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 always in extremes,” together with a burning generosity of temperament, that formed the spell attaching his friends to him. Whatever “negative capability” means, it could never have meant a refusal to commit oneself, for Keats gave himself without reserve to everything he did and thought and wrote. If he found his company sufficiently attractive, he kissed it; if sufficiently mean or unjust, he told it so and walked out of it, or hit it. This forthright quality—a sort of primitive naïveté that gets defiantly into the very rhymes of his poems—makes his letters inexhaustibly readable. “I never intend hereafter to spend any time with Ladies unless they are handsome—you lose time to no purpose.” They are true letters, rushed and slangy, but they can jump from grotesque comedy to sudden profound speculation, to gossip to poetry to bawdy and back to tender solicitude, with an astonishing versatility. Why four kisses, to shut the eyes of the knight-at-arms, in a hastily scribbled masterpiece about Love and Death? Because the writer “was obliged to choose an even number that both eyes might have fair play.” Byron can do something like this; but Keats usually means every word he is saying. There is little posing and no dogmatism. “Man should not dispute or assert but whisper results to his neighbour.”

Keats’s pugnacity terrified his friends. His very friendship had to be fought for; and once his blood was up he was liable to assault anybody, irrespective of size, eminence, or affinity. As an adult he hated cruelty but enjoyed the “gusto” in street brawling, bear baiting, and boxing. No wonder he was expected to enter the Army or Navy rather than the realm of Flora and old Pan; and indeed, in the days when such men could be humane as well as tough, he would have made a superb commando officer.

This fierce, volatile, outgoing personality Gittings recreates with lively care. True, he almost persuades himself that Keats had red hair, and now that he is editing Cowden Clarke’s Recollections he will have to find a way around an explicit denial of this. But his instinct is right: iconographically Keats’s hair was the fieriest possible red, just as it appears in Haydon’s painting on the dust-jacket. Gittings also reveals the unusual tenacity underlying Keats’s changes of mind and mood. In Dilke’s summary (not quoted), Keats had “a resolution, not only physical but moral, greater than any man we ever knew: it was unshakable by everything but his affections.” The long medical apprenticeship was completed, and Keats could have been a practicing apothecary—if a new regulation had not whisked his qualification six months out of reach the moment he achieved it. At any rate he stuck out the full course, so that one day he was able to describe, in merciless detail, just what Severn would be in for as a nurse if he did not give the doomed poet the means of suicide. But he gave up surgery, because although adept he shrank from the responsibility; and he parried well-meaning efforts to make him into a hatter, a bookseller, or a tea-broker. He was confident, he said, “that if I choose I may be a popular writer; that I will never be; but for all that I will get a livelihood.”


IF THE REAL KEATS was so toughminded, how did the legend begin and survive? Partly from plain misunderstandings, some of them ours. When Shelley heard that Keats had been killed by the reviewers, he believed it not because he imagined Keats to be a weakling but because he knew him to be passionate. He died, it was said, “from the consequences of breaking a blood-vessel, in paroxysms of despair at the contemptuous attack on his book”—wildly untrue, but not implausible of a wholly committed artist who had always lived in extremes. Even the image of Adonais, the “pale flower by some sad maiden cherished,” which first drew tears, and then catcalls, from posterity, was meant to be a precise compliment to the author of “Isabella”: Urania mourns her poet, assassinated by the paid hacks of reaction and now under the daisies of the Protestant cemetery in Rome, as Isabella mourned her lover, whose head was buried under the white flowers of a basil plant. But during much of the nineteenth century the legend was found useful. Liberalism appreciated having a poet among its martyrs; and if Lockhart’s attack on the seditious little vulgarian who had presumed to aspire above his proper social class was not literally murder, it was at least what Keats’s brother called it, “exterminating blackguardism.”

I think Gittings’s account of the political milieu shows something less than sympathy, or even tolerance. His defense would be that Keats himself was essentially apolitical, and was only dragged into current controversies, unwillingly and harmfully, by association with others; but this is unfair to the others. Gittings frankly accepts (while deploring its vehemence) Keats’s rejection of Christianity, but finds it much less easy to admit that he was “a fault-finder with everything established.” Yet the tensions produced in him by love of his friends, a shared belief in the popular cause, and his absolute need for personal independence, were strong and complicated, and cannot be explained simply at Leigh Hunt’s expense. Distortion slips in. Keats was not making “a very harsh judgment” when he called Hunt “disgusting” in matters of taste and morals (p. 266); the word meant only “insipid.” And when Keats exclaimed in Kilburn meadows: “What a pity there is not a human dust hole,” was it really Hunt and his household that he longed to consign to one? “The inference was plain,” Gittings says (p. 126). Cowden Clarke reports the phrase in a different context: can it have been a favorite expression of Keats’s? At one point (p. 119) Hunt is scolded for using the Examiner to protest against the suspension of Habeas Corpus instead of to advertise a rising young genius.

This is perilously close to what might be called a Blackwood-looking view of Hunt; and it is not very far from the old line that Keats had no business meddling with anything but Beauty. Keats’s own “political” passages (such as that in Book III of Endymion, beginning: “There are who lord it o’er their fellow-men,” which is integral to the vision of the feud “‘Twixt Nothing and Creation”) are seen chiefly as disastrous digressions from the poet’s proper concerns. A good poet himself, Gittings is disappointing when he discusses the imaginative content of poetry; here his American rival Walter Jackson Bate easily outguns him. If there is something in a poem that can be illuminated factually, annotated, the commentary springs into life; otherwise Gittings seems content to summarize in a rather perfunctory, derivative manner. Here, for instance, is his other rival, Aileen Ward, on the “Grecian Urn”:


The imaginary world of art and the real world of experience, which he tried at first to disjoin, are in fact complementary and necessary to each other….the truth that this is “a World of Pains and troubles” becomes beautiful when it is recognised as not merely necessary but desirable, as the truth that this world is also a “vale of Soul-making.”

[John Keats, pp. 282-3]

Here is Gittings:

Beauty in art and the truth of life are seen as complementary to each other in Keats’s “World of Pains and troubles.” In this new world of soul-making, Beauty and Truth…make it possible to live with the disagreeables of human existence, and even to see them as part of an eternal process.

[p. 321]

Many writers on Keats have been tempted to annex certain “little Regions” in the letters, especially the Vale of Soul-Making and the Mansion of Many Apartments, and to treat these brilliant occasional formulations as if they were the entry to some consistent, deeply considered philosophy of life. Once the “philosophy” has been reconstructed, or invented, the poems can all be regarded as illustrations of it, or approaches toward it (Hardy criticism has wasted itself away like this for a century). But these passages are prose poems not very different from the verse poems, hypotheses improvised in the teeth of ugly facts. To use Keats’s own phrase, they are “isolated verisimilitudes” (metaphors, possibilities) caught from the penetralium of mystery. The prose devises a hypothesis that might explain some of this mystery intellectually; the verse tried out attitudes that might make it emotionally bearable. The Urn remains, the consolations change and pass. Keats neither would run away from nor ever acquiesced in the “world pains and troubles”; his own death proves it, that year-long struggle so agonizingly documented and rehearsed here in such moving detail. There are no answers to this human problem, except the ready-made ones that “negative capability” is bound to avoid. I think what we all respond to in Keats’s work is that magnificent losing struggle to save the body with the soul, to have one’s cake as well as watch it being eaten. Hence his recurrent images of stillness and consummation, the eternal instant before the song ends, the apples drop, the bride is ravished by quietness; its archetype being the physical act of sex.

IT COULD BE ARGUED (though always hesitantly in the case of Keats, whose mind and hand went so closely together) that a biographer’s job is not, after all, to mediate his author’s vision but to relate his works relevantly to the circumstances that have affected them. The connections Gittings suggests between poems and people, poems and books, poems and places, are continuously fascinating and helpful. He is inquisitive, patient, and (thank goodness) practical. One small example of his unobtrusive accuracy is his quotation of the last stanza of “To Autumn”:

Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows…

The first edition, the Oxford standard text (revised 1958), Aileen Ward, and Bate, all give river shallows. But the drift of error is generally from the less to the more familiar, and it is significant that the editors of two recent English school editions, while printing sallows, have thought it necessary to gloss the word (they both explain it as “willows,” which is like explaining pears as “apples,” but no matter). Where exactly were the shallows of the river Itchen at Winchester? And where would the songs of Autumn be, if one tried to listen to them among the shallows? Keats wrote sallows, as Gittings knows. No dependence on others where facts are in question. When all the carping has been done, this book is as good value for money as we could hope to find.

This Issue

November 7, 1968