May 092013

There is a steadiness about Nicholas Roe’s writing that is deceptive; the life in the Life does not jump off the page, but it accumulates during the reading so that something of what it felt like to be around John Keats remains, as things do when truly experienced.

John Keats: A New Life by Nicholas Roe. Yale University Press, 472 pages, $32.50 (Paperback edition, $20, available in July).

By Marcia Karp.

In distinguishing John Dryden from poets who choose their own subjects, Dr. Johnson paints the poet he praises most in his Lives of the English Poets into an almost mute corner:

The occasional poet is circumscribed by the narrowness of his subject. Whatever can happen to man has happened so often, that little remains for fancy or invention. We have been all born; we have most of us been married; and so many have died before us, that our deaths can supply but few materials for a poet. In the fate of princes the publick has an interest; and what happens to them of good or evil, the poets have always considered as business for the muse. But after so many inauguratory gratulations, nuptial hymns, and funeral dirges, he must be highly favoured by nature, or by fortune, who says any thing not said before.

Johnson knows how much life is like life, for he gives us so many of them. Being a poet himself, he can sympathize with Dryden for having to write bits of lives in a form that doesn’t allow wandering into thoughtful analysis. The occasional poem is like the premature biography, one that is penned to order for a subject; there, too, flatness and flattery are the rule and it is likely that no one will write again about the fellow. Johnson avoids the problem of the subject’s approval of his Life by writing about dead poets and, because of his character and pride in his work, he avoids adoration, as well as justification for small evils done, that too many biographers of the dead include.

Johnson knows, too, to look at the particulars, though he find yet again an orphan, again a loving or renegade son, graduation or rustication or yet again a poet sans matriculation. Fancy and invention are less necessary for his most intriguing prose than for yet another heroic-coupleted “Ode on a Great Man.” He never wanders far from the facts, illustrating his claims and animating his subjects so that his readers can test his praise and blame. He knows that unless there is a circling around those facts in order to discern patterns that might reveal character and exceptions to it, a biography devolves into a table of dates, which can be quite helpful and is sufficient for some purposes, but not for the living-with that biographies can offer. Johnson shows how a Life can be both faithful to, and thoughtful about, a life, by what he includes and what he leaves out.

Nicholas Roe’s John Keats is grounded in his years of scholarship and most immediately in the letters of Keats and his friends. He has not only the commonplaces of birth, love, and death to make particular, but he must separate his search for Keats and the changing circle around him from the many preceding biographies and those oft-read letters.

The publisher says that Roe’s book “explodes entrenched conceptions of [Keats] as a delicate, overly sensitive, tragic figure. Instead, Nicholas Roe reveals the real flesh-and-blood poet,” a man of passion and ambition who is yet “prey to doubt, suspicion and jealousy; [. . .] devoured by sexual desire and frustration; and in thrall to alcohol and opium.” O for a novel filched hot from the dime store / Full of the true, the unblushing poet / Devoured by Fanny awink at the rim / Of his purple-stained mouth. Such a flap.

But the publisher hasn’t got it right or been helpful to Roe, who is not the first to reveal a more complex and physical Keats. In his preface, Roe gives Geoffrey Matthews’s vision of Keats (1971): a young bully who grew into a young man writing dirty rhymes, contracting gonorrhea, cheering boxers from the first row. Robert Gittings writes in his John Keats (Little Brown, 1968) about the boy with a “militant and violent temperament” at school, while noting this wasn’t a constant, though a characteristic, temperament. Roe joins Gittings and Andrew Motion (Keats, Faber and Faber, 1997) in not knowing for sure, but thinking it likely, that the mercury Keats prescribed for himself was for gonorrhea. Gittings has an appendix tracing reactions to the venereal possibility and finds it being entertained as likely in writings from 1884 on—Keats has not consistently been held as too ethereal for the taking opportunities necessary to contract such an illness. Following this is Appendix 4, “Keats’s Use of Bawdy.” While noting that these letters contain fewer instances of sexual slang than others of the time, Gittings provides passages that were prudishly kept out of some editions and provides translations—citations even—for words he thought his own readers might be puzzled by. Keats’s drinking and use of laudanum is duly noted by the others.

Roe acknowledges his predecessors and he makes more sober claims than his publisher. One is what you’d expect from any biographer. About his attempts to show a complex man in a way no one else has, he says, “Nothing in this portrait is fictional. Every detail comes from Keats’s letters or contemporary accounts of him.”

Nothing is fictional: I take it this as shorthand for saying that nothing is made-up, assumed, or falsified, though I understand fiction as a method. Some of that method is, in fact, in play in Roe’s biography, which is not the only one to employ two of fiction’s techniques: allowance for supposing what is in someone’s mind and for the smoothing out of contingency with the result of understandable and traceable cause and effect. These two sentences follow a description of the wounds of Keats’s heroic, seafaring uncle:

Perhaps we can overhear something of Jennings’s story in Hyperion, as battle-weary Saturn languishes in a scene of awful calm [. . .] Possibly, as a child, Keats had overheard talk in which the extraordinary juxtaposition of battle, wounds, Saturn and a feather was lodged in his imagination until called to poetic life.

The nature of experience and of its transformation into character and art are many times bypassed in the volume by such suggestions as Perhaps and Possibly. It is one thing, and a good thing, that Roe tells about John Jennings. In his preface, he notes the importance Keats gave to his childhood and has brought new information about it to felt life in the first section of the book. Yet, it is another thing to suppose the boy Keats into knowing something. Even had Keats been in the room, what he took in and what he made of the tales belong to that mystery of mind that has long been the proper study of many minds and still is not surely understood. When the writing of Hyperion is discussed, the dashing uncle is not, nor is there anything said about what the value of such speculation is.

Here, quoting from a letter to John Hamilton Reynolds (July 11, 1818), written during Keats’s long walk through Scotland with Charles Armitage Brown, Roe is first definite, then tentative, then again sure, about how Keats’s mind formed and functioned.

Just once Keats allows us to glimpse a formative association from his childhood, when he mentions how he had thought Burns’s landscape was “desolate . . . but a few strips of Green on a cold hill.” It seems likely that as a boy Keats linked Scotland with “strips of Green” because of his grandparents’ home at Scotland Green, an association later overlaid with feelings of orphaned misery that now coloured his ideas of Scotland and Burns.

Though Roe says just once, this isn’t the only time he adduces associations. More of the letter will help make sense of this one:

We were talking on different and indifferent things, when on a sudden we turned a corner upon the immediate County of Air—the Sight was as rich as possible—I had no Conception that the native place of Burns was so beautiful—the Idea I had was more desolate, his rigs of Barley seemed always to me but a few strips of Green on a cold hill—O prejudice! it was rich as Devon.

It isn’t a stretch to say that an orphan’s misery remains as a part of an orphan’s being. But it is not now being expressed.

John Keats, Pencil drawing by Charles Brown.

Roe is thorough. Some of the physical demands of Keats’s time and places are brought alive—the miles to walk for daily business, the miles and miles for pleasure, and the duration and discomforts of coach and ship. Though lacking some details about Keats’s life as an apothecary apprentice and then as dresser at Guy’s Hospital, Roe supplies information about others whose duties, schedules, and studies were likely to have been similar. The financial affairs of the Keats/Jennings family are shown to be as byzantine and spicy as anything mired in nineteenth-century Chancery. Keats was generous in lending to friends but, having given up his medical career for poetry, thought to give up poetry for an income once he and Fanny Brawne decided to marry, but his final illness necessitated he become a borrower. There is a poignancy in his not knowing there was capital under Chancery’s jurisdiction that could have been his.

There are, as well, passages that have a thoroughness that isn’t supported. The following comes at the end of a chapter that describes maneuverings and the resultant meeting that “truly marked an era in Keats’s existence”:

What did they discuss? Obvious topics would be [. . .] Their talk most likely touched on [. . .] and perhaps [. . .]

Much of this account of the meeting between Keats, Cowden Clarke, Hunt and Haydon is speculative. [. . .]

[. . .]

And what of Cowden Clarke? He would have been [. . .] Walking back along the lanes to London, perhaps he reflected ruefully that not a single word had been said about his own poems.

The lists of topics, which I have left out, do not help in understanding the remarkable occasion. I’ve also left out the characterizations that Roe gave, based on knowing what came after the meeting, to Leigh Hunt’s and Benjamin Haydon’s impressions of Keats. More trustworthy and revealing is his “‘We became intimate on the spot,’ Hunt recalled, and Keats was invited to call again.” than his “Hunt and Haydon were both jolted into admiration of this new prodigy.” And what of Cowden Clarke? He appears in the biography only in relation to Keats and so his personality is not drawn sufficiently for a reader to feel confident in the rueful reflection or what else he would have been doing.

The scholarly apparatus consists of works cited and endnotes. Notes are a difficult matter in any book in which they appear. While Roe’s book is the work of a scholar, it will be read for pleasures in addition to, or other than, the scholarly, so the notes will be used for a variety of reasons. Tables of persons and places would be useful, as would be family trees for both sides of Keats’s family.

John Keats, in the National Portrait Gallery, London, William Hilton

Consistently saying who said what and to whom can become a nuisance in a book that relies as much on sources as this one does. Yet there are too many cases where the source for quotation or observation is missing and where turning to the notes doesn’t satisfy curiosity. A large number of citations are to Keats’s letters, which are identified only with a page number, leaving dates and recipients in question. Making these things as clear as possible in the text would also ensure that when Roe is exercising obligations due analysis his ideas can be identified.

Early in volume, lack of identification in the text allows something to slip by Roe and his editors.

What followed was a group of poems marking his move to London. If “Imitation of Spenser” grew from secluded garden readings at Enfield, his first London poem tackled momentous international events that were astonishing Hunt in The Examiner:

’Tis done—but yesterday a King!
And arm’d with Kings to strive—
And now thou art a nameless thing
So abject—yet alive!


I don’t think the reader was misled on purpose into thinking that that first London poem would follow the colon. It doesn’t. The citation attached to alive! is for The Examiner (10 April 1814), without page number. There is no poem by Keats in that issue, nor these particular lines, which are the opening ones of Byron’s ode to Napoleon, published August 6, 1814, page 199, of Hunt’s weekly in response to momentous etc. It would be nice to think that had the page been given in the citation, or Byron identified in the text, scholarly and editorial instincts might have kicked in and what might mislead or puzzle been tidied up. (Neither the punctuation nor line indentation appears as in The Examiner.)

Keats’s life is presented chronologically. Roe helps his reader by discussing this choice in the preface. He doesn’t fret when the past or future must intrude on the present, and the transitions are seamless for the most part. There are, though, passages when changes of time are abrupt or silly. The “20 February” Sunday dinner when Isabella Jones’s gift of pheasants was eaten is casually mentioned during April matters. Not only is this dinner of no import and has the sense of being included only because it is known, the next sentence has “Thursday the 24th, St Mark’s Eve” which is, confusingly, an April Feast. (The calendars I’ve looked at have that 24th as a Sunday).

Biographer Nicholas Roe — his engagement with Keats is deep and unflagging.

There are matters worth exploring that are missed: that the letters buried with Keats were from Fanny Brawne, unopened to protect himself from emotion, as he kept her away during his illness though she was living next door to him; that Brown and Joseph Severn ruined Keats’s epitaph (Severn’s own stone is pertinent, too); whether it is true or not that Wordsworth never took a paper-knife to the leaves of his copy of Keats’s third volume so that he might read it. Though Roe discusses several portraits of Keats, none appears in the volume, save for Severn’s “Nightingale” on the dust jacket. The known portraits present so various a man and excite those unexplainable responses that faces of others do. It is a shame that he isn’t pictured here among his friends and places he loved.

Roe writes well and clearly. The chapter titles helpfully provide focus; some are delightful. Chapter 18, “ditto, ditto,” doesn’t make you wait too long before it reveals its title’s source in a way that enacts a small echo of the release Keats seems to have felt at a boxing match soon after his brother Tom’s death. Roe’s pleasure in Keats’s language is apparent from his discussion of the poems. The inevitable fragments a biography provides work here in the poems’ favor. The stylist matters that are kin to those of other writers of the time seem to become increasingly individual and yield up Keats’s astonishing descriptions of things and people when put to Roe’s analysis.

Roe’s engagement with Keats is deep and unflagging. There is a steadiness about the writing that is deceptive; the life in the Life does not jump off the page, but it accumulates during the reading so that something of what it felt like to be around John Keats remains, as things do when truly experienced.


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