Anahid Nersessian's "Keats's Odes: A Lover's Discourse" reads more like a lover's quarrel.
The UCLA professor haphazardly mixes literary analysis, personal memoir and poetic evocations of a lost love affair in the 130-page book published by the University of Chicago Press.
Each of the "Great Odes" that Keats wrote in a creative burst over the spring, summer and fall of 1819 receives its own chapter. While Nersessian's unconventional analysis of the poems will outrage Keats traditionalists, the book benefits readers by reprinting each poem at the beginning of its chapter.
Nersessian effectively demonstrates the submerged political themes of "Ode to a Nightingale” and the mesmerizing power of Keats' dreamy language.
In her analysis, she also casts a critical eye on artist Joseph Severn's care for the tuberculosis-ravaged Keats in his final days as not quite as noble as traditionally viewed.
In her strongest chapter, Nersessian convincingly views "Ode on a Grecian Urn" as describing a scene of rape. In a fresh interpretation, she views the poem's narrator as a creation of Keats. Presenting a devastating critique of the famous formulation "Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty," she accuses the speaker of condoning rape and justifying art's exploitation of crimes against women.
Following T.S. Eliot and others, Nersessian skewers the "Beauty Is Truth" statement as facile. In a twist, she sees Keats himself as disavowing the speaker's closing affirmation, "That Is All/Ye Know on Earth and All Ye Need to Know." One of Nersessian's strengths is displaying how Keats veers from stunning brilliance to clumsy language.
Nersessian in the "Grecian Urn" chapter most successfully uses personal anecdote to bolster her literary analysis. She strikingly conveys her horror and outrage when she was sexually harassed by a trusted teacher.
But she misfires throughout the book with her ethereal evocation of a love affair, seeking to echo Keats' doomed passion for Fanny Brawne. The surrealistic passages, at times poignant, fail to mesh with the literary criticism. The unformed recollections might cohere in a separate book, but here distract from the narrative.
In her final chapter, on "To Autumn," Nersessian makes her most objectionable assertions.
Calling the poem "perfect and unforgivable," she upbraids Keats for not reacting to the Peterloo Massacre, which occurred a month before Keats wrote the poem.
In the Peterloo tragedy at Manchester, a local security force attacked a crowd of working-class protesters, wounding hundreds and killing 15. Nersessian dubiously claims that Keats had an obligation when writing the poem on Sept. 19, 1819, to decry the massacre.
Referring to the horrible event would have ruined the poem's perfection that she cites. Citing the massacre would have turned literature toward propaganda.
She also questionably cites Diane Di Prima's "Revolutionary Letter #7" as a counterpoint to Keats' "To Autumn." Di Prima's work has its virtues, but is hardly comparable to one of the greatest poems in the English language.
A lover's discourse? A rash and discordant one, but full of passion.