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News and Commentary from the British Association for Romantic Studies

Romantic Reimaginings: Beatrice Hastings and ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’

Romantic Reimaginings is a BARS blog series which seeks to explore the ways in which texts of the Romantic era continue to resonate. The blog is curated by Eleanor Bryan. If you would like to publish an article in the series, please email ebryan@lincoln.ac.uk.

Today on the blog, Daisy Ferris explores Keats’s Romantic influence in the age of Modernism through the writings of Beatrice Hastings.

A lot of people assume that the Modernists defined themselves against the Romantics: flying in the face of tradition in their ardent attempts to ‘Make it New’. In fact, a clear Romantic influence can be seen in much Modernist work—an influence which is even more prevalent in the work of authors who fall outside of the canon of straight, white, upper-middle class ‘Men of 1914’. One example of a lesser-known Modernist figure whose work is heavily influenced by Romanticism is Beatrice Hastings, who wrote for and co-edited British magazine The New Age from 1908-1916. The New Age played an important role in both the political and artistic developments of the Modernist era: introducing British readers to authors such as Ezra Pound and Katherine Mansfield. Hastings, however, reviled what she termed ‘poetical Picassoism’ (NA, 10.10, p.238), instead advocating for a return to more traditional forms of literature. Hastings’ experiments in parody and pseudonym reveal a curious mixture of styles: seamlessly combining Keatsian elements with a Modernist experiment into the multiplicity of self.

In a letter dated October 27th 1818, Keats described the poet as a chameleon-like figure, who takes on the various identities of his subjects but does not possess an identity of his own. He writes: ‘A Poet is the most unpoetical of any thing in existence; because he has no Identity—he is continually in for—and filling some other Body—The Sun, the Moon, the Sea and Men and Women […].’ (Letters: John Keats I, 387).  Keats goes on to explain that the poetic figure transcends all facets of identity, including gender: Keats uses the pronoun ‘it’ to describe the ‘camelion [sic] poet’, and claims that ‘It has as much delight in conceiving an Iago as an Imogen.’ (Letters, 387) It is not hard to see how this understanding of identity maps onto Hastings with her chameleonesque use of pseudonyms and parody. During her time at The New Age, Hastings wrote under more than twenty different pseudonyms. Some of these were not just pen-names, but were given fully-fledged identities of their own, ranging from the radical feminist ‘Beatrice Tina’ to the outrageously misogynist ‘Edward Stafford’. Hastings used her pseudonyms to explore different identities and reject the notion of singular perspective. Rather than limit herself to a single persona, she opted to occupy multiple selves and speak with multiple voices, often at the same time: something she achieves in her parody of Keats’s ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’.

The New Age, Vol. 13, No. 25, October 16th 1913

Hastings’ version of the poem, entitled ‘La Belle Dame Sans Beaute’ appeared in the 16th October 1913 issue of The New Age, under the pseudonym ‘G. Whiz’. In this parody the terrifying femme fatale of Keats’s original is replaced with a real life figure: London-based socialist and suffragist Dora Montefiore. The poem refers to a specific incident that took place in the week prior to its publication: Montefiore’s suggestion of a ‘kiddies’ scheme’ which would involve the transportation of children from Dublin to England as a solution to the heightened levels of poverty brought about by the 1913 Dublin Lockout. This suggestion garnered Montefiore a fair amount of criticism, not least from the speakers of this poem. The poem subjects Montefiore to a number of slurs based on her age, appearance and perceived status as sexual predator, though we are never sure if it is Hastings herself, or her cipher ‘G.Whiz’ who sees Montefiore in this way. This poem is one of many examples of Hastings’ works that, owing to its specificity, has been forgotten about or overlooked. However, in addition to addressing a very literal and specific instance of political history, this poem is both an exploration into multiple voiced poetics and the elusive nature of the self.

The choice of Keats’s ‘Belle Dame’ as a source text for this poem is no coincidence. ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci’ plays a number of tricks with narrative voice, which contribute to the dream-like and fantastical nature of the poem. The knight-at-arms, from whose perspective we hear the story of the ‘Belle Dame’ is feverish and seems to conflate dream and reality. We as readers struggle to tell from the dialogue which takes place in the poem which of its many speakers are real, and which are unreal. We cannot know, in fact, whether we are witnessing a dialogue or the interior monologue of a single confused mind. The ambiguity of Keats’s original poem, brought about by its shifting unreliable speakers, is mirrored in Hastings’ parody. We are confronted in this poem with a cacophony of nameless, fragmented voices, presented in a free-verse form which feels distinctly Modernist. The poem shifts in register from archaic terms such as ‘Wretched hag of the nobility’ and ‘Bad Fairy’ to a more colloquial, modern mode of speech, using phrases such as ‘War’s war, old lady!’ and ‘Don’t you think you’d better/Hook it?’ (NA 13.25, 737). We are never sure how many different voices we hear in this poem, nor whose voices we are hearing at any given time, although crucially we never hear the voice of Montefiore herself.

Hastings’ parody of ‘La Belle Dame’, then, shows an instance in which the tenets of Modernism and Romanticism are not diametrically opposed, but rather work together in tandem. Hastings was deeply influenced by Keats, drawing on his poetics as well as his notion of the ‘camelion poet’ in her own Modernist quest towards understanding the complexities and multiplicities of identity. Her under-appreciated ‘Belle Dame’ parody is testament to Keats’s ongoing legacy and the ways in which his work continued to resonate in the Modernist era.

Works Cited:
– G. Whiz [Beatrice Hastings], ‘La Belle Dame Sans Beaute’, New Age 13.25 (October 16th, 1913), p.737.
– Beatrice Hastings, ‘Runes’ [Letter in Correspondence Section], New Age 10.10, (January 4th, 1912), p.238.
– John Keats, Letter to Richard Woodhouse, October 27th 1818 in Hyder Edward Rollins, ed. The Letters of John Keats Vol. 1 (1814-1818), (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1958), pp.386-388.

Daisy Ferris is a Midlands 3 Cities Funded PhD candidate at Nottingham Trent University. Her research looks at women’s use of parody and humour in Modernist periodical culture.