The unkindest cuts: An Irishman’s Diary about Keats, Raleigh and book reviewers

When we speak now of a writer being "slaughtered by the critics", it's usually just a colourful metaphor for negative reviews, but in the case of John Keats, it was long believed by some to have been literally true.

After his premature demise, aged 25, fellow romantics Byron and Shelley were in no doubt about the cause of death. Although he himself hadn’t much liked Keats, Byron suggested in verse that the deceased had been fatally vulnerable to criticism: “Tis Strange the mind, that very fiery particle,/Should let itself be snuffed out by an article.”

There had been more than one negative notice. But the article Byron had in mind was written by a Galway man, John Wilson Croker, for the Quarterly Review. And it was indeed harsh, even by the standards of a time when poetry was taken far more seriously than it is today.

Among other insults, Croker doubted that Keats could be the author's real name (he was reviewing Endymion, published 1818), since he thought no sane writer would want to identify himself with such material. He also admitted not having read more than a quarter of the epic poem, despite several painful attempts. From what he had seen, he considered the work an imitation of another writer, Leigh Hunt, of whom Croker also disapproved, but "twice as diffuse, and ten times more tiresome".  And relegating Keats to "the new school of [. . .] Cockney poetry", he accused him of peddling "incongruous ideas" in "uncouth language".


Keats survived this character assassination by three years, at the end of which, officially, it was tuberculosis that killed him. But his publishers did worry about the effects on his health of the resultant bouts of bitterness, during one of which he wrote the epitaph, dismissing his life’s work as a failure that was supposed to go on his gravestone unadorned.

It would have looked rather bleak in the otherwise heavenly setting of Rome’s Cimitero Acattolico, the place, on the edge of the eternal city, where non-Catholics such as Keats were buried.


In the event, his friends decided to soften the effect, while pointing blame at the critics. The result is a rare case of an editorialised epitaph, although they did give Keats the last word: “This Grave/contains all that was Mortal/of a young English poet/Who/on his Death Bed, in the bitterness of his heart/at the Malicious Power of his Enemies/Desired/these words to be/engraved on his Tomb Stone:/Here Lies one/Whose name was writ in Water.”

It may amuse Leaving Cert students wrestling with Keats’s florid English that it was once considered “uncouth language”. We read him now in an era when social media is coarsening debate, even of the literary kind – like this week’s outburst from TV writer David Simon about John Banville. Twitter may soon have to to carry allergy advice for sensitive readers. (Warning: May Contain “F**knuts”).

Savage reviews

The concept of what is uncouth has changed a lot in 200 years. But angry tweets and the occasional savage review aside, critics tend to be much politer now than in Keats’s time.

A sign of this was the establishment a few years ago of a “Hatchet Job of the Year” award in Britain, aimed at encouraging more of them to tell the truth, entertainingly, about bad books. The prize was “a year’s supply of potted shrimp”, a reference to the unpleasant smell that emanates from substandard literature after a few days.

There seems to have been no winner since 2014, when AA Gill was honoured for committing literary GBH on the singer Morrissey. In the most recent mention on the organisers' website, they were seeking new sponsors, the shrimp-donating Fish Society having bailed out.

Anyway, getting back to Keats, it's his birthday this weekend. Had tuberculosis, the critics, and all other possible killers spared him, he would now be 221. Meanwhile, also featuring among current literary anniversaries is Sir Walter Raleigh.

Raleigh is more famous today for his adventuring, for introducing the potato to Europe (which he probably didn't) and for popularising tobacco. He was a poet too who wrote the last of many verses on October 28th, 1618. It began, "Even such is time, which takes in trust/Our youth, our joys, and all we have,/And pays us nought but age and dust."

The ominous note is unmistakable, as well it might be. He was in prison at the time, awaiting execution. The sentence was carried out 398 years ago today. And that was, literally, a hatchet job.