This long pursuit, p.20
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       This Long Pursuit, p.20

           Richard Holmes

  In the spring of 1819 a nightingale had built her nest near my house. Keats felt a tranquil and continual joy in her song; and one morning he took his chair from the breakfast-table to the grass-plot under a plum-tree, where he sat for two or three hours. When he came into the house, I perceived he had some scraps of paper in his hand, and these he was quietly thrusting behind the books. On inquiry, I found those scraps, four or five in number, contained his poetic feeling on the song of our nightingale. The writing was not well legible; and it was difficult to arrange the stanzas on so many scraps. With his assistance I succeeded, and this was his Ode to a Nightingale, a poem which has been the delight of every one.


  Yet John Keats’s survival in the popular imagination, his ‘posthumous existence’ as he called it (angrily, to his doctor in Rome), has achieved an altogether different kind of life of its own. This is already stirring, long before the modern biographies, in the many paintings of the English Pre-Raphaelites, notably John Everett Millais’s The Eve of St Agnes (1863) and John William Waterhouse’s La Belle Dame Sans Merci (1893), which drew so richly on Keats’s imagery. He floats back quite unexpectedly in a science-fiction short story by Rudyard Kipling, called ‘Wireless’ (1910), in which his voice is poignantly resurrected across the airwaves.

  Equally unexpectedly, Scott Fitzgerald revealed a lifelong obsession with Keats, which produced not only the theme and title of Tender is the Night (1934), but also inspired his late pedagogic attempt to become a literature professor, as movingly recounted in Sheilah Graham’s College of One (1967), which began when Fitzgerald started reciting Keats to her as they drove back from a Hollywood film preview in his ancient Ford.

  There are numerous recent reappearances. His conversational encounter with the middle-aged Coleridge is subtly replayed in Thom Gunn’s teasing sonnet ‘Keats at Highgate’, from The Passages of Joy (1982). After Coleridge has anxiously described Keats as ‘Loose, slack, and not well-dressed’, Gunn evokes the younger poet’s departure:

  He made his way toward Hampstead so alert

  He hardly passed the small grey ponds below

  Or watched a sparrow pecking in the dirt

  Without some insight swelling the mind’s flow

  That banks made swift. Everything put to use.

  Perhaps not well-dressed but oh no not loose.

  His nightingale flutters into the scientific study by the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, Unweaving the Rainbow (1998), in which the bird’s intoxicating song is analysed biochemically, as an ‘auditory drug’ altering hormone levels. Keats does literally survive in the novella The Invention of Dr Cake (2003) by the one-time British Poet Laureate Andrew Motion, slipping back to England as an anonymous country doctor, living with a woman who may or may not be Fanny Brawne. In Ian McEwan’s novel of fatal attraction, Enduring Love (1997), Keats’s lost love letters appear as a thematic prelude in the opening chapters, as the subject of the heroine Clarissa’s PhD researches.

  Keats, perennially popular with students, has emerged as a cult figure in the recent Anglo-American fashion for literary tattooing. Quotations from the odes, and even Endymion – ‘A thing of beauty is a joy forever’ – are gracefully emblazoned around naked arms, wrists and ankles; or in the case of a certain South American lady called Cassandra, a whole stanza from ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’ is permanently inked in cursive script from the nape of her neck to the small of her back. He can also be found as a reassuringly life-size bronze statue, sitting casually on a bench in the medical students’ garden of his old alma mater, Guy’s Hospital in London. He is particularly popular in panicky exam times and surgical demonstrations.

  Most influential of all has probably been his glamorous, willowy, unshaved reincarnation by Ben Whishaw in Jane Campion’s 2009 film Bright Star. Here the centre of the myth is firmly relocated in the final Keats–Fanny Brawne love story. Or, more unconventionally, in the emotional triangle formed between them and Keats’s best friend and faithful amanuensis, Charles Brown. (Incidentally, this triangular geometry of attraction, rivalry and jealousy bears a curious resemblance to the emotional plotting of Campion’s earlier 1993 film The Piano.)

  In biographical fact this love story, or love triangle, occupies only the last twenty months of Keats’s life – essentially between July 1819 (the first love letters to Fanny) and his death in Rome in February 1821. It is often forgotten that so many of the major poems – Endymion, Hyperion, ‘The Eve of St Agnes’, ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’, and the five great odes – were already written by the time of that first declaration of love. Thereafter, Keats was increasingly ill and emotionally unstable, and writing comparatively little poetry. ‘To Autumn’, dated 19 September 1819, really does mark a kind of envoi or farewell to the great flowering of his poetic muse. He sailed to Italy almost exactly a year later, on 13 September 1820. During those last four Italian months the lovers were agonisingly apart, and Keats had stopped writing altogether, except for a few brave and tragic letters, mostly to Brown, but none to Fanny.

  So the literary space and significance to be allocated to this brief, but unconsummated, love affair is one of the great interpretive challenges facing all Keats’s biographers. Put one way, it means deciding just how important was Fanny Brawne in the overall, imaginative sweep of Keats’s life? Or put another way, how truly significant is the lover’s story for the writer’s story? Or, a rather different matter, how important for the poet’s popular survival?


  There have been at least ten major literary biographies of Keats over the last fifty or so years, and several of them remain classics of the genre. The American scholar Walter Jackson Bate’s large, stately, old-fashioned study of 1963 is still unsurpassed in its tender, patient treatment of the poetry. Aileen Ward (also 1963) brings unrivalled emotional insight into the poet at work. Robert Gittings, a British radio producer who spent half a lifetime editing the manuscripts of Keats’s odes, fitted them into the most captivating of all the straight biographical narratives (1969), and later wrote poems dedicated to Keats, such as ‘Conjunction, 1980’, which imagines himself and the poet gazing up at the same alignment of planets across two centuries, ‘Though no one looks or wonders/But we and a few astronomers’.

  Andrew Motion (1997), who inspired Campion’s film as well as writing the survival novella, is perhaps the most perceptive about Keats’s mysterious love life, including the long shadow cast by his wayward mother Frances, and the complex, agonising emotional end-game of the Fanny Brawne affair. Motion’s own poetry, so much of it concerned with the early death (in a riding accident) of his own beloved mother, also seems to give him an intense, intuitive understanding of Keats’s longings.

  It is hard not to conclude that each of these biographers, in their different ways, fell deeply in love with their subject. As Fanny Brawne herself once observed, ‘I am certain Keats has some spell that attaches his friends to him, or else he has fortunately met with a set … that I did not believe could be found in the world.’

  Fresh but equally passionate approaches to Keats remain possible ‘in the world’, and will evidently continue long into the future, a form of deep biographical ripple or emotional aftershock. The American poet Stanley Plumly achieved an unusually rich and wide-ranging meditation on the myth in his Posthumous Keats (2008) by carefully avoiding the hypnotic pull of what he called the traditional ‘linearity’ of Keats’s story, and producing instead an acute, observant biography in the shape of a personal ‘walk around’ Keats’s life, and particularly his many friendships: ‘This is a book of reflection, contemplation, meditation. Thus the structure of its thinking tends to be circular rather than linear … Keats is not a poet one reads in half-portion, nor a man one comprehends without love … I needed to find a little bit of Keats in myself.’

  More recently, Denise Gigante, in The Keats Brothers (2012), shifted the focus again, by giving us the story as seen essentially from the outside, through the loving eyes of Keats
s younger brothers Tom and especially George, the least like the poet. George Keats, born in 1797, was the brother who married and prospered. He and Georgiana Wylie emigrated in 1818 to America, where they struggled to establish themselves as pioneers along the Ohio River. They met the naturalist John James Audubon, lived briefly in his de luxe log cabin (silver tea set, piano, Turkey carpets), and got entangled in his steamship and sawmill businesses, which almost bankrupted them. But by 1836 they had established themselves and their children in Louisville, and built a large mansion with six Doric pillars, known as ‘the Englishman’s Palace’. They are an adventurous and attractive couple, but the real fascination of their story lies in the transatlantic perspective, as it were, that they bring to brother John.

  The contrast in the brothers’ characters is especially revealing. George is a natural entrepreneur, straightforward, cheerful, outgoing and businesslike, a man – as Audubon observes – who can learn to chop logs. The poetical John, on the other hand, has an essentially dreamy, evasive temperament. Outside his own circle he is seen as moody, unreliable, and something of a spendthrift; he is also ‘melancholy and complaining’. Even his publisher John Taylor calls him ‘a man of fits and starts’. Significantly, George gets on well with Richard Abbey, the family solicitor, while John always finds him obtuse and untrustworthy. Abbey is invariably presented as a villain in previous Keats biographies; but here with George he is honest, kindly and even gracious in his own fashion.

  Keats himself of course recognises these differences, and writes movingly of George as his first protector:

  George is in America and I have no Brother left … [He] always stood between me and any dealings with the world – now I find I must buffet it … I must begin to fight – I must choose between Despair and Energy – I choose the latter.

  We see their different views on marriage, or on money, or on children. Keats wishes that one of Georgiana’s offspring will be ‘the first American Poet’, and later writes delightfully that her daughter is the ‘“very gem” of all Children – Ain’t I its Unkle?’

  He also sends George and Georgiana across the Atlantic some of the most memorable letters in English literature. (They now reside in the Houghton Library, Harvard, so worn by admirers’ fingers that I found them piously encased in plastic, like religious relics.) For example, the forty-page journal letter written between 14 February and 3 May 1819 includes the first version of ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’; Keats’s memorable disquisition on life as ‘a vale of Soul-making’; the comic-epic meeting with Coleridge on Hampstead Heath (‘I walked with him at his alderman-after-dinner pace for near two miles I suppose’); an encomium on fine claret; his mocking verse satire on his ebullient friend Charles Brown (‘a melancholy Carle’); an erotic dream and sonnet inspired by Dante (‘Pale were the lips I kiss’d and fair the form/I floated with about that melancholy storm’); and the first of the great odes, ‘To Psyche’.

  This transatlantic perspective on Keats is revealing in many other ways. Favourable American reviews of his poems appear as early as 1821, and George and Georgiana always took huge expatriate pride in what they confidently saw as his growing reputation. Far from reducing Keats, George’s brisk but affectionate fraternal view of a more vulnerable man has the paradoxical effect of making him even more striking and vivid. As George reflected fondly of his older brother: ‘John was open, prodigal, and had no power of calculation whatsoever.’


  Nonetheless, the familiarity of the Keats story, the sense of its looming tragic inevitability, presents a particular challenge for any contemporary biographer. Nicholas Roe, for example, confronts this in John Keats: A New Life (2012) by adopting an apparently cool narrative style, combining meticulous scholarship with a strongly visual, almost photographic manner of presentation.

  Roe has the biographer’s vital gift for picking out the mundane but sharply revealing detail. He notes that at the very time he was writing his unfinished epic Hyperion, Keats got a black eye – during his first ever game of cricket. He was batting, and as he was making a wild stroke, the ball flew up and hit him ‘directly on the sight’. It’s a wonderfully odd, even ludicrous, moment. But at once we glimpse the poet anew: game for anything, a team player among friends, enthusiastic but always vulnerable.

  Roe also uses his deep knowledge of Keats’s wide and raffish circle of London friends – Leigh Hunt (about whom he wrote a previous biography), Benjamin Haydon, William Hazlitt, Charles Lamb, John Reynolds, Joseph Severn and especially Charles Brown – to produce something like a group biography. The affection everyone feels for Keats – that ‘spell’ – warms the whole book. He makes us see the poet from multiple angles, in all his fierce contradictions, so sympathetic and so strangely modern. Dramatising this contingent, shape-shifting quality is one of Roe’s unique strengths among Keats’s biographers. He adds in a typical, combative Preface that ‘the great Romantic poet was also a smart, streetwise creature – restless, pugnacious, sexually adventurous’.

  Biography needs constantly to re-alert us, in this way, to the unexpected and the unfamiliar. Keats’s literary life was not only short, but remarkably uncertain. He only published three books in his lifetime: Poems (1817), Endymion (1818) and Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St Agnes, and other Poems (1820). The first two were virtually destroyed by the critics, and Keats died believing he had failed: ‘Here lies one whose name was writ in water.’

  From the age of fourteen he was always trying to decide on a professional career. His ambition constantly altered, and only in retrospect (when he was dying) was it uniquely that of a lyric poet. At one time or another he seriously considered becoming a physician at Edinburgh Hospital; a ship’s surgeon aboard an Indiaman; a professional dramatist at Drury Lane; a literary journalist for the London Magazine; a tea merchant in the City of London; a freedom fighter with Simón Bolívar in Brazil; and most bizarre of all, as advised (surely provokingly) by the family solicitor Abbey, a hat-maker in the West End.

  In this context, Keats’s 1818 tour of the Scottish Highlands with his new friend Charles Brown now seems unexpectedly formative. They footslogged 614 miles with backpacks and notebooks, scaled Ben Nevis, and had a notable liquid encounter with the spirit of Robert Burns, and the weird Celtic hallucinations of Fingal’s Cave. All the time Keats was harvesting sounds and images, making a physical preparation for the huge creative effort he was about to undertake. The trip also produced a particular emotional bond between the two young men.

  Keats came back to the daily and nightly bed-nursing of his tubercular brother Tom in a tiny, claustrophobic apartment at Well Walk, Hampstead. This calvary, a premonition of his own to come, dominated the three long months of autumn 1818, and prepared him for the composing of the great odes. Robert Gittings considered this ‘the single most significant experience’ of Keats’s life. Roe links it skilfully to Hyperion, which Keats was writing in a corner of the sickroom even as his brother lay dying. With this setting in mind, the opening of this unfinished epic poem, in the form of a blank-verse sonnet, takes on a stunning new visual and psychological force:

  Deep in the shady sadness of a Vale,

  Far sunken from the healthy breath of Morn,

  Far from the fiery noon, and Eve’s one star,

  Sat grey hair’d Saturn quiet as a stone,

  Still as the silence round about his Lair.

  Forest on forest hung above his head,

  Like Cloud on Cloud. No stir of air was there,

  Not so much life as on a summer’s day

  Robs not at all the dandelion’s fleece:

  But where the dead leaf fell, there did it rest.

  A stream went voiceless by, still deadened more

  By reason of his fallen divinity

  Spreading a shade: the Naiad ’mid her reeds

  Press’d her cold finger closer to her lips.

  Against this, and in extraordinary contrast, one might set ‘The Jealousies, or the Cap and Bells’, a late poem that ha
s been studiously overlooked by most biographers (except Motion and Roe), and by almost all anthologists too. This is Keats’s strange, late Byronic satire of summer 1820, written when he himself was desperately ill, after his first tubercular haemorrhages. It was faithfully encouraged by Charles Brown, in an effort simply to keep Keats at work – to keep the poet alive, so to speak. Astonishingly, despite the grim circumstances, Keats comes up with a witty, nimble form of light verse that is weirdly nonchalant and even flippant.

  Here he is on his favourite subject of claret, but now put into the hands – or rather the throat – of his fanciful invention the Emperor Elfinan, who is preparing to swallow down a bumper:

  Whereat a narrow Flemish glass he took,

  That since belong’d to Admiral De Witt,

  Admir’d it with a connoisseuring look,

  And with the ripest claret crowned it,

  And, ere one lively bead could burst and flit,

  He turn’d it quickly, nimbly upside down,

  His mouth being held conveniently fit

  To catch the treasure: ‘Best in all the town!’

  He said, smack’d his moist lips, and gave a pleasant frown.


  All modern biographers – but especially Gittings, Motion and Roe – are thoughtful on the ambiguous subject of ‘Keats’s women’. That is, on the dream women who haunted him before the overwhelming reality of Fanny Brawne. These shadowy, seductive figures seem almost to evade biography altogether, subtly sliding from life and letters directly into poetry. They become mysteriously ‘transformed’ into the fatal Belle Dame, the cruel Isabella, the sensuous Madeline, the sinuous Lamia, the icy Moneta … even, it has been suggested, into the ‘full-throated’ nightingale. Long before Fanny Brawne, there is the unknown beauty glimpsed at Vauxhall Gardens; there is Jane Cox, the bold, exotic parlour ‘Leopardess’ who probably became the ‘Lamia’ (‘striped like a zebra, freckled like a pard’); there is the ‘shape of a woman’ who haunted Keats for several days in October 1818; there is ‘one of the most beautiful Girls I ever saw’ at a party in April 1819; above all there is the mysterious Isabella Jones, about whom almost nothing is known for certain – neither her dates, her education, her voice, or even the colour of her eyes.


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