Let there be no more talk of major and minor. We have had enough of the Great in the Great Odes. Ours is a Naughty Keats. How many more articles must we read on the importance and significance of Great Keats? The whole of the critical tradition on Beautiful Keats can be reduced to this brilliant insight, “He is with Shakespeare.” Very well, we understand. Now we ask that not one sentence of criticism be written on the Odes or the Hyperions or “this living hand” for at least half a century. We must forget Tragic Keats long enough to get to know Keats, the Scribbler. Ours is a Playful Keats. As critics, let us learn from the poet and read his work in the spirit of Outlawry. Our research question—how two or three dove’s eggs can hatch into sonnets.

The above piece was written by an idealistic graduate student with hopes of rescuing John Keats from the gentle embraces of the Cult of the Beautiful. At least that is the persona and attitude I adopted when writing it as part of a collaborative manifesto, nothing more than an exercise by a group of PhD students who also happened to write poetry. What I learned from writing my manifiestito is that I’m just not cut out to write in the polemical mode. Rereading it I feel not a little embarrassed. Fortunately for me, the manifesto never manifested.
What concerned me then and continues to concern me is our investment in the “sublime tragedy” of Keats’s life. In the narrative we construct of his poetic development, the poetical is conflated into the biographical. Jack Stillinger—in the Introduction to what has become the standard edition of Keats’s poems—rehearses this narrative: “Keats at one time quietly predicted that he would, after his death, be ‘among the English Poets.’ This edition, as a complete poetical works in chronological order, allows the reader to follow his poem-by-poem progress toward that end.” Keats is in a race to reach his end, or goal, of achieving poetic masterpieces before he reaches the end of his life. Elizabeth Cook, the editor of the Oxford John Keats, which is also ordered biographically, not only shares in the narrative but also expresses it in an even more striking manner: “It is as if his cells had intimation of the tuberculosis that was to kill him and his whole organism accelerated its work in response.” This narrative reduces Keats to the “Great Odes.”
I thought that one way to counteract this reduction would be to focus attention on those poems that do not fit into the narrative of Keats’s poetic development, which has a whole lot to do with the supposed maturity of the ode sequence. I principally had the following poem in mind.
There was a naughty boy,
A naughty boy was he,
He would not stop at home,
He could not quiet be-
He took
In his knapsack
A book
Full of vowels
And a shirt
With some towels,
A slight cap
For night cap,
A hair brush,
Comb ditto,
New stockings
For old ones
Would split O!
This knapsack
Tight at's back
He rivetted close
And followed his nose
To the north,
To the north,
And follow'd his nose
To the north.
There was a naughty boy
And a naughty boy was he,
For nothing would he do
But scribble poetry-
He took
An ink stand
In his hand
And a pen
Big as ten
In the other,
And away
In a pother
He ran
And fountains
And ghostes
And postes
And witches
And ditches
And wrote
In his coat
When the weather
Was cool,
Fear of gout,
And without
When the weather
Was warm-
Och the charm
When we choose
To follow one's nose
To the north,
To the north,
To follow one's nose
To the north!
There was a naughty boy
And a naughty boy was he,
He kept little fishes
In washing tubs three
In spite
Of the might
Of the maid
Nor afraid
Of his Granny-good-
He often would
Hurly burly
Get up early
And go
By hook or crook
To the brook
And bring home
Miller's thumb,
Not over fat,
Minnows small
As the stall
Of a glove,
Not above
The size
Of a nice
Little baby's
Little fingers-
O he made
'Twas his trade
Of fish a pretty kettle
A kettle-
A kettle
Of fish a pretty kettle
A kettle!
There was a naughty boy,
And a naughty boy was he,
He ran away to Scotland
The people for to see-
There he found
That the ground
Was as hard,
That a yard
Was as long,
That a song
Was as merry,
That a cherry
Was as red,
That lead
Was as weighty,
That fourscore
Was as eighty,
That a door
Was as wooden
As in England-
So he stood in his shoes
And he wonder'd,
He wonder'd,
He stood in his
Shoes and he wonder'd.
Keats refers to this poem as a “song about myself.” (Sort of like Whitman if Whitman had the ability not to take himself so seriously.) Keats’s self-caricaturizing gesture presents his playful engagement with the anxiety over being “among the English poets.” The naughty boy doesn’t write masterpieces; he scribbles. The naughty boy’s knapsack carries a book full not of poetry but of vowels. Even the naught in “naughty boy” seems to make a caricature of the "poetical character" as described by Keats: “it is not itself—it has no self—it is everything and nothing—It has no character—it enjoys light and shade.” Keats’s japing of his own aspirations is most apparent in the image of “a pen as big as ten.” And this is the image that illustrator Ezra Jack Keats captures so magnificently on the cover of the children’s book, The Naughty Boy: A Poem by John Keats.

Originally Published: September 15th, 2008

Javier O. Huerta's debut collection Some Clarifications y otros poemas (Arte Publico 2007) received the 31st Chicano/Latino Literary Prize from UC Irvine. He is also the author of American Copia (2012). A graduate of the Bilingual MFA Program at UT El Paso, Huerta is currently a PhD student in the...

  1. September 15, 2008
     Don Share

    Here's another poem of his that goes with the naughty boy poem & deflates the "greatest hit" mentality a bit:
    To Mrs. Reynold's Cat
    Cat! who hast past thy grand climacteric,
    How many mice and rats hast in thy days
    Destroy'd?--how many tit bits stolen? Gaze
    With those bright languid segments green and prick
    Those velvet ears--but pr'ythee do not stick
    Thy latent talons in me--and upraise
    Thy gentle mew--and tell me all thy frays
    Of fish and mice, and rats and tender chick.
    Nay, look not down, nor lick thy dainty wrists--
    For all the wheezy asthma,--and for all
    Thy tail's tip is nicked off--and though the fists
    Of many a maid have given thee many a maul,
    Still is that fur as soft as when the lists
    In youth thou enter'dst on glass-bottled wall.

  2. September 15, 2008
     Michael Theune

    The naughty Keats is a Keats who is exists in the criticism. Perhaps the most significant critical work on naughty Keats is Richard Marggraf Turley's Keats's Boyish Imagination (London: Routledge, 2004). This great book is paradigm-shifting. According to Turley, "One of [his] aims in Keats's Boyish Imagination is to investigate the ways in which Keats deployed juvenility as a system of interruptions, challenging the mature force of established power over a range of aesthetic and political terrain" (1). And Turley delivers. I especially love his chapter, "Japing the Sublime: Immature Aesthetics." In this chapter, Turley argues that Keats, when taking the walking tour through the Lake District and Scotland that was supposed to mature him and help him to write like Wordsworth, actually refuses to take the sublime seriously--according to Turley, "Keats started to realize--to have proved on his pulses--that ways of seeing landscape drew equally on an elite theory of the picturesque and a profoundly undemocratic model of political governance" (74). Keats's solution: make fun of it all; get Bakhtinian/Rabelaisian on its ass. It is, in fact, during this walking tour that Keats writes his naughty boy poem, "A Song about Myself," just a taste of what Turley calls "the smutty and pointedly juvenile doggerel inspired by irksome gadflies and lascivious mountains" (74). Happy reading!

  3. September 16, 2008

    Thanks for mentioning Turley's book.
    Here's another quote from Turley: “the new accentuation on people rather than scenery is equally apparent in Keats’s next letter to Tom, written 3-9 July, which dispenses with the sublime in a single, devastatingly cool sentence: 'Yesterday Morning we set out from Glenluce going some distance round to see some Ruins–they were scarcely worth the while.’”
    I've always thought Turley overplays his hand in that book. Can you really make that much out of a poem whose intended audience was Keats's younger sister? I don't think the target of "The Naughty Boy" is the eltie sublime but Keats's own aspirations of reaching that sublime.
    My point is that I wished Keats's critics would learn from the poet himself and from time to time not take him and his work so seriously. The "song about myself" is not meant to be contemplated but enjoyed.
    By placing all those political implications on it, Turley goes against the juvenile spirit of the poem, a spirit which I think Ezra Jack Keats captures brilliantly throughout his adaptation.
    One more point of disagreement with Turley. In the first chapter, he writes “There are more feet in Keats’s poetry than might be supposed–and by feet, I am referring to those found on the end of legs, not the metrical variety.” Perhaps there are poets somewhere who are above punning on "feet"; Keats, I am certain, is not one of them.

  4. September 16, 2008
     Michael Theune

    You're certainly right that not TOO much should be made of Keats's "A Song about Myself," which is, as you note, largely a bit of play for his sister. However, it should be noted that that one poem is but one bit of evidence that Marggraf Turley (just looked up his info, and it seems that these two names make up his surname...apologies to any and all for this...) summons to make his case about Keats's writing and thinking during what was supposed to be his maturing northern tour.
    For my money, one of the great bits of writing that Keats composes during this tour (and one that is cited by Marggraf Turley) is the letter he writes on 6 August 1818 to Mrs. James Wylie. This letter opens with Keats trying unsuccessfully to comfort Mrs. Wylie--her daughter, Georgiana Keats, recently has moved with her husband, John's brother George, to America. Keats writes, "I wish above all things, to say a word of Comfort to you, but I know not how. It is impossible to prove that black is white, It is impossible to make out, that sorrow is joy or joy sorrow---"
    Then jumps in naughty Keats, who tells some lovely, inventive stories about his adventures. In effect, Keats knows there is no comfort to be had, and so he tries, with naughtiness and silliness and hilarity and verbal pratfalls, to tease Mrs. Wylie out of thought.
    This is a truly great letter by Keats, but one not read often enough. However, I think more will be turned on to it as the naughty Keats becomes better known.
    Thanks for the energizing post, Javier! And for helping to bringing Keats's delightful (and meaningful, I think) naughtiness further into the light--