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.