2015 Volume 39and40 Pages 81-97
The title of my essay, “The Unanxious Influence of Spenser for Keats” is an allusion to Harold Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence, which argues that major poets inevitably swerve away from their main predecessors. I attempt to show here that the opposite is clearly true in the case of Spenser for Keats. Spenser’s influence continued from the beginning of his poetic carrier till the end of his life. In section 1, “Keats’s Spenser,” I present biographical details about the role of Spenser in Keats’s poetic development, focusing on the stylistic elements, the sonorities, that reared his ears. In section 2, “Spenser’s Roman à clef,” I discuss The Shepheardes Calender, a landmark in English pastoral poetry. Spenser models it primarily on Virgil’s Eclogues, but he swerves from the melancholy and nostalgia that are the mainstays of traditional pastorals and deals with topical political and religious issues of the Elizabethan Age. I discuss the work in the context of the pastoral tradition and besides point out its importance for Keats and others. In section 3, “Keats’s Endymion,” I discuss this ambitious work, a pastoral poem in heroic couplets. While he was writing it, Keats took Spenser as his guiding light. Though he swerves from Spenser in thematic focus, avoiding political and religious topicality, he yet clearly imbues his lines with Spenserian sonorities, as he pursues ideal beauty. The character Endymion is himself idealized, not an ordinary shepherd, but the prince of shepherds, riding “a fair-wrought car” in pursuit of the supernal, the goddess Diana or her cynosure Cynthia. And while he is portrayed as achieving this otherworldly goal, what stays with us, I maintain, is the earthly beauty of Keats’s language.