A Possible Keats

In 1803, the guillotine was a common children’s toy. Children also had toy cannons that fired real gunpowder, and puzzles depicting the great battles of England. They went around chanting, “Victory or death!” Do childhood games influence character? We have to assume that they do, but let’s set aside such heartbreaking speculations for a moment. War—it’s not even a proper game—leaves influenza in its wake, and cadavers. Do childhood games typically leave cadavers behind in the nursery? Massacres in those little fairy-dust minds? Hoist the banners of victory across the table from the marzipan mountain to the pudding! It’s perhaps a dreadful thought, but we’ve seen clear evidence that both children and adults have a taste for imitation. Certainly, such questions should be explored, and yet let us allow that there is a purely metaphysical difference between a toy guillotine and war. Children are metaphysical creatures, a gift they lose too early, sometimes at the very moment they learn to talk.

John Keats (1795-1821) was seven years old and in school at Enfield. He was seized by the spirit of the time, by a peculiar compulsion, an impetuous fury—before writing poetry. Any pretext seemed to him a good one for picking a fight with a friend, any pretext to fight.

Fighting was to John Keats like eating or drinking. He sought out aggressive boys, cruel boys, but their company, as he was already inclined to poetry, must have provided some comic and burlesque treats. For mere brutality—without humor, make-believe, or whimsy—didn’t interest him. Which might lead a person to extrapolate that boys aren’t truly brutal. Yes, they are, but they have rules and an aesthetic. Keats was a child of action. He’d punched a yard monitor more than twice his size, and he was considered a strong boy, lively and argumentative. When he was brawling, his friend Clarke reports, Keats resembled Edmund Kean at theatrical heights of exasperation. His friends predicted a brilliant future for him in the military. Yet when his temper defused, he’d grow extremely calm, and his sweetness shone—with the same intensity as his rage had. The scent of angels. His earliest brushes with melancholy were suddenly disrupted by outbursts of nervous laughter. Moods, vague and tentative, didn’t settle over him so much as hurry past like old breezes.

A year before leaving Enfield—the Georgian-style school building would later be converted into a train station and then ultimately be demolished—John Keats discovered Books. Books were the spoils left by the Incas, by Captain Cook’s voyages, Robinson Crusoe. He went to battle in Lemprière’s dictionary of classical myth, among the reproductions of ancient sculptures and marbles, the annals of Greek fable, in the arms of goddesses. He walked through the gardens, a book in hand. During recreation breaks, he read Elizabethan translations of Ovid. Scholars have made a habit of pointing out that the poet didn’t know Greek. So what? Even Lord Byron insinuated that Keats hadn’t done anything more than set Lemprière to verse. In the same way that the translation errors from Greek don’t at all invalidate Hölderlin’s Der Archipelagus, Keats’s own transposed Greek perhaps allowed him to tear up the fields of Albion with the shards of classical ruins. He revealed to no one that he was an orphan. The tutors were glued to his side. He forgot his birthday and decided to study medicine. He learned how to leech, pull teeth, and suture. He observed cadavers on the dissection table that had been purchased off the resurrection men for three or four guinea each. The naked bodies were delivered in sacks.

Keats took notes and in the margins sketched skulls, fruit, and flowers. He felt alone. The “blue devils” settled along with him into the damp room. He frequented the Mathew family, his cousins, Ann and Caroline, who had a righteous horror of the frivolities of youth. They picked out piano arias from Don Giovanni and the young men danced the quadrille. It’s said that John Keats’s very first passion was for a stranger he’d seen for half an hour. He was waiting for her to smile at him but she never did. John Spurgin wanted to make a Swedenborgian of him. Keats’s friend Charles Cowden Clarke procured his books. Clarke was a massively tall man with bushy hair; eight years older than Keats, he had a great interest in cricket, about which he wrote a handbook. He would also write about Chaucer and Shakespeare. Keats played cricket too.

His appearance was transformed in a single afternoon in 1813 at a lecture about Spenser. Seeming suddenly both large and potent, he emerged from his diminutive stature while reciting the verses that had struck him. He devoured books, he copied, translated sections, he became the scribe and secretary to his mind. He informed his friends at Guy’s Hospital that poetry was “the only thing worth the attention of superior minds.” And it would become his sole ambition. He dressed like a poet, collar turned up and tied with a black ribbon. For a short time he grew a mustache. When exam day arrived, everyone was sure that he wouldn’t pass, what with those poetic airs. He did earn his diploma and would be able to work as an apothecary. But he chose to leave medicine. He was only twenty years old when he saw his own poem, “To Solitude,” published in the Examiner.

It was impossible for his talent not to draw the attention of many people. Leigh Hunt, imprisoned for having libeled the king, protected Keats as long as Keats let him. John Hamilton Reynolds thought of him as a brother. Joseph Severn perceived ecstasy in his face and about his features—but then, Severn was a painter. He observed that his head was too small for his broad shoulders, observed the intensity of his gaze that blazed like a flame when crossed but when calm glittered like a lake at dusk, and noted a cold lethargy. They visited museums together. He saw Brown, Dilke, Bailey, Hazlitt. Things were lukewarm with Shelley. Benjamin Haydon showed him the Elgin Marbles from the Parthenon. Keats didn’t have the money to travel the world but made a long walking tour of Scotland. He wore a sack on his back filled with old clothes and new socks, pens, paper, ink, Cary’s translation of the Divine Comedy, and a draft of Isabella. His traveling companion was the clerk and writer Charles Armitage Brown, a practical and energetic man. Keats returned home ragged and feverish, his jacket torn and his shoes missing, but he had scaled a mountain, the Ben Nevis. He was poor, according to W. B. Yeats, and couldn’t build a Gothic castle as Beckford had, which inclined him instead toward the pleasures of the imagination. Yeats also said that Keats was malnourished, of weak health, and had no family. But aren’t all poets the heralds of Heaven?

According to the testimony of friends, Keats was of small stature, though rather muscular, with a broad chest and broad shoulders (almost too broad); his legs were underdeveloped in proportion to his torso. He gave off the impression of strength. His chestnut hair was abundant and fine. He parted it with a ruler and it fell across his face in heavy silken curls. He had a high, rather sloped, forehead. His nose was beautiful but his mouth— they were specific on this point—was big and not intellectual. His lower lip was pronounced, giving him a combative aspect, which diminished his elegance a bit, yet served, they were quick to add, to animate his physiognomy. His face was oval and there was something feminine about his wide forehead and pointy chin. Despite his disproportionate mouth, Keats, they’d concede, was handsome. Sometimes he had the look in his eyes of a Delphic priestess on the hunt for visions.

According to Haydon, he was the only one who knew him—with the sole exception of Wordsworth, who’d predicted great acclaim for him based on his looks.

He was brilliant socially, loved wordplay, and his eruptions of laughter were noisy and extended. People found him irresistibly funny when he did impressions. If he didn’t like the conversation, he’d retreat to a window corner and look out into the void. His friends respected that corner as if it were his by law.

If a face, as Johann Gottfried Herder says, is nothing more than a Spiegelkammer of the spirit, then we should be a little frightened of Keats’s variety of expressions. Even doubt insinuates itself. When Keats wrote, “I thought a lot about Poetry,” we can’t see in that a mirror reflection of Keats. The mirror is empty, uninhabited. The idea has no facial features and could look like anything, but theologically it’s more beautiful empty. Keats is unable to contemplate himself. His gift is not knowing how to reconcile himself. The identity of a person who is in the room with him presses in and cancels his own out in a flash. When Keats speaks, he’s not sure that he’s the one talking. When he dreamed of bobbing in the turbine in Canto V of Dante’s Inferno, it was one of the great joys of his life.

Joseph Severn’s portrait is described by some as a lie drawn from truth: friends found it too effeminate, the trembling mouth, and yet the eyes were right, even radiant. The painting’s three-quarter view makes the eyes seem even bigger, more remarkable. His focus rests above the earth yet not in the sky—fixed on a murky horizon. His pupils are slightly enlarged, trained perpendicularly on the suspended thought. Even his gaze is indolent, sensual, consciously engrossed, and like a veil shifting across his brow, there is a flash of charming zealotry. He looks like a girl, and if we think of him as a girl, the femininity of his features evaporates and he seems stubborn and volatile, the constant surveyor of his own visions. 

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