In London and Louvain: Bookish Materiality and Social Equality

Emily Rohrbach
The University of Manchester

Re: Keats’s 14 February–3 May 1819 letter to George and Georgiana Keats

About a decade ago, as a Visiting Assistant Professor at Hamilton College in upstate New York, I—along with Romanticist colleague Emily Sun—solicited (and then co-translated) an essay on John Keats from the French philosopher Jacques Rancière. My position, “Visiting,” was something of a euphemism; I was visiting from nowhere in particular, no other institution. I had completed my Ph.D. at Boston University and held a one-year (twice renewed) position at a small liberal arts college. In other words, when we decided to write a letter to Jacques Rancière, asking if he would consider composing an essay about the politics of the sensible in John Keats’s poetry for a special issue of Studies in Romanticism, I was hailing from basically the bottom of the academic hierarchy. Rancière, on the other hand, is—and was then—a big deal, so we couldn’t just drop him an email (his is not listed on the internet), and we knew no one who knew how to contact him directly. Resourceful types, we typed up a letter, explaining why we thought he was exactly the right person to write about Keats and politics—the topic that we would be revisiting in the special issue—and posted it in the snail mail, addressed in the first instance to the publishing house of his most recent books, Éditions Seuil, based in Paris.

Two weeks later, we received an email from him saying yes, he would like to accept the invitation; that Keats had been his favourite poet when he was a university student; and that as long as he could find a thread, he would send us an essay in due time. Also, he would be writing in French.[1] I like to think that the content of our letter—how we presented the project and his potential role in it, based on our knowledge of his work and of Keats’s—is what persuaded the world-renowned philosopher to entrust his writing to two junior scholars sending him an unsolicited missive from a remote part of New York. What his response attested to, I think, was something like an assumption of intellectual equality, which my official position in the profession might not have encouraged. The assumption of intellectual equality as the starting point for an encounter is an idea that joins Keats’s portrayal of the world as a “vale of Soul-making” with Rancière’s interest in the pedagogical experiment of Joseph Jacotot, explored in his book Le Maître ignorant.[2]


I begin with Keats. The poet’s well-known meditation on the world as a vale of Soul-making—in a letter of spring 1819 addressed to George and Georgiana Keats—is prompted by his reading of Enlightenment histories by Voltaire and William Robertson. Keats recounts for his relatives living in the United States the shortcomings of these progressive Enlightenment historiographies, the ideas of which cannot account for the world as he encounters it. “I have been reading lately two very different books Robertson’s America and Voltaire’s Siecle De Louis xiv,” Keats writes: “It is like walking arm in arm between Pizarro and the great-little Monarch” (LJK 2: 100). However different from one another these narratives are, both tell histories of the modern period that are committed to a notion of linear or stadial cultural progress. That notion of progress, however, is undone in Keats’s view by the “fresh annoyances” that accompany technological and cultural “improvements” at every turn and make Robertson’s program for achieving happiness untenable:

In how lementabl [sic] a case do we see the great body of the people in both instances [Robertson and Voltaire]: in the first,[3] [. . . .] If [Man] improves by degrees his bodily accommodations and comforts—at each stage, at each accent there are waiting for him a fresh set of annoyances—he is mortal and there is still a heaven with its Stars abov[e] his head. The most interesting question that can come before us is, How far by the persevering endeavors of a seldom appearing Socrates mankind may be made happy—I can imagine such happiness carried to an extreme—but what must it end in?—Death [. . .] in truth I do not at all believe in this sort of perfectibility—the nature of the world will not admit of it— [. . . .] Call the world if you Please “The vale of Soul-making.” (LJK 2: 101–102)

Keats’s meditation on cultural progress contradicts Robertson’s and Voltaire’s commitment to valorizing modern history and culture when he posits the almost random (“seldom appearing”) historical appearance of a Socrates. By the measure of Keats’s pulse, the historical dimensions of the present age make the prevailing historiographical thinking appear inadequate. The most overt critique centers on Robertson—with key words “happiness” and “perfectibility”—for underlying Robertson’s historiography was the assumption of happiness as the endpoint, as a perfectible, achievable goal. Robertson’s model and its aims—a unified social and cultural progress toward civilized happiness—clearly struck Keats as ill-suited to the world as he found it: “In truth I do not at all believe in this sort of perfectibility—the nature of the world will not admit of it,” he announces. Stadial progress toward civilization, even if it were viable, would not reduce overall human discomfort or unhappiness, which only comes in new forms: “at each stage,” “a fresh set of annoyances.”

Keats finds the guiding notion of Christian redemption even more wanting than he does Enlightenment philosophical history. In place of both, therefore, Keats’s “vale of Soul-making” offers alternative aims. His vale is not a place to find happiness, but “A Place where the heart must feel and suffer in a thousand diverse ways!” (LJK 2: 102). Happiness is neither viable nor the most valuable aim. Keats’s process of feeling and suffering that rings changes on one’s subjectivity so as to make a soul displaces the telos of happiness. The world Keats proposes in an extended metaphor is a “school” for the “reading” of the human heart, and this schoolroom reading promises circuitous access to the (temporal) world that Robertson’s logic had missed. Subject-making, for Keats, is a process of becoming that requires a world in which to feel and suffer, and it is reading that provides access to that world.

The language of “identities,” which Keats uses in the letter to indicate the singularity or uniqueness of each soul that is made, should not lead us to think that he upheld any static notion of essential selfhood or that this notion of the soul is anything other than a process that makes sociality—the imagination of the social world and thus social engagement—possible. “That you may judge the more clearly,” Keats writes, “I will put it in the most homely form possible” (LJK, 2: 102). Here follows the crucial formulation:

I will call the world a School instituted for the purpose of teaching little children to read—I will call the human heart the horn Book used in that School—and I will call the Child able to read, the Soul made from that school and its hornbook. Do you not see how necessary a world of pains and troubles is to school an intelligence and make it a soul? (LJK, 2: 102)

The purpose of the world, in Keats’s model, is to enable one’s reading through the training of “the human heart” (as horn book) and, in turn, one’s alteration by that process so as to become a soul, where before there was only an “intelligence.” This notion of an identity or soul as made on earth—earned entirely in a figurative, temporal process of reading—marks Keats’s break not only from the conventional discourse of Christianity, which Keats called “vulgar superstition,” but also from the idea of one’s identity as originating in inherited rank or blood. The Keatsian subject is not reducible to the body or to a social identity, but is also not an entirely private subject, sealed off from social experience. For Keats does not make the horn book equivalent to one’s own heart (an object possessed); rather, it is equivalent to “the human heart,” the ambiguity of which enables the concept to pivot between one’s own heart (one’s unique circumstances and experiences of feeling and suffering) and a broader notion of “human” suffering in a “world of pains.” In the kind of “reading” Keats describes, the separation between “identities”—between one’s own heart and the hearts of others—dissolves in the capacious notion of “the human heart.”[4] Crucially, Keats imagines this reading as a more adequate means to understand man’s present circumstances than what the philosophies of Scottish Enlightenment historiography could provide. What appears ostensibly as a self-reflexive turn inward, in reading the heart, turns out to mark not a separation from the world, but a finer model for reading it.

Crucially for the comparison I am setting up between Keats and Rancière: no all-knowing schoolmaster appears in Keats’s model. In fact, there is no schoolmaster at all. The soul is figured as what in us learns to read, but also, significantly, as what remains always a child reader faced with a book and the world. In a world of flux that defies perfect mastery, one maintains a sense of wonder and is, as a capable reader, still able to be surprised. Unlike in progressive narrative histories that close off the potential for the unexpected, the future for Keats cannot be predicted through patterns or lessons of the past (“the nature of the world will not admit of it”) or be rationally controlled, but is subject to the unpredictable alterations of nature that come through reading the heart. For “what are proovings [sic] of [man’s] heart,” Keats asks, “but fortifiers or alterers of his nature? and what is his altered nature but his soul?” (LJK, 2: 103). The pluralized present participle, “proovings”—like the gerund “Soul-making”—underscores the notion of an always ongoing process, or a process without end. It calls for an openness to the worldly, unpredictable, eternally mysterious process of altering one’s “nature” that makes and unmakes and remakes a person—which is to say, a distinctive soul and a capable reader.[5] That openness to encountering the new or the unpredictable—an openness to something so different from previous experience that it revises one’s understanding of self and world—is the kind of subjectivity that Keats’s poetry, too, so often both describes and elicits.

For the purpose of reading this letter with Rancière, I’d like to highlight a few things in Keats’s extended metaphor for Soul-making as a child with a horn book learning to read at school. The idea of “Soul-making” “proovings” versus cultural improvement is key. For the idea of multiplied “proovings,” a process without end, displaces the linear progress, the goal-orientation, of cultural improvement. In other words, ideas of progress, embedded in Enlightenment historical thought, perpetuate (in Keats’s view) fantasies about the world that inhibit what he calls “Soul-making.” Letting go of the very idea of progress thus becomes a precondition for the process he describes. That letting go makes space for his modeling the world, instead, as a schoolroom—one where no schoolmaster can be found, just a child with his horn book, learning with it to read. This displacement of cultural improvement with its logic of historical progress, that is, leaves room for the poet’s more egalitarian social vision, devoid of the conventional pedagogical hierarchy. The horn book serves, of course, as a figure for the human heart, but it is crucial as such. This kind of book does not offer a specific interpretation of the world (it would typically be a tablet, consisting of the printed alphabet along with, sometimes, the Lord’s prayer). The book as object, and as figure for the human heart, nevertheless provides a technology for reading the world, for making sense and sensation of it (in language and feeling). What is emphasized, certainly in Keats’s portrayal, is not the book’s content or any ideas it might contain. In a world that is dynamic and changing, but envisioned in an image neither of improvement nor of progress toward some goal, Keats’s figure of the horn book serves, instead, as a continual resource and starting point: an enduring point of departure. His displacement of the logic of progress by a vision of social equality rests on this book not as explanation but as mediating technology between self and world.


Traveling from London to Louvain, the move from Keats to Rancière leaves behind a figurative scene of reading for a literal one. The links between these scenes, as we shall see, are the book as the thing in common and an upending of a conventional idea of progress, which elicits the possibility of equality. Rancière’s book tells the story of Joseph Jacotot, a lecturer in French literature who, at the time of the Bourbon restoration to power, was exiled to Belgium, where he taught French literature at the University of Louvain. (This was 1818, one year before Keats wrote his letter.) Jacotot knew no Flemish, but planned to proceed quietly, lecturing in French. His lectures turned out to be so popular, however, that all the students wanted to take them, including those who read and spoke only Flemish. By chance, a bilingual edition of Fénelon’s book Télémaque had just been published in Brussels. So Jacotot directed the students to it. What happened was, to him, astonishing. With the aid only of this bilingual book, very soon the students produced essays about the text in French—sophisticated analyses of it. As Rancière recounts, “Such was the revolution that this chance experiment unleashed in Jacotot’s mind” (2). “‘Were all men virtually capable of understanding what others had done and understood?’” Jacotot asked (2). The method of learning had not been provided; Jacotot had simply put the book in the students’ hands.

The implications, for Jacotot, were no less than a total upheaval of the prevailing pedagogical assumptions. Conventionally, “to teach was to transmit learning and form minds simultaneously, by leading those minds, according to an ordered progression, from the most simple to the most complex…. a student was thus elevated to as high a level as his social destination demanded…The essential act of the master was to explicate” (2-3). In the order of things, explication was assumed to precede the possibility of learning. In Jacotot’s day, Rancière tells us,

there were all kinds of men of goodwill who were preoccupied with instructing the people: rulers wanted to elevate the people above their brutal appetites, revolutionaries wanted to lead them to the consciousness of their rights; progressives wished to narrow, through instruction, the gap between the classes; industrialists dreamed of giving, through instruction, the most intelligent among the people the means of social promotion. . . .That sort of progress, for Jacotot, smelled of the bridle. (17)

That sort of progress (as pedagogy) is directed clearly toward some specific end point, not yet in reach. There is a present reality and a future, imagined one, and instructors aim to bring people from their present intellectual situation to a different one in the future; it is a process based on the idea of reducing inequalities, perhaps, but it is fundamentally limited. “The child who is explained to,” Ranciere notes, “will devote his intelligence to the work of grieving…to understanding that he doesn’t understand unless he is explained to…he will be a man of progress,” forever stultified by this very understanding (8).

What had happened with the Flemish students was different. Lost in Télémaque, all the effort, all the exploration, was focused on the situation facing them: “someone ha[d] addressed words to them that they want[ed] to recognize and respond to, not as students or as learned men, but as people; in the way you respond to someone speaking to you and not to someone examining you: under the sign of equality” (11). An urgency of the immediate situation called for doing without the progressive stages of explication, and this accidental occasion put Professor Jacotot in the presence of a fact: that his students learned French without the aid of explication. The pedagogical myth that this experiment had undone was the division of the world of intelligences into two. That division had involved the “enforced stultification” of those who are taught, who are made to think that they need the explicators when, in fact, it is the other way around. The explicators need the students to justify their existence. In Louvain, the chance experiment with Télémaque had eliminated that division.

For Jacotot, the new method—not of explication but of emancipation—was “not a method for instructing the people; it was a benefit to be announced to the poor: they could do everything any man could. It sufficed only to announce it” (18). This method, therefore, entailed no orientation toward some future goal, no endpoint toward which one was to make progress. It established, rather, a new point of departure: that is, the assumption of intellectual equality as a point of departure. Whereas explication presumes progressive understanding, Jacotot’s was a method of emancipation from that logic; Jacotot’s method focused on the beginning. As Rancière remarks: “the circle of emancipation must be begun” (16). The parallels between Jacotot’s experiment and Keats’s “vale of Soul-making”—his child in a schoolroom with horn book in hand, no schoolmaster in sight—are surely apparent. I would highlight, however, that both scenes conjure a temporality of beginning that rules out conventional ideas of linear progress. “Jacotot’s experiment disrupted the temporality of conventional pedagogy,” says Rancière (2). The logic of the explicative system that had to be dismantled was, significantly, a temporal logic. Jacotot’s alternative was this: the pedagogical emphasis on progress toward an end had to be replaced with the assumption of intellectual equality as a point of departure, as a beginning without end.

What came of this method, of the revolution that this chance experiment unleashed in Jacotot’s mind? Because the process of what Jacotot called “universal teaching” (103) is a singular process of the individual learning something by herself, finding her own way, it cannot be a social method: “It cannot be propagated in and by social institutions” (105). A method based on equality and the refusal of explications can only be directed to individuals, never to societies (105). Less a pedagogy that could be somehow institutionalized than a way of being in the world and an announcement to be made, Jacotot’s universal teaching suggests a way of inhabiting time, in relation to others, without a progressive narrative. Rancière’s book concludes, rather poignantly, with the idea that, because of this incompatibility with institutionalization, universal teaching will never catch hold and become a dominant pedagogy. It will also never perish.

What Keats’s and Rancière’s texts share is a vision of the book as a thing in common that enables some kind of equality to emerge. They envision an equality at once intellectual and grounded in the peculiar material technology of books. This technology and the non-linear temporalities that books elicit (or at least accommodate) will not, by themselves, produce a society of equals, of course, but this comparison sheds light on the conditions for making such an equality imaginable and for inhabiting the world in a way that acknowledges an egalitarian possibility.

Emily Rohrbach is Lecturer in British Literature, 1750-1820 at the University of Manchester and the author of Modernity’s Mist: British Romanticism and the Poetics of Anticipation, published in the Lit Z series of Fordham University Press, 2016.

Works Cited
Keats, John. The Letters of John Keats. Ed. Hyder E. Rollins. 2 vols. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1958.

Rancière, Jacques. The Ignorant Schoolmaster. Trans. Kristin Ross. Palo Alto: Stanford UP, 1991.

—. “The Politics of the Spider.” Trans. Emily Rohrbach and Emily Sun. Studies in Romanticism 50.2 (Summer 2011): 239-250.

Roe, Nicholas. John Keats and the Culture of Dissent. Oxford: Clarendon P, 1997.

[1] Rancière’s essay was published under the title “The Politics of the Spider” in the summer 2011, 50th anniversary issue of Studies in Romanticism; the volume is entitled “Reading Keats, Thinking Politics.”

[2] Rancière’s book was translated into English by Kristin Ross, and published as The Ignorant Schoolmaster; all quotations from it will be in English, corresponding to her translation.

[3] Keats never returns, in the letter, to the second “instance,” Voltaire.

[4] It is perhaps worth noting in relation to the metaphor of the school that Keats attended the Enfield School from 1803 until 1811. In John Keats and the Culture of Dissent, Nicholas Roe argued convincingly for the centrality of this experience to the formation of Keats’s radical political views. Keats’s time at Enfield was intellectually and socially rich, and this is where Keats developed voracious reading habits. Keats won books as prizes while at school, including Bonnycastle’s Introduction to Astronomy, but he read primarily books that he borrowed from the school’s library, as well as some additional books borrowed from Charles Cowden Clarke. Roe writes, “Like everything else at Enfield School, the library was remarkable” (46). If we take Keats’s metaphor of “reading” literally, that in school he was reading not only books he owned, but also those that would circulate through the hands of others supports the notion of reading (of suffering and feeling in the world) as a process that is at once one’s own (a private act) and social (an act that renders the reader permeable to a broader human experience of the temporal world).

[5] Although “reading” in the “vale of Soul-making” letter is clearly figurative, it is not incidental that Keats witnesses, and dramatically benefits from, a historical moment of rapidly expanding print culture and rising literacy rates that made literal reading accessible in an unprecedented way.

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