John Keats: A New Life
Nicholas Roe (Yale University Press, £25, *£22.50)
John Keats’s life has been a magnet for bio-graphers. What is it about ‘little Keats’ that makes for big books? Nicholas Roe’s ‘New Life’ runs to the best part of 500 pages. His subject was 25 when he died in Rome in 1821, of tuberculosis, in a narrow bedroom overlooking the Spanish Steps.
The poet’s apartment is now a museum, as are his best-known London lodgings, in Hampstead. Both places are packed with books, manuscripts and paintings of the poet, but the portrait his first mentor described as the ‘most perfect’, Joseph Severn’s sketch from 1816, is in the V&A. Keats’s eyes are huge and urgent, fixed to the left, concentrated on some far horizon.
The facts of his life have been laid out many times, but the gaps between are tantalising. He was eight when his father died, after a fall from his horse, and 14 at the death from TB of his mother, who had precipitately remarried. But about his family history, acknowledged Sidney Colvin in his very thorough 1917 biography, ‘we remain as much in the dark as ever’. The boy was left enough money to fund him through medical training, but how is it that he never discovered the £800 due to him at 21-just when he abandoned medicine for poetry?
His first book, Poems (1817), received an anonymous review from J. G. Lockhart so lacerating that it was thought to have hastened the poet’s end: Byron would famously write: ‘’Tis strange the mind, that very fiery particle,/Should let itself be snuff’d out by an article.’ Did it? And what made Keats hold back in his relationship with Fanny Brawne?
When Colvin was a practitioner, biographies embellished library learning with literary style. In the age of Google, there is no excuse not to know everything; style defers to the deep substance of archival documentation, those few clicks away. Prof Roe, the biographer of Leigh Hunt, promoter of Shelley and Keats (the new ‘Young Poets’), does extraordinary work in peop-ling Keats’s London, from the City of his prosperous grandparents to the backgrounds of his close dining friends. ‘Little Keats’, only 5ft tall, has been depicted as a frail figure, a victim.
The Keats of this new biography is, on the contrary, a pug-nacious, even ruthless character, determined to prove himself, motivated by the deaths of his wayward, alcoholic mother (was she unfaithful?) and heroic, hard-working father (was he murdered?). Far from physically unselfconfident, this Keats is sexually active, his health broken not by reviewers, but by mercury and opiates self-administered for venereal disease.
His detractors cast him as a poet of the ‘Cockney School’. Not so, argues Prof Roe. Keats is a suburban poet from the ‘edge’, a West Countryman’s son who drew inspiration for his sublime and innovative verse from outside the capital-from visits to Shanklin, Teignmouth, Winchester; from the ‘sullen Mist’ he met at the top of Ben Nevis.
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