Truth, Beauty and Enfield
John Keats: A New Life
By Nicholas Roe (Yale University Press 384pp £25)
Contemplating the tomb of John Keats for the readers of Irish Monthly, Oscar Wilde swooningly lamented 'this divine boy' who was 'a Priest of Beauty slain before his time'. Critics haven't spoken that way for a long time, and that's no bad thing; but Wilde's sense of a poet doomed and lovely, an aesthetic spirit too good for this life, would prove tenacious despite the changing idioms of the age. Paul de Man, for instance, a high-octane theorist who couldn't sound less like Wilde, once confidently asserted that when reading Keats 'we are reading the work of a man whose experience is mainly literary', a man whose life had been chiefly led within the pure mental spaces of art.
Wilde did not invent this legend. Much of its popularity must stem from the early and memorable things said by Shelley, who rapturously elegised an otherworldly spirit in Adonais, and by Byron, who entrenched the myth of vulnerable genius in Don Juan even while he was sending it up: ''Tis strange the mind, that very fiery particle,/Should let itself be snuff'd out by an article.' Not everyone thought about Keats that way: Leigh Hunt, his brilliant, difficult friend and mentor, thought him distinguished, on the contrary, by a 'strong sense of what really exists or occurs'. But it is only really since the great biographies of Robert Gittings and Walter Jackson Bate, half a century ago, that literary historians have begun to return Keats to a more normal sort of relationship with reality, and this splendid new life by Nicholas Roe now comes along to complete that job.
And he has done it very well: it is a fine biography, full of the sharp sense of place and particularity that distinguishes Roe's earlier work, and informed by a canny emotional acquaintance with his subject, evidently the fruit of long years of keeping company with the most attractive of all the English Romantic poets. Roe's Keats is nothing like the aesthetic flower that charmed Wilde or the innate Platonist whom Shelley imagined entering the afterlife like a homecoming: our boy is robust, feisty and individual, quick and streetwise, pugnacious and pugilistic, a funny companion who was fond of a drop and quick with a pun, and who took on the noisy spectacle of Georgian London with a proto-Dickensian relish. His 'characteristic stance', Roe tells us, 'was head back with chin raised'. His friends loved him with unusual devotion but it is clear that he was often a cantankerous soul, prickly about women, in whom he took a keen-eyed and not inexpert interest, and chippy about class - he didn't warm to the kindly gestures of the patrician Shelley. Just three-quarters of an inch above five feet, he made up in spirit for any shortfall in physical stature: he came from a line of soldiers and sailors that he regarded with family pride; and he was a ready fighter who once took on a disagreeable butcher and won. He did a memorable impersonation of bear-baiting, and, as that implies, he had a strong stomach: his work as a dresser at Guy's Hospital was bloodily hands-on and he was good at it, though certainly pleased to give it up. Despite his posthumous celebrity as an invalid, he had the constitution of a horse before tuberculosis ruined him. With his friend Charles Brown, he did a tour of Scotland including Ben Nevis, covering 640 miles in 43 days, which is pretty nimble; and even when he fell into his final protracted sickness he could show amazing robustness. He astonished his friends by walking an easy five miles just weeks after he had been stricken helpless in bed by a disabling attack.
Keats emerges in this book in an unexpected parallel with Wordsworth, whom he knew a little and with whom, Roe speculates, he may have compared notes about their early years. Both were young when they lost their fathers (oddly, both men were taken ill while riding at night), and for both the intensity of a bereaved childhood created an imaginative resource on which they would draw for the rest of their writing lives. The semi-rural, slightly scruffy, petit-bourgeois circumstances of Keats's boyhood in Edmonton and Enfield might appear a comic diminishment of the poetic apprenticeship Wordsworth spent amid the mountains of Cumberland, but one of the achievements of Roe's book is to persuade you that the suburban muse about which contemporaries were so snotty does indeed lie at the heart of Keats's highly idiosyncratic genius. The great poems often occupy a space of 'darkling thresholds and elusive borderlines', Roe observes. Thus it was that Keats conjured the in-betweenish experience of suburban life into a quirky romanticism of his own.
Wordsworth found no subject more compelling than his own youth, and, to go by his surviving writings, Keats seems to have regarded his, like Larkin, as a forgotten boredom. But Roe is too assiduous to remain content with that, and he plausibly finds records of early experience surfacing in the poems:
Where swarms of minnows show their little heads,
Staying their wavy bodies 'gainst the streams,
To taste the luxury of sunny beams
Temper'd with coolness.
Hunt was quite right: such lines are full of a delighted sense of 'what really exists or occurs'; and Roe, who has written illuminatingly about Hunt elsewhere, agrees with him. Keats was deeply in love with what he called the 'mighty abstract Idea' of beauty in a way that is hard to match among the English poets, and his head was certainly brim-full of Spenserian enchantment and Shakespearean faerie, and picturesque classical tales absorbed from Lemprière's Dictionary. But, as John Bayley argued years ago in 'Keats and Reality', the best essay ever written about the poet, the hallmark moments come when Keats folds into the rich world of romance some fragment of experience drawn from a world more vividly ordinary.
Keatsian ordinariness is protean and unexpected. It can appear with a kind of comic exactitude, such as those wavy minnows, but it can also assume darker forms, and Roe is interesting on the pessimistic elements in Keats's imagination. He was hauntingly aware of an 'eternal fierce destruction', a violent Malthusian truth that underlay the quietude of more beautiful sorts of experience. Well okay, but who said: 'Beauty is truth, truth beauty'? Not Keats for sure, as W H Auden liked to point out - it was what Keats said the Grecian Urn said. The urn is divine all right, though a girl not a boy, indeed a 'still unravish'd bride of quietness', and certainly an object fit for veneration by a Wildean priest of Beauty; but the poem in which she appears has a wider mind, and remains conscious of the destructive ravishment that is always possible and the desolation that might always arise. Gazing at the lovely figures on the urn, Keats amuses himself wondering where they might have all come from, and then surprises himself by a stab of pity for the little town that has been, like a perplexed orphan, left behind:
And, little town, thy streets for evermore
Will silent be; and not a soul to tell
Why thou art desolate, can e'er return.
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Seamus Perry is a fellow of Balliol College, Oxford. He is co-curating a bicentenary exhibition about Robert Browning.