A voyager on well versed seas

March 21, 1997

Was Keats a political poet? Biographer Andrew Motion, who recently retraced Keats's 1820 voyage to Naples, certainly thinks so

\ If you think poets and writers keep irregular hours and lead feckless lives, forget it. Many, like Andrew Motion, are models of hard work, rising early, working from 8.30am to 6pm, and immersing themselves in the life of the mind when they are not being assiduous spouses and parents.

That is how Motion manages to be so prolific. His eighth volume of poetry, Salt Water, is published this month. His biography of the poet John Keats will be out in October, succeeding biographies of the Lambert family and of Philip Larkin. He has recently assumed the professorship of creative writing at the University of East Anglia, following in Malcolm Bradbury's footsteps. And he is still barely 45. How does he do it?

Clearly, he is highly organised: his big wooden desk inherited from his great grandfather carries no clutter, only a gleaming Macintosh Classic computer, and his garret office at the top of a tall thin home in Tufnell Park, north London, is neatly arranged. But he also loves the sight of a blank page and would rather be alone than not, so he is doing what he likes best.

People use "prolific'' as though it is a dirty word, he notes. Well, he is not that prolific. He writes one poem every six weeks and throws away about a third of his output, which works out at about ten pages of poems a year. "I'm not all that prolific," he says, "but, if I were, I wouldn't want to sound too defensive about it because I have a feeling that if you're a poet who writes a reasonable amount you ought just to get on with it. It's like being a carpenter and what are you doing not making any tables?'' His latest collection of poetry is less angst-ridden than his last. The new poems are more rounded, he says, about his family and people he has known. There is "On the table'' about a flowered dress worn by his wife, Jan Dalley, literary editor of the Independent on Sunday. There is "Dead March'' about the mother he loved dearly who died after ten years in hospital paralysed by a riding accident and "In memory of Zoe Yalland'' about his first wife's mother when she was dying of cancer. His son, Jesse, one of three children, appears in "Does that hurt?" And so on.

He reads his poems to himself as he is writing them because what they sound like matters so much to him. Like Wordsworth stomping up and down the garden composing aloud, Motion mutters alone in his attic. "I've always been a great believer in what Robert Frost refers to as the sound of sense, that the meaning of the poem depends not just on the dictionary definition of the words in it but on its music, and that that music does have an emotional meaning of its own."

The grim reaper seems to have figured large in Motion's life. Towards the end of last year he stared death in the face when he discovered he had a tumour on his spine. It could have been malignant but in the event was not. But it necessitated an operation during which a large chunk of backbone was removed. He is recovering with the help of painkillers and is left with new insights into the meaning of things being beautiful.

Over the past few months I have come to feel on my pulses, as Keats would say, what I have for the last few years felt in theory, which is that beauty has a meaning,'' he says.

That is an interest he shares with Keats, his favourite poet. His new collection of poems contains a piece of prose from a journal he kept while sailing from Tower Bridge to Naples, retracing the journey Keats made in 1820 in the hope he would recover from tuberculosis. It did not help poor Keats but it did help Motion to try to get inside Keats's head. For example, he discovered while lying in a bunk in the sailing vessel, chartered by the BBC which made a documentary of Motion's voyage, that the cabin was like a coffin. "I'm quite convinced that when Keats lay down the first night in the boat he felt he was already underground,'' says Motion. "It says something about the mood he was likely to have been put in every night."

More generally, Motion had an experience of extreme boredom on the boat. As he puts it in Salt Water: "At some stage it occurs to me that I've never been so bored in my life. But I don't want to be anywhere else, doing anything else. My boredom isn't painful - it's like a trance, a rapture. Sometimes I feel as though I've been taken out of myself and am floating round the ship like Ariel. At others, as though my brain were lying on a wooden slab and shallow water sloshing over it, wearing me down to a sliver."

Presumably Keats felt a similar ennui. To counteract it he read books one and two of Don Juan, throwing them aside in a rage, protesting that Byron made gay things solemn and solemn things gay. Motion read Don Juan too. He also read the letters of Keats's devoted friend, Joseph Severn, who accompanied him on the trip. So he knew what Keats was thinking and could compare that with his own state of mind. The hope is that this close communion with the poet will illuminate the biography.

What will Motion say about Keats that is new? According to received wisdom, the romantic poet was not engaged with the life of his times. His first 20th-century biographer, Sir Sidney Colvin, said he had a mind unsuited to dogma and T. S. Eliot said he took no abiding interest in current affairs. "I think this is completely wrong,'' says Motion. His new biography will be all about Keats and politics.

Keats attended a dissenting academy in Enfield and was politically wired by his friendship with Charles Cowden Clarke, the son of the academy's headmaster. Guy's hospital, where he later studied medicine, was a radical Whig institution and Motion is convinced Keats fits into that tradition. If one sees his poetry in that light, a lot of things in it begin to make sense. For example, "Endymion", the long narrative poem beginning with the famous first line "A thing of beauty is a joy for ever'' has always stumped critics. Is it a platonic love quest? Or a poem about free love? Motion believes it is essentially an attempt to define and animate an ideal community, "the goodly company'', as Keats called it.

Other poems that appear devoid of political content, such as "Ode to Autumn'' should also be seen in context. It was written a fortnight after the Peterloo Massacre when demonstrating workers in Manchester were killed by soldiers. Was there any connection between the two or was the poem an attempt to override what happened? "I think there are tremors in the poem which show the shock waves of that terrible event,'' says Motion. Arguably the word "conspire'' as in "conspiring with him how to load and bless'' is a reference to worries about spies that were acute at the time. More substantially, the reference to the gleaner is loaded because gleaning had been made illegal the year before. Motion thinks the poem is a radical attempt to reimagine time, to appeal over the head of contemporary conditions to some idea of classical order, which is not done in ignorance of the pressures of the time but as a direct response to them.

For all his productivity Motion writes only part of the time. Two days a week he catches a train to the University of East Anglia, where his job is to ensure that the creative writing course goes on being the best in the country, because now so many universities have such courses. The battle to persuade the English that writing can be taught has been won, he thinks.

Criticising the work of others does not make his own creativity dry up, he says. That is because he is absolutely ruthless about living his life in compartments. "When I'm not there - although I'm perfectly happy for my students to ring me up and I spend a certain amount of time reading their work here - really when I get off the train I'm back leading my own life.'' The son of a brewer, Motion came from an unbookish and horsy background. Inspired by Peter Way, his English teacher at Radley, the Oxfordshire public school, he was the first in his family to go to university. At University College, Oxford, he got married at 20, worked hard and ended up with a first. There followed a masters degree on the poet Edward Thomas and a desire to experience something different from the cosy world he was used to. So he did a bunk north to Hull where he became a university lecturer in English and best friends with Philip Larkin. He loved Larkin's company, the pair saw one another most days but Motion avoided political discussions with him. When Larkin died, Motion was made a literary executor.

Before and after Hull Motion was winning poetry prizes, exhibiting from an early age the drive that is still with him. "I always felt behind. I always felt the person I'm in the room with knows more than I do. Instinctively I feel that other people have in their luggage what I haven't got in mine."

It is endearing, such insecurity, in one so educated. "That is how I feel,'' he insists "I certainly feel I have something to prove all the time. It also, I suspect, means that I feel curious about things in an urgent way. Everything I know about is stuff I have had to find out for myself.'' Salt Water by Andrew Motion, Faber, £7.99.

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