Oh, for ten years, that I may overwhelm / Myself in poesy.
So wrote the author of “Sleep and Poetry,” composed in late 1816. Alas, John Keats was allowed only half that time, dying at the age of 25 in 1821.
Is there any more affecting story than his in the annals of English literature? Orphaned at a young age, barely five feet tall (and sensitive about it), and raggedly educated, Keats was nonetheless naturally gregarious and fond of “women, wine, and snuff.” A Londoner through and through, he loved the theater, enjoyed watching boxing matches, and once spent an evening cutting cards for half guineas. This sometimes overidealized poet—so sensitive! so ethereal!—even seems to have been treated for a venereal disease, possibly syphilis. He fell in love at least twice before he met Fanny Brawne, to whom he became engaged. When they were apart or quarrelling, he suffered horribly from jealousy.
For a couple of years, the young Keats was also absorbed with medical studies and nearly became what we might call a physician’s assistant. Admirably dedicated to his siblings, he wrote regularly to his sister Fanny and his brother George (who emigrated to the United States and was cheated out of his savings by John James Audubon, no less). When his other brother, Tom, fell mortally ill of consumption, i.e., tuberculosis, the poet devotedly nursed him—to the detriment of his own health. When, shortly after Tom’s death, Keats himself spat up a bit of deep red, he recognized it as arterial blood, and knew that he, too, was doomed. He traveled to Italy, hoping for a reprieve, but ultimately died, after great suffering, in Rome. On his tombstone, he requested that these words be inscribed: “Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water.”
The dying Keats was, however, quite wrong about being forgotten. Percy Bysshe Shelley almost immediately composed one of his greatest works, “Adonaïs,” as a memorial to him. Charles Armitage Brown brought out a brief biography, in which he accused the literary critics who had scathingly attacked Keats and “the Cockney School of Poetry” of having hastened his beloved friend’s death. Substantial lives and studies gradually appeared, including a two-volume biography by Amy Lowell early in the 20th century and, in the 1960s, substantial volumes by Walter Jackson Bate, Aileen Kelly, and Robert Gittings. Nearly all of these books are first-rate in their differing ways, for Keats seems to bring out the best in his admirers. In 2008, for instance, Stanley Plumly’s “personal biography,” Posthumous Keats, garnered tremendous reviews and well-deserved praise. To scholar and fellow poet David Baker, it was nothing less than “the greatest book ever written about the greatest lyric poet of our language.”
Even with such competition, John Keats: A New Life has much to recommend it. Nicholas Roe, professor of English at the University of St Andrews, comes to his mighty task with superb credentials: two previous scholarly studies of the poet, a biography of the fiery controversialist Leigh Hunt (whom the young Keats revered), and the chairmanship of the Keats Foundation. Roe writes, moreover, with reportorial crispness (though he does overuse phrases like “as we shall see”) and, at times, tracks his subject’s brief life almost by the hour.
“Like Wordsworth in ‘Tintern Abbey’ and The Prelude,” underscores Roe, “as a poet Keats depended on memories laid down in very early childhood.” Roe stresses, in particular, the emotional turmoil resulting from the death, while riding, of Keats’s 31-year-old father, Thomas, when John was just 8 years old. This was followed by the sudden remarriage of Keats’s mother, Frances, two months later to a man “aged twenty, with no income of his own.” Roe even raises the possibility that Frances, known to be lively and “passionately fond of amusement,” may have been carrying on a clandestine affair before her first husband’s death. When she died at just 35 from tuberculosis, her children—John, George, Tom, and Fanny—found themselves thrust upon various relatives, or sent away to school. Financial wrangling within the extended family dragged on for years.
Roe sees aspects of these family tragedies, and possible suspicions about his mother, reemerging throughout Keats’s poetry—as well as being a possible cause of his self-confessed “morbidity” and Hamlet-like melancholy. Death haunted the poet’s early life, and part of his childhood was spent literally next door to Bethlem Royal Hospital, aka Bedlam, the asylum for the insane.
Something of a scrapper and hardly a model student, young Keats nonetheless fell in love with that key to all mythology, Lemprière’s Classical Dictionary. Using it as a source book, the teenage boy began work on a (now lost) prose translation of the Aeneid, possibly as a distraction from grief at his mother’s death. About the same time, he discovered Spenser’s Faerie Queene and went through it, in his own words, “as a young horse would through a spring meadow—ramping!” A similar passion for Shakespeare and Milton soon followed.