Anyone who says writing a poem is easy isn’t writing poetry. Sometimes, though, one just pops out of a poet’s head after a long struggle with another, longer one. That seems to have been the case with John Keats.
There’s plenty of documentation about how he wrote his longer poems and this new biography by Nicholas Roe gives it to us with both barrels. Keats wrote great letters and his friends recorded their conversations. But Roe has a problem trying to figure out what to say about the shorter poems, the odes and the sonnets.
This is made even more difficult because in the preface he claims, “Nothing in this portrait is fictional. Every detail comes from Keats’ letters or contemporary accounts of him.” And it’s true that the author seems to have access to every piece of evidence there is concerning the life of John Keats. But there are parts of this book that are very speculative.
To compensate for a distressing lack of documentation about how he came to write poems like “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” “To Autumn,” “Bright Star,” and “Ode to a Nightingale,” Roe proffers a largely unsubstantiated theory that Keats was under the influence of laudanum (alcohol and opium) when he wrote them, just as Coleridge was when he wrote “Kubla Kahn.”
Roe bases his argument on the “hemlock,” and the “dull opiate” and the “beaker of the warm south” at the beginning of the “Ode to a Nightingale.” He also brings up the fact that Keats trained as an apothecary and had a lot of experience using laudanum. His brother Tom died of tuberculosis and Keats administered laudanum to him then.
Coleridge’s “Kubla Kahn” is clearly a drug-induced fragment. But the drugs that Keats contemplated using in order to “leave the world unseen / And with thee fade away into the forest dim” are, after all, abandoned in his attempt to leave a world “Where but to think is to be full of sorrows.” He will get there without them “On the viewless wings of Poesy” “Not charioted by Bacchus and his pards.”
This biography does reveal many interesting things about Keats. His love of Shakespeare and the theater, his discovery of negative capability, his love of physical exercise (he walked around England and Scotland as much as Wordsworth), his excellent secondary education and his many friendships are all clearly explained.
And it’s good to be shown once again that Keats wasn’t a delicate flower “half in love with easeful death,” that he was a vibrant young man, fond of boxing and cricketeering and falling in love with spirited young women who loved him back. He was not an uneducated butcher’s son introduced to great literature by patronizing, better-educated friends. He came from solid stock that left an inheritance. He went to one of the best, most progressive high schools in England and came out of it still eager to learn and not just to show off his learning like his friends who went to Oxford and Cambridge. (Shakespeare had a similar experience.)
Roe also shows us how Keats became the convenient whipping boy in the squabble between the reactionaries who wanted poetry to continue as it had for centuries and the new writers like his friends, Leigh Hunt, William Hazlitt and Percy Shelley, who wanted to break free from that tradition. Reviewers picked on Keats because his writing offered the clearest examples of a new kind of poetry.
From our distant vantage point it seems like a tempest in a teapot. After all, Keats’ poetry wasn’t that different from the poetry of the Classical era. Especially in his longer poems he often used classical mythology that featured archaic, no-one-really-talks-like-this, “poetical” language.
But his critics zeroed in on certain words and phrases they labeled as “oafish” and “common.” In this they were being snobs – picking on the fact that Keats was from the lower middle class and not well-educated by their standards. They finished the insult by calling him and his friends the “Cockney School” of poets.
They also didn’t like that the myths he chose were often neither Greek nor Roman but Gothic.
And when he did use traditional mythology, he didn’t use it in the traditional way. Roe accurately points out that Keats’ enthusiasm for mythology that the other Romantic poets had given up on as old-fashioned enabled “writers as diverse as Tennyson, Pound, Eliot, Walcott and Heaney” to use mythology in their poetry but in a new way that ignores centuries of uninspired and uninspiring scholarly translations. It’s no accident that Keats’ breakthrough poem was about an exciting, new translation of Homer, “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer.”
The critics didn’t understand his “negative capability” which they took as “‘driveling idiocy’ fit only for a madhouse.” Keats was carefully developing personae in his poems “who could only feel by imagining what other men and women might feel.” His “driveling idiocy,” his negative capability, came from his understanding that, “A poet has no identity because he is continually assuming other identities such as the sun, moon, seas, other men and women, all creatures that have ‘an unchangeable attribute.’”
Keats described what he meant by negative capability in a letter to a friend. It is “when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” The earnest, heartfelt language of the age – which even in a poet as great as Keats can be off-putting – was in his greatest poems balanced by his instinct to be objective, to obliterate his self and emerge as something new.
Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget What thou among the leaves hast never known,
“Ode to a Nightingale,” John Keats
Keats was moving from an outer landscape to an inner one, from the actual Elgin Marbles to an imaginary museum in which he stylizes content and focuses instead on writing about thinking itself. He becomes like blind Homer “breath [ing] its pure serene,” the ruler of his own “wide expanse.”
An endless fountain of immortal drink,
Pouring unto us from the heaven’s brink.
“A Thing of Beauty,” John Keats
This new focus might have come from his training to be a surgeon’s assistant (a kind of anesthesiologist before there was anesthesia) or from taking opium to relieve the pain of sports injuries and TB.
But it’s more likely it came from some other confluence of forces that we may never identify. If we don’t know after Roe’s exhaustive research, it seems likely we never will.
It’s ironic that Keats was denied the use of laudanum on his deathbed. His friend, the artist Joseph Severn, had agreed to take him to Italy in search of a cure and he brought laudanum with him.
But Severn refused to accept the fact that his friend was dying and gave away the laudanum so he wasn’t tempted by his friend’s agonizing pleas for the “dull opiate.” It would seem that anyone who knew Keats well would know if he used opium.
Denying it to him at such a time seems unnaturally cruel especially since it was the standard treatment of choice.
But if Keats was an opium addict, his having to quit cold turkey on his deathbed was one more reason to have thought, “his name was writ in water.”
John Keats: A New Life
By Nicholas Roe
Yale University Press
472 pages, $32.50
William L. Morris was the co-inventor of The News poetry page and is now living in Florida.