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Among the English poets, being wise

23 November 2012

A. O. J. Cockshut finds Keats's life to be well-trodden ground


John Keats: A new life
Nicholas Roe
Yale University Press £25
Church Times Bookshop £22.50 (Use code CT517 )

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 adored Shelley.

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 wisdom."

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, Oxford.

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