Keats on Milton: “life to him would be death to me,” or, a bad case of mimetic envy

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Famous marginalia seems to be all the rage right now – so I thought I’d start the year with this one, John Keats‘s mark-up of his edition of John MiltonParadise Lost. The relationship of Keats and Milton was a fraught one, marked by imitation, rivalry, and rejection  – a classic case of what René Girard would call “external mediation,” where the target of envious admiration exists outside the daily sphere of the desirer. After all, Milton had died well over a century before Keats was born, so it was clearly a one-sided relationship. Sometimes those are the easiest kind. You get less back-talk.

"What was he really like?"

Bad case of mimetic envy

The history of this particular set of marginalia is such a complicated one that a whole book has been compiled on it: Keats’s “Paradise Lost” by Beth Lau. It’s an opportunity to read Milton’s masterpiece over Keats’s shoulder, so to speak.

In his review of the 1998 book, UC-Irvine’s Hugh Roberts writes: “Only Spenser and Shakespeare rival Milton as ‘precursor poets’ for the English Romantics, and the relationship with Milton is arguably the most interesting, as it is the most fraught with ideological and other tensions. From Blake’s assertion that Milton was ‘of the devil’s party without knowing it,’ to Shelley’s musings on the ‘strange and natural antithesis’ by which Milton’s poem had become an ideological prop to Church and State conservatives, to Keats’s ultimate conclusion – after trying to out Milton-Milton in his Hyperion – that ‘life to him [Milton] would be death to me,’ the Romantic poets made themselves unruly disciples, self-consciously reading their master’s epic against the grain.”

milton2One Milton scholar, Martin Evans, credibly claims that Milton is the most learned poet in the English language. I suspect Keats thought so, too. Here’s own reaction, a poem on discovering a lock of Milton’s hair, is not one of his best efforts, but insightful nonetheless:

Chief of organic numbers!
Old Scholar of the Spheres!
Thy spirit never slumbers,
But rolls about our ears,
For ever, and for ever.

Read the whole poem, “Lines on Seeing a Lock of Milton’s Hair” here. And happy new year.


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