Imagine if Keats had had a blog.
I’m thinking about the possibility of responding to his critics. The critical response to Endymion was harsh, as Keats himself foresaw it would be. Leigh Hunt and his “cockney school” had already been savaged in the press. Keats sensed the inherent weakness of his long poem — which is bad, though it contains many brilliant parts — and famously tried to head off the critics by writing an apologetic preface, in which he admits that the poem exhibits “great inexperience, immaturity, and every error denoting a feverish attempt, rather than a deed accomplished.” He adds that if he felt he could improve the poem in a meaningful way, he would not allow it to be printed; and that he’s not attempting to “forestall criticisms”; but that he hopes to “conciliate men” who will see — what, exactly? What the poem or the poet could be in time? At any rate, needless to say, it didn’t work.
It was the age of newspapers in Britain. There were dozens of them that printed frequent, scathing, highly involved reviews, not just of poetry and literature but the burgeoning London theater as well. Lord Byron had already had his go-round, as a fledgling poet, with the critics; his response was the long satirical poem “English Bards and Scotch Reviewers” (over 1,000 lines!) in which he lambastes seemingly anyone who had ever slighted him, in fact or perception (or might ever think of slighting him in the future). Here’s what he has to say about Coleridge:
Shall gentle Coleridge pass unnoticed here,
To turgid ode and tumid stanza dear?
Though themes of innocence amuse him best,
Yet still obscurity’s a welcome guest.
If Inspiration should her aid refuse
To him who takes a pixy for a muse,
Yet none in lofty numbers can surpass
The bard who soars to elegise an ass.
So well the subject suits his noble mind,
He brays, the laureat of the long-ear’d kind.
(Seriously, is there anything Byron couldn’t do as a poet? Satire, comedy, epic, elegy, lyric… he could do it all.) The above, incidentally, did not make Coleridge flinch from groveling at the younger poet’s feet when Byron held creative control at Drury Lane, one of only two “patent” theaters in London, and Coleridge was desperate to break back into the theater… But that’s another story.
After Keats’s first volume appeared, he was attacked on two fronts: the aptly named John Croker wrote a negative piece in the April 1818 Quarterly Review, and this was followed by an even more biting and personal critique in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, August 1818, written by “Z” (John Lockhart). (Click here for an excellent site that compiles both reviews, as well as links to Leigh Hunt’s enthusiastic introduction of Keats, and Lord Byron’s various put-downs.) What was obvious even then was that the reviews had as much, or more, to do with attacking Leigh Hunt and his circle as they did with singling out Keats.
Croker admits straight away that he hasn’t thoroughly read the poetry. He actually compliments Keats as a writer possessing “powers of language, rays of fancy, and gleams of genius,” before lamenting that he’s fallen under the spell of Mr. Hunt.
Lockhart, meanwhile, frames his review squarely in terms of class and the whole problem of the unlearned, “Cockney” school. He begins by complaining about the spread of literacy and the desire to write to the lower classes — “our very footmen compose tragedies,” etc. — then ridicules Keats for his association with figures like Hunt and Haydon, hardly mentions the poetry at all (come to think of it, he likely read even less of it than Croker had), and finally advises Keats to take up his erstwhile career in medicine — “It is a better and a wiser thing to be a starved apothecary than a starved poet; so back to the shop Mr John.” To me, this is the far more dismissive and damaging review, clearly aimed at strangling Keats’s career at birth. It’s no wonder it was published under a pseudonym.
I suppose all of this shows that literary criticism 200 years ago could be every bit as harsh and unfair as it can be today.
But there’s a difference. And I’m not even sure that the biggest difference is the fact that so much of it’s now digital, and online. After all, as noted above, there were a great many literary reviews and media devoted to poetry and theater, so many that one could reasonably expect that just about every new publication or production of any note would find a critical response, and fairly quickly at that. There was already the issue of “anonymous” reviews, in which inhibitions about what one might say, as well as any pretense about fairness, could be cast aside.
Rather, the difference I’m concerned with is made possible by criticism migrating online, in the form of blogs etc., but it’s got nothing to do with increased volume or frequency or speed. It’s the simple fact that authors, as well as their allies and enemies, can instantly respond to any critique, either in the comments threads that so many blogs maintain, or on blogs of their own (and now, of course, ancillary discussions can take place on Facebook and Twitter).
On the face of it, this remarkable democratization of the critical space is a wonderful thing. Along with the increased presence of women authors and publishers, diversity of voices in the small press world, and access to alternatives to the mainstream press, it would seem to be a wholly positive development. But there’s a problem…
The recent shutting down of the comments thread (and erasure of all previous comments) at Silliman’s blog has been much remarked upon. In a recent post on The Compass Rose, Curtis Faville, one of the writers whose frequent comments were wiped out by Silliman, takes aim at Jessica Smith, whose own blog post about the harsh comments on Silliman’s blog — in the most recent case following a positive review of Joseph Massey‘s book, but also stretching back to a positive review of Smith’s own poetry — is widely seen as precipitating Silliman’s extreme measures.
Got all that? The reason I’m focusing on Faville’s post is that his remarks, and the comments thread that accompanies it, neatly (actually, not neatly… maddeningly, yuckily, sickeningly) provides a case study in the positive and negative aspects of blogging and comments threads in general. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it proves Smith’s point. But Faville’s post, which already pushes the envelope of getting personally insulting and sarcastically dismissive with regards to Smith, is then followed by chiming in from various parties (and Faville himself, responding to them), some anonymous or pseudonymous, some not, that’s stomach-turning in its whacked off-kilteredness.
I’ve been reading Freud’s Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious. In explaining how jokes come to be made, he writes
- Let us assume that there is an urge to insult a certain person; but this is so strongly opposed by feelings of propriety or of aesthetic culture that the insult cannot take place. If, for instance, it were able to break through as a result of some change of emotional condition or mood, this breakthrough by the insulting purpose would be felt subsequently with unpleasure. Thus the insult does not take place. Let us now suppose, however, that the possibility is presented of deriving a good joke from the material of words and thoughts used for the insult — the possibility, that is, of releasing pleasure from other sources which are not obstructed by the same suppression. This second development of pleasure could, nevertheless, not occur unless the insult were permitted; but as soon as the latter is permitted the new release of pleasure is also joined to it. Experience with tendentious jokes shows that in such circumstances the suppressed purpose can, with the assistance of the joke, gain sufficient strength to overcome the inhibition, which would otherwise be stronger than it. The insult takes place, because the joke is thus made possible…
Essentially, what I read here is that repression makes jokes not only possible, but necessary. We want to insult someone; we can’t do it to his or her face; our unconscious works to overcome this inhibition by framing the insult inside a good joke, then smuggling it up to consciousness via that joke. (Needless to say, there’s a parallel here with dream-work that Freud himself draws, and one with the work of poetry that poets might draw.)
The implications of this when it comes to online writing, especially comments threads — not only on blogs but, as Faville points out, everywhere on the web — are really staggering. Cloaked in anonymity and far removed from personal contact with the object of their scorn, comments authors have no inhibitions. Nothing prevents naked biases, hatreds, prejudices, vitriol, etc., from bubbling straight up to the surface and spewing forth. This might explain why so many blog and online newspaper comments are so humorless, ugly, and mean-spirited, saying far more about the anxieties and insecurities of the comment authors themselves than whatever the topic is. (I already noted that Lockhart published his mean-spirited, anxiety-ridden review of Keats simply as “Z.”)
I would invite you to peruse Faville’s post, and then the comments thread, and see if you see what I mean. The post itself begins by insulting Smith (“Looky-Touchy-Feely”), goes on to direct some anger at Silliman for seeming to cave in to her demands, then sarcastically considers some of Smith’s complaints on her own post about comments threads, before lecturing her on the realities and rigors of literary criticism.
The comments thread is, as I say, a case study in off-topic jibes and insults. It starts off that way and only gets worse, with Jim Behrle jumping in to trade barbs with Faville, followed by more personal insults among Kirby Olson and various anonymous figures, and winds up some 60 comments later with an actual challenge to a duel… You really can’t make this stuff up.
But I want to close by imagining Keats with access to his own blog (perhaps called “The Pot of Basil”) — and Twitter account; my friend Sarah once provided the perfect name for it: “Keats Tweets”. Would Keats have written a response to his harshest critics, complaining about the ad hominem nature of their attacks, calling out “Z.” and demanding to know his identity? Would Byron have jumped in under a pseudonym in the comments thread, perhaps calling himself “Manfred” or taking a name from his beloved Greeks, insulting Keats for his short stature and urging him to quit writing poems?
Would Keats have tweeted something terse and pithy, a variation on what he wrote to John Taylor in 1818: “But it is easier to think what poetry should be, than to write it”?
I like to think so…