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Marxist take on Keats poetry opens up possibilities

Anahid Nersessian's surprising analysis of the poetry of John Keats suggests he had much in common with Karl Marx

Keats’s Odes: A Lover’s Discourse book cover

Anahid Nersessian’s Keats’s Odes: A Lover’s Discourse

Does short-lived English poet John Keats – dead at 25 – belong with the creative youngsters of the last century who passed away when young? With actor James Dean (24), and pop stars Jim Morrison (27) and Jimi Hendrix (27); or does he rub shoulders with Karl Marx?  

Yes, Marx the very protean father and grandfather of the Soviet Union, the People’s Republic of China, and virtually every radical oppositional and revolutionary group of the last hundred years.  

Which is exactly what author Anahid Nersessian of The University of California in Los Angeles has the front to suggest in her new book, which I’ve just read and am now writing about, and am flummoxed by. It is a worthy subject, but because I am outside academia and serious critical reading, I am a novice. Yet I like the challenge.  

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So this article might be called ‘Why I should never have read this book.’ And in some ways the author agrees with me. Anahid Nersessian teaches at UCLA and it is her recent book, Keats’s Odes: A Lover’s Discourse, that I have been struggling with. In fact, she declares in her preface that if you haven’t read anything about Keats’s odes before then don’t start here. She then reels off a list of books and chapters that you should read first.  

Previous to Ms Nersessian I had not read anything about Keats’s poetry and have only picked up scraps about him over the years. I felt close to him when I was 18 and struggling with love, but I am a novice to literary assessment and criticism. Ms Nersessian yokes Karl Marx into her small though interesting book, painting Keats as a critic of the 19th century and its often alienating, and at times murderous, attention to building industry and profit. 

As a self-appointed critic of the 19th century, outside political party or academic frameworks, I am drawn to this argument. And I’m excited at fathoming a different take on that century, adding to my ability to think more thoroughly about it.  

The idea that a romantic poet – an erstwhile doctor at Guy’s Hospital for the poor, dying of tuberculosis at the age of 25 – and a vastly important critic of capitalism are in many ways of the same blood intrigues me. I would never put Keats, and the poems of his that I have read, alongside the at-times bombastic titan of anti-capitalism, Marx; but the author steadfastly stitches together these two and their critique of what the 19th century was doing to people.  

Born in 1795, Keats lived as long as many later pop stars, dying in Rome in 1821. And there is that magical, sexy idea that he would not be out of place in the company of James Dean, Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix, as they all died prematurely. Even the 40-year-old John Lennon, slain at an early age, fits in with Keats. So pop stars yes, artistic types yes. But Marx?  

Karl Marx does seem light years away from a poet whose sensual verses often appeal to lovers lost in the intensity of being together. Of looking inward. Not outward to struggle and the Bastille of the life of the
working poor.  

Yet Ms Nersessian proposes the argument that they are both radical critics of the alienation that generated profits and wealth and a vast increase in polite, middle-class life, those imitating their social betters with their servants and 16-course dinners – that emptiness mistaken for culture that polite society gathered to itself while the poor were worked into an early grave.  

If the subtexts of Keats are lost to me, so it is with Marx. In all my years in a revolutionary Marxist, Engelsist, Leninist and Trotskyist group we learned very little; unless of course you were already educated to a standard that enabled you to grasp what they were going on about. 

The educated thrived and the proletariat mouthed what our social betters in the movement had just said. We were emotional Marxists kept with nose to the political grindstone by guilt-tripping, not by a grasp of Marxist theory.  

But Anahid Nersessian teaches us about poetry and about Marx and, bringing the two together in her book, opens up the possibility that at some time soon I may make the grade in both understanding poetry and getting a deeper grasp of Marx.  

But god, am I adventurous: in the middle of an inflationary struggle that knocks many people flying with the increased cost of living, here am I struggling to grasp meaning in a different realm. In poetry and politics.  

I deeply wanted to write a review of Ms Nersessian’s  Keats’s Odes. Yet I have only scraped the surface of her work, having run into the paucity of my own political and philosophical education.  

John Bird is the founder and editor in chief of The Big Issue. Read more of his words here.

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