Poetry as Labor; or, Keats Gets Down and Dirty

Deven Parker
University of Colorado, Boulder

Re: Keats’s 8 October letter to Benjamin Bailey

In his letter to Benjamin Bailey on October 8, 1817, Keats quantifies poetic fame: to be a great poet, he argues, one must write a poem of at least four-thousand lines. The passage, originally excerpted from a letter he wrote to his brother George the previous spring, documents his attempt to reach this goal by writing Endymion (1818), the famously bad “poetic romance” that garnered so much attention in the press. Keats writes:

The high Idea I have of poetical fame makes me think I see it towering high above me. At any rate I have no right to talk until Endymion is finished—it will be a test, a trial of my Powers of Imagination and chiefly of my invention which is a rare thing indeed—by which I must make 4000 Lines of one bare circumstance and fill them with Poetry; and when I consider that this is a great task, and that when done it will take me but a dozen paces towards the Temple of Fame—it makes me say—God forbid that I should be without such a task! [….] Did our great Poets ever write short Pieces? [….] I put on no Laurels till I shall have finished Endymion […].”

Besides his remarkable combination of audacity and anxiety—that he presumes to crown himself with laurels even before completing a poem that he knows will be difficult—Keats uses an unusual image to describe Endymion’s writing process: that he “must make 4000 Lines of one bare circumstance and fill them with Poetry.” In this odd turn of phrase, he envisions the work’s physical shape and formal structure paradoxically preexisting its composition: its four-thousand lines serve as a holding-vessel for its contents, the poem taking the shape of the mold into which he pours it. Like a sitcom writer working under required lengths and rhythms dictated by commercial breaks, Keats keenly feels the constraints under which he writes. In addition, his claim that he must “make” four thousand lines suggests something labor intensive about his poetic process: like a carpenter or metalworker, he must manually create his work of art.

Taking my cue from this letter, this response explores how, in Endymion, Keats casts poetic composition as manual labor and calls attention to the physical and formal constraints that mediate his process, inscribing the poem with the marks of its making. I also suggest that Endymion’s repeated references to its own creation and its existence in the world as a print object partly account for its bad reception (in addition to those many political and class factors that others have brought to light). The poem’s unabashed embrace of labor marks Keats as a middle-class poet, one who, according to his Tory critics, had no legitimate claim to laurels.

In Endymion’s preface, Keats brings the work’s material constraints to the fore, allowing his compositional process to intrude on the imaginative landscape of the poem. In an unusual move, he guarantees that readers will attend to these moments of transparent self-reflexivity when he explains that:

Knowing within myself the manner in which this Poem has been produced, it is not without a feeling of regret that I make it public. What manner I mean, will be quite clear to the reader, who must soon perceive great inexperience, immaturity, and every error denoting a feverish attempt, rather than a deed accomplished (Keats 147).

We might understand “the manner in which this Poem has been produced” to refer to any of constraints under which Keats worked, including the fixed length, deadline, or the fact that printers Taylor and Hessey were eager to publish his work. We are clued in from the start that Endymion is a physical object with a concrete history of making.

In the poem proper, Keats delineates Endymion as the written remediation of an oral myth. His first readers would have been familiar with the original tale of the shepherd-prince who falls in love with the goddess of the moon from Ovid’s Metamorphoses and from classical handbooks like Lempriere’s Classical Dictionary and Tooke’s Pantheon (1809). Of course, Keats wasn’t the only one rewriting classical mythology, with Wordsworth taking up myth in book IV of The Excursion (1814) and Shelley using classical ideas in Alastor (1816). Unlike them, Keats depicts the poem’s poet-narrator as scribal rather than vocal: what is an “adventurous song” for Milton or a “solemn song” for Shelley is for Keats a written endeavor:

Therefore, ‘tis with full happiness that I
Will trace the story of Endymion.
The very music of the name has gone
Into my being, and each pleasant scene
Is growing fresh before me as the green
Of our own vallies: so I will begin
Now while I cannot hear the city’s din….
Many and many a verse I hope to write,
Before the daisies, vermeil rimm’d and white,
Hide in deep herbage; and ere yet the bees
Hum about globes of clover and sweet peas,
I must be near the middle of my story.
O may no wintry season, bare and hoary,
See it half finished: but let Autumn bold,
With universal tinge of sober gold,
Be all about me when I make an end (I: 34-40, 49-57)

The poet-narrator opens not with a sung invocation to the Muse, but what’s effectively an outline of his composition process. Instead of singing, he “traces” the story, evoking the act of putting pen to page. While the “music” of Endymion’s name inspires him, it pushes him to write rather than produce music in response. The noise of the outside world—“the city’s din”—juxtaposes the peaceful solitude of the writer’s mind as he sets a plan to write “many and many a verse” in the span of one year, using the changing seasons to mark his progress. Keats doesn’t elide the process of writing under the guise of song, but makes explicit the constraints under which he writes—his schedule for completion—as well as the bodily act of writing.

Throughout the remainder of the poem, Keats continually portrays the work as an epic of pen and paper rather than song and voice. During Endymion and Selena’s first sexual encounter in Book II, for instance, the poet-narrator conveniently interrupts by asking, “Who, who can write / Of these first minutes?” (II. 531-532) After being drawn in by the scene’s sensuous detail and evocative content, the line abruptly pulls us back into the writer’s present, preventing us from fully entering into the fictive setting. The scene of writing forcibly interrupts the story’s eroticism again in Book II:

They trembled to each other. – Helicon!
O fountain’d hill! Old Homer’s Helicon!
That thou wouldst spout a little streamlet o’er
These sorry pages; then the verse would soar
And sing above this gentle pair (II. 716-720)

The sudden invocation to Helicon, marked by an abrupt period and dash, interrupts the trembling couple, even as we learn that the sun god, a traditional source of epic inspiration, is nowhere to be found. With Helicon’s help, Keats’s verses might “soar / And sing,” but in his absence they merely consist of “sorry pages.” In these self-referential moves, Endymion draws attention to the object in the readers’ hands even in the midst of its sensuous eroticism.

Endymion makes transparent the process of poetic composition not only through explicit references to writing, pages, and pens but also through its notoriously convoluted heroic couplets. In what are usually seen as evidence of Keats’s unpracticed talent—what Jack Stillinger calls “faulty rhymes, faulty meter, and […] passages of physical and rhetorical extravagance” (xiii)—I read as Keats’s labor rising to the surface of his poem. In these moments, his couplets prove so unwieldy that they obscure the lines’ content and momentarily derail the narrative. Distracted by their artificiality, we’re unable to ignore the work’s feeling of being constructed. Especially evident in descriptions of natural imagery, Keats’s remarkably unnatural verses feel almost tongue-in-cheek:

Fountains grotesque, new trees, bespangled caves,
Echoing grottos, full of tumbling waves
And moonlight; aye, to all the mazy world
Of silvery enchantment! (I: 458-464).

Intricate wordplay and inconsistent line length distract from the images they mean to evoke. If a verse succeeds in conjuring one, another quickly replaces it. Before we can consider what “fountains grotesque” might possibly be, we’re abruptly faced with “new trees, bespangled caves / echoing grottos, full of tumbling waves.” Images and language pile up on one another until the line comes to an abrupt stop with “silvery enchantment!” Keats deploys natural imagery in heavily unnatural diction, emphasizing the texture of language instead of the images it means to convey.

In selecting excerpts of Endymion to mock, an anonymous reviewer in the British Critic pays special attention to stanzas that explicitly mention writing, including “many and many a verse I hope to write,” remarking that the poem’s “flimsy veil of words” (Cox 249) can’t hide its explicit immorality. The reviewer finds the work’s physical form only redeeming quality: “We do most solemnly assure our readers that this poem, containing 4047 lines, is printed on very nice hot-pressed paper, and sold for nine shillings by a very respectable London bookseller” (Cox 250). For this reviewer, the quality of Endymion’s medium overshadows its content—it’s “flimsy” language draws attention to the material that comprises it.

In the Quarterly Review, John Wilson Croker claims to have “painfully toiled” through Endymion’s “uncouth language” (Cox 277), which leave him unable to summarize it. He accuses Keats of playing “bout rimes” (Cox 278), a game that involves creating a poem out of a list of rhymed words, suggesting that formal constraints of rhymed couplets drive the poem forward and contribute to its incoherent narrative: “He seems to write a line at random, and then he follows not the thought excited by this line, but the rhyme with which it concludes. There is hardly a complete couplet inclosing a complete idea in the whole book. He wanders from one subject to another, from the association, not of ideas but of sounds” (Cox 278). Endymion’s formal artifice effaces the content proper. For Croker, good poetry is led on by ideas rather than language and poetic form provides an invisible structure that should support but not shape ideas.

Perhaps most telling of all, John Gibson Lockhart’s review in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Review calls Keats a “versifier” who writes “laboriously affected descriptions” (Cox 272)—perhaps suggesting that he notices the marks of labor in Endymion’s highly-wrought couplets—and claims that this kind of writing is characteristic of middle and laboring class poets. “Uneducated and flimsy striplings,” like Keats, who can’t produce “one original image” are part of the larger trend of “metromanie,” in which “our very footman compose tragedies, and there is scarcely a superannuated governess in the island that does not leave a roll of lyrics behind her in her bandbox” (Cox 272). Good poetry, Lockhart and Croker suggest, renders invisible the formal markers of its creation while the poetry of Keats and others of his class quite literally contains signs of their labor and position.


Works Cited

John Keats. The Letters of John Keats. Ed. Hyder Edward Rollins (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1958). Print.

–. Keats’s Poetry and Prose, Ed. Jeffrey N. Cox (New York and London: W. W. Norton and Company, 2009). Print.

Stillinger, Jack. “Introduction.” John Keats Poetry Manuscripts at Harvard (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990). Print.

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