Lately I have been studying Keats. First I read the magnificent biography John Keats, by Walter Jackson Bate (which the rest of this post will introduce), then I started Helen Vendler’s much more focused The Odes of Keats, and have been listening to Martin Sheen read the poems on audiobook. It is hard, the more one studies Keats, not to develop a total identification with him. “John Keats, c’est moi.” Keats seems to contain so many ideals that no matter who you are and what you think important, something about him will grab hold: Keats is a deep thinker and a lover of sensation, a canonical poet and a lifelong outsider, an innovative rebel and a devotee of classical forms; the confused apprentice of the letters and the flawless composer of “To Autumn”; enamoured of women and wine, and yet also chaste, moderate, and upright; a working class boy always close to poverty, and at the same time an inheritee of almost enough money to live solely for his writing (and cut off from most of his inheritance by a corrupt trustee); a wanderer among nightingales as well as a trained surgeon; a disciplined self-teacher who was dead at twenty-five.
…despite the most radical changes in taste during the last hundred years, no English or American poet (however widely he may swing away from any of his predecessors since the death of Shakespeare) fails to drop the usual querulousness over poetic idiom or other details when he comes to Keats, and to look quietly, closely, and perhaps with a suspended, secret hope.”
Walter Jackson Bate’s biography (published in 1963) is itself a marvel. It is seven hundred pages long, and by page 44 Keats is nineteen years old. This means that over 650 pages concern themselves with the six years of Keats’ struggle to become one of the great English poets. Once Keats begins writing seriously, thanks to his and his friends’ letters and the enormous body of research since carried out on his life, a biographer like Bate can pin down week by week—even sometimes hour by hour—what Keats was reading, with whom he spent time, and what he was writing. Bate seems to know everything about Keats and his contemporaries, and frequently digresses from his subject’s life to comment on acquaintances and minor characters, and yet also manages to keep his story as tense as a thriller, the tension building chapter by chapter. We all know the ending: Keats will come to write some of the greatest lines in the English language, and yet for four hundred and seventy two pages, we watch Keats write bad poems, derivative poems, struggle with money, pen his earliest great work, “On Reading Chapman’s Homer,” study Shakespeare, Milton, and Spenser, worry about Wordsworth’s greatness, nurse his dying brother, flail his way through his first long poem “Endymion,” abandon “Hyperion” in despair (the poem he believed would establish his name), endure viciously negative reviews, get repeatedly troubled by a wearying sore throat, meet and fall in love with Fanny Brawne (a woman he is far too destitute to marry), slowly develop his ideas of “negative capacity,” coming ever closer to the deadline we know that tuberculosis is holding in store. Then, after the death of his brother Tom, and with money worries growing ever worse, Keats becomes blocked for two months. Through the February and March of 1819, his writing dries up. He tries to blast through it by just writing anything; this fails. He meets Coleridge out one night and for two hours is flooded with ideas, yet no new poems come, and his would-be masterpiece “Hyperion” continues to stall. He considers going into medicine professionally. On March 13th he writes to his brother George, who is now in America, “I know not why Poetry and I have been so distant lately. I must make some advances soon or she will cut me entirely.”
Then, on Monday April 19th, he has some friends over, a storm traps them in his house late, and they play cards until daylight. One of his most stalwart supporters, Woodhouse, instead of joining in, reads all the poems Keats has been working on, and takes several home to copy out. Bate then narrates:
There was a certain finality now in having the poems out of the house. The slate was wiped clean. From the all-night session, Keats was naturally fatigued the next day, and “not worth a six-pence.” But the morning after that he sat down and wrote the review of Reynold’s parody. Then sometime during the afternoon (Wednesday, April 21), he started the ballad, “La belle dame sans merci.” Early in the evening he returned to the journal letter to George, jotting down the stanzas he had already written and finishing the poem there. He followed it the same night with the remarkable pages on the “Vale of Soul-Making.” With this evening begins the extraordinary productivity of Keats’s final five months of writing.
In those five months, Keats writes, among other lesser poems, all of his Odes (including Nightingale, Grecian Urn, and Autumn), and “The Fall of Hyperion.” Reaching this stage in the biography, I felt similarly to the moment in the Odyssey when Odysseus finally strings his bow.
The story’s great tragedy, however, is that Keats does not quite understand how extraordinary the Odes are, and he is unable to finish “The Fall,” which thus seems to him yet another failure. By the winter of that year his tuberculosis has become active and will soon kill him, he is too sick to continue writing, and only after his death will his late work be properly read. Keats wrote some of the greatest poems in the English language, and died without realising it.