Keats and Philosophy: The Life of Sensations

September 20, 2012

"O for a Life of Sensations rather than of Thoughts!" As readers of Keats will recognise from its title, Shadidha Bari's book takes as its cue the poet's famous exclamation to his friend Benjamin Bailey. In undoing the binary of sensation and thought that Keats himself seems to invite, Bari's work lines up with - whether willingly or not - a long tradition of canonising scholarship, beginning with Clarence Thorpe's The Mind of John Keats (1926) and finding its exemplary voice in Walter Jackson Bate's great biography, John Keats (1963). Recovering the philosophical and substantial content of Keats' writing, those groundbreaking studies demolished once and for all the escapist poet of the Victorians, deliciously or viciously given over to pure sensation, fantasy and dream.

But Bari's investigation also has a more recent critical background. Reacting in turn against the text-centred readings of the 20th-century humanists, deconstructionists and new historicists have, from the 1980s onwards, prioritised the extra-textual aspects of Keats' poetry, making their arguments about what it effects (socially, historically or politically) rather than, and often counter to, what it asserts.

For all its allegiance to contemporary critical methods, Keats and Philosophy is a welcome reminder of the fullness of Keats' text and the value of reading his poetry with care. As Bari describes it: "Reading Keats closely, the study...attends to Keats's own explorations of the ideas of love and grief, and the more particular claims that he understands to be made by and between human beings." Not only love and grief, but also friendship, freedom and mortality are the topics of the book (and the poet whom it treats). Employing a virtuoso combination of close textual ana-lysis with sophisticated theoretical extrapolation - Kant, Heidegger, Derrida and Deleuze, among others, are insightfully adduced - Bari draws, from a range of Keats' short poems and his verse-narratives, Endymion and Hyperion (the Odes are deliberately omitted), the poet's exploration of self and other, and, most pressingly, their relation. What emerges is "a life that is, simultaneously, vital and mortal, powerfully self-sensing and always engaged with others"; "a heart [that] is susceptible, capable of being moved...by joy and woe alike".

Bari's prose style is not always so lucid. If the general reader is sometimes hampered by her pervasive theorising, this is very much to her declared purpose: "The deliberative and cumulative prose style deployed here...reflects the strong theoretical influences running through this study and endorses a mode of writing which develops ideas through association, accumulation and the iteration of figures and formulas." The proclamation of its own difficulty does little to alleviate the irksomeness of the prose's not infrequent descent into critical patter, or the obligatory translations to academese (the instant paraphrase of "self-sensing subject", for instance, as "an assertive auto-affectivity").

At the same time, Bari's use of theory is integral rather than extraneous to the readings so powerfully achieved in this book. And more: her work's formidable theoretical apparatus serves astutely to legitimise the old-fashioned humanism at its heart, denuding it of any taint of naivety. Perhaps this is the necessary shape of a new humanism, a way of reading the literature that moves us, all the more persuasive for its expression in a language - prerequisite in our time - that enforces critical distance.

Keats and Philosophy: The Life of Sensations

By Shahidha K. Bari. Routledge, 184pp, £80.00. ISBN 9780415888639. Published 16 May 2012

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