Poetry was an emotional and spiritual salve for tubercular physician Keats

John Keats

Nicholas Roe

Yale University Press, £25

Review: Thomas McCarthy

The poet John Keats is remembered as one “whose name was writ in water.” He died aged 25 from tuberculosis, which had killed so many of his family that he felt cursed.

Keats’s study of pharmacy and medicine was a truly obsessive act in defiance of this contagious killer of the beautiful and the young. Keats was an accomplished medical student at Guy’s Hospital, and was rapidly appointed a surgical ‘dresser’ to his master-surgeon. As with so many other medical men, from Somerset Maugham to AJ Cronin, Keats’s mastery of detail, and that surgical capacity to retain vast quantities of information, created a brilliant pre-disposition towards literary work.

As Vladimir Nabokov said, literature arises from an obsession with the “blessed particulars” of reality. Poetry, more than anything else, is the suffering body keenly observed.

This sensuous orphan, son of a very successful livery-stables owner and a wilful, sensuous mother, wrote some of the most beautiful odes in the English language. His use of the sonnet form was masterful, his re-imagining of the Middle Ages (in La Belle Dame sans Merci, and The Eve of St Agnes) was uncanny, and his epic Hyperion created a sensation. How a poet so young could have made such an impact so quickly is the key narrative thread in Nicholas Roe’s biography.

Roe’s book is nothing less than a restoration of Keats to his tumultuous, early 19th century context. Keats was a kind of Picasso, a prodigy who learned his art early, a poet whose flame burned intensely and scorched everything around it.

Keats, in his day, was both Sylvia Plath and a younger Craig Raine. Roe brilliantly recreates the political atmosphere of the Keats era: his learned contextualising is brilliant. He traces the influence of Leigh Hunt, a much maligned and misunderstood literary personality, who was a conduit for the poetic liberalism of the age. The achievements of revolutionary and seditious Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth survived, through Hunt’s advocacy, and reached the isolated medical student in his boarding school and lodgings. Roe rescues Keats from the soft-focus of romance and restores stars, brooks, fields and seasons to their anti-Classicist politics of the 19th century. In doing this, the book is a major work of literary rescue.

Hunt was the influential founder-editor of the weekly Examiner, a paper whose prestige and circulation rose astronomically when the editor was sent to prison for two years. The paper was edited from the jail cell that Hunt had splendidly wall-papered, re-painted, and fitted with a piano. A succession of illuminati, including Lord Byron and Thomas Moore, visited Hunt in jail and wrote letters of support.

It was via the Examiner that Hunt invented a cult of the ‘new’ in publishing, the cult of the very new, which continues into the present day through new-poetry prizes and young-poets’ anthologies. Hunt published On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer, along with poems by Percy Bysshe Shelley and John Henry Reynolds, and boldly announced ‘a new school of poetry rising of late’. It was at Hunt’s home that Keats met Shelley, author of The Necessity of Atheism and An Address to the Irish People.

Under the spell of Hunt and encouraged by his brother, Tom, Keats believed that he could make a living from poetry rather than surgery. That might seem a daft calculation now, but in the early 19th century literature was still an occupation for gentleman, while medicine most definitely was not: “My last operation was the opening of a man’s temporal artery. I did it with the utmost nicety; but, reflecting on what passed through my mind at the time, my dexterity seemed a miracle.”

Roewrites movingly of this moment in Keats’ life: “As Keats swapped his lancet for a quill, his hopes for poetic glory were part of a conversation with his dead parents to whom he could speak in no other way.”

But tuberculosis soon took his brother, Tom. Feeling hunted by death, and medically aware of the process of dying, Keats fled from the egotistical sublime of Wordsworth’s generation. He suddenly became aware, in a Joycean epiphany, that “What shocks the virtuous philosopher, delights the camelian poet.” And then there was Fanny Brawne. While still nursing his dying brother, he met this 16-year-old, whom, he wrote, “is, I think, beautiful and elegant, graceful, silly, fashionable and strange.”

In subsequent letters, Keats would characterise Fanny as a minx, as ignorant, as monstrous, but with a penchant for acting stylishly. Smitten, Keats was only registering Fanny Brawne through the effects she wished to create. But Brawne was a fan of Lord Byron’s work, the way Mary Colum was obsessed with William Butle Yeats, and Roe warns in this book “Fanny Brawne’s considerable literary intelligence should not be judged at her own self-deprecating estimate.”

Keats was still young and their romance was a Victorian one of letters, walks, books and poems. While still working on Hyperion and romancing Fanny Brawne, and while still keeping his options open with a number of eligible women, Keats suffered the return of an habitual sore throat.

Tuberculosis had begun its work upon yet another Keats. The rest was a swift decline, mollified by laudanum and claret. At Guy’s Hospital, laudanum had been dispensed liberally: it was opium, an effective but deadly painkiller. Stilled by laudanum, he wrote, with visionary indolence, the great odes with their intricate, interwoven stanza forms. “I have seen your Comet!” he wrote to Fanny, and thus began the immortal poem:

’Bright Star! Would I were steadfast as thou art!Not in lone splendour hung amid the night...

But the persistent sore throat became blood on the pillow, arterial blood that Keats, the surgeon’s apprentice, recognised: “that drop of blood is my death warrant — I must die,” Keats said to his friend, Brown. He died in Italy, where he is still honoured by a little museum at the Spanish Steps. Keats’s early death reminds us that in the last two centuries the true friend of artistic genius has been neither tradition nor individual talent, but an aminoglycoside called streptomycin.

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