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James Najarian, Victorian Keats: Manliness, Sexuality, and Desire

Sunday, April 20, 2008 - 09:35
James Najarian, Victorian Keats: Manliness, Sexuality, and Desire. New York: Palgrave, 2003. x + 240pp. $110.00 (Hdbk; ISBN-10: 0-333-98583-4).

Reviewed by
Peggy Dunn Bailey

In Victorian Keats: Manliness, Sexuality, and Desire, James Najarian traces the influence of Keats upon the ways that male sexuality came to be understood and expressed in the Victorian era. One of the most valuable and insightful elements of Najarian's discussion, however, is that he extends his analysis beyond the Victorian era to the World War 1 era poetry of Wilfred Owen and to appropriations of Keats's "story" by contemporary artists struggling to find a language for the horrors of HIV/AIDS and its legacy, especially for the gay community. Doing so solidifies his point that Keats became, and continues to be, a phenomenon of sorts, not just because of his poetry but because of the ways in which the poet himself was turned into a symbol of transgressive sexuality and a commentary on its manifestations and potential consequences. Najarian is careful to point out that Keats's "influence" was transmitted not just by his poetry but also by biographies and conceptions of the "doomed," "sensuous," "effeminate" poet and to make clear that his goal is not to uncover the "real" John Keats but to examine the legacy of "Keatsianism" (2). Will we understand Keats and his poetry better if we "prove"/"know" him to have been a latent homosexual instead of (or, titillatingly, in addition to) a frustrated heterosexual? Not necessarily. Najarian astutely points out that late twentieth- and early twenty-first-century attempts to categorize would be unwise for practical and theoretical reasons; we would do well to remain vigilant regarding the dependability of our knowledge of the sexual proclivities and practices of human beings in a culture and a time within which the discourse of sexuality was so very different from our own. Furthermore, such attempts to "out" Keats, the man, are irrelevant to Najarian's project. In the Introduction, Najarian candidly announces his text as "unashamedly a literary history" (2).

In the Introduction, Najarian acknowledges his text's intellectual relationship to Gay and Lesbian Studies and Queer Theory, but also points out the primary ways in which it differs from them: his afore-mentioned, conscious focus on literary rather than cultural studies, and his significant hesitation about imposing contemporary labels on Victorian people and practices. He recognizes the scholars whose work has informed and inspired his own: from Foucault and his ideas of the "creation" of the homosexual, to Hans-Robert Jauss and his emphasis on reception history, to scholars working specifically in sexuality and nineteenth-century culture—Linda Dowling, Richard Dellamora, and Joseph Bristow, for example. Najarian claims in his introduction that what his book contributes to the discussion of nineteenth-century culture and literature is "a sense of the literariness of Victorian sexuality" (5). Through his life and his death, as they were depicted in biographies and letters and imagined by those who applauded or abhorred him, and through his poetry, Keats became the means by which others came to understand, define, and express their sexuality.

Chapter One does not begin with a discussion of Victorian people or events, however. It begins by noting the extent to which Keats's "story" has been "deployed in the representation of HIV/AIDS" in contemporary writing (11). Beginning in this way is, as I have already suggested, a particularly effective strategy by which Najarian shows, from the beginning, that Keats, through his life, his death, and his poetry, has become something more than a "major poet" to be anthologized and studied in the classroom. Najarian shows that there is such a thing as "Keatsianism"—a cluster of ideas, attitudes, and characteristics that suggest objectless desire, prolonged eroticism, pleasure that seems irrevocably tied to pain, and blurred gender boundaries. After a discussion of contemporary uses of Keats's life and poetry, Najarian takes us back to the first biographies of Keats, Richard Monckton Milnes's two-volume edition of Keats's Life (1848) and the biographies written by Sidney Colvin and William Michael Rossetti (both published in 1887), and details the nineteenth-century preoccupation with the "effeminate" Keats. The discussion of the distinction between "effeminate" and "feminine" in the nineteenth century is particularly helpful. "Effeminate" was not synonymous with "homosexual" in most of the nineteenth century but seems to have been associated primarily with weakness, self-involvement, and moral and civic irresponsibility; "feminine" might suggest culturally approved qualities associated with the female such as purity and fastidiousness (23). The cultural connotations of the disease of "consumption" that Najarian details are also of interest, as consumption was seen as a physical manifestation of spiritual/emotional "infection" (39) and/or the final result of "thwarted desire" (29). This perception of the nature and the power of desire, the ways in which it might, literally, consume us, is at the heart of the fascination that readers had, and still have, with Keats.

The writers upon which Najarian chooses to focus—Tennyson, Arnold, Hopkins, Symonds, Pater, and Owen—responded to Keats in different ways intellectually, emotionally, and poetically, but they did all respond, for it was Keats who provided them with the language whereby they might work through their own emotional/sexual conflicts. Ultimately, Najarian argues, Keats and his poetry helped to create the language of male desire in the nineteenth century. Chapter Two is devoted to an exploration of Tennyson's use of Keats to suggest a language of intimacy, particularly male-to-male intimacy (68). There is an insightful discussion of sections of In Memoriam which shows Tennyson "out-Keatsing Keats" with his lush language and imagery (67), and a fascinating reading of one of the poems Tennyson chose to suppress, "O Darling Room," which echoes Keats's "On First Looking into Chapman's Homer" and suggests male-to-male intimacy (emotional, if not physical) as it was written about a room shared by Tennyson and Hallam. Chapter Three, with its discussion of Arnold's "manipulation" (86) of Keats's poetry in order to distance, display, and elegize parts of himself is particularly well-argued. The "anxiety about masculinity" that led Arnold to repudiate Romanticism (72-73) has been noted by other scholars, but Najarian's observations of the ways in which Keats's poetry informs Arnold's poetry and criticism, even as Arnold most vehemently tries to critique and distance himself from it, are particularly insightful, as is the discussion of the ways that the Keats constructed by nineteenth-century readings of his life and work may have served as a model for Arnold's behavior as a young "dandy." Although Hopkins labeled Keats "unmanly," Najarian demonstrates through a close reading of Hopkins's poetry and journals that Hopkins's attitude toward Keats was more complex than some have configured it. Najarian claims that Hopkins found in Keats an ally in the struggle with the sensuous world (101) and that Hopkins at once identified with, judged, and exonerated his Romantic predecessor. Of course, Keats and Hopkins struggled with the sensuous world for different reasons (Keats obviously did not share Hopkins's profound Christian convictions regarding the sinfulness of sensuous enjoyment), so Najarian's comment that Hopkins would "re-create and re-form the work of Keats in a specifically Christian context" is particularly important (124; my emphasis).

Chapters Five and Seven, devoted to Symonds and Owen, respectively, are especially clear and convincing. In Chapter Five, Najarian presents virtually undeniable textual evidence from Symonds's writing that Keats provided this particular Victorian with a way to conceptualize as well as express his desire for other men because Keats's poetry "exhibits a peculiar combination of sensuousness and reticence, of excitement and incompletion, of prolonged desire without consummation" (127-28). Ultimately, Najarian argues, Keats showed Symonds how sexuality can be experienced, not just expressed (135). This particular chapter does much to solidify Najarian's claim in Chapter One that Keats played a significant role in the "invention of the homosexual" (25). The discussion of Wilfred Owens's poetry and letters in Chapter Seven is, as mentioned earlier, particularly clear and convincing. Najarian zeroes in on textual evidence to support his claims that Keats helped Owen place his sexuality in a literary context. Doing so helped him define and own it in affirmative ways, as Najarian illustrates, showing that Owens's concept of "erotic sympathy" (the idea that erotic bonds between men nurture sympathy and prevent recurring violence) derives in great part from Keats's Endymion. Of all the chapters, Chapter Six, devoted to Pater, seems the most murky in its attempts to demonstrate the ways in which Pater can be read as Keats's "inheritor" (136). The argument is not, taken in its entirety, unconvincing, but it is more tenuous, as Najarian's language reveals: "In 'Diaphaneitè' and 'Winckelmann,' Pater explores the ways in which negative capability and Keatsian disinterestedness enjoin an aesthetics that requires intellectual and sexual impassiveness-a detachment from gender norms that incidentally implicates or includes same-sex sexuality" (136; my emphasis). Or this on "Diaphaneitè"'s classical references and its audience (Oxford dons): "I think [not even "I would argue"] that Pater uses these references to this culture in order to explore the sexual ramifications of romantic aesthetics rather than to score any polemical point. He is hinting at the sexual possibilities that disinterestedness might suggest and require" (151; my emphasis).

Ultimately, Victorian Keats is an impressive and effective combination of close reading of primary texts and informed discussion of critical/theoretical scholarship. It is remarkable for its skillful, judicious use of other scholars' theories and readings, but it never becomes utterly dependent on them, unnecessarily pugnacious in its response to them, or merely derivative. The chapters treat separate authors and make distinct but always connected arguments, as Najarian helps us throughout to see how a claim about one author's indebtedness to Keats relates to a previous argument about a previous author's indebtedness. There is throughout the text an unswerving focus on the historical specificity of texts, lives, and concepts. In Victorian Keats, Najarian stays true to his purpose of writing a literary history. He makes a valuable contribution to our understanding and appreciation of Keats and his influence, not just on the Victorians and their conceptualization and expression of gender, sexuality, and desire, but on ours as well.