Keats: Strength in Beauty
Helen Tope interviews Nicholas Roe prior to his Plymouth Literature Festival lecture on the life of John Keats and the role of his friend Charles Brown.
Few writers can boast a more enduring legacy than poet John Keats. Born in 1795, Keats went from being a medical student (studying at Guy’s Hospital), to become a central figure of the Romantic Movement.
We think we know Keats – the delicate, sickly man who died of tuberculosis, aged 25: but identifying Keats in this way not only limits his genius, we risk misreading him entirely. In a recent biography, Professor Nicholas Roe (University of St. Andrews) offers a Keats who is earthy, pugnacious and robust. He vividly evokes the poet’s day-to-day life; strolling around London, dining out with friends and holidaying in the Lake District.
Roe draws Keats as a poet whose work was influenced by the places he visited; the poem ‘Endymion’ was written in Hampstead, Oxford and the Isle of Wight. Far from languishing on a chaise, Keats was a man (and poet) immersed in the natural world.
I interviewed Nicholas Roe prior to a lecture given as part of the Plymouth Literature Festival. The lecture, ‘Charles Brown, Keats and Plymouth’, not only reassessed the life of John Keats, but the role Keats’ friend Charles Brown had in preserving the poet’s work and reputation. During our interview, we also talked about how biography can shape our perceptions.
Professor Nicholas Roe
Helen Tope: Can you remember what initially drew you to Keats?
Nicholas Roe: Yes, I think the sound of his poetry—its rich verbal music—long before I had any more reflective sense of what the poetry might ‘mean’. ‘Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’: you only have to read the line once and you’re hooked.
Charles Brown may not be a household name, but without him, many of Keats’ poems would be lost, and we would not have the full picture of Keats’ achievement. He met Keats in 1817, and they immediately hit it off, with Brown becoming Keats’ confidante, collaborator and advisor.
After the poet’s death, Brown broke his silence with a lecture given at Plymouth Institution (now The Athenaeum) in 1836.
Brown’s lecture gave a unique insight into how and why Keats became a poet. The literary establishment was still quite hostile to Keats’ poetry (or to be more accurate, to Keats himself). But Charles Brown’s efforts to re-establish Keats meant the poet could no longer be side-lined. His talent was too great to ignore.
HT: What qualities (personal or poetic) do you think separate Keats from other key figures of the Romantic period?
NR: Keats is unique in the remarkably rapid development of his genius. The poems that survive from 1814 to 1820 move from imitative verses, to complex, highly original lyrics that altered the course of English poetry. He discovered his own territory very early. Keats’ extraordinary strength and self-belief when life, circumstances, health and critics all seemed allied against him are what impress most of all.
HT: Andrew Motion’s biography of Keats gives us a panoramic view of the poet’s life, whereas your biography goes into much finer detail. Why did you adopt this approach?
NR: [My biography] is most interested in the locations of his writing and how these found their way into his poetry, most obviously so in my account of the The Eve of St Agnes, written at the Old Mill House in Bedhampton in January 1819. This is very much a grounded Keats, a poet responsive to reality – not ‘poor Keats’, as the Victorians called him. Keats had walked the wards of Guy’s Hospital, and his poetry is braced by memories of that awful experience; probing a woman’s neck to extract a pistol-ball; dissecting a mud-stained corpse. Beneath Keats’ opulent textures and the richness of his language lurks a human skull. Keats’ experiences at Guy’s are central to understanding the kind of poet-physician he became.
The poet-physician made a catastrophic error of judgement, when believing that he had caught syphilis; he decided to treat the infection with mercury.
By August 1818 Keats was suffering from symptoms of mercury poisoning. He became ill whilst on holiday, and returned home, to find his brother Tom dying of consumption. The three months he spent nursing his brother proved fatal. Modern medicine had yet to make the connection between how infectious diseases spread. Keats contracted tuberculosis from Tom, and it quickly took hold.
Keats’ decline was swift. The mercury poisoned him to such an extent that any infection would have proved dangerous. Charles Brown last saw Keats alive in May 1820. Brown knew Keats’ condition was terminal but could not face staying to see it. Brown left for another walking holiday in Scotland. Keats, on the advice of his doctors, travelled to Rome. He died there in February 1821.
HT: Do you think we can ever reach a definitive account of a writer’s life, or will revision and reinterpretation always be the way forward?
NR: Literary biography is never definitive, although publishers understandably like to see the word in their blurbs. Half a century ago ‘To Autumn’ was regarded by an eminent Keats biographer as ‘one of the most perfect poems in English’, largely because the poet is ‘completely absent’. For me Keats’ personality is heard in each word, in the sound and rhythm of every line. So, yes, revision and reinterpretation always lead forward — reinventing the life anew. No biography is ever the last word.
Even when measured against the swagger of Byron, or the political angst of Shelley, Keats is the poet who most neatly defines the essence of Romanticism. Keats’ poems are intensely personal to the point where they could have been written by no-one else.
HT: Finally – what’s your favourite Keats poem?
NR: It’s a difficult question. I am intrigued by ‘Ode on Indolence’ because it has often been seen as a failure in comparison with the great ‘Nightingale Ode’ and ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’. When Keats composed ‘Ode on Indolence’ is uncertain. We don’t even know the correct order of the stanzas, yet the poem has its own unique, mysterious magic:
One morn before me were three figures seen,
With bowed necks, and joined hands, side-faced;
And one behind the other stepp’d serene,
In placid sandals, and in white robes graced:
They pass’d, like figures on a marble urn …