- John Keats: A New Life
- Yale University Press, 446 pp.
Priest of Beauty
The name of John Keats is inseparably linked to the two determining factors of his brief life: beauty and death.
Whether one approaches Keats’ life by reading a biography or by the direct study of his poems, there is no escaping the fact that he was obsessed by the nature and effect of beauty in its various forms. He was also haunted by death, the sheer, undeniable, inescapable physical annihilation that awaits each of us, sooner or later. In the case of Keats, death occurred much, much too soon.
There was nothing beautiful about John Keats’ death. He died, barely twenty-five years old, of the ravages of pulmonary tuberculosis. He expired, coughing-up blood and phlegm in a rented room in Rome, where he had gone in a vain attempt to hold his “consumption” at bay during the winter of 1821.
As a result of his tragic demise, the legend of Keats as a sensitive soul with a frail body took hold. Lord Byron, unwittingly, started this train of thought when he exclaimed that Keats succumbed to vicious reviews of his poetry. Later, Oscar Wilde, who revered Keats, expressed that “standing by his grave I felt that he too was a Martyr, and worthy to lie in the city of Martyrs. I thought of him as a Priest of Beauty slain before his time…”
Not so, according to Nicholas Roe. In Roe’s outstanding new biography, John Keats is revealed as a vigorous, nature-loving free spirit. He was definitely not a delicate, drawing room aesthete. A friend described him as having “had the hazel eyes of a wild gipsey set in the face of a god.”
An intrepid explorer of England’s Lake District, the rugged high country of Scotland and more familiar haunts around London, Keats used his direct observation of life to inform his poetry. But Keats was much more than a self-absorbed chronicler of his own personal experiences. Instead, as Roe explains cogently, Keats shared in the psychological explorations of the human character that were a major facet of the Romantic era during the early 19th century.
Along with his colleagues, James Leigh-Hunt and William Hazlitt, Keats probed the recesses of the human character and imagination. Keats reached the conclusion that humans are not exclusively rational beings, guided by clear-cut codes of behavior. Instead, Keats said that creative individuals are motivated by a quality he called “Negative Capability.” The “Man of Achievement” Keats stated, functions while being “capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”
Nor was human society the “best of all possible worlds” postulated by the philosophers of the 18th century Enlightenment. In a profoundly moving letter to his brother George, who emigrated to the United States, Keats envisioned the pains, sorrows and adversity endured by human beings as the means of shaping the soul.
Do you not see how necessary a World of Pains and troubles is to school an Intelligence and make it a soul? A place where the heart must feel and suffer in a thousand diverse ways!
The suffering that formed Keats’ soul began early in his life, when his father died in 1804 in a suspicious riding accident. This event triggered a sequence of legal disputes and animosity that tore the Keats family to pieces. Roe makes a convincing case that Keats spent the rest of his life dealing with the fall-out from this event. What other biographers treat as brief preliminary details, Roe reveals as the determining factors of Keats’ life and art.
A brief summation of the Keats family tragedy is therefore necessary. Thomas Keates, the poet’s father, managed a thriving livery stable, located near the infamous insane asylum of Bedlam, then on the outskirts of London. Keats’ mother, Frances, was a strong-willed and spirited woman. On the night of April 14, 1804, Thomas Keates was found bleeding from a head injury on the road near his home and business. He died a few hours later, apparently having been thrown from his horse. But Thomas Keates was known to have been a superb horseman. Of course, even the best rider can suffer an accident of this kind, but usually the most dangerous injuries come from being pinned under the fallen horse. Was Thomas Keates robbed, attacked and beaten?
Keats was nine years old when his father died. In June 1804, he “lost” his mother when she married a much younger man, only days after receiving the lease of the livery stable from her father. Stunned by the action of his daughter, Keats’ grandfather changed his will to insure that Keats and his two younger brothers and sister were not bilked of their inheritance by their own mother and her new husband. The case went to Britain’s Chancery Court and in a tale rivaling Charles Dickens’ Bleak House, Keats’ sister was still trying to recover her share of the inheritance as late as 1880.
Keats was packed-off to school, but remained devoted to his mother until her death from tuberculosis in 1810. However, the seed of Keats’ difficult relationship with women was planted at this time. Keats had a strong sex-drive and a romantic nature. But he was often awkward around women, partly because of his short stature, and suspicious of them. This was true even of Fanny Brawne, the “Bright Star” of his last years.
Keats sought relief in writing poetry. But as Roe brilliantly shows, Keats’ troubled past and sexual anxieties travelled with him to the imaginative realm where he created his immortal verse.
Roe’s close and attentive reading of Keats’ letters and poetry reveals an astonishing number of similarities between the invented characters of his verse and the parental tragedy that set the seal on so much of his life. To illustrate this, we need only look at The Eve of St. Agnes written in 1819. Keats chose the theme of this poem from the seventeenth century book, The Anatomy of Melancholy by Richard Burton. Each year, on January 20th, Burton wrote, young girls would fast so that their dreams that night would reveal “who shall be their first husband.”
First husband? Roe poses that loaded question in italics. Then he proceeds to show how The Eve of St. Agnes echoed the death of Keats’ father and his mother’s shocking remarriage. The poem he notes was rooted in “the themes of secret passion, a bold lover, a maiden whose dreams prove far from chaste, their love-making and elopement fit the outlines of what little we know about the personalities and relationship of Thomas and Frances Keates.”
These speculations about The Eve of St. Agnes are unlikely to ever be answered in a definitive way, as Roe is the first to admit. Keats burned many private papers and letters before he died. But the recurrent parallels between his life story and his poetry shadow him like specters. In The Eve of St. Agnes, The Fall of Hyperion and other poems, Keats returned to themes evoking his childhood tragedy. Time and again, Keats tried to make sense in verse of what could never be comprehended in prose.
Seen in the light of his often-tormented life, Keats’ poems were not rarified re-workings of classical mythology. The Fall of Hyperion (1819) told of a war among the ancient gods. But this masterpiece, which Keats never lived to finish, also wove together the tangled threads of his father’s death, boyhood memories of the temple-like book shop he often visited, his travels in Scotland, the simmering political situation in Britain and intimations of his own mortality.
The poet-dreamer in Hyperion, Keats’ alter-ego, struggles against death on the steps of a temple in Canto I (106-17). These lines eerily forecast Keats’ fate less than two years later.
From whose white fragrant curtains thus I heard
Language pronounc’d: ‘If thou canst not ascend
These steps, die on that marble where thou art.
Thy flesh, near cousin to the common dust,
Will parch for lack of nutriment – thy bones
Will wither in few years, and vanish so
That not the quickest eye could find a grain
Of what thou now art on that pavement cold.
The sands of thy short life are spent this hour,
And no hand in the universe can turn
Thy hourglass, if these gummed leaves be burnt
Ere thou canst mount up these immortal steps.’
By the time The Fall of Hyperion was published in 1819, Keats was suffering from a recurrent sore-throat, an indication of the onset of tuberculosis. On February 3, 1820, he was chilled while riding on the outside of a stage-coach from London to Hampstead Heath, where he lived with his friend Charles Armitage Brown. Keats had trained as a physician, though he never practiced. As he began to cough blood, there was no deceiving himself of what the tell-tale spot of bright red blood on his handkerchief portended. Roe quotes from the account by Brown (who was by no means the pompous ogre portrayed in the recent film Bright Star). Coughing-up blood, Keats exclaimed:
‘Bring me the candle, Brown, and let me see this blood.’ After regarding it steadfastly, he looked up in my face, with a calmness of countenance that I can never forget, and said, – ‘I know the colour of that blood; – it is arterial blood; – I cannot be deceived in that colour; – that drop of blood is my death-warrant: – I must die.’
Keats demonstrated real courage in his acceptance of the agony of his body. It reveals the depth of his belief that the purpose of suffering “is to school an Intelligence and make it a soul.” This no doubt accounts for the great respect accorded him by so many writers, of his own time and later.
The contemporary novelist, Margaret Drabble, lived for many years in a Hampstead house directly behind Wentworth Place where Keats roomed with Charles Armitage Brown. In her essay on Keats for the 1993 book, Writers and their Houses, Drabble wrote, “The conscious torment of Keats’s last days makes almost unbearable reading, and there are times when I look over my garden wall and feel that the very stones and trees must be impregnated with unresolved suffering.”
If Keats’ torment remained “unresolved,” then it is because suffering can never be resolved on this plane of existence. It is a mark of the greatness of his poetry and of his life that each of us can find in the story of John Keats an example in schooling our “Intelligence,“ as he did his, making “it a soul.”