Walter Jackson Bate’s John Keats

If I were asked to recommend a single poet to a total neophyte wondering what all the fuss is about, I would hand them a volume of John Keats’ poetry, confident that, if they found nothing in Keats to love and cherish, all of poetry would be lost on them. Keats possessed that rarest combination of heightened empathy and verbal felicity, to a degree unseen since Shakespeare, and in a pitifully mortal life he marshalled these gifts to the creation of immortal works of poetry. None of the major English poets – Spenser, Shakespeare and Milton included – had anything like Keats’ accomplishments by the age of 25, when tuberculosis cut his promising life short, and so every subsequent generation of readers has approached him with his early death in mind, wondering at the immensity of our loss. Adding to his legend is the fact that a great deal of his correspondence survives, and in his letters we discover the second source of his enduring fascination: as an aspiring writer, by turns humble and ambitious, eager to test his talents to their limits, he has been an inspiration to countless writers and poets down through the generations. It would take an uncommonly gifted biographer to capture these various aspects of Keats, someone with a writer’s appreciation for his incredible achievements and the pains he went through to realize them, and Walter Jackson Bate, Harvard professor and renowned literary critic, proved more than up to the challenge.

Through 700 meticulously researched pages, Bate takes us through the life of John Keats, from his tragic orphaning at a young age (Keats was eight when his father took a fatal fall from a horse, and 14 when his mother died of tuberculosis), through his brief formal education in Enfield, where at 13 he was introduced to Tasso and Edmund Spenser, into his medical apprenticeship and his first earnest attempts at writing poetry. Given his short life, it is possible for a biography of Keats to cover his entire career chronologically, but Bate nonetheless filters his biographical insights through the prism of Keats’ poetic development. How did so young a man, from so humble a background, become one of England’s greatest poets? Bate, a lifelong lover of Samuel Johnson, frequently invokes Johnson’s dictum that the first aim of biography is to find “what can be put to use,” and so biographical details as minute as the cost of food and lodging are mingled with estimates of Keats’ day-to-day routine: how many hours he spent reading and writing, what friends he saw and under what circumstances, what was troubling him about life and his work. Source materials Bate draws on range widely, beginning with the voluminous correspondence Keats kept up for almost his entire life and extending to the reporting of friends and casual acquaintances, as well as the customarily meticulous English legal records.

At every juncture, Bate impresses upon us the self-conscious will at work in Keats’ development. He read meticulously, and with an imaginative understanding that he justifiably felt made him an uncommonly strong reader. “I have great reason to be content,” he wrote to a friend, “for thank God I can read, and perhaps understand Shakespeare to his depths.” His earliest inspiration was Edmund Spenser, whose Faerie Queene provided an early poetic model, but it was the discovery of Shakespeare and Milton – and his constant meditating on their poetic power – that would propel him going forward: “Shakespeare and the Paradise Lost every day become greater wonders to me – I look upon fine Phrases like a Lover.” Bate traces, in minute detail, the influence of these two poets on Keats’ verse, and it is in these moments that we forget that we are reading a biography and not a work of first-rate literary criticism. We learn, for example, about Keats’ experiments with rhyme, his combining elements from the Shakespearean and Spenserian sonnet forms to create the pleasing melodies of the great odes. Or of his conviction, short-lived, that assonance – the repetition of vowel sounds – offered the key to creating musical rhythms; to follow Bate as he analyzes Hyperion, for example, for the interplay of its vowels, is a joy akin to watching a musical scholar guide us through a Mozart symphony.

The technical details are subordinate to a larger ambition, or rather a problem Keats sought to solve: that of finding an original form of expression, a path uncharted by the poets that had preceded him. He had sensed the general direction of contemporary poetry, charted its journey inward, and rightly suspected that this increased subjectivity came at a steep price; in Bate’s words, Keats “feared a growing split between artist and society through the narrowing (even though partly in self-defense) of the artist’s sympathies.” It is Wordsworth who Keats identifies as the figurehead of this movement, and Keats’ famous poetic term, negative capability (“when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason”), identifies a goal for himself that is antithetical to the modern currents in poetry. Bates does not merely chart Keats’ progress towards this goal, but makes us identify with Keats himself, much as he would if he were writing a novel, and so much of the “literary quality” of this biography comes from the amazing sympathy he creates in us – above whatever naturally existed – for Keats himself.

No reader of this book can begin it naive to where it must end, to the fate Keats must suffer, wasting away from tuberculosis in Italy, far from his dearest friends and family, starving and half-mad. The mere thought of such a fate for such a man is too painful for anyone with a mite of sympathy to bear, and Bate must share my concern, for he leaves us with another thought. After some brief words on the division of Keats’ estate, Bate focuses in on a single object, an engraving of Shakespeare given to Keats four years earlier, and which never left his possession since. He then quotes a famous passage from a letter Keats wrote to his friend, the painter Robert Haydon: “I remember your saying that you had notions of a good Genius presiding over you – I have of late had the same thought – is it too daring to fancy Shakespeare this Presider?” Rather than leave us with the dying Keats, the dejected and lonely Keats, Bate returns us to the words of a young and ambitious Keats, and suggests that he has indeed fulfilled his desire to be Shakespeare’s own apprentice. No better tribute to Keats could be offered, except – perhaps – this beautiful biography.