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British Blushes

Keats and Embarrassment

by Christopher Ricks
Oxford University Press, 232 pp., $12.00

Keats is “an often delightful, if often awkward, decorative poet.” This is what Kingsley Amis thinks, or was once awkwardly prepared to say. Christopher Ricks once protested at his saying so, and his present essay thinks very differently of Keats’s verse. He accepts that it is awkward, and it is precisely the awkwardness of Keats to which he addresses himself. But then the awkwardness of Keats is shown to have dimensions which Amis’s remark would hardly lead one to expect.

The book sets out to show that Keats’s merits as a man and as a poet are attested by his response to the embarrassments which he suffered, perceived, and inspired. Ricks is right to suppose that these matter still to the reader of Keats as they did to his first readers, whose embarrassment was often expressed in ridicule. The essay brings us close to the occasions of the poet’s life, as they are described in the letters and biographies and as they were translated into art. The use of the blush as an instrument for testing and understanding his art delivers some excellent results. The book has great energy, and great ingenuity. Those who may sense an assumption that what Keats said and did was rarely trivial, and that few of his poems are merely decorative, will not, on the whole, conclude that this embarrasses the experiment.

Keats did not mind inflicting embarrassment by means of the practical joke, an “art” which was in high favor during his lifetime. His purpose, Ricks says, was that of “affectionate therapy.” Around 1819 his friend Brown let his house to a Jew by the name of Benjamin. The tank supplying the water for the house was tainted with lime, and Keats sent Brown a letter which purported to be from Benjamin and which guessed correctly the tenant’s Christian name: “Sir. By drinking your damn’d tank water I have got the gravel—what reparation can you make to me and my family? Nathan Benjamin.” Brown was taken in, and wrote, sans gêne, to Benjamin: “Sir, I cannot offer you any remuneration until your gravel shall have formed itself into a Stone when I will cut you with Pleasure. C. Brown.”

Practical jokes are meant to produce awkwardness, and they also have a tendency to go wrong, as this one may be reckoned to have done. The letter sent to Benjamin has the Middle Ages in it, except that here it is the Christian who is charged with poisoning wells. It comes as no surprise that Benjamin was angered by it, and he may have been more than angered. Keats, however, does not seem to have thought that the joke went wrong, and he regarded his lighting on the “right hethen name” as a “fortunate hit.”

Christopher Ricks goes carefully into the hoax, and he calls Keats’s epistolary account of it “humane.” But he does not deal with the stress on reparation, remuneration, and family in the two letters, or with what may be found to be the Shylockian figure cut by Benjamin—it is worth renewing Brown’s pun—as a result of these Sherlockian maneuvers. A letter of the previous year by Keats refers to The Merchant of Venice, a play with which the Jewish community would have been as familiar then as they are now. Ricks is sure that many of the occasions of Keats’s life drew responses that are “rich” and “true” and “important” (the words are insistently used), and he is, in general, very persuasive. But this particular episode, while it does not indicate that the uproarious Keats disclosed by it was a raging anti-Semite, does not indicate, either, that Keats was always honorably alert to embarrassment.

Keats’s verse is rich in hedonism and scopophilia (the pleasure taken in peeping or peering at scenes of sexual pleasure). But it is an “honorable hedonism,” Ricks says, and a “purified” scopophilia. When Keats tells of lovers embracing (or of Madeline undressing in “The Eve of St. Agnes”), this is not voyeurism, because it is magnanimous, “unmisgiving,” and yet conscious of a possible distastefulness in the role of watcher which is being enacted and enjoined. He is regularly seen as acknowledging the presence of destructive or distressing elements in any witnessing, or experiencing, of bliss.

Keats was not the only poet of his time who was held to be embarrassing, and who was blamed for making public what was childish or otherwise unworthy. It appeared that secret stuff such as the masturbatory fantasies and reveries of adolescence was being given currency as literature, and that readers were being turned into voyeurs: and in publicly regretting his own “mawkishness,” Keats could appear to concur in these estimates. Romanticism seemed to be seeking to break down the boundaries of what could be said or seen or shown at a time when a more prohibitive decorum was also being asserted—at a time, for instance, when, in certain quarters, a middle class was mustering itself to behave as a public, or as “the public,” and to bear the responsibilities imposed by its dreams of political emancipation.

Ricks takes up the question raised in an authoritative way by F.R. Leavis: that of the relationship between Keats’s sensuousness and his seriousness. He is conscious that there is a dishonorable hedonism. His relationship to Leavis’s seriousness is of consequence at a number of points in the essay, and is a reminder of how much the term “embarrassment” has meant to Leavis. Embarrassment is perhaps a nineteenth-century thing, and a very English thing, and perhaps, too, its history as such can be made out in the importance assigned to it by Leavis and other writers of his generation. Among the many varieties of embarrassment which may occur, there is that of someone caught in the act, redcheeked because red-handed, and there is the pudeur which would disdain the act: and in the writers I am talking about, pudeur may seem at times to represent a significant virtue. But Keats cannot convincingly be praised for his pudeur.

Offering a magisterial praise of magnanimity, Ricks has it that the poet was honorably alert to embarrassment: this is the language of his praise, and it is one which evokes the pudeur of these older writers. But for a man who was honorably alert to embarrassment, Keats could be very embarrassing: he was not loath to risk the reproach of vulgarity, and he has frequently incurred it. I think there is a difficulty here for the argument pursued by the book: some of its readers may squirmingly feel that they have always known much more about his absence of embarrassment than about his alertness to it.

A British reviewer has objected that Ricks’s book identifies as embarrassing items which are not, or which need not be: seaweed, honey, nostrils, freckles, nipples. People differ about such matters, but there can be no doubt that Keats was thought embarrassing by his first readers, such as Byron (“p-ss a bed poetry”), and is thought to be so still. He can, in fact, be praised for offending against the compunctions of his time in the interests of conveying what was worth conveying, and if it was English of him to be studious of embarrassment, then it was brave and outlandish of him to court it (it may be that the same could be said of the writer of this book). Keats’s best poems—such as the “Ode to Autumn,” though here, too, Ricks detects a blush—are, in the main, his least embarrassing, his most assured. But it seems reasonable to believe that these poems benefit in various ways from his involvements with slipperiness elsewhere, and that his vulgarity was something of a virtue.

Ricks’s book has made that reviewer, and others, smile. One reviewer has spoken of it as that of a middle-aged don—alert, as it were, to the distressing sensuousness of things. This objection may recall earlier objections to Keats. For Carlyle, he was “a miserable creature, hungering after sweets which he can’t get.” For Yeats, he was like a boy with his face pressed to a sweet-shop window. These two grim voices obviously have a point. His senses were soon extinguished, and before that they were starved and stinted: he can seem like the kind of bold lover who never, never gets to kiss. The embarrassment of riches evident in his verse was caused by his lack of them. And by his lack of inches? His concern with, and courting of, embarrassment must have had something to do with his being five feet high and fit, as he must sometimes have felt, to be placed in some nice girl’s bosom (Byron’s limp went with a desire for poise, and with a very different kind of attention to the subject of shyness). As for Christopher Ricks, I have noticed in him a marked inclination to blush, which may make him a bit of an erythrophile, and he is a known professor: but we do not need to think him morbidly predisposed in favor of his subject. It is an important subject, as well as a tricky one.

It is English to believe it bad to be unembarrassable, and to trust in the ironies that can accommodate embarrassment. And perhaps there are still English people who are inclined to think that it would be rich to die of embarrassment. Those who feel that they have had too much of this sort of Englishness are bound, every so often, to smile as Ricks argues candidly and earnestly, though also delightfully, about the predicaments and practical jokes of circa 1819, and compares them with modern flusters. At one point he pays tribute to the kiss:

Keats intimates that a full kiss upon the lips is uniquely moving and creative, and that it is so because of its dewiness and because of its reciprocity, the rhyme of lips upon lips. And perhaps because of the impossibility of talking at that moment, the relief from talk, since this poesy, this rhyme, is not a matter of saying anything. Moreover, you cannot kiss your own mouth (except in the mirror, and there—with perfected narcissism—it is the only part of you that you can kiss), and this for a more total reason than that you cannot kiss some parts of yourself; the full sense of self in a kiss upon the lips is supremely dependent upon nonself and its perfect complement. For Keats, a kiss is creative, an act of love which makes love; as is well known, we kiss not only because we love but so that we may love. At such a moment a kiss is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The passage has its awkwardness. But that doesn’t prevent it from making very interesting sense. Despite his disclaimer, none of it is well known.

Ricks’s argument does not take him toward any general theory of embarrassment, and his method is to expound and dispute, and to worry away at particular passages and occasions: the book acquires a kind of plot by virtue of its succession of plights. “Why is the water of Hippocrene ‘blushful’?” And why is it “true”? He spares neither Keats’s blushes nor his own: the critic’s crimson cheeks are plainly visible, and so are some of the things that turn him—and not the next person—on and off. Pudeur, it seems, has shifted its ground in the last few years, though you could not complain that, with this book, it has given up altogether.

Embarrassment is strange, and its causes and phenomena vary sharply from place to place, person to person, time to time. Englishmen are perhaps the world’s last really red men, or so it can occasionally seem, and there are human beings there who can become one continuous grin, wince, quake, spasm, or royal flush of hurt, torn, or reluctant feelings: it is felt in that country that Americans are insufficiently embarrassed, and former President Nixon has certainly shown exceptional composure. The blush cannot be simulated or consciously controlled, or acted on the stage. In this respect as in others, embarrassment is like erections, which are famous for being like spirits from the vasty deep. Can you experience it when you are alone? Probably. Can breasts blush? This Bible tells us so. Music has charms to soothe, and, unaided, it cannot encarnadine: “that John Cage can create embarrassment for his audience is clearer than that what he creates is music.”

This book makes good use of Darwin on blushing, but is not much helped—in relation to the oozes, the stickiness or tackiness, that have to be handled in Keats—by Sartre on le visqueux. It also uses the evidence of sociologists, of whom by far the best is Erving Goffman. For Goffman, broadly speaking, each of the predicaments or quandaries of embarrassment involves an inability to be either of two possible persons: embarrassment is like a reserving of your position and is portrayed as enabling or functional. These sociologists do not have Ricks’s shyness about engaging in general theories of the subject.

One of the episodes where such evidence is used is preceded by a discussion both of literature and of the discussion of literature as these may minister to the anxieties and fantasies of solitude. Then there is a reference to a monograph by a sociologist, and this introduces the question of the unease which can accompany the awareness of others in libraries. Then there is a reference to a monograph by two sociologists, Gross and Stone, which looks at reactions to what they call “stigmata”—in other words, wounds.

Gross and Stone explain that a student made a “gestural invitation” (in other words, advances) to a girl in a library—which was terminated when the girl revealed herself to be wounded. “Our student’s gestural line was brought to a crashing halt. Embarrassed, he abandoned the role he was building….” Ricks does not like what he has now quoted: “It is not just the language of this (and all which that entails) but also its lack of imaginative interest in the relation of reading in a library to embarrassment and to erotic anxieties which make it so much less good at its own work than is Merrill Moore’s sonnet ‘Eyes in Libraries.”’ But the sonnet proves flat, and flatly inaccurate, because overexcited, about the behavior of eyes in libraries. I can’t help feeling that Ricks has quoted himself into a quandary here. The argument ceases to work, and required more of his own words: some of his valuable solipsissima verba would certainly have been in place.

When Keats was staying with Leigh Hunt and a servant opened a trivial letter of his, he wept for hours and left the house. Though he had been, in a sense, caught out, these were not tears of embarrassment, as far as I can judge, or tears that he was embarrassed to weep (men wept more freely in public then than they do now). Once again, we may reflect that if Keats was embarrassed, and attentive to embarrassment, he could also show himself to be untouched by its uncertainties or dishevelments, and to be capable—as poet or guest or in some further role—of causing them to occur in others. He can seem strikingly unembarrassed, just as the flaming faces encountered in his poetry—those of Bacchus’s crew, for example, in Endymion—can mean, not embarrassment, but a release from it. Moreover, he was steadfastly and single-mindedly courageous and kind in dealing, in life, with the worst imaginable quandaries. He was devoted to food as a pleasure, and as an earnest of other pleasures, and he pressed his face to the sweet-shop window: but he also resembled George Herbert’s Savior, that miserable creature in whom pain hunts “his cruel food through every vein.”

In writing about his poetry, Ricks may make too much of the Keats who acknowledged what was disagreeable, and who acknowledged a debt to others, as against the Keats who craved, and who could dream his disagreeables away, but he does not make too much of the sufferings and courage and consideration exhibited in Keats’s life, and he writes about them movingly. It turns out that these can successfully be studied by means of a study of his embarrassments. The story of Keats’s virtues is told in full. The image of an ironic or Empsonian Keats does sometimes come to mind, but there is no travesty.

Empson may be thought very English. And the Englishness of Keats is briefly invoked in the book. Can we believe in this, and believe that it is expressed in a keen awareness of embarrassment? Possibly. But then one wants to say that if this is the kind of claim that English patriotism can now make, it would be heartless to resist it. England and Englishness are felt by some people to be at risk. One English patriot, who admires Leavis, has spoken of the “genocidal” nature of the drive associated with Britain’s joining the European community. It is as if the indomitable Englishry will be weakened by an exposure to lesser breeds: it seems that they stand to lose their racial memory and be turned into vegetables. This is what a Common Agricultural Policy can do for you. Perhaps the patriot is pleased that the British Isles are also affected by a rather different drive, promising a measure of break-up, and of retreat to the old tribal zones. If Labour politicians can dog-in-the-manger it out of Europe, England may also be able to end up purged of its Picts and Scots, richly embarrassed, financially embarrassed, and alone.

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