Forty years ago this autumn, I spent a week working at a small wooden table on a tiny ironwork balcony in Rome. The balcony was directly above the Spanish Steps. The apartment was on the second floor of 26 Piazza di Spagna. It was the apartment where John Keats died at 11 o’clock at night on February 23, 1821, with the famous injunction to his faithful companion, the painter Joseph Severn. “Severn—Severn—lift me up for I am dying—I shall die easy—don’t be frightened—thank God it has come.”
My balcony was built onto the room at the back of No. 26 (to the left as you look up from the steps): the room where Severn, Keats’s nurse through those last four agonizing months of tuberculosis, sometimes managed to snatch a few hours of exhausted sleep. It was not Keats’s own room, the famous bedroom with the marble fireplace and the daisies “growing over him” on the ceiling and the sound of the Bernini fountain plashing in the piazza, which every visitor rightly remembers. It was the back room, the proper place for a biographer.
I was actually working on a life of Shelley. But for those six days it was the life of Keats, or rather his death, that haunted me. Every creak that ran through the old polished wooden floorboards of the apartment behind me broke my concentration and made me think, painfully and uneasily, of the dying man, and the letters from Fanny Brawne he would not open, and the opium painkiller that was taken from him, and the poems he was forbidden to write. Finally, as a sort of protective charm, I turned to Shelley’s “Adonaïs” (1821), the famous Olympian elegy inspired by Keats’s death, lifting it into the less painful stratosphere of myth:
Peace, peace! he is not dead, he doth not sleep—
He hath awakened from the dream of life—
It was only while reading this poem that the idea, not of Keats’s death but of its exact opposite, Keats’s awakening, his extraordinary survival after death, first struck me. The imaginative impact of Keats’s life—his “orphaned” childhood, his letters, his poetry, his friendships, his illness, his agonizing love affair—has continued unbroken for nearly two hundred years. It has retained a magnetic force, not really matched in its personal immediacy by any other Romantic poet—neither by Shelley nor even by Byron. During that week, below me on the Spanish Steps, there always seemed to be some young figure standing or sitting beyond the buckets of the flower sellers, similarly reading from a book, and looking anxiously up at the second floor of No. 26. I cannot believe it has changed to this day. Why should this be?
The “living hand” of his famous late fragment, possibly the last poem he ever wrote, really does reach out toward us and make a claim:
This living hand, now warm and capable
Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold
And in the icy silence of the tomb,
So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights
That thou would wish thine own heart dry of blood,
So in my veins red life might stream again,
And thou be conscience-calm’d. See, here it is—
I hold it towards you.
In part, this must be because his poetry is so richly embedded in his wonderful letters, so that the two together form a natural autobiography of haunting power. Many of his most celebrated short poems simply rise out of the pages of the long letters he dashed off, appearing, as he put it, “as naturally as the leaves to a tree.”
“To Autumn” for example, perhaps his most perfect poem, simply sprouts from a description of warm-looking stubble fields outside Winchester—“Aye better than the chilly green of the spring”—and concludes with a smiling, throwaway comment: “I hope you are better employed than in gaping after weather.”
The youthful animation of these letters is constantly astonishing. Who could resist the way he frames his early life-plan, to put a knapsack on his back, and “to write, to study and to see all Europe at the lowest expense. I will clamber through the Clouds and exist.” Or his explanation why he never intends to marry: “The roaring of the wind is my wife and the Stars through the window pane are my Children.” Especially as this is written approximately two months before he meets Fanny Brawne.
His gift for entering imaginatively into physical objects is equally beguiling. The way he hoisted himself up, looking “burly and dominant” when he first met Spenser’s description of “sea-shouldering whales”; or mimed the “pawing” of a dancing bear, or the rapid flurry of a boxer’s punches like “fingers tapping” on a windowpane. Or those famous moments of imaginative attention and empathy. “If a Sparrow come before my Window I take part in its existence and pick about the Gravel.” Or simply eating a ripe nectarine: “It went down soft pulpy, slushy, oozy—all its delicious embonpoint melted down my throat like a large beatified Strawberry.” Or even entering into the spirit of a billiard ball, so he could feel “a sense of delight from its own roundness, smoothness, volubility, & the rapidity of its motions.” As he summarized this power: “Imagination may be compared to Adam’s dream—he awoke and found it truth.”
But besides these matchless letters, his contemporaries also wrote vividly about him in short formal memoirs—his school friend Charles Cowden Clarke on his childhood and medical apprenticeship; his editor Leigh Hunt on his early poetry; his friend and amanuensis Charles Brown on his Hampstead days; and Joseph Severn on his dying. In particular, Brown’s description of Keats writing “Ode to a Nightingale” (1819) on a kitchen chair under a plum tree has achieved a lasting image of creativity not dissimilar to William Stukeley’s description of Isaac Newton conceiving of “universal gravity” under an apple tree:
In the spring of 1819 a nightingale had built her nest near my house. Keats felt a tranquil and continual joy in her song; and one morning he took his chair from the breakfast-table to the grass-plot under a plum-tree, where he sat for two or three hours. When he came into the house, I perceived he had some scraps of paper in his hand, and these he was quietly thrusting behind the books. On inquiry, I found those scraps, four or five in number, contained his poetic feeling on the song of our nightingale. The writing was not well legible; and it was difficult to arrange the stanzas on so many scraps. With his assistance I succeeded, and this was his Ode to a Nightingale, a poem which has been the delight of every one.
Yet John Keats’s survival in the popular imagination, his “posthumous existence” as he called it (angrily, to his doctor in Rome), has achieved an altogether different kind of life of its own. This was already stirring, long before the modern biographies, in the many paintings of the English Pre-Raphaelites, notably J.E. Millais’s The Eve of St. Agnes (1863) and Keith Waterhouse’s La Belle Dame Sans Merci (1893), which drew so richly on Keats’s imagery. He floats back quite unexpectedly in the science-fiction short story by Rudyard Kipling, called “Wireless” (1910), in which Keats’s voice is poignantly resurrected across the airwaves. Indeed Keats, perennially popular with students, has emerged as a cult figure in the recent fashion for literary tattooing. Quotations from the odes and even Endymion—“A thing of beauty is a joy forever”—are gracefully emblazoned around naked arms, wrists, and ankles.
Most influential of all has probably been his glamorous, willowy, unshaved reincarnation by Ben Whishaw in Jane Campion’s 2009 movie, Bright Star. Here the center of the myth is firmly relocated in the final Keats–Fanny Brawne love story. Or more unconventionally, in the emotional triangle formed between them and Keats’s best friend and faithful amanuensis, Charles Brown. This triangular geometry of attraction, rivalry, and jealousy is curiously reminiscent of Campion’s previous film The Piano.
In biographical fact this love story, or love triangle, occupies only the last twenty months of Keats’s life—essentially between late June 1819 (the first love letters to Fanny) and his death in Rome in February 1821. It is often forgotten that Endymion, Hyperion, “The Eve of St. Agnes,” “La Belle Dame sans Merci,” and the five great odes were already written by then, and Keats was increasingly ill and emotionally unstable. For the last four months the lovers were apart, and Keats had stopped writing altogether, except for a few brave and tragic letters, mostly to Brown, but not to Fanny. How significant is the love story for the writer’s story? Or, a rather different matter, how important for the poet’s popular survival?
There have been at least ten major literary biographies of Keats over the last fifty years, and several of them remain classics of the genre. Walter Jackson Bate’s large, stately, old-fashioned study of 1963 is still unsurpassed in its tender, patient treatment of the poetry. Aileen Ward (also 1963) brings unrivaled emotional insight into the poet at work. Robert Gittings (1968), a British radio producer who spent half a lifetime editing the manuscripts of Keats’s odes, fitted them into the most captivating of all the straight biographical narratives, while Andrew Motion (1997), who inspired Campion’s film as well as writing a novella that imagined Keats living to the age of fifty (The Invention of Dr. Cake, 2003), is perhaps most perceptive about Keats’s mysterious love life, including the long shadow cast by his wayward mother, Frances Keats, and the complex, agonizing emotional end-game of the Fanny Brawne affair. It is also hard not to conclude that each of these biographers, in their different ways, fell passionately in love with their subject.
Yet fresh and more dispassionate points of view are still possible. Denise Gigante, in The Keats Brothers, gives us the story as seen essentially from the outside, through the eyes of Keats’s younger brothers Tom and especially George, the least like the poet.
George Keats, born in 1797, was the Keats brother who married and prospered. He and Georgiana Wylie emigrated to America in 1818, where they struggled to establish themselves as pioneers along the Ohio River. They met John James Audubon, lived briefly in his deluxe log cabin (silver tea set, piano, turkey carpets), and got entangled in his steamship and sawmill businesses, which almost bankrupted them. But by 1836 they had established themselves and their children in Louisville, Kentucky, and built a large mansion with four Doric pillars, known as the Englishman’s Palace. They are an adventurous and attractive couple, but the real fascination of their story lies in the transatlantic perspective, as it were, that they bring to brother John.
The contrast in the brothers’ characters is especially revealing. George is a natural entrepreneur, straightforward, cheerful, outgoing, and businesslike, a man—as Audubon observes—who can learn to chop logs, while John has an essentially dreamy, evasive temperament. Outside his own circle, he is seen as moody, unreliable, even something of a spendthrift, “melancholy and complaining.”