The Historicist Keats

Are beauty and truth just a cover for a guilty political conscience?

Keats: A Biography
By Andrew Motion
Farrar, Straus & Giroux; 636 pages; $35

John Keats’ life was an accelerated grimace. In his short flurry, he tasted what he called a “thousand bitters.” By his 15th birthday, in 1810, he had lost both parents, a brother, and two uncles. At Guy’s Hospital, where he trained as a surgeon, he saw how unprotectedly people die, and when, a few years later, he was dying, rawly, of tuberculosis in Rome, he knew what was ahead. He asked his bedside companion, Joseph Severn, if he had ever seen anyone die. No, came the reply. “Well then,” said Keats, “I pity you–poor Severn, what trouble and danger you have got into for me.” He died at the age of 25 years and four months.

Like Chekhov, Keats was thrust by early family experiences into a vicious individualism that forever strained his metaphysics. While only a teen-ager, he became responsible, as the eldest son, for his siblings. He struggled between guilty duty and his growing desire to be a poet. Like Chekhov, he lost his Christianity as swiftly as he lost his own childhood, in favor of an unillusioned and medical humanism. For Keats, inside every happiness was trapped a little death. “While we are laughing, the seed of some trouble is put into the wide arable land of events,” he wrote in 1819. His greatest poems, most of them written in that same year, are elegies wrapped as odes. They disguise mourning as celebration; they celebrate whatever is going, or gone. The nightingale Keats heard in a garden in May 1819 was not the music of poetry, but the sound of death, a siren call to suicide.

Since modernism, Keatsians have felt a need to toughen his textures. That puffy lyricism, that gorgeous hysteria of escape (“From silken Samarcand to cedar’d Lebanon”), that fattened medievalism, that quality of out-Shakespearing Shakespeare, has been hammered by contemporary criticism into harder shape. The imagination has political responsibilities, goes the lecture, and Keats acknowledges this in those poems that most seek to escape into the imagination. Andrew Motion’s biography, which is well written and often revelatory, is a product of this apology for the lyric. Using recent scholarship (in particular, historicism and cultural materialism), Motion places Keats within the context of the radical liberal politics of the early 19th century.

There is much to be said for this, and Motion succeeds in recasting our idea of Keats’ political background. Unlike most of the writers he befriended, Keats was of humble origin (his father managed an inn and a stable). He did not go to one of the great boarding schools but to a quirky, dissenting establishment in Enfield, just north of London. Motion gives more attention than any predecessor to the capillaries of radical politics in London, and to Keats’ place in a loose group of agitating writers that included Leigh Hunt, Hazlitt, and Shelley. It is undeniable that Keats made conservative enemies. All the negative reviews of his poems were from right-wing magazines, and were full of partisan bristles.

But conservatives seem to have largely disapproved of the company he kept. It is difficult to leap from this to Motion’s settled opinion that Keats “interpret[ed] writing as a humanitarian mission,” or that “he is always engaged with the ‘Liberal side of the Question,’ even when sinking most deeply into the imagination.” This belief leads Motion into many forced readings. The essential difficulty is the gridlike nature of the historicism that he apparently espouses. From this perspective, a poem is seen as a criminal whose alibi is too convincing to be believable. A poem, says historicist criticism, will always be riven by the historical contradictions that surround it. Being a poem, it will want to escape these contradictions–to ignore them, to smooth them into plausible resolution or otherwise to smother the scandal of its roots in real history. The critic’s task is to interrogate the poem, to bully it into confession. The critic then praises the poem not only for confessing but also for having had, all along, that confession as its real (if buried) subject. The critic goes off and has a drink, high on self-flattery; the poem is led off in golden chains.

Motion is clearly a true liberal and a critic of acuity. In Britain, he is known as a lyric poet of considerable power, and this book’s style bears the impress of that talent. But the historicist grid is unrelenting. One quickly wearies of it. For instance, Motion tells the story of Keats’ creation of his first great poem, “On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer.” Keats, all of 21, had returned to his dingy lodgings near the Thames. It was late, he was tired, but he began to write quickly: “Much have I travell’d in the realms of gold …” The manuscript shows that he wrote the poem straight out, with one alteration. That morning, he dispatched it. It was on the breakfast table of his mentor, Charles Cowden Clarke, by 10 a.m. Motion tells this thrillingly, with a fellow-poet’s hot consanguinity. But the critique that follows is icy: We are warned that the poem admits to a sense of being “challenged or even edged aside by history” (it does no such thing), and that the title (“On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer”) registers that “Keats felt he had come late to high culture.” But that word “first” stamps the poem with a lovely air of aroused virginity, not one of suspicious belatedness. When Keats likens himself in this poem to “stout Cortez,” who discovered the Pacific, is he implying that Cortez somehow resented the Pacific for existing before he discovered it? Motion’s zeal as a historicist makes him neglect his duty as a biographer, which is to remind us that Keats was a young man, and hence a delighted first reader.

Too often, one has to pick one’s way through this book like someone playing the white keys on the piano–surrendering to the biographical narration (Motion’s telling of Keats’ final months is superb) and ignoring the readings of poems. These readings climax in Motion’s discussion of “To Autumn.” In that famous poem, Keats rubs autumn with the balm of his moistened language: “Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,/ Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun …” Keats celebrates an autumn so deliciously warm that the bees have been fooled into thinking it is still summer: “Until they think warm days will never cease,/ For Summer has o’er-brimmed their clammy cells.”

But for historicism this is a poem that, in Motion’s words, is “ambitious to transmute or escape history.” And history always seeps back in. Keats’ pastoral idealism secretly acknowledges that no such ideal exists. Those bees, for instance: Don’t they represent “unseen yet discreetly acknowledged labour (the bees have been persuaded into working overtime)”? A page later, this has hardened into a certainty that the bees “are a reminder of the miserable facts of labor that Keats had condemned during his walking tour in Scotland …” But Keats describes the bees’ labor as a gentle delusion (“they think warm days will never cease”). In Motion’s reading, “To Autumn” is really about the inequities of agricultural labor. The shame is not so much the obvious absurdity as that such a reading, clutching at alien abstractions, finds no place to observe the perfect specificity of describing honeycombs as “clammy cells.”

In fact, there is a toughness to Keats, but it is a metaphysical toughness rather than a political one. Historicism works on a moral hierarchy, in which political suffering is more important than metaphysical suffering or simply incorporates it, and in which “history” is more important than “time” or “life.” But in his long, moving letter-journal of early 1819, Keats explicitly raises metaphysical suffering over political or material travails. Materially, says Keats, we are always wanting. But that is not the burden: “And if he improves by degrees his bodily accommodations and comforts–at each stage, at each accent there are waiting for him a fresh set of annoyances–he is mortal and there is still a heaven with its stars above his head.” After politics, there are the gods to deal with.

What moves us in Keats is precisely this checkered metaphysics–the haunting apprehension that the seed planted in the “wide arable land of events” might be the seed of death, not life. Keats is famous for his odes, which are taken to be celebrations; but they are not. When Keats looks at the painted figures and trees on the Grecian urn (in “Ode on a Grecian Urn”), he is not just happy that these apparitions will never fade, because they are art, and thus permanent; he is happy that they have never had to live, that they are not suffering: “Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed/ Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu …” “To Autumn” is not just disturbed by a sense that autumn will inevitably pass into winter; it is an elegy for lost summer. Even the “small gnats mourn” this passing. And “Ode to a Nightingale,” which meditates on suicide, is an elegy for himself: “Now more than ever seems it rich to die,/ To cease upon the midnight with no pain.”

Yes, in Keats’ poems, life has a dreamy quality–but this is not a gorgeous swoon so much as the sense that somewhere, out of sight, we have already lived our actual lives, and that the life we are forced to feel through now is a posthumous remembrance of that earlier life, full of pain and loss. “Do I wake or sleep?” asks Keats at the end of “Ode to a Nightingale.” It is one of the most cherished questions in Romantic poetry. But there is nothing benign in this question; it is an echo of “To be, or not to be?” It is a self-challenge, not a soft quibble. Less than two years later, on his deathbed, terribly ill and desirous of death, Keats asked just the same question in one of his last letters: “Is there another life? Shall I awake and find all this a dream? There must be, we cannot be created for this sort of suffering.”