Q- Keats wrote that he struggled to settle his mind on women, by turns adoring them as angels and reviling them as whores. Discuss Keats’s attitude to women in at least three poems in light of this opinion.
Keats once wrote in a letter to Fanny Brawne “You have ravish’d me away by a Power I cannot resist: and yet I could resist till I saw you; and even since I have seen you I have endeavoured often ‘to reason against the reasons of my Love’- I can do that no more”. The quote, from John Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore, ostensibly encapsulates Keats’ attitude towards women. Through the variation of female characters presented in his work, from the evil seductress in La Belle Dame Sans Merci to chaste pure Madeline from The Eve of St. Agnes, Keats cultivates the impression of being simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the opposite sex, enthralled by their sensuality yet wary of their seemingly alien nature.
This repulsion is depicted quite clearly in La Belle Dame Sans Merci or ‘The Beautiful Woman Without Pity’. Keats’ allusion to the medieval romance by French poet Alain Chartier immediately transports the reader into a fairy tale setting. The poem adopts the form of a folk ballad, yet merely mimics traditional love ballads as Keats’ female protagonist is depicted as having a far darker purpose. The contrast between the traditional ballad form and the cruel titular woman creates an ominous tone that continues into the first stanza of the poem. The poem consists of two speakers, the first of which hails the ‘palely loitering’ knight and asks ‘O what can ail thee’.
The eeriness of the poem is reinforced when the unknown speaker asks a second time, ‘O what can ail thee, knight at arms’, the repetition of the question creating a ghostly refrain. The alliteration of the ‘L’ sound in ‘palely loitering’ creates a sense of listlessness that is furthered through the bleak landscape where ‘the sedge has wither’d from the lake, and no birds sing’. From this the reader can infer that the knight is a desolate emotional state, which is echoed, by his surroundings. Keats’s use of pathetic fallacy is furthered when the first speaker remarks that the ‘harvest’s done’ thus leaving the knight in a literal winter as well as a figurative one.
As knights are often held as paragons of courage and power, Keats makes the reader aware that something preternaturally powerful must be at work. This preternatural being is ‘full beautiful-a faery’s child’, a tempestuous seductress who enthrals the hapless knight. So besotted is he, that he thinks nothing of following her to her ‘elfin grot’ where she ‘lulled’ him asleep. On the one hand, the verb ‘lulled’ can be seen as a treacherous attempt to secure the knight’s affections and allay his suspicions about La Belle’s otherworldly nature, on the other it can be viewed as a calming gesture, that has been misconstrued by the knight like every other aspect of the ethereal woman.
Alluding to medieval mythology, Keats paints La Belle as a succubus, a femme fatale able to suck the life from the chivalrous knight through dreams. We, as the reader are only offered the descriptions and opinions of the knight-at-arms, and know nothing of this lady save for his presentation of her. As such, feminist critics could argue that unkind depiction of her character stems from the inversion of patriarchal values depicted in the poem. The knight is not a helpless victim of fancy, for it was he who first approached La Belle, and it was he who made her ‘a garland for her head, and bracelets too, and fragrant zone’. These objects, seemingly tokens of their courtship can be seen not only to decorate but to bind, enslave and enclose.
La Belle Dame Sans Merci deviates from popular literacy tropes by depicting a lovelorn male in a state of decline and anguish after being rejected by the cruel female who is the object of his desires. However, instead of creating a female character to be applauded, Keats turns La Belle’s rejection of the knight into a rejection of morality itself. La Belle is never fully described, a longhaired faceless beauty who enslaves the knight with her feminine wiles. As such, La Belle can be seen to represent all women, an idea that is furthered when Keats speaks of ‘pale kings and princess too, pale warriors, death-pale they were all’. The repetition of the sickly adjective ‘pale’ in conjunction with the paradigms of masculinity found in kings, princes, and warriors furthers the idea of female sexuality corrupting the values of men, thus assuring their downfall.
Keats creates a direct parallel to the malevolent succubus in La Belle Dame Sans Merci through male protagonist Porphyro from his poem The Eve of Saint Agnes. ‘St. Agnes Eve- Ah, bitter chill it was! The owl for all his feathers was a-cold; the hare limped trembling through the frozen grass, and silent were the flock in woolly fold’. Just like La Belle Dame Sans Merci, Keats through use of natural imagery depicts a desolate surrounding. However, in this case the frozen countryside is the result of a natural winter and not the spells of a cruel enchantress. This idea is further through the listing of animals; the ‘owl’, ‘hare’ and ‘flock’ are vastly different from the birdless wasteland.
Keats conjures in the reader the vision of a harsh winter through use of adjectives ‘cold’, ‘frozen’ and ‘chill’. The depressed nature of this bleak landscape is broken by ‘Music’s golden tongue’ and ‘silver snarling trumpets’. The verb ‘snarling’ conjures in the reader images of savage dogs or wolves and is a startling contrast to the muffled snow covered outside world. The harsh ‘Ar’ sound in ‘snarling’ creates a growling effect and effectively conveys the ferocity and fervour of the music being played. Keats’ use of precious metals gold and silver simultaneously emphasise the value of the music, and livens the frozen world female protagonist Madeline lives in.
Discussing the presentation of Madeline, critic Bateman states that ‘she’s no Fanny Brawne, she’s timid and subdued’. Paraded in front on numerous gentry who hold no appeal to her, Madeline longs to escape from the public eye and anxiously awaits the ‘hallowed hour’ of St. Agnes Eve. The adjective ‘hallowed’ holds within it highly religious connotations that encapsulates the sacred nature of St. Agnes Night. The use of religious imagery is prevalent throughout the poem, and is expressed quite exquisitely through Madeline.
Madeline is a paragon of virtue, a virgin so pious that she ‘seemed a splendid angel…save wings for heaven’. Surrounded by the light of the ‘wintry moon’ Madeline is transformed into an ethereal being, one with no match on earth. Far from evoking Diana, goddess of the moon and chastity, the scintillating moonlight throws “warm gules” on Madeline’s breast thus drawing attention to her body as ‘she knelt, so pure a thing, free from mortal taint’. The noun ‘taint’ suggests contamination, a polluting stain that cannot be removed. After the touch of a man, Madeline will no longer be pure, and as such loose that which makes her heavenly.
Through use of ‘aged creature’ Angela, Keats creates a counterpart to female protagonist Angela. The noun ‘creature’ brings to mind something other, an alien entity that lacks humanity. Far past the age where she can enjoy the innocent and puerile rituals of St. Agnes eve, Angela is depicted as everything that Madeline is not. Old, frail and feeble, she is constantly shaking due to her ‘palsied’ state and seems prone to fits of forgetfulness, reminding Porphyro that he she cannot trust her ‘dizzy head’. She lacks any strength of character and is easily manipulated by Porphyro, thus enabling him to carry out his seduction on Madeline. One the one hand, the constant listing of physical and mental deficiencies allows Keats to create a strong contrast to thriving Madeline, on the other hand, Keats can be seen as conforming to overused stereotypes- the pious young virgin and the feeble elderly crone. As such, his female characters become a flat “2D” portrayal, lacking any real depth of personality.
Jack Stillinger states “regardless of the extent to which Keats identified with his hero, he introduced enough overtones of evil to make Porphyro’s actions wrong within the structure of the poem”. On the one hand this statement can be held true, with Porphyro’s actions revealing him to be a ‘cruel man’ and ‘impious’ and on the other, Porphyro’s actions take on a romantic light, and any indiscretions made can be seen to be the actions of a lovesick fool. Mirroring La Belle’s presentation as a succubus, Keats once again draws on medieval mythology. This time however, the male not the female entertains supernatural elements. As such, Porphyro becomes an incubus. Like succubae, an incubus holds power over the opposite sex, and often carries out their seductions through dreams.
Unlike La Belle however, Keats does not demonise Porphyro for his sexual nature and portrays his fantasies of possessing Madeline in a romantic light. Despite their similar situations, the difference in the presentation of La Belle and Porphyro truly illustrates Keats’ attitudes towards women. Keats wrote about empathetic identification, claiming “if a sparrow come before my window, I take part in its existence and pick about the Gravel”. Keats is able to identify with the sparrow, yet seems unable to create female characters who are not enticing femme fettle’s like Lamia and La Belle Dame Sans Merci, or vapid feeble characters like Madeline and Angela.
Keats’ treatment and depiction of his written characters is highly similar to his treatment of Fanny Brawne, finding in her aspects of that which disgusted him in La Belle Dame Sans Merci and enchanted him in The Eve of St. Agnes. In a letter to her he wrote “I cannot live without you, and not just you but chaste you; virtuous you.” As such, that which drew Porphyro to Madeline also drew Keats to Miss Brawne. Keats however, also echoes the obsessive yearning of the knight from La Belle Dame Sans Merci, writing to Fanny “you are to me an object intensely desirable.” This desire is shown most strongly in Ode To Fanny, one of the last poems Keats wrote after suffering his first lung haemorrhage.
As Keats drifted closer towards death, his infatuation with Fanny became something of an obsession with critic Richardson claiming that Keats “had transfigured Fanny in his imagination, his passion creating in her the beauty which for him became the truth”. Keats ascribes Fanny with miraculous healing abilities, imploringly asking her to ‘let my spirit blood! O ease my heart.’ Bloodletting was an ancient practice said to relive the body of ill humours and cure maladies. Is this case however, it is not Keats’ blood that is causing his ailments but his damaged soul. Only Fanny can cure his heartache, making him entirely dependant on her.
Throughout the ode, Keats is intensely focused on Fanny’s virginity, painfully aware that he will never be able to claim her sexually. Keats calls her his ‘silver moon’ and asks that she stay ‘unravished’ by another’s ‘amorous burn’. Through mentioning moonlight, Keats invokes Artemis, Greek Goddess of chastity entreating Fanny to remain pure. The long vowel sounds in ‘amorous burn’ speak of consuming passion while the verb ‘burn’ contains connotations of fiery lust, thus furthering the idea of Keats’ fixation with Fanny’s sexuality. Whilst the colour silver is typically linked to purity and the moon, it will also tarnishes over time thus loosing its lustre. Keats knows that Fanny, like the silver, will one day no longer be pure, yet he still asks that no other ‘with a rude hand break the sacramental cake’. The use of the religious metaphor ‘sacramental cake’ to rather crudely refer to the hymen, reduces Fanny to nothing more than a body for a man to sate himself in. Keats discounts her worth as a person in favour of highlighting her worth as a sexual object meant only for the pleasure of men.
Keats employs the use of simplistic rhyme when stating ‘must not a woman be, a feather on the sea’. The juvenile rhyme scheme brings to mind that of a nursery rhyme, an idea that is corroborated by the equally infantile rhythm. Seemingly scornful of her emotions, and rather unable to comprehend that women are able to know their own minds, Keats wrote to Fanny “you do not feel as I do- you do not know what it is to love”. It is perhaps this view that nurtures Keats’ distrust and envy which prompts his rather hyperbolic proclamation ‘may my eyes close, Love! On their last repose’. The use of the rather clichéd “I would die without your love” conjures in the reader images of powerful emotional manipulation. The reader has to question if Keats is really in love with Fanny like he claims, or if his obsessive infatuation has created an idealised image of what love is, and projected it on the object of his affections.
Despite what other characteristic or personality aspects they may possess, Keats paints women as seductresses, entrapping the hearts of unsuspecting men. In regards to the women he writes about, even pure chaste Madeline is presented as having ensnared poor Porphyro. Whilst some of this can be excused due to oppressive patriarchal paradigms that presented women as objects to be obtained, the vast majority of the unfair presentation stems from Keats’ own feelings and opinions. Keats is seemingly unable to view women as fully autonomous human beings, and treats even Fanny as a succubus that has enthralled him, yet even so he elevates her into an ideal. The paradoxical nature of their relationship- characterised by both love and loathing can be seen to be reflected in his attitudes towards women, leaving him simultaneously enchanted and repelled.
Richardson, Joanna. Fanny Brawne: A Biography. Norwich: Jarrold and Sons, 1952. Print.