Irritable Reachings: On John Keats

Irritable Reachings: On John Keats

A new biography of John Keats is no match for Keats’s poetic inventions.


John Keats was born in 1795. Orphaned at the age of 14, he was apprenticed by a manipulative guardian to an apothecary, a kind of general medical practitioner. “Always writing poetry,” recalled a fellow apprentice. Though formal training as a surgeon’s assistant followed at Guy’s Hospital—this in the harrowing days before anesthesia—Keats was immersed in London’s literary society by the time he received his medical license. In 1817, at the age of 21, he published his first book, called simply Poems; a second book, Endymion, appeared the following year. Reviews were savage, but Keats dismissed them in a letter to his brother George as “a mere matter of the moment,” adding that “I think I shall be among the English Poets after my death.”

Death would come three years later. Having nursed his brother Tom through tuberculosis, the same disease that had killed his mother, Keats diagnosed his own symptoms, and by the end of 1819 he had produced in quick succession some of the greatest poems in the English language: “The Eve of St. Agnes,” “Ode to a Nightingale,” “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” He had fallen in love with Fanny Brawne, the girl who lived next door. Before Keats died in a room overlooking the Spanish Steps in Rome, where his doctor had sent him for the climate, he requested that his gravestone bear only the phrase “here lies one whose name was writ in water.”

Keats’s enduring place among the English poets is due to his poems, but the story of his life is uncommonly compelling, begging to be told. To become acquainted with Keats is to discover an impossible person—someone who is undeniably young, but who seems at the same time preternaturally wise, capable of a timeless eloquence that feels paradoxically of his years, not beyond them. Keats makes the discoveries of youth feel worthy of the most dignified attention—not steppingstones to something more refined but, as they had to be for Keats, ends in themselves. “Do you not see,” he asked his brother George, “how necessary a World of Pains and troubles is to school an Intelligence and make it a soul?” Had Chaucer died not long after his twenty-fifth birthday, he would have been the author of nothing; Shakespeare might be remembered for a couple of charming plays. 

About Shakespeare’s life we know almost nothing, and what little we do know comes from anywhere but Shakespeare, who left behind no letters or manuscripts. In contrast, the story of Keats’s life begins with Keats himself. The unself-conscious immediacy of his letters is unmatched even by writers who might seem, at first glance, more confessional, less poised. Written on his deathbed in Rome, his last letter asks his friend Charles Brown to contact his remaining brother and sister, and it manages in the process to feel heartbroken, efficient, winsome—as if the whole person, in all his complexity, were speaking from the page:

‘Tis the most difficult thing in the world [for] me to write a letter. My stomach continues so bad, that I feel it worse on opening any book…. Write to George as soon as you receive this, and tell him how I am, as far as you can guess;—and also a note to my sister—who walks about my imagination like a ghost—she is so like Tom. I can scarcely bid you good bye even in a letter. I always made an awkward bow.

Three months later, Keats was dead, and Joseph Severn, the friend who had accompanied him to Rome, described the final moments:

The poor fellow bade me lift him up in bed—he breathed with great difficulty—and seemed to lose the power of coughing up the phlegm—and immense sweat came over him so that my breath felt cold to him—“dont breath on me—it comes like Ice”—he clasped my hand very fast as I held him in my arms—the mucus was boiling within him—it gurgled in his throat—this increased—but yet he seem’d without pain—his eyes look’d upon me with extrem[e] sensibility but without pain—at 11 he died in my arms.

The memories of Keats’s friends are often as moving, as three-dimensional, as Keats’s own letters. He provoked in other people a generous sensitivity similar to his own, and it’s difficult not to feel that there’s something fundamentally Keatsian about the now almost 200-year-old effort to write Keats’s life. The story of that life is uncommonly compelling, to be sure, but Keats’s sensibility is even more uncommonly alluring. “Of course/ you’ll die in a week, suppurating on a camphor-/ soaked sheet,” writes the contemporary poet Dean Young of a young man about to have his arm amputated in a nineteenth-century surgical theater,

but above you, the assistant holding you down,
trying to fix you with sad, electric eyes
is John Keats.

A lot of great books have been written about Keats: critical books by some of the sharpest readers of our time (Christopher Ricks, Helen Vendler), and also biographies sustaining the highest levels of stylishness and insight. There’s no English-language poet whose life has provoked more distinguished attention, not even Shakespeare; and while several large-scale biographies of Keats have appeared in recent years, the twin achievements of Aileen Ward (whose John Keats: The Making of a Poet won the National Book Award in 1964) and Walter Jackson Bate (whose John Keats won the Pulitzer Prize the same year) still tower over the field: Ward’s for her psychological acuity, Bate’s for his nuanced account of the way poems get made, and both for the quietly seductive grace of their sentences. New information will come to light, new interpretations of old information will become necessary, but these books are permanent achievements: they gather up all prior thinking about Keats’s life and work, and all subsequent thinking has depended on them.

* * *

The word “new” is prominent in the title of Nicholas Roe’s John Keats: A New Life, but the arguments that determine its shape and demeanor are very old—older than the two biographies that split the book prizes between them half a century ago. “Who was John Keats?” asks Roe. “The sturdy twenty-two-year-old, who strode six hundred miles around Scotland? Or ‘a sickly boy of pretty abilities’ who had missed his path in the world?” Roe hammers the answer home: Keats was a poet of “remorseless intelligence” and “radiant masculinity.” The first characterization is accurate, but with the weirdly tone-deaf language of the second, Roe wants to focus our attention on the Keats who undertook an arduous walking tour, dosed himself with opium and (as most biographers of Keats have speculated, beginning with W.M. Rossetti in 1887) may have suffered from venereal disease. This biographer needs to assure us that the poet was no pansy.

Few readers today could take the phrase “radiant masculinity” seriously, but there was a time when some readers of Keats did—readers who remained immune to the allure of Keats’s remorseless intelligence. In the mid-nineteenth century, when Keats’s love letters to Fanny Brawne were first published, the Victorian poets Matthew Arnold and Algernon Charles Swinburne were repulsed by what seemed to them his unmanly vulnerability. This response to Keats was strong enough to infect even the thinking of people who otherwise admired Keats’s intelligence deeply, as these lines from W.B. Yeats’s early twentieth-century poem “Ego Dominus Tuus” suggest:

I see a schoolboy when I think of him,
With face and nose pressed to a sweet-shopt window,
For certainly he sank into his grave
His senses and his heart unsatisfied.

This is the conception of Keats against which Roe has aimed his new biography—and while it is stuffed with detail about Keats’s life and times, some of it new indeed, the book feels dusty, indentured to sweetly romantic assumptions about poetry. Would anyone be surprised that, say, a gifted cabinetmaker—proud of the fineness of his miters—was also a man who liked a stiff drink and a roll in the hay? Would his biographer feel compelled to prove him a regular guy, in the process derailing and often occluding any discussion of the art of cabinetry?

Keats was one of the greatest craftsmen ever to take the English language for his medium. But while Roe is an energetic researcher, eager to describe the political journalism of Keats’s friends or the daily routines at Guy’s Hospital, he is uncomfortable with poetic craft. His attempts to link Keats’s language with the material culture of Regency England are strained (and, perhaps more tellingly, given his lengthy accounts of that culture, few and far between). Are the lines “This living hand, now warm and capable/ Of earnest grasping” really conceivable only by a poet experienced “in the throbbing life of muscles, nerves, arteries, bone and blood”? Even more unsteady is Roe’s sense of how poems are bound up with other poems: he suggests that Keats’s use of the word “never” in the line “The poetry of earth is ceasing never” recalls King Lear’s “Never, never, never, never, never”—which is a bit like saying that Keats’s use of the word “is” recalls Hamlet’s “To be or not to be, that is the question.” Does Keats’s remark that “now I shall relish Hamlet more than I ever have done” support the proposition that Keats’s mother, like Hamlet’s, had “been keeping two men…on the go at the same time”?

Roe doesn’t devote many sentences to Keats’s major poems, but in his effort to say something new about the great odes of 1819, he pushes this combination of dogged literalism and unhinged speculation to new heights: “Ode to a Nightingale,” he says, is “one of the greatest re-creations of a drug-induced dream-vision in English literature. More than a figure of speech, Keats’s ‘dull opiate emptied to the drains’ frankly admits his own laudanum habit.” Because Roe hasn’t shown conclusively that Keats had a “habit,” the poem becomes proof of the speculation that it also provokes. How can we know that the lines “a drowsy numbness pains/ My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,/ Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains” are more than figurative? As the poem continues, Keats in any case rejects both opiates and alcohol, declaring that he will leave the world where “youth grows pale, and spectre-thin” on the “viewless wings of Poesy.” And ultimately, “Ode to a Nightingale” is no more a paean to the visionary power of poetry than it is a drug-induced dream vision, for the poet’s vision, however it may be induced, is revealed to be a cheat: in the unattainable realm invoked by the song of the nightingale, “the Queen-Moon is on her throne,/ Cluster’d around by all her starry Fays;/ But here there is no light.”

The but at the beginning of that line is perhaps the most poignant use of a conjunction in all of English poetry. “But here” where we live, where we die, says Keats, there is no light, no vision, and what little we can imagine of the world reminds us by its fragile beauty of our limitations and our ultimate demise: “Fast fading violets cover’d up in leaves;/ And mid-May’s eldest child,/ The coming musk-rose, full of dewy wine,/ The murmurous haunt of flies on summer eves.”

“Ode to a Nightingale” does not end there; as Keats once said of Shakespeare’s poems, it goes on to feel “full of fine things said unintentionally—in the intensity of working out conceits.” The poem’s language is constantly shifting, turning against itself, generating new ambiguities so quickly that its author seems barely able to keep up with his own invention. It would be good to know more about the actual circumstances of one of the half-dozen most beautifully made poems in the English language, but anyone who wants to read Keats’s life into the poem, or the poem into Keats’s life, is going to need a good dose of what Keats himself called, in a famous letter, “negative capability,” the ability to exist “in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.”

* * *

What is a biography of a poet for? Whom is it for? In the time it takes to read John Keats: A New Life, you could read all of Keats’s poems. If you stick to the major poems, you could read them several times. But unlike a biography, great poems can be hard to read; they demand that you read very slowly, not dispensing with the language in favor of its extractible information, as one might when reading a biography, but rather lingering over the language in spite of a dearth of information. How the poem says what it says, even more than what the poem says, needs to grip you deeply—just as in moments of great emotional intensity, you might be thrilled or enraged by how a person speaks to you, even if what the person said is insignificant. Even the most seasoned reader has more experience with the intricacies of people than the intricacies of poems, so a good book about a poet can focus our experience of reading, returning us to the language of the poems with a renewed vigor, with an appetite for varieties of difficulty that may have eluded or even repulsed us in the past. This good book might be as revelatory to the accomplished literary critic as to the reader who comes to Keats cold.

John Keats: A New Life does not return its reader to Keats’s poems; instead, it feels proud of its own putative discoveries, as if they were ends in themselves. At the same time, the book feels driven less by evidence than by polemic, a palpable design. It is the only biography of Keats I’ve read that is not moving, and perhaps the most encouraging thing I can say about it is that its author seems to recognize this. In the penultimate chapter, Roe ceases to narrate Keats’s life and instead turns the stage over to the poet and his friends, quoting their letters in an annotated chronology. Piazza di Spagna, February 8, 1821, Severn to Brown:

The thought of recovery is beyond every thing dreadful to him. We now dare not perceive any improvement; for the hope of death seems his only comfort. He talks of the quiet grave as the first rest he can ever have.

Piazza di Spagna, eleven days later, Severn to his wife:

I make bread and milk three times a day for Keats—for myself—sometimes tea—sometimes Chocolate—or Coffe[e]—my dinner now I go out for—I have 1st dish macarona—it is like a dish of large white earth worms—made of Flour with butter &c—very good—my 2nd dish is fish—and then comes Roast Beef or Mutton—a cutlet of Pork or wild boar—their vegetables here are beautiful—cabbage—cauliflower—brocola spinach—every good thing—and very well cooked—and then I have pudding every day.

Such juxtapositions of the dire and the everyday are unexpectedly thrilling, but the thrill itself is familiar because it feels like the experience of a great poem: richly sensuous language leading us to a recognition of loss that feels consoling, because it refreshes our wonder at the simplest pleasures, every good thing. “Then I have pudding every day”: the phrase is extruded from the experience of irremediable suffering, but it sounds like a child’s wish come true. Keats enabled his friend, as he enables his readers, to feel it.

In our April 30 issue, James Longenbach reviewed Geoffrey Brock’s anthology of twentieth-century Italian poetry.

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