JOHN KEATS: HERITAGE, LEGACY, AND BOHEMIAN POVERTY

Obsessing about how each of the great six male Romantic poets made a living is not the most orthodox way to approach them. It is now John Keats’s turn and, once more, this is, I think, a very relevant issue.

I’ll begin, then, by mentioning Keats’s guardian Richard Abbey, the man who put in charge of young Keats’s education in the absence of his father (a successful ostler-keeper who died when the boy was eight) and the mother (dead when he was fourteen). Keats was born in what might be called a middle-class family and he received a rather good primary and secondary education at liberal John Clarke’s School, happily for him away from Eton (where, remember, Shelley was mercilessly bullied). The headmaster’s son, Charles Cowden Clarke, awakened the love of poetry in the child Keats but, very sensibly, Abbey chose for his not-too-rich ward an apprenticeship, at age fourteen, with a surgeon/apothecary. After this, Keats enrolled as a medical student at Guy’s Hospital in 1815 (aged twenty). Keats started publishing poetry in 1814 and by 1816–already in possession of an apothecary’s licence, which could have led to his being a physician and surgeon–he decided to abandon medicine (and not because he lacked a talent for it).

Abbey’s fury is easy to imagine, not only because a great deal of money had been invested in Keats’s training but also because the poetry market could by no means guarantee a living. For whatever reasons the legacies of his mother and grandmother, which could have freed Keats from the need to do paid work, were left unclaimed and he mainly depended on Abbey’s generosity and that of his friends to progress in his career as a poor, bohemian poet. Sales of his three poetry volumes were very low and Keats basically lived in poverty–his lack of prospects was the reason why he could not marry his beloved Fanny Brawne (she was in mourning for him for six years and only married twelve years after his death). The difference with Lord Byron and Percy Shelley, who were also poets of subsidized leisure, is that unlike Keats they had a title and an upper-class family background to rely on. It is actually quite extraordinary that Keats launched himself as a poet in his social situation–Wordsworth, remember, accepted a position as head post-master once he was a family man, Coleridge had a patron. Keats, of course, died too young, aged only twenty-five, to be in a similar position as a husband and a father and so he embodies–even more closely than the celebrated poet Thomas Chatterton (1752-1770) who died by his own hand aged only seventeen–the myth of the young genius taken too early by death.

Read in hindsight, Keats’s biography makes perfect sense: he quit medicine to focus on poetry for a short career of just five years (1816-1821) as if he knew that he was going to die. The point, though, is that he did not know that he would die young. Keats chose poetry because he felt strongly entitled to earning an immortality for which the only foundation was his own strong belief in his talent. Is this wrong? Isn’t this the stuff of every Romantic dream of being an artist? Yes it is, but let me ask this question: if Blake could produce his amazing oeuvre while still working long days why did Keats see his poetical vocation as incompatible with the pressing need to make a living? What if he had turned out to be a bad poet? How many others have destroyed their lives following the myth of the artist devoted to his/her art? And no, I don’t have a child asking me to be an artist full time… I’m just making the point that these choices and his early death do not constitute a tragedy. They are part of the socio-economic subtext of Romantic poetry, a genre which depends very heavily on a youthful sense of leisure financed by others (mainly patient, devoted, besotted family and friends), though this is hardly ever commented on. Would I rather not have Keats’s poems? No, of course not–but I’d rather not pass on as Romantic myth what was a very snobbish view of paid work as a sort of humiliating activity.

Like Shelley, Keats was only known among a small coterie in his lifetime. He emerged as a poet at a time when Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Byron were already stars and was therefore seen as a member of a school about to peak. His poetry was not particularly well received, to the point that Byron established the myth that what actually killed poor Keats was the negative reviews of Endymion, the poem Keats saw as his masterpiece. So much for legend. Keats actually died for lack of antibiotics, only available from 1945 onwards, and because the poorly understood nature of tuberculosis led to appalling medical treatment (believe it or not, patients like him were bled… as if they needed to lose even more blood). Fanny could not do for Keats what Mary did for Percy Shelley with the post-humous edition of his poems and, apparently, none of Keats’s friends could agree on how to approach his biography. There were scattered comments and even Shelley’s monumental poem “Adonais” (in fifty five stanzas!) but it fell to Victorian admirers who had not met Keats in life to write his biography. Incidentally, Alfred Tennyson was one of Keats’s main champions.

Allow me to stop for a while at Andrew Motion’s 1997 biography, which came after a long silence of thirty years on Keats’s life (by the way: the most recent biography is Nicholas Roe’s 2012 volume). Motion is a first-rank poet who simply loves Keats and so, though no scholar, he published his book as a heart-felt homage. Interestingly, his efforts elicited a furious attack from American leading poetry scholar Helen Vendler, who absolutely hated Motion’s style: “There is an odd mixture, in his chapters, of the old vocabulary of appreciation with the newer vocabulary (never adequate to poetry) of materialist criticism” (https://www.lrb.co.uk/v19/n20/helen-vendler/inspiration-accident-genius). Vendler was incensed by Motion’s discussion of issues connected with class, gender, and race, believing that scholarly comment on the poems should have been the main focus. I’m myself a cultural materialist (hence my comments on the Romantics’ income) so I cannot sympathise with her point of view. I mention her vitriolic attack because it gives us a chronology for when scholarly analysis started being inextricably mixed with Cultural Studies concerns: the late 1990s.

The ‘materialism’ attached to any literary career is, sorry Vendler, very important. It connects not only with the material production of the editions that help to canonize authors and keep them alive but with many other aspects also worth considering like heritage and adaptation. Keats is right now a text beyond the texts he produced, as we see in the way his person is recalled beyond the scholarly analysis of the poems. The road to his canonisation was fully established by Life, Letters, and Literary Remains of John Keats (1848), edited by Richard Monckton Milnes, himself a poet in the Apostles Club which also included Tennyson. But the poems are just part of Keats’s construction as a Romantic icon. His memory is, intriguingly, also celebrated in two houses he never owned: Keats’s House in Hampstead (London) was the property of his friend Charles Wentworth, he just rented rooms there; the Shelley-Keats House in Rome is not even connected to his writing, as Wentworth’s house is, but to his death–this is where his journey south seeking a warmer climate ended. Shelley, by the way, never shared a home with Keats so it’s funny that their names have been linked.

You can enjoy on YouTube the introductory video that Keats’s House offers its visitors (https://youtu.be/tgjZdBEdVs8) and compare it to another production of similar length and content, ‘The strangely encouraging life of John Keats’ (https://youtu.be/Mxc63WPaksY) to consider: a) how a life can be summed up in just nine minutes (in both cases); b) which aspects are highlighted (consider the mother’s role). As for the house itself, I had great fun watching vlogger Jesse Waugh’s report, also nine minutes long (https://youtu.be/ED1VOSO8rug). The age of the amateur documentarian is just wonderful! Watch next the official video ‘A Walk Through the Keats-Shelley House with Giuseppe Albano’ (https://youtu.be/7ZxAGg9qhKg), a nice five-minute piece designed to… ask for funding from admirers. Then wonder a) why we visit these places at all, b) what type of fetishism they depend on, c) whether seeing the locket with Keats’s hair, and his life and death masks, illuminates our understanding of the poems. I have visited the house in Hampstead and, yes, you do get that funny feeling of ‘my, this is where Keats wrote his best poems’ but, then, each of these museums is an artificial construct that caters to aspects of fandom quite tangential to the persons there celebrated. Or are the museums central and the poems tangential?

The heritage industry extends to adaptation usually through the biopic but also through other audio-visual and print products. For all of these the basis is biography, based on its turn on scholarly research. I have already alluded to some films based on the lives of the Romantic poets: Pandemonium (Wordsworth and Coleridge), and a few dealing with Byron and Shelley–Gothic, Rowing in the Wind, Enchanted Summer, Mary Shelley… John Keats has received the attention of New Zealander film director Jane Campion, known mainly for the Victorian drama The Piano. Her film Bright Star (2009) is based on Motion’s biography but focuses specifically on the doomed romance between Fanny Brawne and John Keats. I cannot offer an opinion since I have not seen it: as much as I like Ben Wishaw (Keats) the reviews complaining about how boring the film is put me off. And my class prejudices–the impossible love which the film narrates has to do not only with Keats’s failure to make sufficient money to marry Fanny (excuse me!) but also with the gender prejudice that prevented the daughters of gentlemen from making a living. Today, talented Fanny would probably be a fashion designer and it would be her choice (or not) to maintain Keats while he wrote poetry. At the time when they were alive this was not an option and, so, what is presented as a tragic romance is just the product of ugly gender-related social limitations. Biopics tend to do that: focus narrowly on their subject paying little attention to the bigger picture–but, then, socio-economics make no good R/romantic plots.

There is another adaptation which I’d like to mention: the four novels by Dan Simmons, known as the Hyperion Cantos: Hyperion (1989), The Fall of Hyperion (1990), Endymion (1996), and The Rise of Endymion (1997). These are, as it is habitual in Simmons’s work, a heady mixture of science fiction and unbelievably rich literary allusion. Every time someone tells me that SF is a trivial genre, I ask them to read Simmons and then get back to me. In an often quoted interview (https://www.bookpage.com/9708bp/firstperson3.html), Simmons comments that ‘In fact, when I first started writing Hyperion, I knew I’d have to deal with Keats’ long poems, “Hyperion” and “The Fall of Hyperion”. I really appreciated his theme of life evolving from one race of gods to another, with one power having to give way to another, as Hyperion must”. You don’t need to have read all of Keats to follow Simmons, but the more you know the better you can catch the allusions–and enjoy Keats’s presentation as an immortal ‘cybrid’ (a mixture of clone and AI). In another novel, in this case by Tim Powers, The Stress of her Regard (1989), Byron, Shelley and Keats encounter their terrible muse and are vampirised by her and the even more terrible Nephillim…

How about Keats’s poems? Two very quick comments, as I have room for no more: it is really amazing that he is remembered by a very short list of pieces (mainly the odes), and, now that we have lost the art of letter-writing to whatsapp and even more criminally illiterate social media, it is important to recall that Keats was a magnificent writer of letters. His intellectual work is scattered among them (he did not write other essays) but so is his love life–the letters he addressed to Fanny Brawne are pure poetry though in prose. And everyone agrees that he was a poet of sensuality, which is why the Pre-Raphaelite painters took inspiration from so many of his poems–another form of adaptation.

Keats chose ‘Here lies one whose name was writ in water’ as the epitaph for his tomb in the Non-Catholic Cemetery for Foreigners in Testaccio, Rome (where Shelley’s ashes are also buried), believing he had failed in his bid to conquer immortality. His friends added more words, claiming that Keats died ‘in the Bitterness of his Heart at the Malicious Power of his Enemies’, thus perpetuating the legend that he was killed by his mean reviewers. This is a point often noted by introductions to Keats (in which, Richard Abbey is unanimously characterised as a villain) but it may be about time to consider this epitaph from the opposite point of view: Keats’s view of himself as a man who could reach immortality through poetry is an extraordinary stance to assume, and we need to deconstruct it as part of the Romantic myth. I’m not trying to kill off personal aspiration or deny Keats’s right to make the most of his talent. I’m baffled by the economic dependence though what truly irks me is the implicit celebration of bohemian, self-chosen poverty as part of the Romantic act of creation. Surely, among the truly poor there may have been one or two Keats, maybe three… but they never ever dreamed of immortality, how could they? For them having a Richard Abbey to help them would have been enough dream–but I’d rather stop here before I make myself totally unable to read Keats… Damned cultural materialism!!

I publish a post every Tuesday (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

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