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Interior space and description in Keats's narrative poetry.


In Keats's narrative poetry, an acute awareness of the spaces that characters occupy and in which the action unfolds gives particular symbolic significance to various interior spaces (such as castles and houses, living rooms, ballrooms, bedrooms, tombs, etc.) with windows and doors or no openings. In this article, I account for Keats's employment of the descriptive method with a specific focus on his creation of interior space. How does he craft these interior spaces? Which means are used to achieve which ends? How do they function within the narratives? And are they mainly performed by narrators or focalized through characters?

To address these issues, I turn to Gotthold Ephraim Lessing's book Laocoon: An Essay on the Limits of Painting and Poetry, published in 1766. Lessing theorizes what he deems the proper subjects for painting and poetry, respectively. Although he concludes that depicting objects in space belongs to painting whereas depicting a sequence of events falls under the domain of poetry, he investigates how poetry and painting can use each other's resources. In a similar vein, Georg Lukacs has theorized about literature's means of evoking space in his 1936 essay "Narrate or Describe?" Skeptical towards extensive descriptions as mere fillers, Lukacs instead advocates that description should be thematically integrated in a central action.

In dialogue with Lessing's and Lukacs's theories, I analyze Keats's use of description and interior space in his narrative poetry. I apply three ideas from Lessing to Keats: first of all, his notion of an economy of descriptive adjectives (functioning as epithets); secondly, his notion of narrativized description; and finally, the notion that poetry literally organizes language spatially. In relation to the latter, I supplement Lessing with Brian McHale's notion that poetry spaces language, proposed in "The Unnaturalness of Poetry" (2013). Though I argue that Keats's rendition of space is mainly aperspectival, I employ Lessing's three ideas to probe the way his description of interior space can have multiple functions: serving as deliberate interruptions; being thematized, semanticized and narrativized; offering a poetic vision; and occasionally reflecting character psychology.

The interpretation of Keats focuses on "Isabella; or, The Pot of Basil" (1818) and "The Eve of St. Agnes" (1820). In "Isabella," I explore the image of the tomb and the spatial entities of the pot and the forest, which according to Keats's extended understanding of space function as interior spaces (with the ability to contain living or dead people within them). In "St. Agnes," I focus on the symbolic significance of Madeline's chamber as space for the scene of seduction, the climax of the story.

Descriptive Stasis versus Plot Progression

In "Sleep and Poetry" (1817) Keats bids farewell to delightful poetry in order to write in an epic and more narrative mode, with these often-quoted lines: "And can I ever bid these joys farewell? / Yes, I must pass them for a nobler life, / Where I may find the agonies, the strife / Of human hearts" (122-125). Yet if we assess what Keats went on to write, the narrative poetry of his last volume of poetry Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St. Agnes, and Other Poems (1820) does not really conform to these epic aspirations. For one thing, he continues to write lyric poetry (not least, the critically-acclaimed great odes) and, for another, he composes his narrative poems, which are lyric-narrative hybrids.

Keats indulges in elaborate descriptions of various items in both his lyric and in his lyric-narrative poetry. Scholars have stressed how "Keatsian narrators" often present various figures "as though they were art objects" (Kelley 170). Keats's "Fragment of Castle-Builder" typifies his interest in description. The speaker in the poem indulges in imagining--or performatively inventing--a specific room in a castle. Theresa Kelley writes about how the "title and the repeated use of the modal 'should' (26, 28, 59, 63,65) recognize this room as a rich poetic 'phantasy' (47), created out of thin air" and that "[t]he features and appointments seem both substantial and yet patently invented" (Kelley 175). The title indicates that Keats deliberately makes the poem a fragment. In "The Eve of St. Mark," on the other hand, Keats never progressed beyond the expository opening. The narrator creates a contrast between the outside world--from which the main character, Bertha, is separated--and the inside of a room where she sits reading. The narrator describes and evaluates the interior space of the room and its atmosphere, but the poem ends before inserting any narrative instability in the story. The emphasis placed on space and description ends up truncating the narratives in "Fragment of Castle-builder" and "The Eve of St. Mark."

In the poems that do contain a full-fledged story (like "The Eve of St. Agnes," "Isabella," and "Lamia"), Keats still places an emphasis on description and the rendition of space. This essay analyzes the interplay between the narrative drive and the different functions of description in relation to interior space in these poems.

Lessing and Lukacs

Theories of description and its role have a long history, in which Gotthold Ephraim Lessing's book Laocoon: An Essay on the Limits of Painting and Poetry plays an important part. He argues that painting and poetry are two media with different means of achieving their ends. Painting represents figures and colors in space, whereas poetry (by which he typically refers to epic or narrative poetry) represents actions in time. A painting depicts a single moment of an action and must therefore choose "the one which is most suggestive and from which the preceding and succeeding actions are most easily comprehensible" (78). Poetry, conversely, depicts a sequence of actions but should as a rule of thumb refrain from using elaborate descriptions of its people, objects, and places. At one point in the book, Lessing explains how the poet and the painter must be as
   two equitable and friendly neighbors [who] do not permit the one to
   take unbecoming liberties in the heart of the other's domain, yet
   on their extreme frontiers practice a mutual forbearance by which
   both sides make peaceful compensation for those slight aggressions
   which ... the one finds himself compelled to make on the other's
   privilege. (91)

Even though Lessing delimits suitable roles for poetry and painting respectively, he also examines how each successfully employs what seems to be the privilege of the other's medium of art. He suggests that there are good and bad ways to do this. In order to examine how well they apply to Keats's descriptive method, I broach three of the ways poets--according to Lessing--can viably introduce spatial reference.

One "slight aggression"--as Lessing puts it in the quotation above--by the poet shows in his need for spatial reference. In this regard, Lessing refers to what he calls "the rule concerning the harmony of descriptive adjectives and economy in description of physical objects" (79), according to which poets have to select a single descriptive property. They must choose the one "which awakens the most vivid image" (79). Thus, Homer "depicts bodies and single objects only when they contribute toward these actions, and then only by a single trait" (79). Lessing notes how Homer will mention only one characteristic when he wants to describe, for instance, a ship. He will then call it either a black ship, or a hollow ship, or a fast ship, depending on which adjective or epitheton serves the purpose best. Lessing later softens up on the strictness of this rule: "The poet deserves the same forbearance ... why should he not be allowed to add a second word now and then? And why not even a third, if it is worth the trouble? Or even a fourth?" (92-93). Lessing's account of Homer's preference for a single trait describes "his style in general," and Lessing accounts for other passages in which Homer "adds a third descriptive epithet" (93). In Keats's narrative poetry, it makes sense to apply this rule of economy in relation to this description of interior space. The descriptive traits can be seen to invest the object described with metaphoric and symbolic meaning, integrating the description into the overall thematic purpose of the work.

For Lessing, Homer is the quintessential poet because he generally obeys the rule of economy, but occasionally Homer devotes many words and sentences to describing a single object. This happens, for instance, when he wants to show us Agamemnon's dress (Iliad II 42,-41) or Achilles's shield (Iliad XVIII 478-608). The latter example seems to pose the biggest threat to Lessing's rule in that Homer spends more than one hundred verses meticulously describing this shield. Lessing, however, has no objection because Homer does not "paint the shield as finished and complete, but as a shield that is being made" (Lessing 95). Lessing finds this way of "transforming what is coexistent in his subject into what is consecutive" to be an "admirable artistic device," in that it makes "the living picture of an action out of the tedious painting of an object" (Lessing 95; Ryan has termed this tactic "narrativized description"--par. 19). Narrativizing a description and hence making the coexistent consecutive applies to Keats's method of constructing spatial reference.

Lessing generally criticizes poets with a propensity for elaborating descriptions, especially if they are not narrativized. He argues that in order to arrive at a clear conception of an object in space, one must first "look at its parts singly, then the combination of parts, and finally the totality" (85). When poets write long descriptions of flowers, for instance, they lose the totality. Over the course of such a long description, a conception of the whole cannot be maintained. Conversely, this can be taken in at one glance in a painting, and therefore the poetic description "remains infinitely inferior to what lines and colors can express on canvas" (Lessing 87).

In Georg Lukacs's essay "Narrate or Describe?" (1936) he addresses the same issue as Lessing and arrives at some of the same conclusions. Lukacs writes about realism and naturalism in the French and Russian 19th-century novel in the period that follows Keats. He contends that great novels (which he calls epic) depict the inner poetry of life, "the poetry of men in struggle, the poetry of the turbulent, active interaction of men" (Lukacs 126). This focus on action leads him to impose limits on the range and use of description. Emile Zola serves as this negative exemplum. Commenting on the description of a horse race in Nana, Lukacs writes that even though Zola displays great virtuosity in his use of description, it is a "mere filler in the novel" (110). Lukacs criticizes the naturalistic novel for presenting descriptive details as being relevant in and of themselves, so that an accumulation of such details becomes part of the composition:
   When a writer attempts as an observer and describer to achieve a
   comprehensive description, he must either reject any principle of
   selection, undertake an inexhaustible labour of Sisyphus or simply
   emphasize the picturesque and superficial aspects best adapted to
   description. (130-31)

When there seems to be no principle of selection and the elements are presented with equal significance, the piece according to Lukacs loses its inner significance. Proponents of the naturalistic method may find value in "the poetry of things" (135), but for Lukacs description can only be poetic when thematically integrated in the events of the narrative: "only when they furnish the indispensable vehicle for transmitting human relationships do they acquire poetic value or become poetic in themselves" (135-36). He finds this to be the case in works by Walter Scott, Honore de Balzac, and Leo Tolstoy. In their works, description is "integral to an important action" (111), rather than trying to be exhaustive. He claims that no poetry of things in literature exists independently of people and their lives: "Objects come to life poetically only to the extent they are related to men's life, that is why the real poet does not describe objects but exposes their function in the mesh of human destinies, introducing things only as they play a part in the destinies, actions and passions of men" (137). For both Lessing and Lukacs, it is paramount that long descriptions are not ends in themselves but that they are transformed so that they are inconspicuously integrated in the narration (for instance by being thematized or narrativized) or so that they are clearly serving narrative purposes.

Finally, Lessing's distinction between poetry and painting gives rise to the question of whether signs can result in organized spatial arrangement. Frederick Burwick asks this question in his article "Lessing's Laokoon and the Rise of Visual Hermeneutics" (1999):
   How can signs in temporal sequence (nach einander) express spatial
   arrangement (neben einander)? The signs of poetry, Lessing answers,
   do not follow one another in a random sequence ... Metrical
   arrangement and grammatical structure impose a necessary spatial
   configuration. (224)

In creating story space, narrative poetry uses the concrete space of the textual materiality. Etymologically many of the technical words in poetry have some kind of spatial origin. For instance, "stanza" is the Italian word for room, and "verse" refers to the turning of the plow in a field. Brian McHale touches on this in an article from 2013 when he says that "poetry spaces language--it literally introduces white space (or, in oral poetry, pause or silence) in places where natural narrative (or written prose) has none" (201). In my interpretation of Keats's poetry, I show how the poet exploits this potential of textual space to design the story space and how this relates to the other spatial strategies he employs.

Keatsian Space

Keats's narrative poems are suspended between descriptive stasis and plot progression to which both the actual story space and the use of spatial metaphoricity contribute. In 1953 Earl Wasserman notes how Keats invests interior spaces with symbolic meaning: "Doors, chambers, and mansions seem to have possessed especially important symbolic values in Keats' mind" (116). Wasserman further stresses that "apartments, doors, and portals ... embody a value beyond their narrative function" (117). His interpretive comments refer to Keats's poetry (narrative and lyric), but he also picks out a passage in Keats's letter to John Hamilton Reynolds from the 3 May 1818, in which Keats offers a "simile of human life" (Letters 280). In this letter, Keats compares life to a large "Mansion of many Apartments" (280), of which he can describe two. In the first apartment, the infant or thoughtless chamber, we exist without thinking. He calls the second chamber the chamber of maiden-thought. Here we are intoxicated with the light, the atmosphere, and spectacles of pleasure and wonder. The chamber of maiden-thought gradually darkens, however, as we begin to see that the world is full of misery and pain, and this recognition opens up many doors that lead to dark passages that cannot be seen; it places us in a mist and makes us feel the "burden of the Mystery" (281). In Wasserman's interpretation, the letter and Keats's poetry show that spatial references, never neutral, always contain symbolic meaning.

A general tendency in Romanticism involves poets' projecting interior feelings onto the outside world (Abrams 48). In "1775-1825: Affective Landscapes and Romantic Consciousness," David Vallins argues that "Romantic-period narratives [express] subjectivity through metaphorical spaces (whether in the form of landscape, architecture, or the visionary space of dreams), which differ fundamentally from the quasi-literal landscapes of eighteenth- or nineteenth-century realism" (187). They "evoke a form of pure affect" (187) otherwise inexpressible, rather than shaping or reflecting the psychology of characters. Wordsworth's poetry in the first person serves as an example throughout Vallins's essay. Does the capacity of the spatial affects to shape or reflect the psychology of characters increase in heterodiegetic narrative poetry like Keats's? At least in Keats's narrative poetry, most of the time an authorial heterodiegetic voice unequivocally delivers spatial metaphors, rhymes, and descriptions overtly and occasionally intrusively (for instance, suddenly stopping the narration to make apologies to Boccaccio). This voice does not seem to be very interested in characters' thoughts. Indeed, besides the narrator's omniscience, dialogue provides our main access to what characters think.

Although the rendition of interior space is mainly aperspectival, it serves multiple important purposes. First of all, the construction creates the symbolic space, thematically relevant to the plot. Secondly, it interacts with the narrative drive, deliberately inserting frustrating pauses. It occasionally appears to be filler (as Lukacs suggests about some naturalistic novels), but Keats always employs a principle of selection. In certain passages, the narrator even offers a poetic vision that is an end in its own right (similar to what the speaker does in Keats's odes). In a few rare instances, it is not entirely clear if the interior space is focalized through a narrator or characters. Hence, readers try to negotiate whether the rendition of space and the ascription of symbolic value are performed by the heterodiegetic narrator or focalized through a character (or oscillating indeterminably between the two). In what follows, I examine the questions raised here and those raised in the earlier theoretical section on Lessing and Lukacs by considering two of Keats's narrative poems.

The Tomb as Epithet in "Isabella; or, The Pot of Basil"

In Keats's version of the unfortunate story of Isabella from Boccaccio's Decameron "Isabella; or, The Pot of Basil," Isabella embarks on an affair with Lorenzo, a servant in the family's trade business. Her brothers discover their secret love and plot the murder of Lorenzo. After Lorenzo's death, he appears in front of Isabella in a dream vision and tells her what has happened to him and where he is buried. Isabella finds his grave in the forest and brings home his skull, which she hides in a pot of basil. She wets it with her tears, and her all-engulfing care for the pot of basil with Lorenzo's skull in it results in her slow decay. One of the central places for the action is the forest where the murder is committed and Lorenzo is initially buried. In addition, the central object in the poem is the pot of basil mentioned in the title. I apply Lessing's rule concerning the harmony of descriptive adjectives and economy of description of physical objects to the forest and the pot of basil, respectively. Keats uses a single descriptive epithet (or various synonyms or metonymies for the single epithet) for the forest throughout the poem; "the tomb." When the brothers resolve to kill Lorenzo, they plan to do it in "some forest dim" and "there bury him" (22.175-76). On the pretext of going on a business trip, they ride with Lorenzo "[i]nto a forest quiet for the slaughter" (27.216). After the murder, Isabella slowly loses her beauty and vitality. In stanza 35, she is visited by the deceased Lorenzo in a vision:
   It was a vision.--In the drowsy gloom,
   The dull of midnight, at her couch's foot
   Lorenzo stood, and wept: the forest tomb

   Had marr'd his glossy hair which once could shoot
   Lustre into the sun, and put cold doom

   Upon his lips, and taken the soft lute
   From his lorn voice, and past his loamed ears
   Had made a miry channel for his tears. (35.273-80)

In this stanza, Keats rhymes "tomb" with "gloom" and "doom" in a way that links the gloom in Isabella's room with Lorenzo's tomb that has covered his hair and face in mud and put "cold doom" on his lips. The "forest tomb" may designate Lorenzo's tomb in the forest or indicate that the entire forest is one big tomb. The vision of Lorenzo goes on to recount how the murder happens:
   The while it [Lorenzo's spirit] did unthread the horrid woof
   Of the late darken'd time,--the murderous spite
   Of pride and avarice,--the dark pine roof
   In the forest,--and the sodden turfed dell,
   Where, without any word, from stabs he fell. (37.292-96)

The fragmented nature of the sentences indicates that we either get snippets of Lorenzo's account, a summary of the account by the narrator, or an account of the events as perceived by Isabella. The forest is described as having a "dark pine roof." This adds to the conception of the forest as an interior space and concurs with its resemblance to a tomb. The next stanza makes a shift in discourse to Lorenzo's direct speech. He tells Isabella exactly what the place of his grave looks like (with whortle-berries, a large flint-stone, beeches, chestnuts and sheep passing by along the river) and implores her to find it: "Go, shed one tear upon my heather-bloom, / And it shall comfort me within the tomb" (38. 303-4). This rhyme of "bloom" with "tomb" suggests the bizarre nature of decomposition as something that enhances the conditions for future blooming, and it foreshadows the scene when his skull, kept moist by Isabella's tears, will make the basil bloom beautifully in the pot later in the poem.

The morning after the vision, Isabella enters the woods to seek out Lorenzo's grave: "Resolv'd, she took with her an aged nurse, / And went into that dismal forest-hearse" (43.343-44). As a metonymic substitution for "tomb," the forest is now described as a "hearse," a closed container of death, while continuing the oxymoronic nature of the bloom-tomb rhyme. In the sentences before these two lines, the ambiguity of perspective prevails through indirect discourse as Isabella devises her plan. The repeated sentence structure "How she might secret to the forest hie," "How she might find the clay," "How her short absence might be unsurmised," etc. (43.338-34) indicates Isabella's subjective perception. This also makes it uncertain whether it is the narrative voice or Isabella who regards the forest as dismal and as a hearse. Certainly, Isabella does not doubt the truthfulness of her vision. She thinks about Lorenzo and about what happened in the forest, and this arguably leads her (rather than the narrator) to perceive the forest as a hearse.

Isabella finds the grave, digs out Lorenzo's head, and brings it home. Before she puts it in the pot with basil, she combs "its" hair and washes the clay away with her tears. Here the image of the tomb is used in yet another way as Lorenzo's eye socket is described as the "eye's sepulchral cell" (51.404). The pot, furthermore, becomes the head's new tomb. She wraps it up in a silken scarf "and for its tomb did choose / A garden-pot, wherein she laid it by, / And cover'd it with mould, and o'er it set / Sweet basil, which her tears kept ever wet" (52.413-16). The basil plant draws nurture from the "fast mouldering head," so that "the jewel, safely casketed, / Came forth, and in perfumed leafits spread" (54.430-32). The connection between bloom and tomb thus reappears with the head in the pot. The brothers sense something wrong, but find it difficult to assess the significance of the pot. Isabella continually lingers by it, and "when she left, she hurried back, as swift / As bird on wing to breast its eggs again; And, patient as a hen-bird, sat her there / Beside her basil, weeping through her hair" (59.469-72). The bloom-tomb analogy is thus paralleled by the image of the skull as an egg. This links back to the beginning of the poem. While Lorenzo and Isabella are still enjoying each other's love, Isabella's room is described as a "downy nest" (18.138). Now she acts as a macabre caretaker. The question is what the hatched egg is going to give birth to.

Throughout the poem, Keats employs metonymic words like "tomb," "sepulcher," and "hearse" as metaphoric vehicles that function like epithets for the forest, the site where the most important scene in the narrative--the murder--takes place. These spaces are connected semantically with other (sometimes oxymoronic) words by means of rhymes (bloom--tomb). They are moreover metaphorically aligned with other spaces in the poem's world that may be either open or closed. I suppose the forest can be both, depending on whether one stresses its thick canopy of trees or the sky seen through the treetops; in the poem it is mainly described as closed. Finally, spaces can be much smaller (e.g. an eye socket or a pot) or much bigger (e.g. a forest) than tomb, sepulcher, or hearse. In this manner, Keats broadens how we typically perceive the concept of interior space.

However, Keats also employs longer descriptions. In "Isabella," so much text and effort (six stanzas or 48 lines) is spent on describing Isabella and on the nurse's attempt to dig out the corpse that the overt heterodiegetic narrator feels the need to address this problem: "Ah! wherefore all this wormy circumstance? / Why linger at the yawning tomb so long?" (49.385-86). Some critics (like Jack Stillinger) have emphasized the poem's brutal realism. As the women dig up the grave, we get a detailed description of the corpse of Lorenzo. This description, though, is not static, but incorporated into the narrative. Hence, Keats transforms what is coexistent into what is consecutive and converts the painting of an object into an action.

Narrativized Description in "The Eve of St. Agnes" (1)

Narrativized description as theorized by Lessing is central to "The Eve of St. Agnes." All of "The Eve of St. Agnes" takes place within the castle of Madeline's family where a big party is held. The rooms within the castle are central to the poem. In his book on Keats, Wasserman traces how the different characters in the poem are placed in different rooms to emphasize their spiritual status. The beadsman (one who is paid to pray for others' sins) in the chapel represents someone who seeks truth without beauty. He avoids sensuous warmth of life and only devotes himself to the soul (Wasserman 126). The people who attend the revelry held at the "level chambers" ("St. Agnes" 4.32) "seek pleasure and agitation merely as an end in itself' (Wasserman 128). They neglect soul for life alone. Madeline's nurse, Angela, can both be in the level chambers and ascend the staircase to Madeline's chamber, but she is described as being "weak in body and in soul" ("St. Agnes" 11.90); she has no intensity in either (Wasserman 130). In terms of the narrative, the most important room is Madeline's chamber--the scene of the narrative climax, the seduction of Madeline by Porphyro--and readers encounter many different types of descriptions of the room.

The interior of Madeline's chamber is first described statically in stanzas 24 and 25. When Madeline enters, Porphyro is hiding there. She has been performing the rituals associated with St. Agnes' Eve. In a trance, she enters and goes to sleep. At this point the narrator interrupts the action to describe the ornaments and colors on the window in the room:
   A casement high and triple-arch'd there was,
   All garlanded with carven imag'ries
   Of fruits, and flowers, and bunches of knot-grass,
   And diamonded with panes of quaint device,
   Innumerable of stains and splendid dyes,
   As are the tiger-moth's deep-damask'd wings;
   And in the midst, 'mong thousand heraldries,
   And twilight saints, and dim emblazonings,
   A shielded scutcheon blush'd with blood of queens and kings.

Why does Keats spend time and space on this extended description of the casement? Is it mere filler (in Lukacs's words), so that Keats simply accumulates details without any principle of selection? And if so, are we to understand it as being offered as relevant in and of itself? I think that this may be part of the answer. Keats is simply fascinated by casements (think only of the casement in "Ode to a Nightingale"), and here it seems that he indulges in describing it as an isolated lyric poem within the poem. Read this way, this passage pinpoints a discrepancy between Keats as lyric poet interested in these static descriptions as ends in themselves (in the poetry of things, to use Lukacs words) and his interest in and obligation towards the plot. However, the passage can also be seen as a deliberate pause in the narrative. It occurs when Madeline is about to undress, while Porphyro is hiding and watching. It thus creates an effect of suspense, as I have argued elsewhere. (2) The casement may moreover be argued to function as a fascinatingly ornamented item that metonymically helps establish the atmosphere in her chamber. As such, it serves--though in a more static way--the same purpose as the later description of the atmosphere in the room, narrativized through Porphyro's actions (st. 29-31). Understood in this manner, the description of the casement can be seen to be integrated thematically into the action. A third reading of the passage might point out that the casement that lets the moonlight into the room also literally frames the interior space of the seduction scene. Irrespective of which interpretation we choose, it is hard to imagine the description of the casement being focalized through Porphyro's eyes.

Porphyro plans to seduce Madeline, but before he wakes her up, he makes meticulous preparations, described in stanzas 29, 30, and 31. His preparations create an atmosphere in the room, conveyed to readers as it is being contemplated by Porphyro:
   Then by the bed-side, where the faded moon
   Made a dim, silver twilight, soft he set
   A table, and, half anguish'd, threw thereon
   A cloth of woven crimson, gold, and jet:--(29.253-56)

In this first step, Keats highlights the colors. The twilight room offers a mixture of silver, red, gold, and black colors. In stanza 30, he places on the table all sorts of foods, brought from exotic places like Fez, Samarcand, and Lebanon; among them are jellies, a heap of candied apple, syrup with cinnamon, manna, and dates. The colors of the food mix with the other colors in the room, but most importantly they add scent to the atmosphere in the room. In stanza 31 he finishes the preparations:
   These delicates he heap'd with glowing hand
   On golden dishes and in baskets bright
   Of wreathed silver: sumptuous they stand
   In the retired quiet of the night,
   Filling the chilly room with perfume light.--(31.271-75)

The chamber now stands as an overwhelming array of colors and perfume, but Porphyro cannot wake Madeline until he starts playing an ancient tune (called "La belle dame sans mercy"! [33.292] on her lute. The room appeals to all the senses; it entrances Madeline. We do not get access to her state of mind when she surrenders to Porphyro. The achievement of his goal is substantially based on the overwhelming effect of synesthesia (colors, temperature, music, scents) as well as on the sheer range of fascinating items that he has assembled in the chamber (e.g. the array of the foods). In stanzas 29-31 Keats integrates their description into the action.

Textual Space at the Service of Narrative Space

In this section I wish to analyze how textual space can serve the description of narrative setting. I have demonstrated how metaphors and rhymes are important means of producing symbolically charged interior spaces. These techniques already relate to textual space because rhymes highlight certain words by placing them at the foregrounded final position of a line of verse. Furthermore, rhymes through their phonological association establish correspondences between words (e.g. between "bloom" and "tomb"). Textual space is functionalized in relation to narrative space in the stylistic use of enjambment, as for instance in these two lines: "Through many a dusky gallery, they gain / The maiden's chamber, silken, hush'd, and chaste" ("St. Agnes," 21.186-187). These two lines narrate how the old nurse, Angela, leads Porphyro to Madeline's chamber through many "dusky galleries." Once in Madeline's chamber, he takes cover and waits for Madeline to enter. The creation of space in these lines is complex. First of all, the archaic meaning of the verb 'to gain' as in 'to reach' or 'to arrive at' can itself indicate spatiality without the need for supplementary nouns or adjectives. According to David Herman in Story Logic (2004), motion verbs typically function in such a manner: "By encoding the directionality of movement, motion verbs express projective locations of entities being perceived by narrators, as well as paths taken by entities as they move or are moved from place to place" (282). Herman furthermore refers to a study of naturallanguage narratives that shows how motion verbs such as "come, arrive, walk in" are used to indicate spaces located nearest to the observer, whereas "go, walked off/out, leave" indicate characters leaving the space (182). This resonates very well with a point in "St. Agnes" where spatial description of Madeline's chamber from an up-close position occurs (24-25.208-25 and 28-32.244--88), as opposed to the ending where they glide like phantoms out of the door to a hardly-described outside world (41.361-62).

To return to the issue of enjambment, the narration of the "gaining" of Madeline's chamber also fits the symbolism of rooms in general and the significance of moving in and out of different symbolic rooms in the poem. The threshold is very important here, as the placement of the motion verb "gain" at the very end of the verse line emphasizes. Foregrounded due to its position, "gain" is also part of the C-rhymes in the Spenserian stanza, which rhymes ABABBCBCC. What the Nurse and Porphyro gain (Madeline's chamber) is not revealed until the next line, so entering the room means moving down to the next line of verse (after having paused at "gain"). The gaining of Madeline's room, moreover, takes on yet another symbolic layer of meaning. Regardless of one's inclination to embrace or to discard Freudian psychoanalysis, it is difficult not read the description of Madeline's chamber as a vaginal metaphor, an account of the "Maiden's chamber" (which is a hypallage) being "silken, hush'd, and chaste" (21.187). Twice in the same line do these word foreground the importance of virginity (a maiden in a chaste chamber), an aspect highly relevant to the plot, in that Porphyro succeeds in gaining access not only to the room but to Madeline's virginity. After all, we are at the point in the story where the deflowering of Madeline is imminent. The employment of enjambment invokes these overtones of defloration.


On the basis of interpretations of key passages in Keats's "Isabella" and "St. Agnes," I have argued that reading space as charged with symbolic significance is essential to grasping Keats's approach to narrative poetry. Interior spaces play a particularly important role in this connection. Lessing's discussion of the specificities of the different media and of their potential collaborations in the Laocoon essay has provided a number of concepts for staging the discussion in relation to Keats's poetry. In particular, I have focused on these aspects in Lessing's essay: on his notion of the harmony and economy of epithets, on the concept of narrativized description, and on the spatial organization of language which poetry entails. I have equally drawn on other theorists (Lukacs, McHale, Herman, and Ryan) to supplement Lessing's model.

There are several options for including extended descriptions in narratives. I have focused on description that thematizes and narrativizes space. In Keats's narrative poetry, one encounters a multifarious array of means and ends related to this. Occasionally extended description is static and appears to be an end in itself almost as if it is a climax of some progression, but it never tries to be exhaustive. There is always a principle of selection and often thematically integrated in the events. When the description is narrativized, it eliminates stasis and incorporates the description of something inconspicuously in the unfolding actions and movements of the story.

The other two devices for description analyzed in this article highlight a potential unique to narrative in verse as opposed to narrative in prose, namely textual space and economy of epithets. The former constitutes a difference in kind, whereas the latter implies a difference of degree (since the nature of the economy of epithets is not exclusive to--but possibly more frequent in--narrative in verse). What characterize economy of epithets are the brevity and the reappearances throughout a text. Keats's chosen epithets often contain a metaphoric dimension and entail an extended understanding of space. The recurrence of a spatial epithet helps to serve thematic purposes.

There is a unique potential to employ the textual space productively when creating story space in a narrative poem that emerges because the metrical aspects and versification privilege and single out certain places on the page. I believe there is much to be gained for theory on description and space in literature by looking further into this potential. Keats exploits it by using rhymes when evoking space and by underscoring characters' movement in the story space by readers' movement through the verses and stanzas of the text space. Future studies might apply the same concepts from Lessing to interior space in eighteenth-century poetry (for instance Alexander Pope) or in Victorian poetry (for instance in Robert Browning or Alfred Lord Tennyson); they might moreover apply the results to the concept of space in Keats specifically and Romantic poetry in general. Are the purposes of spatial description and its interaction with narrative similar, or is description used for different ends in other poets and periods? For now this must remain an open question.

Lasse Gammelgaard

Aarhus University


I would like to thank Sarah Copland, Suzanne Keen, and Monika Fludernik for invaluable feedback to this article

(1) What I term narrativized description with reference to Lessing, designates the attempt to eradicate the temporal stasis from long descriptions by narrativizing it, i.e. having someone perform what needs to be described. In his article 'Toward a Poetics of 'Descriptized' Narration," Harold Mosher proposes a spectrum from narration to description where descriptized narration and narratized description are located between the two extremes of the spectrum. His main purpose is introducing descriptized narration. His term narratized description corresponds to some extent with my concept of narrativized description, but his term covers more. In narratized description, "a character acts by perceiving or describing or manufacturing an object, thus making the predominating descriptive subject matter appear to be part of a narration" (Mosher 443). In Lessing and in my interpretation of Keats, narrativized description only encompasses a narrator narrating how a character manufactures or acts out something, which serves as a description.

(2) Cf. my article in the "works cited" which is published in a special issue of Narrative on narrative and poetry. There I trace two trajectories of reader response in narrative poetry.

Works Cited

Abrams, Meyer H. The Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic Theory and the Critical Tradition. New York: Oxford UP, 1971. Print.

Burwick, Frederick. "Lessing's Laokoon and the Rise of Visual Hermeneutics." Poetics Today 20.2 (1999): 219-72. Print.

Gammelgaard, Lasse. "Two Trajectories of Reader Response in Narrative Poetry: Roses and Risings in Keats's 'The Eve of St. Agnes.'" Narrative 22.2 (2014): 199-214. Print.

Herman, David. Story Logic: Problems and Possibilities of Narrative. Lincoln: Nebraska UP, 2004. Print.

Homer. The Iliad of Homer. Trans. Richmond Lattimore. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2011. Print.

Keats, John. Complete Poems. Cambridge: Belknap of Harvard UP, 2003. Print.

--. The Letters of John Keats. Ed. Hyder Rollins. Vol. 1. London: Cambridge UP, 1958. Print.

Kelley, Theresa M. "Keats and 'ekphrasis.'" The Cambridge Companion to Keats. Ed. Susan Wolfson. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2001. 170-86. Print.

Lessing, Gotthold E. Laocodn. An Essay on the Limits of Painting and Poetry. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins UP, 1984. Print.

Lukacs, Georg. "Narrate or Describe?" Writer and Critic and Other Essays. New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1971. 110-49. Print.

McHale, Brian. "The Unnaturalness of Narrative Poetry." A Poetics of Unnatural Narrative. Ed. Jan Alber, Henrik Skov Nielsen, and Brian Richardson. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 2013. 199-223. Print.

Mosher, Harold F. "Toward a Poetics of 'Descriptized' Narration." Poetics Today 12.3 (1991): 425-15. Print.

Ryan, Marie-Laure. "Space." The Living Handbook of Narratology. Ed. Peter Huhn et al. Hamburg: Hamburg University, 22 Apr 2014. Web. 4 Dec 2013.

Stillinger, Jack. "Keats and Romance: The "Reality" of Isabella." The Hoodwinking of Madeline and Other Essays on Keats's Poems. Chicago: Illinois UP, 1971. 31-46. Print.

Vallins, David. "1775-1825: Affective Landscapes and Romantic Consciousness." The Emergence of Mind. Representations of Consciousness in Narrative Discourse in English. Ed. David Herman. Lincoln: Nebraska UP, 2011. 187-214. Print.

Wasserman, Earl. The Finer Tone. Keats' Major Poems. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins P, 1953. Print.
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Author:Gammelgaard, Lasse
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Dec 22, 2014
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