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"Strange longings": Keats and feet.

THERE ARE MORE FEET IN KEATS'S POETRY THAN MIGHT BE SUPPOSED--and by feet, I am referring to those found on the end of legs, not the metrical variety. Feet figure in various ways: for example, Keats visualized his poetic career in terms of "daring steps" he hoped to tread along the "bright path[s] of light" left by Britain's great poets ("Specimen of an Induction to a Poem" 57, 60). (1) Many other references, on first sight at least, are formulaic. A lady's feet are always "white" (Endymion 2.325), (2) "light" ("La Belle Dame sans Merci" 15), (3) or "nimble" (Lamia 1.96). However, from a psychoanalytic perspective, and drawing specifically on Freud's 1927 paper "On Fetishism," I suggest that Keats's attention to feet--"things on which the dazzled senses rest / Till the fond, fixed eyes, forget they stare" (4)--cannot simply be explained, or contained, within the terms of conventional imagery. Closer examination opens a narrative into an intriguing libidinal economy, founded on what Keats himself called his "Boyish imagination." Within this exchange "normative" early nineteenth-century notions of manliness, female sexuality, and desire itself are radically unfixed by physiological apprehension.


Keats's ambivalent relationship to "manliness" has often been remarked on. As Anne K. Mellor reminds us, Keats believed his appearance was girlish. (5) Reviewers confirmed this image by portraying him as a "Cockney" poet, a label that readers would have recognized as containing a sense of effeminacy. (6) Or else, employing what Susan Wolfson calls "a puerilising rhetoric," Keats was presented to the reading public as an immature boy. (7) In both cases, detractors aimed to discredit Keats's literary productions by questioning his manliness, and thus his right to be taken seriously by a "grown-up" audience. Blackwood's "Z" (John Gibson Lockhart) called Keats "a boy of pretty abilities"; (8) in 1826 the journal referred to his "emasculated pruriency." (9) In private Byron showed less restraint, vehemently dismissing "Johnny Keats's piss-a-bed poetry" (Wolfson 95).

Keats was conscious that he harbored a vulnerability to attacks of this kind. In 1819 he complained to his brother and sister-in-law: "My name with the literary fashionables is vulgar--I am a weaver boy to them." (10) Nevertheless, he did not deny the centrality of immaturity to his life and art. On the contrary, in a letter to his friend Benjamin Bailey in July 1818, he refers uneasily to his "Boyish imagination," which he supposes has prevented him from developing a "right feeling towards women":
 I am certain I have not a right feeling towards Women--Is it because they
 fall so far beneath my Boyish imagination? When I was a Schoolboy I
 though[t] a fair Woman a pure Goddess, my mind was a soft nest in which
 some one of them slept though she knew it not--I have no right to expect
 more than their reality. [...] When I am among Women I have evil thoughts,
 malice spleen--I cannot speak or be silent--I am full of Suspicions [...] I
 am in a hurry to be gone--You must be charitable and put all this
 perversity to my being disappointed since Boyhood. (LJK 1.341)

He adds despairingly: "I must absolutely get over this--but how?" (LJK 1.342). Later I will suggest ways in which Keats attempted to overcome his wrong feelings. Displaying a precocious talent for self-analysis here, Keats identifies a conflict between his boyish conception of women as "pure goddesses" and his more mature, if troubled, notion of what he calls "their reality." I am not merely suggesting that these rival concepts help generate such dualistic figures as La Belle Dame, Moneta, or Lamia, whose head, as every student knows, "was serpent, but ah, bitter-sweet! / She had a woman's mouth with all its pearls complete" (1.59-60). Rather, my discussion discloses a compelling psychological drama in Keats's letters and poetry, in which a reluctance to respond to or represent women in any way other than "boyishly" is repeatedly demonstrated. Whilst it may not be surprising to suggest that his poetry is frequently immature, given that Keats died at the age of twenty-five, I will show in precise terms how this immaturity manifests itself through the representations of the fetishistic imagination.

In an engaging article on Keats's Isabella; or, The Pot of Basil, Diane Long Hoeveler insists that "just as we know from dream analysis that everything in the dream is a manifestation of the dreamer, so everything in the poem is a projection of some aspect of the poet." (11) This liberating methodology allows us to perceive in Keats's writing psychological dilemmas that not only inflected the ways in which Keats constructed female sexuality, but ones that were also central to the formation of his own sexuality. The master clue in this respect, and the one that opens a new perspective on Keats's "boyishness," is the poet's enduring interest in feet. If this sounds frivolous, preposterous even (and I am prepared to concede that at this stage it does), possibly it is because no one, to my knowledge, has commented on the extraordinary frequency--the altogether extraordinariness--of feet and foot-related imagery in Keats's work. The following sections explore episodes in which Keats's attention to feet registers deeper anxieties about sex and/ with women. Despite Jean Hagstrum's contention that "Keats delights in consummation," I contend that foot episodes document the conversion in Keats's poetics of "normative" early nineteenth-century modes of mature desire and sexual fulfillment into a "boyish" erotics that is voyeuristic, fetishistic, and deferred. (12)


I begin with a bizarre fiction (but in terms of male psychology, possibly a "true Story" as Keats claims), recounted by the poet to James Rice in 1819: (13)
 Would you like a true Story "There was a Man and his Wife who being to go a
 long journey on foot, in the course of their travels came to a River which
 rolled knee deep over the pebbles--In these cases the Man generally pulls
 off his shoes and stockings and carries the woman over on his Back. This
 man did so; and his Wife being pregnant and troubled, as in such cases is
 very common, with strange longings, took the strangest that was ever heard
 of--Seeing her Husband's foot, a handsome on [one] enough, look very clean
 and tempting in the clear water, on their arrival at the other bank she
 earnestly demand{ed} a bit of it; he being an affectionate fellow and
 fearing for the comeliness of his child gave her a bit which he cut off
 with his Clasp knife--Not satisfied she asked another morsel--supposing
 there might be twins he gave her a slice more. Not yet contented she craved
 another Piece. "You Wretch cries the Man, would you wish me to kill myself?
 take that!" Upon which he stabb'd her with the knife, cut her open and
 found three Children in her Belly two of them very comfortable with their
 mouth's shut, the third with its eyes and mouth stark staring open. "Who
 would have thought it" cried the Wid{ow}er<">, and pursued his journey--,
 Brown has a little rumbling in his Stomach this morning--(To James Rice,
 LJK 2.236)

Christopher Ricks links this passage to the "primacy of eating in Keats" and a "richly robust fantasy," (14) whereas for Anne Mellor it emphasizes the "extraordinary degree to which Keats identified the process of poetic creation with the process of female pregnancy and giving birth" (176). These readings seem to me to skirt the issue. Keats is not concerned, initially at least, with eating, fantasizing, or even, most spuriously of all, giving birth. The focus of his odd tale, like the wife's "strange longings," is directed at the husband's foot, which appears "clean and tempting in the clear water." (15) Additionally, Keats's interest in the wife's fixation tells us at least as much about Keats and his configuration of female sexuality as it does about the wife's strange longings. We do not have to work very hard to find phallic significance in the foot, or to surmise that its mutilation by the wife records a fear of castration. As we shall see, visions of castration define Keats's response to assertive women, and in this respect we might say that the wife is a psychological sibling to other figures whom Keats perceives as emasculating, such as Lamia, La Belle Dame, and Moneta. I italicize "perceives," because although these poetic personages are in one sense Keats's creations, this is not to say that he exercises full control over their significations. Indeed, the limits of authored determination can be observed in Moneta in The Fall of Hyperion, who, on the face of things, is a powerfully immobilizing figure, but who also, as I will argue in section 5, functions at some level to assist the dreamer in developing a "right feeling towards Women." But if the castration anxieties in Keats's foot tale are clearly recognizable, the psychological processes underlying the wife's "strange longings" (and equally importantly, Keats's evident interest in them) need to be unravelled.

In his famous paper on fetishism, delivered in 1927, Freud contends that when young boys first catch sight of the female genitals, their infantile belief that girls possess a phallus is severely shaken; in this instant, boys are forced to confront the possibility that they, too, might "lose" their penises. (16) As a response, they either "repress" or "disavow" what they have seen, both accepting and at the same time not accepting the absent organ (353). In the usual course of events, boys are supposed to come to terms with their discovery, learn to control their fear of castration, and go on to develop "normal" relations with women--in other words, the "right feeling towards Women" that eluded Keats. For some, though, this resolution is only possible through the substitution of a fetishized object (such as the foot) in place of the missing phallus. The fetish is identified as:
 not a substitute for any chance penis, but for a particular and quite
 special penis that had been extremely important in early childhood but had
 later been lost. That is to say, it should normally have been given up, but
 the fetish is precisely designed to preserve it from extinction. To put it
 more plainly: the fetish is a substitute for the woman's (the mother's)
 penis that the little boy once believed in and [...] does not want to give
 up. (352)

The fetish allows the castrated-mother to be reconstituted as a phallic-mother who no longer raises the spectre of castration in the young boy's mind. But the compromise is achieved at the price of an "aversion" to the "real female genitals" that is "never absent in any fetishist" and which forms a "stigma indelebile of the repression that has taken place" (353). With this in mind, when Keats asks Bailey to "be charitable and put all this perversity [towards women] to my being disappointed since childhood" (LJK 1.341), one also hears "disappointed in childhood," because, as I will demonstrate, Keats's famous perturbation over women can be traced to his inability to assimilate the traumatic discovery of "their [non phallic] reality."

Freud concludes that the fetish represents a "triumph over the threat of castration," allows women to remain "tolerable as sexual objects," but simultaneously reminds the fetishist of the truth, literally too terrible to contemplate, about female sexuality (353-54). Finally, foot-fetishism is addressed specifically in the following terms: "The foot or shoe owes its preference as a fetish [...] to the circumstance that the inquisitive boy peered at the woman's genitals from below, from her legs up" (354). This "insight" certainly illuminates a key "shoe" story, Cinderella. Whatever else the glass slipper stands for, it affords the Prince--an archetypally "inquisitive boy"--with an opportunity to peer up a large number of skirts as he helps would-be princesses try on the shoe. Now, as far as the Prince is concerned, Cinderella is all about growing up, finding a "right" feeling towards women, and getting married--even if this requires the assistance of a foot-focused fetish like the slipper. But the resolution arrived at by the Prince is denied Keats, that other signally "inquisitive boy." If the Prince, busily peering up skirts, is equally arrested by the fetishized object (the slipper) as by the thing it "completes" (the female genitals), then his narrative successfully moves beyond this boyish stage into the grown-up's marriage bed and the realization of mature sexual desires. Keats, on the other hand, remains firmly in fetishistic mode, as his description in Book One of Endymion of Diana's descent from the heavens confirms:
 once more I raised
 My sight right upward: but it was quite dazed
 By a bright something, sailing down apace,
 Making me quickly veil my eyes and face:
 Again I looked, and, O ye deities,
 Who from Olympus watch our destinies!
 Whence that completed form of all completeness?


Although this has not been remarked on, given the sight-lines that must logically prevail here, the Latmian shepherd-boy quite literally looks up the skirt of a goddess. But--and this is precisely the point I want to discuss--his gaze is arrested by Diana's feet:
 Ah! see her hovering feet,
 More bluely veined, more soft, more whitely sweet
 Than those of sea-born Venus


By focusing on Diana's feet, a fetishized substitute for the missing phallus, Keats hopes to avoid unpleasant thoughts of castration. His efforts seem not to have been wholly successful, however. In a recently rediscovered letter from 1818, Keats mentions a trip to the printers to "geld" Endymion: "I have been in Town two days gelding the first Book [Endymion] which is I think going to the Press today." (17) Lewis Dearing suggests that geld occurs here in the archaic sense of excising offensive lines from a text:
 Influenced by his love of Chaucer, Spenser and by the Spenserians, Keats
 was fond of archaic and obsolete words and usages. Geld here may mean, as
 defined by the OED, simply "to cut out portions of a book [...] especially
 objectionable or obscene passages." (16n).

But in view of the castration anxieties flickering beneath the surface of Endymion, particularly in Book One, the first meaning of geld recorded by the OED--"To deprive (a male) of generative power or virility, to castrate or emasculate"--seems equally appropriate. In fact, Keats's choice of words probably tells us less about his publisher's lack of enthusiasm for the young poet's philological experimentation, than reflects, parapraxically, a deep phallic anxiety to which Endymion returns again and again. Actually, within this context of castration, the reference to "sea-born Venus" at 1.626 is extremely resonant. Venus is indeed "sea-born" (her Greek name is "Aphrogeneia," or "sprung from the foam"), because Saturn castrated his father Coelus with a scythe, threw his elder's genitalia into the ocean, and Venus sizzled into the world.

By fetishizing Diana's foot into a substitute phallus, the goddess remains "tolerable as a sexual object" in Keats's imagination. However, the accompanying aversion described by Freud also figures in Keats's depiction of Diana, as attested in the question: "whence that completed form of all completeness?" (1.606). This deeply ironic line deconstructs itself the moment it is uttered: for Keats, Diana is anything but complete. The text's gauche profession of sincerity (the image of completed completeness surely protests too much), does little more than confirm the difficulties facing Keats, caught between boyish and manly paradigms of desire and representation. As can be seen, the descriptive hierarchy governing the narration of Diana's descent draws into clear focus the predominantly boyish assumptions that underpin Keats's text:
 yet she had,
 Indeed, locks bright enough to make me mad;
 And they were simply gordianed up and braided,
 Leaving, in naked comeliness, unshaded,
 Her pearl-round ears, white neck, and orbed brow;
 The which were blended in, I know not how,
 With such a paradise of lips and eyes,
 Blush-tinted cheeks, half-smiles, and faintest sighs,
 That, when I think thereon, my spirit clings
 And plays about its fancy, till the stings
 Of human neighbourhood envenom all.
 Unto what awful power shall I call?
 To what high fane?--Ah! see her hovering feet,
 More bluely veined, more soft, more whitely sweet
 Than those of sea-born Venus, when she rose
 From out her cradle shell.


Keats works himself up into raptures over Diana's "soft hand," her maddening "locks," the "naked comeliness" of her "pearl-round ears," her "orbed brow," the "paradise of lips and eyes," her "blush-tinted cheeks"--but is unable to proceed further towards Freud's "longed-for sight of the female member" (354), or even contemplate the realization of conventional manly desire. Rather, the exuberant commentary culminates (or in Freud's terms, Keats's interest "comes to a halt half-way" 354) with the goddesses' "hovering" feet: "more bluely veined, more soft, more whitely sweet / Than those of sea-born Venus, when she rose / From out her cradle shell."

We might pause over "sweet," since this word maps a textual fault-line. Just as Keats's efforts at convincing us that Diana represents his ideal of womanhood give rise to awkwardness (completed completeness), Diana's "sweet" feet vitiate his determination to respond to women in a "manly" fashion. Consider the precise meaning of lines 624-27: here Keats emphasizes that Diana's feet are sweeter than "sea-born" Venus's when she rose out of the ocean in a shell. This on first sight formulaic comparison produces an awkward conjunction of images. If "sweet" is used in the sense of "dainty," as seems to be Keats's intention, then Venus's feet present a problem. The goddesses' extremities are wet from the sea and, one presumes, salty. Since "salty" is a near antonym of "sweet" (qualifying taste), the proximity of Diana's sweet (dainty) feet alongside Venus's salty ones is comical--surely not the effect Keats has in mind (although, in its cringe-worthiness, the image is certainly in keeping with boyish inexperience in matters of love--ask any inexperienced boy). The use of "sweet" alongside an image of saltiness is not only bad; it is bad in a boyish way, and arises out of an infantile preoccupation with orality that is never absent when Keats uses the word "sweet."

Roland Barthes's elusive essay The Pleasure of the Text proposes that, as distinct from pleasure, desire can be characterized as "expectation" since it is "never satisfied," never completed. (18) Lack of completion is entirely characteristic of Keats's poetics, which, we could say, is anxious to be seen to be desiring the "longed-for sight of the female member" (the goal of "manly" narrative), without ever actually arriving at the "uncanny and traumatic" spectacle. This is apparent in Diana's descent in Book One of Endymion, where the pleasure of completion, in visual terms, has been put off indefinitely. In Keats's new economy, feet have been substituted for the telos of manly desire (the "longed-for sight"). Even where Endymion seems to move inexorably towards completion (one thinks of Endymion's "union" with Diana towards the end of Book One), closer scrutiny reveals the text folding back in on itself. The very instant in which the Latmian "dared to press / Her very cheek" against his "crowned lip," he is transported with the goddess "Into a warmer air":
 a moment more,
 Our feet were soft in flowers. There was store
 Of newest joys upon that alp.


Once again, feet dominate the narrative, grounding not only the lovers in flowers, but Keats's erotic imagination in boyish exchange.


The image of feet runs (pun intended) throughout Endymion. While it would distort facts to impart significance to each single instance (after all, when they are not flying or being transported by some other means, people have to use their feet to move around the text), the poem's more overtly fetishistic scenes destabilize apparently formulaic phrases such as "lost in pleasure at her feet he sinks" (4.18), or descriptions of Diana as standing on "light tip-toe divine" (2.261). The cumulative effect is for Endymion to unfix normative modes of early nineteenth-century desire, disclosing ostensibly conventional love-relationships as fetishistic, founded on aversion, anxiety and physical apprehension.

The last example I want to discuss from Keats's "apprentice" poem comes from Book Two, in the bower of Adonis. Here a Cupid relates the story of Venus and Adonis to the shepherd-boy:
 I need not any hearing tire
 By telling how the sea-born goddess pined
 For a mortal youth, and how she strove to bind
 Him all in all unto her doting self.
 Who would not be so prisoned? but, fond elf,
 He was content to let her amorous plea
 Faint through his careless arms; content to see
 An unseized heaven dying at his feet;
 Content, O fool! to make a cold retreat,
 When on the pleasant grass such love, lovelorn,
 Lay sorrowing; when every tear was born
 Of diverse passion; when her lips and eyes
 Were closed in sullen moisture, and quick sighs
 Came vexed and pettish through her nostrils small


The cupid's tale, like the story Keats tells Rice, describes a "truth" about male psychology, in this case a fear of failure, of not measuring up to expectations. Adonis is "content to see / An unseized heaven dying at his feet; / Content [...] to make a cold retreat" (463-65). His inability to engage with the surfeit of physicality registered in the description of a petulent and very obviously sexually frustrated Venus recalls Keats's confession that in the presence of women he is always "in a hurry to be gone." The theme of "cold retreat" (465) is pursued throughout Endymion. Repeatedly, corporeality--the here and now--is declined in favor of substitutions; indeed, in terms of narrative, the poem moves from one dream-vision, reverie and mimic temple to the next, leaving the forms of physical reality to be reproduced solely on the level of myth or statuary.


In 1816, Keats composed a Valentine ("Hadst thou lived in days of old"), for his brother George to send Richard Woodhouse's cousin, Mary Frogley. Andrew Motion's recent biography of Keats detects a "displaced sexual excitement" in this poem, concluding that "where it is most direct it becomes voyeuristic." (19) If the poem is voyeuristic it is also fetishistic, and possibly contains a hitherto unremarked image of feet-in-water to rival that found in the tale of strange longings told by Keats to Rice. The poem commences with a conventional treatment of Mary's beauty:
 Hadst thou lived in days of old,
 O what wonders had been told
 Of thy lovely countenance,
 And thy humid eyes that dance


 Of thy dark hair that extends
 Into many graceful bends:


 ... Add too, the sweetness
 Of thy honeyed voice; the neatness
 Of thine ankle lightly turned:


These are formulaic images; I am more interested in the following passage:
 ... those beauties, scarce discerned,
 Kept with such sweet privacy,
 That they seldom meet the eye
 Of the little loves that fly
 Round about with eager pry.
 Saving when, with freshening lave,
 Thou dipp'st them in the taintless wave.
 Like twin water-lilies, born
 In the coolness of the morn


Traditionally, "those beauties" (26) are taken as a reference to breasts. But coming as they do literally on the heels of Mary's "lightly turned" ankles, one might conjecture whether at some subterranean level of consciousness Keats meant feet. At any rate, there are good reasons to doubt a description of breasts. Logically, "dip" is more appropriate to feet or toes than breasts; indeed, it is difficult to conceive how Mary Frogley might have "dipped" her breasts in water whilst maintaining her balance. Besides, one can hardly imagine the rather circumspect Keats commenting so directly on Mary's breasts, moreover, in a poem written for his brother George to send as a Valentine.

There is other evidence to support a reading of feet over breasts. In Book Two of Endymion the shepherd-boy indulges the following unwholesome fantasy of Diana:
 Within my breast there lives a choking flame--
 O let me cool't the zephyr-boughs among!
 A homeward fever parches up my tongue--
 O let me slake it at the running springs!

 Dost thou now lave thy feet and ankles white?
 O think how sweet to me the freshening sluice!

 (Endymion 2.317-26; my emphasis)

The use of the unusual, poetic "lave" in both Mary Frogley's Valentine and Endymion (a noun in the former, verb in the latter) suggests that the episodes were linked in Keats's mind. It is not unreasonable to surmise that each scene describes the same event: foot washing.

Miriam Allott cites Spenser's Epithalamion ("Her paps lyke lillies budded" 176) as a source for the disputed passage, and a traditional reading of the Valentine discovers a venerable literary convention in the comparison of Mary's breasts with "twin water-lilies" (33). But elsewhere in Keats, lilies are linked with feet--moreover feet in or by water. In Hyperion, Apollo stands "Besides the osiers of a rivulet, / Full ankle-deep in lilies of the vale" (34-35). So, even if Keats thought he was writing about breasts in Mary's Valentine, he may really have had feet in mind. And if it is Mary Frogley's feet to which he alludes, then the cloying preciousness exhibited towards them ("scarce discerned," "kept with such sweet privacy" 26-27) bears all the hallmarks of the boyish, fetishistic imagination.


In The Fall of Hyperion, too, the fetishized foot provides a point of entry into a libidinal economy in which "normal" relations between Keats's male narrators and the women who share their poetic domain are disabled by phallic anxiety and genital aversion. We might consider the dreamer's confrontation with the goddess Moneta in Book One within this frame of reference. Although The Fall of Hyperion is a later, purportedly more "mature" work, we again find Keats worrying over women's "reality" and trying to develop "a right feeling" towards them. However, despite the unmistakable climate of personal crisis surrounding the early encounter with Moneta, the episode in fact represents Keats's attempt to "absolutely get over" his wrong feelings.

The dreamer emerges from his post-prandial slumber to find the surroundings of the "mossy mound and arbour" transformed into the carved walls of an "old sanctuary" (1.60-62). Far off in the west of the building, he discerns steps leading up to an altar positioned at the foot of "An Image," eventually revealed as Saturn. This out-sized paternal projection activates a thousand phallic insecurities in Keats's narrator, who nevertheless feels compelled to approach the altar. At this point, the Oedipal triangulation is completed by Moneta, whose language, we are told, is "as near as an immortal's sphered words / Could to a mother's soften" (1.250). Keats describes the scene around her altar in the following terms:
 ... that lofty sacrificial fire,
 Sending forth Maian incense, spread around
 Forgetfulness of everything but bliss,
 And clouded all the altar with soft smoke,
 From whose white fragrant curtains thus I heard
 Language pronounced: "if thou canst not ascend
 These steps, die on that marble where thou art."


The altar, then, is "clouded" from view by "soft smoke" forming "fragrant curtains" around it (1.105-6). This image is yet another guise of the maternal skirts, last seen in Diana's descent; the skirts are fetishized here for reasons that Freud makes clear: "Pieces of clothing, which are so often chosen as a fetish, crystallize the moment of undressing, the last moment in which the woman could still be regarded as phallic" (354-55). At line 106 the curtain metaphor makes the association of cloud or smoke with fabric apparent; but the link is also made elsewhere more colloquially. We discover it, for instance, in The Cap and Bells; or, the Jealousies, in the injunction at line 553 to "See, past the skirts of yon white cloud they go." Comparison with The Cap and Bells is doubly rewarding, since the line just quoted refers to Princess Bellanaine's airborne journey from Pigmio to the faery city of Emperor Elfinan. As the "fluttering embassy" bear Bellanaine to the ground, her descent, like Diana's, receives lavish attention:
 Gentlemen pensioners next; and after them,
 A troop of winged Janizaries flew;
 Then slaves, as presents bearing many a gem;
 Then twelve physicians fluttering two and two;
 And next a chaplain in a cassock new;
 Then Lords in waiting; then (what head not reels
 For pleasure?) the fair Princess in full view,
 Borne upon wings--and very pleased she feels
 To have such splendour dance attendance at her heels.


This passage is little more than a bawdy reworking of Diana's descent in Endymion, with the "joke" made more explicitly this time. As the Princess floats earthwards, we watch with the boyishly inquisitive members of the crowd below, whose necks crane to look up her skirts: "(What head not reels / For pleasure?) the fair Princess in full view" (591-92). However, as we should expect of Keats by this stage, the collective gaze is not permitted to proceed to "the longed-for sight," but must remain content to "dance attendance at [Bellanaine's] heels."

I want to return to The Fall of Hyperion via Keats's mother. As Diane Long Hoeveler reminds us, Frances Keats, who died in 1810 when Keats was fourteen, is virtually absent from her son's letters and poems (322). Robert Gittings supposes that this silence "suggests some shattering knowledge, with which, at various times in his life, [Keats] can be seen dimly struggling to come to terms." (20) It is tempting to read this "shattering knowledge" as the distantly recalled and fervently disavowed moment of anatomical discovery discussed by Freud in 1927, allowing the origins of Keats's fetishistic imagination to be traced to a traumatic maternal encounter. Indeed, while little is known about Keats's relationship with his mother, there is anecdotal evidence to indicate that she was strongly linked with the first stirrings of fetishism in his mind. Keat's friend, the painter Benjamin Robert Haydon, relates an incident from Keats's childhood, in which the poet, aged about five:
 once got hold of a naked sword and shutting the [front] door swore nobody
 should go out. His mother wanted to do so but he threatened her so
 furiously she began to cry, and was obliged to wait till somebody through
 the window saw her position and came to her rescue. (21)

Whether or not this episode actually took place, and bearing in mind that the narrative is Haydon's, not Keats's, the account is suggestive. It figures Keats as an exaggeratedly phallic young boy (holding an out-sized, grown-up's sword), trying to conceal his mother from view (he "swore nobody should go out"), but who is seen anyway from outside ("somebody through the window saw her position"). Keats's response to the discovery of women's "reality" is twofold. First he wards off thoughts of castration and aggressively reaffirms his own phallic status by waving about the sword. At the same time he tries to repress or "disavow" his discovery by preventing his mother from leaving her house. But if one symbol of the female genitals, the door, is prevented from signifying (shut and barred), another, the window, reveals the reality of women's "positions" to those inclined to see them.

Later in life, Keats was still working through his relationship with his mother as part of his endeavor to rectify the "wrong" feelings he held about women. Moneta, who seems to represent the mother at some level, becomes part of this process in The Fall of Hyperion. We left the dreamer about to ascend the steps to Moneta's altar:
 Prodigious seemed the toil; the leaves were yet
 Burning--when suddenly a palsied chill
 Struck from the paved level up my limbs,
 And was ascending quick to put cold grasp
 Upon those streams that pulse beside the throat.
 I shrieked; and the sharp anguish of my shriek
 Stung my own ears--I strove hard to escape
 The numbness, strove to gain the lowest step.
 Slow, heavy, deadly was my pace: the cold
 Grew stifling, suffocating, at the heart;
 And when I clasped my hands I felt them not.
 One minute before death, my iced foot touched
 The lowest stair; and as it touched, life seemed
 To pour in at the toes: I mounted up ...


With great exertion the dreamer reaches the altar, finds himself before Moneta, and is instantly immobilized with fear: "I had a terror of her robes / And chiefly of the veils, that from her brow / Hung pale, and curtained her in mysteries / That made my heart too small to hold its blood" (1.251-54). His terror derives from thoughts of the castrated phallus concealed beneath Moneta's robes and veils. The imagery at line 254 is particularly revealing of the nature of the dreamer's predicament. The heart that becomes "too small to hold its blood" could, of course, be read in two ways: either the heart is simply unable to cope with the sheer volume of blood pumping through it; or, in an opposite sense, Keats is describing a moment of de-tumescence, in which the heart shrinks until it is no longer able to pump vigorously, or even "hold its blood." A moment of supreme dysthymic apprehension would be entirely appropriate to the wider tenor of timidity and tremulousness. What is more, given the phallic anxieties that prevail at this point, it is telling that in line 250 Keats should make an unequivocal association between Moneta's "sphered words" and the language of motherhood. This identification reconstructs around the altar what Freud calls the original "uncanny and traumatic" revelation of anatomical difference. That is to say, Keats seems determined to manoeuver his narrator into a position that allows him, vicariously, to renegotiate the original discovery of anatomical difference that first determined the boyish, fetishistic parameters of his poetic imagination.

Accordingly, at line 256, Moneta casts aside her maternal veils. But if her intention is to force the "Boyish imagination" to accept the "reality" about women, she is singularly unsuccessful. The dreamer immediately and resolutely transfers his gaze to her feet: "`Shade of Memory!' / Cried I, with act adorant at her feet" (1.282-83). This "Shade of Memory" is evidently that of the "uncanny and traumatic" spectacle identified by Freud; but Keats remains unable or ultimately unwilling to assimilate it. His determinedly fetishistic act of focusing on Moneta's feet refigures the goddess as a phallic mother. Entirely characteristic of Keats's immature libidinal economy, aversion and boyish desire coalesce to prompt yet another retreat into the fetish.


If "castrated" women present one kind of threat to Keats's fragile sense of masculinity, then "manly" men present another that the poet struggles to resolve. On his way to the altar steps in The Fall of Hyperion, Keats's dreamer pauses underneath the massive image of Saturn, whereupon Moneta remarks that he is "safe beneath this statue's knees" (1.181). In view of the fact that the dreamer stands, literally, in the shadow of the titanically dimensioned paternal phallus, Moneta's speech is a consummate piece of irony. For Keats, whose letters are punctuated by concerns about manliness, worries that the public perceived him as effeminate, and nervous asides about his small stature, it is difficult to conceive of a more disorienting space.

Keats's diminutive proportions were a constant source of embarrassment. In June 1818, he remarked to the Jeffrey sisters, Marian and Sarah: "I being somewhat stunted am taken for nothing" (LJK 1.291). While the context of this aside in the letter suggests that it was written in jest, the adage that some things in life are so serious they can only be joked about is apposite. From the outset of his career, Keats lamented what he considered his exclusion, due to shortness, from the codes and forms of "manly" courtship. This sentiment is audible in an often-quoted early sonnet, "To--[Had I a man's fair form]":
 Had I a man's fair form, then might my sighs
 Be echoed swiftly through that ivory shell
 Thine ear, and find thy gentle heart


In "sighs," Wolfson detects a rueful pun on size, which further reinforces Keats's sense of disfellowship from "grown-up" society (106).

Alongside Keats's bashfulness about his height, we find occasional moments of ebullient, inviolable confidence, such as his conviction that he would be counted "among the English poets" (LJK 1.394) after his death when there was little evidence to suggest it at the time. Such claims could be said to form a megalomaniacal counter to more familiar moments of low self-esteem. Keats's grand plan in 1817 to compose a huge poem (Endymion) that would be "4000 Lines" long (LJK 1.170) is a case in point. The project surrenders its phallic insecurities easily, and is another countermeasure against deep-seated feelings of inadequacy--if Keats felt that his stature disadvantaged him in female company ("I do think better of womankind than to suppose they care whether John Keats five foot hight likes them or not" LJK 1.342), then Endymion would prove his poetic rather than physical prowess. Additionally, the exercise would allow him to compete with England's great historical poets, who, Keats points out in an instance of unequivocal phallic anxiety, never wrote short pieces (LJK 1.170). To confirm Endymion's phallic preoccupations, we need only look at the poem's motto: "the stretched metre of an antique song" (my emphasis), inscribed to the memory of another "boy" poet with low self-regard, Thomas Chatterton. Byron immediately recognized the nature of the anxieties voiced in the motto, and denounced the "outstretched poesy of this miserable Self-polluter of the human mind" (Byron's emphasis) to the publisher John Murray. (22)

Keats seems to have considered himself in competition with a certain sort of man. We know for example from his letters that he nurtured a sense of inadequacy towards the older, outgoing, sexually confident (and mature) Charles Brown, and suspected his fiancee Fanny Brawne of being secretly attracted to his friend. (23) Psychologically, his feeling of shortcoming in the vicinity of other men is co-identical with the crisis experienced by the dreamer beneath Saturn's knees in the second Hyperion. And this brings me to my final point. I want to suggest that just as Keats's interest in female feet points to key processes conditioning and inflecting his representation of women, "male" feet are equally disclosing. Has it ever occurred to anyone that men in Keats are frequently introduced feet-first, so to speak? The first time we meet Saturn in The Fall of Hyperion, we are directed to his massive feet. Similarly, Saturn's presence in the first Hyperion is initially registered by the "large foot-marks" he leaves imprinted in the sand (1.15). So, too, the virile suitors in The Eve of St Agnes are introduced as "tip-toe, amorous" cavaliers (60). For what may well be therapeutic reasons, Keats delights in deflating these iconically manly men. Saturn's huge footprints lead to an "unsceptred," emasculated Saturn, who sits with "bowed head" in defeat (1.19-20); whilst in stanza 7 of The Eve of St Agnes, Madeline proves completely, even comically, impervious to the efforts of the tip-toe suitors to impress her; she is lost instead in contemplation of Porphyro--that most Keatsian of heroes, effeminate, naive, voyeuristic, and reluctant to engage directly with female corporeality.

I would like to expand this last point a little, since I believe that the character of Porphyro embodies many of the psychological processes that animate Keats himself. This is particularly true with regard to Porphyro's desire for a "cold retreat" from the realm of the corporeal. For despite Hagstrum's view that "Keats delights in consummation," even the, notoriously "explicit" description of Porphyro's and Madeline's love-making in stanza 36, which so perturbed Keats's publisher, is narrated around the act of absenting oneself from the physical world: "Into her dream he melted, as the rose / Blendeth its odour with the violet" (320-21). With this retreat, Porphyro reflects Keats's own discomforture in the presence of women. One could say that the matrix of personality surviving in the letters and poetry that we know as John Keats, and Porphyro his poetic creation, are virtually indistinguishable in stanzas 26-30. There the disengaged Keatsian narrator watches over the sleeping, non-threatening Madeline, barely able to resist the pervasive languidity and stay awake, leaving the task of seduction to his alter-ego, his manly Doppelganger, who inhabits Madeline's dream-vision.

Even when Madeline wakes up, Porphyro conspires to prolong the illusion of dreaming, or at any rate soften the transition into the waking world. He overburdens the scene with piles of dream-like foods: candied apple, quince, plum, jellies, lucent syrups--a totally impractical, indigestible feast that Marjorie Levinson suggests seems never to have been meant for eating. (24) Consisting "entirely of children's foods" as Levinson notes (121), the feast is a richly signifying emblem of immaturity. Ultimately, though, the banquet does little more than defer the moment when Porphyro must perform the altogether trickier feat of maintaining Madeline's interest in the "real" world. To be sure, St Agnes' charmed maid experiences a moment of "painful change" in stanza 34, and is especially struck by the contrast between the Porphyro of her dreams (the manly romance-hero), and the rather disappointing Porphyro sitting beside her on her bed: "How changed thou art! How pallid, chill, and drear!" (311). Perhaps to herself Madeline muses, "how short!" But in so far as Porphyro actually succeeds in winning Madeline's heart (and survives to boot, unlike Porphyro's similarly unmanly cousin, Lorenzo--the "hero" of an immature poem that even Keats thought contained "too much inexperience of li[f]e" LJK 174), The Eve of St Agnes is a piece of poetic therapy for Keats, and possibly his healthiest poem.

University of Wales, Aberystwyth

(1.) All references to Keats's poetry are to John Keats: The Complete Poems, ed., John Barnard, 2nd ed. (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1977).

(2.) See also Lamia 1.15.

(3.) Similar uses occur in "Hush, hush! tread softly! Hush, hush, my dear!" (5), and "Specimen of an Induction to a Poem" (41).

(4.) "Women! When I behold thee flippant, vain" (17-18).

(5.) Romanticism and Gender (London: Routledge, 1993) 172.

(6.) The OED gives as its second definition of Cockney (noun): "`a child that sucketh long' [...], `a mother's darling'; [...] `a child tenderly brought up'; hence a squeamish or effeminate fellow" (Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd ed., C: 575-76).

(7.) Susan Wolfson, "Feminising Keats," in Coleridge, Keats, and Shelley, ed. Peter J. Kitson (Houndmills: Macmillan, 1996) 92-113, at 95.

(8.) "On the Cockney School of Poetry No. IV," Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine 3 (August 1818): 519-24, at 522.

(9.) Preface to Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine 19 (January 1826): xvi.

(10.) The Letters of John Keats, 1814-1821, ed. Hyder Edward Rollins, 2 vols (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1958) 2.186; hereafter LJK.

(11.) "Decapitating Romance: Class, Fetish, and Ideology in Keats's Isabella," Nineteenth-Century Literature 49 (1994): 321-38, at 325.

(12.) See The Romantic Body: Love and Sexuality in Keats, Wordsworth, and Blake (Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 1985) 54.

(13.) So far as I am aware, no source for this story has been identified. Keats may have invented it himself.

(14.) Keats and Embarrassment (Oxford: Clarendon, 1974) 120-21.

(15.) The image of feet glimpsed beneath water occurs on a number of occasions in Keats, including his earliest surviving poem, Imitation of Spenser:
 There saw the swan his neck of arched snow,
 And oared himself along with majesty;
 Sparkled his jetty eyes; his feet did show
 Beneath the waves like Afric's ebony,
 And on his back a fay reclined voluptuously.


As Miriam Allott notes, Keats found a source for this image in Milton's Paradise Lost (7.438-40). Keats's interest in the swan's feet is arguably more focused on how these appendages appear beneath the water than Milton's; but even if the imagery in the Imitation does not, as the poem's title suggests, stray too far from convention, in later work Keats's fascination with feet under water quickly deconstructs its relationship to "normal" desire.

(16.) Sigmund Freud, On Sexuality: Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality and Other Works, trans. James Strachey, ed. Angela Richards, The Pelican Freud Library, 15 vols (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1953) 7: 352.

(17.) Lewis Dearing, "A John Keats letter rediscovered," Keats-Shelley Journal 47 (1998): 14-16, at 16.

(18.) Roland Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text, trans. Richard Miller (Oxford: Blackwell, 1990) 58.

(19.) Keats (London: Faber and Faber, 1997) 89.

(20.) John Keats (London: Heinemann, 1968) 30.

(21.) Cited in Motion's biography of Keats 21.

(22.) Byron: A Self-Portrait: Letter and Diaries, 1798-1824, ed. Peter Quennell, 2 vols (London: Murray, 1950) 2: 533; Letter dated 4 Nov. 1820.

(23.) Brown was some eight years older than Keats.

(24.) Marjorie Levinson, Keats's Life of Allegory (Oxford: Blackwell, 1988) 120.

RICHARD MARGGRAF TURLEY is Lecturer in English at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth. He is the author of The Politics of Language in Romantic Literature (Palgrave 2002) and is currently working on a new book, "Keats's Boyish Imagination."
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Author:Turley, Richard Marggraf
Publication:Studies in Romanticism
Article Type:Critical Essay
Date:Mar 22, 2002
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