The morbid poet and merciful friend

John Keats
October 26, 1995

Stephen Coote has written a brisk life of John Keats to coincide with the bicentenary of the poet's birth, October 31 1795. A biographical reassessment of Keats has long been due, since the most recent biographies of him appeared some 30 years ago. Critical understandings of the poems have changed since then; recent criticism, for example, has illuminated the political, social and gendered inflections of Keats's writing. There have been new discoveries about Keats's life, telling us much about his formative years. Coote's book is not based on fresh research, but while drawing widely on secondary sources it does nevertheless find new things to say about a familiar story.

Seeing Keats as a writer "formed by circumstances" (Keats's phrase), Coote deals well with the poet's personal and family backgrounds. He is good on the anxious, morbid temperament that afflicted the orphaned Keats and, intensified by illness and his frustrated passion for Fanny Brawne, later became miserably obsessive in the year of his death. Keats's recurrent money problems were, similarly, a spur to and a burden on his writing, and responsible for the growing irritability of his relations with Benjamin Haydon, Leigh Hunt, Charles Brown, and the publishers Taylor and Hessey.

Throughout, Coote's narrative gives full expression to the remarkable texture of Keats's personality. Keats's toughness of mind, intellectual vigour and sympathetic nature appear in his quest for a spiritual meaning in suffering independent of the claims of Christianity; in his determination to succeed as a poet; in his unwavering care for his sister Fanny and his dying brother Tom. His resilience and compassion appeared with heartrending power as his death approached; possessed by the feel of his own imminent extinction, his impulse was to comfort the person who would witness the final moments of his life: he told Joseph Severn, who watched at his bedside, "I shall die easy - don't be frightened."

Keats's responses to the turbulence of contemporary history are treated well. His anticlericalism and radical politics are given due emphasis and present Keats as a writer whose vocation was shaped by the oppressive political climate of Regency England. That said, it is unlikely that Keats witnessed Henry Hunt's arrival in London after the outrage of Peterloo simply because he had walked along the Strand "becoming aware that a tremendous crowd was gathering". Like all liberals in England at this moment in September 1819 he was acutely aware of the critical state of the country. It is most probable that Keats, who dedicated himself to the liberal side of contemporary politics, had deliberately contrived to be present in the crowd welcoming a hero of the reform movement.

Quotations from the Examiner are a reminder of Leigh Hunt's power and effectiveness as a journalist, although as a poet, critic and friend of Keats he gets slight attention from Coote. For example, his poem "The Story of Ramini" is largely ignored although, as Vincent Newey has recently shown, Keats's "poetic romance" "Endymion" grew out of Hunt's sparkling poem and the public controversy it generated. A passage stressing how for Keats in 1819 Hunt had come to embody "everything that was petty, false and meretricious" is not easily reconciled with a succeeding quotation from Hunt's perceptive and commanding leader in the Examiner, on August 15 1819, in which he assessed the social pressures which threatened to erupt in civil unrest. Leigh Hunt and the "Cockney" circle of writers and critics with whom Keats associated are due for a thorough reassessment.

Coote's interpretations of the poems do not yield many surprises: "Endymion", "Isabella", the "Hyperion" and the 1819 odes receive adequate if unremarkable summaries. The "Robin Hood" lyrics of early 1818, consistently underestimated by earlier biographers, also receive dismissive treatment here. More unusual is Coote's reading of "The Eve of St Agnes", in which the romance of Madeline and Porphyro is seen as a kind of revolutionary force set against "arbitrary power", the "fanatical elitism and stupendous wealth of the old regime", leaving in the end only the "degraded and dying consciousness of the old order". This reflexive acknowledgement of the revolutionary energies of the time (effectively aligning "The Eve of St Agnes" with Shelley's "Masque of Anarchy") is an intriguing aspect of a reading which is also true to the sensual richness and delicacy of the poem. Coote's assessment that in "Hyperion", "Cockney Keats" was "remaking English poetry" in a manner which emulated Milton's verse while "being distinctly his own" is not wholly persuasive. Many years ago John Bayley showed how the "magnificently gemein" poetry of "Endymion" had an unmisgiving vitality which was distinctively Keats's in a way that the calculated effects of "Hyperion" were not. Certainly, Keats himself was not sure that he had succeeded in asserting his own voice against Milton's.

To his credit Coote does not dwell on Keats's "youth" as a poet, nor does he speculate on what might have been had Keats not succumbed to tuberculosis on February 23 1821. He prefers instead to emphasise the extraordinary maturity of intellect and imaginative power Keats attained in the midst of the harrowing and frustrating circumstances of his life. While this book will not supplant existing biographies of Keats, it offers an engaging short account of his life and the severe reality behind the myth of "poor Keats".

Nicholas Roe is reader in English, University of St Andrews.

John Keats

Author - Stephen Coote
ISBN - 0 340 62486 8
Publisher - Hodder and Stoughton
Price - £18.00
Pages - 356

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