“4000 lines of one bare circumstance”

Monday, May 12th, 2014 by dparker90

Hi all,

Here’s an excerpt from my final paper (finally!). Read the full version here: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1bPArWyTBLjRYMoPiR-pT8M223v3r8hN_Fhj-de-_4Zk/edit?usp=sharing

John Keats’s Endymion (1818) – his longest work and first major publication[1] – has long been excluded from the canon of British Romanticism. While some anthologies acknowledge its existence in passing, most make no mention of it. Even Anne Mellor and Richard Matlack’s critically acclaimed British Literature 1780-1830, for example, includes lengthy excerpts from Keats’s earlier unpublished poems while confining Endymion to a single footnote.[2] This purposeful neglect speaks not only to the poem’s universally acknowledged badness – Nicholas Roe calls its lines “awkward and convoluted”[3] – but also to contemporary critics’ insistence on creating consistent authorial oeuvres. How, they wonder, could the youngest of Romanticism’s “big six,”[4] the poet who went on to write “some of the most admired poems in English literature,”[5] have composed such a bad poem? The most common answer is that Keats’s talent had not fully developed; Jack Stillinger discounts the poem as mere training material for better poems that followed, [6] while Roe treats it as a marker of Keats’s youthful radical political influences that he would abandon in later and better works.[7] By trying to squeeze it into a tidy critical framework, these critics do not adequately account for the work’s formal anomalies and overall messiness; more importantly, they fail to question what its condemnation indicates about our standards of poetic excellence and, more broadly, the limits of acceptable discourse practices. This critical sidestepping speaks to our tendency to smooth over difference, anomalies, and ruptures in search of discursive cohesion and fluidity. With its inconsistencies and flaws, Endymion is one such rupture in the seemingly cohesive discourse network of Romanticism.

My paper, then, investigates what this rupture tells us about the unspoken and invisible limits of this network; Endymion exposes those limits by extending beyond them. I argue that its “bad” poetics unabashedly calls attention to it as a mediated work of art – that is, a product of pen, paper, print, hand, and various other constraints imposed on its composition and publication – whereby it reveals and critiques Romanticism’s dominant discursive principle of unmediated natural language. While the movement’s emphasis on nature and natural language has long been recognized, this established aesthetic principle’s relationship with media – and, as I argue, its reaction against it – has not yet been examined. The critical backlash against the poem from its first reviewers, I contend, shows how itsformal flaws forced readers into an uncomfortable awareness of poetry’s inherent artificiality and mediation that was contrary to its dominant natural aesthetic. While prominent poets and thinkers William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge argued for poetry’s relationship to nature and strived to make their verses as close to natural speech as possible, Keats rejects this principle and instead exposes seemingly natural poetry as the product of mediation. In this way, Endymion is not only a reaction against the dominant aesthetic discourse of its time, but also speaks to the way in which writers of this period took advantage of media in order to critique it.




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