John Keats: “If I Should Die”

Keats, a biography by Andrew Motion, reviewed by Dana Gioia.

Keats, biography by Andrew Motion
Keats, biography by Andrew Motion

John Keats is not only one of the greatest poets in English literature. He is also one of its mythic heroes. Relatively little known during his life, Keats in death became the defining symbol of doomed Romantic genius. He consciously strove for literary greatness but found mostly public indifference and critical hostility. “If I should die,” the consumptive poet wrote despairingly to his fiancée Fanny Brawne, “I leave no immortal work behind.” A year later he was dead at only twenty-five.

Most writers who die young leave far more promise than accomplishment, but Keats requires no special pleading. Among English lyric poets, he has no superiors and few equals. When a recent survey compared four hundred anthologies to determine the most highly regarded poems in English, Keats tied for third place, outranked only by William Shakespeare and John Donne.

No other poet in English has done comparable work at so early an age. Had Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Blake or Tennyson stopped writing at twenty-four, they would be remembered as minor figures if at all.What makes Keats’s achievement particularly astonishing is the terrible brevity and intensity of his literary career. He composed his first poem at nineteen. Ravaged by tuberculosis, he stopped writing at twenty-four. In slightly more than five years, he grew from bookish imitation to luminous originality. No other poet in English has done comparable work at so early an age. Had Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Blake or Tennyson stopped writing at twenty-four, they would be remembered as minor figures if at all.

Few great poets have left less work behind. Even counting fragments, Keats wrote only 150 poems. His claim on posterity rests mostly on ten poems—the five great odes, three sonnets, and two narratives (“La Belle Dame Sans Merci” and “The Eve of St. Agnes”). With one exception, all of these classic poems were composed during his twenty-third year.

The striking singularity of Keats’s career and the poignant brevity of his tormented life has made him irresistible to biographers. His friend Richard Monckton Milnes wrote the first life in 1848, and many distinguished books have followed. Walter Jackson Bates’s John Keats (1963) is generally considered among the finest literary biographies ever written, and rival studies by Aileen Ward and Robert Gittings remain highly regarded. Not only does a new biographer face formidable competition, but little substantial new material has surfaced since these scrupulously comprehensive studies. All a new biographer can offer is a different perspective on the already well-documented facts.

British poet and critic Andrew Motion has employed a fascinating but risky gambit to differentiate his huge new biography, Keats, from its predecessors. He presents the poet as a political being whose writing reflects the social currents of his time. Motion’s stated intention is to demonstrate that Keats combined “a political purpose with a poetic ambition, a social search with an aesthetic ideal.” For most writers, such a perspective would seem unobjectionable. For Keats, however, it represents radical revisionism. Traditional scholarship views him as an artist who consciously transcended moral and political ideology to explore the realm of pure imagination. “A Priest of Beauty slain before his time,” exclaimed Oscar Wilde at the poet’s grave in 1877. Wilde and the Aesthetic Movement set the tone for future critics, who have considered Keats the ideal of the apolitical poet.

Keats’s outward life seems to invite sociological analysis, especially because of the Cockney’s poet’s complicated class status. Keats’s father was an enterprising ostler, a livery stable manager, who married his boss’s daughter. If the family had working-class origins, it was also extremely prosperous. (In 1805 his grandfather left an estate of £13,000—a huge sum for the period.) Keats and his brothers attended a progressive private boarding school. Then a series of family tragedies began that would gradually destroy the poet’s life.

When Keats was eight, his father was fatally thrown from a horse. His mother quickly remarried, soon separated, and then disappeared. She returned five years later, impoverished and consumptive. Her son nursed her devotedly until she died. Orphaned at fourteen, the poet was at the mercy of his emotionally remote guardian. Removed from school, he served a five-year apprenticeship as an apothecary before registering at Guy’s Hospital in London to become a surgeon. He completed his studies in record time but never practiced medicine. Living off his ever-diminishing legacy, he never took a job of any kind. He dedicated himself to poetry.

Fate gave him little time or peace for that vocation. Soon attending his young brother’s deathbed, Keats contracted the tuberculosis that would kill him three years later. He fell in love with Fanny Brawne but was painfully aware that he was too poor to marry and still pursue his art. They became engaged only when the his disease had reached a hopeless state. In 1821 he died in Rome where friends had sent their beloved poet in the vain hope of slowing the illness. At the poet’s request, his gravestone bore no name. Instead there is the inscription, “Here lies one whose name was writ in water.”

In his conspicuously well-written biography, Motion presents and analyzes every political opinion that Keats ever expressed. (They are surprisingly few, even for an aesthete.) He also catalogues the opinions that the poet might have encountered in his family, schooling, and intellectual milieu. He even examines the political sympathies of nearly all the poet’s friends. However interesting as intellectual history, the massive documentation ultimately explains nothing essential about this extraordinary artist.

What made Keats’s creative process remarkable—as the poet himself understood—was his ability to shed his own personality temporarily and passionately identify with his subject. He called this act of imaginative self-annihilation “negative capability.” Keats recognized it as a central quality of Shakespeare’s genius and cultivated it as a governing idea of his own artistic vision. (Keats so idealized Shakespeare that he always took a small portrait of the playwright with him on his travels.) Keats declared that his sort of a poet “has no self—it is every thing and nothing.” Religious beliefs and political loyalties had to be transcended to accommodate the speculative openness proper to a poet. He tried not to be timely but timeless.

The irony of Keats is that Motion is above reproach everywhere except in his central thesis. Once politics enters in, the author too often reaches for significant connections that simply are not there. Motion’s analyses of Keats’s poems are uniformly informed, subtle, and enlightening—until the analysis turns ideological. In an otherwise exemplary analysis of “Ode to Autumn,” for instance, Motion suddenly suggests—with no cogent evidence—that the poem alludes to the 1819 Peterloo Massacre of radicals. This may not be the scholarly equivalent of seeing Elvis in a local supermarket, but it comes close enough to be unworthy of the standard Motion sets elsewhere in the book.

The more one knows about some artists the less one likes them. Long biographies in particular often leave their reader impatient or even hostile to the central subjects. For me, however, Keats caused the opposite reaction. With every chapter my already deep admiration grew for this gracious and tormented genius. Motion may have failed in painting a political portrait, but he surely succeeded in creating an inspiring one.

First published under the title “The Poet of Truth and Beauty” in The Washington Post Book World (February 1, 1998).