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The Boston Phoenix Nothing Personal

A biographer goes in search of the political Keats.

By Adam Kirsch

FEBRUARY 23, 1998: 

KEATS, by Andrew Motion. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 612 pages, $35.

"Where's the poet? Show him! show him,/Muses nine, that I may know him," John Keats once wrote in a playful mood. In a new biography of the poet, Andrew Motion tries to show us Keats where he is not usually found: in the realm of politics. It is a novel approach, and it is Motion's justification for adding yet another book to the enormous body of Keats literature; he insists that Keats was not the shrinking aesthete of literary mythology but a politically aware man, and possibly even a political poet. Politics was "a large and neglected part of Keats's inspiration," Motion writes, and his self-appointed task is to end the neglect.

Unfortunately, though, Motion is working against the grain of Keats's life and writing, as his own account can't help but reveal. Certainly Keats was no stranger to politics, or to social injustice. Born in 1795, on Halloween, to an innkeeper and the daughter of an innkeeper, Keats grew up tenuously petit bourgeois. The family's emotional and financial security was shattered by a series of early tragedies: the father was killed in an accident when Keats was eight, whereupon his mother remarried, then disappeared in scandal, returning only to die when Keats was 14. After leaving school in 1811, he was apprenticed to a surgeon; he pursued this training until, at the age of 21, he threw it over for a life of poetry.

That was in 1816; in 1821 he would be dead of tuberculosis. This means that his whole productive life spanned about four years -- and virtually all his best poems were written in a single year, 1819. It was a nervous and unsettled period. To read of his almost frantic movements -- from London to Hampstead, to the Isle of Wight, to Winchester, to Scotland, and back to Hampstead, all the while depleting his small inheritance -- is dizzying; Keats's ambition to "be among the English poets after I die" literally gave him no rest.

The situation was made worse by the fact that his poems, from which he expected so much both financially and personally, were given a cold reception. His first book, published in 1817, was virtually ignored, and his publishers dropped him. His second, the long poem Endymion, came out in 1818 and was greeted with such vicious personal attacks from the Tory press that people came to believe, as Byron later wrote, that Keats had been "snuffed out by an article." The reviews had a distinctly political tinge; Keats was branded a member of the "Cockney school" of poetry, and his low birth was used to explain the indiscipline and sensuality of his poem. (Motion, in true biographer's fashion, is unwilling to concede that anything his subject wrote was bad, calling Endymion a "forcing house" for Keats's poetic style. In fact, Endymion is messy and tedious, with flashes of brilliance. It would not, by itself, have established Keats for the ages.)

The political attacks were more pointed because, during this period, Keats was friendly with a group of radicals clustered around Leigh Hunt, the famous journalist and onetime political prisoner. (Keats met Shelley through Hunt around this time, beginning a rivalrous friendship that would culminate in Shelley's self-aggrandizing memorial to Keats, "Adonais.") The end of the Napoleonic Wars had instigated a period of rising radicalism, culminating in the Peterloo Massacre of 1819, and the members of Keats's circle were either active reformers or sympathetic to the cause. Motion is right about Keats's radical sympathies, and his letters and early poems inveigh against tyranny and a corrupt monarchy; to the end, he remained a strong liberal in politics.

The problem comes when Motion tries to find Keats's politics in his poetry. If most readers know one thing from Keats, it is "Beauty is truth, truth beauty -- that is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know," which is about as apolitical a statement as can be imagined. And while interpretations of that line differ, there can really be no doubt that the poems that are the heart of Keats's achievement -- the six Odes, "The Eve of St. Agnes," "La Belle Dame sans Merci," and several of the sonnets -- are glorious because of their sensuous imagination, not their programs or their politics.

In fact, by arguing that Keats was political, Motion is put in the curious position of seeming to defy his subject's own words, such as Keats's famous assertion that he prizes "negative capability" -- the ability to refuse any "irritable reaching after fact and reason" -- over an imaginative openness to all things. Keats had political opinions, but his best poems transcend the level of personality on which one has opinions. That is the very definition of negative capability. (Significantly, Motion has much more to say about Keats's lesser poems than about the Odes, simply because in the lesser poems Keats is more overt, more bounded by self.) Motion is determined to argue that Keats's poetry shows a liberal mind, and he seems to think this is a compliment. It is not; it is a diminution.

What's more, the poems themselves resist this diminution. Motion writes that the "individual 'truth' " of "Ode to Autumn" "is founded on a knowledge of past suffering -- knowledge which depended on political engagement, as well as personal experience." Inserting the phrase about "political engagement" seems, to Motion, to imply that Keats's knowledge of suffering wasn't based on anything as unserious as mere personal sadness; rather, it has a firm basis in "reality," that is, in the suffering of dissidents and the poor. To Motion, this makes it somehow more real, more worthy of respect. But "Ode to Autumn" is not a poem about the Peterloo Massacre; if he wanted that poem, Motion could have read Shelley's fiery, blustering sonnet "England in 1819." Keats's poem is about the melancholy beauty of autumn and, by extension, of human decline and death. This sorrow is deeper and more constant than that caused by "political engagement."

Sadly, then, Motion's biography of Keats does not manage to capture its subject; it tries to fit Keats into a theoretical mold without following the actual contours of his sensibility. Keats's life was short and continually frustrated, and it ended in a series of true horrors -- separation from his family and friends, a nightmarish sea voyage to Italy, coughing fits and hemorrhages, and finally a friendless burial far from home. What makes it triumphant is the seemingly trivial fact that Keats was able to write the line "Already with thee! tender is the night," and a few others like it. Trivial -- if the most important thing in the world is politics.

Adam Kirsch is the literary assistant at the New Republic.

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