John Keats and the 'gradation principle': desire and pleasure in the letters and poems, 1816-21

Sharma, Rahul (2008) John Keats and the 'gradation principle': desire and pleasure in the letters and poems, 1816-21. (MA(R) thesis), Kingston University, .


This dissertation uses a psychoanalytic methodology to examine the representation of pleasure and desire in Keats's letters and poems. It argues that in his letters Keats shows a personal desire for high levels of happiness, and that in his poems Keats transfers this desire for high happiness onto his poetic characters. This argument is based on the proposition that in his letters Keats measures the value of his experiences in degrees of happiness. As a result, Keats and his poetic characters seek to experience high levels of happiness either through an appreciation of the absolute or through the use of the imagination. In “To John Taylor, 30 January 1818”, for example, Keats uses a “Pleasure Thermometer” to conclude that, to him, ‘Endymion’ was a source of pleasure when he had finished writing it because as he had finished writing it he had at that moment experienced a high degree of happiness. Keats is often in search of such high happiness in letters such as “To George and Georgina Keats, 1818-19”. Likewise, Keats's poetic characters display a strong desire for high happiness in poems such as “The Eve of St Agnes” (I819), “Isabella” (I818) and “To Psyche” (1819). To this end, this dissertation concludes that the representation of desire and pleasure in Keats's writings can be explained using what I call “the gradation principle”. This principle, based in psychoanalytic theory, is derived from Keats's letters, and it suggests that pleasure ultimately comes from the experience of high happiness and not from the avoidance of extreme pain. In this dissertation it is compared with Freud's “reality principle” to demonstrate that in Keats's letters and poems all human actions are a response to a fundamental desire for high degrees of happiness.

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