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.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
  • 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: Client Accountant Team Manager - Reading

    Negotiable: Ashdown Group: The Ashdown Group has been engaged by a highly resp...

    Recruitment Genius: Account Manager

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: You will also work alongside their seasoned sa...

    Recruitment Genius: Assistant Property Manager

    £15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you looking for your first step into...

    Recruitment Genius: Mechanical Design Engineer

    £25000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This innovative company working...

    Day In a Page

    General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

    The masterminds behind the election

    How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
    Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

    Machine Gun America

    The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
    The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

    The ethics of pet food

    Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?
    How Tansy Davies turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

    How a composer turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

    Tansy Davies makes her operatic debut with a work about the attack on the Twin Towers. Despite the topic, she says it is a life-affirming piece
    11 best bedside tables

    11 best bedside tables

    It could be the first thing you see in the morning, so make it work for you. We find night stands, tables and cabinets to wake up to
    Italy vs England player ratings: Did Andros Townsend's goal see him beat Harry Kane and Wayne Rooney to top marks?

    Italy vs England player ratings

    Did Townsend's goal see him beat Kane and Rooney to top marks?
    Danny Higginbotham: An underdog's tale of making the most of it

    An underdog's tale of making the most of it

    Danny Higginbotham on being let go by Manchester United, annoying Gordon Strachan, utilising his talents to the full at Stoke and plunging into the world of analysis
    Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police

    Steve Bunce: Inside Boxing

    Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police
    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat