Apollo's rebel angel

Do we need a new biography of Keats? Aren't the facts of his life well known?

Why Do we need a new Life of John Keats? In a way the answer is obvious. Even though three excellent biographies of him were published in the 1960s (by Robert Gittings, Aileen Ward and Walter Jackson Bate), and even though we now know an enormous amount about his daily doings, our sense of him has changed in the last 30-odd years. Like all important writers, he turns in the wind of history, showing new facets of his genius to each succeeding generation.

In another sense the answer is complicated. The Keats we know is finely- figured but - generally speaking - kept apart from the life of his times. The other great Romantic poets are routinely placed in the context of the French Revolution, of the war against Napoleon, of the repressive Tory government which was in power during the early years of the 19th century. But little "Junkets", as his friend Leigh Hunt called him? He is a charming voluptuary, gazing open-mouthed at Beauty and Truth while others concentrate on the Bastille or Castlereagh.

Clearly there is a lot to value in the "old" readings of Keats. And equally clearly it would be ridiculous to turn him into a narrowly political writer. He spends far too much energy trying to transcend time for that to seem sensible. He is also too mercurial - too much what one of his publishers called a man "of fits and starts".

All the same, Keats doesn't get his just desserts - as a man or a writer - unless we put him in his place, and wonder how he reflects the pressures which bore on him. Sometimes this means defining his political beliefs - the staunchly liberal views which were relatively simple and idealistic in the early part of his short life, but which towards the end became much more intricate and refined. Sometimes it means appreciating the ways in which he was shaped unconsciously. This is the twin approach that any biography needs to adopt, if it wants to do its job properly. It needs to establish what is calculating in a person, and to combine it with a proper respect for what passed in their lives as unknown - and perhaps still unknowable.

How Did it happen, this de-politicising? And when? A few months after Keats died - in February 1821 - his friend Shelley wrote his famous elegy, "Adonais". Shelley had always been rather superior with Keats - handing down advice about writing, contesting his special place in Leigh Hunt's circle of friends - and Keats had always been a bit chippy in return. "Adonais" forgets their differences. As Shelley dramatises his own sense of exclusion, and his particular brand of social criticism, he planes away the rough texture of Keats's ideas and turns him into an archetype of the suffering artist - a lovely weakling who was bludgeoned to death by hostile Tory reviewers. The poem was inspired by feelings of political kinship but, as it completes its mournful process, politics are pushed aside, or deep-buried in natural images.

In the years since "Adonais" first appeared, its message has been reinforced. The followers of Tennyson, who promoted Keats as they extolled their own man, denied that either of them had a political bone in his body. The Pre-Raphaelites dwelt on Keats's sensuous medievalising. Elizabeth Barrett Browning imagined him "turning grandly on his central self". Wilde identified with him as an artistic "martyr". Eliot concentrated on his aesthetics. Beckett liked "that awful sweetness and soft damp green richness". On one hand, these people did Keats a favour. They rescued him from the obscurity which threatened him at the end of his life (on his deathbed Keats had asked that the phrase "Here lies one whose name was writ in water" should be carved on his gravestone ). On the other hand, they withheld part of Keats's "reality". They smudged his social features. They fudged his commitment to living and writing as a "rebel angel" who "always [came] down on the liberal side of the question".

So We need to go back and begin again at the beginning. With his parents. Very little is known about Keats's father. Where did he come from? The West country, probably. Was he illegitimate? Possibly. Keats's mother, Frances Jennings, is much more definite, and so is her family. Several of them were buried in Bunhill Fields, the Dissenter's graveyard in the east of London, near the coaching inn (the Swan and Hoop) where Keats spent part of his early childhood. In other words, Keats began his life where he always remained: on the edge of things, excited by establishment culture, but feeling that his approach to it was blocked or complicated.

Keats's parents both died young, leaving him and his siblings to be raised by their grandmother. But the direction of his mind had already been suggested, and the next stage of his life - his schooldays - confirmed it. Although John Clarke's school in Enfield has often been described as an unusually humane institution, its teaching methods are not so well known. Clarke never published anything, so it's impossible to discover his beliefs in his own words. But he founded the school with a dynamic Baptist minister, John Ryland, with whom he had previously worked in Northampton. And since Ryland published as though his life depended on it, and was much-remembered by contemporaries, Clarke's ethos comes into sharp focus.

Though not in quite the same league as the great academy in Warrington, say, which was known as one of the "Dissenting Universities", Clarke's school was devotedly liberal. Clarke himself was a friend of Joseph Priestley and other leading radicals, and his library was full of sympathetic reading - including Leigh Hunt's journal the Examiner, which soon became a kind of bible for Keats. Other, more routine-seeming things were just as influential. To help his boys understand the solar system, Clarke would form them into a "human orrery", hanging the name of a planet round the neck of each one. In autumn, to explain migration, he would take his pupils outside and point out the swallows gathering on the rooftops. Keats spent nearly a third of his life at school, and remembered his time there more clearly than those who live longer. Perhaps a part of his mind was drawing on memories of Enfield when he wrote "Hyperion", or the last lines of the ode "To Autumn":

and now with treble soft

The red-breast whistles from the garden-croft;

And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

Then There's the whole business of Keats and medicine. According to received wisdom, the decision to undertake the long training to become a doctor was not his own. In fact it satisfied a deep personal need (created by the death of his parents - especially his mother) as well as allowing him to "jump down Aetna for some public good". During his apprenticeship with Thomas Hammond, a doctor and family friend in Edmonton, these mixed motives remained unclear. But when he became a student at Guy's Hospital in 1815 he joined a thoroughly progressive programme - one which reinforced the emphasis of Clarke's school. Guy's was a Whig foundation, and its senior surgeon, Sir Ashley Cooper (who took a personal interest in Keats) had impeccable radical credentials. He had been in France during the September Massacres, and as a young man had met and debated with many of those opposing the Tory government at home.

When Cooper took the top job at Guy's, he gave his word that he would not consort with "trouble-makers" but concentrate on his hospital work instead. This work, however, was radicalism by other means: revolutionary in its patient-care, its organisation, its pioneering spirit. A parallel transformation occurred in Keats. As his training continued, he found his hospital work increasingly burdensome. Partly because he doubted his capacities as a surgeon (in those pre-anaesthetic days, it was an extremely gruesome job). And partly because it took up too much of the time which, since producing his first poem in 1814, he had wanted to give to writing . But his decision to turn from medicine to writing full-time was not an abandonment of his principles. As a trainee-doctor he had treated the body; now he would attempt to heal the mind and the soul. Apollo, the god of medicine as well as of poetry, was always his guiding spirit.

Keats's liberalism was given a terrific boost when he turned aside from medicine and took up with Leigh Hunt. As the editor of the Examiner, Hunt was well placed to inform as well as inspire Keats about contemporary issues - and so were others around him. The painter Benjamin Robert Haydon fanned the flame of his ambition. Shelley, William Hazlitt and John Hamilton Reynolds (as, later, Charles Brown, Charles Dilke, Vincent Novello and others) all shared his first principles. They sometimes squirmed in the heat of mutual competition, but they also did each other an immense amount of good. They licensed each other's need to make a simultaneous devotion to poetry and to freedom.

Notoriously, the Tory press (Blackwood's, the Quarterly Review) gave them a hard time - reserving some of its fiercest anger for Keats himself. And while it would misrepresent Keats to say that these critics deflected him from his "march of passion and endeavour", they certainly made him think hard about audience, and about the need to make money. They also accelerated the growth of his ideas about how a writer might reconcile the need to be a chameleon (self-forgetting, lacking the "egotistical sublime") with the desire to express a particular attitude. In the marvellous letters he wrote during the middle and late 1810s, foundations are laid for the poems in which this reconciliation is triumphantly achieved - the poems in the 1820 volume, which included "Hyperion", "Lamia", "Isabella" and the Odes. In all these, Keats's antagonism to Tory authority is preserved but made more subtle. Instead of transcriptions there are transformations. Rather than frontal assaults, there is a philosophy felt upon the pulses. As he said himself, "we hate poetry that has a palpable design on us".

The Courage and cleverness of Keats in developing these ideas are deeply impressive. The capture of them in poems is not much short of miraculous. And he was only just 25 when he died. When I first read him I was ten years younger than that. Now I'm 20 years older, and my fascination with him is greater than ever. The five years I've spent writing his life have been the most enjoyable and intellectually rewarding of my life. Of course I don't want my admiration for him to make me sentimentalise the arguments which drive his work. But I do want to say that I think he is exemplary: a great liberal spirit, as well as a great poet.

! Andrew Motion's 'Keats' is published on 6 October by Faber at pounds 20.

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