Keats (Magill Book Reviews)
Railing at his tragic fate and convinced that he had failed to produce any poetry that would keep his name alive, John Keats was only twenty-five years old when he died of tuberculosis in Rome in 1821. It took over twenty years after his death for him to be proved wrong, and since the mid-nineteenth century, Keats’s lofty reputation has never been challenged; his poems are among the most read and anthologized in English literature.
KEATS, Andrew Motion’s detailed, painstaking biography presents an attractive, humane Keats—lively, sociable, sometimes pugnacious, a good friend to many, a man whose ideas and speculations about the nature of art matured rapidly over the course of his short creative life.
Keats struggled gallantly against adversity and misfortune, convinced of his calling as a poet but full of insecurities regarding his position as an outsider, for whom the class-based gates of literary acceptance would not open. For the vicious, socially conservative critics of BLACKWOOD’S MAGAZINE and the QUARTERLY REVIEW, poetry was an art suitable only for a gentleman, not a lower-middle class young man who lacked a Classical education and who had been trained as an apothecary.
Given these politically inspired attacks, as well as Keats’s humble social background and the radical circles he moved in, it is not surprising that he possessed strong liberal views on the major issues of the day. Arguing that this aspect of Keats has often been overlooked by critics and earlier biographers, Motion places Keats firmly within his time and place. Within the rich sensuality of his poetry and his love of beauty and imaginative transcendence, Keats tried to find expression for his democratic ideals and his belief that poetry should play a role in the betterment of the human community.
Sources for Further Study
America. CLXXIX, September 12, 1998, p. 21.
Choice. XXXV, July, 1998, p. 1856.
The Economist. CCCXLV, November 15, 1997, p. 13.
Essays in Criticism. XLVIII, July, 1998, p. 269.
Library Journal. CXXIII, December, 1997, p. 106.
The New Leader. LXXX, December 29, 1998, p. 20.
The New York Review of Books. XLV, May 14, 1998, p. 39.
The New York Times Book Review. CIII, February 1, 1998, p. 13.
Publishers Weekly. CCXLIV, November 10, 1997, p. 60.
The Times Literary Supplement. October 24, 1997, p. 3.
Keats (Magill's Literary Annual 1991-2005)
Any biographer approaching a life as well documented as that of John Keats has to answer the question, why another biography? Andrew Motion argues that although earlier biographers have adequately laid out the details of Keats’s day-to-day life and explored his psychology and his aesthetics, too little attention has been paid to the social and political context that shaped his attitudes throughout his short life, which ended in death from tuberculosis in Rome in 1821, at the age of twenty-five. In this respect, Motion is building on a recent trend in Keats criticism. Critics such as Jerome J. McGann and John Barnard in the 1970’s and 1980’s, Stephen Coote in his 1995 biography Keats, and Nicholas Roe in his 1997 John Keats and the Culture of Dissent (which appears to have been published too late for Motion to have made use of), are among the scholars who have recently drawn attention to this dimension of Keats’s life and work.
This new emphasis on Keats’s continuing engagement with the important social issues of the day presents a welcome righting of the balance, a process that has taken a good 150 years to accomplish. When interest in Keats first began to awaken in the mid-nineteenth century, Keats was seen not only as a physical weakling whose demise was hastened by hostile reviews but also as a dreamer, a man who immersed himself in Greek mythology and was content to celebrate beauty in lush, sensual poetry, ignoring wider concerns. A century later, the publication of Hyder E. Rollins’s The Keats Circle: Letters and Papers 1816- 1878 (1948) and of several biographies, including Walter Jackson Bate’s magisterial John Keats (1963), put paid to the idea that Keats was a sickly, delicate young man, unsuited for the rough-and-tumble of life. A picture emerged of a robust, energetic, manly Keats who was capable of great enjoyment of life and who commanded the loyalty of a wide circle of friends. At the same time, more respect was being given to Keats’s ideas, but the emphasis remained firmly on his aesthetics.
Motion’s position, one that seems eminently balanced and reasonable, is that Keats’s radicalism and his liberalism, his engagement with history and with the political process, vitally inform his work throughout his brief career. Even Keats’s later works, which lack the overt political references that some of the earlier poems contain, are nevertheless marked by this quest to “combine a political purpose with a poetic ambition, a social search with an aesthetic ideal.”
Given Keats’s social background, it is not surprising that he became a radical sympathizer. Born into the lower-middle classes at a time of great social change, Keats was never secure in his position. Orphaned at an early age, he spent his whole life poor, and his financial worries were often acute. Part of the reason for Keats’s poverty (other than the fact that he never knew of the existence of one of the two trust funds in his name) was that after passing his qualifying exams to become an apothecary at the age of twenty, he abandoned the medical profession in order to make his living from poetry. There is something magnificent about the absolute determination that Keats showed in the vocation to which he felt certain he had been called, in spite of the ridicule to which the literary establishment subjected him and in spite of his failure to find a public. It is also pertinent, as Motion points out, that renouncing medicine did not mean that Keats withdrew from his goal of bettering humanity; he believed that poetry might accomplish a similar end, that the poet was “a sage,/ A humanist, physician to all men.”
Keats’s first volume of poems, published in 1817, shows ample evidence of his radical liberalism. Again, given that Keats had since his schooldays been an avid reader of the Examiner, the liberal periodical edited by Leigh Hunt, and that he met Hunt in 1816 and quickly became part of his circle, this political stance was to be expected. Keats inherited Hunt’s credo that the political and the literary were two sides of the same sword; he believed that poetry should advance a politically liberal argument and also be subversive of the old order in its diction and idiom. Keats saw this as part of the task he had set himself to reconcile “thought” and “sensation.”
To the Tory critics who wrote for literary periodicals such as Blackwood’s Magazine and The Quarterly Review, such a credo was like a red rag to a bull. Their famous attacks on...
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