All posts by Renee Harris

I am a long Nineteenth-Centuryist, specializing in Romantic Poetry, John Keats and the Cockney School. My research interests include interdisciplinary approaches of economic theory and gender studies, Keats's circles, Romantic conceptions of "work," and poetic identity. Outside of academics, I enjoy practicing yoga and dance, eating Italian food, and traveling.

Sleep, Dreams, and Poetry

Endymion is one of the funniest heroes in Romantic poetry, mainly because he is so frequently fainting and falling asleep. He sleeps so often that I struggle to separate his waking and sleeping, a common problem for Keats that I want to talk about in this post. I have written previously about shared feeling and cognition, and dreaming is a particularly interesting case study for these topics, I think.

Let me catch you up to the ideas I’ve been toying with for my dissertation. I have come to believe that for Keats communion across time and space is enabled by acts of reading and the shared feelings reading encourages. Feelings circulate, via a text, among the bodies engaged in acts of reading (or other aesthetic experiences), and feeling is always an embodied cognitive experience. Therefore communion is realized (not just imagined) in the embodiment of transferred or circulated affect, a reactivation or revitalization of feelings in the moment of reading. From these assumptions, I begin my study of sleep and dreams. Continue reading Sleep, Dreams, and Poetry

A Summer Scotland Tour

I submitted final grades on Friday, and after granting myself a long weekend to relax (i.e. clean my house and sleep a full 8 hours each night), I am settling into my summer. I am on fellowship for the next year, and without teaching responsibilities, I am writing full time. But, I do have travel plans to punctuate the summer slog and give me much needed inspiration and respite. Like many of you, I have NASSR in Winnipeg this August, where I get to see friends, colleagues, and scholar-idols. But what’s foremost on my radar is the History of Distributed Cognition Workshop in Edinburgh next month.

As I have mentioned before, I have the pleasure of participating in this workshop at the University of Edinburgh to discuss and refine my chapter on Keats’s and Wordsworth’s contrasting visions of embodied reading. The workshop is only three days, but I’ve decided to stay abroad for a week. Initially, I toyed with the idea of traveling south after the workshop. My heart is and always will be in London, and I’m very comfortable traveling around England. I’ve been there often enough to feel a pseudo-mastery of navigating the country, and by now, I feel it’s my second home. Continue reading A Summer Scotland Tour

Fellow-Feeling, Cognitive Science, and Keats

I’ve lately been dabbling in cognitive cultural studies in efforts to understand the physiological registry of emotions and how the second generation Romantics theorized the phenomenon as embodied or immersive reading. I thought for this post, I would give a little background on how I got to this area of study and why scholars have linked it to eighteenth and nineteenth century British thinkers and Romantic poets, in particular. I limit this post to Gabrielle Starr’s work, as her book Feeling Beauty focuses on the cognitive processes involved in aesthetic experience, and I am particularly interested in the aesthetic experience of reading poetry. Continue reading Fellow-Feeling, Cognitive Science, and Keats

Planning My First Brit Lit Survey

At my university, the opportunities to teach an upper-level course are present but few. After passing comprehensive exams, you can apply to teach a survey course corresponding to your area of specialty. The second-half of British literature is particularly hard to come by, and typically a PhD candidate gets to teach it once before graduating. This is my semester, and I am thrilled!

I have been teaching general education classes for six years. I can count the number of English majors I have taught on one hand. But now, I have two full classes of English majors or minors, who ask me questions like, “Percy Shelley? Any relation to Mary Shelley?” (Isn’t it crazy to remember a time when we didn’t know every intimate detail of the Shelleys’ marriage?).

I am two days in. And here’s what I can report so far: I love my job.
Continue reading Planning My First Brit Lit Survey

Rethinking Workspace

My husband got a new job as a software developer, and right now he’s working from home. I have found in the short time since he took this new position that we cannot both work from home at the same time. The work environment he cultivates to be productive does not jive with my own. I like to work from my couch, preferably with a dog or two sleeping next to me. I like to have the television on but muted, and the front windows open to let in natural light. My husband works in the adjacent room, our office, with two computer screens in front of him, listening to the comedy station on Pandora and holding videoconferences with his development team intermittently throughout the day. My threshold for how many stand up routines I can endure is severely low, I must admit. So in the last month, I have been transitioning to an on-campus work routine. Continue reading Rethinking Workspace

Archival Research: The Poetic Personalities Of Keats And His Circle

Participants on the Heath.  Not all of us, but quite a few!
May 3, 2014: Keats and His Circle Conference participants on Hampstead Heath. Not all of us, but quite a few!

Hello and happy summer!  Since I last blogged, I passed my Ph.D. comprehensive exams and spent two weeks in England.  I presented at the Keats and his Circle conference along with my fellow blogger, Arden Hegele, and of course the conference was everything a Keatsian (or Romanticist) could wish it to be. Our weekend at Wentworth Place came complete with three days of really smart and innovative Keats studies, phenomenal featured lectures, and a “Keats walk” through Hampstead. But what I will talk about today is what I learned in the week after the conference. Continue reading Archival Research: The Poetic Personalities Of Keats And His Circle

Use Value and Literary Work: Poetic Identity in 19th Century Britain

I am a few days from submitting a full draft of my Ph.D. comprehensive exam rationales. These short written explanations/defenses of my lists are intended to help my committee see how I chose my texts, how I conceptualize the time periods, and what kinds of questions to pose in my oral exam next month.  No pressure, right?  I am not required as of yet to make groundbreaking strides in our field.  (I have four months until the dissertation proposal is due.)  For now, I am to demonstrate a confident knowledge of the area and its current critical debates.

And I must say, despite all odds: I am really enjoying this process.  I mean REALLY enjoying it.


Months upon months ago, I began designing my lists according to major themes in Romanticism and Victorianism.  I borrowed this approach from an old Victorian lit syllabus that divided our readings into the major debates of the period.  Luckily, the Victorian epoch already has names for many of these debates– we get “the woman question” and “the condition of England.” I started there and tried to work backward to see similar debates in Romanticism.  Not impossible, but I eventually abandoned these categories, finding many texts too difficult to compartmentalize.  Within and across the lists, I found too much resistance to these neat categories.

The porous boundaries between literary movements or cultural epochs are a consistent point of debate in literary studies. (This acknowledgment heads the disclaimer we sign upon entering grad school, right? “We all know this fact, but you, grad student, are responsible for challenging these textual boundaries in intelligent and original ways for the next six years”). The long-nineteenth century in British literature itself must expand at both ends to encompass a least a decade in each direction to make adequate sense in the ways we critics currently construct the period. And this is not a phenomenon reserved for the afterlife of each movement alone, but rather the writers and theorists of the Romantic and Victorian movements look backward and forward in attempts to situate themselves and their literature within a cultural narrative that shapes and is shaped by their work. Indeed, what I find definitive of the nineteenth century, a point of connection that unites the various authors and genres represented in my comprehensive exam lists, is a desire for clear situation within and beyond an epoch.

The writers we study desire a lasting cultural influence. They seek to shape and correct, to play a significant role in cultural formation and the national story. I argue that this desire to influence and make a mark is a symptom of economic insecurity. With an emphasis on practicality and pragmatism (the use-value of work) as the bourgeois class rises to influence across the Romantic and Victorian epochs, the “word’s worth,” if you will, of a man or woman of letters seems to require its own proof. This need to defend and define one’s usefulness in society and to posterity (on top of the need to prove one’s self within a chosen vocation, as with Keats, Hunt, DeQuincey and numerous women writers like Mary Robinson) creates a significant identity crisis that gets translated across the century into various points of cultural and historical contention.

"Work" by Ford Maddox Brown, 1865
“Work” by Ford Maddox Brown, 1865

John Guillory writes a compelling history of “use value,” how it was invented and how it comes to odds against aesthetic value in the early nineteenth century. I came to Guillory through Mary Poovey’s brilliant 2008 book Genres of the Credit Economy. Hers is a book you read and pine over, jealous you hadn’t written it first.  Of course the list of books I wish I had written has grown well beyond anything I could reasonably produce in a long academic career; nonetheless, I continue to drool and dream. Teasing out what Poovey calls a “double-discourse of value,” Guillory argues that aesthetic value depended on the emergence of “use value” as an economic concept in the late eighteenth century.  Looking to Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments and Wealth of Nations, Guillory states that use value was invented to discursively clarify the relationship between production and consumption. It seems the people—literary writers and theorists?—were uncomfortable with the affective motivation behind ascribing a product value. Under the increased pressure for utility and practicality, valuing a work of art because of the pleasure it brings seemed a tenable (at best) justification for the time and effort expended in producing and consuming it. Therefore, the discourse substituted in use value which seems to marry production and consumption and get rid of the warm, fuzzy emotional value of art.

At the same time, Literature with a capital “L” cannot become so useful as to be absorbed into other types of writing like economic, scientific, or political writing (here’s the heart of Poovey’s book– how the distinctions arose between the genres).  So here’s the rub—aesthetics branches off from economic discourse for the first time, reiterating that not all written products are works of art. But what’s more, the products that appear like works of art may not be.  Thus Literary writers define what is “fine art” and distinguish between types of imaginative production based upon their adherence to the definition (namely, a work should not call attention to itself as a commodity, so rule out popular works and works of “immediate utility”).

But does this dismissal of “immediate utility” give leeway enough for my argument that poets and novelists in the nineteenth century feel the need to prove their utility?  I say, absolutely yes.  In my own adaptation of this cultural narrative, this is the crux of poetic identity in crisis. Suddenly (or not so suddenly, really, but now of sudden we have the language to explain this phenomenon) literature’s worth can no longer be taken as indisputable fact.  Suddenly, artists must defend the cultural relevance of the work.  What work does Literary work perform? Ironically, Wordsworth’s Prelude (esp. the 1805 version) justifies his seemingly self-indulgent aesthetic exercise in tracing the development of the poetic genius as performing the cultural work of a natural philosopher or historian, as he uses himself as the case study of a mind in development during upheaval of the French Revolution. Similarly, guarding his work against accusations of sensationalism or shock value, DeQuincey justifies his Confessions as being a comprehensive (scientific?) study of the effects of opium consumption, adding the potential educational benefits his mistakes may provide for the reader.

Perhaps more interestingly, Victorians like Thomas Carlyle and Matthew Arnold seek to define a use value for the aesthetic products more obviously abstracted from immediate utility than Wordsworth’s or DeQuincey’s.  Here we have a sense of immediate cultural crisis—the moral fabric of society is degrading as the class boundaries seem to be dissolving, gender roles (especially in the literary marketplace) seem to be in flux, science is questioning what it means to be human (and to be particular kinds of humans, etc). Carlyle and Arnold foresee anarchy, and they don’t seem too extreme with these concerns.  Radical individualism, as Carlyle terms it “democracy,” erases the need for leaders to model correct behavior.  And what will we do without models?  How can we possibly be moral without seeing what morality is?  How can we be cultured if everything and everyone is valued equally?  Carlyle’s answer: heroes and hero worship.  And significantly, his heroes always have a poetic sensibility, that is when his heroes are not poets themselves. Likewise, Arnold famously writes that culture is the answer to anarchy. To read and see all the best that has been known and created–this will civilize and make moral the British populace in flux.


I can see these economic questions of “work” and “value” at the root of my original categories, the major crises of the nineteenth century in British culture.  I feel as though this framework lends itself to a discussion of so many topics in recent scholarship: mental science, gendered work (domestic novels vs. fin de siècle adventure novels; sensibility and sentimentalism; etc.), professionalization of bourgeois occupations, dissenting culture, the widening franchise, the bard’s role in nation-making and historical record, scientific advancement and religious doubt, etc.

All this to say, I am arguing a relationship between economic and social (class) change as the root of writers’ identities. I see the common thread between nineteenth century writers as their struggle to negotiate aesthetic vocations within a market and within a society that seeks a use value for all products (read utilitarianism, read Victorian work ethic, read rise of bourgeois values). Meanwhile every fiber of their beings wants to privilege fine art above products with an immediate utility. Fine art is for posterity, it is lasting and transcendent. Okay so “every fiber” is a gross overstatement, and my actual narrative challenges this art for art’s sake assumption. Ultimately, there is a real anxiety about whether literary work performs a cultural service, and these writers vie for recognition of their worth both personally and occupationally, both in the moment and in literary history.

Running the Comprehensive Exams Gauntlet: A Hopeful How-To

I have spent the last nine months thinking about my Ph.D. comprehensive examinations, and, as of tomorrow, I am nine weeks away from THE day.  Yikes!  And since in my current stage of borderline freak out I can think of nothing else, I have decided to write a very practical how-to/how-not-to guide for comprehensive exam preparation.  Please learn from my colleagues’ and my experience and mistakes.  And PLEASE add your own suggestions in the comments below.  We grad students need each other’s support. I still have nine weeks, oh wise ones.  I welcome your advice and in return I give you mine.

A Young Girl Reading, or The Reader (French: La Liseuse)
A Young Girl Reading, or The Reader (French: La Liseuse), an 18th-century oil painting by Jean-Honoré Fragonard.

To begin, let me describe the two comprehensive exam models I know from my Masters and Ph.D. universities.  Both universities position these exams as the transition between coursework and the dissertation.  At each university, students are tested over a group of lists specific to their areas of study, including primary texts of all genres and critical texts.  At my Masters university the exams were written.  Students prepared for the exams for an average of one and a half to two semesters.  The exam itself required students to write three 20+ page papers in response to the questions written by their committee (I believe the students have 4-5 questions from which they choose three).  You had 48 hours in which to complete the essays.  This style requires very organized and diligent note-taking, and communication with your committee members about types of questions to expect.  From here, you can begin drafting potential arguments to use during the exam days.

At my current university, the exams are oral. Three hours in a conference room at the mercy of five committee members. I’m reassured by my committee that the three hour exam is not so foreboding, but for dramatic effect and to garner your sympathy, I present it as an academic gauntlet. Four committee members are (roughly) in your area of study, and one committee member is recruited from a different department to ensure fair treatment and assessment of the tester. See? A gauntlet.

Students are to master three lists of texts (each of which is approximately three syllabi-worth of material) that cover our time period, an adjacent time period, and a list of our choosing (often a dissertation list, an author list, a genre list, or a theory list).  We are given three semesters in which to do this, but most students take only two.  My lists cover the long nineteenth-century with a decided focus on poetry and critical prose (though I do include novels as well).  I have a Romanticism list, a Victorian list, and a dissertation list, titled “Keats and the Cockney School.”  These lists are self-created with the help of your committee.  They must be approved, and you must provide rationales for them in the form of a 25 page document.

I did not get off to the best start in my studies. (Shhh! Don’t tell my committee!).  But after consulting with friends who had run the gauntlet and lived to tell about it, I developed a reading schedule, a realistic outlook on the process, and even an appreciation for this phase in my academic career.

So here’s a taste of what I have learned over the last few months:

Continue reading Running the Comprehensive Exams Gauntlet: A Hopeful How-To

Young Poets. Young Scholars.

When I was a junior in college, I studied abroad in England for a semester, and as part of my Modern British Poetry class, I took a literary pilgrimage to Wentworth Place, Keats’s home in Hampstead. This trip was genuinely transformative for me, as it fueled a fantasy that I was John Keats’s lover in another life (hey, we all have our literary crushes). And more importantly it began my creative and scholarly work on the poet. As I wandered room to room, swooning over the handwritten manuscript of “Ode to a Nightingale” in the corridor and tearing up at the death mask encased in the library, I hadn’t a thought of my future with the poet.  But this week I received an acceptance to the first ever Keats Foundation conference at the Hampstead house.  And I began to reflect back on my 20-year-old self and how she would laugh to know that she would return to Wentworth Place as a career Keatsian almost a decade later.

Over the last month, I have been thinking a lot about how identity gets organized, both my own as I am beginning to define myself as a young scholar and that of the poets I study.  This all came about as I prepared proposals for the Keats and His Circle conference in Hampstead and NASSR 2014.  For each of these, I am looking to begin some foundational dissertation work that looks at identity organization in the Cockney School.

Journalist, poet, and radical Leigh Hunt attempts to organize the second generation of Romantic poets in his creative works and his weekly newspaper The Examiner. Though he never writes an overt manifesto and never claims the emergent artists of Romanticism’s second generation as “his” school, I believe he constructs a clear political and artistic mission for himself and his friends. In The Examiner on December 1, 1816, Leigh Hunt published the “Young Poets” article, which announced a new school of poetry led by Percy Shelley, John Hamilton Reynolds, and John Keats (with a nod to Lord Byron). As he writes here and elsewhere, this new school was not innovative so much as restorative, returning the focus of modern poetry to “true” nature and more genuine understandings of “human nature.”

Hunt organizes their poetic identity both as an extension of and reaction to the first generation (esp. after the publication of Wordsworth’s Excursion, lambasted by Byron, Hunt, and Hazlitt as the mark of Wordsworth’s establishment allegiance). He says the new poets are continuing the cultural work begun with the linguistic and political experiments of Lyrical Ballads, a project he believes the now conservative first generation has abandoned. As he defines the cultural work to be done by his school of artists and political reformers, he touts the revolutionary power of loose versification and conversational language (he maintains that the language of conversation is the language of “true nature” and “nativeness”), but he also touts cheerfulness and sociality, as opposed to the Wordsworthian egotistical sublime–poetic insight emerging through solitude. Hunt and crew value brotherly love, charity, and a mutual support of fellow beings. And they uphold these virtues in contrast to the modern vices of extreme individualism, commercial interests, and exploitation of the disenfranchised.

As applied to this circle, the term “Cockney School” in itself demonstrates the ways in which identity gets imposed upon a person or group. Famously, “Z,” a semi-anonymous critic for the Edinburgh Review, printed a series of vicious essays on this group of liberal (and often dissenting) intellectuals from the London suburbs, titled “On the Cockney School of Poetry.”  According to Z, the school was headed by Leigh Hunt, and included such figures as Keats, Webb, Haydon, and Hazlitt.  His reviews frequently digressed from the work of this school, using ad hominem attacks to belittle the men with their shortcomings in class–all with the intent to discredit this second generation of Romantic artists because of their politics.  Intriguingly, pieces of this class prejudice against Cockneys precedes the era, and the stereotype can be seen today in the classic appropriation of Liza Doolittle style Cockney accents in parodies of the English.  A particular favorite of mine in the last year has been Fred Armisen’s portrayal of Queen Elizabeth II as a sort of Cockney thug on Saturday Night Live.

Nevertheless, the Hunt circle appropriated the qualities of this pejorative stereotype and other labels applied to them, reading into these intended delimitations a revolutionary power for greater liberty. Z complained of their inferior education, their limited knowledge of Greek and Latin, but for Cockneys like Hunt, Keats, and Reynolds translations and retellings proved more democratic, opening new worlds of knowledge and opportunity for people of middle and working class backgrounds. Chapman’s Homer introduces Keats to new peaks, new oceans, new planets, horizons previously inaccessible. Z complained of their vulgarity and obscenity, but Hunt, Keats, and Shelley celebrated sensual overflow and freedom of expression.  Their poems portray this liberty literally by catalogues of sensory images and metaphorically by unconventional representations of love (sympathetic idolaters, demon lovers, love triangles, etc.).

In a trend I find problematic, Keats scholars of the twentieth- and early twenty-first centuries perpetuate a prejudice against Keats’s supposed Cockney roots, often undervaluing the politically engaged young Keats of 1816-1817.  Moreover, they divorce his later work from Hunt’s influence (rightly so, perhaps, as Keats distanced himself from Hunt for numerous personal and professional reasons). As a young scholar just beginning my work on Keats’s Cockney roots, I don’t know yet to what extent I agree that Keats’s work transcends his Cockney identity.  Though his 1820 volume may demonstrate sophistication well beyond the wrenched rhymes or weak adverbial descriptors of Huntian style, his thematic concerns remain deeply Cockneyfied.  Romances like Isabella; Or the Pot of Basil and Lamia betray his continued resistance against a modern capitalist economy that exploits both human and nonhuman resources.  And even his great ode sequence, which ostensibly celebrates a pure aestheticism, carries the taint of political agenda and historicity.  The nightingale disappears, the poet awakes. He returns to a historical reality of the Six Acts, the Corn Law Protests, Peterloo, disenfranchisement, disease, and personal loss. To say the least, his 1820 volume shows a conflicted relationship with the Hunt school (perhaps a topic for another post).

Armisen’s Queen from SNL 2013

I feel immensely fortunate to have the opportunity to explore London and its suburbs again, as a slightly more seasoned romanticist, Keatsian, and anglophile. And while I will not adopt a phony Cockney accent for the duration of my visit, I will expand upon my original pilgrimage, exploring the sites that were key to the school’s development.  On the list thus far, other than Hampstead Heath, of course: Edmonton, Enfield, Guy’s Hospital, and the Vale of Health.  I will keep you apprised of my plans for exploration as well as archival research as the reality of this trip continues to set in.

Never Have I Ever Read

Photo courtesy of: http://www.victorianweb.org/painting/millais/drawings/50b.jpg
The Eve of St. Agnes Millais (1863) http://www.victorianweb.org/painting/millais/drawings/50b.jpg

At the beginning of summer, my husband, our two basset hounds, the cat and I moved into a little white rental house with a backyard. And once we had unpacked all our books, installed a makeshift closet in the back room (in the whole house, we have one tiny little 2×3 feet closet in the bedroom), and felt sufficiently settled to have company, we threw a housewarming party.

Naturally, ninety-percent of our guests were English grad students, and, as we were sitting around the fire-pit in our new backyard, someone suggested we play a literary version of the party classic “Never Have I Ever.” In the original game, the players take turns admitting to something they have never done (never have I ever been skiing–a sad truth!), and each person who has done the event loses a point until only one person is left with points, or something of the sort. In our version, we shamefully admitted works we had never read, and the other players were to put down a finger of the full ten with which they started. Of course, we awarded a slight handicap of negative five points to the only three non-bookish types (my husband the mathematician, a former history major, and a physicist) to make the game somewhat fair.

We were never quite clear on the goal of the game, since in our circle there seemed more pride in “losing” the game than surviving to the end with fingers still raised. In fact, one of our friends “lost” twice by the time we called the game. And we were all envious. But we went round and round, enjoying ourselves immensely.

“Never have I ever read Moby Dick.”
“Never have I ever read Huck Finn.”
“Never have I ever read Beloved.”

I have been studying for comprehensive exams for the past five months, and while I have read a significant number of the works on my lists in past graduate seminars, I feel like the whole process is a long game of “Never have I ever read…”

At the University of Kansas, where I am in my third year of doctoral studies, you compose three lists with your committee–two of which are time period lists (your area and an adjacent time period) and the third is a list of your own choosing (often an author, literary theory, a genre, etc). As a Romanticist with a fairly extensive background in Victorianism, I have chosen my period lists to form the full nineteenth century in British literature, and my final list is geared toward the Leigh Hunt Circle as I prepare for a dissertation focusing on Keats, the Cockney School, and how this context shaped his conception of “work.”

After reading criticism and biographies for the last two months as I try to whittle away at the dissertation list, I have switched to fiction for a much needed breather. I find it heartening to zip through a couple of novels in a week, when I have been slogging through nonfiction for what seems like a lifetime (and I will say I have read several “lifetimes” in that list, and highest praise must go to Nicholas Roe’s 2012 Keats biography. I have added it to the ever-growing list of books I wish I had written). In anticipation of the Halloween season, I scheduled myself several gothic novels in a row. And last week, I read Wuthering Heights for the first time.

Perhaps I just permanently altered your opinion of my clout as a nineteenth-century scholar. Well, so be it. I certainly admit the sad fact with a touch of shame. But now I have checked it off my list of never-have-I-ever-reads, and I have moved on to the next novel that somehow fell through the gaps in my long tenure as a literature student.

I feel this game “Never Have I Ever Read” haunts literature scholars. It certainly helps us flesh out syllabi–how else will we force ourselves to finally pick up Dombey and Son if we do not assign our students (and ourselves!) to read it?–and the game even fuels our research, it seems.

Three weeks ago, I had the pleasure of traveling to Portland and presenting on a Romanticism panel at the Rocky Mountain MLA. This conference has become a tradition for a couple colleagues and me, who would likely never travel and present together otherwise since our areas are so diverse. I presented on the connection between architectural structures and female bodies in Keats’s romances. I looked at the way in which the lived experience of female bodies, specifically in rape narratives, becomes abstracted into a symbol (the first step of which is the equation of the female body to the house or palace that protects her–i.e. Madeline is endangered because her house is penetrated in “The Eve of St. Agnes”). This cultural phenomenon is allegorical in so far as the female body comes to represent social bodies (structures) in various forms through literature and even political propaganda. The specific and material become crystallized into a generic trope that can be circulated, translated, and exchanged, depending upon the terms of its use, its ability to anger, inspire, manipulate.

In the Q&A portion of the panel, another presenter asked if I had read Cymbeline. I shook my head and shyly admitted I had not. Despite taking two courses in Shakespeare and Renaissance drama, never had I ever read, seen, or even heard a plot summary of the play. Nor is the classic John Middleton Murry volume Keats and Shakespeare listed among my secondary texts for comprehensive exams.

Nevertheless, I did my research that evening in my hotel room, and discovered much speculation on the play’s influence in Keats’s portrayal of Madeline’s boudoir. Indeed, Charles Cowden Clarke wrote, “I saw [Keats’s] eyes fill with tears, and his voice faltered,” as the poet read aloud from the play in summer 1816 (qtd. on page 56 of Walter Jackson Bate’s biography of Keats). In addition to speculation on the scenery, importantly, Imogen has been reading the story of Tereus and Philomela before falling asleep. According to Greek mythology, Tereus rapes Philomela and cuts out her tongue so that she cannot report the assault. Jove later transforms Philomela into a nightingale, and her song becomes an echo of sexual violence throughout literature, including T.S. Eliot’s “The Fire Sermon” in The Wasteland (a piece I have read many times since first crossing it off my never-have-I-ever list in high school).

Scholars speculate on what the literary greats have read (or not read) as an everyday practice. My fellow-scholar who asked if I had read Cymbeline was presenting truly stellar archival research that sought to uncover whether Keats had read various seventeenth-century ballads on nightingales. She lamented that we do not know to what volumes he had access while staying with Benjamin Bailey at Oxford in the summer of 1817. And as she had not yet read Roe’s recent Keats biography, she did not know the conflict between Bailey and Keats’s London friends, and why Charles Brown and other early biographers would not have contacted him to inquire about Keats’s reading that summer. Even in their lifetimes, Keats and Leigh Hunt gained the label “Cockney” as a class slur partially due to the fact that they never had ever read mythology in the original Greek, and instead got their knowledge of the classics through translations.

Next up on my reading schedule is Northanger Abbey, and I will be reading it for the first time. This will be my last novel for a while, and, as I want to preserve my reputation with you at least beyond my first blog post, I will not admit the Romantic poetry I will be reading next week–for the first time.