misquotations, the internet is not where misinformation, misattribution, and other forms of departures from reality and fact began; however, I focus on the mistaken examples of quoting Keats on the internet because they are particularly intriguing for their connections with how quoting propagates through digital platforms.

22.        The variety of misquotations and misattributions associated with Keats floating around the internet is impressive, though not necessarily atypical. Garson O’Toole, the pseudonymous founder of the website, Quote Investigator (quoteinvestigator.com), and author of Hemingway Didn’t Say That: The Truth Behind Familiar Quotations, has spent nearly a decade attempting to catalogue, correct, and explain the origins of the many spurious quotations that circulate on the internet in various fora. [14] With the exception of one brief mention with respect to F. Scott Fitzgerald and "Ode to a Nightingale," the only “John Keats” who appears on the Quote Investigator is the twentieth-century American writer who wrote a biography of Dorothy Parker. Even so, the range of misattributed Keats quotations helps to illuminate some of O’Toole’s types of misattributions and the mechanisms that produce them. [15]

23.        Among the examples I’ve found related to Keats are the following: lines from W. B. Yeats’s poem, "Aedh Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven," which likely emerges from the similarity of their names (not to mention the fact that The Smiths have long asserted that Keats and Yeats are on your side). [16] Another example of this sort, which involves both the similarity of their names and their alphabetical proximity, is this section from a speech by John F. Kennedy: “The problems of the world cannot possibly be solved by skeptics or cynics, whose horizons are limited by the obvious realities. We need men who can dream of things that never were.” [17] Thanks to Jane Campion’s film Bright Star, which featured a significant amount of dialogue lifted directly from Keats’s letters alongside invented sentences and conversations, one can find at least one example of what O’Toole calls the “historical fiction” mechanism, or when a quotation from a piece of historical fiction gets attributed directly to the person depicted in the fiction. In Bright Star, for instance, Keats as portrayed by Ben Whishaw says to Abbie Cornish as Fanny Brawne, “We have woven a web, you and I, attached to this world but a separate world of our own invention.” The sentence has circulated widely, sometimes with images from the scene in the film, but more commonly with simply a textual attribution to Keats. While many misquotations and misattributions have fairly transparent explanations behind them, others confound (at least my) understanding. I’ve yet to concoct a plausible explanation for how these lines from Demi Lovato’s song, "Skyscraper," came to be connected with Keats:

Go on and try to tear me down
I will be rising from the ground
Like a skyscraper, like a skyscraper
To the credit of the internet and its users, some sharing the image clearly do so in jest and in appreciation of the absurdity. One reblogger on tumblr offers this valuable corrective: “Obviously it wasn’t John Keats, it was Sylvia Plath.” [18]

24.        Other examples fall under O’Toole’s “ventriloquy” category, which involves statements that seem plausible to attribute to the person in question. For instance, one can perhaps understand why Keats might have written something like “I am profoundly enchanted with the flowing complexity in you” to Fanny Brawne. A variety of quotations about failure have also been attributed to Keats, perhaps because of his statement from the preface to Endymion, “There is not a fiercer hell than the failure in a great object” (Poems 102), as well as his more accepting perspective on failure from his 8 October 1818 letter to James Augustus Hessey: “I was never afraid of failure; for I would sooner fail than not be among the greatest” (Letters I: 374). While those two quotations do appear in results for a Google search for “Keats failure,” the far more common results, at least in the case of images, involve some version of this misattribution: “Don’t be discouraged by a failure. It can be a positive experience. Failure is, in a sense, the highway to success.” What’s distinctive about this last quotation, though, is that it’s been around (in this form or in similar ones) and attributed to Keats since the late-nineteenth century. We see the collision of quoting practices from 140 years ago and those of today when encountering, for instance, the 1877 New Cyclopedia of Prose Illustrations via Google Books. [19] Here quoting Keats (although through a misattribution) occurs in a particular print context in 1877 which persists and evolves as it enters into the digital context of 2019, and it does so through the particularities of mass digitization efforts, OCR technologies, and search capabilities.

25.        Although O’Toole uses the resources of the twenty-first century to do the work of tracking misquotations and misattributions, and he does also gesture toward the causal relationship between the proliferation of misinformation and digital media, I suggest that understanding the mechanisms of (mis)quoting in our era requires more attention to that causality. That is not to say that in the era of print periodicals and books that those media did not exert a causal force on such dynamics. How Keats became associated with the failure quotation in the New Cyclopedia of Prose Illustrations likely involved the specific ways that books like it were produced, as much as the association of Keats and some of his writing with failure. In the digital context, however, the mechanisms involved are often further removed from human activity and rooted more deeply in the materiality of computational processes. As such, the nature of quoting Keats (or anyone else) in contemporary media needs to be understood as part of a broader history of mediation, while also recognizing the distinctiveness of new media.

26.        My final example gestures toward some of the specific ways in which the particularities of digital media drive potential misattributions in ways distinct from the earlier history I’ve discussed thus far. The misattribution in question (“Life is divine Chaos. It’s messy, and it’s supposed to be that way”) I first encountered by searching for #johnkeats on Instagram, and have since encountered it on several other sites. There is perhaps an argument to be made that this example falls under the “ventriloquy” category, given that Keats’s famous coinage, negative capability, has led to a wide range of ideas associating Keats with “being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason” (Letters I: 193). Keats fans might thus find it plausible to attribute to him the notion of life as divine chaos, the messiness of which must be accepted and not irritably resisted. More importantly, though, this example illustrates some of the nebulous computational processes that likely led to the misattribution happening in the first place and contributed to its spread. A longer and slightly different version of the quotation (without the messiness phrase) is elsewhere attributed to solbeam, which is the pen name of a blogger who runs a site called “seekingsol.” In a post from August 2005 she wrote that the bit about life being divine chaos was what she would say to her 14-year-old self, had she the opportunity to do so. How, then, does that post from 2005 end up as a quotation misattributed to Keats?

27.        The quotation first started circulating and became popular on the internet in the form of a few similar images, with the attribution always to solbeam (a reverse image search for one of the popular iterations of this image comes up with matches as far back as February 2008). The shift to Keats appears to have resulted from the quotation being used in The Keatyn Chronicles, a YA romance series by Jillian Dodd, published since 2012, and now on its twelfth volume. Keatyn is the name of the protagonist, which could have led to confusion on its own merits, but the confusion gets even worse because Keatyn’s nickname is Keats. One of her boyfriends, Brooklyn, likes to quote John Keats to her, which he does on multiple occasions while saying, “Keats for my Keats” (55, 160, 208). Early in the first book Endymion gets a nod from Brooklyn, who utters the poem’s opening line while cuddling with Keatyn (53). Soon after this first romantic encounter, another tryst likewise involves quotation, but in this case he notes, “‘Life is messy. Like that quote we like … Life is divine chaos. It’s messy, and it’s supposed to be that way’” (163). The italics seem to indicate that only “Life is divine chaos” refers to “that quote we like,” but in the instances when the sentences are attributed to Keats, the second sentence, which in the novel is Brooklyn’s gloss on the quotation, is always included as part of the quotation. Neither character in this scene refers to any part of the quotation as coming from Keats, but Brooklyn does refer to Keatyn as Keats just a few lines after he says the phrase. The simple textual proximity of “Keats” and the two sentences which get attributed to the poet seems unlikely to be the result of some individual’s misreading of the scene. Instead, it seems more likely that the algorithmic processes underlying the complex workings of internet virality, textual transformation, and memetic recirculation are responsible.

28.        One final detail adds to the likelihood that this particular misattribution results as much from machine readers as from human ones. In one image attributing “Life is divine chaos” to Keats, the attribution is actually to “Jhon Keats.” While a simple typo is a possibility, and Jhon is a rare alternative spelling for John, it is also a common mistake that occurs with optical character recognition software (OCR). Whitney Trettien writes about print-on-demand editions of Milton’s Areopagitica, including one titled English Reprints Jhon Milton Areopagitica, and analyzes the “remediated, dismediated strangeness” of OCR reprints. [20] Print books which have been scanned (or microform versions of print books that have been scanned) and then have OCR performed upon them often result in high error rates, especially with older typographical conventions. But OCR is unreliable with other forms of text as well, such as the cursive scripts used to create image-based memes with quotations from, or misattributions to, famous writers like Keats. And so we arrive at an image attributing “Life is divine chaos” to Jhon Keats, a process which begins with a popular meme attributing the same words to solbeam, which then appears in a novel featuring a character nicknamed Keats, which then transmigrates into a new meme attributing the words to John Keats, and through further machinic processes, John becomes Jhon. As digitized texts like Dodd’s Keatyn Chronicles get acted upon by human users and by automated processes, strange new mechanisms produce unexpected instances of quoting like this one. While such mechanisms surely differ in degree and kind from the mechanisms of, say, periodical writing in the 1820s and 30s, or newspaper accounts of the Manchester Art Treasures Exhibition in 1857, we ought to treat each as part of a broader history of Keats’s pop cultural afterlife, which is always necessarily a history of mediation.

29.        One further scene from Dodd’s book nicely illustrates the overlapping of differently mediated engagements with Keats’s legacy and how they shape what quoting Keats means now. A few chapters after Brooklyn’s “divine chaos” comments, he presents Keatyn with a birthday gift: “an old book, the cover faded and the words Poetical Works by John Keats embossed on the spine.” After Brooklyn describes the gift as “‘Keats for my Keats,’” his Keats looks into the other Keats, where she finds “an old inscription” reading “1903, To my love. / —S,” and a new one, from Brooklyn, reading

Even Keats speaks of chaos.
There is nothing stable in the world; uproar’s your only music.
All my love,
B. (208)
The palimpsestic inscriptions layer together a history of affective relationships crafted through the nexus of Keats’s poetry. First, a complete edition from around the turn of the century, when many monumentalizing editions of Keats’s work were being published (contra Croker’s mocking reevaluation of Keats’s legacy in 1833), remediates Keats to his posthumous audience, and a member of that audience uses the book to transfer the cathected emotions linked to Keats to his “love.” That engagement is then furthered by Brooklyn’s new annotation, where he characterizes this twenty-first-century attachment through “that quote we like” about “divine chaos,” which he connects to Keats with an accurate quotation (Keats does indeed write about there being “nothing stable in the world” in a letter to his brothers in January 1818). The final piece of this complicated web of connections exists outside of Dodd’s novel, where the collocation of Keats, Keatyn, and “divine chaos” establishes a new, not entirely human-made node in the network of quotations which help to create our popular Keats.

Works Cited

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Brewton, Sue. "Kennedy Morphs into Keats: Another Reason to Get Your Inspirational Quotes from a Reliable Source." Sue Brewton’s Blog: On Quotes and Misquotes, 17 July 2014, suebrewton.com/tag/we-need-men-who-can-dream-of-things-that-never-were/. Accessed 2 Jul. 2018.

Burkett, Andrew. Romantic Mediations: Media Theory and British Romanticism. SUNY Press, 2016. Bury Times, 10 Oct. 1857. British Newspaper Archive. www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/.

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"Close of the Art Treasures Exhibition." London Daily News, 19 Oct. 1857. British Newspaper Archive. www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/.

Cox, Jeffrey N. Poetry and Politics in the Cockney School. Cambridge UP, 1998.

[Croker, John Wilson.] "Art. IV.—Poems by Alfred Tennyson. pp. 163. London. 12mo. 1833." Quarterly Review, Apr. 1833, pp. 81–96. HathiTrust. hdl.handle.net/2027/uiug.30112075891496. Accessed 17 Jul. 2020.

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Foster, Elon. New Cyclopedia of Prose Illustrations, Adapted to Christian Teaching. New York, Thomas Y. Crowell, 1877. 2nd series. Google Books. books.google.com/books?id=P0MoAAAAYAAJ. Accessed 17 Jul. 2020.

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Higgins, David. Romantic Genius and the Literary Magazine: Biography, Celebrity, Politics. Routledge, 2005.

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———. The Poems of John Keats, edited by Jack Stillinger, Belknap Press, 1978.

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———, and Maureen McLane. "The Medium of Romantic Poetry." The Cambridge Companion to British Romantic Poetry, edited by James Chandler and Maureen N. McLane, Cambridge UP, 2008, pp. 239–62.

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MacGillivray, J. R. Keats: A Bibliography and Reference Guide with an Essay on Keats’ Reputation. U of Toronto P, 1949.

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Notes

[1] All citations from Keats’s poetry are to The Poems of John Keats, edited by Jack Stillinger. Citations include poem titles and line numbers. BACK

[2] In her book Quotation Marks, Marjorie Garber poses a similar sort of iterability with respect to quoting’s relationship to authority: “It instates an authority elsewhere, and, at the same time, it imparts that authority, temporarily, to the speaker or writer” (2). While Keats may not have had much cultural authority in the first decade when he began to be quoted (the 1820s), the authority accrued to him and to writers quoting him gained further relevance precisely through the nature of quotation which Garber identifies. BACK

[3] One thinks, for instance, of Marjorie Levinson’s argument in Keats’s Life of Allegory that Keats develops his poetics out of his position of alienation with respect to his class identity. In more positive terms, both Charles Rzepka, in his reading of "On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer," and Jeffrey Cox, in his analysis of “Cockney classicism,” suggest how we might view Keats’s alienation and belatedness as more unalloyed advantages, as opposed to causes of symptomatic anxious responses. BACK

[4] An important early articulation of this term comes via the title of Lauren Neefe and Yohei Igarashi’s 2013 MLA roundtable devoted to the topic. More recently, in his Romantic Mediations: Media Theory and British Romanticism, Andrew Burkett offers a rich overview of, and exciting ways forward for, the subfield. His book shows how writers in the romantic period “express[ed] diverse, flexible conceptions of both media and mediation … before the media concept became distilled later in the nineteenth century into its modern sense as the notion of the technological channel of communication” (3). BACK

[5] Kate Rumbold’s Shakespeare and the Eighteenth-Century Novel: Cultures of Quotation from Samuel Richardson to Jane Austen provides a useful analog for how quotation operates with respect to different genres and media. Her focus is on how quotations of Shakespeare in novels serve to buttress Shakespeare’s growing reputation, while also helping to lend cultural significance to the novel form itself. The “cultures of quotation” that influence the novelistic treatments involve other forms of media, including the stage, periodicals, and the conventions of polite conversation. See especially 21–48. BACK

[6] Garber discusses the closing lines of Keats’s "Ode on a Grecian Urn," and the thorny issue of who speaks them, as an exemplary case of “the quotation as floating signifier” (29). While in scholarly contexts there has been much debate about what precisely Keats quotes the urn saying, in the many examples Garber cites from a variety of pop cultural sources, the lines are unambiguously credited as something Keats himself uttered. I suggest a similar dynamic plays out with the opening line of Endymion, which signifies in vastly different ways as it moves from and between scholarly and popular contexts. BACK

[7] See for instance Sarah Wooton’s work on representations of Keats in nineteenth-century visual art, and Ann Weirda Rowland’s work on Keats’s reception in turn-of-the-century Boston. BACK

[8] Keats appears elsewhere in the Harrovian, including on the third page of the first issue’s opening essay, "The Greek Drama," where “the lamented Keats” is referred to as “the most pure and imaginative poet of the age, and one in whom the springs of sweet and honied thoughts, were more bright and beautiful than in any writer, Shakespeare excepted, since the days of Homer” (3). BACK

[9] It would be difficult if not impossible to rule out that other earlier examples exist. And of course there are limitations to relying on digital databases in performing such searches, given that they are incomplete and are prone to errors of both the technical sort (text searches in such databases rely on optical character recognition software, which can have high error rates) and the human variety (as when metadata about a digitized text’s publication date is incorrect). However, based on searches for “thing of beauty is a joy” across multiple databases (HathiTrust, Google Books, British Periodicals, British Newspaper Archive), there are almost no results in the 1820s, a clear but slow uptick in the 1830s and 40s, and sizable jump in the 1850s. In the British Newspaper Archive, for instance, there are no results until 1832, and almost eight times as many results for 1850–9 as for 1830–49. As I discuss later in this essay, the jump in the 1850s is largely thanks to the line’s presence at the Manchester Art Treasures Exhibition in 1857 (in that year the British Newspaper Archive returns 123 results for the phrase). BACK

[10] The first collected edition of Keats’s work appeared in 1829 in Paris in a volume collecting Coleridge, Shelley, and Keats together, published by the Galignani brothers. While other editions appeared in the 1830s from American publishers (who were not constrained by copyright), it was not until 1840 that an edition appeared in England. See J. R. MacGillivray’s Keats: A Bibliography and Reference Guide for more detail. BACK

[11] Much has been written about Keats and the Cockney School attacks in recent decades, including the significant reappraisals in the late-90s by Nicholas Roe and Jeffrey Cox. Duncan Wu offers this helpful summation of current critical consensus about what the attacks meant: “In Z.’s anatomy, a ‘Cockney’ lacked taste and education but was full of ‘vulgar’ pretension. The term was a class slur by which the well-educated Tories portrayed their liberal counterparts as ill-bred social climbers” (37). As both Roe and Cox argue, the attacks signaled a recognition, from the attackers themselves, of the potential social and cultural power that such “ill-bred” figures represented. For treatments of the broader dynamics at play in periodical writing and literary reviewing during the period, see Richard Cronin’s Paper Pellets, Karen Fang’s Romantic Writing and the Empire of Signs, David Higgins’s Romantic Genius and the Literary Magazine, Lucy Newlyn’s Reading, Writing, and Romanticism, Mark Parker’s Literary Magazines and British Romanticism, Mark Schoenfield’s British Periodicals and Romantic Identity, and David Stewart’s Romantic Magazines and Metropolitan Literary Culture. BACK

[12] Lee Erickson argues that economic forces were largely to blame for the steep drop in the numbers of poetry books published in England after 1820, when the market for such books hit its peak. He notes that the popularity of annuals and gift books helped to exacerbate the other forces that were making it difficult for publishers to invest in the publication of volumes of poetry. See especially 26–48. BACK

[13] Driscoll’s focus is on the contemporary texts and institutions of the middlebrow, but she (and other scholars of the middlebrow) have stressed the importance of the concept’s emergence at the turn of the twentieth century, and the “family resemblance” definitional approach Driscoll takes also allows for a fluid application across different periods and contexts (5–6). With respect to Keats, his early critics certainly cast him as what would become recognizable as middlebrow about a century later (the Cockney School attacks arguably characterize Keats’s poetry with all eight of Driscoll’s features of the middlebrow); Keats slowly becomes associated with high culture as he enters the canon by the early-twentieth century; and he then increasingly becomes associated with middlebrow institutions later in the century, in part through his quotability in various popular culture contexts. BACK

[14] The pseudonym belongs to Gregory F. Sullivan, a computer scientist at Johns Hopkins University. BACK

[15] O’Toole groups the types into four categories: Group Error, Reader Error, Author Error, and Finders Keepers. BACK

[16] O’Toole classes “similar names” as one common form in the Reader Error category. BACK

[17] For a thorough explanation on the origin of this misattribution, see Sue Brewton’s blog post devoted to the topic: suebrewton.com/tag/we-need-men-who-can-dream-of-things-that-never-were/. BACK

[18] thetruthatallhazards.tumblr.com/post/41913988911/ladypersies-obviously-it-wasnt-john-keats#_=_ BACK

[19] The full quotation in Elon Foster’s New Cyclopedia is as follows: “Albeit failure in any cause produces a correspondent misery in the soul, yet it is, in a sense, the highway to success, inasmuch as every discovery of what is false leads us to seek earnestly after what is true, and every fresh experience points out some form of error which we shall afterward carefully eschew” (320). Other books attribute the quotation in this form to Keats, but as far as I have discovered, Foster’s is the earliest one. BACK

[20] Trettien distinguishes between print-on-demand facsimile editions (produced using images of scanned books) and OCR editions (which harvest text from scanned images and then create print books meant to resemble modern typography). Currently on Amazon one can find two different copies of facsimile editions of Keats’s 1820 volume which list the author’s name as “Jhon Keats.” With the facsimile editions, OCR is still used to automate information about the texts, such as the title and author’s name. BACK