A Different Picture
John Keats: A New Life
Yale University Press
The John Keats biographical section is hardly an under-stocked shelf in the library. So what makes Nicholas Roe justified in claiming that his latest offering presents “A New Life” of the man who made famous the poetical maxim of truth and beauty? Many of the facts of Keats’ life are well known, but Roe examines them with a thoroughness that generates new impressions of both man and poet that will surprise many readers. Roe unearths new material—including insights into the extended Keats family—that builds a fuller picture of Keats’ complicated background and its psychological effects.
Keats’ poetic persona and our perception of his life are seemingly at cross-purposes. Generations of readers have admired his poetry for its powerful and evocative brilliance, but the popular imagination depicts the man himself as a stricken and delicate soul. As Lord Byron bitingly observed, Keats was so fragile that he was snuffed out by a bad review. Yet in boastful comments such as “I think I shall be among the English Poets after my death”, we see perhaps a glimpse of Keats’ determination to make his mark on the world. There was a rarely acknowledged toughness to Keats: he was orphaned as a child; experienced his father’s sudden death in a freak horse incident; nursed two of his closest relatives (his mother and brother) on their deathbeds; saw the permanent emigration of his only other surviving brother; witnessed all sorts of putrid, ghastly and grotesque scenes as an apprentice surgeon (at a time without anaesthetic); and hopelessly loved a woman at the same time as he realised that he was slowly dying of consumption. It is this dogged individual that Roe brings to the fore. After all, Keats was a man who was so convinced of his poetic ability that he broke acrimoniously from his dominating uncle (his legal trustee and guardian) by rejecting his uncle’s reasonable plans that Keats should make a living in the medical trade and one who, far from being debilitatingly frail, walked over 640 miles in forty-three days during his 1818 tour of Scotland.
Roe paints a resolutely urban Keats. He vibrantly describes Keats’ life in London, bringing the city of the Romantic period into colourful perspective. We see Keats as a street-wise man-about-town who could take care of himself, a fiery hothead who would jump into disputes with his fists and caustic wit, but who was also a generous and gregarious friend. He was a man who enjoyed bear-baiting, cock-fighting, boxing, getting drunk and rowdy with his mates, as well as the company of the odd lady of the night. Roe examines carefully the seeming paradoxes of Keats’ life: that the poignant tenderness of “Bright Star” coexists with Keats’ dosing himself up with mercury to try and ease his syphilis (perhaps caught from an Oxford prostitute). Roe avoids a salacious tone by examining these murkier aspects of Keats’ life with an integrity that honours the poet even in the moments when he elucidates Keats’ less attractive elements. He uses these details to enhance our understanding of Keats’ many layers. Roe’s Keats emerges as a complex tapestry, woven from many contrasting threads: both an aggressive bully in his school playground and a man who comforted his terrified friend Severn on his own deathbed by commenting ‘don’t be frightened—thank God it has come’.
Throughout the biography, Roe returns to the experiences of Keats’ childhood to explain the behaviour of his adulthood. His mother’s unruly behaviour, which on one occasion moved him to brandish a sword at her to stop her leaving the house , is given as a cause of the grown man’s uneasy relationship with and mistrust of women. Roe draws readers to the potentially troubling implications of Keats’ growing up near the haunting Bedlam asylum. Roe speculates on how its looming presence during his childhood formed the imaginative basis of some of Keats’ most famous poetic imagery. Might Keats have based the depictions of the fallen Titans in Hyperion on the disturbing gatepost statues of “Melancholy Madness” and “Raving Madness” that towered over the mad-house’s threshold? Critical consensus suggests that Keats used his poetic imagination in order to escape from the horrors of the real world. Roe offers a different picture. He dexterously moves between describing the actuality of Keats’ life and the poetic potential which he was able to draw from it: Lorenzo’s grim, decaying, decapitated head in “Isabella” harks back to Keats’ days in Guy’s Hospital’s dissection room and the rotting corpses dug up from graves that students trained on; the palsied, deathly figures of the beadsman and Angela, coupled with the soothing images of Porphyro’s feast (‘jellies soother than the creamy curd’) in “The Eve of St Agnes” reflect Keats’ desperate urge to soothe his own fears of a tubercular death. Roe is diligent and meticulous in showing that Keats grounded his apparent flights of poetic fancy in the facts of real life. At times, however, these suggestions are a tad forced: the speculation that Lamia’s suburban palace at Corinth was an irresistible reminder of Isabella Jones’ fashionable apartment, a woman with whom Keats had been embroiled for a time, seems to be total speculation.
It is hard to find fault with such a well-researched and imaginative narrative of a life. But some readers might find Roe’s far-reaching interpretations a leap too far to be entirely convincing. Some might baulk, for instance, at Roe’s suggestion that Keats’ mother’s hasty remarriage after his father’s death is a sign that she and her new husband had killed Keats’ father. Others will enjoy the innovation that Roe brings to the interpretation of Keats’ poetry, the view, for instance, that Isabella’s despair at knowing that those she loved are responsible for killing someone else she loved allowed Keats to explore his own anguish at the spectre of a family murder.
So, why read this Keats biography above others? Roe navigates superbly between the daily drudgeries and intricacies of the man’s practical life and the ingenious sweeps of the poet’s imagination. Roe’s novel approach in treating well-trodden material alongside the gems of his original research will fascinate anyone who enjoys reading about an intriguing life, from the most well-read Romantic scholar to someone who’s never opened a book of poetry in their life. Roe’s thoroughly researched and yet imaginative, sometimes startling, approach to chronicling a poet’s life should provide a template for future literary biographers.
Octavia Cox is reading for a DPhil in English Literature at St Anne’s College, Oxford.