Literary and Poetic Representations of Work and Labor in Europe and Asia During the Romantic Era: Charting a Motif Across Boundaries of Culture, Place, and Time is available now from Mellen Press, featuring a chapter I contributed entitled “Theatricality and Imaginative Failure in Keats.”
In The Sublime Object of Ideology, Slavoj Zizek writes that “sublimity gives us simultaneously pleasure and displeasure: it gives us displeasure because of its inadequacy to the thing-idea, but precisely through this inadequacy, it gives us pleasure by indicating the true, incomparable greatness of the thing, surpassing every possible phenomenological, empirical experience.” Keats’ “Ode of a Grecian Urn” may be one of the language’s greatest poems, but it also contains some of poetry’s worst lines. Those lines, especially “More happy love, more happy, happy love,” are not mis-steps; they are failures, and, I’m arguing, active failures in Zizek’s sense, a kind of theatrical dive, meant to claim for the poet a documentable experience of the sublime. In what thereby becomes a discourse on imaginative limits, Keats discusses the form’s ability to “tease us out of thought,” connecting that lack of thought with silence, and ultimately to a breathlessness he enacts in these passages. As the poet demonstrates the failure of the poetic faculty in the face of the sublime encounter –making a spectacle of the climb, failure, and recovery– he also hopes to induce a similar reaction in his readers, attempting to move us out of breath and to the same pitch of delirium he has exhibited, to make his private imaginative environment a public one wherein his theatrical swoon is contagious.