BOOKS; Apollo the great painkiller

JOHN KEATS: A Life by Stephen Coote, Hodder & Stoughton pounds 18

GENERATIONS of Vth Form pupils have had to swot John Keats's poems as required texts. The poem most frequently confronting them is "The Eve of St Agnes". Alas, after leaving their chalky classrooms too many never read another of Keats's poems again.

"Louder, boy, louder. Don't mumble," our English master used to growl whenever he commanded one of us to read aloud, "St Agnes Eve - Ah, bitter chill it was..."

Sir told us that a certain eminent critic and contemporary of Keats, Leigh Hunt, believed "The Eve of St Agnes" to be a most delightful and complete specimen of John Keats's genius, that this narrative glowed with all the colours of romance. With youthful pomposity, the class, all boys, agreed that the euphonious rhymings and picture-makings were okay - but the story ... strewth!

The poem might have intrigued us more had Sir told us something of Keats the man, other than that the 25-year-old poet had died of TB like his mother and younger brother, both of whom he had nursed. He did not tell us how John, orphaned, had been apprenticed to an apothecary at nearly 15 years of age and, five years later, had been accepted for training at Guy's Hospital in London. We would have been interested, surely, to learn how Keats turned away from the brutal scenes within the groaning wards and screaming operating theatres of Guy's Infirmary in 1816 to write, at first, barbiturate poems, finding it easier by far to be with Achilles shouting in the trenches, or with Theocritus in the Vales of Sicily.

Our English master did not even suggest to us that "The Eve of St Agnes" was a romantic celebration of an erotic fantasy probably inspired by Keats's imaginings of Fanny Brawne whom he had met a month or so earlier. I wonder how the class would have responded had he read out one of Keats's ardent love letters to Fanny. With embarrassed sympathy? With the invincible superior dismissal which Matthew Arnold once manifested, pronouncing Keats's obsessive declarations of love as "underbred and ignoble, as of a youth ill brought up, without the training which teaches us that we must put some constraint upon our feelings and upon the expression of them"?

Stephen Coote offers us an entirely opposed view of these letters. He judges them the most profoundly felt love letters in literature, their spontaneity "derived from a conscious effort to achieve an honesty purged of all emotional cant ..." But then Coote seems to be somewhat in love with John Keats himself. He views Keats as no escapist but one with an "innate toughness of mind" who engages himself with the ills of the contemporary world. Indeed Coote stresses Keats's liberal outlook and comments frequently on the public arena of the early 19th century - which barbarous background, he asserts, is of vital importance in the understanding of Keats's poetry.

His sympathetic excursions into Keats's poems, which hardly hold up his dramatic narration of Keats's short life, are often illuminating and, as often, open to question. His discussion of "The Eve of St Agnes", for instance, would have astonished the Vth Form of my day on learning that "the plumes and tiaras sweeping through this Gothic mansion suggest the contemporary aristocracy revelling in their own new-built Gothic extravagances".

There are many heart-breaking anecdotes related in this easily readable biography, as well as some that are familiarly amusing. To dwell on the latter: Coote reminds us how Keats, in idolatry, inscribed his first book to Wordsworth with "the Author's sincere Reverence" - yet many pages in the volume years later remained uncut; and how, at a dinner party, when young John tried to make a point in the general discussion, Mrs Wordsworth placed a restraining hand on his arm, saying imperiously, "Mr Wordsworth is never interrupted."

I wonder how much Keats's well-known enunciation of "negative capability" owed to Words-worth's theory of "wise passiveness"? Keats's own ability to empathise with things and creatures was extreme. He could feel himself unified even to a billiard ball, apprehend its "sense of delight from its roundness, smoothness and the very volubility of its motion". And in a letter to Benjamin Bailey he claimed, "If a sparrow comes before my window I take part in its existence and pick about the gravel." Such a sympathetic imagination might be useful for a poet, but a handicap for a doctor who might, as a result, too readily identify himself with a suffering patient and thus have to endure the recurring decimal of calamity.

Is it surprising, then, that Keats, endowed with this pronounced temperament, escaped from ugly, blood-soaked wards to pursue, through the medium of poetry, the Beautiful? Coote argues, though, that poetry for Keats was no mere anodyne. His hero, he maintains, was far from averse to the scientific discipline at Guy's when he walked those wards, attended lectures and dissected bodies clandestinely snatched from graveyards. The story he tells is of a young genius who would do good in the world, who would, by serving Apollo, the god of Medicine and Poetry, soothe troubled humanity. Given the state of medicine at that time - those bloodlettings, those ill-advised starvation diets, those poisonous medicines - Keats certainly served humanity by foregoing medical practice.

Coote serves us with an uncluttered biography, a tragic story racily told, that importantly sends us back to the poems themselves and to the wonder in them. Only occasionally does Coote's own language become dubious or melodramatic - "the dreadful dialectic of pain and consciousness moved to the centre of Keats's mind" or "Keats's lustrous eyes darkened". Such over-the-top flaws are easily forgotten and there will be many who may enjoy this biography, weep a little, and be instructed.

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