Of the six great Romantic poets, Keats, whose life was the shortest, had the keenest sense of himself as a developing artist. Yet, nearly all of his very greatest work was accomplished within the incredibly brief span of one year - between his 23rd and 24th birthdays. Between the autumns of 1818 and 1819 he wrote: ''Hyperion,'' ''The Eve of St. Agnes,'' ''La Belle Dame Sans Merci,'' ''Lamia,'' ''The Fall of Hyperion,'' and the famous odes. We may wonder, did most of Keats's poetic development occur within this miraculous year, or were these rich achievements more like sudden, simultaneous flowerings of long-germinating seeds?
Helen Vendler, a leading critic, considers development rather than achievement to be the hallmark of Keats's annus mirabilis. Each of the odes, she contends, should be read as part of a larger structure, beginning with ''Ode on Indolence'' and culminating in Keats's masterpiece ''To Autumn.''
The polemical impulse behind the book, Vendler confides in her introduction, was her desire to refute Allen Tate's judgment that ''To Autumn,'' although a nearly perfect piece of style, had little to say. Vendler, who thinks ''To Autumn'' says everything there is to say, has turned her formidable talents as a close and careful reader of poetry to the task of rescuing Keats's last ode from all who would dismiss it as a mere triumph of style. Few critics have attempted quite so minute and detailed a reading of the poem as Vendler has here, and the results - in terms of adding to our appreciation of ''Autumn'' - are undoubtedly fruitful.
Vendler's reading of ''Autumn'' is based upon her conviction that the previous odes all lead up to it. Following the initial reluctance expressed in ''Ode on Indolence,'' the poet of ''Ode to Psyche'' vows to serve his muse by ''reduplicating'' (Vendler's word) the external world in the internal world of thought. In ''Ode to a Nightingale,'' she claims, Keats tries to flee the sorrows of thought (''the dull brain (that) perplexes and retards'') for the sensuous realms of beauty, only to return to perplexing questions in ''Ode on a Grecian Urn,'' where thought and truth become paramount. Only in ''Ode on Melancholy'' does Keats realize how his philosophical insights about truth may be expressed in the language of sensation and beauty. Having further explored loss and sacrifice in ''The Fall of Hyperion,'' Keats, she says, finds at last in ''Autumn'' a figure (and a season) personifying change. By correctly ''stationing'' the sights, sounds, smells, and tastes of the natural scene, he finally does what he knew could be done in ''Melancholy'': He speaks of truth in the language of sensation and beauty.
But in choosing to read the six odes and ''The Fall of Hyperion'' as a kind of seven-chapter Bildungsroman, Vendler underreads and undervalues the earlier odes to demonstrate the superiority of the later ones. In her zeal to reserve the thrilling crescendo of her critical performance for ''Autumn,'' Vendler seems determined to begin pianissimo. And so she takes ''Indolence'' (clearly the weakest of the odes) as the first, even though - as far as can be determined - it was written after ''Psyche'' and ''Nightingale.'' She offers no explanation as to why the poet, who had, according to her view of his progress, ''advanced'' beyond the energetic promise of ''Psyche'' and the richness of ''Nightingale,'' would write so awkwardly in recalling his emotions of an earlier time.
''Ode to a Nightingale,'' considered by many, including Keats's biographer Walter Jackson Bate, to be a greater poem than ''To Autumn,'' becomes, in Vendler's month-by-month improvement program, inferior not only to ''Autumn'' but also to ''Ode on a Grecian Urn,'' which was written just after it. The objections Tate raised against ''Autumn'' Vendler applies instead to ''Nightingale.'' Indeed, her reading of this quintessentially Keat-sian poem is as reductive and insensitive as any Keats detractor might have wished. ''The ode ends, then,'' she asserts disapprovingly, ''as a poem inscribed to beauty rather than to truth, to sensation rather than to thought.''
Although one can agree with Vendler that some chronological progression is evident in the poems of 1819, her insistence on finding constant improvement everywhere is finally more misleading than enlightening. What purpose is served by reading ''Urn'' as an ''advance'' over ''Nightingale''? Why not think of them as a pair of doors, each leading to a different part of the labyrinth, which Keats explores in turn, since they cannot be explored simultaneously? Why condemn the poet to relentless progress? Vendler's characteristically sensitive and intelligent insights are still abundant, but too many, I fear, have been sacrificed on the procrustean bed of her theory.