Ode to a Promethean: the late starter whose star burnt brightest

Keats, the upstart who overcame all the odds to join the pantheon of literary greats, is an inspiration to Robert Mighall

November 19, 2009

Keats has been a hero of mine since I was 19, the year I discovered literature. You could say I was a late developer, much like Keats himself. Which is why I loved him, and identified with his life story.

According to his school fellows, Keats displayed no interest in literature or study until his final year in school. In those days, he was famous for being a fighter (despite being just over five feet tall fully grown). When he did discover the pleasures of learning, he immersed himself entirely, making up for lost time and carrying off all the school prizes just before he had to abandon his formal schooling, aged 14, to train as an apothecary.

I also started an apprenticeship on leaving school, aged 16 with one O level, to become a hairdresser (it was the early Eighties, a big moment for hair). I was lousy at maths and science, so my state school wrote me off as a disruptive dunce. That's how I was judged, that's how I was streamed - and that's what I was prepared to believe and live up to for a good long time. I scarcely read a book out of choice until my 19th year.

But when I did discover reading for myself (encountering Penguin Classics by chance to fill a daily commute), I became, like Keats, consumed by it. I found myself more interested in the book I was reading in the morning than what I was supposed to be doing to some chap's hair during the working day. So I resolved, as Keats had done before me, to abandon the course I had set out on and devote myself to literature (well, to do a few A levels).

Keats gave up medicine for poetry, aged 21 - his desire: "to be among the English poets". It was a brave decision. He had huge ambition and extraordinary potential, but the odds and time were stacked against him. With no university education, some Latin, but little Greek, he was slapped down by the literary establishment as a "cockney" upstart. One infamously cruel review informed him that "it is a better and a wiser thing to be a starved apothecary than a starved poet", and told him to go "back to the shop Mr John". In short, to know his place. Although such reviews did not kill Keats, as the myth once had it, they were certainly instrumental in blighting his chances for recognition during his lifetime. Just over two years later he was dead, having written a handful of poems that would secure his immortality, and mean his shade would have the last laugh.

Keats' example was an inspiration to me. The first in my family to ever go near a university, I threw myself into this new passion. I thought I would see how far I could get along the road of literary learning, all the time expecting the tap on the shoulder informing me to get back to haircutting.

University of Wales, Lampeter took a chance on an unlikely late starter to study English. But I worked hard to make up for lost time - so hard I eventually gained a postdoctoral research fellowship at Merton College, Oxford. And then, with a satisfying symmetry, I became the editor of the Penguin Classics series: the very books that had started my belated education on the 8.10am from East Croydon ten years before. I now have my chance to honour my hero, in a short biography out soon for a new series of Poetic Lives by Hesperus Press.

Keats has recently undergone a revision by literary criticism. The emphasis is now on his political engagement, correcting the earlier view of the escapist aesthete, and bringing him into line with his fellow Romantics, as well as with our own desires and agendas. This has meant finding radical intent simmering between the lines of some of his most popular verse, replacing the chocolate-box version of the Victorians with a soapbox version of our own.

But for me, Keats is political by the very fact of what he attempted, to challenge the Oligarchy of Letters that did (and in a large part does still) prevail. It still does not hurt to be six feet tall and a lord (or at least know one) when knocking at literary preferment's gate. To have the right surname, know the right people, gone to the right school ... It's one thing for Etonians to propagate atheism while at Oxford, or Harrovians to swirl picturesque sabres in heroic causes (like gap-year radicals today). It is something else for the son of a stable keeper who left school at 14 to enter the lists of letters at all; and to eventually vanquish his detractors with his luxuriant song. The true Promethean of his generation, the fire he stole was farther from his grasp, making his achievement the more wonderful, his example all the more inspiring.

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