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Books: Radically Romantic

Keats by Andrew Motion Faber & Faber, pounds 20; Lachlan Mackinnon uncovers a tough side to the 'Cockney' poet who trained as a surgeon and consorted with rebels
John Keats was born in 1795 and died in 1821. The meteoric brevity of his life has long seemed to be the most striking thing about it; and the great strength of Andrew Motion's new biography of the poet is to show how richly that life was lived, giving us an unusually strong sense of the material density of Keats's world. Traditionally, the Romantic poets have been seen as ethereal figures detached from their age, and Motion brings to a general readership the results of a recent revaluation in academic circles. The aim of that work, as of Motion's, has been to show how deeply involved the Romantics were in the social and political currents of their period.

Motion takes Keats's radical politics with a new seriousness. He describes evocatively Keats's upbringing on the fringe of the middle class, his nonconformist education and the effects on him of being orphaned early. His guardian, Richard Abbey, plays an obtuse, occasionally malign choric role in this story. Abbey did, however, support Keats when he decided, aged 15, to train as an apothecary.

As Motion shows, this was much closer to a general surgical training than "apothecary" suggests. After five years' apprenticeship, Keats went on to Guy's Hospital, where he was rapidly promoted while still a student. After a year, he passed his finals, to the consternation of some fellow students who had written him off as a dreamer. Motion's attention to this period helps to emphasise Keats's practical intelligence and his concern with the question of suffering.

Keats abandoned medicine, though, for in the same years he had entered the literary world. Motion is extremely informative and entertaining about the personalities involved, especially the poet and journalist Leigh Hunt and the painter and diarist Benjamin Haydon. Interestingly, he observes how much Keats moved in a masculine world - how little, indeed, he had to do with women during his adolescence and early manhood.

Motion would not, though, have us believe in a virginal Keats. He argues convincingly that Keats caught gonorrhoea, probably from a prostitute. He also argues that, when Keats contracted tuberculosis, he wanted it hushed up because it was popularly associated with masturbation. When Byron learnt of the illness he described Keats as "a miserable Self-polluter of the human mind".

Keats was not, though, sexually self-confident, and was self-conscious about his height (just over five feet). He was also the victim of the social and political attitudes he struggled against. His lack of a full education meant that his classical learning was got out of reference books and translations, something his enemies made play with. He belonged to the "Cockney school" of poets: one way of identifying them was to observe that their vision of nature was suburban, limited to gardens and confined spaces rather than the grand vistas critics approved.

As Motion follows the short trajectory of Keats's adult life, he sustains a compelling narrative momentum. Partly, he does so by engaging closely with Keats's processes of composition. We follow in detail the making of "Endymion", "Hyperion" and the "Fall of Hyperion". At the same time, he is attentive to the mercurial rapidity of intelligence in Keats's letters, which he selects admirably.

A distinguished poet himself, Motion is well placed to handle the contradictions between logical reasoning and physical sensation, which Keats found so difficult to overcome. He is particularly acute in pointing out moments when the poetry veers one way or the other, and an excellent expositor of Keats's abstract thought.

However, I was sorry that he did not do more to place Keats's thought more fully in its context. The intellectual insularity of 20th-century Britain is an aberration, and from Coleridge to George Eliot the prevailing currents of thought were German. Keats seems a very long way from Immanuel Kant, but without the latter his thought would have been impossible. Keats used the philosophical-aesthetic vocabulary of his time in a way that suggests he did not fully understand it, but exactly how he got hold of it is a mystery. This book does nothing to extend our understanding of this question. I was also puzzled by its reading of some of the poetry, particularly "Ode on a Grecian Urn", "Ode to a Nightingale" and "To Autumn". Motion's conviction that Keats felt he "must remain faithful to the world of experience, and suffer the historical process which constantly threatens to extinguish his ideal" leads him to undervalue the transcendental ambitions of these poems.

If I was unconvinced by the analysis of Keats's mind, I found this a very rewarding book. As he explores Keats's passion for Fanny Brawne and leads us up to his death, Motion convinces us he has got them right. Novelistic intensity and high scholarship combine to make this life a living one.