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.