‘…the naked foot of Poesy’:
Keats’ Metamorphosis of Genre and Confounding of Expectations


In a letter of 14 August 1819 Keats remarks that one of his ‘Ambitions’ ‘[is] to upset the drawling of the blue stocking literary world’.1 Keats was fed up with a literary establishment which expected poetry to fit neatly within prescribed conventions. As Keats notes, such ‘Misers of sound and syllable’ seek to ‘fetter’ poetry and will ‘not let the muse be free’.2 Keats aims to metamorphose poetic genre. Instead of being ‘an exclusionary and authoritative subject-form’, genre becomes a tool through which Keats can confound readers’ literary expectations.3 To confound is to cause surprise or confusion, especially by proving an expectation wrong. Keats delighted in playing with his readers in this way. In ‘The Eve of St. Agnes’, ‘Isabella’, or, ‘The Pot of Basil’, and ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci’, Keats uses genre to manipulate readers’ expectations of romance poetry as a means of wish-fulfilment.4 Jack Stillinger has argued that these poems are deliberate ‘anti-romances’ that foreshadow the ‘ultimately skeptical lyrics’ of his later poetry.5 This is too definitive an assessment; Keats does not reject the romance genre out of hand. He wants to develop rather than dismiss romance. Romance itself is a means through which antipodes are put in tension with each other: romance ‘yokes together the dissimilar […] the ancient and the novel, the marvellous and the ordinary’.6 The oppositional nature of the genre encourages poetic works which, as Robert Kern elucidates, are ‘dramatizations of conflict far more than they are statements of settled philosophical position’.7 These conflicts do more than simply typify the condition of Keats’s poetry: Keats self-consciously uses romance’s conflicts in order to force the reader to challenge her/his own reliance on prescribed ways of perceiving the world. Keats’s poetry becomes a medium through which readers explore the problems the genre poses: escapism, solipsism, and an avoidance of reality. Keats’s concern for his readers’ interpretations and responses to his poetry is a precursor to subsequent reader-response theories, which look at various ways readers respond to texts.8 This meta-textual element is fundamental to his aim of analysing the role of poetry. If we are to better understand Keats’s poetry, this element of it must be examined more closely. This article will show that Keats metamorphosed the romance genre in order to confound his readers, and encourage them to evaluate textual authority.

The conventions of romance are familiar to us even now: lovers who are prevented from being together by some external pressure: chivalry, quests, contests with monsters and dastardly enemies, to name but a few. Some of the texts that most clearly embody assumptions about the genre in fact exploit romance conventions to ironic or otherwise complex rhetorical effect.9 While the superficial elements of romance have persisted in the public consciousness, the literary history of romance shows that it is a genre that lends itself to reinvention. It is an expedient genre for Keats to play with as it evokes strong expectations in readers, and yet paradoxically has a history of metamorphosis. In using Spenserian stanzas in ‘St. Agnes’, Keats directly engages with the literary history of the genre, and makes it clear that he intends the poem to transgress expectations of genre, just as Spenser’s poetry had.

Upon first perusal, Keats’s romance is likely to seem orthodox.10 In ‘St. Agnes’, for example, Keats proleptically informs readers that two characters, who have not yet met, will ‘speak, kneel, touch, kiss’, confirming ‘in sooth such things have been’ (l.81). Despite the narrator previously stating that s/he hopes to ‘wish away’ the ‘haunting’ rituals of ‘romance’ (ll.39-41), this encourages readers to expect a romance. Romance’s superficial characteristics are indeed attained: Madeline and Porphyro are lovers, and they escape a castle full of ‘warrior guests, with shade and form | Of witch, and demon’ (ll.373-374) ostensibly to marry. In ‘Isabella’, the heroine is driven to insanity by her broken heart.11 In ‘La Belle Dame’ the pining knightly lover echoes the romance mythology of Lancelot and Guinevere, where the knight is so in love with the lady that he is willing to sacrifice himself for her.

  1. The Letters of John Keats 1814-1821, ed. by Hyder Edward Rollins, 2 vols (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1958), II.139, p.364. Hereafter Letters. []
  2. John Keats, ‘If by dull rhymes our English must be chain’d’, lines 10, 3, 13. The Poems of John Keats, ed. by Jack Stillinger (London: Heinemann, 1978), p. 368. All subsequent references to Keats’s poems are to Stillinger’s edition unless otherwise stated. Line numbers will be given in the text in parenthesis. []
  3. Marjorie Levinson, Keats’s Life of Allegory: The Origins of a Style (Oxford: Blackwell, 1988), p. 106. []
  4. Stuart M. Sperry gives a detailed exploration of romance as wish-fulfilment in ‘Romance as Wish-Fulfillment: Keats’s The Eve of St. Agnes’, Studies in Romanticism, 10.1 (1971), pp. 27-43. Hereafter these poems shall be abbreviated to St. Agnes, Isabella, and La Belle Dame. []
  5. ‘Keats and Romance’, Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, 8.4 (1968), pp. 593-605 (p.605). []
  6. Michael O’Neill, ‘Poetry of the Romantic Period: Coleridge and Keats’, A Companion to Romance, ed. by Corinne Saunders (Oxford: Blackwell, 2004). <> [28 March 2012] []
  7. ‘Keats and the Problem of Romance’, Philology Quarterly, 58.2 (1979), pp. 171-191 (p.172). []
  8. For further discussion of various reader-response theories see Terry Eagleton, Literary Theory, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Blackwell, 1996). []
  9. Examples include Sir Philip Sidney’s Old Arcadia (1581), Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene (1590, 1596), and Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra’s Don Quixote (1605, 1615). For a detailed history of romance and the transgressiveness of the genre see Corinne Saunders, ed., A Companion to Romance (Oxford: Blackwell, 2004). []
  10. Stuart Sperry, for example says that at ‘first glance Keats’s romance strikes us as thoroughly conventional’ and is indeed ‘the essence of romance’, in Keats the Poet (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1973), pp.199-200. []
  11. For a discussion of Isabella as emblematic of Keats’ desire not to be ‘a romancer in the sentimental Gothic ballad tradition’ see Diane Long Hoeveler, ‘Decapitating Romance: Class, Fetish, and Ideology in Keats’s Isabella’, Nineteenth-Century Literature, 49.3 (1994), pp. 321-338. []

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