“John Keats: A New Life” by Nicholas Roe

Brilliant. Just brilliant. The biography by Andrew Motion has been my Keatsian bible for many many years now, and while I reluctantly began thinking it was probably about time for an update, I also dreaded the prospect. I really love and admire John Keats, and Motion was a big part of me getting to know him; I didn't want to lose my (always inadequate, always conditional) grasp on who Keats really was.

Of course I needn't have feared, and any courage needed certainly paid off. This is a great book, a truly great book, and I think it works perfectly as an addition to (or a complement of) Motion's work as well as the work of others.

My take on Motion's Keats is that he was both a poet and a medical man, a healer of both bodies and souls. Roe's Keats is a poet (full stop), and any return to his training or work as an apothecary would have been a turning away from his true self. Which is right? I don't know, but it's very interesting to consider the question in such detail.

Roe's strengths are in Keats' early years - his childhood and then right through to his time at Guy's Hospital - and in Keats' poetry - which is given terrific context in the poet's life and times, and thus enhanced meaning. Roe is also very knowledgeable about Keats' relationship with Leigh Hunt - which is no surprise as Roe is also Hunt's biographer.

Roe very interestingly touches on the idea that Keats was very conscious of passing time, and in particular the things that mark it: the anniversary of his father's death, the new or half or full moon, the date he announced his decision to be a poet to his friends, and so on. Keats even contrived to die late on the day of the ancient Roman festival Terminalia, which honoured the god of boundaries. I'm not entirely sure how seriously we are to take this, but there's no denying that Keats' work often deals in liminalities, and Roe certainly conjured a number of relevant happenings and images along the way to give credence to this - especially the late-night farewells between young Keats and his teacher Charles Cowden Clarke on the bridge between their homes.

There were certain areas of Keats' life that I felt weren't given much space on the page. Especially, but not only, Keats' love and fiancee Fanny Brawne. I'm not sure whether this is due to Roe deciding that such things had already been well covered (and I certainly think Motion does justice to Brawne). Or that 400 pages is enough, and something had to be dealt with truly though briefly. I'm hesitant to think that Roe didn't think Brawne important... I mean, OK we're not all interested in a man's love life, but she was important to Keats the man and Keats the poet - and Roe does give her her due, even if a little too succinctly - so let's go back to my initial thought of such things being covered well elsewhere.

Which takes me back further to the notion that this book is a great addition and complement to the existing work on Keats. And leads me on to the notion that perhaps, even for a life this short, there can never be a definitive 'Life'. Read this, and read Motion, and read as much of the rest as you like. Keats himself will repay you well.

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“Keats” by Andrew Motion

It is difficult to know what to say about this book! This biography by Andrew Motion, first published in 1997, has been my key text for years. (You can tell that by how well-worn my copy is, in the image above - and I'm someone who takes care of books, too!) It has become part of my mental furniture.

I came to really love the feisty and engaged young man that Motion depicted - and while Keats was as fallible and conflicted as any human must be, I feel that he is one of the best and most interesting people who've ever lived.

Perhaps it is best to borrow Motion's own words. These are from his article in the Guardian about Jane Campion's film Bright Star, which was based on his biography:

Keats's story is amazingly charged: poverty, doomed love, extraordinary natural talent, lingering illness and early death. Of all directors, Campion, I thought, stood a decent chance of paying due respect to his high-flying genius, while at the same time proving that he was someone who kept close to the ground.

The next time Jane was in London, we met and talked about Keats for most of a day. There are a few other poets whose poems I prefer reading, but none whom I think of as combining such talent with such magnificent human qualities: his kindness, courage, good humour, exuberance, truthfulness and cleverness coalesce in the kind of adult wisdom it would be wonderful to find in a person of any age, and which seems not much short of miraculous in someone who died aged 25.

That is the person whom Andrew Motion wrote about in this biography. Read it - and if you're not already in love with John Keats, then there's a good chance you won't be resisting any longer.

Motion gives the appropriate weight to Keats' gift for friendship, to the power of his love for Fanny Brawne (cause of both ardent joy and deathly despair), and to his deeply felt vocation as a poet. I can't recommend this tome highly enough.

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