chapter  8
Marjorie Levinson Introduction to Keats's Life of Allegory
Pages 27

The introductory chapter of Levinson's book on Keats lays out her interpretation of his style and the peculiar history of its reception (vilified more than praised in his lifetime, canonized since, but also tellingly identified with the experience of 'embarrassment'). She sees both Keats's style and his reception as responses to his position as an aspirant to the middle class. Coveting the cultural 'heritage' rather than able to take it for granted (like Wordsworth or Byron), Keats writes poetry that reflects a desire for style as such and displays the effort of its accomplishment. His poetry thus plays out and makes visible 'the identity-problems of the middle class', which had paradoxically to find its identity in being always in the process of 'arriving' or 'making it'. Levinson's account of these complex relationships mines contemporary critical reactions to Keats for ways to bring together into the same argument the 'style' of a class and the 'style' of works of poetry. She finds an important one in Byron's epithet 'a sort of mental masturbation', since, as she argues, the fantasy of combining fulfillment and anticipation that masturbation involves is a fantasy that Keats's poetry evokes through its diction and images and that the middle class has recourse to for its self-definition.