John Keats: A Literary Life

A biographical ode to a fine Romantic soars above publishing restraints, writes Duncan Wu

November 11, 2010

R.S. White has written a focused, concise and perceptive biography of John Keats for Palgrave Macmillan's Literary Lives, which will stand readers of the poetry in good stead for years to come. The series already contains some useful volumes, not least those on Thomas Hardy, John Clare, William Thackeray and William Blake.

It doesn't demand that contributors have original research to offer, but White does so all the same, bringing fresh insights to the intricate relationship between Keats' letters and poetry, and to his medical training and the way in which it may have influenced his vision. Some of this material is exceptionally interesting: White is, I think, the first scholar to relate the contents of Keats' botany textbook to his Odes.

Of course, the parameters of the series restrict volumes to 200-300 pages in length - this one runs to 2 - so White could never be as leisurely or detailed as, say, Andrew Motion or Robert Gittings, whose biographies of Keats remain useful. But he does offer original perspectives on the poetry, and for those wanting a shorter treatment with a reliable critical overview, this is a good place to begin.

As a Renaissance scholar, White brings a thorough understanding of other literary periods to bear on the Romantics, and as a result offers some original commentary demonstrating the influence on Keats of Edmund Spenser, John Donne and, above all, William Shakespeare. He is also sensitive to the sense in which Keats regarded his second profession, poetry, as a continuation of his first - that of medicine. Both were concerned with the healing of mind and body, and that goes some way towards explaining Keats' change of career.

There could have been more on the contemporary critical reception of Keats' poetry, a subject that continues to agitate critics, and perhaps something further on controversial new historicist interpretations of the Odes. But such materials are available elsewhere, and White is doubtless mindful of the constraints of space imposed on him by his publisher.

There are some minor errors here and there: it is not correct to say that William Wordsworth's earliest surviving poem was written when he was 17; Nicholas Roe is not the "first biographer" of Leigh Hunt; Hunt did not introduce Keats to William Hazlitt; Hunt never published a book titled Foliages; and Hazlitt's biography of Napoleon was not published "in three large volumes". These are honest errors of fact and have little bearing on the overall experience of reading this book. Being of a pedantic disposition, I was a little taken aback to find Keats' colleague, Bryan Waller Procter, introduced on page 71 as "Bryan Walker Proctor", and 20 pages later becoming "Bryan Wallace Proctor", which he remains throughout the rest of the volume, including the index. Thus, not only is the name given in two variant forms, but it also never appears in one that either its owner or his contemporaries would have acknowledged as correct. But then, White is by no means the first to have committed this solecism.

For time-starved students, this book provides a reliable, balanced and well-written introduction to the poet, and alongside a selection of critical works will comprise an excellent basis for a serious study of Keats' oeuvre. Like the best biographies, it contains its share of surprising facts about its subject - the kind of facts that give him depth and character - not least that Keats was a keen cricketer; that he was mysteriously "insulted" by a member of the audience in a Teignmouth theatre; and that he contemplated publishing a poem under the pseudonym Lucy Vaughan Lloyd.

John Keats: A Literary Life

By R.S. White

Palgrave Macmillan, 2pp, £50.00

ISBN 9780230572638

Published 26 May 2010

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