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Keats, Ecocriticism, and the Poetics of Place.

FOR SEVERAL REASONS, IT WOULD APPEAR COUNTERINTUITIVE TO THINK OF John Keats as a poet of place. As Robert Kaufman points out, Keats is a poet of things: of artifacts that exist "to be energized, put into motion"--even be "disassembled or dissolved"--by subjects "who exist in relation" to them. (1) Timothy Morton likewise emphasizes Keats's desire to create objects of such magnitude that they "reconfigure our very idea of what materials and matters could be." (2) Christopher Rovee, in turn, characterizes Keats's poetics in terms of the "museal." (3)

The poetry of place, though, doesn't traditionally take an interest in sites such as the museum. Rather, it probes the intersections of cultural expression and physical geography--concerned with representations that convey a sense of local specificity in contrast to the nature writing of literary convention. (4) Keats, prone to express abstract thoughts in the language of physical sensation, generally makes it hard to pinpoint such instances of "concrete" experience, (5) and though his poems contain innumerable natural objects and sceneries, such props have--for the most part--a very loose relation to the material reality outside of the poet's mind. While this may be taken as a general characteristic of Romanticism, indeed, of poetic language as such, Keats distinguishes himself by so willingly trading the local for the universal.

The 1817 poem "Fancy," drastic in its refusal to offer any pragmatic counterpoint to poetic transcendence, is a case in point. Since the joys of the world are always "spoilt by use" (10), Keats instead proposes that solace must be sought in the imagination. "Like three fit wines in a cup" (38), she brings together "All delights of summer weather; / All the buds and bells of May, / [--] / All the heaped autumn's wealth" (31-35). (6) With the aid of poesy, ephemeral nature can then be reinstated in its infinite form: adorned, since freed from cyclical determination, with the simultaneous sights and sounds of the seasons (39-66).

Such a poetics of excess--or heresy (7)--throughout the history of Keats's reception the subject of disapproval, would also appear to disqualify him in terms of critical ecological reflection: most pressingly on account of his reluctance to accept the singular and contingent nature of human existence. In this regard, "green" scholars share with formalist critics an appreciation of the mature, chaste Keats; the author, that is, of "To Autumn"--perhaps the sole poem to have been discussed at any length in an ecocritical context. (8) Studies of place and Romantic literature have on their part tended to ignore Keats almost completely, (9) bringing the anecdote of "Keats's place" to mind. (10) According to his fellow students, that place was the window-seat in every room: a scene of yearning symbolic of a writing that appears to be grounded in place, only to the extent that it also faces the promise of a better elsewhere.

Against the background of these difficulties, I nonetheless want to consider the possibility of reading Keats as an ecological poet. Such an effort will point to an aspect of Keats's work that is easily neglected, especially if one restricts the notion of ecological thinking to the realm of nature writing. Sianne Ngai's analysis of the uneasy, or rather, too easy relation between poststructuralist language theory and the criticism of avant-garde poetry can in many ways be applied also to ecocriticism and eco-mimetic writing. (11) If such studies, then, tend to engage in works that explicitly thematize environmental materiality, revealing what Tom Bristow calls a number of "possible worlds as a counterpoint to our contemporary understanding of place," (12) I will here be looking in the other direction--at the realm of imagination--in order to locate the material grounding of the poetic subject. In this regard, Keats's work may reveal an unlikely field of ecological inquiry, actualizing with special pregnancy Martin Heidegger's later work. (13)

Heidegger continues to hold an important position in ecocritical discourse, primarily on account of his imperative to "save the earth" in the 1951 "Building Dwelling Thinking" lecture. (14) Discussing Heidegger in connection with Keats, though, may on the one hand serve as a reminder of the essay's larger philosophical context and, on the other, point to the dangers of appropriating Heidegger's own brand of Romanticism in the study of Romantic literature. In the extension of such reflections, I will thus close the study in an attempt to read Keats ecologically beyond this potential fallacy.


It is a popular opinion that Keats's lyrical work, and in particular his odes, circles around a conflict between reality and the ideal. According to Jack Stillinger's scheme, the poems depart in a state of precariousness from which they orchestrate a "mental flight" directed at various higher levels of compensatory existence. Ultimately found uninhabitable or lacking, these heightened states prompt the speaker's "earthly return," but retaining the insights gathered on his excursions, the poet is finally able to accept "the natural world" despite its intrinsic flaws. (15)

What interests me, though, is not Keats's explicit concern with the divides of reality and dream, mutability and immortality, and so on--nor his lifelong attempt to balance the careless realm "Of Flora, and old Pan" with "a nobler life, / Where I may find the agonies, the strife / Of human hearts" ("Sleep and Poetry," 102; 123-25). Rather, I want to approach the conditions that enable such conflicts in the first place. If Keats's poetry takes the domain of the lyric subject, its inner feelings, and its capability to draw upon the imagination as its primary stage, an ecological criticism of his work must either be abandoned or concentrated on the environmental situation of the lyric mind itself: on its very "material conditions of being," as Shahidha K. Bari has put it. (16) To this end, though, I believe that it is counterproductive to speak about Keats's "ecological poems," or to delimit "a subset of texts that cultivate a poetic idea of ecology." (17) The present study must necessarily adopt a wider scope in order to develop Bari's astute remark: namely that "Keats thinks in place," (18) approaching on these terms what Jonathan Bate refers to as the Romantic exploration of the "ecology of the mind." (19) Consequently, I want to start by discussing what a "mental flight" might actually have meant to Keats.

While the activity of writing imposes certain constraints on the body, texts, of course, provide endless possibilities of imagining ourselves elsewhere. This basic fact is mirrored in the sense of movement that undergirds many of Keats's poems. The odes, for instance, driven by restlessness, necessity, curiosity--or all of those feelings--provide several examples: "Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find," "I wander'd in a forest," "I will fly to thee," "No, no! go not to Lethe" (but instead to...). (20) Traveling, however, is not only important on a thematic level (where it may seem to imply a lack) but also in a meta-literary regard. "On First Looking into Chapman's Homer" (1816), for instance, famously compares the act of reading with the exploration of unknown lands. Already well "travell'd" in the "realms" and "states" of literature (1-2), the speaker has--until now--been restricted from that "wide expanse" of Homer's rule. The sonnet "To Homer" (1818) mirrors the same basic metaphor in praise of the Greek poet's own abilities while also meditating upon a similar motif of blindness and insight. Though unable to experience the material world by eyesight, Homer has been graced by the gods to voyage in the imagination, thus able to shed light on "shores of darkness," (9) finding an "untrodden green" (10) where others stare into an abyss.

As one can see, the notion of "flight" actualized in these examples is not negatively defined per se, but rather appears to constitute an essential part of the poetic expression. This idea is further theorized in a letter to John Reynolds from February 1818. Keats here presents the idea that poetry and "distilled Prose" are mediums to "wander with"; they enable their reader to "voyage" in "conception" in a state of "delicious diligent Indolence" (KL, 1:231). As the latter phrase suggests, physical passivity or limitation does not obstruct, but indeed spurs, mental activity. The metaphor Keats chooses for the reading mind--a spider--synthesizes the opposition in the image of an idle artisan, spinning "from his own inwards his own airy Citadel" (231), "full of Symbols for his spiritual eye, of softness for his spiritual touch, of space for his wandering" (232). Traveling through reading, though, does not constitute an end in itself. Rather, it conditions the construction of a dwelling, an "airy Citadel," to which the filaments of poetry are intrinsic, tangible and thing-like. Exploring the mind is ultimately a matter of inhabiting and decorating it, by transforming, as Jacques Ranciere observes, "what one has read into a manner of living" (21)--or, in the poet's own words: of "bringing home to it" (232). If one can identify a codependence between the imperative to wander and the necessity to dwell, it is, as I want to demonstrate, likewise important to note that things in themselves cannot be separated from the living environments they evoke, or from which they unfold in their capacity as things.

I begin by looking at the second stanza of "Ode to a Nightingale" (1819) and its call for a "draught of vintage" (11), conjuring images of "Flora and the country green, / Dance, and Provencal song, and sunburnt mirth" (13-14). While the poem's subsequent lines might suggest that Keats rhetorically addresses wine only to reject it for a higher goal--"I will fly to thee, / Not charioted by Bacchus and his pards, / But on the viewless wings of Poesy" (31-33)--such an interpretation assumes that Keats's notion of "Poesy" does not denote poiesis: the supposed common ground between poetry and craft. By considering such a dimension of the ode in relation to Heidegger's understanding of the nature of things, I am attempting to locate an environmental and ecological concern of the text that otherwise remains obscured.

According to Heidegger, the essence of things remains elusive if we treat things as mere representations of what is present before a subject, whether experienced through perception or brought to mind through recollection. (22) Furthermore, looking only at the outward appearance of an object can never tell us anything about its truth, however meticulous our investigation. The shine of color cannot be measured by its wavelengths any more than the essence of a wine-filled jug can be reduced to "a hollow within which a liquid spreads." (23) In both cases, the thing's "thingness" is lost, reduced to a representation of what already beforehand has been admitted as a possible object of science. Thus objectified, things will only ever be understood as means to an end, ready to be ordered about, reduced alongside nature to a resource for man's will and doing. (24)

To ask about the thing's essence on the other hand means to inquire of the specific way that it gathers the conditions of its being. The jug again serves as an example. In presencing as a jug by doing what it does--namely to pour--it also brings to light the contingencies necessary to its appearance, thereby appropriating or "staying" the fundamental fourfold relation on which it depends: earth, sky, mortals, and gods. Filled with water, the jug's pouring reveals that the "spring stays on in the water," in turn recognizing that the spring harbors the rock wherein "the dark slumber of earth" dwells, receiving "rain and dew from the sky." (25) Filled with wine in order to pour a libation, the jug similarly discloses our mortal nature as it is defined in relation to the gods--hereby acknowledging that all human beings live in awareness of their coming death. For Heidegger, this conditional fmitude is intrinsically tied to eschatological hope, and to be mortal thus also means, as James Edwards summarizes, to "look to the future for the gift of one's completion brought on the wings of a presence from another world." (26)

Also Keats knew that such feathered promises spring from simple things: a "beaker full of the warm South" (15) for instance. Evident already in the line's choice of metaphor, the poem addresses wine in its capacity to gather and reveal the different dimensions of being. "Cool'd a long age in the deep-delved earth" (11) the grape taps into the primordial memory of the land, recalling days of goddesses and the heavenly spring of poetic inspiration--"the blushful Hippocrene" on Mount Helicon (16)--as well as its worldly outgrowths in the form of medieval romance and lively southern spirit. In addressing divinity, however, it also defines the condition of mortality: to fade away and dissolve, forgetting those pains that the immortals "hast never known" (19-22). With a Heideggerian vocabulary, Keats's invocation of the grape thus summons "earth and sky, divinities and mortals" to "dwell together all at once" in the presence of the beaker. (27) Consequently, it is doubtful whether Keats's rejection of Bacchus declines an option he has actually proposed in the second stanza. (28) Rather, "Poesy" is already at work in the form of "poetic dwelling" realized by the speaker's "calling" upon the thing's essence. (29)

Having outlined how Keats sees things as actively engaged in the world, I want to expound on his notion of dwelling in light of this understanding--pointing to the wider importance of place in his poetic project. I will start by looking at the famous opening lines of Endymion (1817): "A thing of beauty is a joy for ever / Its loveliness increases; it will never / Pass into nothingness; but still will keep / A bower quiet for us, and a sleep / Full of Sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing" (1:1-5). Here, Keats's "ideal thing of beauty" operates by etching itself into memory. Anchored in time, however, it also reaches into space ("A bower quiet")--adding to the realm of "dreams" the bodily properties of "health" and "breathing." In beautiful things we repose, sleep and breathe, just as reading Homer infuses us with a breath of "pure serene" ("On First Looking," 7). While Endymion's love of the moon goddess, ideal beauty personified, inclines him to consider such happiness a distillation of the self, a separation of mind from matter--
Wherein lies happiness? In that which becks
Our ready minds to fellowship divine,
A fellowship with essence; till we shine,
Full alchemiz'd, and free of space.


--the elevated mind, "free of space," is still to be reinstated in a "far dwelling" (2:179); in other words, it needs, once again, to be put into place. As with the "airy citadel" of imagination of which I am here reminded, it is important to note that the communion of "essence" to be realized in such a "heavenly bower" (2:192) does not seek the otherworldly. On the contrary: it takes as its aim the heart of human being, "Life's self," seeking the place where it "is nourish'd by its proper pith" (1:814): where it may dwell in "health."

Just as for Heidegger, this notion of "dwelling"--connected to a "building" that enables "thinking," or a thing that gathers and discloses being--touches upon the basic character and condition of existence. "Dwelling," Heidegger states, "is the manner in which mortals are on the earth," (30) and building--this distinctive "letting-dwell" (31)--an expression of our nature as "dwellers." (12) Poetry, furthermore, is what "first causes dwelling to be dwelling. Poetry is what really lets us dwell," and is in itself the distinctive kind of building. (33) If poetry for Keats by its very nature constitutes a mental flight, it hereby seeks to attune the mind to the world by construing buildings inside the head: buildings that bear witness to the fundamental necessity of human thought to dwell. Thus relativizing the escapist dimension of his inward turning, one can take seriously what Keats, in the beginning of Endymion, says about the artificial luxuries of imagination: namely, that they inspire us to wreath "A flowery band to bind us to the earth" (1:7). (34)

This act of placing, however, is equally bound to contrast with the general misfortunes of the human condition (1:8-10), and especially with those "unhealthy and o'er-darkened ways / Made for our searching" (1:10-11). Despite the general optimism initially mustered--"yes, in spite of all / Some shape of beauty moves away the pall" (1:11-12)--and notwithstanding the endless array of luxurious retreats enjoyed by Endymion during the span of the poem, its narrative drive axiomatically springs from the necessity to reestablish such a grounding again and again. Courting the masked Cynthia--herself "a ranger / In search of pleasure throughout every clime" (4:274-75)--Endymion anxiously questions her: "Now, / Where shall our dwelling be?" (4:670).

This problem resonates also in Heidegger. Delivering the "Bauen Wohnen Denken" lecture in a socially struggling post-war Germany, frequent references are made to the practical shortcomings of his inquiry. Yet Heidegger maintains that the hardships of dwelling precede those of world wars, population increases, and changing conditions for factory workers; they precede, in other words, the technological reification or enframing that has reduced the River Rhine of Holderlin's songs into an industrialized tourist object, and, in the extension of the same argument, the dichotomy of place and "placelessness" invoked by later critics of modernity. (35) Following Heidegger, one is prompted to consider the problematics of place as a fundamental, ahistorical, aspect of being: "The proper dwelling plight lies in this, that mortals ever search anew for the essence of dwelling, that they must ever learn to dwell." And furthermore: "What if man's homelessness consisted in this, that man still does not even think of the proper plight of dwelling as the plight?" (36)

These statements have a particular significance for the Romantic and Post-Romantic poetry that Heidegger employs in his later investigations. Defined as a condition of mortal existence, the struggle to dwell must always concern the subject's earthly situation. Just as Georg Trakl's line "Something strange is the soul on the earth" should not be understood as a Platonic longing to escape material reality, Holderlin's poetic dwelling doesn't fly "fantastically above reality" into "the realm of fantasy." (37) Rather, as Heidegger states, the estranged soul in Trakl's lyric work "goes in search toward the site where it may stay in its wandering," seeking the earth that it hasn't been able to reach, in order to "poetically build and dwell upon it." (38) No more than in the cases of Holderlin and Trakl can Endymion's concern for housing matters be clarified with reference only to the contrast of mortal reality and divine ideal. Rather, it involves on a fundamental level a questioning of the way poetic thought is situated within the self, and consequently of the subject's situation in the world.

In this regard, it is important to underscore that the mind, as Keats conceives it, is always marked by internal difference. Though operating as a unified whole, it consists of many different compartments--of regions both known and "untrodden" ("Ode to Psyche," 51). This, however, does not mean that its contents are hidden away or fragmented as Thomas de Quincey would later propose. (39) The mind is not an archeological dig to which order, under certain heightened conditions, can momentarily be imposed; the cult of Psyche is not reinstated out of memory's or history's ruins--but revealed within the self, by means of that inner sight which for Keats marks the true poet. Accordingly, vision and song are considered equivalents: "Yet even in these days so far retir'd / From happy pieties, thy lucent fans, / Fluttering among the faint Olympians, / I see, and sing, by my own eyes inspired" (40-44). The project of restoration, of saving, must thus be taken in the Heideggerian sense of the word: not to "snatch something from a danger" but "to set something free into its own essence." (4)" A parallel can be found in "Fancy," where, to let imagination "Roam" ("Fancy," 1), one must first open her "cage-door" (7), approaching her with "a mind self-overaw'd" (26). Thus unlocking an inwards path, the speaker of Psyche is able to delineate within himself a sacred area of worship where dwelling is made possible, and accordingly extended into "a fane," "a rosy sanctuary" (50, 59) prospected "In some untrodden region of my mind" (51).

This generously decorated retreat is placed within a "wide quietness" (57), reminding not only of the thing-world's "quiet breathing" in Endymion, but also of the geography revealed by imagination in "Sleep and Poetry"--inviting the speaker to a revelatory venture in another hidden "spot" of his mental topography:
Also imaginings will hover
Round my fire-side, and haply there discover
Vistas of solemn beauty, where I'd wander
In happy silence, like the clear Meander
Through its lone vales; and where I found a spot
Of awfuller shade, or an enchanted grot,
Or a green hill o'erspread with chequered dress
Of flowers, and fearful from its loveliness,
Write on my tablets all that was permitted,
All that was for our human senses fitted.


The terrain of Psyche's bower, however, in itself comprises an element of process--leading from "branched thoughts, new grown with pleasant pain" that "Instead of pines shall murmur in the wind," to an atmosphere of respite in which "The moss-lain Dryads shall be lull'd to sleep" (51-56). This transformation of agony into tranquillity may, in turn, be considered an effort to make permanent what in Endymion is approached only as a state of passing: the locus of sudden and unforeseen pain described in the fourth book as the "Cave of Quietude" (4: 548). This grotto is likewise positioned "Beyond the seeming confines of the space / Made for the soul to wander in and trace / Its own existence" (4:512-15). Though at first described as a graveyard of "buried griefs" (517), an inferno where "many a venom'd dart / At random flies" (520-21), this "deep den of all" (525) eventually morphs into an indolent refuge of spiritual rebirth (524-26). In its transformation of hurt into "pleasant pain" ("Happy gloom! / Dark Paradise!" [536-37]), the soul's aching is not eliminated but incorporated into a sensuous regime that opens the self to the totality of being: "O happy spirit-home! O wondrous soul! / pregnant with such a den to save the whole / In thine own depth" (543-45, my emphasis). To "save the whole" is once again to disclose the whole: to resort to the innermost vicinity of the mind only to embrace and reveal the world in full.

It is to this same end that Keats cultivates the silent grounds of his sanctuary for Psyche, with everything that "the gardener Fancy e'er could feign" (62). In his discussion on Holderlin, Heidegger reminds us that the poetic is not "merely an ornament and bonus added to dwelling" (41)--but also its simultaneous goal and condition. For Keats, poetry situates living in a very concrete way: its "sanctuary" carrying the promise of "clear air, / Smoothed for intoxication by the breath / Of flowering bays" ("Sleep and Poetry," 56-58). In Endymion, one has already seen how "the flowery band" of beauty that grounds the subject easily turns into the "unhealthy and o'er-darkened ways / Made for our searching." Likewise, the perfumed air of poesy's "flowering bays" contains the lure of fatal transcendence ("... that I may die a death / Of luxury, and my young spirit follow / The morning sun-beams to the great Apollo" [58-60]), and that of sweet smells choking rather than invigorating the poet. Beyond both possibilities, however, if able to "bear / The o'erwhelming sweets" (61-62), lies "the fair Visions of all places" (63): the possibility of turning "clear air" into clear sight, and thus establishing a "fair Atmosphere to think in" (KL, 2:148). (42) Fair climate gives wellbeing, "no chill'd red noses--no shivering," thus nourishing "Life's self" with "its proper pith" in the dwelling ground of poetic thought.

The same motif, foundational to Keats's imagination in more than one sense, also closes "Ode to Psyche." The poem's final lines begin by calling upon "all soft delight / That shadowy thought can win" (64-65). "Shadowy" must here be understood not as indeterminacy, (43) but as a shade; namely, that which brings shelter, shadow, and "delight," lulling to quietude and rest. Only in the most intimate chambers of Psyche's bower is such thinking possible. Here, thought comes to awareness of itself, thinking its own conditions while seated by "a casement ope at night" (65). This, however, is not the window of a blank beyond anecdotally associated with Keats. Utilizing Heideggerian terms, it should rather be thought of as the "Da" of Da-sein: the specific human way of relating to other beings as well as to ourselves. "The Da," Heiddeger explains, "refers to that clearing in which things stands as a whole, in such a way that in this 'Da the Being of open beings shows itself and at the same time withdraws. To be this 'Da' is a destiny of man, in correspondence to which he grounds that which is itself the ground of the highest possibilities of his Being." (44)

How does Keats attempt such an act of grounding? His casement has been opened in the darkness to let "warm Love in," that is, to summon, by the visionary light of "A bright torch" (66) the breath of flowers, at once clear and fragrant, as they open the self to a sensuous recognition of the world. The poet's invocation, though, will remain a drawing of breath, a caesura mirroring the initial depiction of Cupid's and Psyche's embrace in the standstill of inhaling: "Their lips touch'd not, but had not bade adieu" (17). The resting ground of Psyche, much like the "disjoined... slumber" (18) of the two lovers, halts at the brink of potentiality, and so dwelling, the speaker muses in "pleasant pain," for in hope he holds "up to the divinities" not only his wishes but also what is "unhoped for." (45) In its center of repose, Keats's notion of dwelling thus reveals a simultaneous parting and an ever searching anew: "ready still past kisses to outnumber" (19).


The goal of the investigation so far has been to show how Keats's strategies of imaginative poiesis, in turn conditioning his idea of dwelling, may reveal a poetics of place and a concern for ecological materiality in what otherwise appears to be an idealistic struggle against matter. To this end, a dialogue has been established between Heidegger's philosophy and Keats's work. Heidegger's thinking, however, also prompts me to consider critically its relation to ecocriticism, and, once again, the relationship between ecocriticism and Keats. The nature of Heidegger's poetic prose and the political baggage it carries has made it something of a guilty pleasure for the human sciences. "There is an ideological flavor to the substance of" his "description," Morton rightly points out, (46) referencing such examples as the idyllic farmhouse in the Schwarzwald: built so as to let the fourfold of "earth and sky, divinities and mortals enter in simple oneness," (47) and the pair of peasant's shoes, vibrating in tune with its environment to "the silent call of the earth, its quiet gift of the ripening grain." (48) In this regard, Heidegger's appropriation of the rural soil also reads as "a form of Romanticism: countering the displacements of modernity with the politics and poetics of place." (49) By association, Morton's observation also implicates the tradition of eco-Romantic studies, illuminating the strong overlap in diction and environmental rhetoric. And with Heidegger's striking imagery also comes the risk of reading him too literally. The appeal to save the earth, for instance, cannot in any easy way be separated from his philosophy of being--and as Bari states, it may thus appear to coincide "with environmentalist politics almost accidentally." (50) As Heidegger himself remarks, the word "earth" "is not to be associated with the idea of mass and matter deposited somewhere, or with the merely astronomical idea of the planet." (51) Yet, the concept is employed to understand the being of beings in their material situation, and in this regard, it is ambiguous in its nature. "Heidegger's philosophical ecology," Bari explains, "entails an imperative to care for the earth that sustains both its terms and functions as a metaphor for a self-attending consciousness. Subject and world are bound in the imperative to care, to tend and attend each to the other. The relationship is reciprocal in Heidegger's system: being is a form of dwelling in the world and dwelling in the world discloses being." (52)

If a selective reading of Heidegger thus runs the risk of simplifying his own basic argument, Kate Rigby sharply observes that such a practice may also end up rereading "romanticism romantically." (53) Rigby's concern stems from the "anthropocentric hubris" she ascribes to Heidegger, primarily on account of his strict distinction between animals and plants vis-a-vis human beings who are defined by their admission to language. (54) The primacy of the human subject in its naming of the world points, for Rigby, to a general negligence of "the diverse alterity of a flourishing more-than-human earth": an earth that always contains "an inassimilable otherness that overwhelms our ability to understand, command and consume it." (55) If such a critique may seem to depart so far from Heidegger's premises as to lose some of its bearing, Rigby's demand for Romantic studies to stray from the Heideggerian matrix traditionally invoked by ecocriticism is all the more relevant. To conclude my discussion on Keats, I would, therefore, like to consider his relation to nature in light of this call for an unromantic Romanticism.

If the attempt to outline the dwelling ground of the poetic mind in Keats's work so far has taken aim at the primary domain of the subject, I now want to sketch the principal coordinates of its margins: namely, the site of the lyric self's destabilizing in the world of living things. Doing so, however, requires starting exactly at the point of its elevation. As I have suggested in the first section, Keats can be said to destabilize the dichotomy between ecological materiality and imagination by positing the ability to disclose the conditions of being in the world as a central feature of poetry--exploring the essence of things in order to highlight their role in gathering and revealing the different facets of earthly existence. In focusing such moments of revelatory vision, though, Keats, like Heidegger, also positions himself within a prophetic discourse that underlines the artist's singular power. As an example, one might point to the latter's call for a dislocation of everyday life in order

to attain the truth of being--a task entrusted to us "only rarely, as both donation and destiny, and only to those among men who are creative and are grounding." (56) "Thus," Heidegger continues:
the dislocation of man back into his ground has to be carried out in
the first place by those few, solitary, and uncanny ones, who in
various ways as poets, thinkers, as builders and artists, as doers and
actors, ground and shelter the truth of Being in beings through the
transformation of beings. Through the rigor of the decisions which lie
ahead, they become, each in his way and unknown to the many, a silent
sacrifice. (57)

While Keats's life and work may indeed amount to such an offering, his own valorizing of the creative genius also points to an important ambivalence in regard to the Romantic heroism and martyrdom purported by Heidegger. Contrasting "Men of Power" with "Men of Genius," Keats describes the latter as "ethereal Chemicals operating on the Mass of neutral intellect"--that is: lacking "any individuality," "any determined Character" (KL, 1:184). As with the concept of "diligent indolence" previously discussed, Keats sees "doing" and "acting" as predicated upon passivity, and, most importantly, a radical receptivity that also works to undermine any stable notion of identity. I will attempt to map this trajectory of effacement and identify its consequences for an ecological understanding of Keats's work. By doing so, this study will inevitably lose its grounding in Heidegger's anthropocentric ontology--pointing instead to an affinity with recent concerns of "materialist" ecocriticism. This is not to contradict the discussion up to now, but rather to recognize and answer to the methodological difficulties posed by Keats's oeuvre. His desire to understand the world poetically would, after all, not always allow for the burden of philosophical stringency.


I want to begin in what may seem as a tangential discussion: namely in the argument that Keats's penchant for artifice stems from an insensitivity to natural beauty. This view can be traced back to Edleen Begg's 1948 study of Keats's travel writing, concluding that nature only rarely impressed the poet other than through literary association. (58) As I will argue, however, Keats's tendency to mediate the experience of nature through the lens of high art also reveals a quasi-animistic understanding of matter that, in its extension, will point to a disruption of the very autonomous artistry seeming to bar Keats from the outside world.

It is, first of all, telling to contrast the position of Keats with someone like William Wordsworth. Strictly dividing the realms of nature and art, Wordsworth denounced his previous occupation with the "meagre novelties / Of colour and proportion," making him "Less sensible" to the true beauty of the environs--"to the moods / Of time or season, to the moral power, / The affections, and the spirit of the place" (The Prelude, 1805, 11:160-64). (59) Keats's description of the Ambleside waterfall, found among his recollections of the walking tour of Scotland in 1818, represents an opposite stance. Instead of ascribing to nature a naturalness or sublime quality that opposes the cultured thinking of man, Keats finds the scenery an exercise of spirit and sophistication in itself. In witnessing its display of stone, moss, and "rock-weed," his attention is tellingly drawn to the aesthetical qualities of "tone" and "coloring" that in turn forms the "intellect" and "countenance of such places" (KL, 1: 301). To join the ranks of those poetic predecessors having already "harvested from" nature's "grand materials" thus becomes a question less of exploitative refining than dialogical interaction. In this sense, Keats refuses to see the natural world as an ontological other--a fact that moreover finds resonance in the way that lifeless objects are often granted agential power in the scope of his poetic vision. Richard Woodhouse has for instance remarked that his friend could "conceive of a billiard Ball that it may have a sense of delight from its own roundness, smoothness <& very> volubility. & the rapidity of its motion" (KC, 1:59). Similarly, the notion of a "poetry of earth" in "On the Grasshopper and Cricket" (1816) projects onto nature a self-satisfaction that may well rival that of the poet. He, "someone in drowsiness half lost," (13), is here markedly contrasted by the grasshopper's indolent airs and Keatsian devotion to lush delights (5-8).

On a more profound level, however, Keats's "poetry of earth" can also be related to Stacy Alaimo's concept of "trans-corporeality": the idea that human bodies not only shape but are constantly shaped by their environmental situation, emphasizing the fact that we always find ourselves embedded in the "messy, contingent, emergent mix of the material world." (60) The "Ode to a Nightingale" may serve as an example in this regard. To follow the bird in its ascent, the speaker in a Dante-like movement descends along an underground path to a garden of "embalmed darkness" (43)--there trading bacchic ecstasy for the musk rose's "dewy wine" (49), a more appropriate substitute for the nectar of "blushful Hippocrene." Through the appearance of the Rosa Moschata, poetically associated with the wild, but in fact known only through human horticulture, the poem's circle of origins--from the source of divine inspiration to the "deep-delved earth" of the grape vine--closes in what appears to be the subjugation of nature under aesthetics. One might thus agree with Helen Vendler who stresses that this dwelling of Keats "can represent nature only as it exists in the repository of memory and art." (61)

While blinded, however, the speaker has not received the vatic hallmark of the poet, (62) and lacking such inner vision the lyric "I" can no longer dispose of nature at the authority of "gardener Fancy." At this point, Keats diverges from the traditional eco-poetics of Miltonian pastoral, where, with "artful strains," the shepherd-bard "[has] oft delay'd / The huddling brook to hear his madrigal, / And sweeten'd every musk-rose of the dale" (A Maske, 2:493-95). (63) Orphic command over nature is instead replaced with a paradigm of ecological conflation: as the speaker's mind approaches vegetative oblivion, the flora, Christopher Ricks notes, sees a "second sprouting" whose "roots in poetry"--Shakespeare in particular--becomes "equally rooted in roots, in nature, in common or garden sproutings." (64) The myth of Orpheus, as recounted by Milton, tells of music that saw "The trees themselves, the very bushes and every grove once on a time, unfettered by roots," hastening after his "most skilled songs" (Prolusion VII). (65) In Keats's ode, however, roots are "unfettered" by the dying sounds of music--of the poetic subject himself turning into soil and root.

This dissolving of the self into the ground, to become "lawn besprinkled o'er / With Flowers" ("Ode on Indolence," 43-44), is a recurring motif in Keats that finds similar expressions in the immersive pull of artificial objects, in the gravitational force of poetic genius ("One of the pleasantest means of annulling self is approaching such a shrine as the Cottage of Burns" [KL, 1:323]) and in sentiments of love ("Melting in its radiance, we blend, / Mingle, and so become part of it" [Endymion, 1:810-11]). These fantasies, however, cannot be convincingly explained in terms of transcendent longing. On the contrary, the underlying desire is absorptive and material to its character--finding its poetically significant expression in the conception of the "camelion Poet," who, by living "in gusto, be it foul or fair, high and low"--"has no self." The poet "has no Identity," because "he is continually in for--and filling some other Body" (KL, 1:387). Importantly, though, this fluid state is not single-sided in its want, and the filling of other bodies may at any time involve the filling up of one's own.

A letter from Keats to his siblings in February 1819, musing over the nature of claret, may in this regard serve as a further example of the "entangled territories of" nature, culture, biology and textuality that Alaimo attempts to theorize. (66) Food represents trans-corporeality in one of its most palpable forms, but as Alaimo argues, our model "of incorporation" most often "emphasizes the outline of the human: food disappears into the human body, which remains solidly bounded." (67) For Keats, however, digestion displays a dimension of poiesis that reverses the common interface between body and mind. The particulars of Bordeaux wine are on one hand seen from the perspective of the connoisseur, "'t is the only palate affair that I am at all sensual in," but on the other becomes the object of compulsive desire: "now I like Claret whenever I can have Claret I must drink it." The wine's seductive character soon actualizes the question of reproduction, pressing Keats to ask for the cultivation of grapes on English soil: "Would it not be a good speck to send you some vine roots--could I[t] be done?" From cultivation, the letter in turn moves to the question of dwelling, describing how the liquid--once passed down the throat--begins to walk "like Aladin about his own enchanted palace so gently that you do not feel his step" (KL, 2:64, my emphasis).

Departing from the "airy Citadel" of imagination, my inquiry has thus reached its end in the veritable stomach of the poet--demonstrating that the question of place not only actualizes a disclosure of being in its material grounding, but also an ecological dimension of a very concrete nature in Keats's work. Having initially drawn upon Heidegger's philosophy in an attempt to position Keats within ecocritical discourse, I have then followed his writing as it moves beyond the interpretive limits of anthropocentric thought. In both instances, however, the common understanding of place as the experiential ground of an unclouded human subjectivity--namely what Yi-Fu Tuan, in a basic definition, describes as the act of transforming undifferentiated space, associated with "openness, freedom and threat," into a state of "security and stability" (68)--has been challenged. Much as the dwelling of thought reveals a totality that simultaneously withdraws itself from our grasp, the chameleon poet's plastic being engages with things and their environments only to find the self straddled in a divide between presence and displacement.

Parenthetically, I might add that for Heidegger, the essence of the artwork consisted exactly in its instigating and safekeeping of a strife between the different elements of being. Keats himself preferred to talk about such dissonances in terms of the poet's negative capability.

Lund University, Centre for Languages and Literatures, Sweden


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De Man, Paul. "Keats and Holderlin." Comparative Literature 8 (Winter 1956): 28-45.

De Quincey, Thomas. "The Palimpsest." In Confessions of an English Opium-Eater and other Writings, edited by Robert Morrison. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

Edwards, James C. "The Thinging of the Thing." In A Companion to Heidegger, edited by Hubert L. Dreyfus and Marks A. Wrathall, 456-67. Maiden, MA: Blackwell, 2005.

Fricke, Stefanie. "Into The Woods: Robin Hood and Sherwood Forest in The Romantic." In Romantic Localities: Europe Writes Place, edited by Christoph Bode and Jaqueline Labbe, 117-30. London: Routledge, 2016.

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--. Poetry, Language, Thought. Translated and edited by Albert Hofstadter. New York: HarperCollins, 2013.

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Pyle, Forest. The Ideology of Imagination. Subject and Society in the Discourse of Romanticism. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995.

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(1.) Kaufman, "Negatively Capable Dialectics: Keats, Vendler, Adorno and the Theory of the Avant-Garde," Critical Inquiry 27 (Winter 2001): 371.

(2.) Morton, ed., "Receptions," in The Cambridge Companion to Shelley (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 36.

(3.) Rovee, "Trashing Keats," ELH 75 (Winter 2008): 996 f.

(4.) John Barrell, The Idea of Landscape and the Sense of Place 1730-1840: An Approach to the Poetry of John Clare (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1972), 114. It should be noted, though, that the link between nature writing and the poetics of place is especially strong within the field of British Romanticism. A broader take on the subject can for instance be found in Walter Pape, ed., Raumkonfigurationen der Romantik, Schriften der Intemationalen Arnim-Gesellschaft 7 (Tubingen: Niemeyer, 2009).

(5.) See Paul de Man on Endymion in "Keats and Holderlin," Comparative Literature 8 (Winter 1956): 10.

(6.) Keats's poems are cited and dated from Complete Poems, ed. Jack Stillinger (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982). Keats's letters are cited from The Letters of John Keats; 1814-1821, ed. Hyder Rollins (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1958), abbreviated as KL. Additional material, sourced from The Keats Circle: Letters and Papers 1816-1878, ed. Hyder Rollins, vols. 1-2 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1948), is referenced as KC. Words in brackets quoted from the latter, indicates a canceled word in the original manuscript.

(7.) KL, 1:143: "the looking upon the Sun the Moon the Stars, the Earth and its contents as materials to form greater things--that is to say ethereal things--but here I am talking like a Madman greater things that [sic] our Creator himself made!!"

(8.) On the question of "less is more" and "To Autumn," see Rovee, "Trashing Keats," 1003. As for ecocritical responses to the poem in question, see e.g. Jonathan Bate, Romantic Ecology: Wordsworth and the Environmental Tradition (London: Routledge, 1991) and The Song of The Earth (London: Picador, 2001); Eric Gidal, "'O Happy Earth! Reality of Heaven!': Melancholy and Utopia in Romantic Climatology,"Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies 8 (2008): 74-101; and Timothy Clark, Ecocriticism on the Edge: The Anthropocene as a Threshold Concept (London: Bloomsbury, 2015), 39-44.

(9.) Almost every substantial work on Wordsworth or Clare in one way or another deals with questions of poetry and place. Kate Rigby's Topographies of the Sacred: The Poetics of Place in European Romanticism (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2004) focuses specifically on the topic of place while also discussing a wider range of literature. The study, however, touches only in passing on Keats's "Robin Hood" and "La Belle Dame sans Merci." The poem "Robin Hood" and the subject of Keats's tourism in Scotland are also discussed, though briefly, by Kristin Ott and Stefanie Fricke respectively in Christoph Bode and Jaqueline Labbe, ed., Romantic Localities: Europe Writes Place (London: Routledge, 2016), 39-50, 117-30.

(10.) Bate, John Keats (London: Chatto & Windus, 1979), 49.

(11.) Ngai, Ugly Feelings (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005), 306-9.

(12.) Bristow, The Anthropocene Lyric: An Affective Geography of Poetry, Person, Place (Basingstoke: Palgrave McMillan, 2015), 4.

(13.) To the best of my knowledge, only Forest Pyle in The Ideology of Imagination. Subject and Society in the Discourse of Romanticism (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995), 142-43, has previously attempted to interpret Keats's poetics of materiality in light of Heidegger's philosophy. (Pyle, however, does not share the ecological concerns of the present study.)

(14.) Heidegger, "Building Dwelling Thinking," in Basic Writings, trans. Albert Hofstadter, revised and expanded edition, ed. David Farrell Krell (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1993), 352.

(15.) Stillinger, "Imagination and Reality in the Odes," in The Hoodwinking of Madeleine and Other Essays on Keats's Poems (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1971), 100.

(16.) Bari, Keats and Philosophy: The Life of Sensations (New York: Routledge, 2012), 60.

(17.) Bari, Keats and Philosophy, 59; 79.

(18.) Bari, Keats and Philosophy, 66.

(19.) Bate, Song of The Earth, 252.

(20.) "To Autumn" (13), "Ode to Psyche" (7), "Ode to a Nightingale" (31), "Ode on Melancholy" (1).

(21.) Ranciere, "The Politics of the Spider," trans. Emily Rohrbach and Emily Sun, SiR 50, no. 2 (Summer 2011): 241.

(22.) Heidegger, "The Thing," in Poetry, Language, Thought, trans. Albert Hofstadter (New York: HarperCollins, 2013), 165.

(23.) Heidegger, "The Origin of the Work of Art," in Basic Writings, 45.

(24.) The latter question is discussed at length by Heidegger in "The Question Concerning Technology," Basic Writings, 311-41.

(25.) Heidegger, "The Thing," 170.

(26.) Edwards, "The Thinging of the Thing," in A Companion to Heidegger, ed. Hubert L. Dreyfus and Marks A. Wrathall (Maiden, MA: Blackwell, 2005), 463.

(27.) Heidegger, "The Thing," 171.

(28.) The same doubt, albeit differently argued, is also cast by Jeffrey Barker, "Nightingale and Melancholy," in Harold Bloom, ed., John Keats, Bloom's Modem Critical Views, Updated ed. (New York: Chelsea House, 2007), 45.

(29.) See Heidegger, "Language," in Poetry, Language, Thought, 205, and further: "... Poetically, Man Dwells...," in Poetry, Language, Thought.

(30.) Heidegger, "Building Dwelling Thinking," 350.

(31.) Heidegger, "Building Dwelling Thinking," 360.

(32.) Heidegger, "Building Dwelling Thinking," 350; emphasis in original.

(33.) Heidegger, "... Poetically, Man Dwells...," 213.

(34.) Cf. the line with the previously discussed letter on the "voyage of conception," which, "when the leaves whisper it puts a 'girdle round the earth'" (KL, 1:231). The ending quote from A Midsummer Night's Dream, 2.1.175.

(35.) Heidegger, "The Question Concerning Technology," in Basic Writings, 321. Regarding places and the experience of placelessness, see in particular Edward Relph, Place and Placelessness (London: Pion, 1976), 141-45.

(36.) Heidegger, "Building Dwelling Thinking," 363.

(37.) Heidegger, "... Poetically, Man Dwells...," 215.

(38.) Heidegger, "Language in the Poem. A Discussion on Georg Trakl's Poetic Work," in On the Way to Language, trans. Peter D. Hertz (New York: Harper & Row, 1971), 163.

(39.) De Quincey, "The Palimpsest," in Confessions of an English Opium-Eater and other Writings, ed. Robert Morrison (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 320-33.

(40.) Heidegger, "Building Dwelling Thinking," 352.

(41.) Heidegger, "... Poetically, Man Dwells...," 213.

(42.) In regard to this passage, and the famous letter to Reynolds some months later (KL, 2:166-68), Bari rightly notes that Keats "imagines a state of thoughtfulness that is not simply supported by, but which takes place in, 'fair atmosphere'. He thinks 'in' the world, and so the clemency or inclemency of the seasons is not incidental but instrumental to thought" (Keats and Philosophy, 59).

(43.) Cf. Helen Vendler, The Odes of John Keats (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1983), 69.

(44.) Heidegger, Basic Questions of Philosophy: Selected "Problems" of "Logic," trans. Richard Rojcewicz and Andre Schuwer (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994), 180.

(45.) Heidegger, "Building Dwelling Thinking," 352.

(46.) Timothy Morton, Ecology Without Nature. Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics (Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 172.

(47.) Heidegger, "Building Dwelling Thinking," 352.

(48.) Heidegger, "The Origin of the Work of Art," 33.

(49.) Morton, Ecology Without Nature, 172.

(50.) Bari, Keats and Philosophy, 66. This is also the central argument of Jeff Malpas extensive writing on Heidegger and place. See Heidegger's Topology. Being, Place, World (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006) and Heidegger and the Thinking of Place: Explorations in the Topology of Being (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2012).

(51.) Heidegger, "The Origin of the Work of Art," 41. See Edwards, "The Thinging of the Thing," 461-62, for an accessible introduction to the term in question.

(52.) Bari, Keats and Philosophy, 65.

(53.) Rigby, Topographies of the Sacred, 7.

(54.) Rigby, Topographies of the Sacred, 7. For a more substantial discussion on Heidegger's ontology in this regard, see Philip Tonner, "Are Animals Poor in the World? A Critique of Heidegger's Anthropocentrism," in Rob Boddice, ed., Anthropocentrism. Humans, Animals, Environments (Leiden & Boston: Brill, 2011), 203-21.

(55.) Rigby, Topographies of the Sacred, 90.

(56.) Heidegger, Basic Questions of Philosophy: Selected "Problems" of "Logic," 180.

(57.) Heidegger, Basic Questions of Philosophy: Selected "Problems" of "Logic," 181.

(58.) Begg, "Keats and Nature," Studies in English 27 (June, 1948): 177-84.

(59.) Wordsworth, The Major Works, ed. Stephen Gill, rev. ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000).

(60.) Alaimo, Bodily Natures: Science, Environment, and the Material Self (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010), 11.

(61.) Vendler, The Odes of John Keats, 90.

(62.) Cf. Christopher Loreck's case for Keats as Poeta rates in Endymion and the "Labyrinthian Path to Eminence in Art" (Wurzburg: Konigshausen & Neumann, 2005).

(63.) John Milton, Complete Shorter Poems, ed. John Carey, rev. 2nd ed. (Harlow: Pearson Longman, 2007).

(64.) Ricks, "Keats's Sources, Keats's Allusions," in Susan J. Wolfson, ed., The Cambridge Companion to John Keats (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 161.

(65.) Milton, The Works of John Milton, gen. ed. Frank Allen Patterson (New York: Columbia University Press, 1931-1938), vol. 12:238.

(66.) Alaimo, Bodily Natures, 3. In regard to this specific example, see also Morton, Ecology Without Nature, 112.

(67.) Alaimo, Bodily Natures, 13.

(68.) Tuan, Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience (Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 1977), 6.
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Title Annotation:John Keats
Author:Henning, Peter
Publication:Studies in Romanticism
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Sep 22, 2018
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