The Chameleon Poet
ROMATIC POETS, the legend went, all died young and full of melancholy. Eloquent escape artists in flight from reality, they contrived, if possible, to be afflicted alike with consumption and unrequited love—both, it was firmly understood, great heighteners of poetic sensibility. Then, like dying nightingales singing their hearts out while impaled upon the thorn of the everyday world, they poured forth their pain in richly draped iambics.
This precious caricature was never really accurate. But it was never more misleading than when applied to John Keats, the one Romantic poet whose outward life it seemed most to resemble. Keats' life was a series of buffetings by a fate cruel enough to suit the most sentimental of Victorian preconceptions. He lost his father at eight, his mother at 14, his brother Tom at 23, and died himself of tuberculosis at 25. His appointed guardian, Tea Merchant George Abbey, hated him. Abbey apprenticed him to a doctor, tried to keep him from seeing his younger sister Fanny, and cheated the orphaned Keats children of most of the money they had been left by their innkeeper father.
Hungry Mind. But far from fading away under these tribulations, Keats fought on ferociously. Though he was only 5 ft. tall, he was strong—he once whipped a butcher boy twice his size because the boy had been tormenting a kitten. Keats was, in fact, an extraordinarily tough-minded fellow, full of energy and passion, who used poetry not as an escape from life but as a way of laying hands on it. His story, revealed not only in his poetry but in perceptive and engaging letters, is a remarkable record of an extraordinarily hungry and ambitious mind feeding on the world. "Why should we be owls, when we can be eagles?" he wrote to his brother George who had emigrated in 1818 to America and eventually became a prosperous Louisville mill owner.
How well Keats succeeded is amply demonstrated by these two massive biographies, the first to be published in nearly 25 years. They are also the first to view Keats with neither the sentimentality of the Victorians, who could not see the man clearly for the legend they had themselves invented, nor the irritability of the succeeding Imagists, who deprecated his poetry because of his "imprecise" romanticism. But poetry is an art of masterpieces; a life's work of competent versifying has not the staying power of a single poem that lodges in the race's memory. Keats wrote four or five such poems, which possess that special magic without which a poem is merely verse. Although current poetic taste leans to the sinewy complexities of Donne and Eliot and Auden, Keats probably draws and has drawn more young readers to poetry than any other writer except Shakespeare.
Down with the Sparrows. The span of his creative life was incredibly brief. At 18, still apprenticed to the surgeon, he was barely able to imitate second-rate writers like Leigh Hunt, and was proud of such dreadful lines as "Ah God, she is like a milk white lamb that bleats." In the next four years, he completed a verse play and nearly all of the poems that were to establish him among the immortals. And in his letters, he wrote about what poetry could do and evolved a new poetic theory.
Romantic theory and practice glorified individual feeling and self-expression. Keats rejected what he called this "Wordsworthian egotistical sublime." Instead he sought to be a "chameleon poet," who is submerged in his subject through "empathy"—the projecting of one's self into the feelings of others, even such slight creatures as sparrows scrabbling for crumbs in the street, or a field mouse peeping out of a field's withered grass. "Though a quarrel in the streets is a thing to be hated," he wrote to Sister Fanny, "the energies displayed in it are fine. . . This is the very stuff of poetry."
Perilous Desolation. These theories, which might have made Keats the first modern poet 100 years ahead of time if he had lived to carry them out, far outstripped his poetic practice. But they provide a fascinating commentary on the elegant debate that he carried on with himself in poem after poem. It grew from his short life's continual conflict between delight in the rich, romantic dream worlds that he was so skilled at creating, and the pull of complex humanity, which he saw but understood art could never fully trap. In his most famous Ode (to a Nightingale), the voice of the bird has touched the hearts of many men and united them in awareness of their common humanity; but it also has lured them into the perilous desolation of an imaginary world where no human face or voice is seen or heard:
The voice I hear this passing night was heard
In ancient days by emperor and clown:
Perhaps the selfsame song that found a path
Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home
She stood in tears amid the alien corn:
The same that ofttimes hath Charm'd magic casements, opening on the foam
Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.
Biographer Bate, Lowell Professor of the Humanities at Harvard, sometimes detours through academic bogs, especially when he is taking the reader by the hand through every well-known poem Keats ever wrote. Aileen Ward, who teaches at Sarah Lawrence, is briefer, less searching, more wrapped up in the psychology of such things as Keats' ambivalent feeling toward women—induced, Miss Ward feels, by his shock when his mother married again barely two months after the death of his father. On many insignificant details—such as whether Keats had syphilis when he wrote Endymion—the two biographers differ sharply (Ward: yes, Bate: no). But they emphatically agree that Fanny Brawne, the girl Keats wanted to marry, was not the heartless flirt that Keats' friends and generations of Keats' sympathizers make her out to be. She loved Keats and was patient with his on-again, off-again courtship.
Keats' tragedy was neither unrequited love nor bad treatment by the world. It was tuberculosis, which he caught while nursing his brother Tom. Given the medical practice of the day, it killed him. Nothing could be more harrowing than descriptions of Keats' final weeks in Rome. When he coughed up two cupfuls of blood one morning, the doctor felt obliged to bleed him two cups more "to relieve inflammation." Then he was put on a starvation diet of "one anchovy and a morsel of bread a day." As a medical student, Keats knew long before this that he was as good as dead anyway. He struggled to make his death easier for Joseph Severn, the kind but ineffectual painter who nursed him. Severn had never seen anyone die. Keats punned "a hundred times a day" and made jokes to divert him. "Severn," he gasped when the final moment came, "lift me up—I am dying." Then he added reassuringly, "Don't be afraid."