Review of John Keats: A New Life by Nicholas Roe
The Hebrides are one of the wildest landscapes in the British Isles. Even today, reaching them from the mainland is no small endeavour. Battered by the wind and waves of the mighty Atlantic, their beauty is often in the bleak and the rugged, while their history is both turbulent and tragic. It is no wonder, then, that John Keats, an aspiring poet of the early nineteenth century with a passion for the dramatic, should have felt drawn to them, even if the reality was unremittingly harsh.
Later paintings of Keats often suggest a small, perhaps even effete and delicate man. Keats the consumptive, who knew all too well ‘the fever and the fret’, is well trodden ground in the study of one of the most influential poets of his generation. But the Keats who emerges from Nicholas Roe’s John Keats: A New Life is quite different and challenges many later representations. Small, yes, but physically robust and stocky: Keats’s travels in Scotland and Ireland, largely undertaken on foot, were by any standards impressive. Beginning in the south, he sought first the haunts of Robert Burns, the Jim Morrison of his age. In appalling weather, Keats tramped across the Hebridean island of Mull, sleeping rough and subsisting on the poorest of diets. Unperturbed, he crossed to the even remoter island of Iona, associated with Columba and the early Celtic saints, with its ruined monastery and the graves of seven of Scotland’s kings: such historic sites were to prove fertile to his imagination. Later, he was to travel further north. Despite suffering from a sore throat – which was to prove the first stages in tuberculosis – Keats climbed Ben Nevis, a challenge even to many modern climbers, then walked further still to Inverness.
Roe’s biography has already courted sensationalist headlines – surprising perhaps for this is a scholarly work, aimed firmly at the academic market from the Professor of English Literature at St Andrews University. Here is Keats, who had trained in medicine, self-medicating with laudanum (an opiate and common medicine of the period) and mercury, taunted by sexual desire and sometimes profligate, though both his health and his sex life are matters of speculation. Roe seeks to rewrite Keats’ life, stripping away the efforts to sanitise the less savoury aspects of his short existence. Throughout, this is a study rich in concept, and one which explores the impact of early childhood events in the shaping of Keats as a poet. His youngest years were on the fringes of London, in the then rural village of Edmonton, north of an expanding city. Here, an innocent, gentle landscape of brook and meadow shaped his imagination, and became emblems to which he would later return. At Clarke’s Academy, known for its dissenting tradition and its encouragement of free thought, Keats was something of a fearless schoolboy, not unknown to fight, yet excelling academically. Keats’s early life, however, soon turned tragic: his parents’ premature deaths and suggestions of martial infidelity on his mother’s part were events which Roe argues dominate the themes and even detail of his later poetry. Left an orphan while still a teenager, his precarious finances – which were to cause concern throughout his adult life – made finding a profession a necessity.
He was apprenticed as a surgeon at Guy’s Hospital (hence his knowledge of how to self-medicate) but however committed he was to his studies – the jury is out – it was clear his passions lay elsewhere. Friendships formed with radicals such as Leigh Hunt, and a more difficult relationship with Shelley. Through Hunt’s periodical The Examiner, Keats was to find publication as a poet, but while Hunt’s radical roots chimed with Keats’s own emerging politics, they proved fatal to Keats’s contemporary reputation as a poet, with Keats being pilloried for his class and lack of public school education. Indeed, it his life in London between 1814 and 1817 which this biography particularly enlightens, placing Keats in the context of his friendships, his position within literary society, his admiration for Wordsworth (who did not reciprocate) and his life as a young man in the city. Eager to impress, sociable, outspoken then curiously reserved, passionate about his work yet erratic at meeting deadlines, Keats was nonetheless ambitious and his output substantial. He was enthusiastic for theatre, writing reviews and even an ill fated play, but it was on poetry that his energies were spent, and his failed efforts to write a truly epic poem in Endymion and Hyperion are explored.
Throughout, Roe equates much of Keats’s poetry with incidents in his life. Sometimes, this is well documented, such as in his visits to the British Museum; the origins of ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ are indisputable. At other times, however, this becomes, at Roe’s own admission, closer to conjecture. Keats’s tortured relationship with Fanny Brawne to whom he was engaged is well known: he could be destructively jealous, despite Fanny’s purity, but despite their undoubted love, finances made marriage impossible; Roe notes that Keats’s unfulfilled desires were part of Keats’s explanation for his own illnesses. Less well known, and explored significantly by Roe, is Keats’s early infatuation with the enigmatic Isabella Jones, whom Roe regards as influencing poems such as ‘The Eve of St Mark’. Often – though not always for Roe’s reading of Keats is subtle – politics dominate: Keats’s interest in Milton and language redolent of the medieval speaks of his commitment to ancient English liberties which by the 1810s were being eroded. Roe’s case is often compelling, and sheds new light on much of Keats’s poetry. At one time, ‘To Autumn’ was used as an example of a poem which it is very difficult to relate to the social, political or economic history of the time; conclusively (although not the first to do so) Roe shows otherwise, placing it alongside Leigh Hunt’s series of essays ‘The Calendar of Nature’ on the English seasons (the similarity of phrasing is remarkable) and, as is now well understood, the Peterloo massacre.
Roe writes well on Keats’s poems which are sometimes dismissed as formative, ‘light’ or ‘inconsequential’ verse, offering fresh insight into poems such as ‘On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer’, ‘I stood tip toe’ and finding in poems such as ‘The Eve of St Agnes’ biographical traces, such as Keats’s journeys to various cathedral cities. In terms of tracing the development of a poet, this biography is almost unsurpassed. Those looking, however, for in depth criticism and analysis of Keats’s major works – the Spring Odes of 1819, ‘To Autumn’, ‘Lamia’ or ‘The Eve of St Agnes’ – should be aware that this is a biography rather than a work of literary criticism; the focus is the man more than the poetry. Thus Roe’s concern to place Keats in the context of political and social upheavals of the time perhaps misses some of the tensions, contradictions and complexities of the later poems and their philosophical interests, and beyond showing how his landscapes are those often of his childhood, the language itself is rarely explored; in fairness, such readings of Keats’s verse are already well established and readily available elsewhere.
Nonetheless, Roe offers a fascinating insight into Keats’s society and his circle of Leigh Hunt, Joseph Haydon, John Reynolds and Joseph Severn. His account of Keats’s final months and weeks is particularly emotive. After the undoubted achievements of 1819 and at long last receiving favourable reviews for his most recent volume of poetry, Keats’s final months were a time both of determination and tragedy. Already exhausted by having had to nurse is dying brother through tuberculosis, Keats knew only too well the fate ahead of him. Weakened, suffering from haemorrhaging lungs, he sailed to Italy, spending his final weeks in Rome, where his temporary lodgings, like the house he shared in Hampstead, are amongst the most widely visited of all literary sites. After his death, all of his belongings and all of the original furnishings in his room in Rome were burnt in line with city regulations to prevent the spread of infection. Yet perhaps more importantly, Keats left a legacy of poetry which shaped the verse of poets as diverse as Thomas Hardy, Wilfred Owen and Philip Larkin, who all in different ways responded to Keats’s work. And today he remains amongst the most influential of poets. The cadence of his verse, the intensity of feeling and the physicality of its imagery crosses over almost two hundred years with a remarkable force. And any work which can deepen our appreciation of such a poet is a welcome read.
Nicholas Roe, John Keats: A New Life,
Yale University Press, £10.99 (paperback)/
As ever, if you know me, you’re welcome to borrow my (signed!) copy.