John Keats: A New Life

October 11, 2012

In the peaceful "English Cemetery" in Rome, where John Keats is buried, the steady supply of unwilted cut flowers that rest at the poet's grave might be taken as indicative of the legions of readers who continue to harbour a quiet and enduring passion for a man who wrote fairly little and died devastatingly young. Nicholas Roe's biography does a fair job by those devoted worshippers at the temple of Keats, who will invariably flock to it. Readable and lively, the book retells the familiar story of the young Romantic who died aged 25, the narrative this time pleasingly peppered with details furnished by Roe's broad and deep literary knowledge.

There are scurrilous new speculations here, too, some deliciously suggestive, several on the cusp of credibility, happily dished out early on. Tracking a paternal line to Cornwall, Roe wonders aloud about a Spanish connection to a family of mariner Keatses who plied their trade in Alicante, and thereby makes better sense of young Fanny Keats' dark looks and Spanish marriage. More serious is Roe's suggestion of a troubled maternal relationship. His scrupulously collated research on Frances Jennings, Keats' mother, signposts sexual intrigue, emotional instability and even alcoholism, intriguingly evidenced in Keats' low infant birth weight and small form. The gift of Roe's familiarity with all material Keatsian is that in his hands such speculations occasionally reach beyond rumour-mongering into thoughtful repositionings of the poetry itself. The fraught relationship with an absentee mother permits a dramatic rereading of The Eve of St Agnes as a scene of maternal trauma replayed. Roe knows, too, to place the beloved Bright Star sonnet in the nexus of Keats' correspondence with Fanny Brawne in July 1819 and the breaking news of a comet spotted in the London skies; certainly, one's heart leaps with startled recognition reading the letter to Fanny with that line "I have seen your Comet...". Here, Roe's account benefits from the contextual resources he skilfully marshals. Generally, the heavy price of context is the absence of more sensitive readings of the poetic work but for that one might easily go elsewhere and, in truth, for most devoted Keats readers, nobody else's reading ever rings true enough.

Roe's particular Keats is a poet forged at a suburban-rural borderland, and this he seeks to redeem as the key to Keats' poetic identity. Certainly, the urban-pastoral landscapes of Keats' childhood are prettily rendered. More interesting, perhaps, are the near misses and if-onlys that conspire to produce the arbitrariness of Keats' awful death: an untapped legacy that might have remedied financially straitened circumstances, a long, rainy coach journey in which an underdressed Keats was fatally caught, the young woman he met at the end of his life, whom he loved to death and for whom he could not live to love. There's another, surprising, wonderfully breath-catching near miss towards the end of the book, too, mischievously mentioned only in passing, when the peasant-poet John Clare, visiting London, expresses his disappointment at not meeting Keats and urges "his sincere Respects". It's hard to resist imagining what might have been at the passing of these poetic ships in the night. Roe's biography is brimful of the kinds of wonder that Keats has elicited among his admirers for nearly 200 years, and this makes it an easily gratifying read. And if, like all the good and fine biographies before it, it never quite gets at the central mystery of who Keats was, what made him the remarkable young man who elicited the enduring affections of almost everyone who knew him and generations of readers who did not, that would be because no biography ever could.

John Keats: A New Life

By Nicholas Roe. Yale University Press, 384pp, £25.00. ISBN 9780300124651. Published 16 October 2012

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