Saturday, November 8, 2008
I remember all the hoopla about Andrew Motion's Keats biography when it was first published in 1997, but I just never got round to reading it - after teaching Keats a good deal in recent years, I was finally guiltified into thinking I really ought to know a little more about him, so I got the book over the summer and finally started it about 3 weeks ago.
The book is incredibly thorough. I'm not sure that I needed to know that Keats ate porridge on the morning he went to Mull or that the Maria Crowther which carried Keats to his Italian death was a two-masted brigantine, but these are things I do know now. What I really did enjoy about the biography were Motion's explorations of Keats's verse itself, which inspired me to go back and reread all the bits I read only at university as opposed to the regulars one would expect to dish up to school age students, e.g. Eve of St Agnes, Odes and Belle Dame Sans Merci.
I was surprised to find out, according to Motion, how negative Keats was about women, because of all the Romantic poets, he seems to me the most romantic, with the most interesting depictions of women, from the Belle Dame to Isabella and Psyche. They are there pretty much to be worshipped, I suppose, and sometimes to be reviled, they can be a bit passive like Isabella and Madeline, but women seem to be essential to his creative processes, and he certainly isn't a twisted cynic like Byron or a player like Shelley.
Another pleasure of the biography was being able to position Keats in terms of his period and his friends, his social status and his day to day lifestyle. As expected, the end is terribly sad, partly because it is always sad to read of a young man or woman dying before they should, also because he was so terribly conscious of how much he might have achieved but wouldn't, and finally because he was heartbroken by the realisation that he would not see his Fanny again.
Fanny seems opaque as ever - it is not clear at all what kind of girl/woman she was from Motion's biography, we never seem to catch more than glimpses of her, but what is clear is that while Keats loved her deeply, he was also terrified of loving her (or indeed anyone). He had, understandably, given his mother's abandonment of her family first through remarriage, then through her disappearance and finally through her death, issues with women and also seemed to believe that love and creativity were incompatible. But eventually, just as he realised how very sick he was, he also realised how very much he loved Fanny. It is heartbreaking. But I do wish that Severn had shown fewer scruples and chosen to open Fanny's last two letters to him instead of burying them with him.
Teaching Keats has made me love his poetry more than ever - he always my favourite of the Romantic poets. But reading this biography brought home to me how very much we did lose first through the wilfullness of his reviewers who discouraged him and slowed his rates of production down by depressing him, and secondly through his death. His preoccupations and artistic concerns are so universal, his ability to ravel them up into verse which resonated and resounded with ambiguity and layering and complexity was so rich and his vision so clear that I regret all that he might have achieved if he had lived even for another three or four years, or past thirty.
Now we will just have to wait until the release of Jane Campion's film Bright Star, with Ben Whishaw as Keats - out sometime next year, and I hope, sooner rather than later.