Owed to Keats
John Keats died 200 years ago this week. Here Conrad Landin examines three books that take a very different look at his life and work
25 February, 2021 — By Conrad Landin
John Keats by Joseph Severn
THE tombstone of John Keats bears the words: “Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water”. The poet, who died 200 years ago this week aged 25, had requested the sentence – but his friends could not countenance inscribing it without an explanation.
The grave attributes Keats’s death-bed desire for the epitaph to “the Bitterness of his Heart at the Malicious Power of his Enemies”. Keats’s reputation has steadily soared in the past two centuries: in no small part thanks to his champions’ anger at the critical derision the poet experienced in his short life.
Unsurprising, then, that in the modern world Keats attracts more devotion than criticism – in either sense of the word. “A thing of beauty is a joy forever,” Keats wrote in Endymion, and as early as 1878, this line was considered to have “passed into proverb”. It is just one sentence, Lucasta Miller wryly notes, that can be found on a webpage of “Timeless Quotes by John Keats That Will Touch Your Heart”.
With Keats the subject of a glut of biographies already, three books take refreshingly different approaches. Miller’s Keats discusses nine of the most celebrated poems, each as a way to unlock a different time and aspect of Keats’s life and identity. Seamlessly interweaving biography and literary criticism, she creates a vivid picture of Keats’s writing process.
Keats’s life at Wentworth Place – now Keats House – in Hampstead, and his death in Rome, are immortalised in popular museums. But as Susie Grogan notes, Keats is rarely analysed as a poet of place. In John Keats, Grogan seeks to rectify that, offering warm and worthwhile observations on how places as varied as the Lake District and the Isle of Wight shaped Keats’s verse.
Keats House. Photo: Alphauser/Wikipedia
But her narrative is cluttered with unproductive digressions. Grogan often fails to pinpoint the significance of passages she has quoted at length, before veering into cliche. “Literature seeps from its walls, learning is in the air you breathe,” she says of Oxford. Hampstead gets similar veneration, but while Miller finds time to visit Kentish Town, Keats’s stay in Wesleyan Place warrants not even a mention from Grogan. Perhaps it’s on the wrong side of the Heath?
Keats’s verse is rarely short of gluttonous imagery, so what to make of the unassuming dust-jacket of Anahid Nersessian’s book? Seven words (and no illustrations) on a love-heart pink cover, it feels like both a mismatch and an antidote. Yet Keats’s Odes: A Lover’s Discourse, as sparse as La Belle Dame Sans Merci, is as mesmerising as The Eve of St Agnes. Nersessian, a literature professor in the US, has a boldness and clarity sorely lacking in many of her fellow academics.
Nersessian weaponises her searing prose – and Keats’s verse – for a very personal and yet deeply political mission. This short book is highly conscious of the world’s evils, but makes a passionate case for humanity in the face of modern capitalism and the climate emergency. It is all the more powerful a reading of Keats because it rejects the simplistic contortionism that political readings often adopt.
Keats’s radicalism is to be found in his style, Nersessian says, noting that scholars will “bend over backwards” to make the pastoral To Autumn about the Peterloo massacre, and by “torturous extension” the revolution at large. “What he excelled at was a poetics of negation that insistently vaporises any endorsement of the way things are.”
Keats’s love letters to Fanny Brawne, who lived next door to him in Wentworth Place, are probably the most famous of their genre.
But in assessing how life influenced verse, we would do well to remember another fling – with an older woman, Isabella Jones, who has evaded biographers’ efforts to pin her down. It was the wealthy Mrs Jones who suggested Keats write a poem about a virgin’s St Agnes dream. Miller notes that the “florid metaphors for sex” in The Eve of St Agnes – and thus its reliance on inference – reflect Mrs Jones’s comic “obsession with secrecy” about their liaison.
Keats’s poetry is self-conscious of its status as “flitter-winged verse” – a phrase that appears in Lamia, a poem sadly under-discussed in these books. It comes amid a playful passage in which Keats toys with a happy ending for his misadventured classical lovers.
But it also disarms the writer’s power, through suggesting the reader “flitters” across the text. As Keats said in discussing Endymion and its harsh critical reception, “Lovers of Poetry like to have a little Region to wander in which they may pick and choose”. A century and a half before Roland Barthes published The Death of the Author, Keats foreshadowed the arguments of the post-structuralists. This has given Keats scholars real licence – and real responsibility too.
• Keats, A Brief Life in Nine Poems and One Epitaph. By Lucasta Miller. Jonathan Cape, £17.99
• John Keats, Poetry, Life and Landscapes. By Suzie Grogan. Pen & Sword, £19.99
• Keats’s Odes, A Lover’s Discourse. By Anahid Nersessian, University of Chicago Press, £16
This Grave contains all that was Mortal of a Young English Poet Who, on his Death Bed, in the Bitterness of his Heart, at the Malicious Power of his Enemies, Desired these Words to be engraven on his Tomb Stone
Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water
Feb 24th 1821