John Keats: A New Life, by Nicholas Roe (Yale, 446 pp., $32.50)
Without being truly subjective, John Keats is the most personal of poets. His poetry is concerned with questions and longings that seem to come from the depths of the individual heart and experience but at the same time are expressed in what Harold Bloom has called the “fused massiveness” of poetic tradition. Even if English Romantic poets rejected 18th-century neoclassicism, they delved deeply into the English and larger European poetic inheritance for models and inspiration. They revived Chaucer, Dante, Shakespeare, and the Middle Ages generally (notoriously, “Ossian”). They brought back the Greeks. None was a deeper delver than John Keats.
Moreover, as Bloom has also written, Keats does not “unperplex joy from pain.” Or, one could add, beauty from corruption, life from death, and so on. No flights into an ideal empyrean for Keats, unlike his contemporary Shelley. Keats was worldly, but in the way of an innocent, with a “disinterested” receptiveness to everyday impressions. He didn’t write his first poems until he was 18, while he was training full-time in a London hospital as an apothecary-surgeon. When he died in 1821 at the age of 25 in Rome, where he had gone to escape the English winter, his oeuvre included poems that have made him a true successor of Shakespeare and Milton.
The English physician who performed the autopsy on Keats claimed never to have seen such terrible lungs; how Keats had lived so long was a puzzle to him. The puzzle haunting most critics is how Keats, emerging from rather inauspicious beginnings, managed to achieve so much. His father, Thomas Keats, was an ostler whose origins were lost even to immediate family memory; his daughter Fanny later speculated that he came from Cornwall. John’s mother was the daughter of the innkeeper from whom Tom Keats assumed the prospering family business. At the age of eight, John went off to a school that catered to boys from such backgrounds. He was well liked and learned some Latin and French very well, but during those years he was better known for being a scrappy fighter, especially in defense of his younger brothers, than for literary inclinations.
Yet he was fortunate, as biographer Sidney Colvin has written, in discovering Spenser while young enough, at about 16, to be susceptible to the “luxuriance of decorative and symbolic invention, and prodigality of romantic incident and detail.” Keats rapidly committed himself to becoming a poet, indeed a great poet, and a mentor led him to Leigh Hunt, who was instrumental in bringing Keats to public notice. It was in The Examiner, Hunt’s radical publication, that Keats’s earliest poems appeared, including “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer.”
Nineteenth-century English letters offers such rich bounty that it does not surprise that biographers keep returning to it. In John Keats: A New Life, Nicholas Roe is in eminent company, following, in past decades, Walter Jackson Bate and Andrew Motion. (Oddly, Yale has published this volume with the same cover image as the one that appeared on Motion’s Keats.) Just a couple of years ago The Keats Brothers appeared, a wonderfully written and fascinating dual biography of John and George Keats by Denise Gigante. Roe, a professor of English at the University of St. Andrews, is the author of several books on English Romanticism, including the “first life” of Leigh Hunt (as per the subtitle of that biography), an important though now overlooked figure of this period.
Roe stakes much of this “new life” of Keats on what, given the dearth of information, might seem the least fertile aspect of his development as an artist: Keats’s childhood and adolescence. No doubt, the deaths of children, and the deaths of young parents, especially when the circumstances are puzzling, disturb a family forevermore. Something like that must have been the case when the 31-year-old Thomas Keats, an excellent rider, plunged from his horse on a dark London turnpike in 1804 and smashed his skull. John, the eldest of four children, was only eight. To compound the tragedy for the children, within two months their mother had a new husband, some years her junior, married probably in the hope that he would run the family business; instead, he ruined it. The children then lived with a grandmother, with no further contact with their mother until she returned to die when John was 14. Losses continued, financial ones, with the trustee of the Keats children’s estate meanly keeping details of their inheritance from them.
On these aspects Keats hardly ever expressed himself, so it has been up to biographers to mine every possible bit of documentary evidence––though the father’s origins remain stubbornly elusive. (My suspicion, which does not rule out Cornwall, is that John Keats’s love for medieval English poetry led Fanny to associate her father with King Arthur’s domain.) In Roe’s telling, these early years are a major source of Keats’s poetic subjects and inspiration.
It is with the father’s death that Roe begins, and the scene is set for what the preface twice refers to as a “narrative,” but, while there are events and characters aplenty in this account, there is not a story as such. Roe knows his subject, inside and out, but the biography tends toward a chronicle, relating Keats’s life at times on a day-to-day, even moment-to-moment, basis. For example, on September 13, 1819, “Keats rose early and wrote affectionately to Fanny Brawne,” in a letter he later posted “at Lombard Street.”
Newcomers to Keats may find themselves at sea, especially in early chapters, where names of people and places fall fast and furious; the book doesn’t even provide decent maps (as in the end covers in Walter Jackson Bate’s biography) to orient the reader in the London neighborhoods inhabited by Keats and his family. This biography would seem to be intended for those already familiar with Keats.
Its approach, in particular the connections Roe makes between the works and the life, is that of a somewhat old-fashioned type of criticism. For instance, Roe writes that Otho the Great, Keats’s 1819 play, “replayed the break-up of the Keats family as historical drama, [and] other traumatic episodes from Keats’s childhood would revive when he resumed composition of Hyperion.” Readers will differ as to whether such readings are illuminating, or too literal. I admit to falling in the middle on this question. Despite obvious literary inspiration, Keats was indeed transfixed by the everyday sights and sounds and events of his life. For instance, according to Roe, Keats first encountered the “rills and runnels of water [that] ripple through [his] poems” in the meadows near his school. Likewise, learning of the discoveries of Herschel at Enfield Academy directed the poet’s mind to the moon and planets.
Of course, for Keats the river is not just a river or the moon just the moon, no matter how entrancing. While representing themselves, they also signify something more mysterious. Roe recounts many possible sources, but I am not sure that we know in the end how Keats hauled all the matter teeming in his brain into, say, the 80 lines of “Ode to a Nightingale.” Keats himself referred — in a letter to his friend, the artist Benjamin Haydon — to the “innumerable compositions and decompositions which take place between the intellect and its thousand materials before it arrives at that trembling delicate and snail-horn perception of Beauty.”
I think the biographical approach to understanding Keats’s work could be fruitful, and it surprises me that Roe does not draw an analogy between the way Keats reworked his family tragedy poetically and the way he reworked the traditional poetic models to which he was clearly indebted. In Roe’s account, the two strands run side by side rather than intersecting in an illuminating way. Otho the Great may reflect a Keats family feud, but it also concerns an earlier, destructive war between generations. The result of the intergenerational feud is the defeat of the old order and its certainties: thus, the forlorn figure of the deposed Saturn at the beginning of Hyperion. If the Keats of the early sonnets aspired to place himself among his poetic progenitors, the Keats of Hyperion and the odes no longer had that consolation: In “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” the past is characterized by pastness.
Roe observes that Keats’s gift for observation might have turned him into a novelist had he lived long enough. His letters sparkle with homely, personal detail, and his long narrative poem Endymion was published in 1818, the same year as Persuasion, The Heart of Midlothian, and Frankenstein. It was the 19th-century novel that would register the jettisoning of past certainties, literary, social, and otherwise, a jettisoning exemplified in Tom Keats’s emergence from obscure origins. Had Keats lived, I think he would have worked in the mode of Goethe’s late, strongly structured novels (Elective Affinities, the Wilhelm Meister novels), exploring themes of philosophy, love, and aesthetics through a dense network of symbols. Keats’s imagery — again, seemingly personally felt but not subjective or individual — also reminds me of Goethe. And though Keats could hardly be called Olympian, like Goethe he was considered (by Wordsworth) to be a bit of a pagan. Goethe lived to be 82. Nicholas Roe’s new life of the poet reminds us anew of how much was lost to the world of letters with the early passing of the remarkable John Keats.
– Elizabeth Powers is the editor of Freedom of Speech: The History of an Idea.