John Keats

by Walter Jackson Bate
Harvard, 732 pp., $10.00

John Keats: The Making of a Poet

by Aileen Ward
Viking, 450 pp., $7.50

A Man’s life of any worth is a continual allegory—and very few eyes can see the Mystery of his life—a life like the scriptures, figurative—Lord Byron cuts a figure—but he is not figurative—Shakespeare led a life of Allegory; his works are the comments on it.

Compared with Keats himself, Shakespeare was lucky. Since we know so little of his life, we are forced to stick to his work. And that, mercifully, is enough to make all the diaries and laundry bills in the world irrelevant. Not so with Keats: his biography is insistent, inescapable. After all, he himself contributed so much towards it in his voluminous letters. And what he left out was filled in by the memoirs of his friends, their bickering and gossip, which raise a dust that almost chokes the poems.

For his life was, in pure form, an allegory of the Romantic poet. Cover his face: mine eyes dazzle: he died young. Had consumption not got him, the reviewers been kinder, and he and Fanny settled improbably into domesticity, the lure of his work would, I think, be much less—even if he had fulfilled his own most stringent ambitions. As it is, his life, or rather his death, somehow completes his poetry. For in terms of mere bulk, there is not all that much there.

His Endymion, as he himself well saw, is a failure, and his Hyperion, fine things as it contains, is not a success. But in shorter things, where the matured power of moral interpretation, and the high architectonics which go with complete poetic development, are not required, he is perfect.

However much we would qualify Matthew Arnold’s judgment, it remains more or less true. Yet that in itself makes Keats very much to the modern taste. Nobody writes long poems any more, and scarcely anyone reads them, unless forced. Indeed, in nearly every way Keats is the most modern of the Romantics: as Eliot once urged, he assimilated the lesson of Shakespeare’s use of language in a wholly original way; he commands a thickness of metaphor and even occasional tricks of synaesthesia which predate the Symbolists; he has a steady ambivalence to death and the senses which goes well beyond the pleasure principle. Above all, he is one of us socially: not quite a gentleman, not quite properly educated, and continually willing to risk his social poise for his convictions; “I always,” he wrote, “made an awkward bow.” Add to all that his sharp critical insights into his fellow Romantics, his belief in the impersonality of great art, his unRomantic vigor and toughness with himself, and he seems a long way from the oversensitive darling of the senses, “snuffed out by an article” and then immortalized in Victorian myth and Severn’s posthumous sketches. “There is,” said his friend Woodhouse, “a great deal of reality about all that Keats writes.”

The factual reality and the myth of Keats’s life are investigated again …

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