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…

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