John Keats: A new life
Yale University Press £25
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BETWEEN 1821 and 1824, three great poets died young: Keats, aged
25; Shelley, aged 30; and Byron, aged 36.
All were religious sceptics. Great Victorians who were to follow
were mostly Christians; but, in 1824, they were still unknown
adolescents, who, a few years later, were to inaugurate great
literary achievements. The older poets Wordsworth and Coleridge
lived on into the new age.
Keats's admiration for Wordsworth was profound; Shelley wrote a
notable tribute to Keats in Adonais. Byron remained loyal
to Milton, Dryden, and Pope, and despised the practitioners of the
new age. Later, Tennyson admired and imitated Keats, while Browning
Nicholas Roe's book is fluently written, and contains more
information about Keats's family and friends, some of whom have
never been investigated before. Of course, a biographer of Keats
has many predecessors, not all of whom I have read. There is always
a temptation to attract attention with a startling new theory, but
Roe does not succumb to this. He proceeds methodically through each
phase of Keats's life.
He is particularly good at identifying Keats's use of historical
and legendary material. For instance, in Otho the Great,
these interlock with personal hopes and fears, the influence of
which perhaps Keats himself did not fully understand. Keats
famously wrote: "'Beauty is truth, truth beauty,' - that is all Ye
know on earth, and all ye need to know." Although it is hard to say
what the words mean (if anything), he thus gave a sign to his
aesthetic successors, the Pre-Raphaelites. Roe comments: "And yet
perhaps it is the two lines' hospitality to so many divergent
readings that offers a clue to their negatively capable Keatsian
Here, Roe alludes to the letters, and to Keats's attribution of
negative capability to Shakespeare. Keats's remarks on Shakespeare
in the letters are often - and rightly - quoted as special insights
that earlier critics missed, or at least failed to express with
equally memorable force.
For some, the letters last better than the poems, where, as
Johnson said of Paradise Lost, "The want of human interest
is always felt."
Of course, if Keats had lived a full span, some of his early
poems might have been classed as juvenilia. Some of his poems,
especially "To Autumn", and "Ode to a Nightingale",
deserve their classic status. It is impossible to guess how Keats
would have developed; Maurice Baring, who imagined Byron's becoming
an ascetic cardinal, thought that Keats was already becoming
over-ripe in the second "Hyperion"; but then he might have
developed new styles, as Shakespeare did.
Keats was always aware of approaching death, and this may
sometimes have led to injudicious haste. We can echo Matthew
Arnold's response to Keats's "I think I should have been among the
English poets if I had lived": "He is. He is with Shakespeare."
We may perhaps hope that Roe's next book will venture on
less-trodden ground, if he writes a life of someone who has not
been fully described before.
A. O. J. Cockshut is an Emeritus Fellow of Hertford College,