It has always been difficult to reconcile Keats the aesthete with Keats the political radical. Even Keats himself seemed to be troubled by the dilemma. "O for a Life of Sensations rather than of Thoughts!", he famously remarked and longed in his "Ode to a Nightingale" to "fade far away, dissolve and quite forget ... the weariness, the fever, and the fret". During his life, the Tory magazine critics attacked him fiercely for being associated with Leigh Hunt and his radical politics, treating him as a politically engaged writer. But after his death, Keats became mythologised as an other-worldly poet, who had been hounded to death by harsh misunderstanding reviewers. Shelley mourned the poet's early death at the age of 25 in his elegy Adonais, while Byron ridiculed Keats's supposed weakness, wittily commenting that he had been "snuffed out by an article". By the end of the 19th century, Keats's reputation as a sensitive poet of beauty and the imagination - but not of politics or polemic - was firmly established. In the last few years, however, influenced by new historicism, the emphasis among critics has been to rediscover Keats's political interests and his historical and social context. Critics like Jerome McGann, John Bamard, Daniel Watkins and Nicholas Roe have shown that Keats's poetry is "haunted by politics" and unearthed some interesting details about Keats's early life and milieu.
have been highlightedAndrew Motion has responded to the new fashion for the political Keats in his latest biography. Playing down what we might think of as the more poetical side of Keats, who preferred to "load his rift with ore" in his poems than to address political issues, Motion, himself a poet, urges time and again that Keats was "a man of his times" and that he was shaped by his dissenting background and his radical friends. To further this argument, Motion offers a much fuller picture of early 19th century life than previous Keats biographies, describing the lower middle class and radical worlds of hospitals and publishing, of Enfield and Hampstead. The book is lavishly illustrated too, with many contemporary pictures of the places that impinged on Keats's imagination. The photograph of the claustrophobic operating theatre at St Thomas's is particularly welcome.
Motion's contextualising approach is intended to create a richer picture of Keats's life. Keats's mother, for example, emerges as a more rounded and sympathetic figure in the story. She was left a widow with four children at the age of 29, and, possibly "not thinking straight", married the unscrupulous William Rawlings two months later. The marriage failed, Rawlings took possession of the Keats property, Keats's mother "simply vanished" in her grief, and Keats and his brothers were brought up by their grandparents. When Keats's mother returned five years later, she was a broken woman and dying of tuberculosis. Keats nursed her in her final illness, before she died when he was only 14. The inexplicable double loss of his mother, Motion argues persuasively, must have had a bearing upon Keats's later uneasy relationships with women.
Keats was sent with his brothers to a school in Enfield traditionally portrayed by biographers as for "students whose families were in trade or in the less affluent professions" and therefore somewhat to blame for Keats's subsequent reputation for being "unschooled". But Motion delves into the biographies of the school's teachers and proves that the school had a fine dissenting tradition and that its founders, John Ryland and John Clarke, were friends of the well-known radical Joseph Priestley. Similarly, Motion gives a more detailed picture than previous biographers of Guy's and St Thomas's medical schools, where Keats trained. Contrary to popular belief, Keats was quite interested in medicine, Motion maintains, and he was also good at it, being chosen from a group of about 700 students to become a dresser after a few months. The surgeon who selected Keats, Astley Cooper, was himself a well-known radical and probably knew of Keats's family in Enfield through a fellow surgeon, radical and dissenter, Abernethy, who lived there. Medicine and radical ideas and discourse were intricately linked, and Keats's early years of "pacing the wards" could therefore be construed as an eminently suitable training for a writer.
But Motion's concentration on "how Keats fitted into the intellectual and political life of his time", however well meant, never quite comes off. There are chapters solely about the post-Napoleonic war poverty and unrest that never mention Keats and seem to lecture the reader. Most of the facts about Keats's dissenting links are second-hand, and have a piecemeal, undigested quality about them. And tags like radical or liberal are bandied about in the account until they seem to lose all weight or meaning. Motion's discussion of romantic Hellenism is a case in point. While listing writers who claimed the authority or perfection of ancient Greece, he makes no attempt to identify the often very different political implications of such a claim, just suggesting that they are all, in some way, "liberal". Turning to the Elgin marbles, which became embroiled in a conflict over taste and changing notions of cultural authority and national identity, he throws in an anachronistic remark about Keats's scruples about their seizure in explaining his poems about them. "It is also possible," he writes, "that (Keats's) liberalism, being more developed than Haydon's, led him to worry about their context in a way that their mentor never did." But "liberals", with the sole exception of Byron who was out in Greece, were not at all worried about Lord Elgin's purchase, and happily combined a radicalism of taste with an imperialism over foreign countries. Keats's fragmented poems about the statues owe their tone of "bafflement" to the established discourse of the sublime and not to any politically correct unease.
As a poet who insists on concentrating on Keats's political context rather than on his poetry, Motion does not seem to be playing to his strengths. His tone throughout the book is dutiful rather than impassioned, and the accounts of the poems do not sparkle and illuminate. One of Keats's most hauntingly poignant poems is the sonnet "When I have fears that I may cease to be/Before my pen has gleaned my teeming brain". It ends with a poised sense of the fragility of life, beauty and fame, a fragility that is the hallmark and paradoxically the driving force of Keats's poetic sense:
"Then on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone, and think
Till love and fame to nothingness do sink."
But Motion's gloss of the poem seems to reduce its power, because of his efforts to make it cohere with his argument about Keats's intellectual context. "This poem," he writes laboriously, "shows Keats felt his success as a poet depended on his acquiring material, rather than on using what was his by birthright".
With Motion's biography, the reader must repeatedly confront the question of the connection or disconnection between Keats's politics and poetry. Do Keats's repeatedly expressed longings to escape the world of reason and politics constitute an act of abrogation and disinterestedness? After all, he reportedly remained silent when the more political Shelley was debating politics and religion fiercely with Haydon. Or is the lusciousness of Keats's style - when charting his flight for example on the "viewless wings of poesy" - designed to shock and resist orthodoxy, an act of "solecism" as Andrew Bennett has argued. Motion registers this tension in Keats's poetry. His chapter on the great odes explores the seduction and consolation of art for Keats while stressing that Keats could not escape time or reality. But the understandable tentativeness with which Motion describes these poems is very much at odds with his conviction elsewhere that Keats was a politically engaged poet. Motion does not seem to have addressed this paradox and the consequence is a rather uncomfortable and ill-considered marriage of poetry and politics throughout the book.
Richard Monckton Milnes, Keats's first Victorian biographer, wrote that Keats's life could be "summed up in the composition of three small volumes of verse, some earnest friendships, one passion and one premature death". But that short life has now been the subject of so many biographies, different versions. I wonder if there is really space for yet another conventional biography of Keats. Certainly, if readers want an account of how Keats fitted into the "intellectual and political life of his time", they would do far better to turn to Nicholas Roe's excellent new book, Keats and the Culture of Dissent, which treats the life in discrete essay form and contains more detailed and subtle first-hand research. Otherwise, the good old romantic and poetic biography by Waiter Jackson Bate is far more readable and evocative.
Jennifer Wallace is director of studies in English, Peterhouse, Cambridge.
Author - Andrew Motion
ISBN - 0 571 172 X
Publisher - Faber and Faber
Price - £25.00
Pages - 636