A poet pursued by death


John Keats By Nicholas Roe. Yale University Press, 446pp. £25

ON THE COVER of this new biography of Keats, there is a picture of the poet. He is seated within an autumn wood, and seems almost like a forest animal himself, looking up startled at the hunter’s gun. And indeed this relatively poor, shy, slightly built poet did attract murderous attention during his short but prolific life. In fact, with his early-flowering genius and disastrous frailty, he could almost be regarded as a kind of English Rimbaud, although without Rimbaud’s bisexual ferocity.

But no, it is not a deathbound poet but a posthumous portrait of Keats listening to a nightingale on Hampstead Heath, painted by Joseph Severn, the young artist who had looked after him during his last days in Rome. So the Keats we see on this cover is already a myth: how can we untangle the man (who mainly lived in cities) from the Romantic images fostered by his great odes? His publisher, John Taylor, believed Keats’s life had been so miserable that there was no hope for a biography: “These are not Materials for a Life of our poor Friend which it will do to communicate to the World – they are too wretched to be ‘told by a Cavern Wind unto a Forest old’ . . .”

Yet, after the disapproval of the Victorians, there are indeed many biographies of Keats, varying with each decade. The first I read was by Amy Lowell (1925), who disturbed my boyish self by suggesting that Keats had contracted syphilis and was treating himself with mercury. Later there was the seriousness of Walter Jackson Bates and Aileen Ward (1963), as well as Robert Gittings’s evocation of a Dark Lady with surprising Irish connections, Isabella Jones (1963-68). And more recently we have had the then British poet laureate Andrew Motion’s Keats (1997).

Nicholas Roe’s biography begins like a melodrama, with the poet’s father visiting his sons at Enfield School, dining with friends and then falling from his horse on his way home to “Keates’s Livery Stables”. The mystery of his death (he was, by profession, an able horseman) was never solved: had he taken a tankard too much? And who were these “Keates’s” anyway? Roe includes a comment from Thomas Hardy, who maintained that they were “from a family of horse-dealers” near Dorchester. But following leads here and there, Roe fashions a family tree that would have pleased Keats, who suffered because of his seemingly low birth, with even his publisher offering these fastidious, class-conscious words of ostensible praise: “But how he refined upon the Sensualities of his Parents!” Yet Roe suggests an admiral and a sheriff of London as possible relatives.

The harshness of his father’s death must have scalded Keats, as did the erratic behaviour of his mother, who remarried soon after. From then on, the family was plunged into litigation, often enduring the machinations of Chancery. Indeed, Roe outrageously suggests that Keats, “had he lived, might have forsaken poetry and reinvented himself as a novelist alongside Charles Dickens”.

At least Keats was happy in his progressive school, where he became friends with the headmaster’s son, Charles Cowden Clarke, another future poet. And Cowden Clarke was a friend of Leigh Hunt, poet and activist, who would become a crucial figure in the life of Keats for good and ill, recruiting him into his school of poets. On St Patrick’s Day, 1812, Hunt published an attack on the prince regent for his failure to foster parliamentary reform and Catholic emancipation in Ireland, which, unsurprisingly, led to his imprisonment. But he managed to transform his cell into a literary salon, receiving notables such as Thomas Moore, Byron and Maria Edgeworth.

And Keats and women? From the touching film Bright Star we know of the ardent relationship between himself and Fanny Brawne. But he had already met Isabella Jones, a beautiful older woman. “In her late 30s, she was at Hastings with Donal O’Callaghan, elderly brother of Cornelius O’Callaghan, MP, 1st Baron of Lismore. But who was she? This Keats was never able to establish.” But he “warmed with her . . . and kissed her” and later, from time to time, met her in London, where she would give him a grouse for his ailing brother.

But the most extraordinary exchange Keats had with Ireland was when he crossed from Stranraer to Larne, and set out for the Giant’s Causeway. Along the way, “they encountered a figure that seemed to embody the country’s wretchedness”. He called her the Duchess of Dunghill. “Imagine the worst dog kennel you ever saw . . . In such a wretched thing sat a squalid old Woman squat like an ape . . . What a thing would be a history of her Life and sensations.”

The Anglo-Welsh poet David Jones chronicles nearly the same vision along a road outside Limerick. In terms of Irish poetic psychology, Keats had glimpsed the Hag.

As he lay dying in Rome, Keats wrote a few last lines to console Joseph Severn, “who had never seen anyone die”. “I shall soon be laid in the quiet grave / thank God for the quiet grave / O! I can feel the cold earth upon me / the daisies growing over me / O for this quiet / it will be my first.”

But this was not his last word; had he not told his brother, George, after another mean review, “I think I shall be among the English poets after my death”? What a proud boast for a young man, but look at his last volume, issued a few months before his death. It begins with three narrative poems, Lamia, Isabella and the marvellous Eve of Saint Agnes, which sustain the legacy of Spenser. And then there were “other poems”, which include Ode to a Nightingale, Ode on a Grecian Urn, To Autumn and Ode on Melancholy, a harvest even more extraordinary than the Four Last Songs of Richard Strauss, because Strauss had reached old age, whereas Keats was a mere 25.

Not to mention Hyperion, added by his publisher against his will, as it might revive the mean-spirited ridicule of his Endymion days. But only the later Yeats attains such a felicitious blend of majesty and music, and so the questions remain: why did Keats attract such sour scorn among his contemporaries, and why did Yeats himself swell the chorus, describing his predecessor as “the coarse-bred son of a livery-stable keeper”? The detestable spectre of class snobbery seems to have dogged Keats as implacably as his own illness, as if class had anything to do with such a great gift.

But what Nicholas Roe’s book shows is that Keats was possessed and pursued by death: his father’s mysterious fall from a horse, the death of his mother and brother from the consumption that would destroy him as well. La Belle Dame Sans Merci had him in thrall: “I see death’s lilly on thy brow / With anguish moist and fever dew, / And on thy cheeks death’s fading rose / Fast Withereth too.” Not until the Terrible Sonnets of Hopkins will we find such sonorous anguish.

With its breezy style, Roe’s biography is an intellectual tearjerker, and proceeds naturally from his Fiery Heart: The First Life of Leigh Hunt.

John Montague’s New Collected Poems (Gallery Press) was published this year. The Wild Dog Rose, a CD of poems and music (Claddagh Records) will be launched at the Irish Society for Antiquaries on October 31st