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Keats, Beyond the Pleasure Principle.

‘In both Keats and Freud, feminine narcissism finds its perfect partner in the male gaze.’




‘Ours is an age of anxiety from the crown to the hovel, from the cradle to the coffin; all is an anxious striving to maintain life, or appearances – to rise, as the only condition of not failing.’ —Samuel Taylor Coleridge

KEATS COMPOSED ‘THE Eve of St. Agnes’ in just over two weeks at the beginning of 1819, revising the text at Winchester during September. He claimed that there was no literary source for the poem, but that it derived from ‘popular superstition’. He was certainly inspired by his obsession with Frances (Fanny) Brawne, whom he had met just a year before. Keats had been struggling with the composition of his highly ambitious epic in the classical style, Hyperion. He wrote ‘The Eve of St. Agnes’ in reaction, a kind of fluent, poetic relaxation.

St. Agnes provided an ominous, early Christian resonance for Keats’ lovers. She was martyred during the reign of the Emperor Diocletian, 306 CE, ‘condemned to be debauched in the common stews [brothels] before her execution, but her virginity was miraculously preserved by lightning and thunder from Heaven’ (Brand 1813). Another baleful precedent for Madeline and Porphyro are, of course, Juliet and Romeo – lovers risking their lives because divided by antagonistic families: ‘For him, those chambers held barbarian hordes’ (86).

The first stanza of ‘The Eve of St. Agnes’ graphically sets the scene for the tragedy, and with Keatsian lines that, once read, may be always remembered – ‘The hare limped trembling through the frozen grass’ (3). Porphyro asks to be taken in ‘close secrecy’ to Madeline’s bedroom, and hidden ‘That he might see her beauty unespied’ (166). This is a conventional device in many ballads, and Shakespeare’s Cymbeline 2.2 dramatizes the unsettling voyeurism of such a plot. Does ‘The Eve of St. Agnes’ avoid this troubling aspect of Porphyro’s behaviour? Keats clearly struggled to find the right tone here, as the numerous revisions to stanza XXVI suggest (Allott ed. pp. 467—8n.).

Isabella; or, The Pot of Basil’ was composed during spring of 1818, a year earlier than ‘The Eve of St. Agnes’, but has a similar structure, a series of numbered, discrete stanzas. The First World War poet, Edward Thomas, wrote in his study of Keats (1916), that the form ‘exhibits the poet’s choiceness of detail’, and ‘Isabella became with the help of the adagio stanza a very still poem’.

Possession and subsequent abandonment are at the heart of Keats’ poetic obsession.

Possession and subsequent abandonment are at the heart of Keats’ poetic obsession. In compelling, sensuous descriptions throughout his poetry, his ‘choiceness of detail’, the reader is, precisely, possessed by the physical charm of Keats’ lines, ‘candied apple, quince, and plum, and gourd … lucent syrops, tinct with cinnamon’ (‘The Eve’ XXX), from which we are then expelled, abandoned as tragic development unfolds. We possess, only to be abandoned.

This is the ‘deep structure’ of so many of Keats’ greatest odes and lyrics. ‘A traumatic, broken relationship with his mother … created a pattern of possession and abandonment which runs throughout his poems’ (Andrew Motion). F. R. Leavis, in a characteristically tortured, though brilliantly tortuous essay, also noticed something close to this: ‘an inherent contradiction: so strong a grasping at fullness of life implies a constitution, a being, that could not permanently refuse completeness of being’ (Leavis: 211-12).

After the horrors of the First World War, Sigmund Freud felt compelled to draw back from his detailed, psychoanalytic practice and reflect on his discoveries at a higher, more abstracted level. He termed this his ‘metapsychology’, and its most remarkable expression is Beyond the Pleasure Principle (Jenseits des Lustprinzips 1919—20). This text provides a fascinating commentary on the psychological aspects of John Keats’ poetry, and life. For example, Keats considered that the poetic character ‘has no self … lt has no character’ (to Woodhouse, 27 October 1818) so that it may all the more effectively take on any subject. His brilliant formulation, that a poet must have ‘negative capability’, means just this.

Freud described the ego as similarly vulnerable, and therefore rewardingly open to all kinds of influence. The ego is ‘a poor creature owing service to three masters and consequently menaced by three dangers: from the external world, from the libido of the id, and from the severity of the superego’ (Freud 1919: 397).

Richard Woodhouse, Keats’ very down-to-earth friend, considered that the rather arousing stanzas from ‘The Eve of St. Agnes’, XXV to XXVIII, rendered the poem ‘unfit for ladies’. More than this, Keats did not want ‘ladies to read his poetry; that he writes for men’ (Rollins 2.163). What are we to make of this? And what would Keats have made of Freud’s challenging lecture, ‘Femininity’, which concludes, with some exasperation, ‘If you want to know more about femininity … turn to the poets’ (Freud 1973: 169).

Similarities between the second stanza of ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ and parts of Keats’ letter to his sister, 1 May 1819, indicate the period of composition. A month earlier, he had come across Coleridge on Hampstead Heath, and they shared a walk together. Coleridge was celebrated – notorious – for holding forth on all subjects to anyone he might encounter, and Keats recalled that among ‘the thousand things’ they discussed were ‘Nightingales, Poetry – on Poetical Sensation’ (Letters 2.88).

John Keats would have been Sigmund Freud’s ideal patient (though he might have found Coleridge altogether too voluble). Here was an individual who freely ‘word associated’, central to Freud’s practice of ‘the talking cure’, where the subject was encouraged to talk themselves back to some primary trauma that lay at the root of their disabling neurosis. Keats would not have had far to travel, from Hampstead to Freud’s home and practice at 22 Maresfield Gardens, twenty minutes on the 31 bus route.

Keats is stretched easefully at length on a couch covered in highly figured Persian carpet. ‘“ … half in love with easeful Death”, you say.’ Freud strokes his beard, pulls on one of his habitual cigars (that will kill him). ‘Very interesting. Here you exhibit the compulsion of all living entities to return to their earliest state, to embrace their own negation. The Death Drive is at odds with, struggles with and will finally overcome Eros, the narcissistic Libido that strives to replicate existence through reproduction. As l have written: ‘“These guardians of life were originally the myrmidons of death”’ [BPP 312]. ‘And to quote myself just once more, “Here we may be driven to reflect on the mysterious masochistic trends of the ego” (BPP 283).

He continues: ‘We may see this so poignantly in that image you describe upon the Grecian urn, of the youth who may never find fulfilment:

Bold lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal – yet do not grieve:
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!’ (17—20)

‘Ode to a Nightingale’ explores a complex ambivalence: the ecstasy of an inspired moment so often accompanied with a simultaneous sense of dismaying, soulful emptiness.

The ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ explores a complex ambivalence: the ecstasy of an inspired moment so often accompanied with a simultaneous sense of dismaying, soulful emptiness. Afflatus followed by profound discouragement. If only we could remain possessed forever by our most intense happiness, bliss, desires. If only beauty and love were eternal to us.

We may imagine we can experience such exaltation through wine, ‘leave the world unseen’ – that is, forget mundane existence – and ‘fade far away’, escaping all weariness, fret and fever. Or we may imagine that we can attain supreme bliss through fleshly love. But ‘Beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes’ (39). The nightingale’s sublime song is for this reason a ‘high requiem’, a hymn for the dead, a ‘plaintive anthem’ (75). Keats was here worrying at the most profound, primary levels of our consciousness and being.

In both Keats and Freud, feminine narcissism finds its perfect partner in the male gaze. As Madeline sleeps, Porphyro ‘gazed upon her empty dress’ (245). From the point of view of Laura Mulvey, feminist psychoanalytic writer, Porphyro’s male gaze objectifies Madeline through scopophilia, the voyeur’s (male) pleasure of looking on someone unaware. Porphyro now brings golden dishes and silver baskets full of all that succulent, Keatsian fruit, ‘jellies soother than the creamy curd’ (266).

Metonymy is the linguistic process of combining one element of meaning with another. Jacques Lacan argued that ‘desire is a metonymy’, since desire can never be truly fulfilled – we always want more. Porphyro’s opulent, seductive fruits stand in place for his desire, which cannot be otherwise represented. The sensuous pleasures that Keats’ greatest poems describe make for compelling reading, but their troubled undertones ensure that they are much more than simply pleasurable.

Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle argues that the reality principle – demands of the world, its weariness, fever and fret – requires ‘the postponement of satisfaction … the temporary toleration of unpleasure as a step on the long indirect road to pleasure.’ Further, the pleasure principle ‘is employed by the sexual instincts, which are so hard to “educate”, and … it often succeeds in overcoming the reality principle, to the detriment of the organism as a whole.’ (278) Just the fate of Madeline and Porphyro.

‘Transience itself is the grace that bestows the poignancy of the beautiful. Mortality itself grants sublimity.’

Let us imagine that a Poet and an Analyst are enjoying a walk together. They are among sublime mountains, flower meadows. But the poet is grief-stricken. All this will pass, the beauty of each flower is illusory because so tragically momentary. The Analyst smiles, takes the Poet’s arm. ‘My friend, herein precisely is the beauty of each flower, of all life. Transience itself is the grace that bestows the poignancy of the beautiful. Mortality itself grants sublimity.’

It may be that the poet was Rainer Maria Rilke, and the analyst was of course Freud, whose services Rilke had declined. He feared that to undergo analysis would ‘cure him’ of his inspiration, of the voices that, quite literally, came to him unbidden, sometimes unwelcome. One of Rilke’s finest short poems, ‘On seeing the drawing of John Keats in death’, demonstrates how closely Rilke had read Keats’ odes, and responded to their poignant anxieties:

His countenance, the task of praise completed,
With wide horizons’ distance now is blended.
Nun reicht an’s Antlitz dem gestillten Rühmer
Die Ferne aus den offnen Horizonten. (Mason 1961: 43)

Nigel Wheale is the author of Raw Skies: New and Selected Poems (Shearsman 2005) and The Six Strides of Freyfaxi (Oystercatcher 2010). His academic texts include The Postmodern Arts (Routledge 1995) and Writing & Society: Literacy, Print and Politics in Britain 1590-1660 (Routledge 1999). An archive of his work for the Fortnightly may be found here.


  • Allott, Miriam. The Poems of John Keats (1970)
  • Brand, John. Observations on Popular Antiquities. Chiefly Illustrating the Origin of our Vulgar Customs, Ceremonies and Superstitions (1813)
  • Freud, Sigmund. ‘On Transience’ (November 1915). The Pelican Freud Library.
  • Beyond the Pleasure Principle [Jenseits des Lustprinzips] (1919—20). The Pelican Freud Library, vol. 11, ‘On Metapsychology’
  • New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis (1933). The Pelican Freud Library, vol. 2
  • Leavis, F. R. ‘Keats in Revaluation’. Tradition & Development in English Poetry (1936)
  • Mason, Eudo C. Rilke, Europe and the English-Speaking World (1961)
  • Mulvey, Laura. Visual and Other Pleasures: Language, Discourse, Society. (2009)
  • Rollins, H. E. The Letters of John Keats 1814–1821, two vols. (1958)
  • John O. Scott. Coleridge in Hayden, The Critical Heritage (1970)
  • Thomas, Edward. Keats (1916)

Note: This post was altered on 29 December 2021 to correct the bus route number.

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