This Strange and Contradictory Poet

Far from being a thoroughly aestheticised figure, John Keats had an active social conscience; his critics were suspicious of his radical politics

David Womersley

In his early poem “I stood tip-toe”, Keats describes an effect of sunlight passing through water:

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. How they ever wrestle
With their own sweet delight, and ever nestle
Their silver bellies on the pebbly sand.
If you but scantily hold out the hand,

That very instant not one will remain;

But turn your eye, and they are there again.

At first glance, this seems to be nothing more than a delicate piece of observation. We know from Keats’s letters (as Nicholas Roe points out in his new biography, John Keats: A New Life, Yale University Press, £25) that as a boy he loved to explore the natural world of the countryside near Edmonton: “How fond I used to be of Goldfinches, Tomtits, Minnows, Mice, Ticklebacks, Dace, Cock salmons and all the whole tribe of the Bushes and the Brooks,” he wrote to his sister.

But Keats the poet gave those childhood memories an extra depth when he interpreted the movement of the minnows as a wrestling “with their own sweet delight”. That gloss makes the water both the minnows’ pleasurable element while, at the same time, something to be resisted or struggled against. It is a doubleness which retrospectively gives additional point to the word “wavy”. Initially one reads “wavy” as saying merely that the minnows’ bodies are undulating, because that is the motion fish use to stay “their . . . bodies ’gainst the stream”. But then, glancing back, one understands that the minnows’ bodies are also “wavy” in another sense. They are wavy, too, because they have an affinity with the waves in which the fish live. Resistance and assimilation are fused in a single word.

Critics have often fastened upon such passages as evidence for a vision of Keats as a thoroughly aestheticised figure. This is the Keats whose preoccupation was, above all, with beauty. The letter, both proud and mortified, that he wrote to Fanny Brawnewhen he was already mortally ill with con- sumption is often taken as an encapsulation of the whole life and work:

If I should die . . . I have left no immortal work behind me—nothing to make my friends proud of my memory—but I have loved the principle of beauty in all things, and if I had had time I would have made myself remember’d.

The clew of beauty leads inescapably to certain lines of Keats’s poetry. It takes us to the opening lines of Endymion:

A thing of beauty is a joy for ever: Its loveliness increases; it will never Pass into nothingness; but still will keepA bower quiet for us, and a sleep Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.

And it takes us to the gnomic closing lines of the “Ode on a Grecian Urn”:

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,”— that is all

Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know. 

It also leads us to certain celebrated passages in Keats’s letters, in particular thosewhich touch on Keats’s ideas of poetic selflessness: for instance, when he famously imagines himself pecking among the gravel with the sparrows, or (most centrally) when he explains to his brothers his idea of the “negative capability” which he thinks is essential for any great literary achievement: “when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason”. It is an idea Keats summarises by saying: “This pursued through Volumes would perhaps take us no further than this, that with a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration.”

This image of Keats as an acolyte of beauty is very familiar to us, yet there are problems with it. In particular, the poems which are most often cited as exemplifying this aestheticised Keats—that is to say, the odes published in 1820 (principally “Ode to a Nightingale”, “Ode on a Grecian Urn”, and “To Autumn”)—are, it would seem, not the kind of poetry Keats ultimately wished to write. If we take seriously what Keats says about “negative capability”—the great positive example of its possession being Shakespeare, and the great negative example of its lack being Coleridge—then this theory of literary selflessness seems to push Keats towards at least narrative poetry, if not even as far as poetic drama. But Keats’s dramatic works, Otho the Great and the fragmentary King Stephen, are usually passed over in awkward silence.

Not only does the aestheticised image of Keats tend to put the highest value on poems which there is good reason to think Keats himself would not have rated so strongly. It also dismisses from serious attention some poems altogether—those verses normally labelled “Fugitive Pieces” or “Trivia” in editions of his poetry. The Keats whose devotion was to beauty cannot be allowed to have had any serious talent for light verse, or whimsicality, or satire, and the poems of that character he wrote are therefore pushed to one side with disdain. Nor can the aestheticised Keats have had much interest in politics—his conception of his poetic calling must have been too high-minded for such earthly commitments. And yet some of Keats’s first reviewers caught political implications in his verse. Lockhart’s jab at what he called this “bantling” poet who had learnt from Leigh Hunt to “lisp sedition” shows as much. So too does The British Critic’s resentment of “a jacobinical apostrophe” in the opening lines of Book III of Endymion:

There are who lord it o’er their fellow-men
With most prevailing tinsel: who unpen
Their baaing vanities, to browse away
The comfortable green and juicy hay

From human pastures; . . .

The radicalism sensed by the conservative reviewers of Keats’s own day is not something that can easily be accommodated by today’s critics of an aesthetic bent.

Nicholas Roe has always wished to challenge this aestheticised Keats. His first book, John Keats and the Culture of Dissent (1997), attempted straightforwardly to overturn it by means of a full-frontal assault. In that book Roe set out to “restore the vivacious, even pugnacious, voices of Keats’s poetry” by showing how time and time again the poems “responded to and addressed matters of the moment” in a way which would have been evident to their first readers, but which a later academic audience found it hard to catch.

This was an attempt to turn Keats into Shelley, and unsurprisingly, despite the quality of the research which went into it, it did not entirely persuade. The argument was pushed with a certain bluntness. The fact of there being echoes and points of connection between Keats’s poetry and radical journals of the day was too easily taken as evidence that the poems themselves must also have been radical. However, Roe’s stance towards Keats succeeds much better in the mode of this excellent and fascinating new biography, where his image of the poet emerges more easily and more naturally from the flow of event, and is often brilliantly illuminated by the light thrown by circumstance.

Roe’s Keats is primarily a Londoner, and the first chapters of the book are an impres- sive recovery of the milieu in which the young Keats was raised. He is also—at least until disease undermines his constitution, and despite his short stature—vigorously physical, given to rough-housing when a boy, fond of demanding walking holidays when a man. He was raised and educated in radical circles: the dissenting culture of Enfield School is brought out very well by Roe. Nor was Keats without financial means. There was a modest amount of money in the Keats family, although access to it was hampered by its being tied up in Chancery. Nevertheless, Keats was able to draw on money, and even to lend it to friends more indigent than he. Roe explores the complicated money affairs of the Keats family in impressive detail. Finally, Roe’s Keats was not so attached to the ideal of beauty that he would overlook or ignore its earthly embodiments (indeed, the folly of so doing is a central part of the meaning of Endymion). Roe underlines the avidity of the young Keats for sexual experience, a trait perhaps traceable to his mother, who was much given to “pleasure”; and he plausibly suggests that in consequence Keats contracted a venereal disease for which he treated himself with mercury.

Roe’s Keats, although devoted to poetry, is also open to other literary possibilities. For Roe, Otho the Great is not merely the false step it has seemed to be to so many other critics, and he takes seriously the possibility that, had he lived, Keats might have pursued a career in the theatre. Even more arrestingly, Roe is also impelled by his reading of the letters to imagine Keats’s pursuing a quite alternative literary path:

Throughout Keats’s letters and poems we have seen vivid glimpses of a novelist in the making, suggesting that in the 1830s and ’40s he might have rivalled Dickens, then turned his awareness of life’s ironies into moments of vision like Thomas Hardy’s, or even joined Hunt,whose insights about consciousness and time prefigured Virginia Woolf’s.

This startling vision of Keats as a rival to the young Dickens has the benefit of bring- ing more to the centre of our attention the lighter verse which critics have tended to leave on the side of their plates, like so much unpalatable gristle. Roe, however, wolfs down even this rejected fare with gusto: “If The Fall of Hyperion was a venture along some darker passages of his psyche, The Cap and Bells gives us a streetwise Keats as he walks by gaslight to an evening drink and talk with friends.”

Finally, Roe’s Keats still harbours radical sympathies, as Roe had suggested in his first book. But Roe now allows the radical touches in Keats’s poems to emerge with less strain, and his discussion of those potentially radical details implicitly acknowledges their occasional faintness or slightness. As he says of “To Autumn”:

When we turn from Hunt’s “Calendar of Nature” to Keats’s poem, its three richly laded stanzas appear as a harvest-home for England’s “less fortunate multitude”: a lock of hair is “soft-lifted” to float free on a “winnowing wind”; a furrow is abandoned “half-reap’d”; the gleaner—an archetype of poverty and exclusion—becomes a figure of steady purpose; and swallows, still gathering, announce their imminent departure while keeping at bay Keats’s fateful word “gone”. Under a new moon’s Dian skies, such images of natural liberty assured Keats’s poem a hearing even amid the noisy, disorderly debates ignited by the Manchester outrage.

This captures admirably both the closeness to, and the distance from, the political in Keats’s poetry.

If the insights of Roe’s biography are fresh, sometimes vividly so, these vivacities have not been purchased by any modish freedom with the form of the book. Biographical fashion for the time being has turned its face against what Roe calls “cradle-to-grave” or “womb-to-tomb” biographies. The new biographers attempt to tell the story of a life through narratives “that begin at the end, or in which the subject is viewed through lesser-known siblings, imaginary friends, or personal effects”. Roe eschews such cute tricks. His own method is meticulously chronological and sequential. Had Keats lived a normal span, this might have become tedious. As it is, with Keats dying aged 25, it is a method which allows Roe to focus with a truly Keatsian intensity on such details of the life as have survived.

This may not be the biography of Keats that gives the reader the clearest sense of the broad outlines of the poet’s life. Sometimes Roe’s immersion in the flood of detail makes his narrative confusing to follow, and those not already familiar with the Keatsian dramatis personae will sometimes struggle to recall who is meant by “Tom” or “Severn” or “Dilke”—names which come more than naturally to Roe in his unrivalled familiarity with Keats and his world, but which the rest of us may need laboriously to remember. Nevertheless, this is, by far, the biography which will most delight those who are already familiar with that outline. It loads each rift with the ore of biographical detail (often marvellously retrieved), and threads the whole story of Keats’s life with intriguing and imaginative speculations.

It is Roe’s achievement to have written the most Keatsian biography of Keats that we will ever have. And he has done this by taking seriously Keats’s own idea that the life of a writer may be discerned figuratively in their works. The result is to bring Roe surprisingly close to those critics who have championed the aesthetic Keats, at least in terms of their shared reverence for Keats’s words. No critic was more committed to an aesthetic Keats than John Jones, and Jones famously justified the intense concentration he brought to Keats’s language by blandly confessing: “every section-heading of this book [John Keats’s Dream of Truth] is a phrase from three consecutive sentences of a single letter he wrote: as if I thought his words, even in casual prose, might sometimes be enchanted. And in fact that is what I do think.” Roe’s Keats is very different from Jones’s. Nevertheless, Roe too seems to believe that Keats’s words may sometimes be almost supernaturally significant.

What we have in this superb new biography is neither the exquisite poet of the aesthetes, nor quite the pugnacious radical of Roe’s own earlier work. This new Keats is stranger than both, and it is another of Roe’s Keatsian achievements to have let this strange and contradictory figure come into the light, without on his part any irritable straining after biographical fact and reason. Thanks to Roe’s richly-detailed and often beautifully-written biography, we can now see that Keats, like the minnows of “I stood tip-toe”, was at once resistant and assimilated, and passed his life in a wrestle with sweet delight.

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