The Living Keats

John Keats

by Robert Gittings
Atlantic-Little, Brown, 469 pp., $8.95

John Keats
John Keats; drawing by David Levine

A classic case-history of a delinquent. The parents’ not quite approved marriage and their first child’s not quite unambiguous gestation; his early years knocking about at the “Swan and Hoop,” an inn that was also a kind of Regency car park; a bottle-loving father killed in a Saturday night road accident when the boy was eight; a man-loving mother who promptly married again and farmed out her previous family to granny, but took it back when her second marriage broke up, only to die of tuberculosis while her adoring son was still in his teens; disturbed periods at school; vindictive lawsuits that kept the relatives at each others’ throats and the family in a perpetual state of impoverishment and bitterness. And then years of apprenticeship, precariously dependent on trustees amid a set of free-living medical students. Yet the end product was not a criminal but the author of the line, “The poetry of earth is never dead,” a young man who for generations of readers was the founder of a religion of Beauty. He didn’t even go in for drugs, which is more than can be said of some contemporary poets who had not enjoyed the same disadvantages.

This evolution into a great artist, against the odds, is one of the things Robert Gittings can do little to explain in his remarkable biography. The way a boy’s early experiences will affect him is predictable only statistically. But at least the individual steps in the process can be traced. Gittings’s aim, characteristically qualified, was “to find the factual basis for almost every reported incident or event of Keats’s life,” and as a fulfillment of this aim, his book is the fullest of three exceptionally good biographies of the poet published within the last five years. It was Gittings whose earlier essays, in The Living Year (1954), The Mask of Keats (1956), and The Keats Inheritance (1964), patiently unpicked the secret of Keats’s legacy in Chancery, which would have enabled him to marry Fanny Brawne and might have saved his life; demonstrated (to the horror of some traditionalists) the sway of “the beautiful Mrs. Jones” over some of the young poet’s best writing; and made some surprising links between poems, church windows, and Scotch whisky. In this long study these various discoveries and suggestions are not overstressed, but are allowed to fall into place as single components in a complete working model. And this model is not just a scholarly replica; it does work. The illusion of life it gives is very strong.

Keats the man is the most immediately likable of all English poets, as he was probably the most liked as a schoolboy. Touchy about his size, he was remembered ruefully as being “rather muscular,” as well as for “extraordinary vivacity & personal beauty.” It was his vivacity above all, his habitual existence “in passions of tears or outrageous fits of laughter…

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