The myth and the man

You won't find the real Keats, born 200 years ago today, in his poetry. By Michael Glover

Where exactly should we go to find the real John Keats in the autumn of his bicentenary? There is the usual range of heritage rubbish, of course - from the chalk-pale portrait bust to the fussily fringed bookmarker; the absorbingly pathetic details of the truncated life; the pure exoticism of the death in Italy (exploited to the full in a widely circulated "Keats Season" media image of dying sun on still water") - and then, almost standing apart from all that, like a spirit eager to be released from the encumbrance of a mere body, the weird, otherworldly magic of the poetry itself, that brilliantly realised tidewash of pure adolescent feeling.

Is that all? Not quite. John Keats has also left a different kind of testimony to his extraordinary talents and it is one that goes much further than the poetry in proving that he had within himself the wherewithal to become a writer of genius: the letters. It is in the letters that we hear him speaking plainly as a tormented and febrile young man - riven by torments about the nature and purpose of his art; perpetually anxious about his status as the lover of that boisterous young woman who ravished his heart and tormented his soul.

But, first of all, the heritage. Keats House in Hampstead is a shrine of sorts. This is the house where he lodged briefly at the end of his life. Damp and neglected these days, little of what remains in the house is original to it. Instead, we have the accumulated memorabilia of contemporaries, descendants and devoted admirers - the engagement ring that Keats presented to Fanny Brawne, for example, or the bed, a replica of the one in which he was said to have uttered the Jacobean words recorded by his near neighbour Charles Brown in February 1920:

"Before his head was on the pillow, he slightly coughed, and I heard him say, 'That is blood from my mouth.' I went towards him; he was examining a single drop upon the sheet. 'Bring me a candle, Brown, and let me see this blood.' After regarding it steadfastly, he looked up in my face with a calmness of countenance I can never forget and said, 'I know the colour of that blood - it is arterial blood - I cannot be deceived in that colour - that drop of blood - it is my death-warrant - I must die.' I ran for a surgeon; my friend was bled, and at five in the morning I left him after he had been for some time in a quiet sleep."

One word in that quotation rings true like no other: the fact that he stared at the blood, his own blood, "steadfastly". This would have been the case because Keats had undergone intensive training as an apothecary. He had worked as an assistant to surgeons at Guy's Hospital. He knew intimately all the horrors that attended primitive medical practice in the early 19th century.

And yet of medicine the poems say almost nothing. And the weirdness of the poetry resides in this very fact that it seems to live an imaginative life of its own, fed on its author's natural bookishness (he knew Lempriere's Classical Dictionary practically by heart), his soaring feelings that poetry had claimed him for itself, and his own disinclination - or perhaps inability - to live within the painful solidities of the present moment.

The image of John Keats that we glean from the majority of the poems is the image of the John Keats of legend - a pale, wan, hapless youth in thrall to the muse, so frail and hypersensitive that an early death would seem to be about his just desserts.

And it is the enduring allure of the Keats legend, the exalting of Keats as the perfect type of the "pure" poet, that has done more damage to the cause of poetry than perhaps anything else. It is the legend of the life of John Keats we must blame for the fact that poetry is not an acceptable topic of conversation among grown men in public houses; for the fact that it is widely regarded as an emasculated - and an emasculating - activity which lacks the robust acceptability of major league sports.

Poetry, of course, has nothing whatsoever to do with a fainting - or even a swooning - incapacity to deal with life as it happens, and for evidence that Keats, in his own life, was not in fact like this at all, we need only turn to his marvellous letters. There is much brilliant and sensible discussion of poetical matters in those letters, of course; but there is also much else that is jauntily day-to-day, too. Keats loved cock-baiting, for example. He loved booze. He loved girls. There is in the letters a freshness, a liveliness, a spontaneous ability to take life on the chin that is almost always missing from the poetry. The poetry is like some awful monument to which our parents drag us, protesting, by the hand of a Sunday afternoon because that is what their parents did; it's too sweet, too cloying, too goddamn poetical by half. Would to God that Keats had grown up and older.

Arts and Entertainment
Over their 20 years, the band has built a community of dedicated followers the world over
music
Arts and Entertainment
The Wu-Tang Clan will sell only one copy of their album Once Upon A Time In Shaolin
musicWu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own only copies of their latest albums
Arts and Entertainment
Bradley Cooper, Alessandro Nivola and Patricia Clarkson on stage

film
Arts and Entertainment

Grace Dent on TV

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is heading to Norwich for Radio 1's Big Weekend

music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Kitchen plays Christopher Foyle in ITV's 'Foyle's War'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Downton Abbey star Joanne Froggatt will be starring in Dominic Savage's new BBC drama The Secrets

Arts and Entertainment
Vividly drawn: Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’
film
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
News
art

‘Remember the attackers are a cold-blooded, crazy minority’, says Blek le Rat

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.

    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
    Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

    Growing mussels

    Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project
    Diana Krall: The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai

    Diana Krall interview

    The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai
    Pinstriped for action: A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter

    Pinstriped for action

    A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter
    Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: 'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'

    Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: How we met

    'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef serves up his favourite Japanese dishes

    Bill Granger's Japanese recipes

    Stock up on mirin, soy and miso and you have the makings of everyday Japanese cuisine
    Michael Calvin: How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us