I like the redundant ‘a’ in Keats’ name. I can’t really imagine him without it, as ‘Keets’, or even ‘Keytes.’ Before I knew how to pronounce them differently, he used to sit on my father’s bookshelf next to a poet I called ‘Yeets’ and since they were the first two poets I read, that diphthong has always seemed like a signal of abundance, something extra to be gleaned. That I think this is one way I know Keats is a sort of idea I have. If, two months ago, you’d put a gun to my head and asked me to elaborate, I would have said that Keats had to do with something at once distilled and excessive, that he was the most romantic of the Romantics, the author of the most poetic poetry, that he died very young, and it was intensely sad.
Now, after a bit of reading, I can perhaps elucidate that idea some more. Keats’s idea of what poetry should do and sound like has insinuated itself so deeply into the culture that it can feel indistinguishable from the idea of the lyric. He is the most and least original of English poets, passionately impersonal, studiously spontaneous, any characterisation of him strung across with the same remorselessly dialectic energy that makes his poetry so difficult to discuss without either tautology or self- contradiction.
Keats died on 23 February 1821. He left behind some 500 pages of verse that include the best Miltonic verse outside Paradise Lost, the best Spenserian verse outside of the Faerie Queene, the best odes in English full stop and some outstandingly fun doggerel. He was twenty-five. The traditional response to the harrowing shortness of his life is to speculate about what might have been lost. But suppose we kill Keats earlier. Almost all of what he is remembered for was written in the two and a half years before his death, the majority of it during one year, the annus mirabilis. Suppose we kill him in say, summer 1818, before he began ‘Hyperion’, ‘The Eve of St Agnes’, the odes, and ‘Lamia’. What does Keats’s life look like then?
He was born on the northern outskirts of London at a time when the city was rapidly expanding. At eight he was sent to school in Enfield, where he won the respect of his classmates by working hard and fighting fair. The Napoleonic wars were underway; his classmates imagined he might one day become a great naval commander. He was orphaned young. His father died in an accident when he was eight; his mother of tuberculosis six years later. As a young teen he wasn’t bookish so much as obsessive. Fascinated by classical myth, he made a prose translation of ‘The Aeneid’ in his spare time, and read compulsively from Lemprière’s Classical Dictionary, ‘which he appeared to learn’. He could apply energy to the business of being absorbed in things beyond himself. Apprenticed to a nearby surgeon at fifteen, he would walk back over to the school to see Charles Cowden Clarke, who read poetry with him. Crucially, Clarke lent him a copy of Spenser’s The Faerie Queene.
From then on Keats’ life was devoted to his quasi-religious obsession with poetry, and he made himself into its suitor, lover and addict. Clarke later recalled the way it affected him: ‘he hoisted himself up and looked burly and dominant, as he said, “What an image that is – sea-shouldering whales.”’
That obsession was to be the overwhelming focus of his writing. In his first book of poems Keats makes – by my count – sixteen references to Spenser, and the first poem in most editions of the collected works is still the ‘Imitation of Spenser’. It would pointless to count the poems that make explicit reference to reading and writing poetry in Keats’ first book, mostly because it’s easier to count the ones that don’t. There are five: ‘To Hope’, ‘To Some Ladies’, the sonnet ‘To My Brother George’, ‘Address to Haydon’ and ‘Happy is England, I could be content’. Interestingly, these few, non-meta-poetic pieces are probably the most vapid in the whole book.
Vapid, but not ridiculous. They are empty poems, balanced and vaguely accomplished. Many of the rest are absurd: starry-eyed, hero worshipping, fanciful. Anyone ambitious risks bathos, and bathos may be the determining note of the young Keats: ‘Lo! I must tell a tale of chivalry’ begins the abortive fragment ‘Calidore’, ‘For large white plumes are dancing in mine eye’.
In Poems (1817) Keats tends to prefigure the world as a means of translating poetry into poetry, as in the yearning evocation of poetic madness in the second poem to his brother George: ‘A sudden glow comes on them, naught they see / In water, earth or air, but poesy.’ The landscape, more often than not, is a poem too, ‘the stream of rhyme’ where the startlingly literal poet ventures ‘with shattered boat, oar snapped and canvas rent’. Elsewhere, he hears ‘Spenserian vowels that elope with ease / And float along like birds o’er summer seas’ (finding here, at last, a decently flattering turn of phrase). Poems (1817) remind me of a teenage mid-western actor making his debut on Broadway. Talented – madly so – but madly embarrassing too, naïve, as eager to be praised as he is to please. If you were making the film, you might be tempted to cast a young Julie Andrews.
It’s not as though Keats lacked personal material. He had suffered the death of parents, familial deracination, disappointment and tragedy. He had seen – as so few of us do – what a human body looks like on the inside, witnessed the scope and intensity of pain a human being can endure and somehow still not die. In any case, he wrote poems about poetry.
The guiding spirit of the first book was Leigh Hunt, who he met when he was young and looking for heroes. Hunt recognised his talent immediately, as did Horace Smith (a serviceable poet himself, whose best poem, tragically, is also called ‘Ozymandias’, written about the same fragment of sculpture that inspired Shelley). Indeed, almost everyone who met Keats encouraged him. He was compelling, sympathetic, loveable, fond of practical jokes, short but rather good looking, with striking eyes. He wrote with immense speed, on a cresting wave of intuition. He barely revised a piece once finished. One night, Charles Cowden Clarke showed Keats Chapman’s translation of Homer during an all-night poetic talk-a- thon. Keats left at six or seven, walking home and composing in his head a sonnet that would arrive back at Clarke’s by post no later than ten than morning.
It was his first masterpiece, and it still seems to arrive from nowhere. In John Barnard’s edition of Keats’s poems, there is just enough space below the aspirational sniffiness of the preceding poem, ‘How Many Bards Gild the Lapses of Time’ and above ‘On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer’ for the reader to write, ‘what the fuck happened here?’
Cortez’s ‘eagle eyes’ in that sonnet echo what would become one of Keats’s early symbols of poetic ambition: the eagle. In ‘On Seeing the Elgin Marbles’ – a grasping, psychologically dense piece addressed reflexively to its own inadequacies – he frets about never achieving his evident potential. ‘My spirit is too weak’, he writes; ‘each imagined pinnacle and steep / Of Godlike hardship tells me I must die / Like a sick eagle looking at the sky.’ The poet was supposed to soar; his tragedy would be if he couldn’t rise up to fly in his element. ‘Why should we be owls’, he wrote to a friend, ‘when we could be eagles?’
On 14 April 1817, he set off for the Isle of Wight to embark upon a ‘test of invention’. His first book had just been published, to fairly overwhelming indifference from the world at large. He knew he had yet to really make himself as a poet. He had a subject in mind, and a target length of 4000 lines he hoped ‘to fill’. ‘I put on no laurels’, he wrote to his brother George, ‘till I shall have finished “Endymion”.’ He had a rough time of it, badly blocked for several months. He spent spring agonising over the first few hundred lines, before trotting out the remaining few thousand at a devoted clip of about fifty lines a day.
The reviewers were right about ‘Endymion’, probably the worst significant poem by a major English poet. A sample:
Desist! or my offended mistress’ nod
Will stagnate all thy fountains – tease me not
With siren words – Ah, have I really got
Such power to madden thee?
It’s hard to say what’s worse here: the rickety rhymes, the broken-backed meter, the undisguised line filling of the exclamation, ‘Ah’. The titanic effort of writing the book gave Keats his most severe experience of compositional stage-fright, and ‘Endymion’ suffers from a terrible sense of its own occasion. Keats strives with varying levels of unsuccess to raise everything in the poem – tree, pool, moon, rock, plant– to match his own intuitions about the importance and scope of his art. Frequently, he admits that he can’t. ‘Ah can I tell / The enchantment that afterwards befell?’ asks Endymion, speaking of his encounter with the moon goddess Cynthia. He sounds a lot like Keats himself, reflecting on the distance between his memories of inspiration and the work in front of him:
Yet it was but a dream: yet such a dream
That never tongue, although it overteem
With mellow utterance, like a cavern spring,
Could figure out and to conception bring
All I beheld and felt.
More tellingly, much of the poem is about the question of how Endymion can go on living after his encounter with divine beauty (in the form of the moon goddess). Endymion’s defining features in the poem are perplexity and muteness. His predicament is to be tragically earthbound. ‘He who died / For soaring too audacious in the sun […] Felt not more tongue-tied than Endymion.’ Large parts of the poem read like a psychodrama about Keats’s inability to write it. Less important than what he wrote was that he finished what he started and it didn’t kill him. Almost immediately afterwards, he wrote the brisk, near- perfect lyric ‘In drear-nighted December’ and said more in eighteen lines than he had in the whole of the longer poem about the evaporation of his intuitive connection to the muse: ‘the feel of not to feel it, / When there is none to heal it, / Nor numbèd sense to steal it, / Was never said in rhyme.’ ‘Endymion’ is the site where a burgeoning sense of belatedness and critical alienation collides with a Nietzschean trial of poetic self- making. The change of direction that followed is marked with an equal but dissimilar ambivalence, and the change seems to have been prompted in part by his sense of his own failures. Revising ‘Endymion’, he began to find even his favourite passages ‘vapid’. When he published it, it was prefaced with an apology.
He began writing in reaction to everything he had done before, marking time, producing comic, cynical, highly vernacular pieces. He more or less drops the skimming heroic couplets of his earlier work. A flinty note enters the verse. Naturally credulous, he had to work at being cynical, and was now beginning to cultivate a worldly sexism to boot:
Where be ye going, you Devon maid?
And what have ye there in the basket?
Ye tight little fairy, just fresh from the dairy
Will ye give me some cream if I ask it?
The disyllabic rhymes common in the earlier work have developed a Byronic snap. Having fallen foul of bathos, he was now learning to turn it to his own ends, as in the verse letter to J. H. Reynolds, where the sleeping Keats sees ‘Voltaire with casque and shield and habergeon / And Alexander with his nightcap on’. The canon of literary immortals one might have found in an earlier poem has been replaced with a role-call of human absurdity.
In the spring of 1818, Keats wrote ‘Isabella, or the Pot of Basil’. Had he died that summer – killed in earnest, and not simply in myth, by the reviews in Blackwoods and the Quarterly – it would have been his last and most accomplished long poem. Its swift progress, concrete detail and narrative ambivalence show the fruits of Keats devout reading in Shakespeare. (Sometimes, struggling with ‘Endymion’, he would read the plays for eight hours a day). One frequently praised passage is a denunciation of Isabella’s family, tyrannical merchants: ‘For them the Ceylon diver held his breath, / And went all naked to the hungry shark, / For them his ears gushed blood.’
There is a note of dissent in ‘Isabella’, of self-accusation. Keats begs Boccaccio’s pardon, not for his inadequate gifts, but his inappropriate decorum in ‘venturing syllables that ill beseem / The quiet glooms of such a piteous theme’. Lorenzo, still living, is described as a ‘murdered man’; dying is the means by which a soul ‘wins’ its ‘freedom’. ‘Selfishness’ is called ‘Love’s cousin’. Most strikingly, the note of aspiration is gone. The far, quiet horizons and conquering poets of the earlier verse have made way for a more complex engagement with uncertain purpose and gothic narrative; there is a nihilistic subtext beneath the increasingly controlled archaism of the verse.
Writing ‘Endymion’, Keats had surrounded himself with religious trinkets, including an idol of Shakespeare that he hung above his books. Instead of a blessing, he experienced a crisis of faith. By March 1818, he was writing to Benjamin Bailey, ‘I am sometimes so very skeptical as to think poetry is a mere Jack-o-Lantern to whoever may chance to be struck with its brilliance.’ Skepticism is one way of putting it – atheism might be a better word for a man who took poetry as his religion.
If Keats had died in the summer of 1818 it would appear to us now that the great promise was beginning to wane. We might easily imagine that he was beginning to have doubts about his vocation. It’s worth remembering that when we think about the bitterness and fallow cynicism of the final months – that Keats had been there before, giving almost no hint of what he was about to achieve, killing the young man to make way for the new one.
He had two and a half more years to plunge further into those uncertainties he was beginning to taste, his poems and characters more tangled up with blindness, darkness, hints of suicide. From now on he stopped trying to fly higher, and began, instead, swimming deeper. Coelus in ‘Hyperion’ is described in telling terms: ‘Like to a diver in the pearly seas, / Forward he stooped over the airy shore / And plunged all noiseless into the deep night’. An image of the poet himself, kicking further away from the surface, his ears filling with blood.
John Phipps is a writer. He lives in London
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