Keats’s Odes: A Lover’s Discourse, by Anahid Nersessian, and published by the University of Chicago Press, is an ode to both the poetry and the poet himself. Anyone who has even taken one general literature course in high school knows Keats as one of the major Romantic poets. However, as Nersessian points out, he wasn’t always held in such high esteem.
In her introduction Nersessian makes it clear that not only wasn’t Keats accepted during his lifetime, he was actually looked down on with what can only be referred to as disdain. Even long after his death as distinguished a poet as William Butler Yeats was still referring to his predecessor in a derogatory manner.
A great deal of this antagonism, especially from Keats’ contemporaries, like Lord Byron, had as much to do with the fact that he was lower class as with anything else. While his poetry may not have been overtly political, Nersessian makes it clear in her introduction and her analysis of his odes that his social status and standing had a direct influence on his work.
As Nersessian is quick to point out, as if the subtitle didn’t make it obvious, her examination of Keats’ poetry is highly personal. As a person of Iranian descent coming of age in the United States she felt as much an outsider as Keats must have in his society. It’s through this lens that she looks at his work, bringing a perspective to her critiques both unique and intriguing.
While Nersessian is an academic, and she does delve deeply beneath the surface of Keats’ odes to give us a better understanding of his work, the book and her ideas are surprisingly accessible. Each of the six poems (“Ode To A Nightingale”, “Ode On A Grecian Urn”, “Ode On Indolence”, “Ode On Melancholy”, “Ode To Psyche”, and “To Autumn”) examined in the text, is given an in-depth and loving treatment.
Nersessian places the odes in their historical context with references to both the works of Keats’ contemporaries, his rather awful personal life (he died of tuberculosis at the ridiculously young age of 25 and his not living long enough to marry his true love are just the highlights) and the times themselves. While she admits to an admiration for his work and the man, she doesn’t let that get in the way of her critical faculties.
The book is not unstinting praise, as she takes a very much warts-and-all approach to her subject. While some might find that odd for what is supposedly a love letter to the poet, this ability to be objective but retain her affection for Keats gives more credence to her opinions.
Keats’s Odes: A Lover’s Discourse by Anahid Nersessian is a deep and accessible delve into the poetry of one of the great Romantic poets. It’s the perfect antidote to the way most of us had his poetry foisted on us in school, as it’s a wonderful combination of reverence for Keats’ sublime writing and reality-based analysis.