On either side of John Keats’ “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” sit Wordsworth’s “Resolution and Independence” and Tennyson’s “Vision of Sin.” All three are poems about encounters with pictures of strikingly alien people: Wordsworth’s, characteristically, about the imagination’s projection interfering with what is before him; Tennyson’s, characteristically, framed by an account of the vision’s arrival and dissipation. Wordsworth’s poem, then, founded on the conflict between what is and what seems to be, on an awareness of the perils of the imagination to distort as well as its propensities to endow and create. Tennyson’s, less central to his work than either Keats’ poem or Wordsworth’s to theirs, nonetheless representative in its anxieties about and craving for change (the demonic figure is grotesque in his horror at change but his energy is impelled by his prurient imagination of its possibilities), and in its nervous urge to disrupt the imagination as soon as it would settle, to turn in and scratch against its own surface. What, then, animates Keats’ poem, if neither seeming v. being nor stasis v. change?
The three poems constitute an achievement of Romanticism not least because they represent the Romantic belief that poetry adds to the world, makes something that becomes a part of the world it represents, and can, by virtue of that relationship to the other parts of the world, compensate for them or balance against them, even if it cannot impact them directly. For Wordsworth and Tennyson both, that compensation and balance was pitted against waste: Wordsworth wondering whether what seemed to be wasted was really so, whether there was something beyond seeming that could defy waste, and that could be recuperated or disclosed by poetry; Tennyson wondering whether the inevitable waste entailed by change might be the occasion for order and aesthetic permanence, and balking too at the prospect of formal stasis, so that form becomes an opportunity for variation and modification, and only a gestural permanence or provisional order.
It seems right then to suppose that Keats too asks that poetry become a part of the world and hardly any stretch to say that he sets his poetry against waste. But in what respect? We might be led by the suggestive phrasing of the near-forgotten critic John Jones, that Keats excels at “end-stopped feeling,” or in other words, that Keats’ poetry goes no further than imagining the feel of feeling, and investing feeling alone with the fullest significance that it could possess, accommodating the full range of tactility and affect at once. Keats’ fascination with the ailing knight of “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” then is his fascination with one who is wasted by the experience of having richly, sensually (and sexually) felt; that it was the Belle Dame he felt is irrelevant compared to his having been “in thrall.”
His poem is animated by an un-ease with feeling: feeling that wastes in its ripening. And for Keats the means by which poetry might add to the world and so prevent or recover the waste is by imagining and bodying forth feeling without consummation: end-stopped and rich in potential and dimension. It is an imaginative act that judges skeptically the consequence of what feeling might entail, while nonetheless divining in feeling itself a ground and resource of intrinsic worth.