Tiptoeing through Keats: Teaching Queer Ecology in the Anthropocene

Colin Carman (Colorado Mesa University)

“Nature” (One More Time)

Nature has no outline.
—Blake, The Ghost of Abel

Close attention to the poetical works of John Keats and the dually queer and ecological dependencies evident in these works can facilitate ways of interrogating nature (and the end of nature) in the college classroom. For instance, students and I might ask, what commonalities do queer people and the natural world share beyond their innate diversity—or what Burke called the “infinite variety of forms” locatable in the beauty of flowers—and the fact that their rights are continually under siege (86)? Provided your students have already read Blake, and Burke, my epigraph is a strong starting point because it propounds a view of nature that is blurry at best. Without an outline, “nature” exists in a state of a priori indeterminacy, awaiting the ordering instincts of the human. Any classroom discussion of a queer ecological perspective—its origins, its outlines, its objectives in the ecocidal and homophobic world we inhabit in the Anthropocene—should start precisely there, with nature’s lack of a rigid outline because nature and sexuality, especially queer sexuality and identity, have a certain open-endedness in common. The “Q” in LGBTQ politics (and studies) has, for now, put a provisional period after the four-part acronym that precedes it, but who really knows where it will find its terminus? The etymology of “queer,” after all, can be traced to the word “-twerkw,” or “across,” in its Indo-European root, so, in terms of queerness (where it starts and where it stops), it’s unrestricted. BLTGQ—it’s amusing to rearrange the letters as one might turn a Rubik’s Cube—slips out of our hands every time, and like the old word “nature,” the new word “LGBTQ” (as a critical discourse and as way of identifying oneself and others) is as intersectional as it is infinite.

Whenever I encounter a wiggly word like “nature,” one that wears a thick patina of strange familiarity, I ask students to assist me in better breaking down that word and its various meanings for the Romantics and their predecessors. You might invite your students to list, or even cluster-diagram, its multiple meanings or ask whether a univocal “nature” is even necessary. In 2006, Scott Hess began his invaluable handbook for teaching Romanticism vis-à-vis ecology in Romantic Circles with Raymond Williams’ definition of nature as an entry point though his purview was confined to Clare and to the Wordsworths. A lot has changed in 11 years, and living in the new geological epoch known as the Anthropocene (coined, in 2000, by the atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen) means that the human impact on the earth is already a deep and damaging one. The environmental and evolutionary impacts of mass extinction are unknowable. As a newsy neologism, “Anthropocene” has belatedly gone mainstream, appearing in The New York Times Magazine in February of 2017 under the bold-print heading, “Only Human,” and in the London Review of Books the term was described as having a “luscious mouth-feel” and as seeming “just the thing to bring new urgency and direction to all the tired old arguments about climate change, resource depletion, the future of the planet” (Turner 23). Tired? Old? Never has the future of Planet Earth been treated so dismissively. It’s useful, then, to present your class with other instances of the Anthropocene in the headlines. Citing what he calls the “ephemera” of the daily news—permafrost melting, the Exxon Mobil chairman appointed as Secretary of State, America’s withdrawal from the Paris climate accord—Wesley Yang, in the Times, writes: “Our inability to connect the day’s ephemera with the geological time scale has summoned a striking neologism,” namely “the Anthropocene, or the ‘Age of Man’” (9).

Ecological approaches to Romantic-age literature have never been more urgent, but how do you teach the Age of Man and its congruence with the Age of the Straight Man in relation to English Romantic literature, or, put another way, how do you teach queer ecological practices in the classroom when time is running out? Presenting your students with the aforesaid articles, culled from the popular press, can potentially open a dialogue about living in and, more importantly, surviving the Anthropocene. One more way into this pressing question can be found in Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life (2016) by Edward O. Wilson in which he postulates the following thought experiment:‘Suppose that in the far-distant future geologists were to dig through Earth’s crusted deposits to the strata spanning the past thousand years of our time. There they would encounter sharply defined layers of chemically altered soil. They would recognize the physical and chemical signatures of rapid climate changes. They would uncover abundant fossil remains of domesticated plants and animals that had replaced, suddenly and globally, most of Earth’s prehuman fauna and flora. They would excavate fragments of machines, and a veritable museum of deadly weapons. (9)’ This is a probing passage, not the least because it stridently asserts that the earth is not ours and that Homo sapiens is a guest here with an unknown check-out time. Is it already too late to employ questions of the environment, and its potential end, to the critical learning environment that is the college classroom? An article by Ron Wagler in The American Biology Teacher appears to have beaten us “nonscience” humanities folks to the punch; Wagler explains the major effects of diminishing global biodiversity, including habitat destruction, pollution, and climate change, but reminds us that education, while not exactly the silver bullet, is an important start. He claims: “one component of possibly reducing the rising anthropogenic affects [sic] associated with the current Anthropocene mass extinction is education” (80). To that end, one way to connect the Epoch of Man with the Epoch of the Straight Man is to ask students to “dig through” the deposits leading to the sedimentation of heterosexuality as “natural.” How, for example, does Foucault imply a depth model when he famously claims that the homosexual was invented in fin-de-siècle Anglo-American culture? Ken Bain, in What the Best College Teachers Do, contends that queries like “What’s the next question?” and “What can we ask now?” propel any discussion forward (103). The next questions, in this context, seem to be: How can we queer the Anthropocene? How does the threat of mass extinction assume that humanity is uniformly reproductive and leave out the role of LGBTQ people in preserving a natural world that they have not necessarily replenished with new life-forms but are no less dedicated to preserving? The readiness of Romanticism is all; woven into the poetical works of Keats, discussed below, is the embeddedness of erotic life in our natural world. How does the interconnectedness (a hallmark of ecological science) of straight and queer life-forms affect our conceptions of a monolithic “Man” that may or may not be reaching its finitude? With the advent of more socially liberal-minded approaches to human health and sexuality, we are beginning to see the permeability of the borders between different sexual orientations and practices.

Before answering that crucial question and providing what I have found to be a few successful approaches, I want to return one more time to the lexical locale where Hess began back in 2006—that is, with Raymond Williams’s 1976 outline of nature’s various meanings, which has endured for good reason. Calling nature “perhaps the most complex word in the language,” Williams added the following on the word’s etymology: “The relevant L[atin] phrase for the developed meanings is natura rerum—the nature of things, which already in some L[atin] uses was shortened to natura—the constitution of the world” (219). Its first two meanings can denote (1) an external nonhuman entity (e.g. “wild nature” or “nature-lover”) but also (2) a directional force with agentic power, as in “Let nature run its course,” a “law of nature,” or, closer to home, the Wordsworthian injunction, “Let Nature be your teacher” (whereby the poet operates as a substitute teacher). Students will more readily recall the caveat of Dr. Ian Malcom in Spielberg’s Jurassic Park (1993) who challenges the park’s creator by refuting the idea that bringing condors back from the brink of extinction is different than resurrecting the thoroughly extinct Tyrannosaurus rex: “Dinosaurs had their shot and nature selected them for extinction . . . what you call discovery, I call the rape of the natural world.” Unlike the T-Rex, Homo sapiens may become the only species in history who consciously willed its own extinction.

A third but by no means final meaning of “nature” refers to someone or something’s essence.

Often the meanings of “nature” are interassimilated in themselves. A clear proof of this lies in the queerest of Shakespeare’s sonnets, Sonnet 20, which begins “A woman’s face, with Nature’s own hand painted, / Hast thou, the master mistress of my passion” (1–2). Here nature possesses the agency of a painter, but the line’s meaning is also blurry, for it’s this pretty face’s lack of cosmetic that makes it “naturally” beautiful.

A clear proof of this can be found in the spirited debate between Anne Elliot and Captain Harville over the “nature” of a man’s affection (versus a woman’s) in Jane Austen’s Persuasion (1817); Harville asserts that “if the change be not from outward circumstances, it must be from within; it must be nature, man’s nature,” to which Elliot replies: “No, no, it is not man’s nature” (242). But those are only its pedestrian and depoliticized usages; once the binarism of “natural” versus “unnatural” makes its discursive entry, “nature” becomes a polarizing term.

For Romantic-era judgment premised on the binarism of natural versus unnatural, see Austen’s Persuasion and her subtle abjuration of her heroine Anne Elliot’s development: “She had been forced into prudence in her youth, she learned romance as she grew older—the natural sequel of an unnatural beginning” (69).

Surely we can all agree that Wordsworth died of natural causes at the ripe old age of 80, while the same cannot be said about Austen (aged 41), Wollstonecraft (38), Shelley (29), or Polidori and Keats (both 25). Within a few weeks of teaching Romanticism, you should have enough references to “nature” to point out these multifarious meanings to spur a spirited discussion. Even thornier is the painfully reductive and false dilemma known as “nature versus nurture,” as it relates to sexuality, which, more than a century ago, Freud claimed was not complex enough to “cover all the issues” involved in sexual matters, especially the cause of “inversion” and all “its varieties” of sexual behavior (6–7). More recently Timothy Morton has observed that disability studies and queer theory have a vested interest in contesting the “idea of natural and unnatural altogether” (700).

What are the benefits of a queer ecological standpoint in the Age of Man, and how, as a discussion leader, can you ascertain how the Romantics wade into this double threat to political justice and futurity? First, queer ecology rejects any conception of a transcendental and ahistorical nature and insists we fully feel the earth and our proximity to other living things. Following Morton, Christopher Schmidt (2012) comments that by dispensing with the nature/culture division, which only facilitates the othering of nature as “over there” and thereby easier to exploit, “queer nature is thus one possible avenue for looking at . . . environmental problems differently” and for rejecting the fantasy of a “transcendent nature” (73–74). Queer ecology forces teachers and students alike to confront the queerness within; nonbinary identities and practices are, after all, only natural. Consider the fact that, in 2017, a female zebra shark in an Australian aquarium gave birth three years after she had last seen her sexual mate. Biologists say this is evidence of a vertebrate swapping its sexuality from sexual to asexual reproduction (known as parthenogenesis) due to captivity. The shark, whose name is Leonie, lived with its partner for six years but only after it was moved to a separate tank did it lay eggs. This unusual fact prompted one reporter to query: “Are the guys really obsolete” (Cummins)? Such a question cannot be answered here but it does support what Morton, the unofficial father of queer ecology, wrote in the PMLA in 2010 when he first outlined the concept of queer ecology: “Biodiversity and gender diversity are deeply intertwined . . . cells reproduce asexually, like their single-celled ancestors and the blastocyst attached to the uterus wall at the start of pregnancy” (276). If you wish to teach queer ecology, Morton’s inaugural essay is another useful starting point, and in Morton’s wide-ranging style, it includes Carolyn Merchant’s The Death of Nature and Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild. So, too, is Stacy Alaimo’s “Eluding Capture: The Science, Culture, and Pleasure of ‘Queer Animals,’” which considers the infamous kink of bonobos, the all-male families of the flightless bird known as the Greater Rhea, the more than 28,000 sexes of mushrooms, and identifies what Alaimo calls the “queer, green, place, in which pleasure, desire, and the proliferation of differing lifeworlds provoke intense, ethical, reactions” (67). I will try to deploy the Mortonesque style here as well, which, at the risk of seeming scattershot, casts the critical net wide in the hopes of providing my colleagues with a myriad of texts with which they can cultivate their own pedagogic gardens.

In the meantime, I promise not to wander but to patiently stay in one place, and to focus on the practice of tiptoeing in Keats’s poetical works with the aim of revealing the queerly ecological implications of treading lightly across the earth. Whoever or whatever she is, Keats’s femme fatale Lamia is a tiptoer: “She rose / Tiptoe with white arms spread” (l.287). Rose-like, Lamia opens her arms and embraces an earth of which she is and is not a natural part. Regardless, her human lover Lycius sees Lamia’s ability to tiptoe, arms spread, as an “amorous promise” and, in what follows, the act of tiptoeing as an affective embrace, of nature and of queerness, will become increasingly clear (287–90). Centering on one lyric in particular, “I stood tip-toe upon a little hill” (1816), I will demonstrate how Keatsian tiptoeing can direct a classroom discussion about nature, nonnormative sexuality, and what their important overlap means to teaching Romanticism in the Anthropocene. The act of tiptoeing in the works of Keats is a green and pink practice insofar as it effaces man’s footsteps altogether. Both “footstep” and “animal track” are derived from the Latin vestigium (from which we derive “vestige”). In what follows, I will outline not nature, which invariably wiggles out of a very human effort to objectify it as a “thing”—pinned and wriggling on the wall, in the parlance of T. S. Eliot—but will instead outline the ways in which queer ecology can be articulated in the classroom.

“Nature’s Gentle Doings”

Tip-toe through the tulips with me
By the window, that is where I’ll be.
—Al Dubin and Joe Burke, “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” (1929)

Biographical approaches to the Romantic poets never fails to hold students’ attention, and the fact that Keats’s letters both clarify and obfuscate his poetical works is scarcely in doubt. A mixture of Keats’s letters and a few clips of your choosing from Jane Campion’s 2009 biopic, Bright Star, help to bring the author to life. From a queer point of view, his letter to his younger brother George and sister-in-law Georgiana, written in the fall of 1819, is a jaw-dropper. Presented to students as a window into Keats’s conceptions of gender, his letter is not as intensely gynophobic as his anxious outpouring to Benjamin Bailey (penned the previous summer) in which he decries the great gulf between the sexual fantasies he had as a schoolboy and the “reality” of being in a “Lady’s Company” as a grown man (264). This is the letter (frequently anthologized) wherein Keats confesses that, amongst men, he harbors “no evil thoughts, no malice, no spleen,” whereas, in the company of women, he feels those very emotions and is in a “hurry to be gone” (265). Keats was at his most prodigious during the summer of 1818 when, in a long line of close male friendships, his friendship with John Hamilton Reynolds was as close as could be, and the poets walked on Hampstead Heath and recited poetry to each other. Prompted by his brother’s recent marriage and impending emigration to America, Keats shows enough self-awareness in his letter to Bailey that he apologizes for giving voice to such “perversity” (265). By no means gone for good, such perverse feelings resurfaced in the fall of 1819 when he addressed George directly in letter form and again praised the positive effects of living in homosocial confines wherein men can “interassimulate” with each other (265). Here Keats confesses to feeling lonely and “altered” due to his brother’s absence and credits the act of letter writing as a way of assuaging that pain:‘This is the reason why men who had been bosom friends, on being separate for any number of years, afterwards meet coldly, neither of them knowing why—The fact is they are both altered—Men who live together have a silent moulding and influencing power over each other—They interassimulate. ‘T is an uneasy thought. (369)’ Keats’s conception of masculine interassimilation is a radical development of Wordsworth’s word choice in “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey” —“interfused” (l.97)—and with a cheeky pun on intercourse per anum—it’s self-consciously queer in its embrace of same-sex domesticity and the “moulding” influence, or persuasiveness, men exert over each other when they cohabitate. As for their not “knowing why,” there is a clear self-deception at work, resulting in the coldness Keats attributes to masculine friendships. In The Keats Brothers, biographer Denise Gigante comments that, in the context of the sonnet “To My Brother George,” John’s writings for George register the “deep need for human connection that the fraternal bond fulfilled,” and that whenever George was far from John, the poet “discovered thoughts and feelings inside himself that he might not otherwise have known” (14). Rachel Schulkins, in Keats, Modesty and Masturbation, goes further by identifying the poet’s “outbursts against the opposite sex” as proof not just of his “conflicted feelings towards women” but of his “misogynistic tendencies” (9). Perhaps this accounts for why his admission that he prefers the company of men over that of women to George ends in the very same way his outpouring to Bailey does, that is, with anxiety (i.e., “uneasy thought” and disappointment in himself as a man). Albeit essentializing, I sometimes ask my classes: Women in the room, how does this text make you uneasy? And, for the men, what strikes you as out of the ordinary here, and why?

I have had success in the classroom by using three poems, of increasing length, by Keats to demonstrate his queer kind of interassimilating with other humans and with nature. The first is his sonnet “On the Grasshopper and Cricket” (1816), which is hardly queer, unless you admit the presence of animal jouissance in the insatiate grasshopper—“never done / With his delights” (l.6–7)—though it is ecologically minded inasmuch as it depicts a zombified earth that is “never dead” (1). What the Shelleyist William A. Ulmer once identified as the “hydrogen cycle” at work in Adonais (1821) can also be located in Keats’s first quatrain: to avoid a “hot sun,” birds hide in “cooling trees,” which implies a leafy sort of shade but the potential aftereffects of rain, now a mist (216). Either way, the birds are, in the parlance of “To Autumn,” the “close bosom-friend[s] of the maturing sun” (l.2), and the union of the eponymous season with the sun, as Helen Vendler has recently noted, is a procreative one, since it “makes her bear fruit” (259). The bosom-friends in this earlier sonnet are the eponymous insect organisms and, implicitly, the poet himself who translates their unintelligible voices into a single discrete poetic form: the sonnet. The “new-mown mead,” wherein the poem takes place, features a variety of vegetation (trees, hedges, weeds, and grass upon the hillside) and the salient seasonality at work in the poem (moving from “summer luxury” to “winter evening”) reinforces the living cycle and Keats’s idea of the sonneteer as nature’s spokesman (4–10). Working in a self-interested mode, then, the poem serves two masters: nature and an Elysium (or paradisiacal afterlife) reserved for England’s finest poets, that “abode,” as Shelley calls it in the final line of Adonais, “where the Eternal are” (l.495). In short, poets are a force for environmental good. Thus the poet cherishes the earth as a living community in the ecological sense, that is, not merely as a gathering of organisms in one place but as the adaptations that diverse species make for each other and for themselves. John Curtis conceived, for example, of any plant community as a “web of species connected by rubber bands” because “if you move the status of one species, it changes the tension of all the other species” (qtd. in Allen and Hoekstra 156–57).

The second of the poems applicable to a queer ecological paradigm is “I Stood Tip-Toe” (completed at the end of 1816 as a precursor to Endymion, which was the title Keats originally assigned to it but later abandoned). Here Keats resists stratification and represents Homo sapiens and nonhuman Nature as inextricably interassimilated. Brimming with bugs (bees and moths), birds (ring-doves and goldfinches), and flower buds (laburnum and marigolds), “I Stood Tip-Toe” includes detailed descriptions of nature’s processes, or what Keats calls “Nature’s gentle doings” (l.63). Building on Alan Bewell’s reading of flowers at the poem’s opening as surrogate women—replete with sensuous curves and diadems—Schulkins has called “I Stood Tip-Toe” a “celebration of nature’s eroticism and its symbiotic relationship, where each natural object benefits from its association with another” (45). The mutually beneficial effects of those associations are integral to Keatsian interassimilation though he uses the word “interchange” in line 85 to mean essentially the same thing but with a queerish twist: nature is imbued with anthropoid feeling, as in “the ripples seem glad right glad to reach those cresses, / And cool themselves among the em’rald tresses” (81–82). What Keats calls “variety” (l.16), ecologists now call biodiversity, and in keeping with the poems outlined here, human eroticism is naturalized as part of a wider erotic force at work in the biosphere. This is especially salient in Endymion, a discussion of which will end this essay and highlight the queerest and most ecologically alert components of Keats’s oeuvre.

Keats’s use of the first-person pronoun to commence his poem—“I stood tip-toe upon a little hill”—effectively establishes the sovereignty of the outward eye throughout the poem (l.1). The human eye is the organ that reigns supreme, which Keats reinforces with scopophilic lines such as “I gazed awhile” and “many pleasures to my vision started” (23–26), and through the imperative: “But turn your eye” (80). Still, if the primary sensory organ that makes “On the Grasshopper” cohere is the human ear, “I Stood Tip-Toe” is organized around the theme of vision and seeing nature not as a lazy onlooker but—to borrow from Seamus Heaney—as an “artful voyeur” (113). “Linger awhile,” writes Keats, “And watch intently Nature’s gentle doings” (l.61–63). Tiptoeing also establishes the human observer’s elevation over the landscape, which is, after all, artificial. Standing on “tippy-toes” is a way, evidenced by the aforementioned line from Lamia, to rise, stretch, and elongate the body. The physicality of standing tippy-toes is erotically charged: in Romeo and Juliet, a frisky Romeo entices his beloved with the line: “Night’s candles are burnt out, and jocund day / Stands tiptoe on the misty mountain tops” (III.iv.9–10).

Assuming the poem’s speaker is Keats himself, why is the act of tiptoeing significant? Famously diminutive in stature, the author may have stood on tiptoe to either appear taller or to see further. Hunt reported that the poem was inspired by a summer afternoon in which Keats stood by a gate that ran from Battery Hill on Hampstead Heath into the ancient woodland known as Caen Wood; whether Keats was tiptoeing at the time is unknown but he did craft a poem in which the human observer derives “pleasure” from this unique way of standing and seeing. Tiptoeing has three additional meanings, however: first, to tiptoe is to stand tall with pride, as in Henry V’s Saint Crispin’s Day speech—“He that outlives this day, and comes safe home, / Will stand a’ tiptoe when this day is named” (IV.iii.41–2). Second, tiptoeing can signify a form of avoidance, as in the idiomatic “walking on eggshells.” Lastly, tiptoeing is synonymous with pussyfooting, that is, to tread lightly or stealthily. For instance, in Godwin’s Caleb Williams, a villainous character named Grimes “advanced on tiptoe with his finger to his lip” (66).

In the second part of the opening couplet, one can hear an echo of “the cooling trees” in “On the Grasshopper,” as in “the air was cooling,” which renders the speaker’s entire body, skin and all, as one giant receiver of nature’s doings (2). It also continues to operationalize the hydrogen cycle insofar as morning dew is personified as the “early sobbing of the morn” (7). It’s worth pointing out the way in which Keats’s analogies collapse different ecotypes: buds are like women, dew is like a teardrop, and clouds are “white as flocks new shorn” (8). This blurring of natural objects seems to be the point, especially after, as in his sonnet on the grasshopper, he ingrains the poet into the landscape. The poem’s second half (lines 107–242) goes further: “Here are sweet peas, on tip-toe for a flight / With wings of gentle flush o’er delicate white, / And taper fingers catching at all things, / To bind them all about with tiny rings” (57–60). The anthropomorphizing cuts both ways, for a tiptoeing nature-lover is like a sweet pea just as a sweet pea has “fingers” like a human. This is a touchy-feeling ecology, a haptic approach to embracing the earth.

The second half of “I Stood Tip-Toe” bears out the well-known lines, spoken by Duke Senior in As You Like It, to “find tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, / Sermons in stones” (II.1.16–17). Yet the logic of “I Stood Tip-Toe” and Endymion is that only the poet possesses the power to divine such natural piety. What binds these two poems together, according to John Barnard, is that only male poetic genius has the power to render the “truths contained in the natural world” apprehensible to readers and to lead the way (53–54). Keats’s queerly ecological mode of leading the way is on tiptoes. Less explicit, however, is an intertext like Shelley’s “On Love” in which he claims that, in the absence of other humans, we “love the flowers, the grass and the waters and sky” (505). In his portrayal of the nature-lover as compensating for the lack of interpersonal sympathy, he adds: “There is eloquence in the tongueless wind and a melody in the flowing of brooks and the rustling of reeds” (504). One strange implication of Shelley’s formulation is that in order for the wind to be “tongueless,” the wind had to be tongued at some point. In Endymion, the flower bed is a trope to which the author returns repeatedly. Flower beds are queerly ecological spaces since they are sites of friskiness al fresco. The conclusion to “I Stood Tip-Toe” is, as many commentators have pointed out, no conclusion at all.

In addition to Wolfson, there is Andrew Motion who, in his biography of Keats, remarks that that the poem “ends in radical inconclusiveness, drawing attention to the gulf between its hopes and its achievements”; see Keats (U of Chicago P, 1997), 136.

On its open-endedness, Susan J. Wolfson has recently commented that the poem’s abrupt ending is evidence of Keats’s ironizing the “Latin ghost of error in the spirit of wandering” (610). Tiptoeing could be the queerest form of ambulation; it’s certainly an affected kind of movement. Animals tread lightly when approaching prey but no animal stands on its tiptoes. Our only hope is that human beings, seeing the impact of their footprints, change their ways and fast.

The last and longest poem, Endymion follows the basic pattern at work in “I Stood Tip-Toe” except that it contains an even more sweeping claim on the interactivity of human and nonhuman desire. Christopher Ricks once zeroed in on the maiden’s blush in lines 99–100 of that earlier poem—as in, “How she would start, and blush . . . Playing in all her innocence of thought”—to claim that a perpetually embarrassed “Keats knows too the blush of innocence” (57). Endymion is noteworthy, by contrast, for its shamelessness, and by extension, its blushlessness, as proof that Keats—if we must make psycho-biographical claims—was not that innocent. I recommend assigning only sections of the first long poem, which stretches more than four books and over 4,000 lines, dramatically expanding upon the Endymion-Diana myth only touched upon in “I Stood Tip-Toe.” Students will likely not know the mythological antecedents to Endymion, so it is worth informing them ahead of time that the poem is a giant allegory for the union of ideal Beauty (incarnated by Cynthia, the lunar goddess) that Endymion, whom Bate once described as a composite character for the “human soul, the poet, or the poetic imagination,” is searching for and desiring throughout the poem’s four books (172). Diana, another moon goddess and virgin, visited Mt. Latmos (in modern-day Turkey) to gaze upon Endymion, a shepherd of Caria, as he slept eternally. If you are a professor inclined to humorous asides, it might be worth mentioning that Endymion (as a manifestation of the “human soul”) is virtually sexless, and that the sobriquet applied by Wolfson to Adonis in the poem’s third book is “boy-toy,” as in the “boy-toy Adonis” visited by “accidental tourist Endymion” in Reading Keats (43). I show students a painting roughly contemporary with Keats’s poem, Anne-Louis Girodet’s Sleep of Endymion, which the artist painted in 1791 in Rome and debuted in Paris two years later. The image is expertly discussed by Whitney Davis in his Queer Beauty as a pictorial synecdoche for what he calls the “endless and timeless if unconscious sensual-sexual responsiveness of the desirable male body” (35).

Instructively, a group can explore these themes by considering the question of Endymion’s sexual identity. Abigail Solomon-Godeau’s essay, provocatively entitled “Is Endymion Gay?: Historical Interpretation and Sexual Identities,” contends that Girodet’s Endymion played an important part in “constructing a queer art history” (84). Here, you can press your students to explain the visual markers of such desirability and to connect the glaring sensuality of Girodet’s beau idéal with Keats’s Endymion. Girodet’s male is not only “light in the loafers,” toes exposed, but his body blends with the branches above, and through a landscape that presents itself to him through his right armpit. The oval shapes and lack of jarring rectilinear lines in Girodet’s canvas help to ingrain another boy-toy, made vulnerable through his somnolent and naked state, on Mt. Latmos. The shading technique, or sfumato, softens and sensualizes all the edges of his body, which is bathed in a divine light. This figure of ideal male beauty is, in the parlance of Keats, interassimilated with his environs, or, as Keats writes in Books I and III of Endymion, “interknit” (l.811 and l.380).

Keats’s Endymion can be a challenging text to discuss, but when discussed vis-à-vis Morton’s conception of the mesh, it reaps rich rewards. I ask students to visualize the kind of biotic interconnections that ecology has made its major focus and to select the best term to describe the nonhierarchical relations across species, across organisms, and across the division between the organic and inorganic. Then I encourage learners to ponder some of the preferred analogies used by ecologists and ecocritics alike (e.g., the web, the network, the mesh, the tree of life) and to consider Morton’s proposal that “life-forms constitute a mesh, a nontotalizable, open-ended concatenation of interrelations that blur and confound boundaries at practically any level” (275). Morton (2011) reiterates this claim that the “mesh” is best suited to register ecological interconnectedness, less “vitalist” and “Internet-ish” than “web” or “network” and no less Darwinian (24). “This is what most of us mean when we think ecologically,” he writes, “that everything is connected to everything else” (26). Students come to class prepared to point out at least five interconnections found in Keats’s long poem. To access this kind of deep interdependency, I recommend a radical abridgment of Keats’s pastoral and a close reading, in class, of the first book’s best-known passage—the so-called “Pleasure Thermometer” passage (769–857) that begins with the melodious bird (the nightingale) that Keats would transform, via his eponymous ode, into a literary icon (rivaled only by Poe’s raven and, in third place, Shelley’s skylark):

She sings but to her love, nor e’er conceives
How tiptoe Night holds back her dark-grey hood.
Just so many love, although ‘tis understood
The mere commingling of passionate breath,
Produce more than our searching soul witnesseth,5
What I know not: but who, of men, can tell
That flowers would bloom, or that green fruit would swell
To melting pulp, that fish would have bright mail,
The earth its dower of river, wood, and vale,
The meadows runnels, runnels pebble-stones,10
The seed its harvest, or the lute its tones,
Tones ravishment, or ravishment is sweet,
If human souls did never kiss and greet? (830–42)

Keats felt most at home, rhetorically, in the interrogative mode; hence, the question presented above is how humans can understand their desires apart from their environment and the other species that inhabit a single ecosystem. Because “men” cannot, Keats sensualizes all of nature, human and nonhuman, and singles out tiptoeing as an action best aligned with maintaining a harmony between “men” and “the earth” humanity calls home. Moreover, this passage appears later in the gradations that Keats describes as steps on a Platonic ladder leading from man’s sensuous engagement with natural and aesthetic objects toward “love and friendship,” described as the “chief intensity” and “crown” in lines 800–801. Rapt in the worship of nature, the speaker here continues his fetishization of flowers and the diverse dependencies between the operations of the natural world and human desire. The two are “interknit” (812) but they just as well might be described as “interassimilated,” since the latter adjective is the more homoerotically charged of the two. The thermometer depicted in this passage is a teleological model, as is often commented upon, bound for the purity of disinterested love, but no commentator has asked how exactly one gets their foothold in this ladder. Yet the lightness associated with the act of tiptoeing appears to be, for Keats, how man must proceed as he makes his way to what he calls “earthly love” (843). Be sure to remind your class that two centuries after Keats began to compose Endymion in April of 1817, the coming years are shaping up to be the hottest years on record. Goodbye El Niño, hello record-breaking heat and the very extremes of the spectrum: floods and drought, warming pleasure-domes and calving caves of ice. Due to anthropogenic climate change, the thermometer is rising rapidly and in Keats’s pairing of atmospheric pressure and pleasure, his poetry remains not only environmentally relevant but crucial and queer in the Age of Man.

Following Darwin’s explanation of natural selection as a branching tree that lacks both a definite starting point and an endpoint, Morton asserts that the mesh is the best ecological term for infinite interdependencies and what he calls the “intimate entanglement of all life-forms that the life sciences discover on many levels, from evolution to symbiosis” (29). Intimacy is an interesting theme to foreground in your explication of Endymion because it manifests itself in surprisingly interspecies ways. Keats actually uses the word himself, in Lamia, when Lamia kisses Lycius and makes him feel “tangled in her mesh” (l.295), and in a similar fashion, desire flows in alarmingly cross-species ways in Endymion as well. Karen Swann has commented that “Eros in this poem is interspecies romance: romance across the bar that divides mortal from immortal . . . human organisms from the figures of the poetic medium” (29). Puzzling phrases like “men-slugs” and “human serpentry” (l.821), themselves harbingers of the chameleon poet, manifest such interassimilations, queer to the extent that identity traverses species and absorbs the other.

Students and I explore these lines by connecting Keats’s conception of “earthly love” with Godwin’s Mandeville (1817) because it contains a passage that is nearly identical in terms of projecting (masculine) desire onto nature. Nevertheless, photocopying a few pages from Mandeville will illustrate that Keats was not the only author in the 1810s who wished to sensualize man’s fusion with the natural world, nor was he the only nature-lover that saw man as “neighbor” and “portion,” and more radically, as an organism that loves to “frisk” alongside flowers, fruit, fawns, and fish. The speaker in this passage from Mandeville is Henrietta, the narrator’s sister, whom Mandeville sits beside under some “venerable elms” that shade the side of a stream:

Nature is love. See how the bending branches kiss the stream!
Each portion of nature nourishes its neighbor portion; and
hence are derived health and vigor and harmony to all. See
how the fawns upon the yonder hills sport and gambol and
frisk with each other! They have no reason to teach them this;5
but they derive from surer instinct the principle of mutual
gaiety and love. And shall man, the lord of the creation, be
less tender to his brother, man? (252)

Be sure to call your class’s attention to the fraternité that Godwin inscribes upon nature and the brotherly love he locates there. If, as queer criticism posits, desire exceeds the social construct that is identity, queer ecology rubs our faces in the constructedness of the very things we not only take for granted but hold to be self-evident: human desire and a nonhuman nature.

In David M. Halperin’s How To Be Gay, he observes: “when psychoanalytic thinkers advance their claim about desire exceeding identity, the main purpose, or outcome, is to destabilize heterosexual identity, to free heterosexuality from identity—a process whose effect is ultimately not to undermine but to promote and to universalize heterosexuality” (89).

Endymion is especially useful in an eco-queer context first because it’s a pagan love poem that depicts humans and the natural world as “interknit” and forming an ecological whole (III.l.380), and second, because it explores the power of love in explicitly erotic ways that occasion states of nonsovereignty, or nonpower. It dispenses with the monotheistic presumptions evident in Godwin’s novel because, in Keats, there is no single “lord of the creation” since there is no power imbalance or anthropocentric hierarchy. Thus queerness grows sideways, like a vine or invasive weed, and dismantles the top-down model of subjectivity.

In teaching queer ecology relative to the Anthropocene, I have discovered that Keats’s poetry is particularly well-suited to opening a dialogue about the aforesaid topics because of nature’s central role in the Romantic imaginary. Asking students to scan a poem for its references to trees, animals, and other living things should always be followed by a more challenging and “deeper” query: But what symbolic role do such living things play in this poem? Yes, they are things, biomass, but what do they signify? Following Crutzen, Timothy Clark has written cogently about how humans will survive in a geological epoch marked by man’s heavy-footed impact on planet earth. “To live in the Anthropocene seems to present a host of new and largely unprecedented questions and dilemmas for human self-conception,” writes Clark, “for ethics, philosophy, economics and politics” (285). Poetry and pedagogy are just two of the glaring omissions here. Poetry presents us with life-saving ways of making amorous promises to the earth. Since the Anthropocene is the geological epoch marked by man’s footprint, we ought to follow in the footsteps of Keats and other ecologically alert poets of the earth by tiptoeing through the flowers and beyond, through our biosphere. In order to survive, we better watch our step.

Works Cited

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1. Often the meanings of “nature” are interassimilated in themselves. A clear proof of this lies in the queerest of Shakespeare’s sonnets, Sonnet 20, which begins “A woman’s face, with Nature’s own hand painted, / Hast thou, the master mistress of my passion” (1–2). Here nature possesses the agency of a painter, but the line’s meaning is also blurry, for it’s this pretty face’s lack of cosmetic that makes it “naturally” beautiful. [back]
2. For Romantic-era judgment premised on the binarism of natural versus unnatural, see Austen’s Persuasion and her subtle abjuration of her heroine Anne Elliot’s development: “She had been forced into prudence in her youth, she learned romance as she grew older—the natural sequel of an unnatural beginning” (69). [back]
3. In addition to Wolfson, there is Andrew Motion who, in his biography of Keats, remarks that that the poem “ends in radical inconclusiveness, drawing attention to the gulf between its hopes and its achievements”; see Keats (U of Chicago P, 1997), 136. [back]
4. In David M. Halperin’s How To Be Gay, he observes: “when psychoanalytic thinkers advance their claim about desire exceeding identity, the main purpose, or outcome, is to destabilize heterosexual identity, to free heterosexuality from identity—a process whose effect is ultimately not to undermine but to promote and to universalize heterosexuality” (89). [back]