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Keats

A Brief Life in Nine Poems and One Epitaph

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On sale Apr 19, 2022 | 10 Hours and 5 Minutes | 978-0-593-55072-4
A dazzling new look into the short but intense, tragic life and remarkable work of John Keats, one of the greatest lyric poets of the English language, seen in a whole new light, not as the mythologized Victorian guileless nature-lover, but as the subversive, bawdy complex cynic whose life and poetry were lived and created on the edge.

In this brief life, acclaimed biographer Lucasta Miller takes nine of Keats's best-known poems—"Endymion"; "On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer"; "Ode to a Nightingale"; "To Autumn"; "Bright Star" among them—and excavates how they came to be and what in Keats's life led to their creation. She writes of aspects of Keats's life that have been overlooked, and explores his imagination in the context of his world and experience, paying tribute to the unique quality of his mind.
 
Miller, through Keats’s poetry, brilliantly resurrects and brings vividly to life, the man, the poet in all his complexity and spirit, living dangerously, disdaining respectability and cultural norms, and embracing subversive politics. Keats was a lower-middle-class outsider from a tragic and fractured family, whose extraordinary energy and love of language allowed him to pummel his way into the heart of English literature; a freethinker and a liberal at a time of repression, who delighted in the sensation of the moment.
 
We see how Keats was regarded by his contemporaries (his writing was seen as smutty) and how the young poet’s large and boisterous life—a man of the metropolis, who took drugs, was sexually reckless and afflicted with syphilis—went straight up against the Victorian moral grain; and Miller makes clear why his writing—considered marginal and avant-garde in his own day—retains its astonishing originality, sensuousness and power two centuries on.
Prologue

Body and Soul

THIS IS A BOOK by a reader for readers. Written with a non-specialist audience in mind, it takes nine of Keats’s best-known poems—the ones you are most likely to have read—and excavates their backstories. Reproduced at the beginning of each chapter, the poems are arranged chronologically in the order in which Keats wrote them. They are used as entry points into telling his life story, although this is not quite a conventional biography. Instead, my aim has been to get under the skin of those now famous poems, to see how he made them and to answer the questions about them, and him, that have always intrigued, inspired or irked me. The close readings are my own, but they are informed by a long tradition of Keats scholarship and draw on the most recent research and critical currents.

As I write this, in lockdown London in 2020, the two-hundredth anniversary of his death in 2021 is approaching. I want to foreground those aspects of the poet’s life and work that haven’t always made it into the popular imagination, which still tends to make him appear rather more ethereal than he actually was. It’s hard, for example, to imagine that the Keats in the award-winning romantic biopic Bright Star (2009)—which focuses chastely on his relationship with Fanny Brawne, with whom he fell in love toward the end of his short life—could have taken medication for syphilis. Or that he could have had radical and heterodox political and religious opinions. Or that he had experienced a painfully dysfunctional childhood, taken drugs, inserted a scalpel into a man’s head or extracted a bullet from a woman’s neck. Or that he had gone on to die with his lungs so ravaged by tuberculosis that the doctors who performed the autopsy could not believe he had lived as long as he had.

Most important, the film does not explain how he could have grabbed established English verse by the scruff of its neck and shaken it into something utterly fresh, while inventing strange new words, such as “surgy,” “palely,” “soother” and “adventuresome”; and creating phrases, including “tender is the night,” “negative capability,” and “A thing of beauty is a joy for ever,” that went on to have an afterlife divorced from their original context. According to one critic at the time, Keats rejected “prescriptive language” in pursuit of his “own originality.” His contemporaries bridled. In 1820, the Literary Chronicle and Weekly Review complained that Keats’s work was “unintelligible” and urged him to “avoid coining new words.” For that reason, the London Magazine opined that some might regard him as “a subject for laughter or for pity.” Keats has had the last laugh.

The urge to imagine dead poets into life is something that John Keats understood. On the evening of Friday, March 12, 1819, he depicted himself in the momentary act of writing, as he scribbled a new installment in a long journal-letter, written over several weeks between February 14 and May 3, to his brother George and sister-in-law Georgiana, who had recently immigrated to America:

the candles are burnt down and I am using the wax taper—which has a long snuff on it—the fire is at its last click—I am sitting with my back to it with one foot rather askew upon the rug and the other with the heel a little elevated from the carpet . . . ​Could I see the same . . . ​of any great Man long since dead it would be a great delight: as to know in what position Shakespeare sat when he began “To be or not to be.”

We can’t satisfy Keats’s curiosity about Shakespeare, but this vignette brings John Keats himself vividly—and, to posterity, voyeuristically—to life. He was twenty-three at the time and, though he didn’t know it, had a little less than two years to live.

Nothing much has surfaced about Shakespeare’s day-to-day existence since 1819, even after a further two hundred years of increasingly in-depth scholarship. Although the posthumous impact of his works on culture—including, electrically, on Keats himself—is more recorded and expansive than that of any other English writer, Shakespeare the man remains resolutely disembodied, despite the efforts of his biographers, owing to the lack of surviving contemporary letters and diaries. His context can—and has been—reconstructed in ever more fascinating detail, but Shakespeare as a subjective individual remains for us a nonentity. He indeed seems the ultimate chameleon poet, as Keats put it, who has “no self” (or “camelion Poet,” to quote Keats in his original spelling, which is often quite idiosyncratic, as is his punctuation).

We have a lot more detailed, time-specific, personal information about John Keats. We know, for example, exactly where he was when he wrote to George and Georgiana, by the dull light of a taper and with his back to the fire: at Wentworth Place, the house on the edge of Hampstead Heath where he was then living as the lodger of his friend Charles Armitage Brown. It’s now a museum called Keats House. You can visit it today and see the very fireplace where those dying embers “clicked.”

These days, Keats House sits on a street renamed Keats Grove in which the other houses are now prestigious properties, affordable only by international bankers, from which most twentysomething writers in the London area would be priced out. It’s a world away, economically, from that of the insecure Regency middle class to which Keats and his friends belonged, though the instability they lived through was not that far away from the experience of today’s urban millennials.

In 1819, Keats House was a pretty but modest suburban new-build, finished less than three years before he moved in, and architecturally a bit of a cheat. From the front, it looked like a symmetrically proportioned single villa, with a central front door and windows on either side, like a child’s drawing of what a house should look like. But the facade hid the fact that it was designed on the inside to house two small independent semidetached dwellings, divided by a party wall, each with its own individual staircase: a symptom of the way in which Regency taste often had more to do with aspirational appearance than reality. In the later nineteenth century, the house was remodeled. The front door used by Brown and Keats—which was around the side—no longer exists; nor does their staircase. But the rooms where they lived—each had a study on the raised ground floor and a bedroom above—are the same.

In the case of Keats’s works, in contrast to those of Shakespeare, there are instances where testimony has survived to tell us something about the actual, physical moment of composition. Most famously, his “Ode to a Nightingale” was said by Charles Brown to have been written one spring morning in 1819. According to Brown’s later recollections, Keats took a chair out into the garden after breakfast to sit on the grass under a plum tree, where a nightingale had built a nest. He came back into the house a couple of hours later with some scraps of paper which he then proceeded, in Brown’s account, to try to hide by thrusting them behind some books.

In Brown’s memoir of Keats, written more than a decade after the poet died, although not published until 1937, this becomes a parable of Romantic unworldliness, of a Keats supremely uninterested in anything beyond the moment of inspiration. As Brown depicts it, it is he, Brown, who rescues the scribbled sheets—“four or five in number”—and gets them into shape: a job of work, he tells us, as the “writing was not well legible.” Happily, as Brown puts it, “With his [Keats’s] assistance I succeeded . . . ​Thus I rescued that Ode.” It’s hard not to suspect that it was Brown’s prying eyes that Keats was trying to circumvent when he thrust the papers behind the books, if that is indeed what happened. He was certainly not shy about publishing the ode, which was printed in The Annals of the Fine Arts in July 1819, then again, a year later, in the Literary Gazette on July 1, 1820, as a pre-puff just prior to its inclusion in his collection Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St. Agnes, and Other Poems, the third and last of the books he published in his lifetime.

The posthumous shaping of the Keats myth by his contemporary acquaintances—and their occasional desire to claim complicity in his creativity—has proved both an inestimable resource and an ambivalent legacy since his death at twenty-five in Rome, where he had gone in the vain hope of arresting his terminal tuberculosis. His traveling companion, the young painter Joseph Severn, who oversaw Keats’s medical treatment, took on an extraordinary burden. Both were only in their twenties at the time and Severn’s father had, understandably, tried to stop him from going, as he thought it a rash course. Severn’s written account of Keats’s final days remains biographically priceless, though it’s not uncontroversial. The famous portrait that he made of the dying Keats, which shows the poet’s hair plastered down with sweat, combines documentary candor with eerie symbolism, the face silhouetted against a dark disc that looks like a setting sun about to make its slow disappearance behind the bedclothes.

It’s a strange thought that Keats’s intimate friends—as an orphan, friendship was important to him, as indeed was the kindness of strangers—knew him so briefly, though that’s inevitable given he was only twenty-five when he died in 1821. Severn first met Keats at the earliest in late 1815, so their acquaintance was only around five years, though it subsequently colored the rest of the painter’s life, during which he produced endless posthumous portraits of the poet, none as intimate as the deathbed sketch. When Severn finally died, aged eighty-five, in 1879, he was buried next to Keats in the foreigners’ cemetery in Rome under a matching gravestone of his own design.

Brown, by his own account, first met Keats in the late summer of 1817. Although the pair went on a bonding eight-week hiking holiday to Scotland in 1818, they were housemates at Wentworth Place for less than eighteen months. Since becoming a museum, Wentworth Place is the house with which Keats is most associated today. The flat above the Spanish Steps in Rome, where he died, and which is also now a museum, comes a close second. Keats himself was restless and rootless, never staying long at any address to the extent that it’s a challenge to keep track of all the different places where he lived or stayed.

In his “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” Keats refers to “slow time.” Time certainly plays tricks when you’re looking at his brief life. It balloons—both in terms of the documentation and in terms of his lasting achievements—in his so-called “living year,” 1819, during which he wrote most of his best poetry, including his now famous odes. There’s much less known about his early childhood and he left little direct testimony about his experience during his final months, when he was too ill to write.

The epitaph Keats wrote for his own gravestone—“Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water”—seemingly damned him to oblivion. And yet Keats also told his brother George, in a confident if throwaway aside on October 14, 1818, “I think I shall be among the English Poets after my death.” The latter prophecy—fittingly for a poet who was so interested in the poets of the past, especially Shakespeare, and their continued reach into the present—has come to pass. There are Keats scholars alive today who have spent longer studying his works than his twenty-five-year life span.

The vast corpus of commentary Keats has inspired can seem intimidating for anyone trying to get close to him for the first timew today. The first full Life and Letters of Keats was published in 1848, over a quarter of a century after he died, by the poet and politician Richard Monckton Milnes (Lord Houghton). It put a significant part of the poet’s private correspondence on record for the first time, though not all. Keats’s letters to Fanny Brawne, the woman whom he loved, were not included, and Milnes omitted any reference to her name. He also toned down Keats’s voice.

By the twentieth century, Keats’s biography had become a genre in its own right as succeeding generations added to the sum of information and interpretation. Over the course of the last hundred years, more than twenty lives have been published, including landmark works such as John Keats by Amy Lowell (1924), John Keats by Robert Gittings (1968) and, most recently, Nicholas Roe’s monumental John Keats: A New Life (2012). Their titles can be found in the bibliography. It’s something of a relief that Roe concludes, in an essay titled “Undefinitive Keats,” that coming to grips with the dead poet represents a “cumulative process of collaboration across the years in which fresh understandings will continue to provoke new questions.”

Alongside the biographies are the myriad and ever-burgeoning critical studies now available. Essay topics plucked at random from the Keats–Shelley Journal range from “Keats’s Post-Newtonian Poetics,” to “The Etymology of Porphyro’s Name in Keats’s ‘Eve of St. Agnes,’ ” to “Which Letters Did Keats Take to Rome?” You can add to that the vast number of book-length monographs on offer. Their titles range from the neutral (such as Reading John Keats) via the determinedly abstract (Keats and Nature; Keats and Philosophy) to the unabashedly physical, from The Dying Keats: A Case for Euthanasia? to Keats, Modesty and Masturbation.

Then there are the other books that include explorations of his life and works but don’t have his name in the title, from The Monstrous Debt: Modalities of Romantic Influence in Twentieth-Century Literature to the worrying-sounding Weakness: A Literary and Philosophical History. Added to that are the websites, blog posts and tweets that, since the internet revolution starting around 2000, have added a further layer to the public construction of “Keats,” which continues to replicate through culture.

One of the most famous twentieth-century critical commentaries remains that by Christopher Ricks, Keats and Embarrassment, first published nearly fifty years ago, a brilliant book-length essay whose title alone is enough to trip you up. Taking in everything from the nineteenth-century physiological science of blushing to a rather tasteless practical joke played by Keats himself, it muses on the moral value of embarrassment—uncertainty, self-consciousness—as a human experience. Anyone who has even a glancing acquaintance with the scholarly literature will feel embarrassed at the prospect of daring to approach Keats directly, given the riches on offer by previous commentators, a literature so vast that it seems it could almost suffocate the poet even as it illuminates him.

As early as 1924 the Keats biographer Amy Lowell feared she was already telling a “tale twice told.” But the fact remains that every new reader coming to his poems is coming to them afresh, perhaps with something like the sense of discovery that he himself experienced in his own reading of past poetry. John Keats’s work has by now become a pillar of the canon across the English-speaking global scene, taught in schools or universities wherever “English Literature” is an established subject, from India to Australia, from the United States to China. And yet his writing still has the capacity to astonish with its individuality. Keats refused to bow to conventionalities in his lifetime. His voice, marginal and avant-garde in his own day, retains its vertiginous originality. Despite the fact that he has been posthumously accorded the role of poetic influencer and canonized as a dead white European male, he remains an eloquent outlier.

At the same time, his voice, which still speaks across the generations, was a product of its own historical moment and was, moreover, fed by the influence on him of other writers. To read him is to participate in an invisible web that has connected human beings over millennia via the literary imagination. Keats was inspired by earlier poets from Virgil to Shakespeare, and he himself went on to inspire creativity in others, from poets such as Oscar Wilde, Thomas Hardy and W. B. Yeats to the science fiction novelist Dan Simmons. For Keats, who came from outside the establishment, the idea of participating in a literary tradition seemed democratic and forward-looking, not conservative or hidebound.

Although Keats’s short but intense existence is more richly documented than Shakespeare’s longer life (the latter died at fifty-two and wrote his first play at around the age Keats died), gaps remain in the biographical record. Even the precise date of his birth in 1795 has been disputed. The painstaking work of editors and textual scholars over the years means that all his known writings, and the testimonies of his friends, are available in print. The best record of his experience as an individual is to be found in his extant letters, which cover the period of his greatest creativity. To redeploy his own selfdescription, they show him “young[,] writing at random— straining at particles of light in the midst of a great darkness,” as he put it in the long letter to George and Georgiana in which, inter alia, he depicted himself writing with his back to the fire and wondering about Shakespeare.

In that carelessly punctuated phrase, Keats was describing his own philosophical speculations, but his words could just as easily be applied to the letters themselves, which are among the best ever written in English, though they weren’t written for publication. Certainly, among Romantic period letters, only Byron’s come anywhere close. (It’s a tragedy that so many of Jane Austen’s were destroyed.) Byron, no doubt, had a more self-consciously tuned eye to posturing for posterity when he wrote them. An aristocratic megastar at the time, he mocked “Jack Keats or Ketch or whatever his names are” in his correspondence as a lower-class literary wannabe whose poetry was no more than “a sort of mental masturbation.” Byron’s manner was superciliously de haut en bas. Posterity has since leveled them up.

Even if he had never written a line of poetry, Keats’s letters would make you gasp with their in-the-moment, sinewy, free-flowing stream of consciousness, which shows his elastic mind on the move, whether he’s inventing new philosophical concepts such as “negative capability” or making crude jokes. (The coarse sexual references were excised in Richard Monckton Milnes’s Victorian edition.) They promise, to quote Hamlet’s advice to the players, “to give the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.” One moment, we’re in the midst of gossipy news about his friendship group, or the latest play he’s seen, or his current-affairs take on Napoleon Bonaparte, or the contemporary financial crisis, or his chance meeting with the celebrated poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge on Hampstead Heath, or what he’s been eating and drinking. The next, he’s tumbling into poetry, sometimes into a masterpiece.
© Sim Canetty-Clarke

Dr. Lucasta Miller is a British critic and historian who has lectured and broadcast widely on 19th-century literature. Her influential afterlife study, The Bronte Myth, first published in 2001, was reissued in a new edition in 2020; her pioneering biography of the 'female Byron' Letitia Landon was shortlisted for the NBCC awards in 2019. She has worked as a profile-writer for the Guardian and contributed to the Financial Times, the Daily Telegraph and the BBC. A former visiting fellow at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, she is currently Royal Literary Fund Fellow at the Courtauld Institute and reviews for The Spectator

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A dazzling new look into the short but intense, tragic life and remarkable work of John Keats, one of the greatest lyric poets of the English language, seen in a whole new light, not as the mythologized Victorian guileless nature-lover, but as the subversive, bawdy complex cynic whose life and poetry were lived and created on the edge.

In this brief life, acclaimed biographer Lucasta Miller takes nine of Keats's best-known poems—"Endymion"; "On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer"; "Ode to a Nightingale"; "To Autumn"; "Bright Star" among them—and excavates how they came to be and what in Keats's life led to their creation. She writes of aspects of Keats's life that have been overlooked, and explores his imagination in the context of his world and experience, paying tribute to the unique quality of his mind.
 
Miller, through Keats’s poetry, brilliantly resurrects and brings vividly to life, the man, the poet in all his complexity and spirit, living dangerously, disdaining respectability and cultural norms, and embracing subversive politics. Keats was a lower-middle-class outsider from a tragic and fractured family, whose extraordinary energy and love of language allowed him to pummel his way into the heart of English literature; a freethinker and a liberal at a time of repression, who delighted in the sensation of the moment.
 
We see how Keats was regarded by his contemporaries (his writing was seen as smutty) and how the young poet’s large and boisterous life—a man of the metropolis, who took drugs, was sexually reckless and afflicted with syphilis—went straight up against the Victorian moral grain; and Miller makes clear why his writing—considered marginal and avant-garde in his own day—retains its astonishing originality, sensuousness and power two centuries on.

Excerpt

Prologue

Body and Soul

THIS IS A BOOK by a reader for readers. Written with a non-specialist audience in mind, it takes nine of Keats’s best-known poems—the ones you are most likely to have read—and excavates their backstories. Reproduced at the beginning of each chapter, the poems are arranged chronologically in the order in which Keats wrote them. They are used as entry points into telling his life story, although this is not quite a conventional biography. Instead, my aim has been to get under the skin of those now famous poems, to see how he made them and to answer the questions about them, and him, that have always intrigued, inspired or irked me. The close readings are my own, but they are informed by a long tradition of Keats scholarship and draw on the most recent research and critical currents.

As I write this, in lockdown London in 2020, the two-hundredth anniversary of his death in 2021 is approaching. I want to foreground those aspects of the poet’s life and work that haven’t always made it into the popular imagination, which still tends to make him appear rather more ethereal than he actually was. It’s hard, for example, to imagine that the Keats in the award-winning romantic biopic Bright Star (2009)—which focuses chastely on his relationship with Fanny Brawne, with whom he fell in love toward the end of his short life—could have taken medication for syphilis. Or that he could have had radical and heterodox political and religious opinions. Or that he had experienced a painfully dysfunctional childhood, taken drugs, inserted a scalpel into a man’s head or extracted a bullet from a woman’s neck. Or that he had gone on to die with his lungs so ravaged by tuberculosis that the doctors who performed the autopsy could not believe he had lived as long as he had.

Most important, the film does not explain how he could have grabbed established English verse by the scruff of its neck and shaken it into something utterly fresh, while inventing strange new words, such as “surgy,” “palely,” “soother” and “adventuresome”; and creating phrases, including “tender is the night,” “negative capability,” and “A thing of beauty is a joy for ever,” that went on to have an afterlife divorced from their original context. According to one critic at the time, Keats rejected “prescriptive language” in pursuit of his “own originality.” His contemporaries bridled. In 1820, the Literary Chronicle and Weekly Review complained that Keats’s work was “unintelligible” and urged him to “avoid coining new words.” For that reason, the London Magazine opined that some might regard him as “a subject for laughter or for pity.” Keats has had the last laugh.

The urge to imagine dead poets into life is something that John Keats understood. On the evening of Friday, March 12, 1819, he depicted himself in the momentary act of writing, as he scribbled a new installment in a long journal-letter, written over several weeks between February 14 and May 3, to his brother George and sister-in-law Georgiana, who had recently immigrated to America:

the candles are burnt down and I am using the wax taper—which has a long snuff on it—the fire is at its last click—I am sitting with my back to it with one foot rather askew upon the rug and the other with the heel a little elevated from the carpet . . . ​Could I see the same . . . ​of any great Man long since dead it would be a great delight: as to know in what position Shakespeare sat when he began “To be or not to be.”

We can’t satisfy Keats’s curiosity about Shakespeare, but this vignette brings John Keats himself vividly—and, to posterity, voyeuristically—to life. He was twenty-three at the time and, though he didn’t know it, had a little less than two years to live.

Nothing much has surfaced about Shakespeare’s day-to-day existence since 1819, even after a further two hundred years of increasingly in-depth scholarship. Although the posthumous impact of his works on culture—including, electrically, on Keats himself—is more recorded and expansive than that of any other English writer, Shakespeare the man remains resolutely disembodied, despite the efforts of his biographers, owing to the lack of surviving contemporary letters and diaries. His context can—and has been—reconstructed in ever more fascinating detail, but Shakespeare as a subjective individual remains for us a nonentity. He indeed seems the ultimate chameleon poet, as Keats put it, who has “no self” (or “camelion Poet,” to quote Keats in his original spelling, which is often quite idiosyncratic, as is his punctuation).

We have a lot more detailed, time-specific, personal information about John Keats. We know, for example, exactly where he was when he wrote to George and Georgiana, by the dull light of a taper and with his back to the fire: at Wentworth Place, the house on the edge of Hampstead Heath where he was then living as the lodger of his friend Charles Armitage Brown. It’s now a museum called Keats House. You can visit it today and see the very fireplace where those dying embers “clicked.”

These days, Keats House sits on a street renamed Keats Grove in which the other houses are now prestigious properties, affordable only by international bankers, from which most twentysomething writers in the London area would be priced out. It’s a world away, economically, from that of the insecure Regency middle class to which Keats and his friends belonged, though the instability they lived through was not that far away from the experience of today’s urban millennials.

In 1819, Keats House was a pretty but modest suburban new-build, finished less than three years before he moved in, and architecturally a bit of a cheat. From the front, it looked like a symmetrically proportioned single villa, with a central front door and windows on either side, like a child’s drawing of what a house should look like. But the facade hid the fact that it was designed on the inside to house two small independent semidetached dwellings, divided by a party wall, each with its own individual staircase: a symptom of the way in which Regency taste often had more to do with aspirational appearance than reality. In the later nineteenth century, the house was remodeled. The front door used by Brown and Keats—which was around the side—no longer exists; nor does their staircase. But the rooms where they lived—each had a study on the raised ground floor and a bedroom above—are the same.

In the case of Keats’s works, in contrast to those of Shakespeare, there are instances where testimony has survived to tell us something about the actual, physical moment of composition. Most famously, his “Ode to a Nightingale” was said by Charles Brown to have been written one spring morning in 1819. According to Brown’s later recollections, Keats took a chair out into the garden after breakfast to sit on the grass under a plum tree, where a nightingale had built a nest. He came back into the house a couple of hours later with some scraps of paper which he then proceeded, in Brown’s account, to try to hide by thrusting them behind some books.

In Brown’s memoir of Keats, written more than a decade after the poet died, although not published until 1937, this becomes a parable of Romantic unworldliness, of a Keats supremely uninterested in anything beyond the moment of inspiration. As Brown depicts it, it is he, Brown, who rescues the scribbled sheets—“four or five in number”—and gets them into shape: a job of work, he tells us, as the “writing was not well legible.” Happily, as Brown puts it, “With his [Keats’s] assistance I succeeded . . . ​Thus I rescued that Ode.” It’s hard not to suspect that it was Brown’s prying eyes that Keats was trying to circumvent when he thrust the papers behind the books, if that is indeed what happened. He was certainly not shy about publishing the ode, which was printed in The Annals of the Fine Arts in July 1819, then again, a year later, in the Literary Gazette on July 1, 1820, as a pre-puff just prior to its inclusion in his collection Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St. Agnes, and Other Poems, the third and last of the books he published in his lifetime.

The posthumous shaping of the Keats myth by his contemporary acquaintances—and their occasional desire to claim complicity in his creativity—has proved both an inestimable resource and an ambivalent legacy since his death at twenty-five in Rome, where he had gone in the vain hope of arresting his terminal tuberculosis. His traveling companion, the young painter Joseph Severn, who oversaw Keats’s medical treatment, took on an extraordinary burden. Both were only in their twenties at the time and Severn’s father had, understandably, tried to stop him from going, as he thought it a rash course. Severn’s written account of Keats’s final days remains biographically priceless, though it’s not uncontroversial. The famous portrait that he made of the dying Keats, which shows the poet’s hair plastered down with sweat, combines documentary candor with eerie symbolism, the face silhouetted against a dark disc that looks like a setting sun about to make its slow disappearance behind the bedclothes.

It’s a strange thought that Keats’s intimate friends—as an orphan, friendship was important to him, as indeed was the kindness of strangers—knew him so briefly, though that’s inevitable given he was only twenty-five when he died in 1821. Severn first met Keats at the earliest in late 1815, so their acquaintance was only around five years, though it subsequently colored the rest of the painter’s life, during which he produced endless posthumous portraits of the poet, none as intimate as the deathbed sketch. When Severn finally died, aged eighty-five, in 1879, he was buried next to Keats in the foreigners’ cemetery in Rome under a matching gravestone of his own design.

Brown, by his own account, first met Keats in the late summer of 1817. Although the pair went on a bonding eight-week hiking holiday to Scotland in 1818, they were housemates at Wentworth Place for less than eighteen months. Since becoming a museum, Wentworth Place is the house with which Keats is most associated today. The flat above the Spanish Steps in Rome, where he died, and which is also now a museum, comes a close second. Keats himself was restless and rootless, never staying long at any address to the extent that it’s a challenge to keep track of all the different places where he lived or stayed.

In his “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” Keats refers to “slow time.” Time certainly plays tricks when you’re looking at his brief life. It balloons—both in terms of the documentation and in terms of his lasting achievements—in his so-called “living year,” 1819, during which he wrote most of his best poetry, including his now famous odes. There’s much less known about his early childhood and he left little direct testimony about his experience during his final months, when he was too ill to write.

The epitaph Keats wrote for his own gravestone—“Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water”—seemingly damned him to oblivion. And yet Keats also told his brother George, in a confident if throwaway aside on October 14, 1818, “I think I shall be among the English Poets after my death.” The latter prophecy—fittingly for a poet who was so interested in the poets of the past, especially Shakespeare, and their continued reach into the present—has come to pass. There are Keats scholars alive today who have spent longer studying his works than his twenty-five-year life span.

The vast corpus of commentary Keats has inspired can seem intimidating for anyone trying to get close to him for the first timew today. The first full Life and Letters of Keats was published in 1848, over a quarter of a century after he died, by the poet and politician Richard Monckton Milnes (Lord Houghton). It put a significant part of the poet’s private correspondence on record for the first time, though not all. Keats’s letters to Fanny Brawne, the woman whom he loved, were not included, and Milnes omitted any reference to her name. He also toned down Keats’s voice.

By the twentieth century, Keats’s biography had become a genre in its own right as succeeding generations added to the sum of information and interpretation. Over the course of the last hundred years, more than twenty lives have been published, including landmark works such as John Keats by Amy Lowell (1924), John Keats by Robert Gittings (1968) and, most recently, Nicholas Roe’s monumental John Keats: A New Life (2012). Their titles can be found in the bibliography. It’s something of a relief that Roe concludes, in an essay titled “Undefinitive Keats,” that coming to grips with the dead poet represents a “cumulative process of collaboration across the years in which fresh understandings will continue to provoke new questions.”

Alongside the biographies are the myriad and ever-burgeoning critical studies now available. Essay topics plucked at random from the Keats–Shelley Journal range from “Keats’s Post-Newtonian Poetics,” to “The Etymology of Porphyro’s Name in Keats’s ‘Eve of St. Agnes,’ ” to “Which Letters Did Keats Take to Rome?” You can add to that the vast number of book-length monographs on offer. Their titles range from the neutral (such as Reading John Keats) via the determinedly abstract (Keats and Nature; Keats and Philosophy) to the unabashedly physical, from The Dying Keats: A Case for Euthanasia? to Keats, Modesty and Masturbation.

Then there are the other books that include explorations of his life and works but don’t have his name in the title, from The Monstrous Debt: Modalities of Romantic Influence in Twentieth-Century Literature to the worrying-sounding Weakness: A Literary and Philosophical History. Added to that are the websites, blog posts and tweets that, since the internet revolution starting around 2000, have added a further layer to the public construction of “Keats,” which continues to replicate through culture.

One of the most famous twentieth-century critical commentaries remains that by Christopher Ricks, Keats and Embarrassment, first published nearly fifty years ago, a brilliant book-length essay whose title alone is enough to trip you up. Taking in everything from the nineteenth-century physiological science of blushing to a rather tasteless practical joke played by Keats himself, it muses on the moral value of embarrassment—uncertainty, self-consciousness—as a human experience. Anyone who has even a glancing acquaintance with the scholarly literature will feel embarrassed at the prospect of daring to approach Keats directly, given the riches on offer by previous commentators, a literature so vast that it seems it could almost suffocate the poet even as it illuminates him.

As early as 1924 the Keats biographer Amy Lowell feared she was already telling a “tale twice told.” But the fact remains that every new reader coming to his poems is coming to them afresh, perhaps with something like the sense of discovery that he himself experienced in his own reading of past poetry. John Keats’s work has by now become a pillar of the canon across the English-speaking global scene, taught in schools or universities wherever “English Literature” is an established subject, from India to Australia, from the United States to China. And yet his writing still has the capacity to astonish with its individuality. Keats refused to bow to conventionalities in his lifetime. His voice, marginal and avant-garde in his own day, retains its vertiginous originality. Despite the fact that he has been posthumously accorded the role of poetic influencer and canonized as a dead white European male, he remains an eloquent outlier.

At the same time, his voice, which still speaks across the generations, was a product of its own historical moment and was, moreover, fed by the influence on him of other writers. To read him is to participate in an invisible web that has connected human beings over millennia via the literary imagination. Keats was inspired by earlier poets from Virgil to Shakespeare, and he himself went on to inspire creativity in others, from poets such as Oscar Wilde, Thomas Hardy and W. B. Yeats to the science fiction novelist Dan Simmons. For Keats, who came from outside the establishment, the idea of participating in a literary tradition seemed democratic and forward-looking, not conservative or hidebound.

Although Keats’s short but intense existence is more richly documented than Shakespeare’s longer life (the latter died at fifty-two and wrote his first play at around the age Keats died), gaps remain in the biographical record. Even the precise date of his birth in 1795 has been disputed. The painstaking work of editors and textual scholars over the years means that all his known writings, and the testimonies of his friends, are available in print. The best record of his experience as an individual is to be found in his extant letters, which cover the period of his greatest creativity. To redeploy his own selfdescription, they show him “young[,] writing at random— straining at particles of light in the midst of a great darkness,” as he put it in the long letter to George and Georgiana in which, inter alia, he depicted himself writing with his back to the fire and wondering about Shakespeare.

In that carelessly punctuated phrase, Keats was describing his own philosophical speculations, but his words could just as easily be applied to the letters themselves, which are among the best ever written in English, though they weren’t written for publication. Certainly, among Romantic period letters, only Byron’s come anywhere close. (It’s a tragedy that so many of Jane Austen’s were destroyed.) Byron, no doubt, had a more self-consciously tuned eye to posturing for posterity when he wrote them. An aristocratic megastar at the time, he mocked “Jack Keats or Ketch or whatever his names are” in his correspondence as a lower-class literary wannabe whose poetry was no more than “a sort of mental masturbation.” Byron’s manner was superciliously de haut en bas. Posterity has since leveled them up.

Even if he had never written a line of poetry, Keats’s letters would make you gasp with their in-the-moment, sinewy, free-flowing stream of consciousness, which shows his elastic mind on the move, whether he’s inventing new philosophical concepts such as “negative capability” or making crude jokes. (The coarse sexual references were excised in Richard Monckton Milnes’s Victorian edition.) They promise, to quote Hamlet’s advice to the players, “to give the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.” One moment, we’re in the midst of gossipy news about his friendship group, or the latest play he’s seen, or his current-affairs take on Napoleon Bonaparte, or the contemporary financial crisis, or his chance meeting with the celebrated poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge on Hampstead Heath, or what he’s been eating and drinking. The next, he’s tumbling into poetry, sometimes into a masterpiece.

Author

© Sim Canetty-Clarke

Dr. Lucasta Miller is a British critic and historian who has lectured and broadcast widely on 19th-century literature. Her influential afterlife study, The Bronte Myth, first published in 2001, was reissued in a new edition in 2020; her pioneering biography of the 'female Byron' Letitia Landon was shortlisted for the NBCC awards in 2019. She has worked as a profile-writer for the Guardian and contributed to the Financial Times, the Daily Telegraph and the BBC. A former visiting fellow at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, she is currently Royal Literary Fund Fellow at the Courtauld Institute and reviews for The Spectator

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