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John Keats and the Culture of Dissent.

NICHOLAS ROE. Pp. xx+316. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997. [pounds]40.

In his alertly investigated John Keats and the Culture of Dissent, Nicholas Roe picks up the gauntlet thrown down by the 'Cockney School' essays published over the initial Z in Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine from October 1817 onwards. As Roe shows, Z sought to 'disempower Keats by making him look ridiculous', mocking 'his youth, his social class, cultural status, and gender' (p. 10). Roe describes, and distinguishes his own position from, three responses to Z's polemic: the claim that Keats is beyond politics; the argument that Keats's poetry might be read as 'fundamentally reactionary' (p. 5) (Jerome McGann's case); and the contention (Marjorie Levinson's) that Keats should be regarded as 'a lower-class "literary entrepreneur" . . . aggressively . . . on the make' (p. 14). Though Roe acknowledges the stimulus of Levinson's account, he attempts 'to shift the emphasis over to a more positive view of Keats's education, attending to Keats's eloquence as a representative voice of the most vital sector of contemporary English culture: that is, the culture of dissent' (p. 15).

In so doing, Roe points out that Z's essays inadvertently bear witness to 'the Cockneys' power to disconcert' (p. 22). His book is particularly valuable for recovering the contexts in and out of which Keats produced his poetry. For instance, 'A Cockney Schoolroom' describes how the progressive values of John Collett Ryland, the founder of Enfield School, underpinned the education Keats received there. Roe makes a compelling case for the impetus given by Enfield to Keats's 'developing sense of calling as a poet' (p. 39).

Roe does not confine himself, as a biographer might, to a chronological ordering of his material. Rather, in an attempt to suggest continuities and shadowing tensions, he looks before and after, beginning Chapter 2 with an analysis of Keats's letter of 17-27 September 1819, in which the poet gives 'a liberal account of history as progressive enlightenment' (p. 51). Roe sees this view as central to Keats's vision of history, and yet his book does not shut its ears to what, glossing the end of 'Ode to a Nightingale', it calls 'the undeceiving music of post-revolutionary consciousness' (p. 60). Not everyone would describe the end of the ode in these unabashedly political terms. But it is the verve and nerve with which Roe detects connections - between, say, Keats's medical training and his trust in 'the pharmacy of imagination' (p. 187) - that engross.

John Keats and the Culture of Dissent often makes supple leaps between hard evidence and 'speculation', to use Keats's own word. The result is a book that raises questions about and throws light on the relationship between poetry and history. Its mode has much in common with the 'beautiful circuiting' Keats speaks of in a letter of 19 February 1818 as an emblem of how enquiry should be conducted. So Chapter 4 takes the reader back to Coleridge's writings of the 1790s, contending that the conversation poems handled their seemingly nonpolitical materials in ways that 'were understood by readers to reflect the wider political controversies of the time'. Similarly, Roe argues, the language of 'sociality' deployed by Hunt and the Cockney School met with hostile responses from conservative reviewers because it was perceived as signalling 'a resurgent radical community' (p. 116).

Roe's themes and motifs are woven and interwoven in a way that does justice to the intellectual and imaginative interactions charted in the book. Sometimes, as in Chapter 5 ('Songs from the Woods; or, Outlaw Lyrics'), which picks up on the political meanings of 'verdant imagery' (p. 134) explored in Chapter 4, an associative link opens up exciting vistas. Roe makes one look with new eyes at poems such as 'Robin Hood: To a Friend' (the subtitle emerging as all-important) and 'Lines on the Mermaid Tavern'. Such poems, on Roe's analysis, engage in mutually supportive dialogue with poems by J. H. Reynolds and comment on 'the diminished freedoms of the present' (p. 140).

Roe's readings stimulate throughout, even when they provoke the reader to qualification or disagreement (as in the powerful elucidation of 'the politics of autumnal beauty' (p. 257) in 'To Autumn'). Without trimming its sails, his book steers adroitly between formalism and historicism, text and context; it will make a significant difference to the way Keats is read and understood.

MICHAEL O'NEILL University of Durham
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:O'Neill, Michael
Publication:The Review of English Studies
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Nov 1, 1998
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