Unintelligent Design: Keats, Natural Religion, and Reproduction

William Paley’s Natural Theology (1802) was a profoundly influential distillation of what was then known as the argument from design, and is now called intelligent design. Observing a profoundly functional world around him, Paley claimed that “in the properties of relation to a purpose, subserviency to an use, [the works of nature] resemble what intelligence and design are constantly producing, and what nothing except intelligence and design ever produce” (216). Paley’s God is a master tinkerer, less omnipotent immensity than systematic, clever craftsman. Everywhere he turns his argumentative lens (the eye, after all, being Paley’s chief example), he finds a natural world that works. Functionality proves design, design indexes a designer, and a designer must design consciously, with specific ends in mind. The divine idea is realized in the created world through the careful accretion of contrivance. This is Paley’s word: God as the great contriver, with an exquisite design sensibility. Final cause predominates, as everything is shaped by divine purpose toward its end.

This tinkerer patriarch is a perfect fit for an Anglican bureaucracy preoccupied not with inspiration, a sign of dangerous enthusiasm, but with practical business of governance, as Colin Jager argues in The Book of God. Natural Theology implies a politics and an ethics of making, well-tailored to eighteenth-century aesthetics: decorum, fitness, balance, and propriety, wrought by clear, purposive authorial intent. What interests me about Paley’s argument is its twinned emphasis on the creation’s refined purpose and meticulous craft. I want to think about Keats’s Endymion as a response to this vision of creation, as an experiment in creation devoid of teleology, produced rather by a material cause (the Endymion myth) and a formal cause (“I must make 4000 lines of one bare circumstance and fill them with Poetry,” set in couplets [42]). Negative capability, the recuperation of indolence—these might be seen as elaborations of Endymion’s sense of creation through minimally-directed receptivity, creation severed from intention.
Endymion imagines a world of endless repetition and sideways progression, without aim or teleology beyond its own continuation. This bare circumstance’s container is so outsized that the narrative is forced to repeatedly postpone, staving off the foregone conclusion of the plot until four books of poetry are filled. The most baroque contrivance of deferral comes in the fourth book, where Endymion and the Indian maid fly up into the heavens on winged horses to be married. The deity Sleep, meanwhile, has been dreaming of said wedding, and upon waking, he too flies toward heaven to make his appearance. In the process, he overtakes the couple and knocks them unconscious, suspending the very event he had foreseen. With nowhere else to turn, the narrative circles backward, a steadily tightening loop that distends toward the goal of four thousand lines by eating itself.
This anti-teleological impulse at the narrative level recurs in the poem’s metrical transgressions, which provoke its well-documented reception. (To recognize just one shining example, see William Keach’s chapter on Keats in Arbitrary Power.) What interests me about the poem’s reception is how its narrative and metrical deviations were processed through the metaphor of sexual failure sexual failure. Queer theory has taught us to see sexual and social reproduction as strands in a complex of teleologies—what Lee Edelman’s bracing polemic termed reproductive futurism. I want to suggest that a version of this reproductive logic crystallizes in the reception to Endymion. In the previous year’s Biographia Literaria, Coleridge had deemed the “voluntary appropriation of fixed symbols to internal acts, to processes and results of imagination” the “best part of human language” (7:54). Meter was to be organized “by a supervening act of the will and judgment,” and as such, “traces of present volition” should be “discernible” throughout (7:66). Measured against this standard, Keats seemed pliant and passive before his own material. This lack of control was profoundly classed, as in Byron’s objection to the poetry of the Hunt circle: “You see the man of education, the gentleman, and the scholar, sporting with his subject,—its master, not its slave” (Keats Critical Heritage 130). And this master and slave business was deeply sexualized, as implied in John Wilson Croker’s complaint that Endymion was essentially authorless, “composed of hemistitchs which, it is quite evident, have forced themselves upon the author by the mere force of the catchwords on which they turn” (206). Keats, it seems, can only manage a curtailed half-line at a time, and worse, he can’t even claim responsibility for these diminutive discharges. They’re forced upon him by the mere force of his catchwords.
The upshot is that the passivity of Keats and his Endymion is figured in terms of reproductive aberration. Lack of conscious control over the meter is emblematic of, or simply is, procreative failure. This failure could scan in two directions: while the Tory reviews mocked Keats for his effeminate submission to language, they were equally content to charge that he was brutishly taking liberties. Leigh Hunt, though of course no Tory, saw Keats as the tyrant and Endymion’s verse as the victim: “Mr. Keats, in the tyranny of his wealth, forced his rhymes to help whether they would or not: and they obeyed him, in the most singular manner, with equal promptitude and ungainliness” (253). This vision of Keats as brutal tyrant didn’t stop Hunt from suggesting in the same breath that his “tendency to pleasure… sometimes degenerat[es]… into a poetical effeminacy”—excepting only the appropriately phallic “gigantic grandeur” of his Hyperion (ibid.). For Byron and for the Tory reviews, Keats was at once incontinent and sterile, profuse and devoid of sense. The Quarterly thus saw an overzealous, premature attempt to assume the mantle of the poet by, in the words of Blackwood’s, a “boy with pretty abilities,” who wasn’t ready to woo, and certainly wasn’t ready to woo the muse.
When “Z” notoriously placed Keats among a rash of scribbling “superannuated governess[es],” “farm-servants, and unmarried ladies,” he not only mocked pretensions to authorship along class lines, but also set Keats among variously unmarried and unmarriageable types—those who are childless or shut out of sanctioned procreation (519). Croker too picks up on the reproductive motif, accusing Keats of propagating a degenerate language “with great fecundity.” We’re told Keats “spawns” verbs from nouns and nouns from verbs. Keats births new verbs by “cutting off their natural tails” and “affixing them to their foreheads”—i.e. “up-followed,” “up-blows,” “down-sunken.” And yet, “if he sinks some adverbs in the verbs he compensates the language with adverbs and adjectives which he separates from the parent stock” (207). Endymion is written in a mongrel diction, an English forced to generate grammatically alien offspring, shifted from their native part of speech toward foreign significations. Such unnatural hybrids overwhelm what Croker calls “our English heroic metre,” threatening national coherence in addition to good taste (ibid.). What emerges here is a sense of poetry as patrimony. Keats can’t continue the line of English poetry. He leaks sterile dribble, or effuses monstrous grotesqueries.
Endymion, however, anticipates and directly thematizes this procreative undercurrent pervading the criticism. Endymion’s early conversation with his sensible sister Peona is a case in point. When she tries to shake him out of his melancholic reverie, he explains that a goddess has visited his dreams, and (essentially), he intends to spend his time daydreaming henceforth. Peona tries to shame him back into his patrimony by imagining what will be said of him if he doesn’t stop pining: though he “should pass / Most like a soujourning demi-god,” he risks becoming a mere cautionary tale, unmanned into “simple maidenhood” by unrequited love, only to be killed by a “sprig of yew tree” dropped in his path by a “ring-dove” (apparently he trips?). Thus “the ballad of his sad life closes” (1.724-735.). Endymion’s dreams threaten to feminize him into abject vulnerability that speeds directly toward pathetic death. The remedy Peona prescribes is a regular dose of manly hunting and trumpeting. He needs to stop dreaming: how could he

sully the entrusted gem
Of high and noble life with thoughts so sick?
Why pierce high-fronted honour to the quick
For nothing but a dream? (1.757-60)

This commitment to dreams becomes a sexual threat (sullying and sickening and piercing) to the “high-fronted honour” of his ancestry. In short, Peona’s hard line between dream and reality is buttressed by a logic of sexual mastery and violence, reified into an identity grounded in the bequeathing of the name. To refuse patrimony for the dream world is to wilt into a girlish death, violating a great legacy. “[M]elting into [love’s] radiance”, as Endymion desires, means melting out of social and biological reproduction. And this is precisely what Endymion chooses—the only true choice he makes.
When Endymion undergoes his apotheosis at the poem’s end, his divinity is not that of a Burkean sublime creator or a Paleyan master craftsman, but a dreamer whose creates by irregular accident. He dreams his way to heaven. Endymion, with its passive hero and verse, driven, as Keach writes, by “arbitrary phonetic and semantic convergences,” is Keats’s unnatural theology, as near as he could manage to the work of an unintending creator (54).
Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. Collected Works. Ed. Kathleen Coburn. 16 vols. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1971-2002.
[Croker, John Wilson]. “Review of Keats’s Endymion.” Quarterly Review 19 (April 1818): 204-208.
Edelman, Lee. No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive. Durham: Duke UP, 2004.
Hunt, Leigh. Imagination and Fancy; Or Selections from the English Poets. London: Smith, Elder, 1844.
Jager, Colin. The Book of God: Secularization and Desgin in the Romantic Era. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006.
Keach, William. Arbitrary Power: Romanticism, Language, Politics. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2004.
Keats, John. The Letters of John Keats, 1814-1818. Ed. Hyder Edward Rollins. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2011.
—. The Poems of John Keats. Ed. Jack Stillinger. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1978.
Matthews, G. M., Ed. Keats: The Critical Heritage. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1971.
Paley, William. Natural Theology. Eds. Matthew D. Eddy and David Knight. New York: Oxford UP, 2006.
Z [John Gibson Lockhart]. “COCKNEY SCHOOL OF POETRY.” Blackwood’s Edinburgh magazine 3.17 (1818): 519-24.