Embarrassment in Keats' writing - Christopher Ricks the...

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Christopher Ricks: the importance of embarrassment in reading Keats i) Byron: Keats’ poetry is pure masturbation Byron's hostility to Keats .... is especially revealing. G. M. Matthews has pointed out the 'sexual resentment' which so often animated contemporary criticism of Keats, and he penetratingly insists upon the way in which this was a class matter (and, like all class matters, involving large questions of judgement and sympathy): This sort of socio-sexual revulsion is an oddly persistent feature of Keats criticism. ... Its origin seems to lie in the disturbance created by a deep response to Keats's poetic sensuality in conflict with a strong urge towards sexual apartheid. At any rate, Byron's astonishing outbursts must have had some such components. That is, it was more or less accepted—since Crabbe and Wordsworth had insisted on it— that the domestic emotions of the lower classes were a fit subject for poetry; but that a poet of the lower classes should play with erotic emotions was insufferable, unless these were expressed in a straightforward peasant dialect, as with Burns or Clare. But though Byron's outbursts—'Johnny Keats's p-ss a bed poetry' —are indeed astonishing, they are not surprising.. An important element in Keats's writing is that it should permit of the possibility of such a reaction; to react so is wrong (in underrating Keats's sense of responsibility and delicacy), but not as wrong as it would be to experience the poetry as altogether precluding any such response... Byron was moved by Keats to an intensity and violence of embarrassment quite unlike anything else he ever expressed. 'Mr Keats, whose poetry you enquire after, appears to me what I have already said: such writing is sort of mental masturbation—he is always f— gg—g his Imagination. I don't mean he is indecent, but viciously soliciting his own ideas into a state.' Yet Byron did mean that Keats was indecent; the metaphors return with an indecent insistence: The Edinburgh praises Jack Keats or Ketch, or whatever his names are: why, his is the Onanism of Poetry—something like the pleasure an Italian fiddler extracted out of being suspended daily by a Street Walker in Drury Lane. This went on for some weeks: at last the Girl went to get a pint of Gin—met another, chatted too long, and Cornelli was hanged outright before she returned. Such like is the trash they praise, and such will be the end of the outstretched poesy of this miserable Self-polluter of the human mind. The 'trash' was of a kind that made Byron hot at being seen with it: 'Johnny Keats's p-ss a bed poetry. . . . There is such a trash of Keats and the like upon my tables, that I am ashamed to look at them.' One may think that these outbursts tell us more about Byron's imagination than about Keats's, but I think that Byron's violence of embarrassed disgust is a false reaction to something truly in Keats. For one thing, Byron is not alone in having spoken in such terms; for another, many of Keats's readers have felt that
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