The Poetry of Keats – Review

from Man and World 20 (l987)

David Pollard, The Poetry of Keats: Language and Experience.

[Sussex: Harvester Press & New Jersey: Barnes & Noble, 1984. 172 pages]


It is a matter of the fine spell of words.

It would not be easy to say just how fine this book is, that is, recalling the root “finire‘ just how well-bounded, well-delimited, it is; or, still more to the point, just how well it bounds or delimits the poetry of Keats, encircling the poetic text in such a way as to let the poetic word sound forth, unfolding the text’s own horizon. In a sense, then, it is certainly a phenomenological reading of Keats’ poetry, not in the sense of applying some phenomenological method to the interpretation of the poetic texts, but rather in something like the sense in which Heidegger (“the presiding genius throughout these essays” – p. x) understands early Greek thinking to have been phenomenological:

Thus understood, phenomenology is a way that leads forth and that lets that to which it leads forth show itself. This phenomenology is a phenomenology of the unpretentious [des Unscheinbarenl. Only therein does it become understandable that with the Greeks there are no concepts. For in conceptualizing there is the kind of comportment whereby one takes possession. The Greek orismos, on the other hand, encircles vigorously and sensitively what’ seeing gets in view; it does not conceptualize. (1)

At the outset David Pollard is explicit about his aim: “Our aim is not to superimpose a critical method onto the poetry but to let Keats think poetically – to allow Keats’ poetry to bring itself to thought” (p. x). It is, in the first place, a matter of returning criticism to its source, to the text itself, a matter of “the withdrawal of critique in the face of the text” (p. xi). And yet, it is not simply a matter of attending to the poetic text. Rather, precisely because “Keats is both poet and critic” (p. 123), because Keats as critic or thinker engages in dialogue with poetry, Keats’ poetry has already been brought to thought.

Hence, the primary focus of Pollard’s reading is this dialogue, the dialogue in which Keats the critic, Keats in his “Miltonic…incarnation,” engages the poetic text. Listening in on the poetic thinking of Keats himself, the reading self-effacingly imitates Keats’ own bringing of his poetry to thought:

Our reading of Keats’ poetry mirrors this Miltonic dialogue, which draws us into the poetry. It is a dialogue of thinker and poet in which we come to recognize what Keats recognized, that critique has always already collapsed in the face of the poem’s refusal to succumb (p. 123).

In re-enacting Keats’ own poetic thinking, one can experience the return of critique to its source; one can follow the poet’s own fine return to the poetic text.

Yet also, precisely because Keats is, both poet and critic and the distinction accordingly “sometimes blurred” (p. 123), pollard’s reading is obliged finally to raise the question of criticism. Or rather, the reading is rounded out, completed, bounded, by a postface on criticism and its relation to language and the poem. It is of utmost significance that what is said finally. of the critic is drawn from the reading that has preceded, even if in its explicitness it goes beyond the reading. The postface is of course to be contrasted in the strongest possible wav with every other discourse on method that would precede, authorize, and govern a reading of poetic texts.

The latter procedure corresponds to what Pollard calls objective criticism. Such criticism holds the poetic text at a certain distance, clarifying it in a language other than its own The critic translates the poem into an alien language, into another idiom, which thus comes to mediate between the -critic and the poetic text, “destroying the immediate experience of the language of the poem and transforming it into something else”. (p. 124). Such critical assault is, Pollard suggests, precisely the form of criticism appropriate to – that is, determined by – the age of technology.

This critical _technique is appropriate in an age in which technology is supreme. Just as agricultural cultivation is now an assault upon the land, an assault which challenges it to produce food for consumption, so the critic challenges the poetic text to produce revelations, insights, truths. What can be produced from the land or the .poem is the justification of their existence. Like agriculture, criticism is becoming an industry (p. 124)

The concept of production comes to determine everything, and it is only a matter of what criticism can produce from the poem, a matter of a questioning assault capable of reproducing the poetic text “only in terms of those categories in which the questioning is framed (p. 125) In a sense such an approach is more bent on conserving itself than it is on preserving the poetic text: “The analytic critical process is an observing questioning of the text, which conserves itself as method and passes on leaving the poem. behind” (p. 125)

It is precisely such- criticism that Pollard discreetly refuses to practice. Not only is his reading given over to Keats’ own critical dialogue but also in a sense the reading exhausts itself returning to that dialogue, bringing to it only the most discreet and unobtrusive transitions. At no Point does the reading gather itself up into a detached formulation in which it questions, its method, would be conserved over against – or, rather, beyond – the poetic text and the Keatsian dialogue. It is only after the reading that certain theoretical detachment is finally assumed, but then only in order to make thematic what the reading has already shown in deed about the fine art of criticism. Nor does the reading pass on ,”leaving the poem behind”, dispensing with it for the sake of what has been produced from it, a meaning, a message, an ideology, etc., in any case something essentially non-poetic. On the contrary, Pollard’s reading stays with the poetic text, with the texts of the Keatsian dialogue circling back again and again in ever varying contexts to such texts as the following:

if poetry comes not as naturally as the Leaves to a tree, it had better not come at all (pp. 21 it passim).

Likewise with, for example, Keats’ characterization of the poetic in terms of that “Negative capability” that he discerned paradigmatically in Shakespeare:

As to the poetical character itself…it is not itself – it has no self – it is everything and nothing (pp. 32 et passim).

Likewise with the famous passage comparing “human life to a large Mansion of Many Apartments (pp 51 et passim),to say nothing of lines such as the following from “Ode on a Grecian Urn”:

Thou, silent form, doth tease us out of thought
As doth eternity (pp. 51 et passim).

And precisely at such points at this, points at which one is most tempted’ as was Keats himself, to close off the poetic word by transition to a “beyond” – at precisely such points Pollard’s reading proceeds with consummate skill to show how the poetic text renounces such translation and refuses closure (cf. pp. 41f). lt is such refusal that releases the play of repetition. It is also what, in the poetic text itself, especially warrants the final theoretical discourse that resumes the Heideggerian idiom, the discourse in which both poet and critic are taken to be drawn along in the self-withdrawal of language itself. (2)

The refusal of closure is most thematically displayed in Keats’ revision of ‘Hyperion” i.e., in the text ,,The Fall of Hyperion”, subtitled “A Dream.” Pollard reads this text with the very finest care. And though he foregoes mentioning the connection, he shows how, in effect, this text is addressed to the same poetic question as-that voiced in Hölderlin’s “Brod und wein” and thought poetically (in Pollard’s sense) by Heidegger:

…und wozu Dichter in dürftiger Zeit? (3)

He shows how it tells of the poet’s journey: the journey beyond that “artful” composition that “gather its completion to itself before it has begin (p.104), that then challenges language to supply the poem, which cannot then but be closed off in advance within that completion, assimilated to a meaning.

In “The Fall of Hyperion” the poet, having come upon food and drink and partaken of them , falls into a swoon:

… and down I sunk,
Like a Silenus on an antique vase.

Awakening, he finds himself in a stone temple unlike nay ever seen. Far away, to the west, is an alter towards which he proceeds filled with bliss. Arriving at the altar, he is horrified by a pronouncement that he will die if he cannot reach the steps of the altar before the leaves of incense have burned. Struggling ahead, he experiences all the feelings of dying, and only at the moment before death does he reach the steps and feel life begin flowing into hi again Upon asking how it is that he has been saved from death, he is told by the priestess that it is because his is capable of felling

What ’tis to die and live again before
Thy fated hour.

Where is the poet bound on this journey?

…und wozu Dichter in dürftiger Zeit?

It is a journey in which, later, the affliction of the god himself will appear, a journey through desolation, “a desolation in which the god can no longer gather the poet to himself and grant him the gift of poetic utterance” (p. 106). It is a journey of which most are incapable; for most cannot even recognize the desolation of the gods as desolation. These are the fanatics and the savages spoken of in the opening lines of he poem:

Fanatics have their dreams, wherewith they weave
A paradise for a sect; the savage too
From forth the loftiest fashion of his sleep
Guesses at heaven

These dreams are delusions, so much so that they go totally unrecognized as such: “Delusion is the mortal shadow of the desolation of the holy” (p. 108) – in the first case, delusion erected into a security, in the other case, the security of immediacy, of dream not yet become vision of dream for which the word remains withdrawn

Only for the poet can the dream become word:

For Poesy alone can tell her dreams.

Only through the poet can imagination be drawn beyond “dumb enchantment.” Only through “the fine spell of words” can it be drawn to a realm of safety, even if not of security:

For Poesy alone can tell her dreams,
With the fine spell of words alone can save
Imagination from the sable charm
And dumb enchantment.

In Pollard’s reading: “The saviour is the spell of words – the spell that gathers together the words in such a way that they become fine” (p. 109). Spell does not mean only spelling, nor only incantation, but rather – one could say – the manifold gathering of words, their being gathered together in such a way as to gather to us what is to be seen, letting it be seen, giving us power, as in an incantation, to look into what may be its very nature be – and even remain – veiled.

Thou hast felt
What ’tis to die and live again before
Thy fated hour. That thou hadst power to do so
Is thy own safety.

Gathered to his mortality by the spell of words, the poet is – in Pollard’s words – “in the safety of insecurity” (p. 110). Indeed it is only thus that he is a poet, only in being gathered by and into the fine spell of words; for, in Keats’ words, ‘this is the very thing in which consists poetry” (p. 114).

Poetic gathering suspends closure. It is a gathering that displaces – Pollard’s word: re-allocates – toward the open. Foregoing the assault of questioning, the critical quest ought, then, to be “a return to the openness which lies within the quest before it is converted into a question” (p. 126), a quest “drawn on by the openness of what is questioned” (p. 127).

Il the end, the critic is to “make his comments superfluous” (p. 136); he is to let the critical discourse destroy itself for the sake of the properly poetic revelation of the poem.

Critical thought must pre-serve rather than con-serve; or rather, it must allow the poem to reserve itself to itself. In other words, it must think poetically. This poetical thinking is a standing within a clearing opened up by the spell of words, a spell which the critic, like the poet, must avoid breaking up by an assault over the gap (p. 136).

It is precisely such poetical thinking way by Pollard’s reading of Keats’ that is practiced in the very finest way by Pollard’s reading of Keats.


John Sallis, Department of Philosophy
Loyola University
Chicago, IL 60626



  1. Martin Heidegger, Vier Seminare (Frankfurt a.M.: Vittorio Klostermann, 1977), p. 137.
  1. “The poet, by renouncing the word, by letting it withdraw apart, releases himself into the parior along which the word also passes and, by so doing, arrives at a nearness to language in which it can grant itself as the poet, sown, in which it can gather itself together – re-collect itself.-in a re-allocation….This constant re-moving and re-turning is the life of the critic who exists in the shadow of the poem and is always drawn on again in the wake of the movement of language, which is a removal into the opening of which language itself is the source” (pp’ l33f’)’
  1. Heidegger, “WozuDichter?” Holzwege (Frankfurta’M’:VittorioKlostermann, 1957).