Susan Wolfson - Reading John Keats. Reviewed by Brian Rejack
Illinois State University
For guidance on the path of reading John Keats, it’d be difficult to find a better Virgil for your journey than Susan Wolfson. As readers of her ample body of scholarship should expect, Wolfson is here a consummate close reader, attending always to the minute formal, sonic, structural (and otherwise) details that make Keats’s poems the beguiling texts that they are. I found myself again and again coming across “ah-ha” moments which pointed toward my own inadequacy as a reader (e.g. “Of course! Why did I never before realize that Hyperion begins with a bunch of lines featuring initial spondaic feet?? I’m such a fool…”). But in addition to that immensely satisfying micro approach and the brilliant insights about Keats’s poetry it reveals, Wolfson’s book also offers an overarching poetic biography, tracking the broad scope of Keats’s development as a poet. Though a short book, Reading John Keats nonetheless manages to pack a wealth of insight and analysis into its compact rifts of ore. If you desire a concise introduction to Keats’s work, I can’t imagine a better place from which to begin.
That is not to say, however, that the book will be of interest only to Keats neophytes. Wolfson also forwards an argument about Keats that will not come as a surprise to seasoned Keatsians, but which will require their attention: the reading of the title refers not only to our acts of interpreting and dwelling with the poet and his poetry, but also to Keats’s own acts of reading and their significance for his work. As Wolfson puts it in her preface, “‘Reading John Keats’ gives a verb for our attention and a definitive adjective for this poet” (xiv). So many of Keats’s poems concern reading, whether the sonnet “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer” announcing his arrival on the poetic scene, or the Spenserian stanza concluding it, “In after time a sage of mickle lore.” And Wolfson’s chronicle of Keats’s progress follows both the arc of his career and her own argument about the centrality of reading to that career. As she poses the matter, “Reading John Keats is always to encounter John Keats reading” (27). This argument about the centrality of reading for an understanding of Keats’s work promises to be one which Keats scholars of all stripes will need—and, indeed desire—to respond.
The book proceeds chronologically, with a dual focus on the broader biographical/historical context and individual significant works written by Keats among those circumstances. We thus begin with Keats’s early shorter works and an account of how they come together to form his first volume, Poems, in 1817. Endymion arrives next, and as she does also with other of the long poems, Wolfson provides a tidy plot summary (a feat in itself, for such an untidy poem) to help along those readers for whom, say, the undersea adventures of Book III confuse things a bit. Her reading of the poem centers on Keats’s engagement with “High Romance,” and ultimately with his re-reading of that genre, as Keats works through it and emerges recognizing the necessity of finding “wider regions of fierce dispute” (47). Of course, it is Shakespeare, and King Lear specifically, which offers Keats a re-reading opportunity that will bear fruits in the longer poems to come: Isabella, Hyperion, The Eve of St. Agnes, Lamia, and The Fall of Hyperion (in the order Wolfson treats them, following the order of Keats’s composition).
The “Other Poems” mentioned in the title of the 1820 volume get their due, along with other significant short poems appearing in other places during or after Keats’s life. The odes function as emblematically readerly poems: “Keats writes the odes less as designs for certain interpretation than as calls for readerly participation” (91). The book concludes with a penultimate section providing brief but astute readings of some of Keats’s final short poems, including “Bright Star” (originally written in late 1818 or early 1819, but revised and recopied in a Shakespeare volume while traveling to Italy in late 1820) and everyone’s favorite haunting fragment, “This living hand” (Wolfson’s suggestion that the poem’s “red life” might be punning on “read life” provided me with another ah-ha moment/realization of my own readerly inadequacy). Those readings give way to the short final section, in which Wolfson sketches some of the ways Keats himself has been read over the last two hundred years. Richard Monckton Milnes’s 1848 Life, Letters, and Literary Remains of John Keats paved the way for Keats’s progress into the pantheon of “the English Poets,” with help from figures like Oscar Wilde and Virginia Woolf, as well as later twentieth-century critics (Wolfson dwells particularly on feminist critics like Elaine Showalter, Adrienne Rich, and Margaret Homans). Ultimately she contends that “the history of reading Keats is activated by different systems of meaning, new configurations of information and evaluation, depending on who is reading and how reading is done” (145). Of course, with this claim she refers to the broader cultural markers that the history of reading indexes and engages. But I’d add that having Wolfson as one of those “who is reading” Keats is a gift for all who care about his life and work. And the simple answer to “how reading is done” when Keats’s work is in her capable hands: remarkably.