February 8, 1998
There have been many doomed poets -- poetes maudits -- who suffered much, died tragically, and captured the imagination of posterity. Chatterton, Shelley, Holderlin, Rimbaud, Delmore Schwartz, and Sylvia Plath only begin the list. At the head of the list -- mine, anyway -- is John Keats. For genius, loveableness, and bad luck combined, he wins the laurel crown.
Keats started out happily enough, the oldest son of affectionate, unpretentious, moderately well-off parents who managed a stable and guesthouse. He and his two brothers were sent to a progressive school with an enlightened, kindly schoolmaster whose son became Keats’s lifelong close friend. But his father died in a riding accident, and his mother at first ran away and later remarried unwisely. From adolescence, the children lived with their grandmother and were, in effect orphans. Their grandmother, widowed and ill, chose a guardian who, after her death, caused the children endless frustration by his narrow-minded, tight-fisted control of their finances.
At sixteen John was apprenticed to a local doctor. But although he spent five years in training and qualified as a surgeon-apothecary (not quite the same thing as a modern M.D.), he never plied his trade. Poetry was already in his bloodstream. Through Cowden Clarke (his former headmaster’s son) he began to meet literary men, particularly the circle around Leigh Hunt, a popular poet and prominent political radical. Without exception they were captivated, as much by his personality as by his talent.
Nearly everyone who knew Keats seems to have left an affectionate testimonial of him. What impressed them most was his ardor: an exquisite and intense responsiveness to beauty, whether moral or aesthetic. No less admirable was his disinterestedness. “Purity of heart,” according to one of Kafka’s aphorism, “is to will one thing.” Keats’s devotion to poetry was of the purest, exceptionally free of envy or self-importance. And notwithstanding all these virtues, he was good compavy: a superlative punster and ever-ready doggerel writer.
Even with plenty of encouragement, however, it was difficult for Keats to embrace his literary vocation. For one thing, like many of his contemporaries he seriously feared that literature was exhausted: that the grander possibilities of poetry had been used up by Shakespeare and the classics, leaving only private experience and subjective response as potential subjects. (To anyone who now teaches creative writing, the notion of a student so steeped in and awed by the literary past as to doubt that his or her individual experience might be worth writing about may seem quaint.) The example of Wordsworth helped him
over this anxiety.
The money problem was more recalcitrant and was aggravated by Keats’s openhandedness with friends in need. The loss of his beloved brothers -- one to emigration, the other to tuberculosis -- left him without any family (except for a much younger sister, who lived at a distance). And his association with Hunt drew partisan attacks from the contemporary equivalents of Commentary and The New Criterion.
But Keats persevered, and the heavens opened. Between October 1818 and October 1819, at the age of twenty-three, he wrote most of the poetry for which he is revered: the odes, Hyperion, Lamia, “The Eve of St. Agnes,” and others. And he fell in love with the spirited and pretty Fanny Brawne, who also (like virtually everyone else he met) loved him.
Then the heavens closed. He too had contracted tuberculosis, probably from nursing his brother Tom. The doctors forbade him to write poetry and, as he dwindled, insisted that he travel south for the winter. His friends were stricken. “I cannot afford to lose him,” one wrote mournfully. “If I know what it is to love, I truly love John Keats.” He spent his last few months in Rome, bedridden, penniless, and no longer able to write even his usual incomparably charming and affecting letters. He died in February 1821, a few months after his twenty-fifth birthday.
Though unlucky in life, Keats has been lucky in his biographers. Walter Jackson Bate’s John Keats (1963) is probably unsurpassable, and there have been other excellent biographies as well as no dearth of Keats criticism. Nonetheless, as Andrew Motion reasonably points out, “the lives of all important writers need to be reconsidered at regular intervals,” since “while the wind of history blows, their stories revolve and alter, offering new attractions and sometimes new difficulties to each successive generation.” In particular, Motion (a poet and the author of a widely praised biography of Philip Larkin) believes that Keats’s openness to the public world, to his historical and political environment, has been underemphasized. Everyone agrees that Keats in his youth was, as one friend said, “of the skeptical and republican school ... an advocate for the innovations which were making progress in his time ... a fault-finder with everything established.” But most biographers and critics leave it at that. The psychological drama and the formal triumphs of his great creative year, and the awful pathos of his last year, have understandably dominated their accounts.
Motion is no strident revisionist; he only wants to shift our interpretive angle a degree or two toward the political. He succeeds, sort of. But even though his subject is one of the three of four greatest poets in English, many readers will wonder whether Motion’s achievement is worth the effort. It’s nice to have a fuller account than usual of the school Keats attended and the hospital he trained at, of his identification with Chatterton and his admiration for Hazlitt. Motion is very good at filling in the background, but the foreground doesn’t change much. Mostly he is reduced to conjecture, some of it rather strained, about possible echoes in the poems of feelings of loss over the death of his mother or of resentment over his obligations to his brothers. About the “Ode to Autumn,” composed a month after the infamous Peterloo Massacre, Motion writes: “It would oversimplify the case to say that because the poem was written in the aftermath of Peterloo, it is precisely concerned with the Massacre. ... At the same time, it cannot and does not want to escape its context -- which it registers in a number of subtle but significant ways.” Motion’s attempts to demonstrate this will probably strike most readers as too subtle and not significant enough. And why, in any case, is it important? Forty million Americans without health insurance and millions of Mexicans working for a dollar a day would be just as scandalous whether or not Keats was thinking of Peterloo when he wrote “To Autumn.”
Fortunately, there is not too much of this; Keats mainly sticks to the facts. Motion does “truly love” Keats, and fellow devotees will want to read his biography. But those who are not (yet) should probably start elsewhere.