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.

News
election 2015The 10 best quotes of the campaign
News
A caravan being used as a polling station in Ford near Salisbury, during the 2010 election
election 2015The Independent's guide to get you through polling day
News
people
Voices
David Blunkett joins the Labour candidate for Redcar Anna Turley on a campaigning visit last month
voicesWhat I learnt from my years in government, by the former Home Secretary David Blunkett
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebookA delicious collection of 50 meaty main courses
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (B2B) - Romford - £40,000 + car

    £35000 - £40000 per annum + car and benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager...

    Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000

    £18000 - £20000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000 ...

    Ashdown Group: Data Scientist - London - £50,000 + bonus

    £35000 - £50000 per annum + generous bonus: Ashdown Group: Business Analytics ...

    Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Development) - Kingston

    £45000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Dev...

    Day In a Page

    General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

    'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

    In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
    VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

    How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

    Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
    They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

    Typefaces still matter in the digital age

    A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
    Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

    'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

    New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
    The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

    Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

    Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
    Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

    Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

    Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
    Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

    Crisp sales are in decline

    As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
    Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

    Ronald McDonald the muse

    A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
    13 best picnic blankets

    13 best picnic blankets

    Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
    Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

    Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

    Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
    Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

    Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

    Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

    On the margins

    From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

    Why patients must rely less on doctors

    Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'