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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Thomas carried Lady Edith over the flames in her bedroom in Downton Abbey series five

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck as Nick Dunne, seated next to a picture of his missing wife Amy, played by Rosamund Pike

film
Arts and Entertainment
Rachel, Chandler and Ross try to get Ross's sofa up the stairs in the famous 'Pivot!' scene

Friends 20th anniversary
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Dunham

books
Arts and Entertainment
A bit rich: Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey

There’s revolution in the air, but one lady’s not for turning

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Chloe-Jasmine Whicello impressed the judges and the audience at Wembley Arena with a sultry performance
TVReview: Who'd have known Simon was such a Roger Rabbit fan?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Actor and director Zach Braff

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams plays 'bad ass' Arya Stark in Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Secret politics of the weekly shop

    The politics of the weekly shop

    New app reveals political leanings of food companies
    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
    Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

    Beware Wet Paint

    The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
    A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

    Not That Kind of Girl:

    A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

    In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

    Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
    Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

    Model mother

    Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
    Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

    Apple still the coolest brand

    Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits