“John Keats” by Amy Lowell

This was a brilliant biography, and I really enjoyed reading it. For Keats lovers, I would recommend it as a great companion to Andrew Motion’s Keats and Nicholas Roe’s John Keats: A New Life. It is wonderful to get the perspective of a woman on Keats as a person, and on Fanny Brawne, too. Amy Lowell was also a poet, and considers Keats’ poetry with a no-nonsense poet’s eye. The other aspect of this biography that stands out is that it was written a hundred years ago, and has a strong authorial presence – akin to that in 19thC novels – rather than the reticent, self-effacing authorial voice of modern biographies.

There are a few instances where Lowell reaches an incorrect conclusion, or where she didn’t have access to papers or knowledge discovered since her time. However, she always makes clear her line of reasoning, so the well-read Keatsian won’t find themselves astray.

There is a great deal of analysis of Keats’ poetry, which won’t suit every reader, but it is usefully integrated with his personal biography, and I happily read every word. Lowell is also great in her consideration of Keats’ almost religious approach to beauty, love and truth.

One of the things Lowell brings to the table is a clear love for John Keats – which is how many or even most people respond to him – and a personable manner in which the reader feels we’re sitting down with Lowell for a delightful long afternoon to talk together about one of our favourite people. Not that she lets her affection blind her, for she is always honest and open about those times in which Keats behaved or wrote in ways that were less than ideal.

I think it took this woman biographer to clearly see the problem with Keats’ letters to Fanny Brawne: his selfishness. Other people have written about his jealousies and insecurities, which are clear in the letters and are understandable (if not really forgivable) in the circumstances – but they are not the crux of the problem. Lowell gets right to the heart of it. As a result of this and of other very reasonable considerations, Lowell is utterly fair to Fanny Brawne as a patient, intelligent and loyal woman – an excellent match for Keats, even if his friends at the time didn’t see it or didn’t want to see it. One wonders why the controversy about Brawne and her suitability still lingers on!

Lowell is similarly clear-sighted and fair about Keats’ various friends and relations. Some of this was delightfully refreshing to read.

Highly recommended for all Keatsians. It’s out of print, alas, but worth tracking down!

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