What’s that in your pocket, Keats?

Portrait of Man With His Hand in His Pocket and Other Holding Gloves by Gustav le Gray (1860’s)

I’d like to use John Keats’ July 18th, 1818 letter to Benjamin Bailey as a starting point for reading three poems composed the following year. Keats writes, “I am certain I have not a right feeling towards Women.” He then goes on to describe a complex of emotions he terms “a Gordian complication of feelings” (Keats 907). One aspect of this knot was sexual desire, rather awkwardly alluded to with comments about hands in pockets. I would suggest that these poems provided Keats vessels into which he could offload his anxieties—anxieties that are not merely romantic, but explicitly sexual.

In “The Eve of Saint Agnes,” when we first encounter “thoughtful Madeline,” she is surrounded by “music, yearning like a god in pain” (55-56). If we’re not sure what it might be like to yearn in that way, there’s another phrase later could help. Stanza 9 introduces “Porphyro, with heart on fire” (75). At first, he hopes that “for one moment…he might gaze and worship all unseen” upon beloved Madeline (80). “Worship” fits with Keats’ remark to Bailey that “when I was a schoolboy, I thought a fair Woman a pure Goddess.” But immediately after, it appears that a gaze from afar might not subdue the fire in young Porphyro. He may “perchance speak.” And if that goes well, perhaps he’ll “kneel.” And while he’s kneeling, maybe “touch.” And who knows, but a touch might lead to a “kiss”? (81). This catalog of erotic potential happens quickly and the poem moves on.

Later, when Porphyro is playing peeping-tom, it’s worth noticing how Keats takes his time and how rich the language is—the “triple-arch’d casement” gets its own beautiful stanza (stanza 24), as does the lush table Porphyro prepares by the bedside (stanza 29). The table evokes religious offering and abundance. The poet is definitely into his fantasy. And so is Porphyro, who “so entranced…gazed upon her empty dress” (245). Of course, it’s not the dress entrancing him, so much as the fact that it’s empty. After waking the naked Madeline from sleep, Porphyro reveals himself to her. Keats writes that he was “beyond a mortal man impassioned far,” (yearning like a god) and that “he arose…flush’d and throbbing like a star” (316-318). I trust that line doesn’t need explanation. The seduction works, and the lovers depart into the storm. Perhaps Keats wasn’t sure what comes next in a relationship with a woman.

Keats’ “Lamia” also has some juicy bits, but there’s more to work with in terms of Keats’ ideas about women and love. Let’s start with the juicy bits. After Lamia has been transformed into a woman, we basically get a statement of what the poet’s ideal woman might be:

A virgin purest lipp’d, yet in the lore

Of love deep learned to the red heart’s core (189-190)

She’s pure, but she still knows how to work it. Lycius’ first words to Lamia frame her as an object of distant adoration: “Goddess, see / Whether my eyes can ever turn from thee” (257-258). Again, this doesn’t quite cut it, so they kiss. She then describes first seeing him, “Where ‘gainst a column he leant thoughtfully / At Venus’ temple porch.” The column seems suggestive enough, stood as it is on the goddess of love’s porch. Also, like Porphyro and his table, Lycius is presented in the midst of abundance: “’mid baskets heap’d / Of amorous herbs and flowers” (315-318). Then we have this narrative comment:

Let the mad poets say whate’er they please

Of the sweets of Fairies, Peris, Goddesses,

There is not such a treat among them all

As a real woman                              (328-332)

Keats wrote to Bailey that, “I have no right to expect more than [women’s] reality.” A year later it seems Keats is still trying to convince himself. Lamia responds to this narrative intrusion: she throws “the goddess off, and [wins] his heart / More pleasantly by playing the woman’s part” (336-337). It’s as if Keats is attempting to demystify women to himself. Unfortunately, the scales tip in the other direction. Instead of an object of worship, Lamia becomes a hideous and dangerous being the hero needs to be rescued from.

La Belle Dame sans Merci poses a similar threat, this time to the poet himself as opposed to a character in the poem. If I haven’t sexualized these poems enough, this should do it. The poet makes La Belle a “fragrant zone,” or belt of flowers. Then, “She looked at [him] as she did love, / And made sweet moan.” Why did she moan? Maybe because the speaker “set her on [his] pacing steed, / And nothing else saw all day long” (18-22). I don’t think there’s really a horse in this poem. And what might we say about line 25: “She found me roots of relish sweet.” There are sexual overtones to “relish,” (no hot-dog jokes, please), and the grammar is ambiguous. We could say that she went to the woods and found some turnips. But maybe the grammar follows expressions such as, “I found Keats’ poems sexy.” In that case the line would read, “She found me (to be) roots of relish sweet.” Of course that would make the “honey wild, and manna dew” that comes after relate to the speaker too…one can only speculate. Are there really turnips in this poem?

There’s so much more to these poems than sexual fantasy/anxiety, but clearly women were a major source of psychic energy for Keats at this time. In fact, women were too much for him. As he tells Bailey, when they’re around he has to “hurry to be gone.” This psychic/sexual energy needed an outlet, and these poems provided Keats a space to work on his “Gordian complexities.”

Works cited:

Keats, John, ed. David Damrosch, Susan Wolfson, and Peter Manning. “John Keats.” The Longman Anthology of British Literature, Volume 2A. New York: Longman, 2003. (852-915). Print.

“Portrait of Man with His Hand in His Pocket and Other Holding Gloves” by Gustav Le Gray.” http://www.vintageworks.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Mar. 2014.

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