Mark Sandy, Poetics of Self and Form in Keats and Shelley: Nietzschean Subjectivity and Genre (Aldershot and Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2005), 160pp. ISBN 0-754-63579-1; £45/$89.95 (hb).
This book uses Nietzsche’s writings to explore the treatment of the self as a fictional construct in the work of Keats and Shelley and, in turn, argues that both poets anticipate Nietzschean theories of subjectivity, in particular his emphasis on ‘becoming’ rather than ‘being’. Sandy’s post-structuralist approach combines theoretical sophistication with a clarity of expression that is not always to be found in this sort of criticism. A notable strength of the book is its interweaving of analysis of the poetry of Keats and Shelley, which leads to some illuminating comparisons between the two writers.
The first chapter begins with an elegantly self-reflexive account of the impact of Nietzsche on deconstructionist and New Historicist approaches to Romanticism, and goes on to consider Nietzsche’s understanding of subjectivity as a succession of competing fictions. Chapter Two is the most philosophically complex, allying Keats and Shelley’s prose writing on poetics and identity with Nietzsche’s rejection of Kantian dualism. Sandy argues that both poets ‘campaign for an aesthetic of self-revision and release of the self from such metaphysical delusion’ (p. 16); the word ‘campaign’, here, is an example of the book’s occasional tendency to make Shelley and (particularly) Keats sound more philosophically didactic than they are actually are. The following chapter looks mainly at Alastor and Endymion, examining the tension between the ideal and the real in these two poems through Nietzsche’s notions of ‘Apollonian individuation’ and ‘Dionysian universality’ (p. 40). This leads into an interesting discussion of Lamia, which suggests that both Lamia and Apollonius produce ‘stifling and exclusive fictions’ that collapse into Dionysian tragedy (p. 55).
In Chapter Four, Sandy investigates the self-consciousness about fictionality exhibited by a range of Shelley’s and Keats’s lyrics. There is some sensitive close reading here, but at times—for example, after an extended discussion of ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ (pp. 81–85)—Nietzsche is deployed without really adding anything to the analysis. The fifth chapter considers Adonais and The Eve of St Mark as ‘autotelic literary structures, concerned with their own cultural legacy and critical inheritance’ (p. 107), and the book ends by examining indeterminacy of meaning and identity in the Hyperion fragments and The Triumph of Life. Sandy argues, rousingly, that these texts seek to ‘endow individuals with creative potentiality to attain their identities through self-invention, prefiguring Nietzsche’s belief that humanity could “overcome” itself through self-creativity’ (p. 123) and suggests that they encourage the active participation of their readers in this process.
This book is at times impressively sophisticated, but its lack of historicisation leads to some strange omissions and crude statements. For example, it’s simply not adequate to claim, without even a reference, that the Enlightenment understood ‘the self as a fixed, singular and autonomous entity’ (p. vii; see also p. 8). A number of scholars (most notably the late Roy Porter) have shown that the nature of personal identity was highly contested and debated during the eighteenth century. As described by Hume in Book One of A Treatise of Human Nature, the self is anything but fixed: rather, it is ‘nothing but a bundle or collection of different perceptions, which succeed each other with an inconceivable rapidity, and are in a perpetual flux and movement’ and therefore ‘the identity, which we ascribe to the mind of man, is only a fictitious one’ (my italics). And Adam Smith, in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, presents personal identity in modern society as fundamentally intersubjective, theatrical, and fluid. While the comparison of Keats and Shelley with Nietzsche is an interesting and illuminating focus for this study, it seems perversely ahistorical almost entirely to ignore the intellectual context in which the two poets actually wrote—Hazlitt, for example, who had plenty of interesting things to say about the construction of selfhood and who (unlike Kant) undoubtedly influenced Keats’s conception of poetic identity, is not mentioned at all.
It’s a shame that Sandy’s approach is so one-sidedly formalist because much of his analysis is acute and suggestive. This book is a valuable comparative study of Keats and Shelley, and offers useful insights into the theoretical and critical context of current Romantic studies. But what Nietzsche might have termed the ‘genealogy’ of personal identity is considerably more complex than Sandy acknowledges.