By DAVID MASON
John Keats, dead of consumption at 25, left behind some of the most abundant poetry in English. He was a small man, barely five feet tall, who became a giant figure even in the popular imagination. Jane Campion's beautiful but flawed film "Bright Star" (2009) portrayed him as a sensitive, somber fellow who went about quoting his letters to friends. A more believable depiction is Anthony Burgess's 1977 novella, "ABBA ABBA," in which a combative Keats, close to death in Rome, resists the conventional piety of his companion Joseph Severn: "What will you read—the Holy Bible? I approve the style but condemn the content. God's name, making man sinful so he could play with his hopes and terrors, has God nothing better to do?"
There may be truth in both characterizations, but the latter seems closer to the man found in the poems and letters, who said experience was "proved upon our pulses." The man who could write: "There is nothing stable in the world; uproar's your only music."
John Keats: A New Life
By Nicholas Roe
Yale, 446 pages, $32.50
Biographers of Keats (1795-1821) have leaned mostly toward the Campion view. The sympathetic poets Amy Lowell (1925), Andrew Motion (1997) and Stanley Plumly (2008) presented Keats as a tragic figure. And scholars like Aileen Ward (1962), Walter Jackson Bate—whose magisterial 1963 study won the Pulitzer Prize—and Robert Gittings (1968) have preferred to give us readings of Keats in the context of his vibrant literary era. Until now, biographers have tended not to see the young poet as a robust figure. In his new biography, Nicholas Roe opens with Keats on the Isle of Mull off Scotland in 1818, pursuing the sublime among moors and mountains. He asks, "Who was John Keats? The sturdy twenty-two-year old who strode six hundred miles around Scotland? Or 'a sickly boy of pretty abilities' who missed his path in the world?"
Mr. Roe's Keats is one I can believe in: a lively fellow, even athletic, who enjoyed dodgy sports like boxing and bear-baiting as well as the theater, who loved wine and may have indulged too much in laudanum (the popular painkiller mixing opium and alcohol), who was "sexually adventurous," yet had fraught relations with women until he fell in love with Fanny Brawne in 1819. (It seems clear that Keats picked up a venereal disease the year before.) Mr. Roe presents his hero in Scotland scribbling, "There was a naughty boy / A naughty boy was he / He would not stop at home / He could not quiet be," and observes: "This delightful 'song about myself' gives us the exuberant Keats who partied, played in scatty, improvised orchestras with his friends, and 'worked' glasses of wine—sparkling, tipsy, unpredictable, marvelous company."
It's not that Keats wasn't also death-haunted and prone to depression. Born in 1795, the eldest child of a stable owner, he was only 8 years old when his father died in a fall from a horse. When his mother, portrayed by Mr. Roe as a bit wayward, died of consumption, Keats was 14, racked with grief and thereafter utterly devoted to his three surviving younger siblings, George, Tom (who would also die young) and Fanny. Relatives stepped in, both to find positions for the children and to trouble their inheritance with lawsuits. John was apprenticed to a surgeon.
Keats had had excellent schooling and developed a clear aptitude for poetry—he would as a teenager translate all of Virgil's "Aeneid" and set himself to study Spenser's "Faerie Queene." Though he had lofty aspirations, he was not an idealist. His poverty and daily work in a hospital saw to that. Not only did he spend countless hours in the wards of the sick and dying, he also practiced "dissecting the corpses and body parts dug up and supplied by the hospital's 'resurrection men,' Ben Crouch (ex-prize fighter) and Bill Butler (dealer in bones and teeth)." Keats was good at his work. He passed his medical exams at the earliest possible age and might even have joined the College of Surgeons. Instead, at 21, he unexpectedly inherited a small income and announced that he would devote himself to poetry.
The Brothers Keats
Some of John Keats's most important thinking about poetry and life can be found in the long journal-like letters he wrote to his brother George, who in 1818 had emigrated to America. The brothers were intensely loyal to each other, bonding not only in adversity after the deaths of their parents but also in common concern for their younger siblings, Tom and Fanny. George was considered the more practical of the Keats boys and tried his best to represent his brother's interests with publishers. Yet George is often portrayed as a dubious character, some writers going so far as to accuse him of cheating John of his inheritance.
In "George Keats of Kentucky: A Life" (Kentucky, 342 pages, $40), Lawrence M. Crutcher argues, "George Keats deserves better" and sympathetically portrays the younger Keats as an imaginative soul, a lifelong devotee of the arts, driven to America by economic necessity. A descendant of his subject, Mr. Crutcher apologizes for being "neither a poet nor an academic," and focuses mainly on historical and financial matters.
Denise Gigante's lively "The Keats Brothers" (Harvard, 499 pages, $35) is a dual biography in which both John and George play equal parts. A professor of English at Stanford, Ms. Gigante details the brothers' lives in Great Britain and America but excels when discussing John's poems—calling attention to less familiar works like "Hither, hither, love." Her portrait of John's vitality aligns well with Nicholas Roe's. She writes that "George, who seemed to everyone to be endowed with the family store of common sense, was no less a romantic idealist." On the ship to America, he "could not stop worrying. He had left John with full responsibility for Tom, and emotional responsibility for Fanny." Soon after George arrived in America, Tom died of consumption just 19. Crushed by grief, John had to put "the worst news you could have" in a letter.
Bad news from home was compounded by economic misfortune when George joined the naturalist John James Audubon in a shaky partnership. Investing in a grist and sawmill in Henderson, Ky., Audubon had floated his share of the deal on credit with no assets to back it up, and when the business tanked, George's small savings went with it. But he restored his fortunes and became a prominent figure in Louisville. When he died four years later at 44, probably of the same disease that killed his brothers and his mother, he had the high regard of his family and fellow citizens. Mr. Crutcher's book will interest students of history, while Ms. Gigante's, with its larger scope, can claim a place as a substantial work of biographical criticism.
From that moment on, his pursuit of the art was unstinting. He mastered the techniques of Shakespeare, Milton, Pope and Wordsworth, wrote poems in every genre imaginable, and was seen as a literary prodigy. Mr. Roe is particularly strong on the characters surrounding the young poet, including Leigh Hunt, the rabble-rousing journalist and editor who first published Keats; the painter Benjamin Robert Haydon; and writers such as Hazlitt, Wordsworth, Shelley and Coleridge. Short as his life was, Keats knew nearly every significant player in one of English literature's most innovative and exciting eras. His letters are a record of this world and of Keats working out his ideas about poetry: "What shocks the virtuous philosop[h]er delights the camelion poet. . . . A Poet is the most unpoetical of any thing in existence; because he has no Identity—he is continually in for—and filling some other Body."
As he began to publish, he met both praise and vicious condemnation. His first book, "Poems" (1817), was savaged in Blackwood's Magazine as part of an upstart "Cockney School" and sold so poorly that its publisher abruptly dropped the author. The sensuality of Keats's long 1818 poem "Endymion"—"To linger on her lily shoulders, warm / Between her kissing breasts, and every charm / Touch-raptur'd!"—was attacked in the Quarterly Review. The priggish unfairness of such notices was thought by many, including Lord Byron, to have shortened Keats's life, but Mr. Roe finds a toughness in the poet, a willingness to shrug off adversity and continue trying to make a living by his pen.
In one extraordinary year, 1819, his perseverance paid off, not in financial remuneration but in his most perfected poems: "The Eve of St. Agnes," "La Belle Dame Sans Merci," "Lamia," "The Fall of Hyperion" and his great odes to a "Grecian Urn," "Indolence," "Melancholy," a "Nightingale," "Psyche" and "Autumn." Among the latter group it is hard to choose a favorite, but I particularly admire the lack of ego in "To Autumn":
Where are the songs of spring? Ay,
where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy
While barred clouds bloom the soft-
And touch the stubble-plains with
Then in a wailful choir the small
Among the river sallows.
This was also the year in which Keats became engaged to Fanny Brawne and glimpsed the ordinary personal happiness that would ultimately elude him. In Mr. Roe's depiction, Fanny was not the frivolous distraction seen by some of Keats's literary friends but an intelligent and beautiful young woman who might have been a great partner for the poet. Like one of the lovers on his Grecian urn, Keats would never possess the life he desired. In February 1820, he suffered his first hemorrhage of the lungs—a confirmation that he would die in short order.
One would be a clod not to be moved by Keats and Fanny Brawne. If some of his letters to her are patronizing or marred by jealousy that was partly because his illness forced him to remove himself from contact with her. Remember how young he was, how hard it would have been to acknowledge that she would live her life without him.
His friends determined that he should take the arduous journey to Rome, and he agreed, hardly daring to hope the climate there might cure him. Mr. Roe's account of Keats's suffering, starting with his early understanding that one could "Die into life," is moving even in its bitterest moments. This biography is shapely in its narrative and revealing in its readings of the poetry as well as the world. Mr. Roe's is a Keats with the rage of life in him.
Keats defiantly envisioned the world as a "vale of Soul-making," a school in which the human heart was "its hornbook." At times he felt sure that he would take his place among English poets, yet he chose for his epitaph the line "Here Lies One Whose Name Was Writ on Water." To Fanny he left not only the sonnet "Bright Star" but also the strange fragment "This Living Hand," reaching almost from the grave: "—see here it is— / I hold it towards you."—Mr. Mason is the poet laureate